Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Charlotte's Gift to Me

I thought I knew exactly what I would write about this week.  Irene, in NYC.  I wasn't there, but my husband, Drew, was.  It would have been mostly his story, how he coped during the storm, with bits of mine thrown in --how I coped with his coping -- from our home in Arkansas.  It's a story worth telling, but my focus changed early Sunday morning when the phone rang.

It was my friend, Marian, from Connecticut.  The quiver in her voice hinted at an ominous message before the words revealed it.  "Winds from the hurricane downed a power line that started a fire in Jim's (her husband) parents' house.  Charlotte died."  Jim's father managed to escape their burning Prospect, Connecticut home; tragically, his mother did not.

Immense sadness for Charlotte's family hovers over me, its weight a mere fraction of what her family is experiencing.  A loss so sudden, its circumstances so unforeseen, leaves the mind hardly equipped to accept it as real.   

Such devastating news is usually about people we don't know, in places far away.  Up-to-the minute headlines report environmental disasters or terrorist acts, which result in death, injury, suffering.  Numbers, routinely without names, appear in bold, black letters and matter-of-factly spoken narratives on the nightly news.  "Sixteen killed in suicide bombing;"  "Hundreds left homeless after flood waters recede;" and in today's local paper, "Irene's toll jumps to 42."

Numbers, convenient to dismiss, yet helpless to impart the heartbreaking loss of a wife, mother, grandmother, friend.      

I heard an interview on NPR with journalist, Daniel Schorr, recorded several years ago, in which he mentioned a staggering number of deaths connected with the Vietnam war.  He quickly spewed out the numbers, continued his commentary, then abruptly stopped.  His exact words escape me, but to paraphrase his eloquence. . . These were people.  They deserve for us to say this slowly, with solemnity. And he repeated his previous sentence, slowing as he read the number of dead, followed by a moment of silence.

Charlotte's untimely death has slowed me, caused me to consider how I react to the faceless numbers whose fates I hear, but ignore, moving on without the slightest pause.
Her face comes into focus, reminding me of the humanity behind the headlines, the stories behind the numbers.

Because of Charlotte Levine,
I stopped today to read the article about the 42 deaths attributed to Irene.
Otherwise, I might have skipped it, not taking the time, not taking in the significance of 42 . . .
individuals with names, with life stories, with people deeply grieving their absence.
with solemnity and intentionality,
I paused from the rush of my day,
and sat in silence,
   in gratitude.






Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Our Neighborhood Bridge

Whenever we move to a new place, whether across town or 5000 miles away, one of the first things I do is get to know the neighborhood.  From the minute we rented our apartment in NYC, the view outside out eastern-facing windows dictated the first stop on my tour.  A bridge.  Not just any bridge.  The Brooklyn Bridge!

Its steadfast, medieval-shaped arches, intricate cables criss-crossing like strings on a cat's cradle, the span of highway supported by foundations stretching who knows how deep to the river bottom . . .
Even in my complete ignorance of its history, I somehow knew that it was much more than a bridge.

From 27 floors up, I watched the lines of people walking, running, and biking across the pedestrian path while vehicles sped by.  I was intrigued.  Just how close was that path to the traffic?  And more importantly to a person with my mild-to-moderate (okay, severe) fear of heights unprotected by thick glass or massive iron bars, how close were those brave souls to the railing?  Questions that needed answers.  The only way to find out was to cross it myself.  Morning #2 in our new home, Drew and I headed downstairs to join the 6:00 a.m. exercisers on the bridge.

I tried to pretend that I was a regular, a real New Yorker accustomed to fast-walking across such magnificence every morning, but I couldn't.  I stopped, stared, said, "Wow!" "Oh, my goodness!" "This is incredible!" every yard or two.  The wooden-slatted walkway felt like a leisurely promenade in contrast to the frenetic traffic below.  The knee-weakening railing was at a sufficiently safe distance that my thankful knees didn't think of quivering.  Quaint benches and lamplights added a feeling of New York years ago.

  Jogging in place, I stopped to read plaques affixed to bases of giant pillars.  Names, dates, descriptions.  The words on one of them slowed me to a standstill.

"The builders of the bridge dedicated to Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband Col. Washington A. Roebling, C. E. (1837-1926) complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father John A. Roebling, C.E. (1806-1869) who gave his life to the bridge.  'Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.' "

It was then that I understood why this bridge is truly special.  It has the touch of a woman on it,  Emily Roebling.

Washington Roebling was the bridge's Chief Engineer.  When he became incapacitated from caisson disease, Emily was his legs, his voice, his presence on the bridge relaying directions from their Brooklyn Heights home.  But Emily was much more than a messenger.  In his book, The Great Bridge:  The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, David McCullough writes,  "By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous.  In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved."

Emily was a woman ahead of her time.  A woman who attended college when higher education for women was still in its infancy.  A woman who worked in the manly world of engineering and construction when women rarely worked outside the home.  A woman who addressed the American Society of Civil Engineers when women's voices were seldom heard in public.

Emily Roebling brought a strength to the bridge that abides in it to this day.  I felt it under my feet and above my head.  I like to imagine her still living in Brooklyn Heights, meeting me halfway across "her" bridge, admiring our opposite shores, then coming over for a cup of tea . . . a neighborly thing to do.

Emily Warren Roebling, Wikipedia (
Warren, Emily Roebling, American Society of Civil Engineers (
Brooklyn Bridge, Historic Overview, (



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