Sunday, October 19, 2014

Irish Eyes - Our trip to Ireland with Noam Chomsky


Part I - Dublin

Late March, 2013

Sitting at her Yamaha keyboard during my late afternoon visit, my mother, Charlotte, played the last notes of Danny Boy slowly, hitting the keys with surprising firmness.  Laying her delicate hands in her lap, she looked over her shoulder and asked me to wheel her into her bedroom. I helped her stand and move to the bed, and I sat on the edge next to her. “What would you like me to bring you from Cork, Ma?”

“A ring, she said, and pronouncing each word clearly and eyeballing me sideways so there would be no mistake, she added, “You know how I love my rings.”

“Do you want a Claddagh ring, or a stone?”

“I don’t know – I don’t really like Claddagh rings.  You can pick one out for me.  Get something that you think is nice.”

In less than two weeks, Laura and I would meet Noam Chomsky, my boss, in Dublin, Ireland, where we would help manage his events, making sure he had adequate rest, and that his hosts kept to our schedule.  I was looking forward to his Dublin talks, and curious about the “pub crawl” that Maria Baghramian, our host and Noam’s long-time friend and colleague, added to our itinerary when Noam told her I had never heard of a pub crawl. But I was personally excited about the Cork leg of our trip, since that’s where my mother’s grandmother, Ellen Walsh, was born.  My mother shared stories of her grandmother’s family dancing, laughing, and talking about the days back home in Ireland. “Everyone was crying when they told my grandmother how much fun they’d had!” she would always say, shaking her head. I’m not sure what I would be looking for in Cork, but I thought just setting foot in my ancestral country would be a powerful experience.

I hated the thought of leaving my mother for five days. Her most recent chemo infusion knocked her out, and I envisioned the near future: holding her hand while coaxing more childhood stories from her about her summers on her grandmother’s farm, for safekeeping. I imagined that in her weakening state she might break through the hard crust of vulnerable discomfort she held close for the first eighty-three years of her life. At the same time, the idea of witnessing her slow death was unthinkable.

On the Friday after she asked me to bring her a ring from Cork, my mother learned from her pulmonologist that she would remain oxygen-tank dependent.  On Saturday night, after a week of fortuitous visits and phone calls from each member of our family, my mother left us, quickly and painlessly, with a blood clot to her heart.  Her friend Al was by her side.

My sister and brothers and I put together a slide show of her life, choosing “Danny Boy” as the background song at her wake. Five days after her funeral, still carrying the raw ache of losing her, Laura and I got on a plane to meet Noam in Ireland.

**
Early April

 Looking out above the plane’s wing, the bright half-moon calmed me, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t afraid of dying. For that moment, at least, I felt with surety as I stared at the moon hanging in the center of my window that my mother would be waiting for me, wherever we go after we die, when it was my turn.

The feeling I got when she left us, as with our friend Sylvia and my son’s father Danny a year before, was that she suddenly disappeared. For days after she died, I cried out, “Where are you?” It was disorienting to go from monitoring her nutrition, fluid intake, and wellbeing, to a stunning and empty silence. During the four years of her illness, I called her on my way home from MIT at the light where JFK Street intersects with Memorial Drive in front of Harvard University, just to hear her voice. Now I felt her loss more sharply every time I stopped at that light, but taking another route felt like running away. My mother had been brave enough to face her own death, and I had to let myself feel the pain of losing my most loyal cheerleader.

Every once in a while the moon listed toward the left side of my window, and I imagined our trajectory toward Dublin.

**
Noam had arrived the day before, on Easter Sunday, spending time with Maria and her husband. I figured he would be sleeping when we landed at the Dublin Airport, so we went to the home of my friend Sami, a journalist-musician-philosopher I knew through Noam, to rest and share a delicious spread of local wine, cheeses, and breads before he drove us to the B&B.

When we entered, we were greeted by the sight of Noam seated in the parlor, lifting a dainty porcelain cup from a silver tray.  We were definitely in Ireland.  He wore a thick gray sweater with a rolled neck, and I knew at once where he got it. He has been hooked on Irish knit sweaters since Maria supplied him with his first one, a simple blue cable knit, in early 2000. They’ve been his staple dress item ever since.

He spotted us, and I felt like a teenager who had broken curfew.  “Where were you?” he said. “Weren’t you due to land a few hours ago?” The three of us exchanged hugs, and he added, “I was getting worried.”  I felt guilty for our brief detour, and wished we had let him know of our delay, but I found his worry touching.

“Do you like the sweater Maria gave to me last night?” he said, standing and holding both of his arms out as if helping us to judge. I was happy for the change in subject.

“It’s great!” I said, picking a small crust of bread off of his chest. “Now you have another to rotate, and people might stop wondering why you wear that same two sweaters in all of your pictures.”  I repaired a few sweaters for him in the past, but a blue-green pullover he asked me to fix had a hole in it the size of a baby’s head, and it will remain in my basement until he stops asking about it.

“Listen, tonight’s talk will be boring for you – you’ve heard it all before,” he warned.  “Since you’ve already set the schedule, why don’t you relax here, or go out with Sami to a pub, and get a taste of Dublin?” I’m sure he did want us to have fun, but I knew another truth behind his suggestion. Noam knew I would keep an eagle eye on the timing of events, but he also trusted that Maria would watch his back.  The crux of the matter was this - he wanted to be able to stop and drop when he was too tired to stand.  This is what I always tried to keep him from doing, and this is what he always managed to do whether or not someone was monitoring him.  He had to live his life his own way.  I understood that.

I had read his lecture abstract, titled, “Can civilization survive really existing capitalism?” and I was familiar with some of the content. We were tired, and eating locally and relaxing at the B&B sounded enticing, so we acquiesced. Laura couldn’t hide her disappointment at skipping one of Noam’s talks, but she agreed to hang back when I assured her we wouldn’t miss anything else on this trip. Sami came to take us out and show us around.

The next morning Laura and I ate breakfast with Noam, and Laura mentioned that she had never been to the UK. “Around the 1950’s, Carol and I took a trip to Liverpool on a tilted ship. Liverpool had flooded, and the ship we were supposed to take had sunk a few days earlier.  You could tell as you walked around town which people had been on the tilted ship,” he said, still amused. “In fact, a lot of the world is already under water,” he added.  I looked down at my breakfast and wondered why I should care about my perfectly poached eggs since we’re all going to die anyway.

When I was little, I gave up sweets for Lent, and to lighten the mood, I told Noam and Laura this as I picked up a sugar-laden fruit confection. “Do you know what Lent is?” I asked Noam, although I was sure he knew – in fact, he often cites facts about the church that I have long since forgotten.

His reply was truly Noam-esque.  “Isn’t Lent when you have to return all of your over-due books to the library?”

