Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tuesday night, Grant Park, Chicago....

Wow.

It's sunk in for a couple of days now, and I am still grinning ear-to-ear like a loon, wanting to hug random strangers, feeling the sense of hope that had been absent for years. We have plodded along these past eight years, yes, we've survived, that is the human spirit. To have cause to celebrate, though, and to hold our heads high as a nation, to have hope for the future, this is something that has wasted away all these years, drained from us. Tuesday night, we got our fill again, and we cried, rejoiced, swooned at what was unfolding in front of our eyes. I know some of my lefty peers are decidedly reserved in their excitement about Obama: I understand this, and, living in Illinois, I felt I could play with my vote a little, so I voted for the candidate with the values and politics that are closer to reflecting my own. (Hint: it wasn't McCain, for chrissake, and it wasn't the libertarian.) Still, even if you take this other candidate's policies, Obama is the better one for the job: he is who we need on the world stage, starting as soon as possible, to help turn things around. (Really, Mr. Bush can take early leave if he wants and not let that White House door hit him on his ass on the way out. Actually, it's fine with me if the door hits him. Repeatedly.) Obama has the tact, diplomacy, confidence, intelligence and poise needed. A better candidate couldn't be created in a laboratory: he is genetically engineered for this job and, I believe, to do it well.

So, some recollections, observations and snapshots of Tuesday, from Grant Park in Chicago.

*My friend lives in a beautiful condo in the South Loop and rented out the party room of her building. Woo-hoo! John and I made our way downtown around 6:00 after dropping off our son at his grandma's place. Riding on a packed green line train, things looked eerily quiet downtown until we rounded the corner after State and Lake. Looking to the east as our train sped on, crowds had started massing.

We got off at the Roosevelt stop, bordering the southern end of Grant Park, and we immediately looked in the direction of Lake Michigan: crowds were gathering. CTA workers in uniform and police officers assembled around the train station in full force. Out on the street, we passed three officers on the short walk to my friend's place, they (very uncharacteristically) smiled at us; I instinctively reached into my tray and handed them each a vegan mini-cupcake with Obama topper, which they cheerfully accepted. One smiled at his buddies and said, "See? This is what I'm talking about!"

* In the party room at my friend's condo, it was a festive mood to be sure. When we had arrived, the very first returns were up and in McCain's favor. It didn't dampen anyone's spirit. As we helped ourselves to some very good election night victuals, the picture we were all expecting started to emerge: state after state, boom-boom-boom!, started being called for Obama. These were big states, small states, battleground states, all contributing to his burgeoning electoral lead, one after another. We cheered and cried and hugged and ate more cupcakes.

* For me, the turning point was not Ohio but Pennsylvania. I know that it was expected to go in Obama's favor, but it seemed to be such a divided state, I was unsure which side would prevail. Hearing that PA was being called for Obama gave me a huge surge of optimism, almost making me fearful that I would just explode right there like a light bulb with too much energy shot through it.

* With all the new gadgetry, people at the party were also busy texting and receiving messages from their home states (we had Missouri, Ohio, Maryland, Minnesota and others representing). It was an unforgettable moment having one woman breathlessly read from her device (I-Phone? BlackBerry?) that Ohio had been called for Obama and then, three seconds later, Charles Gibson announced that there was breaking news: Ohio had just been called for Obama. Again, we screamed, whooped, hollered, cried, hugged. Even those of us who expected this victory were in disbelief at the rawness of what we felt as tears streamed down our faces: we were witness to a miracle unfolding in real-time. It was time to hit the streets!

* Outside, a couple blocks to our east on Chicago's storied Michigan Avenue, the energy was absolutely palpable. There was a huge line of people still waiting to get past the checkpoints into the ticketed area of Grant Park, and many, many more in every direction, just there to be a part of the experience. People were crying, singing and slapping hands together everywhere around me.

* A voice called out my name and it was my friend, Linda. We hugged and jumped and ran in a happy bunch of circles together. This is my friend who is a vegan raw foods chef and a world traveler; she is also an activist, and we have met up many times in the bitterest of Chicago winters to raise our voices together and march against war. We were breathless and ecstatic at the reality of it: finally our side had amassed for a celebration rather than a protest. Finally, after eight long, wretched years.

* Right when we were in front of the Chicago Hilton Tower on Michigan, a new wave of euphoria passed through the crowd, and people started screaming again, hugging, crying. What? What? John and I turned to the people around us - what happened? CNN had called it for Obama right as we stood in front of the hotel where activists had rioted forty years before. Again, tears, embracing and unbelievable gratitude.

* We finally found a place for ourselves between Jumbotrons where we had decent (though distant) sightlines and could hear the speakers, which was a little discombobulating because we were between two or three and there was a delay. Still, the essence of what was said got through to us loud and clear: this was a historic, remarkable day, one that would certainly be remembered. We were actively participating in an historic event, something that was not lost on us, something we felt very deeply.

* After the acceptance speech, another electrifying experience, I was depleted but in a good way. We, along with hundreds of thousands of others, started walking west. There was this overarching sense of afterglow, of cuddly, post-coital embrace and peace. In talking to my friends there, we all felt the same way: perfectly unified, calm, just right after such an exciting night. As we filed past the vendors with buttons and t-shirts, a peaceful, happy crowd of every imaginable creed, that catchy old Schoolhouse Rock song, The Great American Melting Pot, kept playing in my head. Never had I seen it so clearly in front of me. From the jubilant African American teenagers to the gray-haired lefties with their buttons, young couples kissing and Indians in saris, it was one beautiful, beaming, tear-streaked face after the next. Truly, it was the sort of thing that turns a writer into a Hallmark card sentimentalist. I think I may need an edgy experience just to put add a little angst back into my internal stew but I have a feeling that life will just do that on its own soon enough without my seeking it out. In any case, it is very much a healing thing and I'm enjoying it very much.

* We made our way back to my friend's place to reboot a little, clean and gather our belongings. We shared our stories and basked in the collective euphoria. Some friends - not big crowd lovers - had stayed behind and straightened up. I am thankful to know such good people.

* On the train back home, we ran into my son's gym teacher. It was around 1:15 in the morning. Everyone on our train car was smiling, friendly, warm.

* We finally collapsed into bed, happy and content. I slept hard that night, I think, without dreams and woke in the morning to a lingering sense of contented peacefulness, something I haven't felt in ages.

And so now I must again go to sleep. It is 3:30 in the morning and my son has to be at school at 8:30 for his class picture. Life goes on. (Very sweetly, though, every time I am on the phone with a friend, my son wants to get on the line and let him or her know that Obama won.) But I will say this: life has changed from just a couple of days ago. We have a sense of hope again, finally. We have been liberated. We must now take this dream and make it a reality. All is not perfect, of course: the bigots prevailed and gay marriage was roundly rejected. We still have troops in the Middle East, and we must demand their withdrawal and phase into rebuilding efforts, a new consciousness of peace work. Even with Obama, we must work hard to create the sort of country we want to live in, a more compassionate, truly diverse country that can send ripples in all directions. At least now we are at a good starting point. I truly believe that this good work does not so much originate in Washington but in our home communities: this is how it vibrates out. Let's go into this next administration ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work. But for a moment, let's rest and dream.

We deserve this.

Shalom, everyone.

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