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So, we went to Washington D.C. - allegedly for a conference - but mainly for cultural inspiration. Anne had never been to the nation's capital, and it was my first visit since being there for a 1994 ceremony at the Smithsonian to launch the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Our plan was to take in as many artistic marvels as time permitted. The city was in its Spring splendor. We were welcomed by the last of the cherry blossoms - and an abundance of dogwoods cloaked in white flowers.
We especially wanted to explore the Library of Congress. Of the many displays inside the grand edifice, we most enjoyed the museum on the Gershwins that included the piano George Gershwin used to compose his classic songs and Rhapsody in Blue. Another exhibit space, on the American Variety Theatre, laid out the history of Vaudeville with vintage posters and artifacts, including Houdini's handcuffs and Bob Hope's joke notebook. The place is even more majestic than we expected. It seemed like the high temple of American arts and letters.
Across the street, the Folger Shakespeare Library had an exhibit in their Tudor hall titled Perchance to Dream - examining the significance of dreams in the Bard's time. Highly imaginative woodcuts showed how people thought dreams were often revelations from divine sources. We also heard the Folger consort rehearse Renaissance music in the Elizabethan theater. All in all, it was a fine visit to Olde England. Folger made his fortune founding Mobil Oil. I'm grateful he spent it on the study of dramatic literature.
Downtown, we explored Ford's Theater - which is still a working stage, in addition to being a memorial. The presidential box is still draped as it was the night Lincoln was shot. An interpretive talk recounted the tragic evening. Being in the place it happened made the loss feel current. The rooming house across the street where Lincoln actually died has also survived. In addition to representing dreadful events, these rare period buildings preserve a bit of history in an area dominated by skyscrapers.
A side trip to Baltimore brought us to the grave of Edgar Allen Poe. I'm a distant relative of the poet laureate of darkness, and his gloomy stories were my favorites as a kid. It was Poe who turned me on to reading, so it was good to pay our respects. We also saw the narrow brick house where Poe once lived. Formerly in a nice part of town, the home is now surrounded by housing projects. We took some pictures of neighborhood kids on the front steps of the Poe house. They didn't seem the least bit spooked by the place.
The Baltimore adventure was mainly to have crab cakes with my father's cousin, Barbara Young, who is still a practicing psychoanalyst at age 88. I've always felt we were kindred spirits as the only members of the family to go into the mental health field. In the 1930s, she was the only woman in her med school class at Johns Hopkins. She later became a noted photographer, collected by major museums. Just before going, we toured her house. Barbara mentioned that her bed was an heirloom. Her father - and his brother (my grandfather) were born in that bed in the 1800s. It was marvelous to touch a piece of family history I had never seen before.
Our other trip out of the big city was up to the Potomac Falls parklands for a ride in a surviving long boat on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. The waterway project was started by George Washington in 1785 and provided over a century of vital transportation for goods and people before the railroads won out. The outing was authentic, with the crew all dressed in period outfits. The mules pulled the boat at a meditative pace as a ranger in appropriate garb explained life on the canal. Walking around the locks after our journey, Anne, ever the nature girl, pointed out redbuds and other splendid bits of flora and fauna.
Nearby was a literary site of some note - the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. It is in a simple old churchyard in Western Maryland. As in life, the poignant writer of the Jazz Age is near the upper class he thought lived in beauty itself - and significantly, he is still not one of them. Fitzgerald was so gifted in writing about longing. Almost everyone has something they imagine will change everything if they could just reach it. He was able to describe how it as to see an object of desire ever at a distance.
Back in D.C., we had one day to explore the Smithsonian. Given the choice of so many treasures, we decided to be selective. One section we definitely wanted to see displayed the original Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of OZ. The red sequins are faded now, but the magical shoes still give off traces of the old enchantment. It was exciting to get a close look at one of the few genuinely American icons of transcendence.
We visited Vietnam memorial on a grey afternoon - and had a long talk with a disabled vet who is struggling to get health care for the effects of agent orange. I had brought along a list of the guys I trained with during the war. I wasn't posted to Vietnam, but most of them were. I slowly checked the names on the black granite. Thankfully, none of my friends were among the lost. The few I've seen since the sixties had a variety of emotional problems. Near the monument, everyone seems to slow down and speak quietly. The site is serenely beautiful. Visitors leave small flags, photos, and poems all along the wall for those who did not come home.
Throughout the trip, a phrase from a Paul Simon song kept running through my head - they've all gone to search for America. Our trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. Many of the most memorable sites were tributes to creativity. I don't find politics as exciting as art or nature, and we managed to find the Washington we were looking for. The impression we came away with was that the life of the imagination is well represented in the capital.