Laura and I spent the morning hours with Sami, visiting the amazing Book of Kells exhibit on Trinity College’s Campus. We had attended Noam’s classroom Q&A on thought and the mind in Italy months before, and were looking forward to his master class at the Royal Academy, titled "Language Use and Design: conflicts and their significance." After the class, I arranged for Sami’s friend Gary Daly, a local solicitor and boxer, to say hello to Noam and have his program signed, which put Gary over the moon.  Once Noam was on his way back to the B&B to rest and prepare for the evening’s event, Gary suggested the four of us – Laura, Sami, Gary, and myself, have Irish stew at Gogarty’s pub, where we could hear some authentic Irish music and I could drink my first authentic Guinness.

The duet up front was finishing “The Foggy Dew” as we stepped over the threshold. Those few notes sent something primordial coursing through my body, the emotion of it touching me so deeply that my legs wobbled, and I literally burst into tears. I was surprised by my own reaction, feeling like I was watching myself from afar.

“You’ve come home, have ya?” the lead singer of the duet called out to me.  “Would you like to hear something?” he asked, as I shook my head and wordlessly rounded the corner, moving anywhere but toward the music. I heard Gary call out from behind me, “Could you play Danny Boy for her, in memory of her Mam?”

No, no.  I couldn’t handle Danny Boy. But they were already strumming, picking, and singing, and I disappeared into another realm as their deep voices pulled me to involuntary attention. “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are caw-aw-ling…from glen to glen, and down the mountainside…”  By now Sami, Gary and Laura were ushering me to a table in the back of the pub, and all eyes were on me when the lead called out, “Will you come and sing with us?”  Was he kidding?  I could hardly stand, as all of the emotion of the past two weeks threatened to drop me in a heap onto the worn, dark wood floor.

“I’m sorry, I can’t…” I tried to yell above the tune.  I struggled to my feet and waved, holding Gary’s arm for support, then sat again, sinking into my own silent fog while Laura ordered my lunch.
After a few innocuously beautiful songs soothed the atmosphere, and buoyed by half of a perfect Guinness, I walked to the front of the pub to thank the two musicians. The lead singer/guitarist kissed and hugged me, and having seen my ongoing reaction, cautioned me: "Stay away from Danny Boy for a while."

We planned to go straight to the B&B for the afternoon, but it dawned on me that my son’s childhood friend, Lorcan, and his family lived in Dublin!  I texted him, and he insisted we come for a visit. Minutes later, Laura and I found ourselves in a cab on our way to Lorcan’s home just 20 minutes from the city, where we had tea with his lovely Irish wife, Sorcha, and I finally met his three children. After our sweetly serendipitous visit, we taxied back to the B&B to shower and rest before Noam’s Front Line talk at the Royal Dublin Society Concert Hall in Ballsbridge.

Maria planned to pick Noam up for the pre-talk reception with an invited group of friends and activists, and Sami would drive us to the event soon after so that we could grab something to eat at the reception as well. Noam, Laura and I sat together in the parlor, sipping tea while we awaited our rides.

“So how was the pub visit?” he asked us, his eyes beaming with curiosity.

“It was fabulous, but I burst into tears as soon as I heard the music.  I told him the story, admitting that I was a mess almost the whole time, especially when they played Danny Boy.”

“I can attest to that first hand,” Laura said.  “We pretty much carried her around for the first twenty minutes.”

Noam asked, “Did you cry when you went to Africa?”

“Yes, I did.”

“From the destitution?”

“No,” I said.  “From the beauty of it.”

My trip to Africa for an animal-viewing safari in the 80’s wouldn't be Noam’s trip to Africa - or India, or Laos, where he looked suffering in the face, as he has repeatedly done, across the globe.  I told him I probably couldn’t handle seeing the things he has seen. He was wearing a look of silent contemplation when Maria announced her arrival.

After the reception we all filed into reserved seating in the concert hall.  Noam’s talk drew an overflow crowd, and ended with a standing ovation.  His inaugural lecture for Front Line Defenders of Human Rights, “Solidarity and the Responsibility to Protect” opened my eyes more to the promised topic: existing support for human rights defenders and activists trying to be heard despite the agendas of others, including mainstream media. By the end of the Q&A my head was spinning, and we still had a pub crawl ahead of us. Noam was engrossed in a post-talk RTV interview that had gotten way out of hand – we promised the journalist ten minutes, but she didn’t budge after twenty-five, despite my hand gestures and verbal pleas. This type of behavior at our office is the bain of my existence. Finally, Noam made eye contact with me and ended it, and ten of us, chatting away, strolled to three waiting cars. Maria and her husband took us to the first bar on our long-awaited virgin pub crawl.

Sometimes alcohol makes my heart race, so I decided to hold off on drinking as we all settled into a big circle.  The women who ran the Front Line program, Mary and Katrina, joined us.  When Mary saw me without a drink, she said, “Christ, Beverly, can’t you have one drink for your mother’s sake?”  I ordered a half pint of Guinness in Charlotte’s honor. Mary’s words echoed my own mother’s – she was the only mother I knew who tried to encourage her adult children to drink. “For Christ’s sake, Beverly, can’t you have one drink?” she would say, as I am basically a teetotaler. Sitting there, I wondered if my mother picked up that phrase from her Irish grandmother, and another of my mother’s stories popped into my head.  She and her best friend traveled with Meme by boat to Provincetown in the mid 1930’s.  I have an old photo-booth picture of the three of them, taken on that trip. Meme must have been in her late forties, but she looks twenty-five years older by present-day standards.

“On the boat, my grandmother ordered a beer at the bar, and I was shocked!” my mother once told me.  “I had never seen her drinking a beer!”

I did share a glass of wine with my mother on occasion, mostly during one of our scrabble games with Laura and Al, and I was grateful for those memories.

The bar conversation was casual – is the Guinness made locally, is the Irish whiskey better in Ireland than at home, etc..  A few recalled the Front Line lecture and Q&A.  When Gary showed up, I introduced him again to Noam.

“It’s a good thing you agreed to have your picture taken with Gary after your master class” I said, “because not only is he a solicitor, but he’s a boxer!” Noam took a deep sip from his whiskey glass, feigning fear.

When Mary, Katrina, and Sami offered to take us across the street to another bar, we had to say yes, although it was likely that I wouldn’t drink much more than the half of a half pint I had just drunk.

“You have to go,” Noam said.  “Otherwise you won’t be able to say you’ve been on a pub crawl!”

Maria took Noam home, and Laura and I walked across the street to the second bar with our gang of three, calling it a night after an hour, since we had to leave for Cork on the late morning train.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Coincidental Counterpoint

Dedicated with love to my cousin Diane - may the sun come up and dry up all the rain, giving you lots of sunny days ahead.       




