I missed my grandmother’s birthday this year. My internship ran right over the top of it, so I missed the party. I guess the least I can do is write something since she asked me to write while I’m away. And chances are she’ll be the only one to read it anyway.
So here you go, Grandma.
I just finished my second week in Washington. I’m working on Capitol Hill for a religious liberty advocacy group, and I’ve been learning the key to success on Capitol Hill—the golden ticket for everyone here, from the most senior of Senators to the lowliest of interns (such as myself): that is, looking busy without actually being busy.
If a Congressman masters this art, he or she will get re-elected. If an intern masters the art, he or she has promise as a future congressman.
Anyway, the job is going well. I’m happy to be back here after having spent two college summers (2008 and 2009) in the District. To embrace with old friends and to share stories of past times and to worship in a much-missed place always feels right. It’s funny to me how living in Washington changes one’s vision, like switching a glasses prescription. And it’s funny how living in Washington as an outsider can tweak not only the way she sees the world or reads the news, but also the way she looks at herself.
I see not only these powerful symbols, centers, and people but I am sleeping and waking, working and playing, walking and talking among them. It’s not just that an outsider has a heightened awareness and appreciation for these power structures, but to be among those structures (logically) creates a heightened awareness and appreciation for one’s own status.
Which is tricky. And perhaps dangerous.
My first day on the job I had lunch with a few coworkers at the Senate cafeteria next door. As I ate my soup a senator took a seat at the table next to ours. It’s easy to become enamored at a senator casually sitting next to you eating his macaroni and cheese; it’s also easy to become enamored with yourself as you watch.
I’ve been walking up and down the charcoal arteries named Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Constitution that pump the lifeblood through the powerful heart of Washington, admiring the energy, the sheer significance of the pulse—thinking ‘This is what matters—this is real and alive and ultimate.’ It’s a rush, no doubt.
A few days later, last Sunday, I was driving my car down one of those traffic-packed avenues toward the Capitol thinking those thoughts. And unexpectedly the battery-light flickered. And the engine trembled. The tachometer vacillated. And the alternator died.
‘Hell,’ I thought. As I desperately tried restarting the dead car, I heard people honking their horns and could feel their scowls. As I glanced at the gleaming capitol dome a few blocks ahead, being within this nucleus of power suddenly wasn’t significant to me—not at all. I didn’t care if I was in Washington, DC, Tightwad, Missouri, or Timbuktu, my goddamn car was dead and blocking traffic—what’s so great about the stupid capitol anyway?
It only took about four seconds to switch priorities.
I cursed and muttered as my car was pushed out of the road, towed to a mechanic, revived back to usability, and paid for out of my pocket. By that time I couldn’t help but be preoccupied with my bank account, my income, my bills, and the fear that another big expense might ambush me anytime.
Even afterward, when walking up and down those prestigious avenues I wasn’t taken by the ‘significance’—what good is living among the powerful when you’re daunted by your own weakness?
But as I lamented my struggle, giving Job a run for his money, my cell phone rang. It was my best friend from high school, who is recently married, just blessed with a daughter, and soon to be a college graduate. I answered the phone, glad to hear from him.
His voice sounded shrill.
He told me that his baby daughter, my baby goddaughter, who was only two months and two days old, had suddenly passed away that afternoon.
In that moment it was like a vacuum hose had shoved itself in my mouth and sucked the air from my lungs. The only thing to do was cry.
What ‘significance’ is car trouble when you’re crippled by grief? How ‘significant’ is a bill, an assignment, or a mistake when one you love is suffering?
‘Hell,’ I thought again when he hung up. And I was right.
I still walk up and down those charcoal arteries weaving throughout these powerful places and famous names, and I still might occasionally see another senator lunching on his macaroni and cheese; but I save the wonder and fascination for something else—something more significant, something more ultimate.