The Soul of Washington

By Pythia Peay

On the evening of January 6th, I was with my daughter-in-law and two-year-old grandson, helping out while my son was away.  Along with the rest of the country, we watched in shock and disbelief as live footage of the Capitol insurrection began to unfold. When my phone began blaring an emergency alert, announcing that a curfew would soon be going into effect, I raced to my car. In the days following, the streets and sidewalks of Alexandria, the Virginia suburb where I live, were noticeably empty. Down by the Potomac River waterfront, I was startled to see a Coast Guard Cutter, anchored motionless in the water, facing the direction of the Capital downriver. Behind it was a smaller craft—with a shadowy figure seated behind a machine gun. Not since 9/11, when I watched an Army tank roll down the road in front of my house, had I felt such fear.

As events of that infamous day  begin to be adjudicated on a political and legal level, life in the Washington area has, for the most part, settled back into its every day, Covid-protected routines. Still—as the nation absorbs gripping accounts from lawmakers who sheltered within the U.S. Capitol during the riot, and from the Capitol Police who did their courageous best to protect them—a lingering trauma remains. If there is a redemptive dimension to this tragedy, it may be that it has brought home the city’s significance in our collective American story.

 

By Tyler Merbler - https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/50812356151/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98641393

Washington, D.C., a diamond-shaped area selected by George Washington, and carved out between Maryland and Virginia, carries a double identity: it is both a city and the nation’s seat of government. Projected upon by people from around the country and the world, it is by turn, a place of political corruption, a place where laws are enacted and democracy upheld, a popular tourist destination, a place of protests and marches, and a community where people eat, dance, walk, worship, and raise their families.  For the thirty-five years I have lived  here, I have come to deeply love and enjoy the Washington area. Here I have found meaning, inspiration—and a profound sense of home and belonging.

I didn’t always feel that way. Indeed, in the mid-1980s, when I first moved to a Maryland suburb in the D.C. area, I felt, as if I had died and gone to hell. In my thirties and married with young children, I had lived most of my adult life in enchanted settings. There was Northern California in the seventies (and I in my early twenties), still redolent with the counterculture. I had arrived by invitation from my soon-to-be-husband, enchanted by his stories of the grand horse farm where he lived in Novato, north of the city, with his parrot Sami. Yes, he was surrounded by acres of rolling green hills. But the house was more like a ramshackle cabin, with tiny frogs that came out of the faucet, and a constant parade of guests. No matter: so thrilled was I to be there that it seemed an emerald palace.

After I became pregnant, my husband and I—still struggling in our early twenties—moved to a room over a garage in Fairfax, California. There was a tiny bathroom, and room for a bed on the floor, where my first son was born, delivered by a midwife. From there we moved up the ladder into a spiritually oriented, communal house in San Anselmo, where I had two more home births.

As the Seventies faded into the Eighties, we moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the first time, we had our very own home: a salmon-colored adobe house, with an expansive view and flaming sunsets and sunrises over the mystical desert landscape.  I fell in love; the Spanish, Mexican and Indian cultures fed my sense of history. While California had always felt like a way station to somewhere else, Santa Fe felt like my soul’s home; the place I had always been meant to be. It was also where I began to write, interviewing local authors and thinkers—including John Ehrlichman of Watergate fame and George R.R. Martin, pre “Game of Thrones.”

So accustomed was I to moving that, five years later, when my husband got a job offer in Washington, D.C.—one that was too good for us to refuse—I brushed off my feelings of anxiety. After loading a moving van, and waving goodbye to our friends, off we drove, headed for the suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. But this time, something had changed; moving was not so easy. While my children made friends and adapted to their new schools and my husband flourished in his job, I became gripped by a kind of paralysis, unable to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. Each morning, I watched as my children caught their buses to school. Peering out the window, I saw my neighbors, suited up for work, briefcases in hand, departing by car, or rushing to catch the bus that would take them to the metro.  At PTA meetings, I met parents who worked for the government, or who wrote for the Washington Post, or other major publications. In those early days, I developed writer’s block, fell into a paralyzing depression, went into Jungian analysis, and, eventually, in one of the major traumatic upheavals of my life, got divorced.

What had begun as a nightmare over time began to lighten into the dawn of a new life; gradually I came to feel more settled. My ex-husband excelled at his job and re-married a lovely woman; we became a blended family, and all our lives forged ahead. Most importantly, I began to write again. In 1991, Thomas Moore published his now-classic book, Care of the Soul: A Guide to Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. As his book rocketed to the top of the bestseller’s list, I interviewed Moore for my “Body & Soul” column for Religion News Service, exploring his notion that soul—or soul-making—is to be found in the depths of this world, not the transcendent beyond. In this view, nature, food, history, friendship, work, and even depression and loneliness are the alchemical vessels in which soul is forged.

 

L'Enfant map of Washginton, D.c.

In a country so restlessly on the move, the particular place we lived was also a source of soul: we were deeply grounded in the local landscapes, history, culture, and architecture. Building on this perspective, I wrote an article for Utne Reader on the importance of discovering the spirit of one’s hometown or city. The piece caught the attention of editor Phil Latham, who reprinted it in his hometown newspaper in Texas, The Marshall News Messenger, even sending a photographer to capture me on the shores of the Potomac River. Not long afterward, I found myself in the editorial offices of Washingtonian magazine, pitching the idea to a roomful of skeptical writers and editors. The concept of the “soul” of a city possessing a unique character of its own, I explained, “was common among the ancients. The Romans called it genius loci, the special spirit of a place. The Greek concept of the daimon referred to the unchanging, distinct identity of a person or place” or a belief that cities are animated by a personality of their own, and “the notion that certain towns or cities have soul.”

