Shiny Happy No Thanks

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There’s this weird phenomena I’ve observed. It’s unclear where it’s nexus lies— It may be influenced by the rise of the Pinterest quote culture, or the focus on and elevation of lifestyle blogs. Are wall-quotes in living-areas a symptom or a cause? I’m not sure. What I see in my own community, on social media, and online in general, is an elevation of happiness being considered a virtue, a morally superior position. Being happy is great, of course, but the converse side of expecting happiness (or cheerfulness) as a marker of faith is that those who are somehow not “happy” or who struggle in any way, are somehow perilously close to morally failing.

What a horrible expectation to place on anyone walking through the normal emotions that come with the trials of a lived life.

As Mormons, we’re particularly guilty. We talk of the Gospel as though it should be a magic band-aid that will insulate us from human reality. It’s not. Just because I have faith in God and in Jesus doesn’t somehow make it incumbent on me to be “too strong for fear” or “too happy to permit the presence of trouble.” I call BS. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things are scary. Sometimes trouble finds us, and it sucks. The idea that I (or anyone) is somehow responsible and should exercise control over the human condition is actually contra to Gospel principles.

This is evident in how Mormons treat death and funerals. It may be my convert sensibilities, but turning a funeral into a missionary experience leaves little room for real grief or for the bereaved to openly and honestly experience their loss with the support of their community. Naked, raw grief gets pushed to the side, while we congratulate ourselves on our beliefs. Instead of talking of our missed loved-one, we talk of the plan of happiness, of the plan of salvation, of how great it is that the departed is in reunion with their family. While that may be true, there is also a living family still present; a family who is missing and aching for that same loved one, and their feelings should also be honored and given space. What a burden we place on the surviving family when we expect a focus on happiness in the face of tremendous and sometimes terrible loss.

I see similar inertia in others going through hard times- be it divorce, unemployment, mental health challenges, wayward children, or anything you can dream up that somehow doesn’t fit the ideal. The idea that we must always face towards “happiness” creates little space for people to be human. I see women who are deeply hurt, but who lack the vocabulary to even admit it. I see people who are afraid of feeling anger, people who believe the outward appearance must always be cheerful, and who are then swallowed by shame and fear that their facade will crack. This isn’t healthy, and frankly, is a lived denial of the salvic power of the atonement.

Grief is real. Sadness is real. Depression, anger, sorrow, frustration and weariness are all real. We are not moral failures if we feel these things. We needn’t plaster over our feelings with peel-off wall quotes and pretend everything is awesome. When you set a shiny-happy example of what your life is like to your friends and family, where are they to turn when their own life doesn’t match up with you shiny-face? How can they know that you also struggle, that you also grieve and are angry sometimes? Pretending and presenting further alienates us from one another. Pretending has never, ever, built a bridge to another person.

I’m not suggesting we wallow in our sorrows, or carry them around held high- I’m suggesting a healthy balance is… healthy.

A person exiting a painful (they all are) divorce shouldn’t be expected to only praise their ex-spouse. A person who lost someone to a violent cancer or who is left to raise young children alone should not have to experience their loss as a missionary moment. Let people be angry, sad, grieve, mourn, and be with them, hold space for them, as they move through the real emotions of a lived life. When we shove feelings we deem less favorite down, they can germinate in the dark, and can grow and cripple us. If we allow our feelings room to be, to run their course, their energy is then dissipated and carried by our support structures and our own processes, and they become faded memories.

We also model for our friends and family what it looks like to actually walk in faith.

Walking in faith through hard things, while acknowledging they’re hard, is beautiful. There is a vulnerability in taking off the mask of positivity, and allowing yourself to feel what you feel. The irony is, God knows anyway. We’re only fooling ourselves and each other.

Next time you’re tempted to attach morality to a feeling, or to shove away part of yourself,  take a moment to stop. Ask if this is healthy, or if perhaps, it might be better to model a more fully fleshed-out version of what it means to be alive. Life is not always pretty, nor fit for the cover page of a lifestyle blog. And that’s okay. As a matter of fact, that’s what makes it beautiful.

(originally published for By Common Consent)

Divorce: Being a Grown-Up

I’m just going to republish this again. Only this time, imagine it’s IN ALL CAPS, and I am yelling it from the rooftops, okay? Good then? Good.

