Home by Another Way: Notes from the Caribbeanby Robert Benson
“We live in a world where such welcome and gentleness and civility are increasingly rare. Most of the conversation between strangers
A lovely Caribbean island and its people awaken in author Robert Benson a sense of place and home. The islanders’ warmth and welcome prompt a new understanding of ideas of beauty, community and spiritual belonging.
“We live in a world where such welcome and gentleness and civility are increasingly rare. Most of the conversation between strangers is terse and quick and far too often, it is cold and rude. It can even be that way, more often than we care to admit, among people who are not strangers. And such is the way of the world that we live in that we are almost stunned by welcome whenever it breaks out around us, and we are certainly drawn to the people and to the places where we find such welcome in abundance.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
- The Crown Publishing Group
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Home by Another Way
By Robert Benson
Random HouseRobert Benson
All right reserved.
The first time we came to this part of the world, the man who was supposed to meet us at the airport was not actually at the airport when we arrived. It was raining and it was dark. Our luggage was trapped in customs because it was so late. The customs man had evidently gone to get something to eat. There was a person or two trying to be helpful to us in a language the guidebook had promised was going to be English but turned out to be unlike the sort of English we had heard before. We had been traveling for fourteen hours by then, and the fifteenth hour did not look promising. Especially to a couple of folks who were trying to celebrate a wedding anniversary. - We were married in the month of October on a bright and sunny afternoon. To celebrate our wedding, we made the long drive from our home in Tennessee to the coast of Carolina. We spent a week together in a cottage on an island in the Outer Banks, doing not much more all week than reading books and taking naps and lying in the sand.
When our first anniversary came around, we talked it through and decided that rather than buy each other gifts every year to mark the occasion, we would give each other the week off and head for the beach again. It has been a dozen or so years now, and the amount of time has gone from a week to ten days to two weeks, more if we can pull it off.Travel times and weather and last-minute business that had to be done have weighed in on our carefully laid plans from time to time, so we have had to change beaches a time or two over the years. But whenever late October comes around now, we are ready for the beach and the company of just each other. We still do not do much while we are at the beach-we eat, we read, we take naps, we play cards, we watch the sun set in the evenings, we sit in the water and have long conversations, except for when we sit in the water and do not say anything for hours at a time. We do some other stuff too, but I will not mention those things here. My kids might read this, and the thought of such things with their parents involved is enough to drive them screaming from the room. I have learned over the years how easy it is to empty a room of teenagers at the drop of a hint. They are happy with the concept of their parents being in love; they are not happy with the thought of their parents expressing that love in certain ways. - Because of the kind of work we do, our summers can be too busy for a vacation. Vacation is the term applied to a trip that involves just the two of us. Family trips are not really vacations, except in the strict sense that we have vacated one set of premises and moved the general hullabaloo right along with us. When we can squeeze in some time for some time away in the summer, we take the children and several of their friends, and sometimes even other folks we know will come and join us. It can be difficult in the summer months for us to get all of the planets aligned so the two of us can go somewhere alone together and actually vacation in the full sense of the word. So in the way that such things sneak up on you, a particular rhythm has come to our house. About the middle of August or so, we each begin to shape up our schedules and our workloads so the calendar and the to-do list can be abandoned for a couple of weeks in October. Then we start lining up all of the logistical things-airplane tickets and car rentals, somebody to take care of the house and the cats and the mail. When the children were younger, we used to hire someone to stay at the house, but they are old enough now that we no longer need to do so. They are happy to collect the house-sitter fees anyway. By about two weeks before the day we are to depart, we are reduced to staring out the window, waiting for the signal to go and pack and head for the airport. All around us the rest of the world thinks summer is long gone; it looks a lot like autumn, in fact. I need a sweater in the morning when it is time to go and get the papers. The big maple trees by our house start to turn color and then lose their leaves. The sounds of the neighborhood travel farther and can be heard more clearly in the cool air, as can the sounds from the train yard a few miles away and the church bells from a few blocks away and the talk and the laughter of the children waiting for the school bus at the corner. But no matter what the calendar says, it is still summer for us, and it will be summer until we come back from the beach at the end of October. - Our propensity for playing fast and loose with the calendar is something we have come by honestly. "Your life is shaped by the things that you desire," wrote Thomas Merton. Your calendar ends up being shaped by those things as well. Our life together has its own sense of the passage of time, a rhythm and structure born of the things that we love. In the first place, we are baseball people at our house, and baseball's calendar has always been a little skewed. Pitchers and catchers report for "spring" training in February, a month when most of the country is still under wraps and not completely convinced that winter will ever end. If you want spring weather for spring training, you have to go to Florida or Arizona. The first day of summer, according to baseball, is not in June but the beginning of April, when the ballparks open up and the official first pitches are thrown. Baseball summer is not over until the World Series has been played and won and lost in late October. In baseball, there is spring and there is summer; November, December, and January are referred to merely as the off-season.
