If the first nineteen days of 2021 could be viewed as an unwelcome extension of the miserable year that preceded it, the long, harmful hangover of 2020, they maybe this past Wednesday was finally the point when the headache lifted and the queasiness subsided. Without forgetting hard lessons learned — and holding accountable those who have wrought extreme damage — it is time to begin again, striving to make each day better and to embrace the promise of we hold collectively as a nation. For me, the clear turning point — the lifting of the fog and the emergence of healing sunlight — was not the official installation of a new U.S. president, nor even the overdue evacuation of the dull-witted bigot who was inexplicably allowed to sully our highest office for four full years. It was when a young poet named Amanda Gorman stepped to the microphone in front of the U.S. Capitol and began to speak.
After too many years where the prevailing expression of our national character was marked by rancor, selfishness, and ugly prejudice, Gorman redirected the narrative with elegance and strength. She did not look away from our wounds, directly addressing the carnage rained on that very site a mere two weeks earlier. Like a real patriot, a true believer in the precious promise of this messy county of endless and often thwarted possibility, Gorman addressed our shortcomings as a means of reminding us all that we can transcend them. In his long ago inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln called upon the “better angels of our nature,” a plea echoed by Barack Obama when it was time to take his oath. In writing and delivering her poem, Gorman didn’t call on the better angels of our nature; she embodied them.
A little more than three years ago, in a New York Times profile, Gorman offered a promise that I suspect a lot of people are excited to hold her to:
I’m hardly alone in my inspiration. Among the happily staggered is Rostam, who responded in his own artistic language, repeatedly listening to Gorman’s speech as he sat at his piano, improvising music that matched the swelling of his heart as he heard the words and intonations. It is a lovely accompaniment, responding humbly and graciously to transcendent power of Gorman’s work.