Posted by: MC | March 10, 2009

Sustainability and Joy

11th & E, NW
Washington, DC

A small pastel bouquet of balloons – green, pink, yellow, white – just floated toward the sky between the Hotel Harrington and the ESPN Building. I can’t tell where they came from, and now can no longer see where they’ve gone.

Pastel balloons don’t really fit here. Compared with the communities I’ve visited across the South, more people here are wearing black and walking quickly. Every third one has a cell phone visibly in hand. The sidewalks are wide. The trees are tucked into small gaps in the concrete at regular but ungenerous intervals.

It’s a city.

Our Nation’s Capitol.

These are serious streets in a place of serious business, so there seems no good explanation for a pastel cluster of balloons. As if to beg the question, the helium nosegay dipped several times down toward the street before lifting from sight. With each dip, I wondered if the orbs bobbing between the fifth and sixth story were somehow attached – a whimsical way of lifting attention from street level, of lifting the mood a bit.

My memories of DC, from my first visit with my sister and mom when I was 11, through the early 90’s when I came here regularly for American Psychological Association committee work and again over the past six years for work with the Institute for Tribal Government and the Office of Indian Education – those memories are consistent with what I see here today. Lots of grown ups – evidence of competence and focus. That’s a good thing. This place is for that combination.

Then came this morning. I stepped off the Metro and on to the National Mall. I looked west to the Washington Monument the east to the Capitol. Both, reassuringly, were still there and I found myself taking a deep breath – a relaxing breath. As I began walking into the city north of the mall I had a strong sense of something different – a slight shift in the feel of the place.

Efficacy remains everywhere in evidence; and pride – both in the clean, coiffed stretch of the Mall and extending across its skirt of urbanity. Yet even in its quicker city pace, even with technology so close in hand, there are more clusters of people chatting as they navigate the sidewalks. The line at Starbucks seems to move a bit more slowly without the usual tension/flip-outs of bureaucratic anxiety. And there are pastel balloons.

This morning on the Orange Line of the Metro a man in a suit stood up to take a photo of his 9 year old son, also in a suit, seated on the train and joyfully plugged in to his IPOD. I noticed the dad had earphones in too and offered to take a photo of the two of them “dressed alike.” This led to one of those perfect on-the-train conversations – the dad/son dyad from Boulder, CO and Bear Creek Elementary School.

Dad beamed as he described their day’s work: Attending the ceremony at the Capitol where they would accept for their school the 2008 James L. Oberstar Award – prestigious recognition given annually by The National Center for Safe Routes to School.
“Seventy percent of the kids at our school walk or bike every day,” Dad said. Son beamed. “It’s all about reducing our dependency on cars,” he said, “and about the kids teaching the whole community by example.” Son beamed. “That’s change,” Dad said as we all stood to get off at the Smithsonian station. Then he said, “We’re going to the Washington Monument, first.”

The dignified dyad stepped off the escalator. The smaller one skipped a step, then another one. They turned left, both of them winding up the cords of their earphones and, in unison, tucking them into their pockets.

Maybe the mood has lifted a bit here in DC. Maybe there’s a little more room for pastel balloons, for joy alongside agency in the face of challenges like sustainable transportation practices in urgent environmental and economic circumstances. Maybe the combined presence of joy and action is a key to the change Americans are talking about these days.

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