We are church people at our house as well. And according to the Church, the new year does not begin on January 1; it begins on Advent Sunday, which is exactly four Sundays before Christmas Day and five weeks before the big ball drops in Times Square and Dick Clark announces that New Year's Day may now be celebrated. The beginning of the rebirth of the world- springtime as it is known by some-is celebrated on January 6 at the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Summer is known as Ordinary Time. Church tradition also maintains that the beginning of the end of the year is marked by All Saints' Day on November 1. There is an old name for the next few weeks before Advent- Kingdomtide-an old name that many church people do not use anymore. I, for one, think that anything that hastens the end of a season known as Ordinary Time is a good thing.
Because we are people who work in publishing, and because we are people who have had schoolchildren at our house, and because we are also people whose schoolchildren were athletes, we have long had some annual calendar adjustments made for us. When other people were making arrangements for their summer holidays, we were making arrangements to attend the rounds of the book shows we needed to attend. When some folks snuck out of town for spring break, we stuck around town because the high-school softball player in our house had preseason practice every day. When others went off for a Thanksgiving getaway or a winter vacation, we went off to wrestling tournaments with the state-tournament-caliber wrestler who lived upstairs. Some folks celebrate Valentine's by going out to dinner; we spent some years celebrating Valentine's Day by watching wrestlers at the state tournament in Chattanooga.
Not only is our calendar a little skewed, we do not even operate on what others would call a normal workday schedule either. In the first place, we both work at home, and our workday does not begin with a traffic report. My commute is about thirty-five steps to my studio in the back garden. Sara does not even leave the house; her office is in the little parlor at the end of the hall. I try to be in my studio before first light and finish my writer's workday before noon. Sara starts her workday a little later and slower; she reads the New York Times before she heads down the hall to her desk. The closing bell can ring pretty early around here, and I am not above having a swim in the middle of the afternoon either, usually right after my nap. We are very observant of all holidays on which one can possibly take off from work, and we are not above taking days off on Scottish bank holidays either, if for no other reasons than we have a list of international holidays in our Filofax and we can get away with it. One of the advantages of being self-employed is having a relationship with our "employer" that allows for such things. It should come as no surprise that people who live their lives under the influence of the holy institutions of baseball and the Church and who either never go to work or never leave it, depending upon your point of view, would make up their own calendar as they go along. At our house, the winding down of baseball, the sudden need for a sweater, the approach of Kingdomtide, and the arrival of our wedding anniversary all mingle together to remind us of the need for a good long pause to mark the end of the stretch of time known as summer. I realize that most folks think summer ends on the day school starts or on Labor Day or thereabouts. I am willing to forgive them. If they are willing to forgive me for the fact that while they are up at five one morning wondering if this will be the first morning they have to scrape the frost off their windows, I am up at five on the same morning headed to the airport with my flipflops on. - It is always dark when we head for the islands. The taxi pulls up in front of our house around half past five in the morning. We are, astonishingly, both standing at the door, waiting for it to come around the corner. I am almost always up and about at that time of day. Sara, on the other hand, is not a morning person. She claims she was blissfully unaware there were two five o'clocks in each day until she met me. Leaving for St. Cecilia is, by and large, the only thing for which she is willing to arise before the sun has made an appearance. We are always taken aback by how many people are at the airport before six in the morning. We stand in the long lines and wonder at the number of people ahead of us. Some of them are like us, heading to some lovely place; they are the ones with the Christmas-morning grins on their faces. Others, though, look as though they are still worn out from yesterday's plane flights and cab rides and tight schedules and long meetings. And there are folks who look to be carrying some weight, some bad news that has to be borne alone for a few more hours before they can share it with others.
