Sunday, January 04, 2009

From Walden Pond to Gaza City

At 10:30 this morning, Walden Pond was a self-contained universe. The thick layer of snow surrounding it was utterly undisturbed by footprints, human or otherwise. Not a single car loitered in the visitor's parking lot across the street. Thoreau's cabin, plunked in the sparse woods, looked pathetic, abandoned, perhaps slated for removal.

Yesterday, HOBB, Little Babe and I ambitiously set out by foot for Walden Pond from our hotel, the Colonial Inn in downtown Concord, Mass. This wonderfully preserved historic inn is a family destination and our yearly trips to the town made famous by Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne and other great American writers have taken on the quality of a religious pilgrimage.

Always at the heart of our Concord trips is a visit to Walden Pond, complete with a leisurely stroll around the pond itself. I have done it so many times that I lost count.

Two years earlier, I made the trek on Shabbat with my sons, Little and Big Babe, while the first snow of the season fell softly around us and HOBB slept in our hotel room. This winter, the snowfall was far more prodigious and the temperature was about 24 degrees south of freezing on the day we arrived at the Inn. Yesterday, it was perhaps 10 degrees warmer.

Still, I was determined to preserve our tradition and made sure to remind my men about our Shabbat excursion repeatedly. Owing to some stroke of outrageous good fortune, we had gotten bumped up to the Thoreau Suite (after booking a cheap room through Expedia) and found ourselves staying in a vast honeymoon palace with a fireplace, dining room (replete with a formal table and chairs), kitchen, spa bathroom with Jacuzzi. four-poster bed and living room...for $90 per night.

Walking three miles in the snow seemed the very least we could offer Henry David in thanks.

Putting on multiple layers of socks and sweaters and donning Arctic expedition-worthy hats, we headed out to Walden Pond at 3:30 in the afternoon, leaving the warmth and elegance of the Thoreau Suite reluctantly.

Stepping outside, I was dismayed to find that the sun that had drenched Main Street in the morning (causing water to pour off of the store awnings as we walked to the Concord Public Library) was now missing in action. As we trotted down Walden Avenue, a hostile wind whipped at our clothes and a lonesome grey overtook our vista.

Still, we set out for our journey with stoic resolve. But upon reaching Rt 2, and with only a quarter of a mile to go, my husband and son stopped in their tracks, refusing to go one step further. Their feet were frozen solid, their cheeks crimson red, and besides, the sun was setting and we needed to get back before it turned dark.

Barely able to contain my frustration (my feet were also frozen, my cheeks also burning...but so what! we were on a pilgrimage!) I relented at the sight of my miserable men (a tear drop was beginning to freeze on Little Babe's cheek) and the three of us trudged back down Walden Avenue toward Monument Square.

After we thawed our feet in the Jacuzzi, I extracted a vow from HOBB to visit Walden Pond first thing in the morning, on our way out of town.

Yet this morning, purring up Walden Avenue in our warm Honda Accord, we took one long and loving look at the lake and declared, "Nah."

It was an instantaneous and unambiguous decision.

That ability to let the dream of Walden Pond slip through our fingers signalled the end of our New England escapist adventure... and a return to our regularly-scheduled lives.

This vacation had an epic quality to it. For the first time in seven years, I declared a work blackout beginning on Christmas Eve and ending tomorrow morning at 9 am. After seven cycles of 24/6, I reached the end of my ability to be on call at all times.

And so, for nearly two weeks, I was missing in action, professionally-speaking. Call it a spontaneous sabbatical, chicken soup for the workaholic's soul.

But turning the car away from Walden Pond this morning was more than just a nod in the direction of the realm of work and productivity.

It was the recognition of a daunting reality waiting just outside the borders of vacationland, the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency, the promise of bold and sweeping changes, of ambitious solutions to the fallout of economic upheaval, of new life and blood, of American molting and changing and giving birth to itself anew.

Far less happily, it was also a quickening step towards the rising sun, eastward, in the direction of the Holy Land, which is also molting and changing and giving birth to itself anew by rising up to slay those who theaten its citizens and, by extension, its very existence. Towards the people who dare to defend themselves in the face of international condemnation from those are enraged at the counterintuitive combination of Jews and power -- a paradigm that flies in the face of a long history of persecution, escape and exile.

Thousands of miles from Thoreau's pristine pond, a young man wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces waits with his unit as a dreadful war wages within Gaza.

Only twenty years old, he is nervous yet wracked with guilt at the thought of his friends already called into combat and he, American born but Israeli-raised, spared the hardships of battle so far.

Around midday, I speak to his mother, my sister, seeking to find out whether he has been called (not yet), whether she still plans to fly to New York this week for a trip planned half a year earlier (she doesn't know), how she feels (worried) and what else is going on (what else matters?).

As we speak, I am on the Mass Pike, heading back to New York City. HOBB is driving. Little Babe sits in the back, wearing headphones, consulting his Japanese/English handheld computer. The sun is glorious, glaring off the hood of our Honda. The supreme luxury of the Thoreau Suite at the Colonial Inn is receding from my mind. My sister is the mother of an Israeli soldier who might be called into battle any minute now against an enemy that is sworn to Israel's eradication. I remember taking my nephew to the Central Park Zoo when he was a little boy. I remember holding him in my arms when he was newly-born. I thought he was a funny-looking baby but he has grown into a beautiful young man, well over 6 feet tall, kind, good-humored, smart, responsible.

I recall a moment from two years ago: breakfast at the Colonial Inn on a Shabbat morning. I had woken up late and rushed downstairs to catch breakfast before it closed. The man at the next table was reading The Boston Globe, spreading his newspaper before him in an expansive gesture of leisure and entitlement. Glancing to my right, I was shocked to see the front page headline screaming: Saddam Hanged. A photo accompanied the article.

First I stared at the headline dumbly, then snapped my head away from the man and his newspaper. I was shaken and unsettled at the news but also at the notion that there is no escape from reality. Even in picture-perfect Concord, Mass. which exists within a conceptual time-warp.

That afternoon, I walked to Walden Pond with my sons. By that time, Saddam Hussein's death was old news. I was no longer shocked and wondered instead how the world would change. I hoped for the better. Snow fell softly around us as we walked.

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