Becoming: A Book Review

obama bookThis is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time . . .  and I read a LOT of books.

At first, it reads like a long chat with a girlfriend.  No weighty four-syllable words or policy discussions.  A friend curled up at the other end of the couch, pausing occasionally to sip from her glass of wine, and sharing stories of growing up in a close-knit family and vibrant but struggling neighborhood, academic and job successes and challenges, the well-trod paths of career discernment, job changes, marriage, miscarriage and infertility, mothering, daughtering, dreams and losses — all conveyed in a relaxed tone of voice, mostly optimistic about possibilities, and occasionally shaken by tough realities.

Eventually, of course, the path begins to take direction and the focus sharpens.  A husband with political ambitions, gifts, and speed.  One minute Michelle Obama is objecting to a run for the statehouse; the next, she’s negotiating with a Secret Service detail over concerns for her daughters’ safety not compromising their freedom and flexibility as young girls, at least not too much.  (She relates with great humor a hilarious scene in which she and high-school aged Malia make a determined dash for a locked door so that they can escape the confines of the White House and celebrate the Supreme Court marriage equality decision outside, enjoyed the rainbow-hued lights playing across the mansion’s façade in at least some proximity to the crowd gathered to celebrate.)

Of course, it doesn’t all happen in an instant and, as often occurs with such books, many more details emerge with respect to the Obamas’ earlier life in politics than regarding the later, presidential years.  The first years, from the statehouse to the Senate to Iowa, are marked by resistance, mistakes, naivete’, and a developing political eye on her part, helped along by the growth of a dedicated and brilliant support team. But the latter years are fascinating as well, as Mrs. Obama develops the projects that will mark her tenure as first lady, focusing on children’s eating habits and health, a direct response to challenges in her own family; on military families, as she comes to know a world previously hidden from her view; and on girls’ education, a commitment founded in her conviction that the South Side of Chicago as well as the rest of the country are packed with young people as intelligent and gifted as she and her brother, with young people who lack neither brains nor determination, but need the opportunities and support system that paved the path for a young Michelle.

Her thoughtfulness about her choices, and her light but deft touch as she notes the particular challenges she faced as the first black First Lady and as a mother of youngsters and then teens in a political fishbowl, are likely to illumine the way for anyone seeking to clarify her goals for the next stage of life, whatever it might be.  As a 65-year-old white woman trying to sort through what I hope my next ten-to-fifteen years might look like, I find a lot of wisdom in these pages.

And finally — as Michelle Obama reflects on her last day as First Lady and the changes in our country since — well, she brought tears to my eyes.  As the good-byes are said peaceful transition of power occurs, she observes that the joyful diversity that marked her husband’s to inaugural celebrations has been replaced by a stolid, white, male “optic,” (a word that’s often been noted by her team in connection with her own efforts), and gives up on trying to smile.  And as she looks back at the atmosphere which has enveloped our country, she experiences the heartbreak that many of us share.  (On a related note, today’s news includes a report that the Trump administration is rolling back regulations regarding school lunches — legislation on which Michelle Obama quietly worked hard, part of her legacy in promoting healthy lifestyle choices for children.)

I don’t RE-read that many books, but I’m going to start over on this one as soon as I can.  Energy, commitment, determination, humor, and grace.  I am impressed, moved, and inspired.

 

 

 

 

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

 

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A friend just published a post, on another topic entirely, in which she quotes a song from Judy Collins’s album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?  My friend’s post is about a memory significant to Lent.  She dredged up some memories for me as well.

It’s the fall of my junior year in boarding school in western Massachusetts.  I am “campused” (like being grounded, boarding school style), due to an unfortunate encounter with a teacher who discovered a friend and me visiting the boys’ school five miles away in the middle of the night the previous spring.  Thus I spend a lot of time on my own, gliding around my dorm room or sprawled on  my bed, listening to music, when my friends are away – which means that 50 years later (FIFTY ?!?!) I will still know all those songs by heart.  At sixteen, I have loooong brown hair with red and gold highlights, a romance going very badly, and a stack of English papers to write, having largely given up on Algebra II.

I do not know that some thirty years later, I will have a son who will be a high school senior and living in the same dorm, with the same view of the mountains stretching before him.  I do not know that, like Judy Collins’ son, mine will die of suicide only a few years later, and that her music and those memories will all be wound into one ball of yarn, forever unraveling.

I still like the music, though.

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 4

Eclipse Day!

Judi was actually up until about 5:00 am working.  When I arose a couple of hours later, she was sound asleep ~ in our Murphy bed!  She said that she’d always wanted to sleep in one so . .  dream come true.