Divorce sucks. The unraveling and separating of lives is painful and messy, no matter how mature or well-intentioned the parties. My own divorce experience is now five-plus years in the rearview mirror, but I have friends at various stages in the process right now; it’s got me thinking on what I wish I could share with people in the midst.

Last year, I wrote an essay about my ex-husband, with his permission, at BCC. Reading it will give some context and gravity to my experience, and to what I took away from the process, not just as a woman and a mother, but as a Latter-day Saint.

While divorce is devastating for anyone, as Mormons we have the added pressure of what we were taught to believe was forever. Our marriages, we learn from Sunbeams on up, from our parents’ knees for Family Night, and in every YM and YW lesson, are for Eternity. That pressure, and platitudes about righteousness and presumed sin, are an extra layer and burden to a Latter-day Saint marriage that fails. It also sets up a powerful social impetus to cast blame, and to look for pat answers to what are always complicated questions. The answers to those questions are not easy, and not found in a platitude. When we insist on there being a Sinner and a Victim, when we wage wars of social collateral and gossip, when we assign blame instead of looking at our own hearts, when we pick sides and cast dispersions, we fail not only as Latter-day Saints and Christians, but as human beings.

In my own divorce, it would have been seductively simple to assign blame entirely at my ex-husband’s feet. The narrative is acceptable— even encouraged, sadly— and I could easily wrap the mantle of “Wronged One” around my shoulders. Only it would be a cop out. It would be dishonest, and it would stunt any hope I had to grow from what was the single most painful experience of my life. I knew that I could not shortchange myself or my kids that way. I resolved to learn, and to do as I believed my faith demanded of me- to show compassion and love.

I spent nearly 20 years with my ex-husband. We met when I was barely more than a girl, and divorced when I was on the dark side of my 30′s and holding three children afloat. He was my friend before he was my husband, and that friendship and genuine respect for his humanity is what I hold now. With that in mind, here is what I learned, and what I wish I could share with my friends and with anyone going through a divorce…

Grieve. Acknowledge the loss of something that once held great promise and hope. The temptation to burry feelings, to mask sorrow with anger and rage is strong- it’s easier to be mad than it is to hurt. Give yourself permission to feel sorrow, and allow it to roll over you. Like the waves of the ocean, it won’t be forever, and what feels like overwhelming crushing weight will crash around you, and then it will ebb. It will probably happen over and over, but the more you allow the process to take place, the more certain you will be of your ability to withstand the pain, and not shrink from it, and the more confident and sure you will be of the flux and flow being part of the healing.

Be Honest. Taking a long hard look at ourselves can be frightening. In a divorce, no matter how it may seem at one point or another, the truth is, it took two people. A relationship is built on thousands of days, and millions of moments, where each partner is present, and contributes. It’s a dangerous fallacy to wrap oneself as a victim and it disallows the opportunity to grow and learn. The lessons we need in life will repeat until we understand, and figuring out my own character flaws and acknowledging them and the part they played in my divorce was integral to any hope for a healthy future relationship. Pride, the need for control and the desire to be right in a marriage can be just as corrosive as any addiction.

Rise Above Pettiness and Cruelty. No one knows where to strike to inflict the most harm like a spouse. If you’re being honest with yourself, you will be able to see where you might be contributing to a poisonous environment- it’s possible to tell yourself that you are justified, because s/he did this or that, but the truth is, you’re the one you have to live with. There is more than enough hurt in the separating without either partner manufacturing more. This isn’t junior high, and gathering folks for “your side” is petty and cruel. If you need people to be unkind to your ex in order to feel good about yourself, about your social position or about your friends, that says more about your character than you’re probably aware. And it’s not flattering. Be a grown up.

Don’t be Afraid. Life changes. Yes, change can be really hard- especially if you didn’t want it. But if you’re open to learning about yourself, there are things that might be in store for you that you never imagined. The shape and matrix of your life is changing, but who you are still belongs to you. This is part of why not allowing bitterness and cruelty to define you is so important. When you are no longer part of a pair, you have the sudden ability to figure out again who you want to be, what matters to you. That’s a powerful choice, and one that can take you in directions you hadn’t previously imagined. Not being afraid requires you to dust yourself off and find your place on the horizon.

Be Kind to Yourself. It takes time to heal- don’t walk faster than you are able. Some days, the best you can do is just make it through. Each step you take toward healing is a success. Have good friends who you can confide in, and who help you deal with your emotions in a healthy way- or who can occasionally just let you vent. Take time for yourself. Use the time your kids are with the other parent to do small things you may have neglected when you had less time alone.

