I never wrote about the day we heard Barack Obama speak. He wasn't President Obama yet (President Obama!), but it was a winter day so much like this one, last February, before the Wisconsin primary. We heard Obama at a small-ish "town hall" gathering in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee. Obama actually came to Oshkosh later that week. But I had a meeting I couldn't skip for the speech, so on February 13, down to Waukesha we drove. We stood in the cold, talking to a woman who had brought her husband-- a Republican-- who was more worried about reactions to his Chicago Bears hat than about his party affiliation. We listened as Obama gave his stump speech-- which I think I practically had memorized after watching the campaign on tv for weeks-- and as he thoughtfully answered questions from the audience. We remained impressed. We were happy.
Above are two pictures from that day-- one of our gorgeous drive back home through snowy fields, the other of then-Senator Obama himself. I've been thinking about photography and history-- and the seams where personal memory and national memory meet-- as I watched the inauguration events this week. At the town hall, I was seated a few rows back-- maybe 50 feet from Obama-- and I probably raised my camera to take a picture about 10 times as he spoke. It felt invasive. It felt a bit rude. As many theorists have noted, there is a kind of violence in "fixing" someone in the camera's gaze. And yet, it was hard NOT to take a picture-- this was my only chance. And so, above, I have the photographic proof that I Was There, for one tiny stop of the 2008 campaign.
I'm not alone. Every television image of Obama working a rope line, or shaking hands after an inaugural celebration, shows people raising their cameras and cell phones high above the crowd, clicking away. Even Malia Obama has been busy recording what she sees, fixing things in time.
Photographs remind us where we are, where we've been. I have missed New York and DC a bit this week. I've thought of all of the people I knew there, the places I have stood there. In the online edition of the times, I looked at an image of the Columbia campus in the snow, students gathered on the steps, watching the oath. On flickr, there was a picture of our old neighborhood in Washington Heights.
It's sunset here in Oshkosh, on a day that was crisp and cold-- very similar temperatures to what was reported for DC, except that here, this weather feels good and like a bit of a thaw to me. I watched the ceremonies with a mix of emotion and a critical gaze. But it was hard to remain aloof when I heard the strains of "Air and Simple Gifts"--because that folk melody reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager, listening to "Appalachian Spring," thinking of ideas that I thought were new and simple and grand (they are old things, really, and not simple or necessarily grand). It was hard to be cynical about the inaugural address, even while I mentally tried to "unpack" it, hard not to be moved by "our patchwork heritage," by the return of science, by the idea that now perhaps our government at least will not torture, will not kill so much as it does. It was hard not to think of my grandparents, those I knew and those I did not meet, and all of the others before them... the ones who crossed oceans, as Obama said today, or, in Tony Kushner's phrasing, "the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania," the woman "who carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat....You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist."
I cried hearing Elizabeth Alexander's luminous "praise song for the day." In my head, I try to balance "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce..." with "A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
But most of all, I was moved by the imagery of winter: by the evocation of Washington in winter at the end of President Obama's speech, by the "sharp sparkle" in Alexander's poem. This second winter in Wisconsin I have tried to embrace the winter, to take in the cold, and to remind myself that it is both beautiful and finite. On campus today, surrounded by snow, I had to take a picture.... to mark the day.... of my own memory-object in the sparkling snow. I don't have any illusions that the country is suddenly ok, that any president can meet emotions and expectations as grandiose as those we place on this one. Still, I hope, mingling my memories of last February's cold drive with the cold brisk air I inhaled today, that we can ....begin.
Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes: "it's late, but everything comes next."