            “Bevy, if you were stranded on a desert island…”
            “Oh, no, please don’t ask me that again, I don’t know – ice cream and pizza.  Those are the two foods I would choose to have if stranded on a desert island.  Although I do love arugula.”
            “That wasn’t what I was going to ask you,” Laura finished, her voice flat.
            It was mid-September, and we were on our way to our self-designed retreat on Westport Island in Maine, to heal and reconnect at our friend Shelley’s vacant cottage after a very intense spring and summer.  Actually, over the past two years we had lost my mother, two dear friends, a cousin, two aunts, an uncle, and our sweet cat.  Most recently, Laura’s mother suffered a major stroke the day before she was to fly to Boston to be at our May 3rd wedding.  Her death three weeks later in a Santa Barbara hospital’s neuro ICU unit was almost more than we could bear. We work hard, try to be positive and upbeat, have an abundance of friends and family around us to share meals, interesting discussion, and healthy laughs, but we both became so exhausted from tending to our lives and work that we had little to give each other at the end of the day.
            We rallied to share a flawless early-August wedding day in our flower-filled, tented back yard with many of the people we love. But we returned to our jobs and other responsibilities too soon, stalling a much-needed period of quiet, mourning, and reflection.  By September we realized we had no choice but to take another week off for ourselves, hoping we might even be lucky enough to find time and space for celebration.
            Laura had just taken over as driver after my three-hour stint, and by now I was interested in closing my eyes and listening to a book on tape, but in the spirit of connection, I did my best to sound enthusiastic. “Oh, sorry.  What is the rest of the question?” 
            “If you were stranded on a desert island, what are the two pieces of music you would like to have with you?” 
            “Do you mean on my I-pod?” I asked.  For some reason I felt the need to be clear about how I would be listening to this music. “A desert island is sounding pretty good to me right now, so I’m not sure ‘stranded’ would be my feeling about it.” Laura is one of the most patient people on the planet, so when I saw what appeared to be confused irritation in the set of her profiled jaw, I decided to play along.  Even I was surprised by what came out of my mouth next.
            “First, I would like to have The Incy Wincy Spider,” I said.
            She took her eyes off the road just long enough to stare at me. “You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy’ Spider,” she said, swerving slightly in order to keep between the white lines, making me seriously wonder why she would risk our lives on a busy highway to make that differentiation.
            I said, “I think both are right.”  I resort to this reply when in doubt – it’s easier than debating.
            “I don’t,” she said. “I think it’s definitely ‘itsy bitsy’.”
            “I will look it up the next time we have internet,” I said.  Another benefit of spending time at the cottage was that it lacked internet, so we would have more time to connect to one another in the silence and beauty of tall pines and the Sheepscot River. We had spent time there with Shelley, Susan, and Jan over the years - we call our group the Totem Mamas, so-named for a small piece of black driftwood we picked up on a beach more than a dozen years ago during our first weekend together, so her home and its good, healing energy felt familiar.  One hidden blessing of having to postpone our May wedding was that Shelley had time to become our legal officiant in time for the August date. Shelley is a deeply spiritual woman, and her cottage reflects this with chachkies from around the world – incense, meditation pillows, candles, wall-hangings, drums, flutes, gongs, and that sort of thing.
            “OK, let me explain.  It’s probably one of the first interactive songs you learned as a kid.  Carly Simon’s version is beautiful – she sings along with the seraphic voices of a chorus of young children.”  I could see by the curious look on her face that it was her turn to not be buying what I was selling, but I kept on talking, though I myself was unsure, and even curious, about what I was getting at.  It’s a great old children’s song.  I sang it with Jay when he was little.
             “I think also that the song is on my mind because Jack and Ellen Foley sent me a video this morning of their little granddaughter belting it out in her baby car seat, and her voice screeched with enthusiastic intensity.” I demonstrated Jack’s granddaughter’s performance by singing the entire song, notching it down a bit so I wouldn’t lose my point, or my audience.
            When I finished, Laura said, “Bevy, I am shuddering at the idea of being stranded on a desert island listening endlessly to your personal reenactment of that song.  So..., what would be your second choice?”
            “Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux,” I said.  “I think the one I love is Opus 39.  I would want to count the Etudes Tableaux as one choice.  I hope that’s ok.”  (Was I asking permission from her, or from the omniscient and omnipotent answerer of questions?) “So that, and The Incy Wincy Spider.”
            “Not Joan Baez?  Nothing by Joan Baez?” she asked, looking oddly relieved. 
            “I might have chosen Joan Baez twenty years ago, or maybe a week ago, but I’m staying with these. “Here’s the thing about that piece,” I explained.  “It’s like you’re trying and trying to keep going, and it’s at times an uphill battle, like in Camus’s The Myth of Sysiphus, you’re pushing the boulder up the hill, pushing and pushing, and you think you’re almost there, and you give it another shove, and it’s briefly there, on top, only to roll back down again.  It’s a futile action, and I guess you can look at life that way - we all know it will end, so what keeps us going?  Why bother? 
I stopped talking as we passed through the Maine Turnpike tolls, to be sure I had her full attention.  “So the music begins in the lower range, and travels up and up and circles around the higher range, and the notes keep circling as if to find a foothold.  But quickly they tumble backward, spiraling down into and over themselves until there are a lot of low notes, and the feeling of struggle. Then it starts all over again, and there’s hope that this time we might make it back up and stay there for a while, and if we do, we can convince ourselves that we might never tumble down again. That’s how I felt the first time I heard it, and it still hits me like that.”
“Bevy, are you talking about the Itsy Bitsy Spider, or Rachmaninoff?” she asked.  Because if you’re talking about Rachmaninoff, it occurs to me that you could also be talking about the spider.”
            “Oh, god, I was talking about Rachmaninoff, but yes, both!  I hadn’t noticed the similarity until you pointed it out. Why did I choose those two pieces of the thousands I know?  To me, The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux are telling the same story!”
            "Bevy, I have goosebumps," she said, and I think she meant it.
            Just before my thirtieth birthday I realized I could stop feeling sad that my parent's couldn't buy me a used piano when I was young, and that I could buy one myself.  An MIT colleague had already agreed to teach me. Ronnie Schwartz had lived in the US for a while with her Dominican husband, moving there with him a year or so later, where she became a respected concertina. But soon her husband's personality changed, and he became cruel, and she returned to the US with only the clothing she wore, buying her one-way ticket with money smuggled in by her parents. Her experiences came through in her passion for the piano, and she was patient as I struggled through Für Elise, then a Bach Prelude and someone’s funeral march. One day she offered to play Rachmaninoff for me, sitting right next to her on the piano bench.  The music seemed to tell my story word for word, note for note, and I cried. Of course she was playing the piece from the Etudes Tableaux.  
When we arrived at the cottage, we were greeted by long lengths of colored prayer flags, some which I had sewn together years before.  Once inside, we began to unpack, both dreading and looking forward to what we had to face in the quiet solitude of the cottage - a strange admission considering we were married just ten weeks earlier. 
Laura took some things up the wide maple stairs to the bedroom, and I noticed a green striped folder sitting on the edge of the wooden counter, remembering that Shelley was planning to leave it there for us.  I opened it and found that she had printed our wedding ceremony on clear, durable paper, and I sat down right away to read the whole thing, crying through most of it.  Shelley had included a package of copal incense from Colombia, for smudging and cleansing, and when I was finished reading, I got up and lit a stick of it, and started a nice fire in the stone fireplace.  I was ready to get this show on the road.
Laura and I passed one another on my way up the stairs, and when I returned a few minutes later, she was sitting on one of the two beige overstuffed living room sofas, near a large glass singing bowl and some ceremonial instruments, and the green folder was beside her. Her eyes were soft, so I knew she had read our ceremony, too.  Behind her, through a large bank of windows, I could see the lake sparkle through the magnificent pines. I sat next to her and held her hand, and we both talked about how much fun our wedding day had been, and how lucky we were to have so many loving people in our lives. 
The next morning, we decided to get out in the open the things we had been holding in, so with pens in hand, we wrote a note to one another.  Laura tapped the signing bowl at the end of a half hour, and we read aloud, each of us speaking and listening in turn, with considerable emotion and a couple of apologies. As lunchtime approached, we began to feel an opening, and a softness toward one another.
New England was glorying in a week of Indian summer, and we changed the energy up to plan our agenda:  kayaking, reading, more writing and talking, meditations on the decks and cliffs overlooking the river, daily fires in the stone fireplace, and healthy foods to nourish our bodies.  We would use the grill on the back deck to roast vegetables, chicken and fish.
During these meals, and in the two-person kayak in the late mornings, with acres of  pines and birches as our witnesses, we talked more about the spider and Rachmaninoff, outlined some wishes and goals, and wondered about what might come next, after we leave this life, a question we like to think both of our mothers know the answer to. As an aside, during the half hour that we got online in the neighboring town of Bath, Maine during our third day of retreat, I found out that my cousin Diane was diagnosed just days before with stage four melanoma.  Diane was my best friend when we were kids - she's my age, and this feels so close to home.
My friend Deb, a hard-core pragmatist, repeats her mantra to me almost weekly. “Biffy, we’re all going to die some day.  Why not accept it and get on with your life?” Deb purchased three plots in a “green” cemetery in Maine about five years before, when she was taking care of her ill mother’s final details.  I visited the cemetery with her a few years ago, and standing shoulder to shoulder with her at her own grave site freaked the hell out of me.
During our remaining days together at the cottage, Laura and I talked about our losses and our joys, and the realization that it’s futile to try to control any of it – our own lives or the lives of the people we love. Death is a given, and we will obviously experience more or it as we age.  That’s the downside of a full life of friends, family, and pets.  But who’s to say what’s up, and what’s down, and what’s good or bad, anyway.  If I try to put a value on these things, then I’m trying to control something I can’t, and that only causes pain. We remembered the many times a so-called “bad” thing happened to us, only to open another door leading us to something we didn’t know we needed. 
By the end of the week, after spending much-needed time with my new wife and this perfect cottage, I could consider that the spider was, without judgment or value, simply climbing up the water spout, being rained out of it, and climbing up again. Jack’s granddaughter knew all the time that this was all there was to it.  It seems to me that we unlearn the simplicity of things as we grow older.  I would like to have a talk with Rachmaninoff and ask him what he had in mind when he wrote the Etudes Tableaux, and in fact I could look that up on line at any time, but I think it’s best that I just put on my earphones and enjoy the music.
Laura and I have decided to make a yearly trek to strand ourselves on this – or another - island.  Next year, I will bring along all of my Joan Baez and Janis Joplin music.  Laura will bring a couple of her antique books of children’s rhymes and fairy tales, and we’ll really do ourselves in trying to find in those stories the meaning of life.

