I didn’t exactly plan out the trip. One email conversation with a friend — “Were you serious when you said I could visit? Great, when?” — and one plane ticket later, I flew into Washington, D.C., with carry-on luggage and a vague notion of “seeing the sights.”
I wanted to see my friend, a grad student at GW University studying something to do with math (I’d explain it if I understood it), and I wanted to see the city — after all, it’s the epicenter of the national history I’ve been learning and re-learning since preschool.
Part of the fun of it, though, is seeing the city through my friend’s eyes, with my friend’s soundtrack: “Here’s the best breakfast in the area, and it’s not too far from the Smithsonian, and we might need to stop at the farmer’s market —”
I’d like to think I take everything in with wide-eyed wonder, like the kid sitting next to me as we whirl across galaxies in the Air and Space Museum’s iMax theatre. In reality, I probably just stop talking and forget to blink. There’s too much information for me to take in; I don’t have anywhere to keep it. I honestly don’t know how much I retained.
The old and new, side by side — I’ll remember that. Heat-weathered brick buildings and fading documents behind temperature-controlled glass, tucked next to shiny-new bookstores and enviable street style. Fresh people and words jutting up against history and structure. Old city with new breath; I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, no matter where I go.
My friend takes me to the National Gallery of Art. We jump from a photography exhibit to a gallery of 1600s paintings, and I keep absentmindedly stepping close to the canvases to squint at details. It doesn’t work with paintings; I end up with blotted paint a few inches from my nose. I have to back up before I can see it at all.
In a coffee shop we start talking, perhaps a bit too loudly with too many hand motions, and a woman with a laptop turns and says, “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” and then the three of us are hammering out a reading list of Russian literature while our drinks warm to room temperature.
I have snapshot memories, and I’m always trying to step back far enough to see the whole. I’m not sure I want to anymore, at least not always. Sometimes the pieces have to stand on their own.
We walk through the memorials at night — reading all the quotations on the walls of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s; meandering across the sprawling expanse of FDR’s. It’s a longer walk than I expected: despite my best efforts to think lofty historical thoughts, shoe blisters and humidity keep me tied firmly to the present.
When I get back to Worthington I am exhausted. I drag myself to a class I volunteer for at West Learning Center, where I practice American history test questions with an immigrant applying for U.S. citizenship.
“What did Martin Luther King, Jr., do?” I ask. She stares ahead in concentration. She’s learning how to pronounce and understand the word “amendment” at the same time.
What’s history to me is new to her.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.