Today's Reading


There is no single now but a multitude of nows, an infinite number. So philosophers and scientists say. Just as there is no single past, or one continuum that leads from then to now, but an endless multitude of continuums. The Greeks intuited that. Heraclitus with his river you could never step in twice. Aristotle did not believe in absolute time but saw time as a measure of change. In a world without change, there is no time.

I could tell within blocks that my walk would bend time, that for the body in motion time moves more slowly. The walk would make the present more expansive but also open layers of the past to my inspection.

Through the bare limbs you could see the milky marble of the Capitol dome as I turned left up East Capitol Street. The midpoint of that dome divides Washington into unequal quadrants. The bronze eagle feathers on the crest of the Statue of Freedom, 288 feet above the East Front Plaza, mark the axis around which the city turns. My destination for the day was due north of the city; heading west first was one way to get there. After walking the length of the National Mall to stand before Abe Lincoln in his mighty chair, I would head north up Rock Creek. Up that way, first north and then bending northeast, weeks down the road, was New York City.

Crowds had gathered thick on the Capitol's grounds on December 2, 1863, to see the workers lower that head onto the Statue of Freedom and bolt it into place. Others peered through opera glasses from the open windows of the buildings nearby. "Immediately that the head was adjusted, the hoisting of a flag signaled to all below that the statue was complete, and cheer after cheer filled the air from the throats of the large concourse present," said the Evening Star.

Often, when out walking and catching sight of that dome and statue, I would think again about how Lincoln had pushed to complete and then ornament that dome in the thick of the war as proof of our persistence and a show of faith in the country's continuance.

Years earlier, the man in charge of approving the precise design for the Statue of Freedom was none other than Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war and the future president of the Confederate States of America. Davis quibbled when the sculptor proposed crowning the figure with a liberty cap, a traditional symbol of freedom derived from freed Roman slaves and popularized during both the French and American revolutions. The history of that cap, Davis wrote, "renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved." That firm enforcer of slavery was also, in his own mind, a committed defender of liberty.

As I approached the Capitol, the grounds remained blocked by the detritus of our most recent insurrection. A mob had stormed the building with notions of overturning an election. One man had roamed the halls with a large Confederate flag over his shoulder. Many similar flags had waved from the scaffolding outside, erected there for the inauguration of the new president. I had walked to the Capitol that afternoon to see the riot unfold, just as I had crisscrossed the Mall in the days before to watch as the crowds filtered in from across the country. Today, the high fence put up after the siege still ringed the grounds, but workers had just taken away the much broader perimeter barrier laced with razor wire. A cluster of National Guard troops stood behind the high fence eating donuts in a patch of sunlight. One of them offered a soldierly wave as I walked by.

If some Cassandra had come before me at the start of 2020 and said, "You will cast your vote for president in Nationals Park and will enter that park for the first time all year, because the team will have played no games there before a live audience," I would have said, "Yeah, right." And if she had said, "In the meantime, 550,000 of your fellow Americans will have been felled by a virus you've never heard of, including the parents of many of your closest friends," I would have scoffed and said, "That's ludicrous. No way." And if she had said, "Through the summer your city and many others will be wracked with riots and clouded with tear gas after a policeman kills a Black man in Minneapolis," I would have recoiled in astonishment. And if she had then said, "When you depart on that walk of yours to New York, a year later than first planned, you will have to detour around a Capitol compound completely encircled by seven-foot-high fencing, and manned inside by troops with automatic weapons, after a mob, believing the election had been stolen, ransacks the building at the beginning of the year," I would have blanched and said, "Please, stop. This is all too much."

We absorb the unimaginable with astonishing ease and move on.

I thought of my own time around that dome as I walked down the western slope of the Capitol grounds. How immense and fleeting the Washington years felt, bordering soon on half my life. My wife and I had met as aspiring journalists in Chicago in 1989, just as the Iron Curtain fell. We'd spent a few years in Florida before the drama in Eastern Europe became too strong to resist. Shailagh and I went overseas childless and unmarried in 1992, with the mere suggestion of work on arrival and no more luggage than we could carry aboard a Prague-bound train from Paris. We arrived in Washington in 1999 as staff writers for the 'Wall Street Journal,' married with two young daughters, Lillian and Frances, solid résumés as foreign correspondents who had roved the whole of Europe, and a seagoing containerload of furniture and other household effects.

I figured we might stay in the nation's capital for a decade or so before heading somewhere else. On six bracing Januarys since then, each of them four years apart, I watched presidents on those very Capitol steps raise their right hand and swear to protect the Constitution of the United States. I'd run down and back up that hill hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I'd watched my kids sled on its west-facing slope and had stood at its top to see the national fireworks on innumerable Independence Days. On the morning I strolled by with a pack on my shoulders, we'd been in that one house and called this our neighborhood for three years shy of a quarter of a century. That, like all the recent horrors, was hard to fathom.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Reading the Glass: A Captain's View of Weather, Water, and Life on Ships by Elliot Rappaport.

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