Departures and Arrivals

In January, 1993, we lived in Texas, and had done so for four years, long enough to know people. My friend Sue had heard from a friend that the Presidential helicopter landing at Ellington Airforce Base would be open to the public. President Bush had not wanted anyone to make a fuss, but members of his family wanted someone to be there.

“I’m going,” she said, “and so should you. This is history. And it’s right down the road.”

The President was someone I had found off-putting, though I prayed for him as I have for the rest of them before and since. But I had felt, at the time, that Barbara Bush and I lived in somewhat parallel universes. We both had attended women’s colleges, and we were both married to men who couldn’t tell us everything by virtue of their jobs. Her husband had headed the CIA before becoming President. Mine worked in aerospace with a security clearance before becoming a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. We both were expected to be well dressed and diplomatic in our choice of words, and both of us struggled with it. Well, and I wanted my children to see a President, and this might be our only chance, and frankly, they would be just as excited by the chance to leave school early and see a helicopter.

We were not supposed to mention to the school where we were going, because political events were not excused absences, and this was considered political. I did not consider it so. I considered it humanitarian. The man had lost an election in front of God and everyone, and he was coming home changed. Attention must be paid. So I had sent in a note saying the older children had an “appointment,” and the secretary smiled, as she signed us out from Kindergarten and First Grade. “Lots of families signing out. Are you going where I think?” she asked. I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Wave for me, too,” she said.

Secrets live about as long as ice cream, down in Texas.

You have to drive down Highway Three to get to the airport.  One side of the highway was railroad tracks. The other side were the sort of businesses I had never seen in Boston — bait and gun shops, pawn shops, and the sporadic bodega, which in Boston would have been called a “spa.” There was nothing along the road to indicate that anything special was happening, as befits a former head of a spy agency returning home on a day that is not his. But when we turned into the parking lot, there were people with signs, buttons, and flags. Our children were given some, which I kept for twenty or more years before losing them in a decluttering binge.

I was so homesick during those years. I had thought of Barbara Bush alone with her family in Midland, as I was far from our relatives in Michigan and Boston. I had seen the family photos of Kennebunkport, and thought, “Barbara Bush lived in Texas and did what she was supposed to and was able to move to New England,” and thought perhaps I might to do the same. But in the end, Texas had become home to them. I went to a meeting, years later, in the “hotel” they called home, and it reminded me of the older Wellesley dorms, with nicely appointed common rooms lined with books. “If you don’t have family when you move to Houston, you make family,” my brother-in-law had told me when we moved there in 1989.  He was right. My generous sister-in-law had shared their friends with me, I met mothers through Mothers Day Out and school, we had parishioners and neighbors. People were smart, kind, funny, generous, helpful, and welcoming. I was busy and had a life. I even wrote, and had sold an article to a magazine in California. But sometimes I sniffed the air for a salt breeze, and there was none. I missed lilacs and lily-of-the-valley, and I wanted more than anything to have tea with milk with my grandmother. And I wondered if Mrs. Bush had done the same.

I held my son on my shoulder and people moved so my daughter could see. The first people to emerge from the helicopter were the secret service officers, all impeccably dressed in crisp black suits with matching sun glasses. They had wires in their ears and were communicating to each other. The former President’s tall sons stepped out, looking young and dazed. More relatives emerged, then Mrs. Bush, then George Herbert Walker. Someone had set up a microphone, and President Bush was led to it.

“Well, now I know how little influence I have!” he said, “I said I didn’t want anyone to come, and now I see how well y’all listen!” But his smile was both warm and grateful, and I was glad the children had seen it. He was a wartime president, and my children had been folded into the war effort. My daughter had been sending care packages to the soldiers she’s met through the “any soldier” program, now defunct. She felt very much a part of the effort as she set aside artwork and chose bags of candy to send them. Both children had learned the words to “I’m Proud to Be an American” at school, and yellow ribbons and American flags had been a large part of the backdrop of their childhood. He had engaged the public, and had hired a speech writer, Peggy Noonan, whose style I had admired even before she coined the phrase “kinder, gentler.” I felt that even Clinton’s victory had been a result of the empowerment and involvement of the individual that had been part of the culture of that presidency.

I wanted, too, for my children to see how to lose gracefully, how to walk away from something knowing that you were walking to something else. The newspapers reported the President had bought a fishing license while he was home on election day. He had been away for twelve years. He looked relieved to have landed.

“I didn’t want anyone to come,” he continued, “but I am touched and grateful that you did. Thank you, and God bless America.”

