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The Other Washington. . . District of Columbia + Philly

October 13, 2012

In front of the White House!

Days 69 – 78; August 25 – September 4

We arrived outside of Washington D.C. late in the afternoon on a Saturday – and found our hotel – just outside of the city proper, in Camp Springs, Maryland, very close to Andrew’s Air Force Base.  We loaded into our room and went about the task of organizing our time in D.C.  So much to see – hard to know where to begin!  We knew we didn’t want to try to tour D.C. in the RV – so – after sorting through the myriad tour options – decided on a guided seven hour bus tour of monuments, which also included a one hour boat ride on the Potomac.

We also knew that we would spend some of our Sunday attending Mass and visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Helen, Olivia, Kelly on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine

The Basilica is located just next to the campus of the Catholic University of America and is the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States – each year hosting over one million visitors and pilgrims from around the world.  Dedicated to the Blessed Mary, the Basilica is home to over 70 shrines and chapels that honor a host of Marian images and devotions.  In addition to attending Sunday Mass there, we spent several hours visiting many of the Shrine’s chapels and viewing the tremendous art located throughout the Cathedral.  The chapels were extraordinary and in spite of the very large numbers of people visiting, very peaceful.  After exploring, we even had lunch and did some shopping there – a large cafeteria is located in the basement between the bookstore and gift shop.  It actually was a bit strange – the basement of the Basilica, with its shops and large cafeteria, felt a little like a pious version of a shopping mall.

Though art holy women . . .

I especially appreciated all the many ways Mary was depicted and honored.  In this beautiful place, it is impossible to forget the many gifts that women have brought to our Church and what an important role women have played in the foundation and ongoing life of our tradition.  My mother, like many mothers, had a special devotion to Mary and I thought of Nona often during our time at the Basilica.

Lighting candles for teachers and students at St. Anne School – may it be a good year for all!

Also while there, we were very aware that school would soon be starting in Seattle, so the girls lit candles in honor of their teachers and classmates, and said a prayer that everyone has a G R E A T year at school.  We took photos and sent them to their teacher, Ms. Dempsey, so she can share them with the fifth graders on the first day of school – a nice way for the girls to feel connected to their classmates.

The next morning, our tour day dawned somewhat hot and very muggy.  I have to say – until this trip – I never really understood the “at least it’s dry heat” caveat regarding high temperatures.  Hot is hot – right?  No!  Not right!!  Humidity is a killer.  110 in the dry desert is miserable but manageable; 99 in the muggy city is just torturous and by the late afternoon we’d be feeling it!

To get into the city, we started early, jumping aboard the complimentary and much appreciated free motel shuttle to the Metro station.  Though Steven and I have both ridden the D.C. Metro before, it took us several minutes standing in front of the ticket dispensers and maps to figure out where we were, where we wanted to be, and how to get there.  A kind station attendant lent us a hand and we soon joined the ranks of the myriad commuters heading into D.C.  We met up with our tour group in front of the very elegant and official looking Old Post Office Building, and right off the bat learned quite a bit about Benjamin Franklin and his role in starting the Federal Postal system.  I wish the ghost of Ben Franklin could come back and, once again, lend the Post Office some expertise.  Mr. Franklin, great innovator that he was, might be just what the Post Office needs right now to put itself to rights!

The Capitol Building – a great place to discuss the three branches of government!

Once on board the bus, we headed out for the White House and the Capitol Building.  Fun picture opps and some good commentary from our guide at both.  Steven also offered the girls an impromptu lesson on the three branches of government.  Great to share that while having real visual aids right there in front of us!  As impressive as it was to see the White House, it was also great to see the President’s neighbor, Concepcion Picciotto.  While taking up residence in Lafayette Square is no longer legal (at one time protesters could make camp in the park) through a series of loopholes and via a lawsuit, Concepcion has won the right to maintain her protest site as long as it is generally maintained in its original form and Concepcion or one of her compatriots is on site 24 hours a day.  So, since 1981, Concepcion, together with her supporters, has been demonstrating against war of any kind, demonstrating against nuclear proliferation, and advocating for the United States to use its political clout around the globe to promote peace.  What a powerful witness!

