And then in mid-December my husband received an email from someone named Michael Harold with the subject line, “Tickets to the Swearing-in Ceremony of Barack Obama.” We held our breath and moused over the “open” button—perhaps as gingerly as Charlie Bucket peeled back the wrapper of his precious Wonka Bar all those fairytale years ago.
And there it was: the golden ticket. “Congratulations. You will be receiving 2 ticket(s) to the Inauguration.”
Does this stroke of luck change things? Of course it doesn’t. Not really. We’ll be one of 240,000 people with tickets, instead of one of 2 million without. Yet, somehow I can’t help but feel chosen. Despite all my rightful prejudice against hero worship, I find myself thinking: My god, we might actually see him. Not on a Jumbotron screen—but him.
What has kept me up nights is this: How do I prepare myself? It’s the first time in my life I will knowingly participate in a historical moment. I will be one of a number that is talked about for the rest of American history. I feel as if I should … do something. Crack open my U.S. history textbook from high school? Pore over the inaugural speeches of every prior president? In my abject failure to come up with a good answer for this question, I settle on logistics: I figure out what route we’ll walk to bypass the sure-to-be-overflowing Metro system. I figure out what time we’ll need to get up to get a good spot in the security check line. I figure out how we’ll carry everything we need for 12 hours in the cold without a backpack. I buy hand warmers.
But all this strenuous thinking has borne some more useful and unexpected fruit. I feel a harsher light of truth: For someone who identifies as politically active and informed, the measure of my willingness to act is that I have bought a $500 plane ticket to watch a purely ceremonial event that I could see from home at no cost. I have never written a letter to my senator. I donate a few volunteer hours of my time each year, but always from the comfort of my own home. I don’t know my next door neighbors’ names. I’m sure I don’t do as much as I could to contribute to the public life of my community.
We’ve been watching John Adams, the HBO miniseries about our second president (recommended!). The show conveys the immense uncertainty that littered the paths of the” first” Americans as they tried to pull the country into one. Everything was new; the ideas were untested; the outcomes were uncertain. This fragility gave force and weight to every deliberation, and created incredible momentum around the idea of service to your country. Adams, in particular, was all about civic duty. Says he, “Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.”
I want to glean a little of that spirit—which happens to be the same spirit that Obama wants (although perhaps “needs” is more accurate) to provoke to keep the momentum of his incredible candidacy going. He can’t solve all the problems of this country—of course he can’t. But he seems to have done something potentially much more important in returning a feeling of empowerment and optimism to millions of us (who, perhaps like me, have given lip service to the idea of civic engagement but have given fairly little in the way of actual sweat). We’ll be waiting in line for hours to pick up our tickets on Monday, now a National Day of Service (dedicated as such by Obama—a beautiful idea), and probably won’t have much to offer but sore feet. But when we return to Portland, back again in the community that supports us, I want to commit to a few small things I keep meaning to do, but haven’t seemed to “find the time” for:
1. Give blood (sadly, I can no longer stand on the excuse that I’m under the weight limit)
2. Go to my neighborhood association meeting
3. Write a letter to Blumenauer’s office, and maybe a city commissioner or two
4. Introduce myself to my neighbors
I still feel certain that this moment is in some way incomprehensible in its meaning. I still feel uncomfortably unprepared and immeasurably lucky. But I also feel like maybe the gift of this “golden ticket” is in helping me take some baby steps toward a more productive reciprocal relationship with my community.
If you’re going to participate in the Day of Service, I urge you to post a comment to this thread to tell the LC community about it. I’ll be writing again from DC when we have computer access, to describe what we see and hear firsthand.
Hanna Neuschwander is the director of publications for the graduate school. Click here to read Neuschwander’s golden ticket to attend the inauguration: Dispatch #2