Barak Hussein Obama

After two joyous years working on my first political campaign to support Barak Hussein Obama for president, I was beyond giddy to see hundreds of Obama signs grace the grassy median on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue in November 2008.  It was a sublime juxtaposition.
This classy young man brought incessant smiles to the faces of the volunteers at the campaign office. Never before had I witnessed blacks and whites of all ages work so joyously and selflessly together: that alone was a beautiful gift.
On the day of the election I served as inside attorney at one of the predominantly African American voting precincts. My counterpart for the Republican Party, a young man in a suit, expressed awe and praise for the efficiency and organization of our campaign. That night I hung a gorgeous new American flag, draped on the full length window of my front door, and left the hall light on all night.
Two months later I greeted my friend and her young son on a cold inauguration day at that front door. My sweet puppy joined me. I opened the door ever-so-slightly, to send out a cheer of welcome and celebration of the day. That little rascal of a happy puppy, squeezed out the door. Before I could stop her, she ran into the street and we lost her. I worried for months before the election that a deranged person might take Obama away from us. That little prancing lamb of a Malti-poo became for me the sacrificial lamb. Later that morning we sat in shock and tears watching the inauguration.
In the eight years that followed, President Obama maintained a grace and baffling internal strength to do what he thought was right. I am ever-so-grateful to him and his family for their sacrifice and courage. And I’m hopeful that they will continue to transform the world for the better.

An amazing year

2016 exceeded all expectations.

For the third year in a row, I bike to work every day. My office moved to 4th and Grace Street adding two miles to my daily ride. We biked the capital trail and Riverside Drive on weekends. We kayaked behind the eye institute to the Huguenot Bridge, on the gorgeously silent canal.

With deep sadness the family grieved the loss of Greg’s cousin Tony Smith in January.  A kind and generous man, Tony owned Smith Iron and Metal where Greg found the pieces of steel for his art.  We think of him often, miss his humor and presence, and tell stories of Greg’s time on the farm with him.

We traveled to Sarasota in February to see Paul and David (stayed in the tropical-view guest room) and Fort Myers to see Kathy and Norbert. In March Sarah Austen went to Fort Lauderdale with friends and caught the biggest fish (a King Mackerel) on horrific seas.  In April Pop turned 100 and Mom turned 83.  We hosted a little fete for Mom with her friends at our house.

Greg joined the canal committee at Venture Richmond suggesting that they add a bike path from Brown’s Island to Maymont, in addition to their boat ride plan.  An $11 million idea, it may happen.

Greg and I entered my office pool for the NCAA basketball tournament.  We selected a team that should have been #1 but couldn’t seem to get it together.  To our delight, they got it together. We won the pool.  Villanova over UNC, 77-74.  Those who chose Villanova were in the top 99.8%; whatever that means.  I think it’s very good.  $183 pot.

In May, Greg received his 50th birthday wish: a dance party (7 years late). We invited every friend we knew. Fantastic food and beverage. It was a back-porch party that spilled to the patio. We released Stone Brewing’s Citrusy Wit and unexpectedly, the owner of Stone showed up. I failed (ugh) to get a photo of him chatting with Sarah Austen and our friend who brought him, Juliellen Sarver. I especially wanted the photo of him looking at Greg’s steel art with mauve large glasses on the end of his nose.  Greg spent the evening in the pantry spinning vinyl until he realized that Sarah Austen’s Spotify was a heck of a lot easier.

Sarah Austen received two unpaid internships this summer: Venture Richmond (“best-ever intern” according to the executive director Lisa Simms) and Jack Berry for Mayor (“we lost because you went back to school” said Jack Berry on Thanksgiving Day during our walk around the block with Greg’s family). It was a wonderful experience.  She studied her heart out in the fall semester of her senior year and loved every minute of the political science education she received, in and outside the classroom. She remains on the Dean’s list.  We are so happy for her and proud of her tenacity and optimism.

Although it was an odd (scary, disgusting, ever-present) campaign season, we live not in fear.

