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Simple Gifts

The inauguration, blessedly, has happened.

A wonderful calm settled during the performance of “Air and Simple Gifts,” a piece composed for the occasion by John Williams, the official composer of the Hollywood blockbuster. The new vice president had been sworn in, and we still awaited the new president. As well as a nod to Aaron Copland’s adaptation in Appalachian Spring, the song was a contradiction in terms, a richly-layered orchestration for an ode to simplicity, played by a star-studded quartet. “Simple Gifts,” so boisterously out of its original context of an apocalyptic anti-sex movement, represents a lesson in the odd movements of history. The things we do are not our own. As time goes on, our descendants will cast and recast the fruits of our endeavors, making of them whatever beautiful abomination they see fit for the moment. We do the same to our ancestors. And yet the whole thing, at its best, is nothing but an act of love.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

As Obama calls us to remember an imaginary past, we stand before an unimaginable future, bound in communion with both. Simple yet complex, imaginary yet actually happening, rhetorical yet practical—a grand new beginning to what has always been and always will be.

6 comments on “Simple Gifts

  1. Much as I love Obama this list of virtues are not enough. “values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”. Patriotism feel like an outmoted form of tribalism.
    For me vision is everything. A loving, green, joyful, earth-wide vision is everything….Quentin in San Cris

  2. please put an “is” after virtue and a “s” on feel………..there, up too late last night.

  3. Interesting that you mention it—I was hoping that someone would pick up on that. Patriotism has been much on my mind lately. I’ve been wondering about whether a commitment to nonviolence can cleanse ideologies like patriotism of some of their evils (see a theoretical speculation on this here).

    My reason for thinking this might be possible is, of all things, a song: “Finlandia Hymn“:

    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
    A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
    This is my home, the country where my heart is;
    Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
    But other hearts in other lands are beating
    With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

    My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
    And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
    But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
    And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
    O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
    A song of peace for their land and for mine.

    The hope is that one can be allowed to love one’s own land in a special way so long as one recognizes the rights of others to do so as well.

  4. Interesting observations! It never occurs to me to think that “patriotism” is an outmoded form of tribalism. This idea is sorted of like Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morality.” Along side with “Air and Simple Gifts,” I also thought that “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander was beautiful. Here are some lines:


    All about us is noise. All about us is
    noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
    one of our ancestors on our tongues.


    Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
    Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
    who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

    picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
    brick by brick the glittering edifices
    they would then keep clean and work inside of.

    Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
    Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
    the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

    Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
    others by first do no harm or take no more
    than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

    Love beyond marital, filial, national,
    love that casts a widening pool of light,
    love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

    In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
    any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
    On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

    praise song for walking forward in that light.

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