I always find myself watching those people in particular and hoping their day will end with their being consoled and comforted by people who love them as much as the people at home love me. When we reach the head of the line, we struggle for a while with the newfangled touchscreens you have to work with to get your boarding passes. Invariably it occurs to me that if I bought the ticket, the least an airline could do is to push the right buttons on my behalf and hand it to me. I am becoming convinced that there is a nefarious touchscreen conspiracy afoot. I suspect the people who make video games have managed to hoodwink the banking and the airline industries into helping turn the rest of us into video-game addicts. I do not plan to go down without a fight, so I push the wrong buttons and look lost until someone comes out from behind the counter and does it for me. Being lost around technological wizardry is one of my gifts, and looking helpless is one of my regular poses. Then I hand our bags through while softly reciting The Collect for the Safe and Accurate Arrival of Luggage to myself. It is not yet an official corporate prayer of the Episcopal Church, at least as far as I can tell from reading my copy of The Book of Common Prayer, but I am hopeful it will be someday. Every time I hand my luggage to the folks who put it into the huge microwave thing they use now to look at what I have packed for my trip, I wonder if I will see it again and whether or not whoever gets it will be kind enough to send my notebooks back to me. They can have my clothes as long as they return my paragraphs. Shirts are cheap, relatively speaking; sentences can cost more than most folks would think. Then we go to the security line and undress to some extent-jacket and shoes and belt and watchband and hat. Like everyone else in line, we sneak a look at the contents of other people's carry-on items as we go along. Then down the concourse for coffee and a roll and a sandwich to put in our bag since we have no way of knowing if we are going to eat again before the day is done. Finally they call our numbers, and we are in the plane and in our seats. They push back from the gate, and we are off in the direction of the place where the sun has come blazing up out of the sea.
We head east first and then change into another plane to head south, out over the Atlantic, until we stop at San Juan or Miami to catch another plane to the islands. Then we wait for a while in the last large airport we will see. The next airports-sometimes we stop at one or two before we are there-all look like the ones from movies made in the 1940s: metal buildings and gangways with steps to climb to get into the plane and ground crews pulling luggage carts by hand. Some of the planes used in those movies may still be in use in this part of the world. At least the propellers appear to have been recycled. We keep flying south, and the gaps between land masses gets larger and larger, and the water below gets bluer and bluer, and the beginning of the end of our summer gets closer and closer. - It is not always dark when we get to the islands, but it was the first time we arrived. Between the rain and the fatigue and the hunger, we were not exactly thrilled that Ricky was not there holding up a sign with our name on it the way we had been told he would be. Not that anyone would have needed a sign to find us, of course. We were only two of about ten people in the whole place as it turned out. And we were the only two people in the airport who could have been described as people of not much color at all. There were a couple of folks asleep on their backpacks; how long they had been there was hard to say. I worried that they were waiting for Ricky too and had been doing so for some time. There were two uniformed airline employees behind the counter. And a policeman and an immigration official with a desk full of rubber stamps and yellow cards. There were five or six taxi drivers sitting on the curb, laughing and telling stories. They were easy to spot, because the airport was a big open-air shed sort of affair. But there was no Ricky.
The emotional stakes are high for a tenth-anniversary trip to a romantic island in the West Indies, and I was beginning to feel some pressure. Here I was, incurable romantic and hopeful lover and shy bumbler and sometimes less-than-thorough trip planner, hoping against hope for an idyllic and magical and golden journey.
Excerpted from Home by Another Way by Robert Benson Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robert Benson is an acclaimed author and retreat leader who writes and speaks often on the subject of prayer and the meditative life. Known for his warmth and creativity, in very accessible terms he invites readers to think meditatively about spiritual things and better connect with God. He lives with his wife Sara in Nashville, Tennessee.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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