You can listen to a 30-second sample of my favorite Etudes Tableaux piece.
 
Below is Jack's granddaughter singing itsy bitsy spider - it gets better as it goes along!

video

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weathering the Storm


I open Noam Chomsky’s e-mails on weekdays and forward on to him those I can’t take care of, at a second e-mail address.  Once in a while I open up a nasty rant from a person who doesn’t like his politics, most likely because they misunderstand his point of view (the beauty of a blog is that I can say what I think, plus, I have been reading these messages for twenty years). 

Putting aside his significant work in linguistics, Noam is a prominent human rights activist, a defender of mistreated and voiceless individuals, groups, and countries, and an exposer of problems with mainstream media and US foreign policy.  He’s concerned about fracking, tsunamis, the so-called drug war, and the survival of the planet. He participates endlessly in debates and discussions, is an inexhaustible lecturer, holds interviews two days a week in his office, and responds to e-mails through the early morning hours.  He does much of this at great personal expense, traveling extensively both within and outside the country until he’s too tired to stand, and the only time he sits is to write, and sometimes eat. 

More than a few times I’ve been tempted to hit “reply” and give an enraged writer hell, telling him how terribly misinformed he is.  I would tell him that Noam doesn’t fabricate numbers, statistics, or facts – you can find almost everything he quotes in a journal or newspaper article, or book.  I would point out to them that sympathizing with Palestinians doesn’t mean he hates Jews.  He’s a pacifist – a guardian of peace, he believes war is unjustifiable.

Many of these ranters suggest he leave the United States and live somewhere else. I would insist that his criticism of the US government’s policies doesn’t mean he hates being an American. I would remind them of the first amendment, which guarantees “the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government.” And I would suggest that they become more informed about the real facts – and maybe actually read something Noam has written with an eye toward understanding. 

But it’s my job to pass all messages not directed toward me onto Noam, whether an e-mail from a colleague or a note from one of his grandsons, and thousands of others in between, many from people he’s never met.  So, once I've added any essential piece of backup for clarity, I pass them on, even the few I would prefer to send to the trash with one simple keystroke. 

A few months ago, when I was angered by one of these slanderous e-mails, I jumped out of my chair, gathered up some travel and scheduling items for an impromptu meeting, and stormed into his office.  Ok, I didn’t actually storm.  Noam doesn’t respond to that kind of drama.

I excused myself for interrupting his reading, asking him if I could talk with him for a minute, then I launched right into it. “Noam, don’t you ever get upset with the nasty, antagonistic e-mails from enraged people?  Considering the [immeasurable] sacrifices you’ve made, how do you keep from getting angry?” I asked.

Noam replied, “Do you get angry with a hurricane?”

“No, I don’t get angry with the hurricane, but I am upset when people are hurt by a hurricane.”

Noam repeated, “But do you get angry with the hurricane?”

“No,” I said, becoming frustrated that he wasn’t sharing my outrage.

“Well, people are hurricanes,” he said. 

I thought, what the hell does that mean, ‘people are hurricanes?  Judging by what I know about Noam, he wanted me to think, and to figure it out for myself. I guessed he was reminding me that anger can be a big waste of time unless you harness it into action.  Also, hurricanes are unpredictable, and they erupt, just like people.  And I suppose when you find yourself in the path of a hurricane, it’s prudent to protect yourself, and keep out of harm’s way, as you can’t control it any more than you can control a person.  These are my thoughts. 

