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Just Yesterday

What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared'; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

Fourteen

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.

Boston Proud

Now that it’s happened again, I remember how it felt the last time.  I remember feeling  like the nerves on my skin were burned, jangly, hyper-sensitive.  I remember how I startled easily.  I recall looking out the window more often, gazing up at the sky…although back then, I also remember the eery quiet that came from no planes flying overhead.  I remember hoping there would be answers soon, cranking out as much work to update the UUA website as I could manage before I collapsed in exhaustion for a few hours.  And I remember how calm it all felt here in my town, thirteen miles away from downtown Boston.

That was in the minutes in hours and days that stretched on, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country, some of which originated in Boston.  Now, of course, is the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred on Monday afternoon.  And while the circumstances are different, and the loss of life much less, it still feels like a punch to the gut of every person who calls Boston their home.

It was Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who, interviewed the other day on the television news, said, “Bostonians care about only three things:  sports, politics, and revenge.” And, he continued, in this case, revenge is about carrying on our lives, and not letting whoever perpetrated these acts change what we do and who we are. In a demonstration of solidarity, we saw the reviled New York Yankees raising a banner that had both teams’ names on it, and playing our beloved baseball anthem, “Sweet Caroline,” after the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium.  Way to go, Evil Empire.  Maybe we’re not so far away from each other, after all.

And in that spirit, last night the Boston Bruins held the first major sports game since the attacks (two other Celtics games were cancelled) and the entire Boston Garden joined in singing the National Anthem.

Bostonians — and I count myself as one now, having lived here for well over twenty years — are in general scrappy, intrepid, and prone to keeping on, no matter what.  In these days following the attacks on the Marathon, story after story has come to light, of strangers opening their homes to stranded runners and tourists, of people who ran toward the blast, not away, to help those whose legs had been torn off or who lay on the ground, bleeding, of people who are donating to relief funds set up by area banks to help those whose injuries are so severe they will require extensive long term care.

Today, the President of the United States will come together with interfaith leaders at a worship service to remember those who died, those who were injured, those who came to aid the fallen.  Meanwhile, the investigation into the crime goes on, painstakingly, relentlessly.  I have every confidence that the answers will be found, that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.  And that our city will recover.  Again.

Way to go, Boston.  In so many ways, by acts mundane and huge, our people show what they’re made of.  And each time the Red Sox win (and Saints preserve us, they seem to be on a roll again) and our other baseball anthem, “Dirty Water,” pumps out of the Fenway Park sound system, I’m proud this is the place I call home.

Patriot Games

Very late on Sunday night, April 14, I was sitting in Lexington’s Hancock-Clarke House next to the brick fireplace, the room lit only by two eighteenth-century candle lanterns.  The historic house becomes a stage set on Patriot’s Day Eve, as the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere into Lexington is re-enacted, much to the delight of local Boy Scout and church youth group members, townspeople, and visitors who’ve come here from all over the world to see what Patriot’s Day is all about.

My husband, Ben, plays John Hancock in the re-enactment, and I am his dresser, helping him pull off his outer garments and hat, re-adjust his body microphone, and present himself as though awakened from restless sleep by the arrival of Paul Revere and William Dawes at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke.  The play is a charming event, sponsored by the Lexington Historical Society, and after the last scene of the play is staged on Lexington’s Battle Green (in which Rev. Clarke inspires the farmers of the town to stand up to the Redcoats, and Hancock and his pal, Sam Adams, flee Lexington for the neighboring town of Woburn), the crowds disperse…at least until the 5 AM Battle of Lexington re-enactment.

As Ben and I got in our car to drive home, just after midnight, we remarked on the cold, clear night with the crescent moon shining down.  We drove toward the Green and saw the new American flag, much bigger than the last, waving over the Green, lit by spotlights.  We looked back at our church, First Parish in Lexington, gathered in 1691, with its steeple illuminated — a reassuring beacon in the night.  And I thought about how this holiday was so special for New England…how I wished more people would celebrate Patriot’s Day here in our town, and not just think of the next day as “Marathon Monday.”

