Ms. Ritchey Goes to Washington

Artistic Director Julie Ritchey waxes poetic about her friend and countryman Abraham Lincoln as she examines how stories continue to shape our nation.

I have to admit that I am a little bit obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. So when I found myself in Washington DC for a whirlwind weekend at AATE’s theatre leadership institute, my first stop after leaving the airport was the National Mall for a quick visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

After living in the world of From the Circle: Remembering the Earth through Folktales for the last several months, I’ve definitely had folktales on the brain. To be there, at the National Mall, looking at all the monuments got me thinking about our American folktales – and not just Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyon, but the stories – some true, some legend – of the history of our country and, by association, what it means to be an American. Although I generally don’t consider myself to be overly patriotic, it’s hard to walk down the National Mall, looking at the monuments, memorials, and vibrant fall leaves and not feel a little bit like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I had only visited DC twice before, and had forgotten the inscription above the statue of Lincoln that reads “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The phrase resonated with me like a folktale, a story that we all carry a piece of and a relationship to – a sort of celebration of collective memory. That all the people, all the events of human history are broken up into little pieces, little stories, and carried in the hearts of the people.

I read the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural Address, and watched as people took their photographs in front of the giant statue of Abe himself. Then, to enjoy the beautiful day in that beautiful place, I turned around to sit on the steps and write. The reflecting pool was completely torn up, crawling with bulldozers and workers in hard hats. At first I was disappointed – it was certainly a less majestic view of the Mall, with dirt and plastic fence in place of that long, smooth stretch of water. But then it took on a kind of poetry, with Abraham Lincoln in his marble chair, overlooking a giant rebuilding project.

With the protests, the wars, the upcoming elections, we are all in the middle of a Great Rebuilding. We do not know how it will end, or how history will tell the story in the generations to come. But someday, many years from now, these stories will be forever enshrined in the hearts of the people for whom we are working to rebuild this union.

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