We drove to Wilbraham in June where i reunioned with Barbara Tuozzolo, Ceecee Murden, Diane Brown, Steven Riel, Erin McDonald, Beverly Frisby and my glorious home on a perfectly cool and clear weekend. Greg and Sarah Austen finally saw my “home” as i remember it.  Fantastical. Oddly enough, Uncle Bob’s 80th surprise birthday party at Amherst Golf Club, was the same weekend, hosted by Amy Mullins (Pam Gyott’s daughter, Jamie’s sister).  Always heaven to return to my parents’ childhood home.

We spent a (free) ten days in Southern Shores in August with Mom, Kathy, Dottie, Barbara and Olivia. Greg designed the addition to the Harris cottage and is compensated with a few free weeks.

Greg’s dad is now home-bound with 24-hour care and Ann lives with and cares for him.  His spirits are good and his mind is mostly crazy-sharp.  His legs simply won’t work anymore.  He laughs with us on Saturday mornings, enjoys Greg’s stories, and gives me a hard time for making him such steaming hot coffee.  Even when I add ice cubes to the cup. In September Pop inquired where his letter to the editor was concerning the changes to Monroe Park.  We dug it up, edited it to his liking, and submitted it. He was awarded Correspondent of the Day and received many wonderful comments online.

On September 22, VCU kicked off its largest campaign in history. According to colleagues, I led the charge for the Launch weekend and loved my role and the results. Simultaneously my generous director tipped me off to a special event gig on November 16. To make it worth my while, I told them i could not work for less than $$ per hour. The event honored a kind and generous long-time resident of Richmond and it was a joy to “run the show” and be so gratefully compensated, financially as well as at board meetings where they mentioned my name and significant contribution. The event was designed to entice donations to the endowment to honor Buford Scott and benefit the Virginia Council on Economic Education.

The October 14 SteelWool Exhibit in our home with Dawn Waters, resulted in the sale of seven of Greg’s pieces of art. His work has become part of the Markel Corporation collection.  Markel purchased two of Greg’s pieces of steel art.  The 80-year old former CEO of Markel, who makes decisions on the artwork they purchase for their corporate office, came to our house on Dec 17, walked through and within 13 minutes said “I’ll take these two”.  We delivered the pieces two days later and took a tour of the artwork already installed in the office.  It’s like a museum.  Each piece is identified with artist, medium, date, and “Collection of the Markel Corporation”.  The collection includes Sally Mann, a whole room dedicated to Theresa Pollak, Heidi Trepannier, Richard Roth, Sally Bowring, on and on. It was astounding. Later that month, we traveled to Blacksburg for the annual birthday/football weekend to celebrate Sarah Austen’s 22nd birthday with 18 of her college friends at a lodge on the shores of Claytor Lake (State Park) following the Thursday night win over Miami. There was a hilarious log-cutting contest and one of her friends gave a freezing, sunset sailboat ride on the lake of scary high winds. Dottie and Ken, Barbara and Donnie, Mom and Steve Slaughter joined us for (part of) the weekend and a New River Trail bike ride.  In addition to the sailboat ride, the roaring fires made me very happy.  Dear God, thank you for my hard-working and creative husband. My life would be so different without him.

The day after Thanksgiving, Greg gave his annual walking tour: this year through Oregon Hill and Hollywood Cemetery.  Over 50 people showed up and our dear friend Marsha, who missed it, gave him a megaphone for Christmas.  Smashing success and next year it will be in Jackson Ward.

Everyone decided to host parties in December: Bill Payne, Mark and Eric, Ted Elmore, Katherine and Jack Berry, the Johns, Mosmans, Contes, Tessa, Mrs. Carter’s 95th birthday, Christmas Eve at our house, David Ross and Lynne and Chuck for Christmas day, Dottie and Ken, the Ruffins after Christmas.  We attended all but one. New Year’s Eve consisted of de-decorating the house, attempting to hook up a new DVR, watching Sarah Austen and Olivia hurry up and wait for New Year’s Eve, and the Clemson-Ohio State game.  Thank you dear God for my daughter, my husband, family, friends, life.  Make me an instrument of your peace.

