Days at the Beach

Although the calendar reads February the weather has been mild and when I leave work, the sky is still bright. Aching to move and fill my lungs with fresh air, I have been walking at the beach. Following the sidewalk along the sand on these winter days that feel like Spring, I thrill at the chorus of languages from the chatting couples and families I pass. Spanish, Greek, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese. These are my neighbors and a reason why 20 years ago, my husband and I, fresh from our life overseas, fell in love with this city on the Connecticut coast.

And this beach. Today I walked by the playground and for a moment, I remember myself spending hours on that bench watching little Molly slide down the fireman pole, climb up ladders, slip down slides. And my heart aches with the memory and I wish I could go back in time and be who I am now, watching my beautiful girl at play, completely attuned to joy, absolutely at peace. Instead, all those years ago, for too many seasons, I was lost in a cloud of worry, anger, hurt and terror.

My husband would be home sleeping – no matter the hour. Instead of sitting beside me watching our daughter, catching up on the week, planning our next meal – even just quarreling about things I imagine normal families do, he would still be sprawled across our bed in a drug induced sleep. Often, he would not wake until dinner, ignoring my tears, my pleas and harassment, stuck in the web of addiction that would eventually kill him. On those days at the beach, ever hopeful for the miracle that never came, I watched the cars enter the beach, hoping with some kind of magical thinking, that I might conjure him driving in next. There he would be – the man I’d married, waving and calling out the window, so happy to join us. Instead, Molly and I eventually returned home, the pit in my stomach deeper than ever and Molly not bothering to ask where Daddy was as he still slept upstairs.

Enough time has passed that I mostly remember the things I loved about Neil, a remarkable, beautiful, tortured man. But sometimes dark memories are ignited – like today on a beautiful day as I pass a bench in front of the playground.

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More on Burning Wood

This winter, I’ve been heating my house primarily by my new wood stove. My oil furnace is so ancient, it was a finalist (alas – not the winner!) in an ‘oldest furnace’ contest run by a local oil company. First prize was free installation of a new furnace. Mine is as old as I am but still was beat out by an even more impressive monster in someone’s basement.

While inefficient, my oil furnace is reliable and a new one would cost more than I want to go into debt for. Instead I spent half as much on a wood stove and feel good relying a little less on the fuel-oil roller coaster.

I have a friend who lets me have wood for free so every few weeks, I load up my Subaru. I like the exercise of carrying and stacking. Nights, I savor the gulp of frigid air when stepping out onto the porch to retrieve another log then back into the warmth to stoke the flames. The gentle lapping sounds and flickering glow make for sweet company. The rising warmth slowly sweeps upstairs so even my bedroom is toasty by time I climb between the sheets to sleep. The sheets I dry on my clothesline also featured in the photo above. Just call me pioneer woman.

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Building a Fire

I start with newspaper – usually the sports section although these days I can hardly bear to read any of it. Twisting the pages tight so they don’t spring apart, I line them up on yesterday’s ash. On top of this newsprint bed, I place a piece of beautiful fat-wood. At the start of the season a box of it mysteriously appeared at my door with no note and for days I quizzed people who might have sent it before finally tracking down the giver as my thoughtful, generous friend Laura. Right now I have cedar shingles as a bonus from the friend who has been giving me wood this season. They make for easy kindling, nice and dry and cracking easily into smaller pieces under my heel. Next I’ll teepee a few of the smaller logs from my woodpile. Making sure the damper is pushed all they way in, I strike a wooden match and set it to the paper. Leaving the door slightly ajar I wait, squatting in front of it to watch (and hope) it catches. Sometimes it’s slow going and doesn’t and I have to scrunch up more newspaper, shove another shingle bit in. I’ve figured out that it’s mostly about air, isn’t it? You have to have just enough to tease out the flames but not so much it blows the sparks out. Like life, isn’t it?

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Showing Up

How to explain my silence? I’d lost my voice. My excuses were: the election dismayed me, retail work during the crazy holiday season exhausted me. The longer I went without writing, the more I lost that muscle.

Since my dear dog died almost a year ago it has definitely been harder for me to find the quiet place from where my writing emerges. Our required walks together provided me with precious time for contemplation, observing nature, just being. I miss that and have yet to figure out another daily rhythm to regularly find that time and space.

But maybe in this interesting time of transitions in my life I’ve been looking in the wrong place for inspiration. Perhaps, rather than trying to replicate what worked before it’s time to find a new way…

Yesterday millions of people took to the streets. While 100% of me was willing to be there in spirit, I dragged my feet about going myself. When the friend I was going with decided to go to the NYC march instead of the one 15 minutes away I thought – I’m off the hook! No one will know and I can stay home and cheer my sisters (and so many brothers!) on from home! I know, I know – shame on me. But I’m not a fan of crowds, blah, blah, blah. Really, I had no good reason not to go. I went.