Concepcion Picciotto. Directly across from the President in his White House – this woman in her own humble ‘White House’ is advocating that our nation uses its power for peace.

It was now late morning and the heat rose and the humidity grew.  We moved on to the Washington Monument and the World War II monument.  Although I’ve read about it – I hadn’t seen the World War II monument – and was glad to have the opportunity.  The monument is a large circle formed by fifty-six tall granite pillars reaching to the sky.  Each pillar represents one state or territory of the United States.  A stately and august memorial to those who served our country in the Second World War.  The WWII Monument is located just below the Washington Monument.  The Washington Monument was closed for repairs, so we couldn’t get inside, but the girls were both wowed with how tall and impressive it is, even from a distance.

Olivia, Helen and Steven at the World War II Memorial – just down the path from the Washington Monument.

From the World War II Memorial and Washington Monument, we clambered back onto the bus and headed to the water to board our boat tour.  It was perfect to be out on a boat, enjoying a light lunch and a cool breeze, taking in the impressive city views from the Potomac.  The boat’s tour guide also treated passengers to a multitude of interesting facts about the history of the Potomac, though I have to confess, by the time we got onto the boat, we were more interested in catching the breeze than the history!

A view of the Potomac shoreline with the Washington Monument in the background.

Our first stop after the boat ride was the Jefferson Memorial.  For security reasons, the entrance to the memorial was closed, so we had a long walk behind barriers and down the path to get in – but our guide didn’t factor in any extra tour time.  So after a fast paced walk down the path and up the stairs to say hi to President Jefferson, we had to turn around and trek back as quickly as possible, despite the climbing heat and humidity. We were disappointed not to have had a bit more time – and apparently we weren’t the only ones.  A family of our tourist mates were apparently so hot, humid and unhappy, they decided that, though they were late returning to the bus, they needed to stop at a vendor’s cart along the path and indulge in some ice cream.  They then sauntered back to the bus, unapologetically slurping their cold treats.  This, despite the fact that there was, sitting and waiting, an entire bus full of fellow tourists – also hot and humid – who had made it back to the bus on time!  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [women and children] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Well – I wholeheartedly agree with President Jefferson.  But I think even Jefferson would have concurred that a person does NOT have an inalienable right to purchase ice cream, no matter how happy it made said person, if it involves keeping an entire bus of people waiting in the heat!  Harumph!

At the Jefferson Memorial – at least President Jefferson is in the shade!

From the Jefferson Memorial, our tour group made its way to the Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Junior Memorials. I had not been to either memorial, and they were at the top of my ‘must-see’ monuments in D.C.  After a stern reminder to all of us to get back to the bus on time – our tour guide sent us on our way.

Olivia and Helen sitting on President Roosevelt’s lap.

The Roosevelt memorial is created by the placement of granite walls formed to give visitors a sense of separate but connected rooms – each room depicting a scene from Roosevelt’s life.  As we turned from room to room, we were surprised and delighted by the bronze monuments we found.  FDR sitting in his wheelchair is the first.  Ironic that this is the first image of him the public sees, when he spent so much of his public life hiding his chair and his ‘weakness’ from the people he served.  Further into the monument, another bronze depicts him sitting on a bench beside his beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala.  The park also contains a wonderful bronze of Eleanor, one of my heroes!  There, too, are bronzes of the people Roosevelt was committed to serving – a man leaning into the radio, not wanting to miss a word of one of FDR’s famous fireside chats; another of folks waiting in line at the door of a soup kitchen.  Water features are also scattered throughout the memorial.  A pond and several cascading fountains add to the secluded and park-like feel and honor Roosevelt’s deep attraction to water as a source of healing and rejuvenation.  Additionally, there are more than 20 FDR quotations – handsomely carved into the granite.  My favorite quote – words that are as prophetic today as they were then: In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose a path of social justice. . . the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.

The whoosh of the water, together with the bronze likenesses of FDR and his people, and the granite, carved with his words, created a strong Rooseveltian presence.  I think FDR would recognize the spirit of his service lingering at this memorial and be pleased with how he is represented.

