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Notes from the Caribbean

Written by Robert BensonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert Benson

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: November 23, 2011
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49978-3
Published by : WaterBrook Press WaterBrook Multnomah/Image
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews

Synopsis

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.”

Excerpt

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. What I seemed to have gotten us into was a tiny airport in a foreign country smaller than the town we live in, and we were standing in the rain in the dead of night. I had very little confidence in my ability to do the things it would take to get us on to where we were supposed to be next. And we were cold and hungry and tired, and I was ready to weep.

“Do you need a taxi?” one of the men said to me. I know that is what he said, because he had to say it four times before he got it slow enough for me to understand it. I am from the South; I have trouble understanding people from West Chicago, much less the West Indies.“ I am looking for Ricky,” I said lamely. I am looking for a miracle was what I was thinking.
“Ricky is not here. He left. But I can take you.” I was not sure this was a good idea, but having no ideas of my own and not wanting to end up like the two folks sleeping on their luggage, I told him where we were headed. It was something he seemed to already know. Before long, he had rescued our luggage from customs and loaded it into the back of his van, and we were off. We were tearing down a two-lane road in the dark, driving far too fast on what seemed to me to be the wrong side of the road to boot. He was giving us a guided tour, though we could not understand him. And he was talking on his cell phone and honking and waving to other cars and taxis that went by and listening to the radio–all at the same time. Into his hands I had committed my anniversary.

Ten minutes and seventeen nervous glances later, we had been delivered to a dock where we stood in the drizzle and the dark and waited for the boat to take us across the lagoon to the place where we were to stay. I looked hopefully for lights across the way in the mist, and I watched nervously for the boat, and I thought, in general, that if we did not stop traveling soon, I might collapse.

The chugging of a diesel engine announced to us that the boat had arrived. It turns out they kept some of the boats left over from those black-and-white movies too. It was an old wooden boat, low slung, with a windowwrapped cabin in the center of it. A man stood in the bow with a powerful flashlight, and a man steered the boat by turning a big wooden wheel. Stepping onto the boat was like stepping onto The African Queen. I remember thinking we might see Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart if we paid attention. The romantic in me had clearly begun to recover somewhat. We chugged along through the mist, and we began to see the lights along the hillside where cottages were spread out through the trees. And then the beach came into view and a dock. As we got closer, we could see that a little parade was forming.

The first person in the line was a tall, striking-looking young woman in a long linen dress, holding a very proper and very large umbrella. Next came two men in pressed khakis and floral-patterned shirts. They, too, held umbrellas, one over their heads to keep the rain off and another, still furled, at their sides. Then there was a man with a luggage cart, attended by a man holding an umbrella over both of them and their cart. As the boat eased into the dock, the woman introduced herself as the manager of the resort and began to say welcoming things to us. The two spare umbrellas were unfurled with a flourish and handed to us as we started along the path from the dock. We strolled along in the front of this little parade, listening to the manager explain things to us, like what times the meals were served and that someone would ring a bell to remind us when the dining area was open. She told us that we could get a two-page faxed summary of the New York Times by coming to the office each morning and that a steel band would play on Friday. Every twenty or thirty yards or so, a bright and happy person said, “Good evening,” as we passed.
“Would you like to have dinner?”the manager asked.
“We are just really tired, I think.”
“They will not be dining,”she whispered to a young woman as we passed by a table that had been laid for us just in case. I realized that they had held a place for us for dinner and someone to cook it and serve it, though we had arrived too late for the dinner hour.
“We will have a little something sent to your cottage, then,” she said.

We walked through the trees to the end of the path in the corner of the property. Right by the beach was a cottage, two rooms and a bath, with a swimming pool of our own and a view back across the lagoon on one side and a view out to the sea on the other. The magical visit to paradise for which we had hoped suddenly seemed to be within our grasp. There were a few moments of instructions and information from the manager, and then she said good night and went out the door. A moment or two later we heard a knock at the door, and I went to open it, and the little something came in, both trays of it. And then we were alone, and we began to giggle. It has been a number of years now since the evening we rode through the rain in The African Queen. We have found another place to stay, a place that suits us even better than the first place we visited. But we keep coming back to this part of the world, at least in part because on a given night, in the rain, at the end of a long journey, we were made to feel welcome and treated as though someone not only knew we were coming; they were looking forward to it.
My inner cynic, with whom I am in touch far more often than I care to admit, is quick to remind me that such treatment is what I should expect in such a setting. It is quick to point out that I paid good money for all of this and that the least I should expect is to be treated nicely. The inner cynic in you is nodding in agreement. And our inner cynics are right, of course. They always are, are they not?

But another, maybe a better, part of me is coming to understand another thing. 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 too many times it is cold and rude. It can even be that way, more often than we care to admit, among people who are not strangers. Such is the world we live in that we are almost stunned by hospitality and gentility whenever it breaks out around us. We are drawn to the people and to the places where we find such welcome in abundance. The memory of that little parade on the dock is not the only reason we now head this way whenever it is October. It is our anniversary, and we are going to go somewhere, and summer will not end until we do. And when we get to where we are going, there will be sunshine and the sea and solitude, because that is what we like the best.