Blame is a Waste of Time. Period. If you’re devoting time and energy to blame-placing, you are not healing and you are not moving forward. Blame is toxic, and it turns one into a victim. It’s also a narcotic, and is very seductive— it’s a hard pit to avoid, but avoiding it is necessary. You are responsible for you, and the only actions that are under your control are yours. Blame is giving yourself away. Own up to what you can about your own role, and allow other people to do that in their own time and their own way. Avoiding blame allows you to respect yourself and allows other people the room to do the same.
That brings me to children.

I have a powerful cadre of feelings about children in a divorce.

Bite Your Tongue This seems like a no-brainer, but so many people screw this one up. No matter how much you want to, no matter how justified you might feel, no matter how strong the urge- never. ever. speak ill of your children’s other parent. I mean it. NEVER. Whether you like it or not, the children are half of your ex. They know it. When you malign the other parent, you are maligning half of your children. If you have to literally chomp on your tongue, do it. If the best you can do is to say nothing, then do that. You needn’t offer praise if you feel none is deserved, but let your silence be your comment. Passive-aggressive comments are transparent to kids, especially teenagers. You hurt them, and you make yourself look petty and small. No matter how you feel, the children will love their other parent, and honestly, they should. Fracturing them, placing blame, teaching them to harbor anger is damaging and unfitting a mature parent.

Let Your Children Be Children If you need your children “on your side”, you need to sit down and have a long, hard look at yourself. Allowing children room to continue to have a loving relationship with both parents is one of the best things you can do during a divorce. If you need to vent about what s/he did, do so to a private confident, out of hearing of the children. Give the kids room to express themselves without having to be careful about hurting your feelings- children are not equipped to be the emotional support of their parents during a divorce, but they can and do feel this responsibility if parents are behaving immaturely. It’s the job of the parent to be the parent. Use your support structure, not your kids.

Divorce is Survivable I’m in the camp of belief that divorce doesn’t have to be crippling to children. Yes, you read that right. If we give our children the ability to write their own narrative, to express themselves, give them the freedom to continue to love both parents without emotional guilt or manipulation, and the support they need, they can grow up happy and healthy, even if the ideal family didn’t work. There are truly times where divorce is a healthier option than staying married.

Encourage Interaction Make it easy for your children to interact with their other parent. Provide guilt-free ways for your kids to speak of, interact with, and include their other parent in their daily lives Do not eavesdrop or attempt to micromanage the children’s time with their other parent. Don’t mope or let the children see resentment when they enjoy their other parent. You are the adult, and your happiness and emotional well-being is not (and should NEVER be) the responsibility of your children.

Finally, I would add:

It will get better. This will not always be a gaping wound. Time will move forward, and if you keep the bitterness from your heart, you will heal, and you will be happy again.

ALL CAPS. YELLING.

A New Leaf

This week our eldest daughter celebrated a birthday. (I just typed that simple sentence several times. Figuring out how to honor step-kids is fraught; I don’t always want to differentiate them from the children I birthed myself, but I also don’t want to take anything from the mother who did birth them. Jon’s daughter is my daughter, but she is also not my daughter. Jon thinks simply calling them all our children is solid ground. But I’m ever aware these kids all— including my three— are loved by three parents. Not easy ground if you’re trying to be mindful of the feelings of others.)

Anyway. Birthday. Daughter. Wonderful, kind, thoughtful, bright, adorable daughter:

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We had a celebration at our house the day before her actual birthday. She’s a devoted user of Pinterest, and sends me pins constantly of things she loves, so it’s really easy to be on top of her happiness. This cake was one such attempt; while it’s probably not as perfect at the pin she sent me, she didn’t seem to notice and totally loved it. It was a very good night.

Then, something unexpected and miraculous occurred: Her mother invited us to meet for dinner the next night, to celebrate her actual birthday. We weren’t sure we would even get to see her on her birthday- it fell on a day that isn’t usually ours, and the invitation was…a departure from previous experience and very much a pleasant surprise.

We met at a restaurant halfway between our homes. While my three kids are comfortable and used to joint ventures with all of their parents together and cooperating, this was a first for Jon and his kids.