As with most things, I went home and talked this over with my partner Laura, a psychotherapist who has witnessed anger and frustration in a multitude of sizes and shapes.  She said, “I think there’s a way in which people carry their own weather systems.  Weather is affected by both internal and external experiences – past and present.  By what they’ve learned, what they’ve eaten, their assumptions, and by what’s going on around them.  There are some people who walk in the door and you can feel the storminess around them, and sometimes you feel something more subtle.” 

I wondered whether that was what Noam intended to convey to me, as well – people have their own unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s best to put on your raincoat and boots and wait it out.  Weather isn't something we can control any more than we can control other people.

I had to check with him again, so I recently asked Noam to give me some insight on how he keeps from reacting to a writer’s fury.  I worded it in a way that wouldn’t hint that he was possibly answering a question I was supposed to have figured out for myself.  He said “People usually have reasons for being angry, however distorted and unpleasant.  And there's always some hope that they can be dealt with. Sometimes it even works, after a lot of effort.  But what's the point in being angry about it?  A three-year old doubtless has a reason for an annoying tantrum, but do we get angry at the kid?” 

I thought, well, yes, we do, but the same is true as about the hurricane - it's useless to get mad at the child.  I also realized two things.  First, something that I keep learning in a circular manner, that even an unpleasant and hostile form of discourse can be a step toward understanding.

And second, not only was he talking about our lack of ability to control some things, but he was also talking about compassion. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

Meeting Noam Chomsky




I heard the knob hit the wall before I saw the man.  I looked up, startled by the sound, and saw a nice looking man of slim to medium build, somewhere around 5’10”, with a healthy head of white hair and large wire-rimmed glasses, standing at the wall of faculty mailboxes which were for some reason located in our suite.  He was wearing a light blue shirt, blue jeans rolled up with a full four-inch cuff, and black sneakers with white socks.  In one hand he held a bulging worn briefcase, and in the other, a dark blue canvas bag.  He looked to be in his early to mid-sixties.  I had read a little more about him over the last week or so, and the more I learned, the more overwhelmed and intimidated I became.  He was a media and US foreign policy critic, he worked alone and side-by-side with Howard Zinn and others as a Vietnam War resister, he was a human rights advocate, and of course a linguistics professor.  He debated experts like Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault, John Silber, and William F. Buckley. I recognized him from his pictures, and it wasn’t until I stood to introduce myself that I realized how nervous I was. 

I extended my hand toward him, and he took it.  “Hi, Professor Chomsky.  I’m Bev Stohl.  It’s nice to meet you.”  So far so good, I thought, as he murmured a preoccupied ‘hello,’ plopped the leather briefcase onto my desk and fished inside for a handful of papers. I noticed the initials NC in faded gold at the top, near the handle, so I knew I had the right guy, but the quiet was unnerving. I needed to fill the void. “It must be strange for you to come in and meet your new assistant for the first time.”  As I said this aloud, it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t at all strange to him.  It was too late to start over, and fainting or quitting would make a bad first impression, so I just stood there, looking at him.
“You can call me Noam,” he said cheerily, his widening smile easing my anxiety, “And I have full confidence in Jamie and Morris’s decision.  If they chose you for the job, then I’m sure we’ll make a great team.”   I noticed that his smile emanated not only from his mouth but also his eyes, which sparkled mischievously behind his thick lenses.
He tilted his head slightly upward when he said this, making him seem playfully delighted – I hoped at the thought of our working together.  Maybe I wouldn’t have to be shipped home after all.  And standing there with him for the first time, I wondered “What’s the big deal about working for Noam Chomsky?”

  

Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Offer I Could Have Refused: Interview with Morris Halle for position as Noam Chomsky's assistant

