I was in Washington D.C. last month for a couple of days – supposedly just doing the tourist thing with Ken and Hana – though we’re not really the touristy types. We head immediately for the Holocaust Memorial Museum where we have a little delay getting in since the man directly in front of me is packing a full-sized machete in his pants. The guards are on it immediately. They just lost a comrade in June when a lunatic rifle-wielding white supremacist entered the museum and shot Officer Stephen Tyrone Jones dead – and they’re not messing around.
We eventually get in, but I can’t write about it. I bought the huge official museum book and read it cover to cover – I can’t count the number of books I’ve read on the Holocaust – but I still can’t write about it. I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Israel and haven’t written about that experience either. I will one day, but I just don’t have words yet – except to say go see and hear for yourself.
We head to the National Museum of the American Indian – which after the Holocaust memorial is a bit like stabbing yourself repeatedly with a shard of broken glass. It’s all too much to take in. And definitely impossible to write about until I have begun to take it in. One thing I did walk away with was a sense of awe at the artistic talent inherent in all humankind created in the image of Creator God.
We need to create art. We need beauty. It’s in the DNA of every people group.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote that “earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”
For me, D.C. is a barefoot experience from start to finish – crammed with thin places, where the veil between heaven and earth stretches beautifully and terribly taut. God is everywhere.
There is the stooped Chinese woman fighting the wind to hang her garish red and gold banner protesting something or other in China. Just as she gets one corner tied tight, another collapses – and on and on it goes. I watch for some time, transfixed by her tenacity and the traditional music squawking from her tiny boom box. No one is paying attention, the world is hurrying by, but she has something to say and she will say it – whether anyone listens or not. (yes, God – I caught that….)
The sound of live jazz drifts out of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden as we pass by, so we drift in to see what’s happening. Teeming with young professionals picnicking on blankets and carrying large pitchers of overpriced Sangria to friends seated around the large fountain, it is obviously the place to be after work on a hot summer’s Friday night. I notice how well-heeled everyone is and suddenly feel self-conscious in my sorry, well-traveled crocs.
We edge close to the band (an excellent band whose name escapes me at the moment) and I’m just beginning to forget my cracked and crusty crocs and enjoy the scene when I see him. There are at least a thousand people here, but now all I can see is the sole homeless man, grasping his plastic bags, making himself small behind a stone column whenever a guard glances his way. When it starts to drizzle, the man takes a flimsy poncho out of one of his many bags – the cling-wrappy disposable kind of poncho. He sticks his head through what looks like a crinkled bag with arm holes.
He isn’t strong and shifts his weight constantly to take the strain off his back. When he spies a sliver of space between two women on a stone bench by the band, he makes himself visible and gestures feebly – silently asking if he can sit next to them. At first, they pretend not to see him, but as he inches towards them, they instinctively curl their bodies inward, creating enough space for his frail, thin frame.
And there he sits – among the elite of Washington – gripping all his worldly possessions under his grimy poncho. He closes his eyes and his body moves to the rhythms, the emotions changing on his face with each featured instrument, each riff, each exhilarating ride. Here is a man who can see and has clearly taken off his shoes, drinking in the sheer mad beauty of sound. I wonder where he’ll sleep tonight. I wonder if he’ll still hear the music in his dreams. I wonder if he even notices the masses around him plucking blackberries.
We move on to two white-haired men weeping openly at the Viet Nam Memorial wall, tracing the names of their long -dead friends with shaky fingers. What they have seen they can never forget and I can not even begin to imagine. But I can hear God breathing at this wall. There are angels here.
It starts to rain heavily, sending all visitors scurrying – except for us, of course, and one limping man who looks to be in his early 60′s. Wearing a ragged veteran’s hat and shirt, I hear his dog tags clatter as he passes by. Having just slipped on the wet walkway, and worrying that he might take a tumble on the slick surface, I catch up to him and grab his elbow, cautioning him to take care.
Don’t worry about me, he says with a smile. He stops and makes a sweeping gesture toward the wall – I live here. I spend every day of my life here with my friends.
He asks me where I hail from and when I tell him Ohio, he rattles off these words:
Panel 23W Line 112. Her name was First Lieutenant Sharon Lane and that’s where you can find her name on the wall. She was from Canton, Ohio - the only woman actually killed by enemy fire in Nam. She was hit in the neck by shrapnel at Chu Lai as she was bending over a young Vietnamese girl, pressing a wound to keep her from bleeding to death. 1st Lt. Lane was decorated for bravery and there is a statue of her in Canton. Go there. Go see it.
As this man continues to talk, both of us oblivious to the rain, I realize that over the years he has memorized this wall – not just the names, but the panel and line numbers. He tells me that he spends every day here to honor the fallen, so that they will never be forgotten. I can see that he’s not well, his arms and legs are swollen, his skin mottled, his eyes glazed. He didn’t survive the war either. There are different ways to die – some are quicker than others.
He walks away and I stare at my soaked shoes. I tend to see more clearly in the rain. This man makes me ashamed at how little thought I have given to the intimate price of war – each precious life represented not only on this snaking black wall but at the Korean War memorial, the WWII memorial, in the daily news coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Each life cut short – but their stories living on tortuously in the minds of those who love them, those who trace their names on aging marble or finger photos until the corners curl.
I think of the price of one human life to God – and what the price of one human life should mean to me. Whether it’s a fallen soldier, a holocaust survivor, or another nameless, faceless genocide victim in Darfur.
Thin places always make me think. They teach me to see differently – and they are everywhere, every day, for those who can bear to look.