I headed out for a beautiful morning beach walk.  The St. Lawrence River has widened to the point where the northern shore is invisible.  Birds: black-backed gulls, cormorants, and gannets in the distance.  Crab breakfast for gulls.  The pink flowers we would see everywhere.  I made a cairn for Josh.

q matane beachQ matane crabQ matane flowersQ matane cairnQ Matane river

I felt fine until we began loading the car and I reached upward to put now-dry tents back into the roof storage container.  My first hint that I might have done some serious damage with that fall the previous morning.

Lots of driving that day as we proceeded from Matane to Gaspe’.  A delicious lunch at a roadside cafe’, where the chef/niece of owner sent me off with a bag of ice for my invisibly bruised ribs.

Q cafe east of Matane

I had not realized that the eclipse would be partially visible in the peninsula.  When the time came, it seemed a bit hazy, and the river darkened from blue to gray.  Most obvious sign?  The gannets vanished, and the gulls and cormorants moved in toward and to the beach.  Twenty minutes later, they were all airborne again!

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As we drove on, the landscape began to change, and so did our conversation.   Sixty-four years have brought challenges we could not have imagined in our dorms all those years ago.  I think we’ve handled them pretty well.

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We reached the town of Gaspe’ in the early evening, settled into our hotel  ~ home for the next three nights ~ and went out to a restaurant we enjoyed so much that we would return the next evening.

gaspe restauant

By bedtime, I was hurting, but highly motivated for the next day’s gannet trip and promise of sunshine.  I turned down all suggestions of waiting a day, and went to sleep on my back ~ not a good sign!

 

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 3

Sunday: A day of altered plans.

First there was the Whoop!  Yikes! Thump!

That was me, arms full of sopping wet tent and fly, distracted by conversation, slipping on the slick wooden tent platform and, as far as I can tell from the consequences, hitting my rear several times on the way down and toppling over to slam chest-first into a rock, or maybe more than one rock, on the ground.  A week later, the bruises on my bottom and legs are healing, and I can finally lie, for a bit, on my left side.  I probably do have actually cracked or broken ribs; I have my annual physical in another ten days, so maybe I’ll find out.

But it didn’t seem so bad at first, so off we went, further east along the coast of the St. Lawrence River.  First stop: a small island ~ a short boat ride and a hike on a spot somewhat famous for shipwrecks and for a hermit who dwelt there for forty years.  (I felt fine.)

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Then, as we would almost every day, we kept driving, and came across small villages in which churches with towering steeples loomed above the sea.  Had we photographed them all, we would still be on Monday!

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Our conversation continued to focus on Northfield.  Gratitude for what we gained there, despite the frustrations and pain of those years:  The music.  The impossible academic standards.  The sheer physical beauty of the campus.  The regret over the merger of the boys’ and girls’ schools, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately led to the closure of our campus.  The dismay we felt at the fate of many of the women teachers, who with the merger lost the place they called home.

Meanwhile, Judi was beginning to stress over a work proposal she had promised to submit by Monday evening.  Our plan . . .  my plan, I should say . . . involved a 20-mile drive deep into the forest to a wilderness campsite.  Judi’s involved a desk, a laptop, and a Wi-Fi connection.  I was getting  a little achy, and there was obviously no way that she could enjoy a remote campsite with that project looming overhead, so we reconnoitered, and headed for Matane.

What a fabulous change in plans!  The town of Matane is charming, and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at La Fabrique, a microbrewery recommended by our boat guide that morning. Judi was full of compliments for the ways in which the town has arranged its public spaces to facilitate walking and community gathering.

le fabrique

But even better: our hotel, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, which by this point was beginning to look like the ocean.  Very contemporary, inside and out.  Filled with families.  We didn’t visit the restaurant, but I enjoyed the indoor hot tub and pool area while Judi got to work, I didn’t at all mind sinking myself into a hotel bed rather than clambering into a tent, and the view from our balcony was spectacular.  I am a Riotel convert!

q riotel outsideq riotel barq riotel view

 

 

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 2

can flag

Our first full day in Canada was marked by contrasts:

On an early morning walk, I scoped out a bakery (un boulangerie, for Gamache fans!), to which we later returned for crepes that practically melted away.

qc crepes

We spent the morning walking — and carriage riding — to take in the sights and history of Old Quebec.  The Jesuits were here, arriving in French Acadia in 1609 and establishing a seminary near Quebec City in 1636.  If you have read any of the history of the early Jesuits in New France, you know that often it did not go well for them at the hands of the Iroquois and Huron nations, but in the long run things did not go well for the First Nations at the hands of the French and English.

