There is something sacred and magical standing before a new President as he (and one day she) is sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. There is a sense of promise and urgency as we pour, fairly or not, all of our hopes into the vessel of democracy standing before us.
I have done it four times, freezing my toes in the bitter cold, on the grounds below the Capitol steps. I heard Bill Clinton in 1993 urge “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” I heard Barack Obama say in 2009, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Joe Biden, like Abraham Lincoln, will summon us to “strive on to finish the work we are in…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.”
The word “inauguration” derives from the Latin verb, inaugurare, which means to take omens from birds in flight. In the early Roman Republic, emperors relied on augurs, divine soothsayers, before making major decisions, such as when to go to war and whom to nominate to positions of power. If the augurs believed that the flight of birds was favorable it was deemed that the gods had sanctioned the act of man.
I have been watching birds more as of late. The global pandemic has provided that opportunity. I have traded the gym for long walks. I have seen bald eagles and blue herons, but those did not prepare me for snow geese. I chanced upon them while walking on the beach in Rehoboth, tens of thousands of them, bobbing white against the charcoal and indigo aspect of the wintry Atlantic Ocean. I watched as they moved with the current. I watched as thousands of new arrivals landed amidst the throng. Did they know the goose next to them? I watched as thousands took off, not in the familiar vee, but in shimmering ribbons of purpose.
Mary Oliver captured a similar moment in her poem “Snow Geese.” She, like I, had not encountered the snow geese before.
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
This year, we won’t be able to freeze our toes on the Capitol grounds, joining hundreds of thousands across the nation to wish our new President well. We will watch from afar on our screens. It won’t be the same, but it will return one day soon. President Biden and Vice President Harris will gain control of the virus, reinvigorate our economy, and build a nation for all. We will see our families and friends again, sit at cafes, and crowd the summer beaches. The promise of tomorrow will take flight starting with the inauguration and that delight will be the most serious thing we have ever felt.