Divorce is hard. Learning to step-parent, to blend families, and come to terms with the new parameters of a new life can be hard. It can also be a place to find unexpected opportunity and even happiness. I don’t imagine Jon’s ex will ever wish to be my friend, and that’s fine, but the fact we were all able to set aside our differences and celebrate our daughter?  Absolutely a positive step in the right direction.

I’ve said it many times: kids can not only survive but thrive in reformed families. There will be many occasions to celebrate in our children’s combined furture— graduations, proms, awards, recitals, mission calls, college and eventually even weddings. Last night demonstrated to all of us that making happy memories is possible.

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River Song

holding-a-piece-of-time-2I buckled my new shoes and checked the mirror. A respectable grey pencil skirt grazed my knees, set off nicely by the happy poppy-red of my cardigan. Titling my head, I fasted the small gold hoops in my ears, then fumbled the clasp of the thin gold chain as I attempted to hook it under the wave of thick, loose curls blanketing my neck. Tiny beads of sweat dotted my nose, and I tried hard to keep my hands from trembling. I was determined.

Coming up behind me, Jon gently lifted my hair and fastened the necklace with steady hands, and kissed the top of my head. Today was the first Sunday in our new ward, and my trembling hands betrayed the put-together exterior. In the eight months since we were married, we had continued to attend church each Sunday in the ward where he had lived for a decade. We had imagined, somewhat naively it turns out, that people would rise above petty gossip and manufactured prejudice and allow their better natures to shine- or at the very least, withhold judgement until their own experience gave them something on which to judge. We were wrong.

To be fair, it wasn’t everyone— it wasn’t even the majority of folks— who took it upon themselves to treat me like Hester Prynne. The last eight months had been a real-life object lesson in the old idiom “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” I don’t go to church for friends, or for a social life. I didn’t grow up in the Mormon church, and I didn’t even join as a young adult- I was mature, near 30, and already a wife and mother when I was baptized. I have a rich social network and deep, abiding friendships that transcend distance and ward boundaries. I go to church because I have aligned my life and made promises that I will. I go to church to renew my covenants, to think about Jesus, to teach my kids, to serve others, and to find ways to be a better person. I go to church because going is an act of faith. I go to church because some Sundays, that act of faith is all I have to offer.

I knew attending my husband’s old ward was going to be rough. His divorce had been incredibly hostile and protracted, taking literally years— and the threat of a trial— for it to finally be finished. He did everything he could to avoid making a bad situation worse. One of his conscious decisions was refusing to speak ill of or slander anyone. He never shared the stressful and awful details of what was actually happening. Wards being as they sometimes are and human nature being as it all too-often is, people gossiped anyway.

I walked into a ward where, as I was told by leaders, “the well has been poisoned.” The problem was, it wasn’t just me walking into a terrible situation- it was us walking in with my three children, and on alternating Sundays, with our combined five children. One of the problems with salting the earth behind you is that it might end up being your own children who cannot be fed.

Our clergy was kind and supportive. We were asked to please give them a chance, and we did. There were some very kind people who reached out to us, people who invited us over, who included the kids in activities, and who were friendly and thoughtful. But one can only sustain so many tiny cuts before the cumulative damage becomes too much to bear. That moment came down to my children.

When a person allows misinformation obtained through gossip and their disdain gleaned therein to color how they treat innocent children, the gloves come off.  The last straw happened when an adult disliked Bean’s behavior and literally picked him up and squeezed him. I was a few feet away around the corner, but aware of Bean’s activity; I was utterly disregarded in this person’s decision to physically discipline my child. Bean ran crying from the person and hid under the sofa in the foyer. I heard what happened from an adult who had witnessed the incident.

Once was bad enough. It happened twice.

We requested our records be transferred that day.

*****

Jon holds my hand tightly as we walk into the new ward. I hope my nerves don’t show. We are both hoping here we won’t feel as though we must wear our Recommends around our necks just to prove we are worth human kindness. All five children are with us this first day, and we are immediately greeted by the bishop and his counselors, who take the time to speak to each of us and each of our children before the service begins.

After the service, the youth leaders immediately introduce themselves and offer to show all the children to their classes. They are so kind and friendly- all five children, including Bean, happily head off with their peers. Jon is still holding tightly to my hand. As we stand near the back of the chapel, people warmly welcome us to the ward, they shake our hands, and smile. I had forgotten what being fellowshipped felt like- and I am suddenly aware of how parched and battered my faith had become, as I feel the simple water of basic kindness filling my spirit.

