Meg Riley's Inauguration Diary
Meg Riley's Inauguration Diary

Washington, DC, January 18, 2009

That REM song, “Shiny Happy People” won’t leave my mind. What bliss to wander among millions of people of all ages, races, and geographies, celebrating with one huge heart! I am over-tipping cab drivers, laughing and crying at almost nothing, not whining about the cold. In short, I am HAPPY.

The sermon at All Souls Church, Unitarian on Sunday was about ‘crossing over’—how Moses didn’t get to the promised land, but how Joshua did. Before the sermon, the Rev. Rob Hardies, senior minister, asked all of us to name those who did not get to the promised land. Like Moses, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe the moment is always arriving, just around the corner. None of us here believes that we can just sit back and sip milk and honey now! A colleague called into a talk radio show to respond to the question, “Will Obama live up to our hopes for creating real change?” She reframed the question, “Will we live up to our own hopes?” That is, of course, the only question worth really spending time answering.

Leading up to the inauguration, my daughter, Jie, and I have explored our hopes, our country’s history, and our dreams. We made a trip to the DC History Museum, where there is an amazing display of quilts for Obama, crafted by women of color. Several made me weep: quilting is such a strong metaphor to me of surviving and creating beauty from small pieces of scrap, even though most of these quilters probably did it with whole pieces of cloth. That evening, at a dinner with dear friends from DC, the most amazing thing happened: Jie ended up scoring a ticket to the concert for children which was occurring the next night, hosted by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, featuring Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers! For those of you who are not parents of middle schooolers, this will mean nothing. But Miley Cyrus is “Hannah Montana.” Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers, are true Disney Channel icons—and this was a little slice of heaven for my teenaged daughter!

Meanwhile, my Sunday was the kind of day I hope never to forget in my life. Starting with the 9:30 worship service, which practically levitated me, I headed for the Mall, for the free inaugural concert. On this very cold day, in a very huge crowd, as we stood for hours with the Lincoln Memorial a tiny speck in the distance and a JumboTron our only view of the performances onstage, the experience was, nevertheless, sheer bliss.

The crowd was mixed in every way you could imagine—age, race, geography, size. We were of one temperament: joy. There, in the crowd, we helped each other out. “Who is THAT?”, a young African American woman asked as the first singer began. “Bruce Springsteen,” I said. “Who is THAT?”, I said, as a young African American man began to sing. “Usher,” she said. We old white women could help out with Pete Seeger, James Taylor, and the other old white singers. Young African Americans could identify Shakira, Beyoncè (OK, I did know her) and others. It made me see how much smarter we can be when we’re in diverse groups!

As great as the show was, as mesmerizing and compelling and wonderful, the crowd was even better. The crowd, in fact, is what drew me here. When I decided to come, I didn’t know that I’d get (standing room) tickets to the inauguration, or that Jie would see Hannah Montana, or that my friend and I would spend 150 bucks each to go to a Peace Ball. I just knew I wanted to be with the crowds!

Now, it is true that I hate crowds. I avoid them like the plague. I attend mass protests only out of a sense of obligation. I am afraid of mobs. But the spirit that has swept through the country this year has made me love them. A crowd of happy hopeful people is a tonic for my soul’s needs. A friend emailed, “I think of the crowd as a string of prayer beads,” and right now, on this remarkable journey, that’s how it feels to me, too!

January 19, 2009

And then, on Martin Luther King Day, I felt like I finally got to go to that old mountaintop myself!

On Monday morning, my friend Amy and I headed over to the Longworth Office Building in the morning to pick up (standing room) inauguration tickets from Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s office. Lines snaked around the block as people waited to go through security and pick up their tickets. We scoped out two lines and decided the second one was shorter.

Amy knows Keith Ellison well, as she used to work for him, and she asked to see him when we got to his office. By quirks of fate, we ended up with about ten minutes alone with him. Ellison, you may recall, is the first Muslim elected to Congress. He’s an amazing, loving, healing kind of guy. Amy, who is Jewish, talked with him about building a Muslim/ Jewish alliance for peace in the Middle East which transcends what is currently going on.

I was delighted to learn that he knows all about Churches for Middle East Peace, the coalition the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) works with most closely. And of course I did my best to insert Unitarian Universalism into this interfaith vision! I know many Muslims who are struggling to build political activism among their own, and Ellison’s connection to the work in which the UUA is engaged would be a blessing.

Amy and I were meeting back up with Jie and some of my family members for a concert in front of the Martin Luther King Library for the Day of Service which President-Elect Obama called us to participate in. It was a benefit for a group called Feeding America (formerly known as Second Harvest), addressing poverty and hunger. This was a very small event—under 500 people. It says how awash this city is in notables right now to note that Martin Luther King III, Ben Affleck, Herbie Hancock, and Josh Groban were major presenters for this event! We had lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant and then Jie and I came home to get her ready for her big concert.

Later in the day, I went back to All Souls Church for an interfaith peace service. Featuring Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, UUs, and some amazing speakers, it felt like we were living out of the vision that Keith Ellison was calling for earlier in the day. We were there listening closely to each other, holding each other in our hearts. When Ysaye Barnwell led us in singing that old Sweet Honey in the Rock song, “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” I knew it was true. There were over 1,000 people there by my estimate, and UUA President Bill Sinkford, and All Souls Senior Minister Rob Hardies, both greeted and oriented people to the event.

Jie loved her concert and now, as I write in the middle of the night, I realize that in a few hours, we’ll get up, pack our tiny allowable bags with handwarmers and protein bars and ID’s and our precious inaugural tickets (which, ironically, are too large to fit into the sanctioned bags so how are we supposed to keep them as the precious mementos they are?). We’ll walk a couple of miles in the cold morning to stand in security lines for several hours and then we’ll stand jammed with hundreds of thousands of “the lucky ones” who got these tickets.

And why am I happy to do this? Why aren’t I being my usual whiney, comfort-seeking, pain-avoiding, sleep-loving, self? I’ll tell you why not: because, as our new President and Sweet Honey have been telling us, I believe that I am the one I’ve been waiting for. This more generous, willing, happy Meg Riley is the one I’ve been looking for, for the past eight years!

I can not wait to see what tomorrow brings. I am filled with hope for our country, for the country my daughter will grow up in. Tomorrow will be a brighter day.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of the diary.

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