Morris Halle called across the suite to me, “Bev, can you come and show me how to get my phone messages?” I walked down the short hallway to his office, where I found him looking at his phone as if it were a foreign object, and saw that his password was still taped to the top of his phone, above the rectangular digital window. 
“There is it Morris,” I said.  “You just press the buttons in sequence where I’ve taped the numbers one, two and three, and the phone will prompt you for your password.”
“Oh, yes, that should work,” he said.
**
My childhood dream was to be a pink-tutu’ed ballerina.  As a seven-year-old girl in 1961 I wasn’t aware of man y other career choices besides teaching, which I seriously considered until my teacher shocked me by marking my first X ever on a vocabulary test when I proposed that the word tongue contained two syllables.  So teaching was out.  But every Saturday I looked forward to pulling tiny black tights and leotards over my rail-thin body for my morning ballet classes, where a dozen girls stretched at the dark wood barre and pirouetted across the tired oak studio floor. So it was settled in my little girl mind that when I grew up, I would dance the ballet.
And this is what I wrote in my requisite “What I want to be when I grow up” essay in Mrs. Burke’s second grade class at the Plympton School in Waltham, Massachusetts. One thing I know for sure is that I did not mention in that essay, not even in passing, that my dream was to work at MIT as right-hand person for left wing activist, scholar, linguist, dissident humanitarian liberal philosopher, author, and media and US foreign policy critic, Professor Noam Chomsky.  In fact, I had just learned my left from my right.  And though my vocabulary was excellent for my age, ton-gue be damned, these terms were far beyond the scope of my knowledge.
Thirty-two years after announcing my future plans, the incontrovertible evidence of my two-left-feet having dashed all hopes of becoming a ballerina, I was still trying to figure out my special purpose in the world. 
In 1979, my younger brother Paul, a new MIT graduate about to continue his studies there toward a doctorate in physics, took me to the HR department to check out job listings.  I wanted to be home in the afternoons for my seven-year-old son, so I took a part-time position working for a Department of Energy project headed by Fred Salvucci, previous Secretary of Transportation in Massachusetts under Michael Dukakis.  I loved the team of people I was working for, but more importantly I found it appealing to work in a university atmosphere rather than a corporate setting.  The dress code was casual, and I felt at ease spending my days with and around grad students, who, on average, were just a year or two younger than I.  Feeling the pressure to grow and move on, in a few years I took a full time administrative position at the Transportation Department’s headquarters office, moving onto Civil Engineering’s headquarters office, where I worked as assistant to the graduate program administrator.  I soon moved up to MIT’s now defunct Ocean Engineering Department as their graduate program administrator, finally landing in a salaried position as program administrator in the cutting-edge Department of Economics. 
Then one day in 1994, I looked around and wondered how I got where I was – sixteen years older and twenty pounds heavier, making more money and feeling less personally connected to my own goals. I loved working with the students, and the administrators and most of the professors were good people, but I was feeling a lot of stress and little joy in my job, so I began looking for a less challenging job that would allow me time and space to finish a degree in counseling psychology.  At least then, I thought, I could eventually pursue a career that centered on my personal agenda, and not on the agenda of an institution.  I applied for a position at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy that I thought I could handle while finishing my studies, but my friend and colleague Jamie Young called to tell me she had offered the job to someone else literally minutes before opening my application.  She did have another position open, she said, as assistant to a professor named Noam Chomsky.  In the MIT hierarchy, this job was one level down from the job I had applied for, so I presumed it would be an easier job. I had heard Chomsky’s name around the Institute, but I knew little about his work, though I did learn that he was so tightly scheduled that the process of finding a new assistant was put in the hands of two other people.
First I met with Jamie Young.  She had held the position as Chomsky’s assistant before accepting a promotion as the departmental Administrative Officer, or AO, and in fact was still handling most of his travel arrangements.  His last assistant, she would later tell me, had become too stressed trying to handle the demanding work load, and quit. “She tried too hard to be perfect,” Jamie told me.
“Oh, good,” I thought, “I do tend to worry over small details, but I’m not a perfectionist, so the job might suit me well.”  Jamie had some knowledge of my work style since we held more or less the same job as grad program administrators in different departments, and she agreed that I could be a good fit for the position. 
 My main interview would be with Morris Halle, Chomsky’s trusted long-time colleague, suite mate, and personal friend, and a professor of phonology, morphology, poetics, and Slavic languages. Jamie referred to him as the godfather of the suite.  I preferred to understand that to mean he watched over his little group, and I squelched the image of having my legs broken for filing his papers out of order.  Professor Chomsky was working from home on the day of my interview, something he did two days a week.  
When Jamie walked me through the entrance to the Chomsky-Halle suite for the first time, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  The large posters of Palestine, East Timor, and Bertrand Russell, and political drawings beyond my range of understanding and world view at that time told me this was a much different milieu than that of the MIT I had become familiar with over the past fifteen years. That had been a world of classes, exams, grade sheets, and stressed-out students handing me their theses after pulling a string of all-nighters.  Even before meeting my new boss,  I wanted to click my heels together and go back to what I knew – offering students ginger ale and a pat on the back when they were sick or overwhelmed, reminding them that I had seen students in this state of anxiety many times, and they had all graduated in the end. I was a therapist to the core, for God’s sake!
Jamie introduced me to Professor Halle – assuring me it was ok to call him Morris.  He was about my height, around 5’8”.  He was balding in a newly-hatched bird kind of way—more accurately, I know now, he was in a perpetual state of thinning.  Large square wire-rimmed glasses framed his roundish face, and he wore a light weight gray vest over a striped blue and white dress shirt. When we shook hands, the playfulness in his smile surprised me. Jamie left us, and Morris began the interview. 
“So, Beverly…” I made a mental note to tell him I preferred to be called Bev, although the way he had said my name, Be-ver-ly, one clear syllable at a time, pronouncing the “r” in my name with a slight accent I couldn’t place, made it seem like something I could live with, if I got the job.  He continued, “Let me give you a little background about this office.  It is a very busy place.  You will not be here to develop a friendly relationship with Professor Chomsky.” His choice of words made it sound like my working there was a done deal, but I hadn’t said a word yet. “Managing his office and coordinating his lectures and travel schedule is not a warm and fuzzy job.”   Morris laughed as he said this, and added, still laughing, “Do you know what I’m getting at?”  I did not understand what he was getting at, but nodded my head to show that I was listening.  I still had no clue of the scope and depth of Professor Chomsky’s work.
As the interview progressed, two things became clear to me. First, that the job was mine if I wanted it, and second, that Morris was concerned about my empathic nature.  “Beverly,” – there it was again - “I want to be sure that your psychology background doesn’t make you too gentle in handling the more difficult personalities and situations you might encounter here,” he warned. 
The flutter in the pit of my stomach was unsettling. I pictured myself being spun around on a dusty old leather office chair by a crazy person insisting I make time for him on Professor Chomsky’s packed schedule.
 “Some of Professor Chomsky’s secretaries, for instance, had problems asserting themselves with journalists, who quite often try to extend appointments far beyond the end time,” he told me.  “And there have been some issues where questions have been answered to the press, erroneously, on Professor Chomsky’s behalf.  These things have caused some problems, which I won’t go into now.”  I  nodded my head in reply, but I was thinking, “Did he just call me a secretary?” And what the hell goes on here, anyway?  What could I be stepping into?  My mind’s eye held a cartoon image of Chomsky’s last assistant running down the hallway screeching, arms waving madly, clasping her palms together and diving through the cracked single glass pane of the wonky second floor window at the end of the long and bleak creaky wood-floored hallway.
I shook my head to clear the image, and reminded myself that I didn’t have to accept this position if and when it was offered to me.
 “When Jamie worked as Noam’s assistant, one journalist who couldn’t get his way accused her of having ‘steely impersonality.’”  Professor Halle emphasized each of the last two words with an upward stress, in his deepest voice, raising a fist in triumphant emphasis.  Steely was about as far from my personality as one could get.  I could be assertive when needed, but I also liked to joke with people.  I liked to hug people.  “As Professor Chomsky’s secretary, that’s what I want you to demonstrate!”  Professor Halle’s habit of laughing and talking at the same time was endearing. “Do you see where I am going with this, Beverly?” he asked, spitting on me just a little bit in his enthusiasm. 
I forced a smile despite my growing fears, and told Morris “I think I’m getting it,” though whatever I was getting, I wasn’t necessarily liking.
The second use of the term “secretary” hit a nerve.  I had held higher positions at MIT, including interim acting Administrative Officer, and I realized Morris either hadn’t gotten the memo that this search was for an “administrative assistant,” or, more likely, at nearly seventy years old (yes, he’s ninety now!) he was not going to change his vocabulary.  Flashing inside my head in bright red lights were the words “fight or flight,” and for some reason, I stayed put.
“Are you familiar with ‘Manufacturing Consent?’ he asked me, and since I didn’t know whether it was a book or a video, or if he just meant the term itself, I answered simply, “No, I’m not.”
Professor Halle looked pleased with my reply, as if by not knowing, I had passed his test.  He said he had one last thing to tell me. Over the years I would come to see that this way of looking at things was true to his wonderfully straight-shooting and lively personality.  “I would like you to pretend that you have an on-off switch,” he said. “The off position is appropriate when acting as Chomsky’s representative, planning his local lectures, office meetings and interviews, and his extended travel,” he explained.  “This will be your normal mode.  But the on position should be activated for those who want to take advantage of the good nature of our office. (On, as in “the reverse of n-o.” This was the note I made to myself to remember which represented the “be tough” mode.) You reserve this attitude for the people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  The ones who don’t respect our limits.”  Again he lifted his fist and laughed. “For those situations, I want to see you turn on your steely impersonality!”  This time I laughed along with him.  I was beginning to like Morris, and I figured if he thought this was somewhat funny, then I could maybe heed his warnings with a grain of salt.  
At the end of the interview, despite my reservations and endless internal questions about the inner workings of World Chomsky, and maybe to some extent because of them, I walked back into Jamie’s office prepared to accept the position as Noam Chomsky’s assistant. There were plenty of groupies interested in the position, she told me, but she and Morris preferred to hire someone who was not a Chomsky fanatic – someone who would not be distracted by his notoriety.  They were both convinced that would be me. 
The plan was for me to meet Professor Chomsky in about ten days, on my first day of work.  This felt strangely like an arranged marriage.  What if we didn’t like one another?  Would they ship me back to my home in Watertown, Massachusetts, or would we try to stick it out for a while to see if we could learn to get along?  I figured I would find out soon enough.