There were cheers, and handshakes, politically connected people greeting each other and the rest of us starting to walk toward our cars.

It was a departure.

It was an arrival.

And so was today.

Rest in peace, Mister President.

Someone has been waiting for you.

 

Refreshment of Spirit

The road divided; I bore left. And that changed everything.

I had spent two weeks with my amazing mother-in-law in Michigan while she went through a time of illness. It was time to head home to Connecticut; I was loading the car. While I ferried bags, my mother-in-law took a spanakopita from the freezer and carefully wrapped it. She reached down the newspaper from its shelf and taped that. She unfolded a heavy paper bag and carefully closed it around the package. She put it in a plastic bag, after, so the seat would not get soggy as the pita defrosted.   While I finished the last of my coffee, she smoothed out the plastic.

******

When I last had been in Michigan, it was the height of summer. But this time I got to see something my husband had told me about, the beauty of Ann Arbor in autumn. I’m from New England, and I thought that I knew leaves. But these were different trees, different colors, a different sky — beauty in another palette. My late father-in-law was an architect, and the condo they lived in was not a hastily subdivided former one family house, as the condos in the Boston of my youth had been. This was a well planned building, with a flow to it. Light and air swept through each room. The earth tones brought unity while the artwork on the walls, much by relatives, kept it from being monotonous. The landscaping is tasteful, well maintained, and not cookie cutter.

Illness had kept us indoors, but connection with nature is essential.

My foretaste of refreshment of spirit from the woods came from the view from kitchen window.

“That tree!” I said.

My mother-in-law knew which one I meant. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Completely symmetrical.” It was some sort of maple or sumac, next to an oak that we could only partially see.

The tree was green with a tinge of red on the side farthest from us. The oak leaves had all turned gold.

When my mother-in-law went into the hospital, the red spread slowly across the tree, left to right.  The yellow, green and red of the two trees gave me something different to think about in the days she was gone. When she came home, the oak was almost bare, while the maple was engulfed in red.

It was time for me to depart with the foliage.

My mother-in-law and I embraced, she kissed my cheek, and handed me the heavy package, spanakopita wrapped in foil, newspaper, paper, and plastic, to share with her son when I got home. She told me how to defrost and heat it, and showed me the printed instructions, besides. I thanked her.

“I don’t care what time it is,” she said, “call me every two hours to let me know where you are and again when you finally get home.”

And I left.

******

I took I-94 East and eventually called her from the parking lot of a McDonalds near I-80 to say I was in Ohio. A station in Toledo was having an All Seventies Weekend, and I car-danced until the signal faded. But there was still a lot of Ohio before me.

I had packed a snack from Meijer’s grocery store, a package that contained a hard boiled egg, pea pods, cheese cubes, and some kind of trail mix. I had a bag of honey crisp apples that I ate slowly, to savor them, and to save some for my husband. The road split, I bore left, and the coffee kicked in. I wanted to stop at the rest area, but it was only available from the right lane of the temporarily divided road. I groaned at the sign “Next Rest Area Thirty Miles.” A sign at the next exit suggested there was food and gas to be had. So I left the road.

I set my GPS for the nearest McDonald’s, 1.5 miles from the exit. I drove slowly through what looked to be a prosperous town full of many treats for tourists — gift shops, restaurants, quaint businesses. But no McDonald’s.

My need became more pressing, and as I debated which shop might have a rest room, I saw a sign that read “Visitors’ Center Ahead.” Visitors Center usually means there will be a rest room. So I drove.

And I drove.

And I drove.

The drive was beautiful, increasingly so as I got further and further from the highway.

The rest area was not some prefab construction with brochures and a coffee machine. The parking lot was unpaved and full, and the buildings around it reminded me of my own town’s Boothe Park, only much larger. I had inadvertently come across Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Goodness. Goodness and mercy.

After addressing the most pressing needs, I began to wander the grounds. An art show (photographs, drawings and paintings) with the theme “Change, End of Season” took up most of a barn-like building, and if I had the money and the wall space, I would have brought home several pieces.

I could first smell and then see the water. The sun shone on damp leaves, fallen in their changing colors, and all around was color and light. Families were gathered, conversing and hiking.

I went outside and walked down a trail toward Brandywine Falls, explored more commodious wooden buildings,  and crossed the road to find the gift shop with hiking gear, tee shirts, guide books, coffee and ice cream.  Everything one needed was there.

We find what we need, often, when we’re looking for something else. I wanted McDonald’s. I found refreshment of spirit.

I also bought what I needed for refreshment of body, and was ready to tackle the rest of the journey.

