The lights of Congress

Jan. 04, 2014 @ 05:08 PM

There is patriotic mud left on my shoes. Mud reminiscent of the squishy swamp mud that was once underfoot (or under water) in Washington, D.C., long before it became the power center of today. I acquired the mud one night a few days before Christmas, on a night as cold as Durham was on Friday, but about 250 miles north. It’s from the U.S. Capitol lawn, still soggy after days of rain but not so messy to deter a handful of visitors, including my family, who came to take in the Christmas lights on the Capitol tree. Tourists flock to the White House tree, which involves taking the Metro and walking a bit to see it up close. But those who have been know you can drive (after the workday is done) right up to a little parking lot in front of the Capitol and park, for free, as you take in the tree. Just for a few minutes, because it is always cold and windy and dark except for that lit white dome of power, presumed and real, and the rainbow of electricity on the tall tree out front.
I started to explain to my kindergartner about Congress and representatives from each state, but he lost interest when I brought up the Senate. He wanted to run in circles and play football on the swampy field, running free in freedom’s land. Well, that’s part of what Congress is supposed to be working for in that big fancy building, right? The freedom for a kid to run and play without worry. For me, the moment was about breathing in the air of our nation’s collective history -- and everyone who has ever walked on that grass, from presidents to people you’ll never hear of – during a season of joy and hope.
Then it was time to go back to the car, scraping mud off our shoes onto the curb and grass, the illuminated Capitol and Washington Monument in the background in either direction. Back across the bridge and past the Pentagon into Virginia and the area where I spent my teenage years, where the only high school field trip I took was to the halls of power. When I learned that government meetings can be really boring and really important at the same time. A lot of life is like that. Moments of passing time along with moments of time you wish you could make last forever. Like a cold night visit to a Christmas tree that belongs to you and me, from sea to shining sea. Breathing in the crisp air of America, knowing every individual is as important as any other that breathes the same air. Being hopeful that every day will be better than the last. Knowing that it can be.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at or 919-419-6563.