God Bless Your New Beginnings

A friend is leaving a job that she loves, to do more things she loves, and because I had been helped through this, years back, I knew what to say.

Back in the day, I was miserable.

It was near the end of my senior year at Commonwealth School in Boston and all around, people were planning the next year, without me. Spring air wafted in through open windows while people discussed the new classes being offered and the classes I loved that were being cut because the teachers who created them were moving on to colleges also. Old books were being discarded, new books arriving in large boxes. As I worked one of my last few sessions in the school kitchen with Ila Moore, the chorus in the next room was singing, with vigor but without seniors, Mozart’s Laudate Pueri Dominum, which we had sung when I was in ninth grade. It’s a rousing piece, but in my cocoon of misery I sang along softly as I chopped carrots and mourned. The bell rang, and I went upstairs, but nothing was quite familiar. The building had already been painted in anticipation of changes. The carpeting was new, the beloved couch in the lobby replaced. The lockers had been emptied, bulletin boards stripped. The founding headmaster, Charles Merrill, was retiring, and had largely dismantled his glorious office, putting trinkets from all over the world outside for students and faculty to take as a memento. “It’s like a free yard sale!” a friend exclaimed. But it felt more like a selective eviction, with some people staying.

As part of daily life Commonwealth had us students work for the school on teams in rotation, two weeks of a meal job, two weeks of a non-meal job, and two weeks off. The building becomes yours when you don’t just use it, but also maintain it. I had swept these floors and dusted these stairs and bookcases. The artwork, freshly rehung, was a mixture of reprints of classics and original works by faculty and students. I had seen some of these painted, and had helped to hang others. How could I think of leaving this place? How could they think of carrying on without us 41 seniors, the largest class in the school’s history at the time? How could Mr. Merrill leave? How could we let him? What, if anything, were any of us thinking?

Walking around what felt like the detritus of my education, I remembered that I hadn’t asked my “little sister” to sign my yearbook. Azania’s mother was one of the first alumnae or alumni to have a child attend the school, and like me, she had come from the Boston Public Schools, which made the rigor of Commonwealth something of a shock. But she was hard working, kind, and had common sense and a cheerful nature which made it a joy to be around her. She was firmly a part of the weave and weft of the school now. I found her on the third floor, just outside my advisor’s classroom. Mr. Hughes called me in for a quick chat while Azania and her friends signed my yearbook.

Mr. Hughes had the corner room, overlooking both Commonwealth and Dartmouth. He had a four-sided spinning bookcase from which he often pulled books to read from to us. He had taught me how to write clearly but in my own voice. He had comforted me in times of crisis and had explained exactly what I was doing wrong when I’d run aground. Today, he was almost playful. He lowered his glasses on his nose to see me better and with his huge smile that suggested delightful surprises ahead, asked, “So, what classes do you anticipate taking at Wellesley?”

The question startled me. I had been busy with preparation for AP tests and finals, and then I was blindsided by the changes around me. I frankly had not given the matter much thought yet.

I chose the College because it had a good English department and offered Russian, so part of my schedule was a foregone conclusion.  I needed to take a science, so I chose Chemistry. I wanted to teach, so I would have to take Psychology. But there were gaps which I could fill in by choosing almost anything once I arrived on campus in the Fall. I had forgotten — there would be so many more classes than even Commonwealth could offer. Wellesley had a sprawling campus full of  buildings devoted to and equipped for subject matters — science, music, academics — so many faculty, so many subjects, and almost all open to eighteen year-old me!

Paradigm shift had begun. My mind had left its dark place and drifted up Route Nine to the college that awaited me. Proverbs 15:23 came to mind; “[…] a word in due season, how good is it.”

But there was more.

When I stepped into the hallway, Azania handed me my yearbook and ran off to her next class. I opened it and read what she had written.

“God bless your new beginnings.”

More things I had forgotten.

Wellesley’s two mottos had inspired me. One, “Non ministrari, sed ministrare” (which the volley ball team proudly translated on their tee shirts as “Not to be served unto, but to serve,”) was in complete accord with everything my father had taught me about our purpose in life, to love God and love each other and to show that love through service.

The second motto, “Incipit nova vita,” now came to mind.

A new life begins.

I took in a deep breath of Spring, books, the familiar, and a hint of the unknown, and smiled.

How exciting.

I had been calling the ceremony we were preparing for “graduation,” but it had another name: commencement. We were commencing.

And life in the old place would go on without us, not in spite of us but building upon what we did.

When something ends, it is so something else can begin.

And so to my friends facing retirement or relocation, upheaval or a new place and way to serve, let me share the good words which change everything.

God bless your new beginnings.

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

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.

 

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.