We left the FDR Memorial to walk the short path to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the second of my two “must see” monuments.  I was stopped in my tracks by the starkness and the elegance of this monument.

Inspired!  Standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. at his monument in D.C.  “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

I found the memorial to be strong and  hope filled – yet not the least bit sentimental.  MLK is standing, unyielding and firm – still looking toward the day . . . when people will not be judged by the color  of their skin, but by the content of their character.  This monument was opened to the public almost exactly one year prior to our visit – and it was filled with people there to honor this great leader.  I was determined not to leave until we had an opportunity to wind our way through the crowd and really take in the memorial as well as get a photo there.

We decided then and there to leave the tour.  We had the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial still to go – both impressive and important – but we wanted to appreciate our experience at MLK.  We were also done in by the humidity.  That and we certainly couldn’t keep our fellow bus passengers waiting!  So – we flagged down our tour guide and let her know that we were going to linger and the group should move on without us – we would see the other two monuments on our own if we could fit them in.  So after more time spent appreciating the enduring wisdom and spirit represented by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, we found our way back to our motel to swab ourselves off, cool ourselves down, and try to absorb all that we had seen.

This was also the night of the August Blue Moon.   We got to see it in D.C. hours ahead of our West Coast family and friends – so we took a photo and sent it off to everyone via Facebook, giving them an early look at this magical icon of all things rare and wonder-filled.

Blue Moon – August 31, 2012 – from Washington, D.C.

The next day the girls and Steven went off to pick up a couple of the Smithsonian Museums while I stayed at our hotel to write.  Another (this time much easier) trip on the Metro got them all into D.C. easily and the weather was a bit cooler and less humid – so they enjoyed their day a great deal – spending most of it in the National Museum of Natural History digging the dinosaur bones, exploring the concept of evolution,  and hanging out in the Hall of Mammals examining all manner of once warm-blooded, now stuffed, creatures – from giraffes to jaguars.

Mount Vernon – George and Martha Washington’s Plantation

Following a day off of sightseeing to catch our breath and for Steven to do some work, we went to Mount Vernon.  George and Martha Washington’s plantation is located on 50 lush acres on the banks of the Potomac River.  The back verandah is home to a legion of green chairs that provided the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view.  What a lovely way to spend a few moments breathing in the view – and fun to imagine George and Martha once doing the same!

Catching some shade on the veranda at George and Martha Washington’s home.

The relatively new visitor center at Mount Vernon is extremely well done.  After touring the plantation, we spent some time in this wonderful place, getting a further glimpse of the life of one of our nation’s first heroes.  Washington was a strong, demanding, yet compassionate leader who believed deeply in the new republic that had been created.  As our first President, Washington refused a third term of office because he did not want the newly created union to become, in any sense, a monarchy.  He was a staunch and inspired leader of this fledgling nation, devoted to the ideals of ‘freedom and liberty for all.’  At the same time, Washington was also an unapologetic owner of slaves – at one point owning over 300 of them.  While his will did authorize the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of his wife Martha (Martha actually chose to emancipate them shortly after George Washington died) he used slaves to work his plantation and apparently even allowed his slaves to be whipped. Helen and Olivia were both disconcerted to see the slave quarters and to learn this piece of our first President’s history.  They were flabbergasted that a President that was to them a hero and champion of freedom, could support slavery!  As we are discovering through our travels, our heroes and our histories are many layered and there is often more to our nation’s stories than what we learn in our history books.

That evening we had a wonderful visit with our friend Amy Sullivan King, her husband Bill and daughter Helen (yes – another Helen – who’s actually alive and under the age of eighty!).  We also got to meet Maybelle and Jack, the family dogs.  We had a wonderful home cooked meal (only our second of the trip and so tasty!).  Amy is a Queen Anne girl who also attended St. Anne School.  Her brother played ball with mine and her parents were great friends of my mother’s. While the girls played, Steven and Bill indulged Amy and I in our fast and furious conversation about ‘the good ole days.’  A wonderful taste of home.  Thank you Sullivan King family – we look forward to returning the hospitality the next time you’re in Seattle!

