It happened the moment those four hundred lamps, representing the 400,000 American lives lost to the COVID-19 virus, illuminated the reflecting pool between the Washington monument and the Lincoln Memorial. I exhaled. I wept. I dropped my shoulders. I closed my eyes. I felt as though I had been received in a comforting hug, or been offered the gentle hand of a loving and supportive friend. Into my head popped a verse from Tehillim (Psalms): “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn, joy” (30:6).
Don’t get me wrong: The Biden Administration’s National COVID Memorial did not solve anything. Not infection rates, not the ableism that treats people as disposable, not the refusal to wear masks, not systemic discrimination.
But what the memorial did for me, and I hope, our nation here in the U.S., was to ritualize our trauma, create a container for unexpressed grief, and frame this virus not as a series of individual misfortunes, but as a collective experience that requires a collective response.
Sometimes, we move too quickly to joy, to celebration, to relief. We move in that direction because we desperately need to be able to hope in a future that will erase the oppression and the despair and the suffering of the past.
The thing is, those of us who have been overlooked and oppressed, those of us who have been in grief and despair, those of us who have been read as “angry” but who are drowning in the task of daily fighting systems that desperately try to destroy us, masquerading as “the way it just is” — we need the weeping and the wailing. We need to be able to look to our right and to our left and to see others, tears in their eyes, bearing their own burdens, and saying, nonetheless, The waters rise at our sides, but the strip of land before us is dry, let’s keep going.
I am not suggesting that we cry for those who have died due to our nation’s inaction, and then get up in the morning refreshed and happy again. Nor am I suggesting that the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris marks the end to despair, or suffering, or oppression. My exhale on Tuesday evening, and the joy I indeed felt in hearing Amanda Gorman recite “The Hill We Climb” and in hearing our new President cite that same verse from Tehillim — those do not portend the quick solution to all our nation’s problems, nor a vaccine against infection, or prejudice, or hopelessness.
Tuesday night was designed to loosen our tears and break open our hearts so that we could hear the imperfect message of Wednesday morning, delivered most poignantly, skillfully, honestly, and inspiringly by our young Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, in “The Hill We Climb”:
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
In the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow, we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished.
An unfinished nation, an imperfect union, desperately needs a night of weeping. We needed to hear a “skinny Black girl” acknowledge that sea through which so many wade while others sail atop the waters, oblivious to the suffering around them. We needed to hear an elected President name those “cascading crises of our era,” relentlessly poured on us, and not on us all equally. As the ceremony came to a close, we needed to to hear the contradiction, to acknowledge the pain of just how imperfect our union is, in the benediction of Rev. Silverster Bearman:
This is our benediction: that from these hallowed grounds, where slaves labored to build this shrine to liberty and democracy, let us all acknowledge from the indigenous Native Americans to those who recently received their citizenship, from the African-American to those whose parents came from Europe and every corner of the globe, from the wealthy to those struggling to make it, from every human being […], that this is our country as such. Teach us […] to live in it […]
The message President Biden delivered, the message of those haunting lamps, the message of holding the inauguration on the steps of a building erected by those our own nation enslaved, the message of a Black Poet Laureate, and of the first woman and the first Asian-American Vice President — the message, indeed of Tehillim — were the words that opened Tuesday evening’s memorial: “To heal, we must remember.”
Even as President Biden called for “unity,” he did not call for erasure or white-washing or minimizing the pain we have experienced. And, though I myself sighed in relief and release on Tuesday night, and cried the tears of joy in the morning, we have not yet done the work of collectively remembering all that we must remember before we can heal. The President named just a few of them:
A raging virus.
The sting of systemic racism.
A climate in crisis.
America’s role in the world.
The Psalm that entered my mind as I experienced the National COVID Memorial, the Psalm recited by The West Wing’s fictional President Jed Bartlett, the Psalm that President Biden invoked in his Inaugural Address, it’s Psalm 30. Biden offered this translation: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
Well, Psalm 30 begins with an introduction that tells us, perhaps, its original purpose:
מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃
Mizmor, shir chanukat habayit, l’David.
A psalm, a song for the dedication of the house, of David.
A prayer and a poem and a verse of joyful song, then, for the dedication of the Temple, a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people in its time, and a symbol of the ongoing project of learning what it means to be a human being in this world, imperfect and striving and created in the image of Something Eternal and Lasting and Divine.
A psalm, in 2021, for the dedication of the house that is our nation.
Joy comes in the morning, yes, but it doesn’t mean we forget the night. It doesn’t mean the seawater evaporates from our bodies and our hair and our clothing without leaving its salt behind. And there is still work ahead. There is light that peeks over the horizon, but it is not a light that will come inevitably, miraculously. It is, rather, the light we are called to be.