Jeffrey texts me from his Sunday school class “Mom, there are three other gingers! I like it here. I already have a friend.” That’s a win. Bean stayed in his class the entire time, and didn’t even use his ear-protection. The scout and young women’s advisors both speak to us, and welcome our kids to their programs. Jon and I look at each other and exhale.

*****

There is a knock at the door after church. We are in various stages of changing out of our Sunday clothes, and children are scattered all over the house. It’s the bishop, stopping by to check on us. He spends time talking with each of the kids again, saving Bean for last. Taking his phone from his pocket, he proceeds to talk video games and minecraft with Bean, talking and keeping him engaged. Bean finally bounds off to get some toast, and I feel the water that was filling my limbs earlier suddenly well into my eyes.

I didn’t know how tired I was, how heavy the burden had been, until it was suddenly set down. I don’t go to church for friends, but it also was suddenly apparent, neither can I go it alone. No matter how solid or well my husband holds my hand, fellowshipping is a necessary part of Christian life, and those waters Christ promised us truly are life. And we do, in fact, find it that life in each other.

I’m so grateful to be back.

*****

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel justified in treating someone poorly, or feel God needs help in dispensing judgement or sorrow, I invite you to step back and consider yourself.  It’s unlikely you have all— or even a big enough part— of the story to make that call. If you’ve only heard one side, you only possess a fraction of the truth. Consider the words not spoken— they may, in fact, be truer than all the gossip. There is enough pain in life without adding to anyone’s burden. 

Pretty Awesome Night at the Kennedy Center

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Monday night, Jeffrey, the ginger man-child in whom we are greatly pleased, played his baritone tuba with his middle middle school band for the China-America Youth Music Performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. That’s a mouthful. And it was pretty freaking amazing.

Jeffrey’s entire middle school music program was selected to take part in the cultural exchange sponsored by the China Arts Education Federation. Children from China come Washington DC to take part in sharing of the arts. There was music, dance, vocal performances, theater- both from Chinese children and American children, all packed in one exuberant and exciting night.

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The whole building is amazing. I’m not sure how, but we managed to get fantastic seats- only about eight rows back from the stage, on the left. The Concert Hall is enormous, and has hosted people you’ve heard of and just about every head of state and president since it was built.

The kids rode busses into DC in the morning, and the parents (and siblings) trailed later in the afternoon, as they got ready to perform. I pulled Bean and Abby out of school early, and we swung by Jon’s office before we headed across the river. The Kennedy Center is right on the Potomac River, just to the northwest of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial.

When you walk in, you can either enter through the Hall of States, or the Hall of Nations. Abby and Bean both tried to identify as many flags as possible, before a nice docent gave Abby a list of all the flags.

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IMG_3059It truly is an enormous place- and the mid-century design is appreciably intact. It’s just so over the top and wonderful. While we waited for Jon to park the car and for Karen to join us, we manage to get our tickets from Will-Call and find Jeffrey. Bean was jumping out of his skin by this point, and barreled into the group of musicians to give Jeffrey a Bean-hug. Keeping Bean calm in public situation like this is always a challenge, so we spent time outside looking at the river, waiting as long as possible before taking our seats.

We were able to watch Jeffrey’s class line up, and since they were the very first performers, we knew it was time to head inside. (Bean did fairly well. I’m still kicking myself for forgetting his shooting-range ear-phones. It would have helped him a lot.)

The performances were great- all the way through. The kids, all of them, showed a level of discipline and love for the arts that was visible. I’ll put a YouTube video Jon took of one of the two songs Jeffrey played. It was kind of cool he got to go first, because his nerves were shot and they all got to enjoy the rest of the production from the balconies, which had been reserved for the kids. IMG_3070

A pretty amazing opportunity. And now my kid has played the same stage where Ann and Nancy Heart played the hell out of Led Zeppelin for Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, David Letterman, and the President of the United States. (There’s a Senator or two over my shoulder in the blurred shot- Jon was trying to be sneaky)

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Learning: We Are Not Hip

Last weekend, in an effort to broaden our horizons while down at Monticello, Jon and I decided we would try and find charming and independent places to eat. It’s harder than you think- late last year, we also tried this, and we let far off into the bushes by Yelp, and then got into a big fight with Yelp because Yelp doesn’t “feature” negative reviews, which means you can get let to a totally craptastic restaurant where the maitre’d accosts you about timeshares. But that’s another story. So yeah, we don’t Yelp anymore. You can if you want, but beware of maitre’d’s with aggressive agendas and burried negative reviews.