The Ursulines, who arrived in southwest Ohio in 1845 to found my first boarding school, showed up in Quebec in 1639, where they founded the first western institution of higher learning for women in North America.  When I was an eighth grader at the School of the Brown County Ursulines, nuns and girls alike headed to Montreal for the World’s Fair ~ Expo ’67 ~ and then on to Quebec City, where we stayed with the Ursulines.  This trip, there was no time to do more than take a quick look around.  One of many reasons to return ~ to linger all day over Ursuline history!

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As we wandered the streets of Quebec City, Judi, a city planner, remarked repeatedly on the beauty of the flowers which mark nearly every home and public building, whether business or government.  I have thought of her observations many times since and, a couple of days ago when I stopped by my son’s apartment,  I could not help but notice the potential for color in the utilitarian spaces on his street, large apartment buildings lining one side and older homes with porches the other.  Not a garden or window box in sight.  Quebec City is home to narrow streets and adjoining townhouses and apartments, but color greets you at every corner.

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Everywhere, beauty and elegance:

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And, although Quebec is a deeply Catholic province, the Reformers have been here as well!

qc st andrews

Too late to plan a meet-up, we discovered that the Presbyterian St. Andrew’s, dedicated in 1810 but originating with Scots Highlanders fify years earlier, and pastored by a RevGals colleague, was only a block from our hotel!

The city was for the morning; by midday, we were headed north and east, and in the afternoon made our first stop at a provincial park.  The still-overcast skies did not mar its stark beauty:

q prov parc

And, finally, we reached our destination for the evening, a campground in Riviere-du-Loop!  After a long afternoon of driving, we set up our tents, built a fire, made dinner, cleaned up, and snuggled in for what would be another rainy night.

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Well, one of us snuggled in.  Judi was not quite ready to abandon her laptop technology!  I,, on the other hand, startled at first to discover that our campsite included Wi-Fi, was happy to burrow myself into my sleeping bag and read from my ipad!

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Not quite the Clarendon, but we were warm and dry ~ although that tent platform would prove to be my undoing . . .

 

 

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 1

As of August 18 . . . So far so good . . .  After an uneventful flight from Cleveland to Boston (except for a minor kerfluffle over luggage), Judi picked me up (after a minor kerfluffle pertaining to my exact location), and off we went, driving through New Hampshire and Vermont to Quebec City!  The drive was, of course, longer than anticipated, but the hours of almost nonstop conversation gave us ample opportunity to remember our Northfield (girls’ boarding school) days, and establish that they were not, for either of us, a time of unadulterated happiness and achievement, not by a long shot.

Judi had come as a freshman from a small town and public school in northern New England, and I, sophomore year, from a small town in Ohio and a previous boarding school life.  She, I think, had a better time of it than I did until nearly the end.  She was involved in music, and Northfield had an outstanding music program, whereas my efforts to engage outside the classroom mostly flopped.  As far as our junior and senior years are concerned, our stories differ, but I can say from my vantage point, as I probably already have, that while academically, musically, and athletically outstanding, Northfield was poorly equipped to deal with the emotional challenges of adolescents living far from home.  Carol Gilligan’s work and emphases on girls’ learning styles were far in the future, and I think that most of our counselors were simply graduates of Seven Sisters colleges — brilliant women, no doubt, but with no training in education or psychology or group dynamics.  And to be fair, it was the late 1960s. I have read that the administration and faculty were in something of a state of shock as they sought to respond to the upheavals of that decade, which reached New England prep school campuses nearly as quickly as they did colleges and universities.  All of those factors no doubt influenced our high school experiences.

Back to our trip: as dusk fell, so did torrents of rain.  Clenched-fist driving for Judi at that point. We were both glad that our first night’s lodging was the elegant, art-deco style Hotel Clarendon in the center of Quebec City and not a wilderness campsite!

clarendon1  clarendon2

Tired, cold, and quickly quite wet, we threw our stuff into the room and ventured out for an excellent dinner at Le Grill Ste-Anne, only a block or two away.  And then we fell asleep quickly, hoping for a glimpse of the city in the morning.

 

Northfield, Part I

billings_hall01

In the fall of 1968, my father, and probably my stepmother as well, although I don’t remember whether she was there or not, dropped me off at the Northfield School for Girls in western Massachusetts.  I was assigned to a 1950-60s dorm, a nondescript red brick building on the edge of a campus strewn with majestic Victorian and solid turn-of-the-century structures, and a roommate from the Massachusetts coast, with whom I became fast friends for the short time we were together.