On my first day, Jamie let me in before Morris arrived, and sat me at an old gray metal desk circa 1940.  I scanned the place more closely, a very strange suite of offices that seemed to have slipped back in time into the bowels of MIT. To a collector, the place was a goldmine. Even shoddy replicas of the ancient metal desks and large wood and leather swivel desk chairs would sell at a high price at a store like Restoration Hardware.  The coat racks were sturdy metal.  My father would have looked around at everything and said, “They don’t make them like this anymore, ya know.”  And they don’t.  Anyone trying to achieve a retro look at home or office, which was the rage back then, would have benefited from checking out our office.  The furniture and accessories lacked the glitter and gleam sold by the retro stores, but if you could look beyond the dust and a bit of white powder covering the original circa 1940 furniture, lamps, large area rugs, barrister bookcases, and even a few of the framed pictures, the look was there.  All it needed was Fred Flintstone’s bird-beak-needled record player.
I looked down to review the notes I had taken in an earlier meeting with Jamie, trying to familiarize myself with Professor Chomsky’s DOS-based e-mail system.  Most of his correspondence came by mail in those days (you remember mail – envelopes, stamps, etc.) but he was receiving an increasing amount of e-mails, up to forty a day, which was a lot then, considering each one required a five-step transitional procedure before he could read it on his home computer.  It took at least an hour to transfer thirty to forty e-mails.  Noam has always written his correspondence, lectures and books from home, and even now, almost twenty years later, he doesn’t have a personal computer in his MIT office, although once in a while he’ll lug in his laptop to check e-mail when he has a break between office meetings and a local evening lecture. 
Professor Chomsky was at that time still using an antiquated word processing program called Final Word, which his son Harry had set up for him as a young teenager in the late 70’s.  One of my favorite of Noam’s stories is this:  About once a week, when he had a problem with Final Word, he or his wife Carol called the school under the guise of a ‘family emergency’ and asked that Harry be taken out of class to come home for a few hours.  Harry never worried when the principal called him out of his classroom.  He knew that his father had probably hit the wrong series of keys again.

Building Twenty, which housed our department, was old and crumbling.  Fragments of wood shingles cracked off in summer heat and the ice of winters and dropped to the ground.  The building was originally designed as a temporary army barracks, and the whitewashed walls of the long wide hallways had faded with time and dust into a dull gray.  Each time the large wooden door to our suite flew open, a knob-sized hole in the wall poured another layer of white dust onto the floor.  Asbestos, I later learned. 
So this was to be my new home.  Sweet.
**
Now, twenty years later, I go back into Morris’s office to check on him, and I find him gathering up a few things – a book, a paper – sliding them neatly into his ever-present worn red back pack.  He has been here less than two hours, but he is ready to go home.  We hug good-bye – something that has become the norm for us in these later years – and he heads out toward the door for his ten-minute walk to the “T” where he will make his way toward the building near Harvard Square that he has called home since his wife became ill. I call to him on his way out, as I do every time he leaves, that I will be here when he comes in again in a day or two.  I am guessing that reminding him of our long-held office routines brings him comfort. These days, thinking about the distance the three of us have come together makes my heart almost overwhelmingly tender.




Morris at my home in August, 2014
Bev and Noam - 2014

  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Returning

When I was seven, I was taught to pray to the God I learned about in catechism class: our omnipotent savior in a skimpy loin cloth, his outstretched palms and bare feet trickling blood where long nails held him to the crucifix.  The nuns and priests of my childhood were formidable, never to be challenged or questioned, so it wasn’t until my late teens, with my first communion, confirmation, and Sunday service far behind me, that I began to move away from the Catholic Church. I stopped reciting the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the confessional Act of Contrition, the prayers I had repeated in what I saw as a guilt- and fear-based religion threatening eternal hell for serious transgressions. Over time I moved my beliefs to a more universal spirituality that felt less rule-bound, and more open to personal interpretation.  This is all putting aside the scientific questions evoked by Adam and Eve, apples, and snakes.

So, walking toward MIT’s medical department with my dog, Roxy, to refill my blood pressure meds a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself reciting (internally, of course) the Hail Mary.  This is something I do once in a blue moon, when I’m afraid and want to call in the big guns of my childhood. I was thinking about my pending trip to Rome with Laura and Noam, and the possibility that we would meet the seemingly more contemporary and forward-looking Pope, Francis.

But meeting the Pope wasn’t the thing that was moving me to pray.

In late November just two months before, flying home after a visit with Laura’s father, and her sister, Linnea, in Kauai, I had a medical issue on the plane. A half hour into the flight I felt discomfort building in my chest, and within fifteen minutes it intensified, spreading to my shoulders, neck, and back.  I kept calm with some deep yogic breathing, pressing my fingers to my heart area every few minutes to convince myself I was not having a heart attack as long as I felt no specific pain there.  When the pain continued to increase, I complained to Laura.  She made some sympathetic murmurs from beneath her headphones, remaining focused on her Italian lesson.  I finally put on a bit of a Woody Allen routine, using my arms and hands and intense facial expressions to portray to her just how I felt, until she gave me some tums for my pain and half an Ativan for my mind. She even took a minute from her lesson to suggest that I might have gas pains from hurrying back after a rich meal to the tiny (and foodless and boring, aside from the pervasive, hypnotic smell of plumeria) Lihue airport four hours earlier, for this first leg of our flight home. I paced, I changed positions, I leaned forward, backwards, sideways, stood and stretched, but two hours into the flight my pain was a solid “8”.  A Woody Allen “13.”  I was officially scared.

“Laura, I need help,” I said, pulling the left side of her headphones from her ear.  “I think we ought to tell the flight attendant.”  Laura, a nurse, clicks into gear during a real crisis, and I watched her ‘get’ that this was a serious situation, and not just me needing to burp. 

She moved quickly, and in seconds a flight attendant was crouching next to my seat.  The first thing she asked me was whether I felt the pain before I entered the plane.  She was probably trained to avoid a lawsuit first, and tend to a sick passenger second.  Satisfied I was at potential risk, she called through the speaker, “Is there a doctor on the plane?  One of our passengers needs medical help.” 

