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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In Praise of Boredom

IMG_2443“Mom, I’m bored!” my brothers and I would occasionally whine. But only occasionally. Boredom meant mom would “give us something to do” and that seldom meant something we liked. It was far more fun to find things to do without asking mom to intervene. I remember long, lazy summer days with nothing concrete to do. I remember weekends with wide open days where bikes were crashed on the lawn, my hands smelled of the warm rubber basketball, and grass stains colored my knees— pants or naked skin, depending on the season.

My mom would be sitting at the kitchen table, illuminated by her sewing machine light and the eerily comforting pale-green sunlight filtered through the ruffled translucent eves shading our back patio. She would have the phone cradled between her cheek and shoulder, talking with my various aunts about the latest family drama, while shoving calico and rickrack though her humming needle. The windows were always open, and the breeze carried the tangy and sweet scent of fruit— plums, apricots, tangerines and oranges— floating in from the backyard. Some days the breeze carried the pungent scent of the tomatoes being packed down by the bay at the Libby cannery.

“Go outside and play,” she would stage-whisper over the phone, and shoo me away, shoving more rickrack through and snipping threads with her scissors. So many memories of my mother involve thread, fabric, and her always-busy hands making things.

There were no coordinated practices, no organized play dates, no schedule divided into 15-minute increments to keep everyone on-task or focused on being somewhere or doing something. There’s been a lot of ink devoted lately to free-range parenting; the natural backlash against the modern tendency toward over-structured and over-scheduled and sleep-deprived kids. For me, and maybe for a lot of you, this wasn’t a trend- it was just growing up. It was life.

I’ve noticed, with my own kids, that while I don’t schedule their free time out of existence and I carefully keep the margins of their young lives open and unstructured, they are still far more accustomed to being entertained than I ever was. While my mom had her sewing machine and the telephone- twisted, curling, stretched out tether keeping her in the kitchen- I didn’t have anything. That was grown up stuff. I went outside to play.

Today, I have my computer and a phone— which is better than anything Gene Roddenberry imagined 50 years ago— and my kids have devices that I couldn’t even have dreamed up when I was eight, or eleven, or thirteen. There are kindles with wifi, laptop computers, and personal, pocket-held video games. My teenage son has a phone my mom gave him for Christmas. It doesn’t have service, but it’s got wifi and he can text me from school, and it does everything a computer can do. When my kids burst through the door after walking home from school, they grab a snack and immediately open their screens.

This is a reality of modern life. I’m no luddite, and frankly, I make my living by keeping my finger on the electronic pulse of what’s happening through electronic tethers. I don’t have any desire to take these modern marvels and methods of connection from my kids. They can FaceTime with their grandparents and their cousins, they can do homework and submit it, they can play games with friends in other states, they can research science fair projects and watch the live feed from NASA. These are good things.

But sometimes… I want to hear “Mom, I’m bored.”

Creativity happens when there is room to be bored. When we are not entertained, not distracted by screens showing giving us infinite images of beautiful things, interesting things, fascinating things- our minds have room to actually turn on. When we are not rushing from one lesson to another practice, to another meeting or appointment, there is room to breathe. Being bored is where thinking actually starts. Sit in the stillness. Sit in the quiet. Let your mind wind down, and see where it takes you. Ideas germinate in boredom.

How do I encourage my kids to take advantage of the beautiful margins of their lives? To not fill all the space with stuff? I make them be bored.

Turning off the screens— ALL the screens— sending them out to play without direction or micromanaging… leads to that wonderful refrain. But shortly, a magical thing happens.  And it always happens. When they have nothing to entertain them, suddenly they start imagining. Suddenly, I hear games being invented, laughter from the backyard, bikes being hauled to the porch, giggling voices teasing each other as they try and manage the tire-pump themselves. I hear “Mom, we’re going to play basketball!” and I will holler back to please put a coat on… and that’s it. Basketball will turn into a game of tag, and tag will lead to finding a cool hole in a tree and discovering a stick bug, and that will lead to making a small fort and habitat for the captured bug. And that will lead to lifting stones and rocks in search of more bugs, which sometimes leads to finding a lizard or frog. And so it goes. It’s a beautiful thing, and suddenly, they aren’t bored anymore.

I let them walk to and from school. It’s good for them. They have that window each day, where they are responsible and independent- the window between School and Home, which belongs only to them. When the door crashes open, they are always happy to be home, and they also usually have something to report- they observe. They see and feel the seasons changing. They know who got a new bike, and which neighbor kids also walk. They know who got a new kitchen sink, because on trash day, that house had cool debris out at the curb. They report on cool yards they pass, and which house has the best climbing tree. They also have been astoundingly responsible and never yet blown through the window in which I expect them home. They have not only lived up to the rules I set down, they have surpassed them. They never could have done that had I not allowed them the space to do so.

And that’s been my biggest takeaway from giving them room to be bored: They really are amazing human beings. Kids can do so much, and the beautiful thing about giving them room to expand is that they then own their own accomplishments. They didn’t do or achieve anything because I was driving them, hovering, or managing all of their time. They did it because of themselves. That kind of accomplishment is priceless. That kind of trust in each other is beyond priceless.

Boredom is where the future is born.

Catching Up: January Edition

Well, the IEP is behind us now. That Eligibility Meeting was rough, but the IEP went smoothly and I’m very happy with Bean’s team and confident with the new services and support he will be getting. He’s doing pretty well, and there is a stout safety-net being constructed as we transition him towards middle-school next year. Middle-school is scary enough with a typical kid, contemplating it with a Special Needs child is whole new level… Thankful, once again, for the devoted professionals who spend their careers not just educating these children, but educating others so these kids can have successful lives.

Abby is utterly submersed in Harry Potter right now. Her Evil Uncle Willy gave her a magical, light-up replica of Hermione’s wand for Christmas, and she takes it to bed with her each night, illuminating the pages of her books while she softly chants the spells in Latin. She’s asking to take Latin now in high school. Doesn’t your 3rd graders worry about high school classes?

So last week, she decided she wanted her hair cut like Hermione’s. It was probably a good idea, since her hair is thick, naturally wavy, and was easily grazing the small of her back. This is lovely, except when it’s time to comb it, when she howls like a wildebeest in a mud hole. The girl at the beauty shop did a lovely job, and managed to mimic the hair of Hermione exceptionally well. Here’s a stunning example:

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Er… maybe not.

I went mural-painting for a friend’s daughter, who, coincidentally enough, is also nutballs about Harry Potter. It started out as a request for Quidditch hoops to be painted on the wall in her room, and ended up being something along the lines of this:

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Guess what Abby suddenly wants on the wall in her room? Not the Quidditch hoops, which I thought, frankly, turned out quite nicely:

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I guess the holidays were such a whirlwind I utterly forgot to write about any of it- I think I slapped a few picture up on Instagram or Facebook, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It was a lovely December- we were fortunate enough to have a full house for Christmas, and utterly delighted in having all five kids with us. Jon’s family has some wonderful traditions that we seamlessly incorporated into our own. There were matching pajamas, many knitted socks, piles of cookies and icing, and a bunch of happy kids. It was pretty much the best.

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New Year’s Eve came with far less fanfare. We were down to three kids, and never one for wild shenanigans, we did our Virginia tradition, which is having hot chocolate at the LOVE train, and then snuggling down at home for the remainder of the evening. I like NYE to be quiet, when I can reflect on the year leaving, and imagine hopes and dreams and plans for the coming year. It’s a reflective and quiet time for me, and coupled with sugared up kids who can barely make it to midnight, being home is by far my preference.

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