Prologue to “Ohio” (1st installment of 2 parts)

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Its crazy I know—but it happens to writers—they develop a relationship with their characters. I found myself anxious about Cheryl—a “person” who has no physical existence—she exists only in my imagination—and now, I hope—in yours. I wasn’t concerned about her ultimate disposition but about the nature and purpose of her suffering and unhappy seeking.

Cheryl is a metaphor for the seeker in all human beings—she’s also a vehicle of suffering—as are all human beings. Seeking and suffering are inevitable aspects of the human condition. Part of the pain derives from the searching itself. But the goal of the searching is twofold—the alleviation of suffering—and giving meaning or purpose to the suffering.

Finishing the story this commentary is prologue to helped my anxiety. I got her through the terrible pain that lay in store for her at this time in her life and—at story’s end—she has a respite to prepare for the coming challenges and pain.

I wanted to do something with my anxiety for poor Cheryl. So I went to the beautiful campus of the nearby University of Virginia. The grounds of a major university was where I felt her strong and searching spirit might find comfort—and where I might experience some sort of inspiration, insight or spiritual connection.

On a warm and humid Friday afternoon I picked up my camera and went off to do some seeking of my own—an old man searching in a world of beautiful, strong young people—real ones—not the fictitious kind like Cheryl.

After the usual 20 or 30 minutes of aggravation looking for a parking space I hiked the requisite several blocks to campus. I began my search in the imposing Rotunda building—the centerpiece of the old campus. A larger than life statue of Jefferson stands majestically in front of the building, like an American god, surveying the expanse of campus he faces. Behind him a vast incline of steps leads up to the towering portico.

Inside I ambled up and down the beautiful winding staircases designed by Jefferson where I saw the only fireplace on a stair landing I’ve ever encountered. Showing me a floor plan of the Rotunda, a student building guide explained Jefferson (felt he had to) put a fire place there to complete the symmetry of the building plan. You’d have to see the plan for yourself for it to make sense.

I watched a bunch of high school kids take a tour of the building then tear around out on the beautiful (and big) lawn area playing tag football. “The Lawn” as it is traditionally referred to, is behind the Rotunda and is surrounded by dozens of little, one-room student quarters. These little one room quarters and the common lawn area, were designed by Jefferson as an academic village and they look today, pretty much as they did in the 1800s—to me they seem a lot like monk cells.

As I usually do when wandering around the UVa campus, I strolled from one end of campus to the other under the sheltering portico over the doors to the little rooms—or cells—if you like.

At the far end of the lawn I encountered one of the little rooms standing open and some beautiful artwork on display—magnificent renderings of Jefferson and Jefferson’s slave and lover, Sally Hemming. While Joe Cocker wailed from a boom box sitting on the mantle inside, I photographed the artwork exhibit. I was suddenly interrupted by a voice behind me offering, “Here’s the artist—do you want to meet the artist?”

I didn’t know it but this particular weekend was a UVa re-union weekend. The artwork was by a gentleman—formerly a student who lived in one of the cells several centuries ago—by the name of Chris Morris—an architect living and practicing in New York City.

Chris has a passion—possibly a calling of sorts—Jefferson and Sally Hemming.

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Note to reader–you can continue reading and finish the whole piece now or return tomorrow for the second half.

BEGIN 2nd installment

A lover of all things Jeffersonian—Chris vociferously shared his indignation—if not outrage—at the “improvements” to the architecture employed by Jefferson in that part of the Academic Village where we stood. When he pointed out the changes and explained things to this architectural-clueless-newbie (me) I could see his points were well-taken.

Chris has made a study of Jefferson and Hemming and adamantly adheres to two convictions—(1.) Jefferson’s entire life was an on-going experiment in numerous of the arts and sciences. He spent his entire life questioning, looking beyond what was and

reaching into the shadows to find the next bit of enlightenment. In other words he was a seeker—someone wanting to gain understanding and alleviate suffering. And (2.) his relationship with the beautiful and sophisticated Sally Hemming was not the story of a powerful white slave-owner’s abuse and exploitation of a completely vulnerable human being. It was nothing less than the deepest of love affairs.

Chris explained that, while Sally was in France where slavery was outlawed, she had the choice to remain there as a free woman or return to the United States as a slave. She chose to return to the U.S. with Jefferson. What could be more about searching, alleviation of suffering and the provision of purpose, than love? Chris also reminded me Sally was Jefferson’s first wife’s half-sister and bore a strong resemblance.

Chris commented at knowledgeable length on the life and genius of Jefferson—the man and the myth. Chris’s considerable learning and his own love-affair with Hemming and Jefferson made for an engaging and educational half-hour.

I didn’t want to keep him from his family (one of whom initially called to me) who were sitting nearby in lawn chairs and chatting, so I continued my search for Cheryl but without much luck it seemed.

I noticed a girl about the same age as Cheryl—setting up refreshments for UVa Alumni attending the re-union. I watched her for a brief moment, as she took drinks from cartons and plunged them into large coolers of ice. Her back was to me—she was never aware of my presence. I felt no connection—just awkward and foolish standing there—an old man watching a young woman pushing drinks into ice. I quickly moved on.

I stopped a few moments to take in the beautiful UVa chapel—to pause and reflect in the stained-glass silence—then hiked back to my truck at the eastern edge of campus parked under green southern Pin Oaks moving heavily in the humid Virginia  breeze.

The drive from UVa to my home takes one through beautiful Virginia countryside—winding roads through hilly forests—and right past the entrance to Monticello—Jefferson’s home, which is actually about 20 minutes from my house.

I had left home earlier in the day looking for Cheryl but found Sally. I have to wonder if there’s a connection—could Cheryl be a descendant of Sally’s? Maybe the blood of one of this nation’s greatest presidents and his beautiful mistress pulses through Cheryl’s veins.

Is there a parallel or metaphor here? Does Cheryl’s searching journey through American darkness and her encounters with love and death, savage conflict and spiritual transcendence echo the beautiful and tragic Jefferson-Hemming story?

It seems an extraordinary tale—in the case of Jefferson and Hemming—and in the case of the fictitious Cheryl—a story of the uniquely American obsession with journey, discovery and innovation but also of the uniquely human quest for love, purpose and in overcoming evils such as slavery and racism—the alleviation of suffering.

And as for meaning—it may be that the search itself gives our lives meaning.

To be continued…

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End “Ohio Prologue” piece

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