Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Page Turns

What is to be said?

Today Barack Obama rests his hand on the Lincoln Bible and becomes the 44th president of the United States. Throughout the nation and around the globe pundits, historians, politicians, bartenders, celebrities, educators, students, preachers and plumbers have reached deep inside their souls to find words to match this moment. And still, however eloquent, words fail.

I cannot recall a time when I have experienced a public event in such an intensely personal way. One cannot understand how it feels to me without having walked in my moccasins and lived my life, complete with its moments of soaring joy and wrenching loss. I sense that many people feel similarly. What happens in Washington, DC today will put a face on this country that will resonate around the world. But in a strange way the importance of this day is not about civics or politics. It is not even about history. It is about autobiography. Not Obama's autobiography. Mine. And yours.

Among the trinkets marking moments of my life there is a lapel pin, plain in design, on which the letters FMBM are engraved. Few would know the meaning of that acronym--"For McGovern Before Miami." These pins were distributed to people who worked for or contributed to the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern before his nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. It was, of course, a doomed crusade (McGovern was clobbered by Richard Nixon, winning only a single state). But for me, a seminarian at the time, and for many of my generation, it was personal. I still think we were right and I take a certain amount of pleasure in looking at that pin and remembering.

I mention this only because I was also drawn to Barack Obama well before he became a viable candidate on the national stage. In this case it was words that did it. One day in Costco I saw a copy of what looked like an interesting book--Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written in 1995 by a virtually unknown figure named Barack Obama. It was liberally discounted so I bought it. The writing was thoughtful and lyrical, personal and transparent. And I, like him a son without a father, connected to his story.

Most impressive was the way in which he drew upon his own search for identity, particularly his multi-racial family, to frame his emerging social and political convictions. He discovered his story, incredibly complex though it was, could be knitted together with the totally diverse experience of others to form community. He wrote:
...they'd offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together--a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace. As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I'd been looking for. (Dreams from My Father, page 190)
You see? It's personal. My story. Your story. We're in there. And he gets it.

The picture included with this post is of our son Brian and his one year old daughter, our beloved granddaughter, Ashley. It isn't posed. She loves to look at books and magazines. Please note that it is right size up. By sheer chance she picked up Sojourners, a magazine addressed to people of faith who seek social justice. The cover of this issue was Barack Obama and the content was devoted to a series of letters written to the President-Elect expressing their hopes and dreams.

My hopes and dreams are embodied by Ashley. I cried on election night and the tears are flowing on this Inauguration Day. At first I couldn't understand why it was so emotional for me. But now I know. It's because my story, our two sons' stories, and Ashley's story, is in that podium today.

Almost a year ago I posted here some reflections on Obama's candidacy that I entitled, Dare I Trust Obama with my Mind and Heart? Some of the experiences I wrote about there are at the heart of the emotions that have welled up within me these past weeks. I chose to trust. Now, as I post this, the oath of office has just been administered.

The page has turned.