Moments

img_1566I have to tell you that your hair is so beautiful.

I know that i know you.

You look just like…Glen Close, Carol King, Andy McDowell, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Sally,
Thank you for your encouraging words. Everything about you seems to be life giving; I receive your gift and hope that one day I too will exude life and joy as you do.

Expressions of appreciation since I’ve turned 50 that come once a week.

Tonglen

During morning meditation, focusing on the breath, listening to the sounds around me, ever so grateful dear God seeking the divinity that resides in me, I wonder about the source of the noise in my life.  Greg’s fever of unknown origin returns after 12 years.  I am called back for a mammogram that reveals 5 small calcifications and a biopsy on Friday.  What insights do these treasures offer?

I decide to do tonglen for my sister because there has been a chill between us lately.  As I breathe her life into mine, I am overwhelmed with suffering.  Her life becomes my own and the stress and sadness become one with my stress and sadness.  Tears stream down my cheeks and, with elbows on knees, I sob.  Whether I need a good cry or she suffers to the max, I trust healing occurred.  Powerful, overwhelming and beautiful I must continue this gift called tonglen.

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Child in College

Earlier this fall, a young adult female in Charlottesville, Virginia was abducted.  Over the last ten years several young women have gone missing or died at the hands of a local resident in this sleepy college town full of accomplished and talented people. Whether by domestic violence or random abductions, parents can’t help but fear for their daughter’s lives as they experiment with new-found freedom, alcohol, drugs, sexuality, and adventure.  During a weekend celebration of hiking and dinners at college with friends for Sarah Austen’s 20th birthday, someone captured this photo.  It has become a treasure for me as I witness my baby in the arms of her friends, clinging to each other in celebration, joy and love.  There is no greater image for a mother and no better cushion for a daughter than this.

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A Strange Calm

As suffering swirls, there is a calmness inside.  I do not worry.  I have hope that love makes a difference.  I am detached from drama.  I find joy in mundane interactions.  I do not fear mistakes.  I no longer need to be the best.  It is a very strange calm. And I wonder if the calm is because life is generally good.  Or is life good because of the calm? How would I respond to a family tragedy?  What if I became seriously ill, or more difficult, if husband or daughter or sister or brother became ill.  I feel like I’m in a zone, able to endure what comes my way.

Never been happier

Stripped down in the middle of the night, maintaining composure in meetings, blasting the AC in the car, the hormones have kicked me into midlife. I’ve been fortunate that it didn’t hit me until age 55. Take note Sarah Austen. You’ll be like your Mama, most likely. Right now you’re smiling big at football games, soaking up time with your friends, buckling down as needed to do well in your classes, and exploring a couple options for your major. You take most of your mama’s advice and love to be with your daddy. We could not be prouder of your optimism, your creative spirit, your work ethic, and just being you. Our lives are filled with stimulating work, friends, the garden, neighbors, family, sunshine, aches and pains, football excitement, exploring what life will be like for us in the next few decades. Shall we build a little house on a rise that hosts our own design, a vista of mountains and a small pond? Shall we leave our precious home and downsize into an urban apartment? Dare we get another dog? How many grandchildren will we have? So many questions and so much excitement for the future.  I have never been happier.

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The Flow

The fourth message of the common wonderful: It is true that you are not in control, and it is also true that “For all your worrying, you cannot add a single moment to your span of life” (Luke 12:25). If we cannot control the biggies—life and death—why should we spend so much time trying to control all the lesser outcomes? Call it destiny, providence, guidance, synchronicity, or coincidence if you will, but people who are connected to the Source do not need to steer their own life and agenda. They know that it is being done for them in a much better way than they ever could. Those who hand themselves over are well received, and then the flow happens through them, with them, and in them. When you think you deserve, expect, or need something specific to happen, you are setting yourself up for constant unhappiness and a final inability to enjoy or at least allow what is actually going to happen. After a while, you find yourself resisting almost everything at some level to try to remain in total control. I think this pattern is entirely common and widespread. Only when you give up your preoccupation with control will you be able to move with the divine flow. Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired. Giving up control is a school of union, compassion, and understanding. It is also a school for the final letting go that we call death. Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, to the moment, and to God—none of which can be experienced when you presume you can be in control anyway.

Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

April 24, 2014

Confession of a Juror

J. is approached by detectives on April 17, 2013 at the T- Mart in a traditional Southern city overflowing with wealth, creativity, and abject poverty.  A canine drug unit sniffs heroin and cocaine residue.  As a crowd gathers, he is handcuffed and put in the police vehicle. He starts “digging”.  Experts say he was trying to remove the hidden drugs between his butt cheeks. When they arrive at the police station, Detective O. sees him fling a baggie under a car.  The baggie contains 39 hits of heroin and 27 separately bagged rocks of crack cocaine.

Almost a year later, this tall, lean, light-skinned African American man of 32 years sits despondently at the table awaiting the tedious process of jury selection.  His short hair is neatly groomed into rows.  His pale green buttoned-down shirt reminds me of my husband.  Ninety minutes pass and a group is selected: four black women, five white women, and three young white men.  It took 20 hours for me to realize that he did not have a “jury of his peers”. Sin #1

The prosecutor is a confident, young woman, a character from a week-night drama.  In a tight, knee-length skirt and an even tighter camisole and cropped jacket, she efficiently moves through the expert witnesses.  The defense team is a disgrace: two shy, uncomfortable young men who appear to be in training. We are moved to the jury room for an hour (“do not discuss the case”). We discuss the weather, March Madness, and the lost airliner in the Indian Ocean.

We hear from the defense and return to the jury room.  We take a quick poll on possession and three of us are skeptical.  I argue that all over the country this very scenario is played out daily and if my pretty-boy husband were charged with these violations, he would serve no time.  Why didn’t they check for fingerprints on the bag of drugs to provide solid evidence? The jury tells me that suspicion of corruption of the detectives is “unreasonable”.   Everyone wants to go home.  I grudgingly concede.  Sin #2.

The judge reads our “guilty” decision aloud.  The defense requests a roll call of each juror’s full name to indicate agreement with the decision.  Excellent technique for intimidating a wavering juror.  The defendant sobs with his head falling back.  As he sits down he puts his head on the table.  Family wipes their eyes and you get the feeling that they have seen this before.  We receive jury instructions, a stack of priors, and return to the jury room to determine his sentence.  The minimum sentence for each count of possession is five years.  We ask the judge if he will serve the years concurrently or consecutively.  He instructs us to “not get involved in the emotion of it.  Just make a recommendation”.  What an odd response when a man’s life is on the line.  It is 6:30pm and many jurors share that they “need to get home”.

The foreman is a middle-aged blond, volunteer extraordinaire, who knows how to work through an agenda.  We take a quick, anonymous vote and the sentences range from 10 to 40 years.  I argue that “prison is a breeding ground for ongoing horror and is no place for transformation.”  Fellow jurors state “he will not change”.    There is no further discussion.  It is 8:30pm.  We ate lunch at 1pm and neither the judge nor the bailiff offers a break for dinner.

We add up the years and divide by 12 jurors.  The average is 20 years, a sentence suggested by four jurors.  “I won’t keep you here all night but I will press for less time.  Whether he’s 52 or 47, he will be no different.  I want 15 years.”  Why didn’t I say this? I was lulled by confrontation fatigue, ignorance, and cowardice.  Sin #3.

We return to the courtroom.  The judge reads the sentence: 20 years for a handful of drugs with intent to distribute.  He thanks us.  A bailiff escorts us to our cars.  8:40pm. We return to our families. To our lives.  And I was deeply disturbed.

Following the case, a fellow-juror tells me that there are only six states in the Union that use jury sentencing.  In this southern state, 81% of the judges take the recommendation of the jury, so they don’t appear soft on crime.  In June we discovered that he took the jury recommendation: 20 years.

Under my watch, the future of a man’s life was decided in less than two hours so that we could get back to our middle class rat-race. If we are going to bother to serve on a jury, let’s do it well: by gathering our courage to bring out the best in all of us.