The e-mail arrived in the late afternoon of March 30. The subject line read: INVITATION. It looked like spam and I was about to delete it, but something caught my eye in the preview window. A seal of some sort. The White House.
Like any registered voter, I receive e-mails all the time from Barack, Michelle, Joe, and Jill. This was different. I wasn't being asked to donate or host a gathering in my home. I was invited to their home, for a signing of the JOBS Act.
I reacted in a manner consistent with the maturity and grace I have cultivated in my 43 years of life. I squealed. And then I did a happy dance. The catch was that the event was right in the middle of my family's spring-break vacation. Could I abandon them? I didn't even ask. I just accepted. And, of course, my family understood.
The invitation was not random. I had been working alongside my team in advocating passage of this bill, which makes it easier for start-up companies to raise money and ultimately go public. While my colleagues were working the halls of Congress, I was in my home office in Delaware County, demonstrating support from the venture-capital and small-business communities. Later that month, as the bill went to the House and Senate floors, I sat at that same desk, watching C-Span 2 online and tallying the "yeas" and "nays," excitedly e-mailing colleagues when the bill passed.
With its bipartisan backing, I wasn't surprised the act passed. But to be invited to the signing? That was a shocker. I would be within shouting distance of the president of the United States to celebrate an accomplishment in which I had a small part.
As the bill-signing approached, my excitement turned to anxiety.
Would I pass the security clearance? (Yes. Apparently my FBI file is clean.)
What if my flight gets delayed? (I decided to arrive the night before.)
Is my new dress appropriate? (If Michelle can wear a tank dress, so can I.)
Once we walked through the White House gates, pure adrenaline kicked in. I was in the Rose Garden, under the balcony, on a picture-perfect spring day. It was like stepping into a favorite story book where you recognize everything around you.
I knew I would have only about 90 minutes on the White House grounds, which left me with a choice: Savor it for myself or do my best to capture it for others. I chose the latter, snapping as many pictures as I could. I wasn't alone. I was handed countless iPhones and asked to take pictures of people there — many of whom I did not know. But clearly the guest list consisted of delighted citizens who knew it was unlikely they'd be back anytime soon.
I was fortunate to be able to share this moment with colleagues from the School House Rock generation. We understood the magnitude of what had been accomplished, that passing laws was much more complex than we learned on TV so long ago. Yet, we all appreciated being part of this uniquely American process, one that worked as the founders intended, no matter the harsh talk lately about a dysfunctional government.
President Obama signed the bill and we all beamed. From my seat 10 rows away, our commander-in-chief looked and sounded just as personable and confident as he does on my television. He didn't stay long enough to shake hands beyond the small group of dignitaries with him on the dais, but no one seemed to mind. His presence, albeit the highlight of the event, was just another sight to get caught up in that day. At that unique moment, we felt equally enthralled being in each other's company as we felt being in the company of greatness. The guests all lingered as long as we could, until the smartly dressed military personal kindly but firmly told us that the party was over.
I returned to my family, who were in Rhode Island with my in-laws. "Once in a lifetime" was quickly and unceremoniously replaced by "same old, same old." I did the dishes, walked the dog, and brokered peace treaties between my sons. No adrenaline. No pressure to savor these moments or share them with the world. No fear of squandering them. After all the pomp and circumstance, it felt remarkably good to just "be." It felt free.
I loved everything about being invited to the White House, but I wasn't prepared for what struck me the most about the day: an overwhelming appreciation for my mundane American life and the right to live it. The ubiquity and accessibility of the wonderfully ordinary is truly something to behold but so often taken for granted. The sunlight in the Rose Garden was spectacular — but so are the cool shadows where I spend most of my days.
The passage of the JOBS Act was a triumph for all involved, but I feel just as victorious every day when I am working anonymously on something I believe in my home office in Delaware County. If my "once in lifetime" turns out to be truly that — just once — fine. It's everyday life and the opportunity to pursue the best for myself, my family, and the world I inhabit that truly matter most.
E-mail Emily Mendell at firstname.lastname@example.org.