We come this way to celebrate the beginning of our life together and to mark the end of the summer together, because when we are waiting by our front door in the dark in the morning, waiting for the taxi ride to begin our day’s travel, we know that before the day is through, we will not only be welcome, we will have been welcomed.
We will be at home.

Table of Contents

Nashville Scene
April 27, 2006

Held Up in Traffic, Not Minding at All
Local writer explores life at a slower, happier pace

By Laura Huff Hileman


“Home,” Robert Frost once wrote, “is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” In Home by Another Way: Notes From the Caribbean, Nashville spirituality writer Robert Benson offers another way of understanding home, a vision that is broader, looser and much more gracious. For him, home seems to be a quality of aliveness: it’s a welcome that deepens into open-hearted engagement with place and with people. This concept evolved from several years’ worth of two-week vacations he and his wife took on St. Cecilia–a fictional name for a real Caribbean island, which Benson wants to keep anonymous lest hordes of readers try to re-create his experience literally. The book, like a vacation itself, has an out-and-back structure, a lot of long dawdling sunlit moments, and something beautiful to bring back to those at home in Nashville.

There’s a lot of detail here as Benson chronicles the specifics of slipping into island life and island time. Central to the narrative are the leisurely rhythms of the days he spends with his wife: the scribbling round, the sunning round, the napping round, the sunset round. We find pleasure in their pleasures: watching the birds, sharing coffee on the porch, becoming regulars at the Heptagon restaurant, riding around together exploring the island and imagining how to make it all permanent. The details blur into a sense of rhythm, and what emerges is how rhythm is a way of making a home in time itself. We wonder–and there’s plenty of time for reflection in this book as it’s not a page-turner, but a sort of contemplative bask–we wonder what kind of home we’ve made in time ourselves.

About a third of the way into this book, we start to breathe more slowly, our heart rate drops and we even catch that sun-drenched, breezy, beachy feeling. But we’re not the ones at the beach, and we may eventually get a teensy bit restless for some kind of a . . . point. And it’s just about then, as Benson watches a seabird catch a thermal and spiral toward the sun, that the repetition and rhythm come into focus. He offers this image of the bird as a way of picturing what he’s after in all those rounds of his day, and by extension, what he’s after in this book: “One way or another I have spent most of my life watching for certain signs and wonders of the Something Unnamed that is at the center of everything. Over the years I have come to see that some sitting still is required if one is to see such things. …I have also come to believe that it helps to keep circling as well, which is as good a name for my scribbling as anything else I can think of. So I do, circling round and round, from scribbling round to sunset round, day after day, season after season, year after year. I don’t know the name of what it is that I will finally come to see. Home may be as good a name as any.”

Benson’s personal circling round eventually moves him toward a communal vision of what home can be, and it’s not a bit otherworldly. Inspired by the people he meets–such as Daisy, the cab driver who holds up traffic to check in with her daughter, or the dozen held-up drivers, who don’t mind at all–and by the island newspaper, which reveals such humane priorities as government-sponsored music education for all young people, he senses that people in St. Cecilia “are expected to live out their lives with something resembling civility and grace. In St. Cecilia there is an earnestness, an idealism, an authentic sense of concern expressed in the public discourse that is largely missing in the country in which I was born.” He picks up on what seems to be “a larger conspiracy, a conspiracy to commit civil society perhaps.”

It’s this gracious quality found in so many island people that leads Benson to realize he has “crossed over.” Not only is he keeping an eye out for a good piece of property: he’s also buying into a different way of understanding home. It’s a very hopeful view of civilization inspired by the reality he sees on the island. It’s not heaven, but “the people who live here still believe they are to be about the business of replicating heaven if they can.” Can we, as a culture, ever cross the line into an enlightened version of the civil society that perhaps we once were, back in the days when life wasn’t so complicated and big and hurried and stuffed full of stuff? That’s the question Benson leaves us with, and however unlikely it is that Nashville alone will ever transform en masse, we can celebrate the pockets of civility and grace that do exist, and help make more of them ourselves.

What Benson is about here–his spiraling search for home in personal and collective life, and his discovery of at least some of what he longs for on St. Cecilia–could perhaps be more to the point as a shapely sonnet, or a short essay, or a letter home. But as in any real writing, the point itself isn’t the whole point. This memoir is like a beach towel left on the cabana clothesline, lifting in the tropical breeze, calling less attention to itself than to the prevailing winds which point one wise man toward another way home.
Robert Benson

About Robert Benson

Robert Benson - Home by Another Way
Robert Benson has written more than a dozen books about the discovery of the sacred in the midst of our ordinary lives, including Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, Home By Another Way, and Digging In. His work has been critically acclaimed in a wide range of publications from The New York Times and USA Today to Spirituality & Health and The Benedectine Review. He is an alumnus of The Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation and was recently named a Living Spiritual Teacher by Spirituality&Practice.com. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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