While Barack Obama was making his inaugural speech, I was vacuuming. I hadn't planned to be engaged in that particular activity at that particular moment, but the deliverymen turned up early, bringing us a new bed at precisely the moment the new president began to speak.
The floor was covered with dropcloths when the bed arrived, so there was much rushing around to clear the way for it. Meanwhile, the new president of the United States was on TV and our computer screens, offering the words of change I so much wanted to hear, as did my wife, my visiting daughter, and the two young men who were unloading our new bed. While most of America was frozen for this historic moment, events kept the five of us in motion, though our eyes seldom strayed from the TV screen, even as we vacuumed the floor and set up the bed.
This is how human history is lived out: Pomp and circumstance unfold on the stage while the most mundane human activities continue behind the scenes. And it is for those mundane moments that we all work, so that the ordinary activities of all our ordinary days can be lived out in peace. We agonize over how to vote because it is important that we put people in charge who will make it possible for ordinary life to continue — for some of us to buy things like beds while others of us deliver them.
The men who delivered our new bed get the majority of their work through a department store chain now facing bankruptcy, one of the many endangered businesses littering the landscape of American commerce. If that store goes down, then the livelihoods of those two men will be imperiled, along with the dignity of the work they do. But even as we see the loss of old standards like Circuit City and Mervyn's and witness the many smaller businesses dashed by a withering economy, we take hope from the change in leadership that occurred while some Americans were still delivering mail or mattresses, still vacuuming their floors.
If I'd had my druthers, I would have preferred a calmer morning in which to hear President Obama's inaugural speech. I would have liked to have been sipping my coffee when the chief justice of the Supreme Court mangled the administration of the oath of office.
But history, like life itself, happens while we're making other plans. So I was vacuuming the bedroom carpet while a much-loved new president was giving his first speech, and I was moving furniture while a much-despised former president circled the nation's Capitol in the helicopter assigned to take him away.
But perhaps vacuuming was actually the most appropriate way to observe and honor this transition. After all, our new leader faces a huge task of cleaning up. A lot of dust has accumulated underneath the national bed over the past eight years. The stains on the fabric of our national honor need scrubbing, though there are some that may never come out.
The two young men finished assembling the new bed, and then the five of us stood for a moment in front of the TV, marveling at the size of the crowd that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and beyond. We were silent in the presence of all that, and then the press of other deliveries stirred the two workers to break the reverie. My wife signed the paperwork attesting to the delivery, and one of the deliverymen said, "You'll always remember you got this bed on the day Barack Obama became president of the United States."
The delivery truck pulled out of the driveway. Our cat came in from outside to survey the new surroundings. Our younger daughter called during a break in her teaching duties to offer a "high-five" by phone. Then I called my mother to share the afterglow of the events we'd witnessed. When that conversation ended, we returned to the task of putting our house back in order.
The nation will wake to a brand-new day — and my wife and I will sleep in a brand-new bed. All of us face a future not yet known, or knowable. But our new leader has told us there is work to be done by all of us. And so there is. Let's get started.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.