I decided to drive straight home, rather than stopping or meandering. My  husband was waiting for me. My spirit was refreshed. And I had a spanakopita defrosting in my back seat.

I buckled my seatbelt, called my mother-in-law, and shifted gear.

 

Put That Thing Down

The new school year is starting, and parents have bought their children cell phones to bring to school because the world is scary and unpredictable. I get it. But as a substitute teacher, I spend so much time bringing my students back to the classroom from wherever it is they would rather be. Our district has a very clear policy, but kids are kids, and the allure of a little box that can reunite you with your boyfriend, let you play a game, or keep you from missing your favorite show is strong.

It’s not just students. I’ve seen clergy take out their cell phones to take pictures during a service or check a message while talking to someone, a busy doctor texts as he explains diagnoses, young babies are handed the shiny devices when their parents want a patch of quiet, and even in choirs when it’s not their time to sing singers who in another time would be chided for whispering text, instead.

The problem is this: when you are there, you are not here. If a student has half an eye on the cell phone (“Miss, I have to take this call, it’s my mother,” I’ve been told more than once), that much of his brain is not engaged in the lesson. If you’re shopping for a prom dress or great sneakers, you’re not learning the vocabulary words you’re supposed to be looking up. It’s a small thing but a big thing — it drags down your grade and limits your understanding of the material. But more than that, it’s a message to the people around you that the people on the other end of the little box are more important, more interesting, and your relationship with them will be longer lasting. And that’s a serious problem.

Boredom, you see, is a catalyst for change. As a mother, I learned this. We moved to Texas from my native Boston, where I was one of six children, forty grandchildren, a small parish, and had two close-knit academic communities from my high school and college. Suddenly I didn’t know much of anyone. Then my kids started school.

I hate Hundred Day. But when you sit with other mothers putting one hundred stickers on crowns and making 100 shaped eyeglass frames from oaktag folders, you talk and you bond. You get to know your fellow volunteers for Math and Reading Centers as you play bingo with the kids and help with the plant sale and play. You stand with the other parents and guardians in the predawn hours loading buses for band trips and waiting for the students to come home again, hungry. Both the high schools in our town have Post Prom, and at my kids’ school, I joke that it’s occupational therapy for the over-committed. The band moms and the drama mamas and the parents of athletes and the moms of the SPED kids (and some of these are all one person) all paint and glue things, decorate, and solve the town’s problems. Improvements are suggested, the administrators who hang out with us gain new insight, and we go home covered with glitter but knowing more people and feeling better connected to the town.

I think part of the allure of summer camp is the limited exposure to screens and the greater exposure to the outdoors and new friends. When everyone is far from home and in a strange place, there is an opportunity for growth and kindness. Little things like walking a friend to the latrine in the dark or cowering together in a storm become bonding moments that people talk about in wedding toasts fifteen years down the line.

Life is especially hard for students who transfer. I know my first year of college, all of us talked about what various of our high school friends would have said about each new thing we saw. And then, we tapered off. We started identifying with the people around us, and they became the friends that we thought of and quoted in our new lives and jobs.

But, if you always have the people you are comfortable with literally in the palm of your hand, how are you ever going to feel the need to open your life to someone new? Part of it is learning about other people. Part of it is discovering that you have something to offer — the answer to a question, a color for an art project, a spin on the book you are reading. You don’t always know what’s inside you until it has a chance to come out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “Hamilton,” has various characters sing, “Look around! How great it is to be alive right now!” And this is true of high school. Not everything about it is wonderful, but the people who stand up for you during the bad times there are the ones you call later: when you meet the right person, when you are in labor, when your cat is sick, when your father dies. And when your friends go through these things, you will be the person whose voice they will want to hear. Yes, in some ways they become the new faces in the box in your hand. But your back bench of friends will be so much stronger and richer for spending time doing things you have to do graciously with people who are not like you.

I am not condemning cell phones. The world without cell phones could be dangerous, and keeping in touch was expensive. In an emergency, you’d have to find a pay phone, and you’d have to have money for it. To stay in touch with family when we moved to Texas, we were charged ten cents per minute to call out of State and twenty-five cents per minute to talk across Texas. Cell phones can be good, useful, bring people together. They allow me to see my granddaughter in Virginia, show the people at Home Depot the part that I need, and text the exact address of the place that I’m seeking. That said, please, don’t let the little box take you from the moment. Be where you are, with the people around you. You can’t know what it is you will learn from and offer them if you don’t make eye contact and talk.

 

Acquiring the Spirit of Peace

Today is the Feast of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

I volunteer, each summer, in the kitchen of a camp for Orthodox Christian youth named for the Saint.