We left D.C. the following day – and on our way out – stopped at Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of the unknown soldiers and those of President Kennedy, Mrs. Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, their son Patrick and daughter Arabella.

Rows upon rows of markers honoring deceased men and women of the armed services.

As we went out to the Kennedy gravesite, both Olivia and Helen were stunned by the seemingly endless rows of simple white grave markers spread out in every direction (in fact, nearly half a million).   Veterans from every military action from pre-Civil War times through the War in Afghanistan are buried at Arlington.  The vast rows of white grave markers, set against the green of the grass, gave all of us a much greater sense of the immeasurable numbers of women and men who have given their service to protect and defend our freedoms.   I gasped when, with deep and clear insight, Olivia said, “Mom, before anyone ever decides to go to war again, they should come here first.”   She’s right.

We stopped at the Kennedy gravesite to pay our respects.  This prompted a conversation about the fact that President Kennedy was the first ever Roman Catholic President.  Helen and Olivia were puzzled about why a person’s religious affiliation might impact their ability to be President.  Both girls firmly stated that they would want the “best man” or, as Helen chimed in, “woman” to be the President, no matter what their religion.  From their mouths. . .

Finally we stopped at the Grave of the Unknowns, who are “Known but to God.”  We arrived just in time to witness the changing of the guard.  Another sobering moment for both girls.

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns – Arlington National Cemetery

From D.C. –   we motored on to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and also, albeit for a short time, our country’s capital city.  We started by attending morning Mass at the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia.  An old and very ornate Cathedral, it is apparently struggling to maintain itself.  By my estimate, there were less than 200 people attending Sunday morning Mass.  In this vast cathedral, more pews were empty than not.  Prior to Mass beginning, the lector made a plea for support – emphasizing the fact that though they were the Cathedral Church, their numbers were quite small and they counted on the generosity of visitors to help them maintain the large Basilica.  With that said, it was interesting to see three priests concelebrate the Mass, two adult men and three boys acting as acolytes, and a male cantor.  Perhaps including more women in leadership roles would help them grow their congregation?!

We were in Philly on a rainy day. OK by us – we don’t mind the rain, it was cool, and not too muggy – a relief from D.C.!

Helen and Olivia in front of Independence Hall – a rainy Sunday.

We started at the Independence Visitor’s Center where we quickly found out we hadn’t done a good job planning.  It was almost noon by the time we got there, and we were too late to get tickets to get into Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed).  Who knew we needed tickets?!?  Also, the lines to see the Liberty Bell were very long, and both girls were very uninterested in a 90 minute wait to take a two-minute peak at the bell.  Honestly, I think we were all a bit ‘monumented out’ after our time in D.C.   So – we spent quite a while in the visitor center – which is tremendous – filled with great exhibits and offering several films on the making of a new nation and the writing and signing of the declaration.  At the visitor’s center, we also discovered that, just across the street, we would find The National Museum of Jewish American History.  FABULOUS!!  What a delightful surprise to find this wonderful museum.  And, having spent our morning at the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Basilica, it was a nice balance to end our day with time at the Jewish American History Museum.

As luck would have it, the museum was holding a special exhibit discussing our first President.  Having received a letter of support from the Jewish Community in Newport when he was inaugurated, President George Washington responded to the community, in part, with this:  For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. Here we have a President who, just days before we had seen was a slaveholder.  Now we discover he was a progressive thinker in matters of religious freedom, who wrote so eloquently to this Jewish community, stating confidently that we ‘give bigotry no sanction.’  An unexpected bonus for me on this trip has been the many opportunities we have had to understand so much about our country’s moral evolution.

From this important U.S. history to the history of Hollywood, we also found a very fun exhibit regarding the role of Jews in the movie business.  There was an entire floor devoted to the entertainment industry and the influence of Jewish writers, directors, producers, actors and comedians.  Helen and Olivia were especially enthralled with old films showing off the antics of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers.  Laughing at old movies stuffed full of these artists’ prat falls and foibles was a great way to end our day in Philadelphia!

