Spring in Washington Is About More Than Bills and Laws

Washington wasn't asleep while Congress was away.

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The Washington Monument is seen in the backdrop as tourist enjoy the cherry blossoms on April 8, 2013.

While Congress slept, other elements of spring in Washington sprang, popped and spoke up to be heard. Truthfully, it was nice for those who really live here to get in a word edgewise during the Easter recess. The cherry blossoms aren't yet at their April peak, floating in a sea of pale pink around the Tidal Basin, framing the Jefferson memorial but hey, who cares? They slow us down, in a place that moves too fast. 

It just so happens that the Women's History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress was talking about those blooms in March. The festival started in 1912, an ethereal gift from Japan. As you might suspect, a visionary woman stands in the backstory, unrecognized in this city of marble monuments to men.

I'm happy to say Eliza R. Scidmore, a friend of first lady Helen Taft, "helped introduce the idea of planting flowering cherries along the Potomac River," the WHDG update advises. A National Geographic board member and an author, this distinguished lady is the one to thank - thanks for the unpaid landscape design, Eliza!

A member of the group, Diana Parsell, shared her research findings in a lunch room of one's own in the elaborate building named for Thomas Jefferson. In death as in life, he's inescapable, everywhere. When the British burned down the library in 1814, he sold – not gave – his own library to the young republic.

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Here's a dialogue a young black man who was "locked up" in this town voiced, ricocheting off the Declaration of Independence:

Pursuit of happiness? Anyone know the path?

How can you value or cherish something you never had?
-"I Gotta Make It" by DC That's a pretty good question in 2013, for a lofty promise in 1776. 

He read that aloud in honor of April as national poetry month. The "On the Same Page"  reading by young African-American men took place in the Old Naval Hospital, one Metro stop away from the Capitol. But that world of power and privilege might as well be the moon. For they've been incarcerated, done hard time as a chunk of their adulthood. And they are old enough to feel the loss of life chances:  In a poem titled College, another young man named PJ read aloud:

In college I can study black history, but behind bars, my people are a mystery.

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On the inside, they learned how to write poetry in the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop. The PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program at the District of Columbia Jail (and the adult prison) teaches ways to express their personal stories of change through poetry, said Tara Libert, Free Minds executive director. A community dialogue also took place, she said, a rare forum to hear how these young men got in trouble and to discuss the root causes of youth incarceration.

Meanwhile, restless without a job, Hillary Clinton showed up as an honoree at a gala given by the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international women's leadership program. Will she or won't she? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think she thinks her manifest destiny lies in 2016. Her secretary of state post has done her a "world" of good. See how cool Washington can be, given some peace from the sound of men in the House? 

You could almost hear the planes landing at the airport, carrying Congress back as Yo-Yo Ma serenaded a full concert hall with the transcendent notes of his cello. As a "citizen musician," he exuberantly laid out a system of getting young people engaged in the arts, highbrow or not, which he is conducting in Chicago. Like Libert, he believes the arts can transform communities. "Art for Life's Sake" was the title of his talk.

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Then he invited out onto the stage some wounded Marine warriors who participate in a music rehab program at Walter Reed, the national military medical center. The world-famous cellist then played with a pianist, Arthur Bloom, who created MusiCorps, and several guitar players as a young white man, a veteran, started singing the saddest song you've ever heard.               

Missing a few limbs, the singer had a voice that rose to the rafters with the words: "I've got to journey on....to cross the wide, wide river." There was also a line about finding what he had lost. And then 2,000 people suddenly apprehended the plaintive triumph of the human spirit.

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Mrs. Victoria Kennedy, the senator's widow, was resplendent in red as she said a few words about Ma and the 26th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. They showed genuine friendship and warmth, and Ma declared Senator Kennedy had inspired him to take up public service. As a happy matter of fact, I noted that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (the father of my editor Robert) gave the first Nancy Hanks Lecture in 1988.

On a dark spring note, the NRA prepared to take down anti- gun violence measures in Congress. They've lined up their ducks in a row. Starting today, we'll know if they have their way – again.

And that's how we spent our spring vacay! 

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