Surrounded by thousands of other peaceful protestors, I realized that of the things that have saved my life: friendships, writing, yoga, AlAnon – just showing up is the most important thing you can do.

Here I am.

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Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

This is an excerpt from my memoir The Things We Cannot Change:

From my window, rooftops are visible against a ribbon of the almost-green trees muting the incessant drone of the highway. Everything appears serene and lovely this early spring morning but I cannot help and wonder what goes on inside these houses. What hatred, prejudice, violence might simmer under those roofs? Could this community in Connecticut combust? Might neighbors turn on each other in violence? Of course not – that seems impossible. We are sure we are different. That is not who we are. Yet I have seen what darkness can reside in homes with roofs just like ours and know such horrors are possible anywhere.

***

My apartment sat on the main road of this tiny predominantly Croat town in Bosnia. I heard everything. Nights, I hid under a ridiculous number of blankets for warmth and to try and drown out the drunken shouting and yelling of local soldiers in the street. The next day at work, I knew I’d be reading UN military reports of Moslem families being bullied from their homes, men taken away in the night. It could not just be me listening but doing nothing about the evil soundtrack of those sleepless hours? What about my neighbors? Under the veil of darkness, families were forced from homes they’d lived in for generations. The Croats were ‘ethnically cleansing’ the town of Moslems – right on the UN’s doorstep.

Man’s inhumanity to man being played out so close around me, overwhelms what should be memories of my excitement of new love. Instead, an icy fear and anger clutched at my throat and tightened with every night.

Years later, I remain haunted by that Bosnian-Croat town – the dark secrets and nights of violence spilling into daylight.

destroyed-village

Each chapter of my memoir begins with an italicized section of reflection in the present before launching into my past story. This chapter selection is from my time there when Central Bosnian villages were being ‘cleaned’ out. During the day, from the safety of the UN armored car, what from a distance looked sweet bucolic cottages, up close became surreal scenes of horror. Windows smashed – ruffled curtains flapping like surrender flags flown too late. Some houses burned. Doors left open – chickens wandering the yard, a dead dog. No human in sight. Eerie. The village had clearly just recently been ransacked – the people fled, taken prisoner, killed? Any of those was possible — all of it happened. We sped on to our meeting.

kids-in-sarajevo

The beauty of the places I lived and visited in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia during my four years there is unforgettable. But the hatred between those cousins wore my soul out. In 1996, I was ready to come home and glad to settle in the diverse, welcoming community I now love and call my own. While racism and prejudice has always existed in the United States, in my experience, it was rare to encounter it as shameless. There was at least a sense of being wrong and certainly some modicum of legal protection against hate crimes, discrimination. That’s what I thought in 1996 as I packed my bags to move back to create a life with my new family in my home country.

I’ve gotten a glimpse of what can happen when government leaders and their propaganda machines fan the flame of fear and hatred. I’ve seen what happens when citizens feel free – even encouraged – to harass (and worse) their neighbors with impunity. It’s more terrible than you can imagine. Let’s not go there.

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Dark Season

Just a week ago we set the clocks back an hour. I’m not crazy about this time switching. Sometimes I pass  all my hours in a windowless office with barely a glimpse of nature’s light. Those are sad days. The beat of my heart is connected to the sight of clouds, birds, the changing light. I need to see the sun, to feel even the wannest of warmth from winter rays on my face. I don’t do well in the dark.

But I will learn to function in the new reality of this season, to embrace this chance to shift inward, to reflect. I’ll make it work. When necessary, I will rage against the night, plan for the future. Spring will come. I will gather what I need to enrich the soil in my garden. I’ll gather friends and fill my house with laughter, ply them with good food and drink to sustain us through these dark days and take comfort and strength in our solidarity. And tonight – there’s a promise of an extraordinary moon to light the way through the dark. I’ll take that as an offering of hope.

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Bird Quarrels and Peace

Summer photo - but still windy!

Summer photo – but still windy!

Last weekend, ferocious winds blew in a taste of winter. Bright and sunny with cold gusts that turned the leaves inside out and off their branches. I took my cue to get my winter nest ready and washed and aired flannel sheets and heavy blankets, letting them flap dry in the crazy wind.

A week later it’s summer again and I sit on my porch in shirtsleeves watching two red- headed woodpeckers follow each other back and forth between the trees. I am reminded there is a bright side to bare branches: the birds! Winter is prime bird watching time.

See the little profile there in the left?

See the little pecker-profile?

A drama unfolds between these two birds – one is noisily berating the other who ignoring the complaints without a peep, focuses on worrying the bark. And now a jay has announced himself with a shriek. He lands in the bird bath, eyes the empty feeders and leaves wanting no part of the fracas.

They’re still at it. If they were weaving a web as they flew between the trees, it would be impassable by now – they have passed back and forth between the trees so often.

