Washington is a changed city since Sept. 11. Our beautiful freedoms have been constrained. The closer you get to the White House, the thicker the hobbled traffic. No tourists can see the Christmas decorations the first couple enjoys this season. They're off-limits for security reasons.
Barricades are everywhere. A festive holiday party at the residence of Vice President and Mrs. Cheney is like a night at the airport -- pocketbooks and pockets are emptied, identification is checked and double-checked. No envelopes allowed. Guests patiently wait in line to enter a room with a sumptuous buffet, but everywhere graciousness is undercut with echoes of vulnerability and fear. Holidaymakers in the nation's capital suggest the peppiness of theatrical troopers in a play performing in the middle of a war.
The show must go on, but not everyone in the audience is enjoying it. The cast is filled with understudies. Leading men and women do their best to entertain when they can, but an air of solemnity is pervasive. We know there are more important things to think about than Santa Claus.
Stories exchanged over glasses of the bubbly stretch for strained humor. One elderly woman talks about being searched from top to toe at the airport; even her hat was pulled inside out. Then she smiles: "But they missed looking under my wig."
A middle-aged woman with a spectacular bosom explains how a security guard at an airport in New York enjoyed the search of her body with a little too much enthusiasm. "She even put her thumb in my bra." Such are the minor trials in this war on terrorism.
Frustration pursues the most earnest among us. A young mother said that her family wanted to send presents to the fighting men instead of exchanging gifts among friends, but she was told the anthrax scare prevents it. The president, who travels in a motorcade with police outriders, urges everyone to get back to normal. If only we could.
I remember once visiting the Imperial War Museum in London, where there was a fabricated bomb shelter to "experience" what the British went through during the London blitz in World War II. Sirens, lights, fires shrieked and flashed to create an air of authenticity, but the only thing that felt real was the claustrophobia, victims trapped together in a small space.
Not since our Civil War have Americans had to endure anything like that. Not only did two oceans give us a sense of invulnerability, but the vastness of our country mitigated against any feeling of foreboding. Until now. Patience may be its own reward, but it's not all that rewarding. We would like to enjoy something more heroic.
Well, there is something, available to anyone visiting Washington in search of the monumental. It's proof that the nation's capital is also an art town, and that the creative aesthetic spirit is alive and well.
Last week, while Congress debated how to get the economy moving again, the folks at the National Gallery of Art were stimulating imaginations by dedicating an outdoor sculpture just across the street from the Capitol.
This sculpture, called "Prince of Homburg," is not another warrior on horseback, although it does take its reference from the life of a heroic soldier. Instead, it's an abstraction that defies any literary content but soars in its own glorious way, testifying to an indomitable creative spirit that is very American. You might say the sculpture is secular art that sticks out its tongue at every terrorist trying to destroy something.
The work, by New York sculptor Frank Stella, weighs 10 tons and stands 39 feet high, with swirling curves and swerves creating a silent swoosh that suggests the ubiquitous energy of the American spirit. It stands appropriately at a corner of our National Mall, wired to the ground but daring to float above it.
Americans no longer lack sophistication in appreciating fine art. We came of age with abstraction, but this new piece leaps into fresh territory with dazzling reflections of light emanating from aluminum, stainless steel and fiberglass, accelerated movement in stillness.
It symbolically unites scientific progress with artistic drama. Children who are familiar with the images of high-tech computers as well as the magic of the sorcerer's apprentices will be fascinated and perhaps even awe-inspired by this art.
Americans have suffered losses so great that it seems almost impossible for the imagination to take flight above the sadness. But as the Taliban run like rats into their caves, we thrive on art that reaches for the moon. The new sculpture on the mall is like the phoenix, rising anew from the ashes of it nest. It directs our minds and hearts to the infinite possibilities inherent in the human spirit.