Back to Life

The coming departure of Karen Hughes has been covered every which way but mostly as a story about a modern woman who, having it all, decided to relinquish some of it, at least for a while, so she could lead a more personally enjoyable life back home, in Texas, with her son in a local school with longtime friends and her husband, a lawyer, able to practice his profession free of the constraints necessarily placed on spouses of powerful Washington personages.

All of which is a long way of saying she wanted to return to life.

*   *   *

What is life? It is the nice big thing you enter each morning when the alarm goes off and you put your feet on the cool floor and then stand, with your hands on the bottom of your back, and look out the window.

Life is putting on coffee, picking up the newspaper and putting on the radio and listening for a few seconds to see if something huge and terrible happened last night. You can tell by the sound of the voices. Once you hear everyone sounds calm and nice and boring, you keep the station on but don’t really listen.

The mist from the coffee in the mug is rising. The sun hits the newspaper you’re reading as you stand at the kitchen counter and you feel it on your hand. You think: That’s the feel of the sun on my hand.

You open the kitchen window and breathe in fresh air—grass, the man next door just mowed. It’s fresh and cool. You hear birds. You leave the window open so you can keep hearing them. You think, I’ll put a bird house back there.

You notice you do not have a hard little ball in your stomach. Your acid glands do not appear to have launched the morning’s guerrilla attack on the bagel you’re eating. Your heartbeat is not accelerating. You do not have the slight tremor you sometimes get when the phone rings so often it’s come to seem like a constant alarm.

The rictus muscles around your mouth are not tightening. You are not frowning.

What’s happening? Oh—you’ve returned to life.

*   *   *

You are standing there reading the front page. And the front page does not contain information you must respond to. It contains information other people must respond to—the mayor, say, or the head of the arts committee. You wish them well.

You have only one fear. For a long time you’ve had a hunch that fear keeps you slim. That anxiety creates a quicker metabolism. That happiness will make you fat.

You think: I’ll worry about this next week. Or next month.

You dress in soft clothes. That’s what cops and firemen and members of the armed services call not being in uniform. You wear soft old jeans and a thin cotton sweater. They smell of Tide and fabric softener. They feel warm from the dryer. They drape on you light as an oversized glove.

When Karen Hughes worked in the White House she wore hard clothes—wool blend suits and heels and jewelry and makeup; there were buttons and fasteners and flecks of mascara in the eye. She doesn’t have to wear makeup now. She can have a soft face. She can wash her face in Dove foamy cleanser, pat it dry, put on a nice-smelling moisturizer and walk onward into the day.

In that day she can daydream. This is especially important for intelligent people; it’s how they find out what they think.

She can walk and go for long drives. This is important for adults as it allows them unconsciously to absorb through their eyes a changing landscape while they think about things big and small, all of which relate to time going by, meaning to a changing of landscapes.

She can not answer the phone. Not answering the phone is a great gift in life. When you answer the phone, other humans very often bring you their need. “I need you to listen/know/react/advise.” They get you on their agenda.

When you don’t answer the phone you stay on your agenda. Which may or may not be clear but at least is yours.

She can shop. Shopping is a wonderful thing. It’s more wonderful if you have money to buy what catches your eye if you want to own it, but it’s also fun if you don’t have money. It’s really wonderful to just sort of walk along the mall and see what your country is selling, buying, offering. You get to see the other people look at and judge your country’s products. You can buy a big soft pretzel at a stand and sit on a bench and watch the mothers and daughters buy shoes together. If you sit close enough to hear them you’ll be hearing how mothers and daughters talk to each other these days. That’s a good thing to know.

Then you can have lunch with friends and bring each other your agendas, which is a word you never use with friends because you don’t have to. You know each other so well you don’t have an agenda. Or you have one but it’s unspoken, shared and simple: It is: We’re friends, we help each other through life.

Then you can go home and read a book in a chair outside, or on your bed, with the sunlight streaming in on the comforter. It’s good to read. When you read books by people who know things you don’t know, or rather who know things you don’t know and would benefit intellectually, spiritually or emotionally from knowing, you are giving your brain/soul good nutrients. No one ever got stupider, shallower or worse from doing this.

*   *   *

You can think of dinner. You can make it or order it. You can think of what everyone would enjoy and then try to make sure it’ll be good for them too.

You can watch the news and be interested like a normal person by what’s going on, as opposed to being interested like an abnormal person—a person who works for a president, say. You can watch TV shows with your son and husband and just enjoy them. You can daydream to them and have uninterrupted thoughts about what’s happening in Hollywood and what’s happening with people who are 27 and secretly running the country. You can have these thoughts uninterrupted by bells that ring like alarms and agendas that are thrust on you and things you must attend to or the president may suffer.

You can become reacquainted with your country.

You can become reacquainted with the idea of normality.

You can find out how much—or how little—you miss The Great World. You can figure the difference between how much it needed you and how much you needed it.

You can find out how much you need the distractions you used to complain about. You can find out if you were right that you didn’t need them.

You can find out what comes in to fill and take the place of the pressure, pleasure and importance you just left. You have to try and make sure that space is filled by better things. But you have to be open-minded, easy and welcoming about the word better. It can have broad meanings you didn’t expect.

*   *   *

All of this sounds really nice to me. Does it sound nice to you? Then you may want to consider the Hughes Plan, if you can, if you’re able to, if it’s possible, if you’re at a point in life where it’s doable.

Let me tell you why I’m riffing along. I have a feeling the Hughes Plan is related to Sept. 11. The other day a writer friend e-mailed me and said quick, give me a quote on how Sept. 11 changed your life. She was writing an article and just needed another voice to jump in and give words she could put quote marks around.

I didn’t know the answer, or rather I knew a bunch of answers but not one. My friend, however, needed one. So I sat and thought, and then I knew. I wrote back: “Let me tell you what 9/11 did to me. It made me hungrier for life. It made me feel more tenderly toward it and more grateful. It’s all short, even in the worst life it’s too short, and you want to really feel and experience it and smell it and touch it and thank God for it.”

I realized, again, that Sept. 11 had given me a case of Judith Delouvrier. Judith Delouvrier was a wonderful woman who was my friend; our boys went to school together and she was a fine mother and a happy spirit and she loved her husband and they’d just left their apartment and bought a house in my neighborhood. She had a million plans. She jumped on a plane one summer day and never came back. It was TWA 800.

It was all so impossible, so jarring, so unnatural. And in the months and years after her death, if I was walking along and saw something nice—an especially cute dog, a sweet moment between humans, a pretty baby, a beautiful pair of shoes in the window—I’d feel my usual old mild pleasure. And then I would remember that Judith couldn’t see this boring common unremarkable thing. And it made the boring common unremarkable thing seem to me more like a gift, more precious and worthy of attention and appreciation, and even love.

So Sept. 11 did to me what Judith’s death did, only deeper and newer.

And Karen Hughes, who was with the president that day and the days after, maybe she got a case of Sept. 11 too. And maybe it made some part of her want to be more immersed in life. Or more urgently aware that life is not only what you’re doing right this second at the desk, it’s also going on out there beyond the desk, it’s going by like the wind and if you want to you can step out and feel it.

To the extent her decision reminds us of the life outside the desk it is a public service. Not many public servants do things that you can immediately experience as a benefit. So thank you Ms. Hughes. And now I’m going to go read Michael J. Fox’s memoir. And then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge because it’s fun.