On the lookout for the presence of wonder –  and we found so many monument-al (I couldn’t help myself!) wonders in D.C. and Philadelphia.  From Philly to New York so stay tuned:  Start spreading the news – we’re leaving today – we want to be a part of it. . .

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3 Comments
  1. Katie permalink

    Your description of your trip to Washington DC and “Punsylvania” was terrific! It made me feel like I was there with you. Olivia and Helen are getting a remarkable education this year which they will never forget.

    Where are you heading to next? Please update us on your plans to visit Chattanooga, TN!

  2. Karen permalink

    Thank you for taking us along on your search for wonder. It is an education for us all.

  3. dischwar permalink

    Ah, humidity. I guess I’ve gotten used to humid heat – we have it all the time at camp, so it takes an awful lot of humidity for me to notice that it’s humid out. It also makes the cold worse, as I discover in Chicago living 2 blocks from Lake Michigan. I understand the challenges of traveling in a new transit system – Google Maps is fantastic for that sort of thing, but even if you know where you are going and how to get there, you still have to translate that into the reality of the train system in front of you.
    DC is a great city. I’ve been there three times – once with my family when I was about 10 (we were there over the 4th of July and saw the fireworks from the Mall – then we had to deal with everybody leaving the fireworks at the same time – a very scary potential for separation), and once with my 8th grade class. At least one of those trips we went to the White House, and both of those trips we saw the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Memorial. With my family we saw the FDR Memorial, much of the Smithsonian, and I think we might have made it to the WWII Memorial, though I could be confusing that with the Korean War Memorial. I have not been there since the MLK Jr. Memorial opened, so it was informative to see that through your eyes/camera. My class also made it to Mt. Vernon and Arlington – it was interesting to later compare Arlington to the Israeli version at Mt. Hertzl in Jerusalem.
    The third time that I was in DC was when I was in college. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided to go home from St. Louis to Chattanooga with my college roommate (Mostafa Ahmed, whom I am going to visit in a few days in San Antonio), and instead of flying I wanted to go via Amtrak. That meant trading a 5 hour plane trip (with a layover and time change) for a 50 hour train ride: St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to DC, DC to Atlanta, Atlanta to Chattanooga (via car). In DC we had a layover for a few hours, so Mostafa and I decided to visit the Library of Congress. We wanted to go to the Middle East Reading Room, but you need a researcher’s card to get in. So, in an example of chutzpah (audacity), we went to the James Madison Building to get researchers’ cards. I was all prepared to say that I was researching the effect of the 1917 Balfour Declaration on the Jewish community in Turkey, but nobody actually questioned me. Cards in hand, we went back and started reading. It was a great layover!
    It sounds like despite the rain you had a terrific time in Philly. Reading is only about 2ish hours away from Philly, so we went there fairly often over my 13 years in Reading, including many stops at the Franklin Institute (a hands-on science museum). I later went there with the Jewish high school group in Chattanooga also, getting a slightly different take on the matter. I’m envious that you got to see the new museum there – while it was still in its design stages they had an online poll about which Jews should be included in the various sections, and while I voted for that I’ve never actually seen the finished museum. I’m glad to hear about it via your blog, and I look forward to hopefully seeing it myself some day!
    Kelly, I understand your decision to stay home and write while the others went to the Smithsonian. Last night, after getting done babysitting (and telling stories to kids for a full hour), I passed by the campfire where many of the other staff were sitting with some of the parents. I knew that we had our staff meeting coming up in 30 minutes (11:45, when all the staff was done babysitting), and that I had things I needed to do (like calling Miriam), so rather than go to the campfire, then the meeting, and then get my work done at 12:15, I decided to skip the fun of the campfire and do what needed to be done so I could get more sleep. I commend you for making the “right” decision!
    The thing I am currently wondering is where has Michi gone? Oh, I’m getting an answer now…. she went to see Georgie. Word for the Post: Escalating (v) – Going up more and more (like an escalator). Ex.: With the escalating temperatures and humidity, there was escalating frustration in the tour bus while the other family got ice cream.

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