It’s impossible to spend a week in Washington D.C. without thinking about important people.
In so many of the famous (and beautiful) buildings, there are statues and paintings that pay homage to the historical figures that formed this country. There are monuments to some of the best ones.
As I toured the capitol building and paused outside the White House, there was a sense of gravity knowing that the people inside those places were taking actions that could affect the way all of us live. As I walked the streets, I saw motorcades, police escorts, and secret service agents.
But my week was spent with some people that were important in unexpected ways, too.
I spent time with a friend who for a short time many years ago became part of our family while she was in law school. Now she lives and works in D.C. As a young woman she was tragically widowed, yet she is generous, kind, hardworking, and caring. She has a wonderful laugh that I heard often in our time together as we talked far into the nights. I admire her resiliency, her refusal to be bitter. Living life forward instead of looking backward? That’s important.
I traveled with friends, fellow volunteers who are dreaming of expanding our little writing center here in Door County. So we left our regular commitments, paid our own way to attend seminars to learn from others, and took turns manning a booth. We spread out during the day, talked over dinner at night. These are people who want to make our corner of the world better. We want to help kids and adults tell their stories because we know the stories of ordinary people are not ordinary; each is valuable, important.
I spent four days attending an AWP conference where 12,000 writers, publishers, and teachers gathered to discuss and learn, speak and listen. As you might imagine, these artsy, academic types were worried about our new administration. But with articulate and beautiful words, the message of those days was that truth is what this nation needs. Words and art and beauty can save us and heal us; reading and writing and thinking are the tools to build back up what hatred and fear and anger tear down. Literature shows us ourselves and teaches us empathy for those who are different. So those 12,000 people who go back to their classrooms to talk about literature or back to their manuscripts to write with beauty and truth? They seemed pretty important.
On the way to the city, I sat next to a congressman on the plane. He needed to buckle his seat belt just like I did; he did not seem extraordinary. I appreciate his willingness to talk policy with me, and sadly, he gave me pat and practiced answers and seemed stuck in his party’s line. So I didn’t change his mind on any issue upon which we disagreed (which was just about every issue we discussed.) His “important” position did not dazzle me.
Instead, the people that impressed me were the ordinary people who have decided to raise their voices, to do good with their “little” lives. One of the week’s highlights was listening to a speech by Azar Nafisi. An “ordinary” professor in Iran several years ago when tyranny came to power, she disobeyed their decrees. When her gov’t banned education for women; she taught anyway, at great risk to her life. In her key note speech, she inspired us to do what is right when the world around us does wrong. See a clip of an interview with her at AWP here.
Yes, the people in Washington D.C. have power, but so do we. The people who give their time and their money to volunteer, the people who rise up from tragedy and refuse to be bitter, the dads and moms that teach their kids to be kind, the churches that welcome in strangers, the teachers that make sure our kids are reading, the artists that build our culture by giving us beauty: these people are also important.
We cannot think that our voices and actions are insignificant. Complacency and silence will ruin us. Our lives, too, are important. Every bit as important as the ones in Washington, D.C.