We resorted to friends and the New York Times food page. You’d really think you should just be able to stroll around downtown, window shop a bit, and then meander into somewhere to nosh. You’d think. Well, we did. We were wrong. We tried to find a few places that had been recommended, but after closed streets, traffic nightmares, construction, no parking, and places only open between 1:00 and 4:30 every other weekday… we gave up. We just wanted some breakfast. Waffle house isn’t as bad as you might imagine.

After wandering around Monticello, we were hoping for a nice late lunch. The NYT gave a lovely review to a place out in the country- the atmosphere got great marks, the food was described in lyrical praise, we weren’t interested in their wine-tasting bar, but we managed to find it on our GPS. Bingo. Let’s go.

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Well, it was certainly charming. The scenery was nice- lovely rolling Virginia hills in the blue ridge valleys. Even in the late winter, the fields were pretty and the winery was beautiful. I should have known something was off when, heading towards the barn doors, every woman I saw had on The Uniform. (It may vary slightly based on where you live, but here in Virginia, it’s knee-high riding boots (riding isn’t necessary, nor is even knowing what a horse is) slim jeans or riding-pants tucked into the boots, a large bag, a white long-sleeved t-shirt, and a puffy, dark-colored belted parka with a fur-lined hood.) Once you notice it, it’s hilarious how the Uniform is everywhere. This place was lousy with the Uniform. Jon and I giggled, headed inside. I’m not making fun of fashion- I read Tom & Lorenzo like everyone else. It’s just fun watching a trend blow up. Anyway… inside we went.

It was like Pinterst puked.

Charming and beautiful and calculatedly whimsical, from the rough-hewn rafters to the Mason jars of weedy flowers on the table and the raw linen covered, down-stuffed sofas clustered around low tables made from industrial carts with factory wheels still attached. The open duct-work and galvanized metal, the unfinished thick cuts of tree making up the wine-tasting bar… oh, it was all so pretty. Girls in the Uniform held their glasses of white wine while tall gas-fired heaters made circles of warmth on the colonnade. We asked the chirpy hostess if we could order food without wine-tasting. Sure, she said, and walked us back to our faux-rustic table.

The menu was lovely- as you have probably imagined there were chalkboards everywhere (just like at my house), and the water for our table was brought in a jug with a cork stopper with two small hand-blown cups. When you go somewhere like this, it’s implicit that part of what you pay for is the atmosphere. We know this, and had budgeted accordingly. We didn’t go in imagining we were going to have a cheap meal to eat and run.

If you were ordering from the entree section, and you read “smoked speckled trout with salt and vinegar chips, horseradish crème fraîche, preserved fennel, micro arugula, caper oil” what would you imagine? Perhaps, given it’s an entree, you might imagine a filet of trout, perhaps with some salted and soured crisp potatoes, and and maybe a side of arugula salad, with the described caper oil and preserved fennel- enough to call it a meal, right? Knowing it cost $17, you’d probably imagine something like I did. It sounded lovely.

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This is what I got.

There were eight potato chips on my plate, with a tiny bit of trout on each chip. That’s a 10″ dinner plate. I think the fennel, which got it’s own byline on the menu, is the little dab to the right of where I had take a bite. Not a bunch of bites- ONE bite. To be fair, it was utterly delicious, and were this an appetizer, or— even in a push, a salad— I would have been delighted. But an entree? Really? Jon enjoyed a “Virginia Country ham sandwich with gruyère, merlot & onion jam, garden herb salad.” It was the same price as my entree, and you can see it in the background. He said it was good.

We were having fun, and aside from the fact that the cheese plate came COLD (people, come on! you can’t advertise an artisanal cheese plate and bring it right from the icebox! please read up on cheese plating…) the food, such as it was, was delicious, and the ambiance was charming. But we are decidedly not hip enough for a place like this. I felt like Anthony Bourdain- give me good food, I don’t mind paying for it, but make it worth it.

Jon snapped my picture, and posted it to Facebook before I realized what he was doing. It got a little out of hand.