I had chosen Northfield from a sea of school catalogs presented to me because it had a domestic work program (which we somewhat affectionately referred to as “the dummie program”).  Every day we donned long smocks and white caps to work in the kitchens or public areas of our dorms.  Among the catalogs directed my way in rural Ohio, filled with girls in expensive clothing seated at expensive desks and riding expensive horses, Northfield stood out as an island of solid practicality.

I had no idea at all about its the school’s founder, 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody, or his original goal of providing women for the mission field with the best possible of academic educations, and then, across the Connecticut River, boys of little means with an education equivalent to that found in the most elite prep schools, peopled by the sons of bankers and lawyers.   I did not know that many of my classmates would be scholarship students, the daughters of teachers and ministers, or what that might mean in terms of the campus atmosphere (one distinctly lacking in a sense of economic privilege).   Boarding school in that era, with its universal cinder block bedroom walls, its lack of student vehicles, and its uniformity of dress (jeans and jean skirts, clogs and sandals,  turtlenecks and sweaters) tended to have a leveling effect upon its students.

Northfield was a tough place for me.  I was already experienced in boarding school and summer camp life, and made friends easily.  But the academics were hard ~ I was immediately dropped back a year in Spanish, and could barely keep up in some of the advanced classes to which I had been admitted.  I didn’t make the basketball team or receive even a non-speaking part in the fall play.  And school counseling being what it was in those days (not), and me being at perhaps my lowest point in lifetime maturity (age 15! ~ although 14 or 16 might have been worse), I did not seek out, and no one offered, the kind of support that would have encouraged me to see a tutor, increase my basketball skills in a gym class, or spend some time on the stage crew in order to learn the ropes (no pun intended) of a high school drama program.

The late 1960s were also upon us, and cultural changes slow to make their way to Ohio descended upon New England’s boarding schools almost as swiftly as they appeared on college and university campuses.  For us, it was everyday life.  For our teachers, I was to learn later, the changes in clothing, music, and recreational activities (!) were swift and incomprehensible.  I recall my French teacher’s angry announcement one spring morning: “I don’t care WHAT changes have been made in the school dress code!  You will not display bare toes in MY classroom!”  Of course, it being 1969, she might have discovered far more consequential matters with which to concern herself, had she not been so distraught about sandals.

 

To be continued . . .

(Imageof Billings Hall, where our French and Spanish classes were held ~  from http://www.northfieldopportunity.org/photogallery/)

 

Scholarships!

bcu

For many, a college education is out of reach, financially and practically.  For others, a foray into a huge university leads to confusion, disillusionment, and drop-out status.

Enter Chatfield College, a small institution in southwest Ohio, designed to serve students against whom the odds are stacked.

Chatfield began in 1960 on the campus of a Catholic convent and boarding school (which, full disclosure: I attended for three years), the dream-child of a senior Ursuline sister.  Ursulines at that time were destined to spend their lives as teachers, but when they entered the convent, typically at about age 18, they spent two years in seclusion on the convent campus before beginning their college studies.  Sister Miriam saw time and talent being wasted, and wondered why the young women could not complete two years of college right were they were, right where they needed to be for their initial religious formation.  Thus in a small building without even a telephone, a fully-accredited two-year college was born.  The young sisters were able to begin their studies immediately, and transfer to four-year colleges and universities later, having lost no time and no ground.

Today, Chatfield serves a much broader community, with both its original rural campus intact and a newer campus now established in Cincinnati.  Some students start with a GED program, some come because it provides an inexpensive, small, and nurturing opportunity close to home, and some have been stranded in large universities difficult to navigate.  Many are single, working parents.  You can read one of their stories here.

After our son died, we wondered what we might do to honor his memory.   Some years later, the lightbulb glowed:  Why not a scholarship at Chatfield?  After some conversations with the Development Director, we decided to establish a fund to support travel in memory of my mother and youngest brother as well as our son.  Travel is a passion in our family, and is the sort of adventure difficult for Chatfield students to afford.  In November, after my father died, we added his name to the fund, and were able to reach our first goal.  Some of the interest income has already been spent!

Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Chatfield for the annual scholarship luncheon, at which I kept running into people with inspirational stories.  The president of the college is, like me, a former practicing attorney.  He dreams of taking a group of students to Virginia to see constitutional history come alive, and asked if I’d like to join them.  Another dream for the future!

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