We recently had a spate of sad events and bad news.

It has been helpful to reflect and remind myself of some of the Saint’s words.

You can find his life by clicking on the word “life.

His most famous saying is, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

I wish you all peace on this day.

A Different Kind of Summer

On this first day of summer, I find myself in a different place and setting than I’d envisioned.

We live in coastal Connecticut, and I write and edit, teach and conduct a choir.  My life between weekends is a wild card — I substitute teach, and I am never sure which age or subject I will teach from day to day. But in summer, I plant my garden, grow my flowers, and watch for the progression of plants that I knew as a child but lost, briefly, as an adult in Texas. In Connecticut and in my native Boston, Spring starts white and yellow and green. Forsythia and crocus, tulips and the first dandelion start the season. This year was cold in Connecticut. My lilacs bloomed only for a week, likewise my lily of the valley. But at least they bloomed.

Spring had been stolen, but I staked my claim for summer. I put in a garden — the “three sisters” at the back near the fence, four six packs of tomatoes (black Krim for novelty, Roma for canning, grape tomatoes for instant gratification, and Early Girl for slicing) in pots and cages. I awaited the usual signs of summer — the end of school, the opening of the Farmer’s Market, the first good beach day, the blossoming hydrangeas, the Apostles Fast where we eat vegan and the first ice cream after it ends. We had just set up a new computer, and transferred all my documents onto it. I thought I would divide my time between words, plants, sorting things (we have six people’s things and three people at home just now), cooking, and church, with forays to the beach and to my siblings’ homes to play with their kids.

Instead, I am roughly seven hundred miles from home. My mother-in-law had an injury from which she is recovering, and my father-in-law, the vibrant author and architect, successfully underwent planned surgery. I planned to come while they both recuperated the rest of the way at home. But several days after my father-in-law’s surgery, he unexpectedly died, peacefully, not quite three weeks ago. Of all the people in the family constellation, I was the one most available to help at this time. And I am glad to be able to do it. My mother-in-law came to help us every time I had a baby, for each of my husband’s ordinations, for the children’s graduations and major concerts, for our parish jubilees. It is a joy to be able to help her, instead, even if at this point she is doing so well that she doesn’t let me do much.

Before she was home, though, from post-surgical care, my first job was to prepare for all the relatives who came for the funeral. I made beds and cooked, not for the mercy meal but for the arriving people — my husband and his brothers, one sister-in-law and a bunch of nephews and kids.  My m-i-l came home the day before the funeral, and everything took shape from there. Then, one by one, the relatives went home. And now it’s a quiet life with just the two of us, as my mother-in-law masters doing her usual household tasks using the hot pink walker that the grandkids surprised her with and I reach the things that require climbing or stairs. She lets me drive. I go shopping and to church services. But mostly it’s a quiet life at home.

When we moved to Houston, the plants were different, and I went into mourning. I don’t want to do that again. Here, too, the plants are different, but I am working on learning them and celebrating. It helps that my ships were burned at the harbor; when I called home, I learned that critters devoured my garden some time between the last two rain storms, every tender talk and spindly vine gone. It’s a loss, but it’s also one less thing to worry about. I can buy vegetables later. Now, I am learning Michigan plants and enjoying what is. The white dander that floats into the garage is not milkweed, it’s cottonwood. And it’s everywhere. My hearty bushes of Andromeda and blue hydrangea are back home, but here I have delicate clematis and carnations in deep purple and vibrant pink. Both places have chipmunks, squirrels, and the sporadic rabbit, but here they have hummingbirds, which we entice to visit with a feeder and a hanging basket of red flowers.

I miss my husband, but he is everywhere here, in the photos and books, in the stories friends tell and in email and cell phone. I miss the ocean, but I hear tell it will still be there when I come home. I miss my local, church, and writing friends, but I brought my editing with me, on a flash drive. And time alone with this brave, beautiful, and intelligent woman is an incalculable gift. I am learning the wisdom that women pass to each other through osmosis — stain removal hints, habits of virtue and industry like cleaning the stove after each meal, putting the dishwashing liquid in a hand soap dispenser so there’s nothing ugly by the sink, which pan to use for what and why. I am learning to wear shoes while at home, to avoid injury, and new ways to set out a nice tea. I’m meeting the neighbors, who come with zucchini bread, banana bread, dinner, stories, love.

This isn’t the summer I planned, but Tolstoy’s three questions come to mind. This is the most important thing I can do now. And it is a joy and an honor to be able to do it.