We haven’t ever been Marathon people, although I’m proud of Boston’s history with this oldest of marathon races.  Ben and I usually watch the end of the race, remark on how well the Kenyan runners seem to do, follow a few of the heart-warming stories of the race (including this year’s dedication of the race to the victims of the shootings in Newtown, CT) and otherwise, observe the day with Colonial activities in Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord.  And we like it that way.

Too often, there are also pro-gun rallies, or other events in our town, that are designed to remind people of perceived threats to second amendment rights.  I have written previously about these and don’t need to revisit those thoughts now.  This year, however, the individuals or organization that meant Boston harm had something else in mind, as two bombs were detonated along the finish of the marathon route.  The shock of this horror happening in our city took me back to the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, which occurred on April 19th…and to other threats made against our country on other April mornings.

I imagine that the perpetrators of such acts fashion themselves to be patriots of a sort…people who are taking a stand for their point of view against the organized influences of government and society that they feel threaten them.  I imagine that they have decided to cause such chaos and tragedy because they want to be heard.  I imagine that they feel that violence, and a large act of it, is the only way for them to gain attention.  And I imagine that they want to frighten the rest of us, so that we will know that they are strong.

These are patriot games of a most unpatriotic and cowardly sort.  and I (just an ordinary citizen) feel confident in saying, on behalf of all living near the epicenter of these acts — designed to bring us to our knees — that acts of terror will not have the desired effect.  As one woman, interviewed on the street in Boston today, said, “We are Bostonians.  We will not be intimidated.  We get up, we get our coffee, we allow extra time to go to work, and we carry on…because we will not be frightened by these acts.  We are Bostonians, and this is what we do.”

The people of Great Britain must have had it right when the slogan, “Keep calm and carry on,” was coined in 1939, at the start of the second world war.  These games of intimidation and mayhem will not succeed, and life in and around the Hub of the Universe, where the struggle for liberty began so many years ago, will go on – even stronger, blessed by the people who make this part of the world my home.

We’re midway into April, the month when my husband and I live on verge of going meschugah because there is just too much to do, every single moment of every single day.  And this year is no different.  It’s Patriot’s Day weekend here in Lexington, the town where the first shot of the American Revolution was fired on our historic Green, which stands about a mile and half from our house.  The town’s draped in bunting and there are tons of visitors in the area — you can tell because they wander out into the middle of the road and there are tour buses everywhere.  Down the street, I heard the muskets going off an hour ago as the Battle Road re-enactments took place, showing folks what the running battle that took place from Concord to Lexington to Arlington was like, following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

Tomorrow my catering company will be serving a Colonial Lunch to all who want to sample the real deal — New England Fish Chowder, baked beans, pot pie, and more — and the afternoon parade will come marching down Massachusetts Avenue, leading to more activities and a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s Ride at  midnight on Sunday and The Battle of Lexington early on Monday.  And this year, even more:  Lexington celebrates its 300th birthday – so the events have even more hoopla attached to them.

This historic stuff all seems charming — it’s really a slice of small town New England life at its’ nicest — but along with it, we’re looking forward this spring to demonstrations in support of second amendment rights. organized by gun enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that some changes in the nation’s gun laws might be in order to prevent the next school tragedy or mass shooting.  While the parents of some of the tiny victims of the Newtown, CT massacre continue to bear witness in the nation’s capital to the need for debate and a vote on gun laws that might protect the innocent, folks will be coming to Lexington next Friday to ‘stand up and be counted.’  The local clergy association has organized a peaceful public witness event as one response, and many folks in town are left shaking their heads, wondering why, once again, the debate over the right to bear arms has landed on our town Green.

Year after year, as Middlesex County, Massachusetts, celebrates the beginnings of the Revolution, people also show up to raise the flag of fear: if we give any ground on the gun debate, the government will take over our lives and all our freedoms — those that the Patriots fought and died for — will be lost.  But I doubt that Jonas Clarke and the Sons of Liberty imagined ammo clips for their muskets and the need for assault weapons in their homes.  While we celebrate the best of America during events like this weekend’s in Lexington, some people will be looking over their shoulders, to see what freedoms the government is going to take away next.

