The sun is coming up and I am running.
It glints off of the white sandstone, shipped from Colorado a century ago and then formed into colonnades rife with history and symbolism. They surround a man, or the representation of a man, larger than life but only a fraction of the size of his influence when he walked this earth nearly two hundred years ago. He sits ever still, ever silent, watching the thousands of people who pass in front of him every day, as we remember what he was and what he stood for.
This morning I skip every other step as I run to the top, the low light casting long shadows from Abraham Lincoln’s memorial across the street behind it. I am standing in front of him now, staring into his worry-worn and carefully carved face, surrounded by the walls containing his greatest speeches, the beliefs he acted on in life and died for in the end. What a debt is owed this man, a debt that no monument, no great statue or long chapters in history books could repay. It’s as if I can feel him, watching me, the only one standing here during this quiet daybreak hour. Thank you for the life you gave.
I turn and run down the steps as orange light shimmers and bends in the Reflection Pool stretching in front of me. There is a long black wall to my left, shaped like an open wound and etched with the names of so many whose lives extinguished too early. How different their war, how different their cause, and yet they are remembered on a small plot of land so close to the nation’s greatest Civil War hero. But their monument does not tower above the city, or glint in the morning’s nascent light; instead it hides tucked into the ground, bowing like a weeping widow left alone and quiet at her husband’s graveside. There is only grief here, the names not a glorification of heroes who died a proud death, but a plea that who they were, their faces and their voices and their brief moments on earth, not be forgotten. My breath catches in my throat as I run by what feels more like a graveyard than a memorial.
Birds sing as I leave this dark corner of the park for the tallest monument, like a lighthouse to the rest of the nation’s Capitol, drawing citizens to the city center. It seems to grow larger as I pass the World War II Memorial, a spot whose fountain hints of regeneration and hope, but whose stars along the wall remind us of all that we lost during those years. Then across the street and finally up the hill, where the sun glints behind the Washington Monument, turning it into a giant shadow against the morning glow. The surrounding flags wave lazily in the breeze, and the great stone structure reaches to the sky, devoid of any human image, yet barely big enough to emulate the achievements of the man for which it is named. What selflessness, what service, what a sense of duty and moral conviction characterized this man. No effigy could suffice to explain him, to represent everything he was and everything he still is to us who live here. And so we have this tower, majestic in its own right but cloaked in the nobility of the man whose name it bears and the momentous age in which he lived. What a man, to stand worthy of such a building.
I leave the park’s main landscape and cross paths overhung with twisted limbs wet from last night’s rain. Across the tidal pool my route peeks through the trees, revealing the occasional stone monument and exalted figure, my country’s history and heritage immortalized over just a few miles. Soon the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s memorial emerge along the path in front of me, and as I climb the steps, his bronze figure appears, gazing over my head and across the water behind me. The walls display his words, those weapons he wielded to win such great battles in his time, treatises on freedom and human rights and the lofty role of the government in the service of the people. He was only a man, and yet, how would this place, this country, this world be different had he not stepped outside his role as a man and created a nation? When I picture him as he lived all those years ago, I see him like the statue in front of me, nineteen feet tall and shrouded in quiet dignity, more god than mortal. But he was not; he was a man, a man who rose to the call of an age whose events would echo throughout eternity. The relics of his life are carved into these walls so that we will remember, and maybe so that, if such an age comes again, we, too, will rise to its call.
