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Yellow is the color of bird-life royalty, the signature color of the warbler tribe. Warblers are small and fragile in hand, but they soar over mountains and oceans and continents to announce the return of warmth and growth and sunlight. They perch in the gray branches and sing it to us.

In the last two weeks, I have seen my country move from the worst I have seen in my 50-some years to the best I’ve seen of it.* I watched in real time as Trumpist terrorists overwhelmed the capitol, playing dress-up in patriotism to cover their smug white entitlement and hairy-palmed grubby grievance — chanting to hang the vice president and taking selfies. I saw the capitol steps awash in tear gas and lit with the glare of flash-bang grenades.

Two weeks later I watched the return to normalcy on those same steps with the dignity of our new Vice President and President. I watched a return to civility, grace, and comity. I watched a humble public servant, a grandfather, call the country to the cause of unity.

A brave and beautiful soul saw the same ugliness and wrote a poem in the interim.

Personifying this change are two people. On the one hand a tattooed buffoon, a clown version of patriotism imagined by a toddler, fake buffalo headdress, fake spear, hollering in fake inchoate rage from the gallery of the senate chamber. He was a cartoon as drawn by an addled hack who knows nothing of buffaloes or native peoples.

On the other hand, a lightning strike of presence and grace in the form of a 22-year-old poet.

Amanda Gorman mounted those previously defiled and abused steps and spoke out the truth and passion. She spoke with her hands. She spoke with her heart. She spoke with the gravity of 300 years of dignity that refused to be diminished by pain. She not so much summoned our better angels, she commanded them.

Amanda Gorman wore a bright yellow coat, a flash of angel avian swagger as the sun broke through the clouds like it was scripted to do so. In a sea of formal black and navy blues accented by bunting, a pin-point of refining-fire sunlight and heat.

In my mind, that was the moment we turned the corner. In the grace of her language and delivery, in the gravity and hopefulness of her poem, in her presence and authority and that brilliant yellow coat.

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it”

She’s twenty-two. The age of my kids. The age of my students. Standing bold with the whole country and indeed, much of the world watching, she banished the anxiety she must have felt and made time stand still for the space of 110 exquisite lines. When she finished and walked back, she walked quickly with her arms tightly folded, a hint that the anxiety was there all along, but conquered and beaten.

There’s your hope, tangible and fierce. Right there in the twenty-two-year-olds who share that spirit, fighting to rise above the ugliness, standing behind the young hero wearing a coat the color of birdsong.

* note: I wrote this exactly a year ago. It was a remarkable moment for the power in the poet, the poem, and the performance – at once, aspirational, cathartic, and hopeful.
You can watch it here

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


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