But who is the government?  Are we part of it?  What role do we all play in determining our fate, and why would we believe that assault weapons are the way to protect our liberties?  Where does “the pursuit of happiness” come into the mix (as articulated in The Declaration of Independence, or, for that matter, the embrace of life itself as one of the freedoms we defend relentlessly?

This weekend in our little town, we celebrate the lives and sacrifices of the patriots who were inspired to fight for their independence from Great Britain, some at great personal cost.  Their struggle is worth remembering, particularly since it lifts up those who held on to the values that the founders had for America…a country affirming not only freedom, but safe harbor and protection for its citizens — even its most vulnerable.

People of my generation will remember the famous TV show which (in its original version) had Monty Hall bursting forward to holler at the audience, urging them to stand up, in their bizarre costumes, and bargain with him for prizes shown off by “the lovely Carol Merrell” for all to admire.  People would shriek when chosen for the honor and would do anything to make that deal and walk away with something good.

photo of Monty Hall

Monty Hall, original host of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

But was it such a great deal?  Sometimes not.  The bargaining could consume the players, and bidding successfully became the objective, so that you could say you WON that round.  Whether you actually wanted what you got was another story.

And so we find, buried on page twenty-five of The New York Times on Thursday, March 14, 2013, the story about how a “Congressional Committees Makes Some Gun-Rights Provisions Permanent.”   The fact that the story is placed so far back in the newspaper rather than on the front page starts to tell the story.  The decision to place a story on a violent gun battle that killed four in Herkimer, New York, which is found two pages later (but has more ink devoted to it), helps flesh out the problem.

Three months after the catastrophe that killed so many tiny children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, we’re back to reporting on killing sprees and the deals of lawmakers that help make them possible, and editors are burying the story deep in the U.S. Newspaper of Record.

The deal that the Senate is about to allow is one that comes from the cynical behavior that is so commonly found these days in our legislative bodies…that of tacking on onerous provisions to budget bills.  In this case, Democratic leaders have to suck it up and agree to the add-ons if they want their budget bills – the ones designed to keep the government running – to go through the Senate.

The Times reports, “…any legislation that comes to the Senate floor could be undermined by the riders on appropriations bills like the one being debated on the floor now, which would keep the government running through the end of September.”  The story goes on to say, “Even though the gun-rights provisions are long standing, making them permanent is ‘counterproductive,’” according to the director of a violence prevention research program in California.

Yet, here are our duly-elected legislators – the same ones who stood passionately on the floor of the Senate chamber not so long ago, decrying the tragedies that occurred in Connecticut – holding their noses and agreeing to the garbage that comes with the prize they really want.

When my children were younger, they would negotiate for things they wanted and try to drive a hard bargain with my husband and me.  Sometimes it worked, but generally, we held to our position and tried to bring them around to see it our way, and we wouldn’t make what we considered to be a deal not in their ultimate best interest.

When our younger daughter was bargaining, she’d push ever-higher for the prize she was after, and then be astonished when we would make the counter-offer even more restrictive than the ‘original offer.’  Generally she would end up at the point we were originally willing to go to, realizing that this was all she was going to get.  When our older daughter was into the chase for ‘winning’ a debate, she was compelled to be “the first one “ to do whatever would make her ‘win,’ even if – as happened one day – she became the first one to punch herself (albeit gently) in the nose.

But with these actions, buried deep within budget bills, Democrats in the Senate have just punched themselves in the nose, and in so doing, they’ve delivered quite a blow to the country.  As Gabi Giffords goes around the country making halting but heartfelt speeches designed to encourage legislators and citizens to “Be bold, be courageous” in their efforts to pass gun control legislation, it seems like those we elected to represent us in Congress have instead been lured by the voice of the “let’s make a deal” man, hoping that what ends up in their take-home bag will be something they really want instead of a piece of junk.  Too bad that so many of our country’s children, and adults, stand to lose in the bargain they’re about to make on our behalf.

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