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The Party: Sally Quinn reflects on the the peace the blizzard brings Washington

A man stops to admire Washington National Cathedral as a blizzard hits the District after another major storm over the weekend.
A man stops to admire Washington National Cathedral as a blizzard hits the District after another major storm over the weekend. (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Sally Quinn
Thursday, February 11, 2010

The other day, after our first big storm, when we were snowbound, several people called to find out about all the snow parties in town. What were the so-called Washington socialites doing? I had to confess I had no idea. We certainly hadn't been invited to any and weren't giving any, either.

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As I sit here at my desk at home writing today, the blizzard is so strong that the city is paralyzed. Nobody is even venturing outside. The wind is howling, the branches are covered with snow and ice, and the flurries are blowing relentlessly.

I have lived here on and off most of my life. I have never seen Washington like this before. First all of, it is beautiful. Secondly, it is peaceful -- a pervading sense of calm. It's as if I, for one, have been liberated from my daily struggles. I have simply given in to what is happening around me and accepted it. This is unusual for me, to say the least.

Somehow this doesn't seem like party time to me. It's calamitous for some people. For those who haven't been hurt by the blizzard, this has been more like a time to reflect, to meditate and to embrace the silence.

Saturday I did just that. In the midst of the first storm, as the snow was in full flurry, I took a two-hour walk through Georgetown. There was hardly a person on the streets, barely a car in sight. I was overcome. For the first time in a long time I actually saw the city I call home. I walked down to the Potomac River, along the path to the Kennedy Center, and out onto the balcony and over to the corner, where there were no human tracks. I stood there for what seemed forever, just absorbing everything around me with all of my senses. My face was cold, the smell was fresh, I touched the snow and put it to my mouth and tasted it. I could hear no sounds.

I looked to the left toward the city and saw the Washington Monument through a shroud of white, the Capitol not far behind. (I once worked at the Capitol as an intern when I first came here at age 16.) The sky was gray tinged with pinks and blues. Closer in was the Lincoln Memorial, and then Memorial Bridge leading to Arlington National Cemetery, where both my parents are buried. Suddenly, out of the silence, the bells of the Netherlands Carrillon across the river began to chime.

I looked to my right toward Georgetown. I could see my house, and the towers of Georgetown University where three of my husband's grandchildren are enrolled. Farther up, higher even than the Capitol, were the spires of Washington National Cathedral, the scene of so many important events in my life. When my father lay dying at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I could see the spires from his room. When my mother lay dying at a nursing home in Arlington, I could see them from her room. My father was buried from the cathedral, as were many friends, including Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and in April my son, Quinn, will be married there.

I turned back to the river and watched the ice floes slowly drifting south. It was a transcendent moment -- one might even call it prayerful -- as if I were watching chunks of my life floating by in front of me. I haven't often felt like that in Washington. I couldn't help thinking that this blizzard was, for me at least, not an accident. On some level it was a deliberate moment for all of us to stop and contemplate what our lives are about, what is important, who we want to be. The toxicity, rancor and division we have seen building up recently here were gone, dissipated, purified. The government was shut down, the Congress, too. The religious might say God was calling for a timeout. We needed this.

I felt joyful as I trudged home. I was going to a warm house, with big fires and plenty of food and a family I loved. And yes, to a party. The best kind. What we did have was a house full of people. Our close friend was in the ICU at Georgetown Hospital, having just had a liver transplant. His family of four stayed with us because they needed to be near the hospital and couldn't drive. Two of my husband's granddaughters were staying with us, locked in as well. My son and his fiancee, who live next door, were also snowed in, with her friend from Sweden and a roommate.

Several friends on the block have come over for dinner since the snow began. We've had huge pots of stew, spaghetti and soups. We've had big fires and lots of candles. We've had many bottles of wine. We've had an abundance of love. We have been so fortunate. I found myself wishing Washington could always be like this. Just put things on hold and be around people you love instead of worrying about who's getting invited where and whether this person and that are speaking to or vilifying each other.

We've had such a magical time. The only thing that has been difficult is knowing that so many others are not so lucky, out of jobs, without enough food, no housing, lonely, sick. And the storm has caused so much hardship for so many. Part of what has made this a special time is to realize, no matter what happens, how grateful we are and should be for what we have.

So what are all the Washington socialites doing during the snowstorm? I have no idea. All I know is that one thing has changed: my definition of the word party.


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