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I’m not telling where we went- it doesn’t matter. It was fun, and we enjoyed ourselves in spite of ourselves. In the ladies room as we were leaving, their were two young women in the Uniform, happily chatting and holding their glasses of wine. In the bathroom.

We went to Outback for dinner.

Meeting Mr. Jefferson

10426886_10152689666770963_1143964879377038488_nWalking through Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and his family (both acknowledged and enslaved) is a powerful and thought-provoking experience. Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, and his talents and the scope of his life are a little overwhelming to consider from a modern perspective. Pretty much everyone knows Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he was the 3rd President of the United States. Only one of which he took pride in, by the way. He is reported to have said the presidency was “the daily loss of friends” and did not even include it on his epitaph.

If you’ve got a nickel in your pocket, you know what Monticello looks like. It still looks like that, thanks in a large part not just to modern conservationists who have stewardship of the property, but to a Jewish man, US Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, who purchased the home in 1830, then in disrepair after Jefferson’s death. Levy was a Jew who directly credited Jefferson’s role in creating the Republic with allowing him to live a life “which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.” The Levy family held Monticello for more than 90 years, until it was transferred to the current trustees in 1923.

Almost 90 percent of the house is original, which is truly remarkable. What becomes immediately apparent, as you walk through, is that Jefferson’s statesmanship was not his greatest accomplishment. That’s kind of hard to comprehend. The Enlightenment created Jefferson, and to this day, we still benefit from his ingenuity. He believed “human reason and knowledge can improve the condition of mankind.”

He was the governor of Virginia, the vice-president of the US as well as the president. He was the ambassador to France. We have the Library of Congress because Jefferson donated his library to the Nation. When it was burned by the British in the War of 1812, he established it again. Jefferson was not an inventor himself, but he was a visionary, and what we would probably today call an Early Adaptor. He employed new technologies in his home and in his architecture, such as a cooktop with burners for his cooks he learned about in France, double-paned windows, harmonious ratios of natural light carefully worked out using the Golden Mean to proportion the rooms of his house, and innovative indoor sanitation. He was an architect of innovative usage, attention to detail, and tremendous craftsmanship. Everything from the drainage on the roof (still being studied by preservationists at UVA) to the mortise and tenons of the window panes were designed for not only efficiency, but for beauty. Jefferson doubled the size of the US through the Louisiana Purchase. He maintained friendships with Lewis and Clark, and collected accurate maps, soil, flora and fauna, fossils and relics of indigenous people. He studied topography, and had paintings of Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke in his parlor.

Jefferson was a prolific but very disciplined writer. He used a polygraph machine to copy all of his thousands of letters, leaving behind some of the clearest and most well documented historical, private and business papers in America. We have almost 19,000 papers written by Jefferson over his lifetime. He believed and stated educated citizens were essential to the survival of democracy.

The docents and stewards of Monticello don’t shy away from the fact Thomas Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment, was also a slaveholder. Modern genetics and careful curation and compilation of documents and oral histories have established with near certainty that Jefferson did indeed have four children with Sally Hemings, a woman whom he literally owned. To modern sensibilities, this difficult to consider. The foundation is careful to attempt to accurately tell the names and stories to the enslaved workers who lived their lives, some for five generations, at Monticello. Nearly half of the enslaved people were of the Hemings family. In his will upon his death, he made provisions for some enslaved people to be freed. But only some. Jefferson allowed, unlike many, his enslaved workers to learn to read and he encouraged and enabled the study of trades and craftsmanship. As I said, it’s hard to reconcile.

The grounds are beautiful, even in the winter austerity. The family cemetery is a short walk from the house, past the slave quarters and down a gentle hill, holds the remains of the Jefferson family, decedents of the Levy family, and of the Hemings families. On Jefferson’s marker, he asked for only three things: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. When it came down to brass tacks, that’s what mattered to him.

I’m kind of in love with Jefferson and I’m kind of conflicted at the same time. It’s a complicated love that I don’t entirely understand. How could one person achieve so much? The answer is also complicated, and involves owning other human beings, inheriting a tremendous start, and leaving his family with tremendous debt. People have devoted doctoral thesis to and not arrived at satisfactory answers about Jefferson. The truth is multi-facted and elusive, and probably impossible to nail down, but few would argue the fact that he had a powerful effect where he extended himself.. His ideas are still fueling our debates and the complexities of who we are as a Nation, and in which direction we should face for our future. That’s a legacy worth contemplation and study.

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