The experience felt suddenly surreal.  These things happen to other people.  There was a buzz of conversation as the passengers looked around to try to figure out who the sick person was. I looked around the plane as well, maybe out of denial but mostly out of self-conscious angst. But a female doctor blew my cover by rushing to my side, taking the place of the attendant. She questioned me calmly and quickly. “Are you on any medications?”  I told her yes, for blood pressure. “Did you take all of your meds?” It dawned on me then that I had been skimping on my meds the last two days, as I hadn’t brought enough along, and I told her so. She didn’t seem too concerned.  “Do you feel nauseous? Does your head hurt?  Can you describe the pain, and tell me exactly where it’s located?” 

“It started in my chest, and spread to my lungs, then my back and shoulders,” I said. “I feel like my ribs are going to explode.” The passengers had fallen silent. I was dressed for comfort, not for attention, and I self-consciously pulled my Google t-shirt down over the waist line of my black leggings to try and gain some normalcy and order. Laura observed with the face of calm concern. Standing close by, the flight attendant suggested that I might be having an anxiety attack, and I felt insulted.  The doctor, who turned out to be a pediatric surgeon, listened to my heart with a (I am tempted to say tiny) stethoscope she pulled from her own bag.  My heart rate was slightly elevated, but sounded normal, she told me.  She took my pulse and blood pressure, which was just outside my normal range, at 145 over 84. She eventually gave me two Mylanta tablets and told me she would check on me again.

I watched the flight attendant pull down a heavy, gray oxygen tank from an overhead compartment, offering it to me with simple instructions:  “Put this over your mouth, and breathe. It might help.” The sight and fact of the tank elevated my nervousness to a nine, although the oxygen did seem to help calm me down. Concurrently, my pain had downgraded to a six, and eventually, with a half dozen antacids and the oxygen tank on board, to a one. 

In the end, they wouldn’t clear me for the connecting flight until I took a loudly-announced solo walk out of the plane, with all heads turned toward me in silence and pity.  I endured a brief exam by three young medics who had been called in to treat me.  By then my blood pressure was 190 over 95, and I signed a waiver because I refused to go by ambulance to a hospital.  I was sure that dragging out this experience would cause me to stroke out. Strokes run in my family. 

A few days later, I had an EKG and an upper GI series, and learned that I had a “sliding hiatus hernia”.  How lovely.  The docs who tested me had no idea whether this hernia was the cause of my flight episode, and the unknowing left me uneasy. 

So here I was on my way to the pharmacy, as the days to my next lengthy flight approached, reciting my childhood prayer toward the sky:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
(I dutifully and habitually bobbed my head at the word “Jesus”)

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, still using my 'inside voice', and glancing up surreptitiously, “Show me something that might bring me back toward the Catholic Church, at least in spirit.”  After all, there was a chance I would meet the Pope in Rome, and this was a good time to remember my religious roots.

I had, as usual, been contemplating during the ten months since my mother’s death whether the people we love are really gone when they die – “lights out” as my friend Gene likes to say, a sentiment echoed by my son Jay, who attended Catholic school until college, and my brother Paul, a physicist who requires scientific proof, and others - or do they remain around us in a different way?  

My mother was my biggest cheerleader; she enjoyed and applauded my writing, and at least every few months she asked me in her inimitable Waltham accent, “When are you gonna finish your book about working with Noam?” 

I don’t know whether my blog pieces will become a book.  I write because I’m driven to, and many stories, like the people who visit our office, stay with me - and sometimes haunt me. But something has kept me from writing the things queued up in my head since my mother died last March. There are lots of excuses. With the selling of the summer cottage Laura and I shared in Maine and the concurrent renovation of our downstairs apartment, I felt I had no time to write, but the basic truth is, I wasn’t putting aside the time. I feared the writing I'd held so close for eighteen months would crash and burn like my childhood beliefs. When my mother died, she expected I would be writing a book.  I didn’t want to let myself down, but mostly I didn’t want to let her down, especially in death.

Once I reached the MIT medical department, the pharmacist told me my prescriptions would be ready in another five minutes, so Roxy and I ambled over to the nearby waiting area and I took a seat on one of the long, padded benches next to an older woman.  I was drawn to the vibrant yellows and brilliant blues of her jacket and hat - not the usual MIT attire - against her dark skin.  She caught my eye as I sat, and reached out and took my hand, holding it firmly.  I felt strangely at ease in this very odd circumstance.  Looking at Roxy, she said, “The spirit world knew you wouldn’t let them comfort you in life, so they sent you this dog.”  She looked like a reasonable, normal person, emanating a sense of calm and straight-forward confidence, and I found myself leaning toward the experience.  I was touched, because despite my many friends, she was right, my dog is my best friend.  I thanked her, and she went on to talk with a middle-aged woman across from me about her life’s purpose as an artist. She was still holding my hand, to keep me in the conversation, as if she wasn’t finished with me.

“Get yourself some paint brushes, a pad of drawing paper, and some water colors, and start painting,” she said to the woman, who was wiping tears from her cheeks.

The woman said to her, “I bought a package of drawing paper and some colored pencils over a year ago, but I haven’t opened them because I’m afraid I’ll fail as an artist.”

“You already are an artist,” she said.

The pharmacist called my name, and I pulled myself away, as the stunned woman asked in a small voice, “Is it ok if I use colored pencils?”

I collected my meds and looked back to see the two women hugging in the waiting area.  The artist stood up and wordlessly squeezed my arm before leaving, and I looked over to say a reluctant good-bye to this lovely, dropped-from-the-sky stranger, and saw that she was walking toward me. Then she pulled me aside, to a spot where we stood alone.

“I tell my children,” she said, standing inches from me, her face in mine, “that I won’t always be this woman of full flesh and body, but when I’m gone, I tell them, I am going to come to you as a stranger and put my eyes up to yours and tell you just what you need to hear.”  Then she put her arms around me and whispered loudly into my ear, “You are worthy of this.  Now get back to your writing, and don’t be lazy.” 

I was dazed with disbelief, and crying.  What had just happened? I could feel my mother in those words – in the phrasing of it, and in the little jab about not being lazy.  That was her sense of humor. After all of my questioning about whether the spirits of those we love can reach us after dying out of this world, I was sure, in that moment, that if not specifically the spirit of my mother, something in the universe was sending me a message I needed to hear.

But being me, I needed more. I asked this woman, a complete stranger just fifteen minutes earlier, “Where does this come from, for you?  Is it intuition?  How do you know this?  How do you do this?” 

She formed an angle with her left hand, pointing and tapping all of her fingers on her chest, and said, “God.  It’s God.”

I thanked her, mumbling something incoherent even to myself.  Then I tucked my meds into my deep coat pocket, pulled gently on Roxy’s leash, and walked back to my office. 

I doubted I could ever explain this to Noam, but I was ready for the Vatican.