While few would question whether such ancient cities as Rome and Jerusalem have soul, I wondered, “What about a relatively young city like Washington?” As I was soon to discover, the land on which it was built was possessed of an ancient history. Indeed, the contours of a city’s soul, explained Gail Thomas, director of the Center of the City in Dallas, are “revealed in its landscape.” Robert Hass, poet laureate from 1995-1997, confided that during his stay in Washington, he often mused upon “the early imagination of Washington, D.C.”

Whenever he observed the mists on the river, he said, he “imagined what it must have been like on the land before it was built on, with steam rising up in the evening and the indigenous peoples” present.  I, too, have felt this ancient spirit inhabiting D.C.’s landscape; in a dream, I stood spellbound on the banks of the Potomac as a Native American canoed down the river, turning to give me a penetrating glance before he rowed out of sight. It was an encounter I will never forget; a startling reminder of the civilizations that inhabited this area long before Europeans arrived.

For George Washington, a Virginia native possessed of an innate grasp of geography, there was also something about the region around the Potomac River that led him to mark it as the site of the future capital. Among other things, Washington was convinced that the East Coast needed to be connected to the frontier—and that the Potomac was the easiest way of getting there. As local cartographer Dan Hawkins explained, these things came together in Washington’s mind to say, “This is where the capital city has to be.” It was a decision, he said, that would prove fateful. “If you think about the course of the Civil War,” Hawkins continued, “I’m convinced that if the capital had been anywhere but where it is, the North would have let the South go.” Washington thus prevented the country from “breaking apart.” 

The land itself, I discovered, with its diversity of vegetation, possesses an “uncanny resemblance to the principles of tolerance and diversity it helped to give birth to.” It is also a geographical crossroads, the system of waterways links the ocean to the mainland along the Eastern seaboard, then beyond to the Ohio River Valley.

No other geographical image, however, has quite captured the character of both early and present-day Washington as that of its swamps—a popular term used to describe the down and dirty politics of the city. But as historian Philip Ogilvie told me “You can’t make any blanket statement about the entire District of Columbia because it was both upland and lowland.” For Jungian psychologist James Hillman, it was significant that the image of the swamp had entered into the mythical imagination of Washington—capturing the underlying conflict built into its very structure. Continuously beset by graft and corruption, he explained, the city is beset by “a tension that pulls in two directions—downward into the world of human imperfection and upward in the direction of lofty ideals.”

Over the decades, the young nation’s “lofty ideals” of liberty and democracy would be carved into soaring monuments. These parables of freedom made visible in streets and stone, I felt, are specifically designed to evoke the larger forces of history, particularly the “myths and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.” Georgetown Professor of art Ori Soltes, says the the word “capitol,” can be traced to the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the “location of the founding of the Republic and the Temple of Jupiter,” while the dome of the Capitol itself references St. Peter’s Basilica. The Lincoln Memorial incorporates elements of the Greek Parthenon; the Washington Monument echoes the obelisks of ancient Egypt, and the Greek goddess Athena was a model for the statue titled “Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace” atop the Capitol dome.

Freedom_1

For Thomas Moore, the discovery of Athena in the nation’s capital carries special meaning. As patroness of Athens, Moore said, “one of Athena’s primary functions was the art of weaving.” This humble activity, he explained, indicated to him that “to serve a city or a nation, it’s necessary to weave together all the disparate elements of various cultures, personalities, and regions into a tapestry. This is the important soul work of the city and the government.”

I continued to explore other facets of the soul of Washington—its rich diversity of neighborhoods, the lingering scars of its original sin of racism, D.C. as a place of pilgrimage as well as protest, and the sacredness of the Vietnam Memorial. But in the wake of the recent Capitol insurrection, and as America contends with a bitterly divided populace, Thomas Moore’s words seem especially resonant. What would it mean to take up the task of Athena—that archetypal figure of feminine wisdom, who watches over our nation’s capital city—weaving into our daily lives the work of healing and reconciliation? How might we walk in the footsteps of our shared forebears, and continue the efforts they began to make our nation, not just great, but wise, tolerant, learned, and open-minded? 

There was to be a coda to my story for Washingtonian. Years after it was published, I discovered that I myself was interwoven into the capital city’s fate, descended from ancestors who for generations had worked and lived in the Washington area. From Senate Sergeant-of-Arms Edward Dyer to U.S. Navy Captains John Cassin and Joseph Tarbell—as well as several of these ancestor’s slave-owning descendants—my own relatives had been part of the city’s social, cultural and political life as it rose to become the vibrant world city it is today. The twist to this discovery? This lost and forgotten heritage came down to me through my immigrant mother—Maria Sheila League, born in Argentina, who didn’t even become a U.S. citizen until she was in her mid-forties. In the brief time before she died, I was able to share with her some of my research into our American heritage. It was a poignant moment. At first, Sheila was wistful that she hadn’t known more about the family story. Still, by returning to the city of her paternal ancestors, my mother felt as if she had righted a “cosmic imbalance.”  

On one of our last outings before she died, I took my mother to visit Mt. Olivet cemetery, where many of our American ancestors were buried. On the way, we stopped to buy flowers, then she placed them on their gravesites. Barely a year later, she was buried in the same cemetery, in the same gravesite as her third great-grandmother, Henrietta Tarbell Dyer Boone. At last, a circle had been completed, and a far-flung descendant had come home.

Pythia Peay is the author of American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country and America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. She lives in Alexandria, Va., where she regularly walks to the waterfront—where her ancestors once docked their tall ships.

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