The soft tap of my shoes against the stone walls is the only sound that pierces the quiet of the morning as I run down the back steps. I round a corner and George Mason’s statue comes into view, tucked away from the road and protected by a modest fountain. His words surround him also, the Virginia Declaration of Rights and his fight for the abolition of slavery during our nation’s inception. Unlike the others, Mason’s monument comes with a posted explanation, a few paragraphs describing his life and accomplishments, including praise from Jefferson labeling him the greatest thinker of their time. Why, then, does this man’s unassuming likeness sit poised on a park bench, off the beaten path and largely unknown to the visiting public? His legacy has carried through the ages, but with a much quieter voice and smaller audience. I marvel that the man who crafted the document upon which the Bill of Rights was later based stands in the shadows of those who were once his peers. But his convictions placed him in stark disagreement with the United States Constitution, which omitted a guarantee of many of those rights Mason felt paramount. He refused his signature on that great document, and would not condone the new government until the passage of the Bill of Rights years later. Perhaps it was for this he faded into the background, a man more concerned with what was right than how many future generations would speak his name. My heart swells with pride to be in the presence of such an American, whose insides were made of the stuff of real men, whose moral fortitude would lay the groundwork for a truly free nation. I try to speak my thanks to him, but mere words seem empty here. I tear my eyes away and move further down the path.
Soon I am winding through a garden of stone walls and quiet fountains, the sunshine just beginning to light the engraved words of the man who led us through the Great Depression, through the Second World War, who connected with the American people like no president before him. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s garden traces his presidency through its many twists and turns, through the vastly different eras during which all people looked to him for leadership. How the world wept when he died, and how strange to think that not many years have passed since then; how wonderful to know that great men walked among us then, and still walk among us today.
Twenty more years pass before the next memorial, a walkway leading to a great figure, arms crossed, staring over the sun-kissed water, seeing something that is not yet but he knows will one day be. Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope . . . What a tribulation for our nation, and what a divisive figure, not in what he taught but in the way the people received it. Yet he still taught, and marched, and spoke and preached and prayed and cried and though Martin Luther King, Jr., may not have lived to see it, his work on earth turned this country into what it should have been from the beginning. And today we remember him for this, for his courage and his conviction that something better lay waiting for us.
My road winds back through the trees to the Reflection Pool and towards the Lincoln Memorial, passing the statues of men laden with radios and weapons, a re-creation of those brave souls who marched through the rain and gunfire during the Korean War. I continue down the path and soon I have left the grounds of our nation’s greatest men, thinkers and soldiers and leaders who fostered and defended our nation from the moment it was born and throughout the ages. The shadows of their monuments are shorter now, and the beginnings of the crowds are arriving. The spirits of these men whose statues I leave behind run with me as I cover the final miles on this summer morning. I admire them, marvel at them, at their ability to rise up out of the mire and become such a great, important presence during a great, important age. Do the times create men like these, or do men like these triumph no matter the times? Would we know their names if they had lived a hundred years earlier, a hundred years later? Their statues, four, five, ten times the size of the men themselves, are scarcely enough to depict their influence as it rings through history. Were these men integral to the events they spawned, or could those same events have unfolded with different names attached?
Certainly the abilities of these men, their intelligence and conviction, separated them from their contemporaries, and from the majority of humanity throughout history. But many people possess these same qualities, an able and critical mind and an empathy for humanity that allows unshakable morality to take root in a man’s soul. I listen to my footsteps echo off the surrounding concrete and think that maybe what made those particular men set in stone behind me different from all the others was not their intelligence or mastery of the written word or admirable war strategies, but instead their indomitable courage. How many of us see the world as it really is, the pain and the beauty and the suffering and the triumph, and think, I know how to make this better? But then we cower, we shy away from the prospect of stepping out, stepping up, and acting. Perhaps it is fear of ridicule, or failure, or uncertainty; perhaps it is wariness of the difficulty and the effort required without promise of reward.
I am convinced the courage that made the founders and defenders of our nation into timeless figures lies within all of us. Dormant, perhaps, or ill-used, but there, nonetheless. I think about our time, this age of violence and anger and strife between friends and amongst families. I wonder if there is something to be done, and if there are any courageous people out there to do it if there is. I see us at a turning point, a time when we fight anew against tyranny, against hate . . . a different manifestation, perhaps, than what we have seen before, but just as dangerous. We stand on the cusp of a moment that will call for greatness, for those who will refuse to accept the flow of events and will instead build a bridge or a dam or simply jump out and swim with all their might. Will we be those people? Will I be that person? Will this age exhume the living, breathing heroes from our midst? Do I have the courage?
My feet pound against the pavement and I keep running forward.