After nearly a decade, I am back in Washington, D.C. wandering the majestic monuments. And even though I have been to DC several times during the aughts, I feel inexplicably nostalgic.
Is it because I first walked these streets nearly three and a half decades ago, I wonder? Or is it because the city, like me, has changed, in body as well as in spirit? And all of a sudden, I long to do something I never did before; I want to stop by the places I saw that first time, in 1979.
I walk into the National Gallery and pause in front of Monet’s Cathedral in Rouen, recalling the awe of the young woman seeing it for the first time. I had only seen impressionist art in books until then, in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) library. Seeing it for real had given me a jolt.
But now in 2014, I fail to summon the excitement I once felt. I have been to the D’Orsay in Paris by now; I have seen Van Gogh’s house in Arles; I have stood in the basilica of Assisi, surrounded by El Greco’s frescoes. But it is not just the accumulation of knowledge and experience that have blunted my senses. There is an undercurrent of disquiet inhabiting my persona. I have not fulfilled the promise of those long bygone decades, I feel. And neither has the country.
So I go into the recesses of my mind and summon up the classmate’s house I had stayed in during that first visit. It was near Dupont Circle, I recall, not far from Rock Creek Park. I walk into the area, amble past Embassy Row, and am surprised to come across a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in front of the Indian Embassy. From there, I retrace my steps down memory lane, but cannot find the house.
All I can remember is the elation I felt back then to be working in the energy field. My classmate was a staffer on the Hill and had taken me to the corridors of power. And even though I had just graduated from Berkeley and had been in the country less than three years, I felt I belonged in those halls. I went by the White House, which was accessible to anyone then, and marveled at how small it was. Jimmy Carter, our last idealistic president, lived inside. Little did I know how precious the moment was or how quickly it would pass.
Three months later, a group of Iranian students took over the American Embassy. In the wake of the hostage crisis, the hawkish Ronald Reagan came to power. The first thing he did was pull back the funding from research in renewable energy and energy efficiency. I went to live in New Zealand for a few years, and after suffering from a personal crisis, came back to California with scaled back dreams.
Reagan was still the president.
I did not return to DC until the new millennium. By then the city had all but been sold to the highest bidder in the wake of Bush v. Gore. I avoided going near the White House but there was enough to turn me off at the business conferences I attended; backroom deals struck over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; exclusive receptions in penthouse suites; the erosion of federal regulation. Often, I would slip out of some underground windowless dungeon with freezing air conditioning that required sweaters in the middle of summer and wander over to the Arlington Cemetery or the Vietnam memorial to recreate in my mind the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This time, I am here after the midterm elections, attending a conference where everyone is talking about the future of social security, or rather, the lack thereof. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, elections have been bought more easily than ever. There seems to be an air of gloom hanging over the city.
I go over to the Supreme Court to see who the people are that have upended our democracy. Oral arguments in some cellular tower case are ongoing but I am not impressed. So I continue my explorations. In Georgetown, where once I had only encountered white faces, I am intimidated by young and hip Indian-Americans, who, judging by their dress and demeanor, are clearly the new elite. Just about then I hear Spanish voices. Latinos, I discover, are everywhere. They, to me, are oddly comforting. In a few years, I think, the elections will be theirs. In a few years, candidates like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz will not have a prayer.
At the end of the day, I climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and look down upon the Washington Monument and the Capitol Mall beyond. Tears come to my eyes at the thought of what this nation once was and what it has now become.
Yet, in the vista ahead of me, I see a promise for the future. And I recall the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Solaced, I descend the steps.