The aggressive one just attacked the other, falling with a thud onto the lawn beside me. “Whoa! Easy guys!” I called out as if breaking up a schoolyard fight. Another bird – a catbird briefly lands and after noisy commentary, flees the scene. What’s wrong with them? It’s not mating season – maybe it’s time to claim their winter home. I have prime bird real estate in a good size stump snug up against another tree.

Battle for the stump?

Battle for the stump?

My bird show just took a dramatic turn with the sound of heavy flapping wings – I look up just in time to catch a large hawk or falcon chased by a smaller bird. I did not see if the bird of prey had scored a meal but I’d wager the scrappy bird chasing him will not be lunch.

This is what I miss when I leave here every day to go to work. If I won the lottery, I’d be content to report to you on nature’s news from out my window or from my porch and at the end of the day, I’d feel satisfied. Well, I’d punctuate this with walks and beach romps with the dog I would get.

I love observing the buzz of nature. The busy efforts of creatures and plants to survive and thrive on this magnificent earth. I am content to watch the birds and fattening squirrels on my tiny patch of land within earshot of the highway to New York City less than an hour away. An hour or two with this world on my doorstep is enough to bring me back to some essence of life well beyond the hamster-wheel that can be my life: my job, paying bills and worrying about this depressing election. I find peace in paying attention to the feel of the air, the smell of the seasons and the quarrels of birds.

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Crazy Lies

I lie to my dentist. Isn’t that crazy?

My dentist asks ‘Problems with any of your teeth?’ while poking at fillings with the creepy metal hook. I can’t speak with someone’s hand in my mouth. I answer with a negative uh-uh grunt and immediately a wave of heat shoots through me because I’m lying. I almost never lie. There is a tooth that bothers me and has for at least 3 of my past visits  – that’s every six months thanks to my good insurance that covers 2 cleanings a year. I never miss one.

I’m not exactly in pain but I often have a weird metallic taste in my mouth that I suspect is my ancient mercury filling leaching out from a crack in one of my bottom molars. The taste is unpleasant and some days, especially when I can’t stop worrying the damn thing with my tongue, it starts to hurt a bit. Why do I lie about it like some sneaky third grader?

Part of it is the money. I suspect that there’s not enough tooth left to be fill-able so I’ll need a crown and I gather those aren’t cheap. But hell, I recently shelled out almost 2K to replace an oil tank for my house which was depressing because there’s so much this old place needs and you can’t even see the thing. Not like the windows or a new garage door that would be nice but are not urgent. There was no question of risking a basement full of oil so I sucked it up and took care of business. I need to do the same for my mouth.

Usually, when I know there’s potential physical pain or trouble ahead I strike preemptively. I had my wisdom teeth out a few years ago because of signs of decay not because they hurt but because I knew they eventually might. And when there was something suspicious on one of my ovaries I had them out without a second thought rather than dilly-dally with tests. (it was nothing – both the thing and the surgery) Surely it’s just a matter of time before what now feels unpleasant becomes excruciating? What if that’s during the early hours of a Sunday morning when no dentist can be found?

Like everybody else on the planet, I hate, hate, hate getting dental work. It’s all I can do to get through the scraping part of a cleaning. My dread of dentist has given me excellent oral hygiene that wins me praise when I’m in the chair. I didn’t mind getting my wisdom teeth out because it didn’t involve any high pitched drill noises or smells of smoking tooth. (And he gave me laughing gas.)

I have a dentist appointment in about a month. This time, I’ll tell the truth. And ask for drugs.

What crazy lies do you tell?

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Back on the Bike

my-bike

I bought these sweet wheels at a tag sale for $50 (with a basket!) in early summer and $30 for a very unflattering helmet.

I wish I could tell you that I regularly made the 5 mile roundtrip to the beach. I did not. It was so hot this summer! And to get to the bike-lane route I have to go up a hill. Such poor excuses. The fact is, I’m inclined to be a slug – what can I say? But the other day the light and temperature were perfect so I took a spin to the beach. Speeding down-hill the wind whistled in my ears and my heart lifted with a forgotten joy. On the way back, I push-push-pushed until breathless, I leapt off to walk.

dragonfly-on-bike

A hitch-hiker I picked up in Kyoto.

Biking gives me a sense of being a participant – not just moving through in the bubble of my car. My body reacts to terrain, blood pumping, breath quickening. I easily stop to watch a bird, follow a slant of light, inhale the scent of a boxwood hedge, the musk of low tide, a gyro joint. I have a sit-upright, tootling-around kind of bike – not a speed-racer that requires dressing up like a lycra-bumble-bee to ride. My bike inspires cruising. I love spinning down a hill but speed doesn’t interest me much. I’m definitely a tootler.

I used to be more of a functional biker – it was how I got places. I didn’t own a car until I was in my late 30s.

My Cincinnati studio with bike.

My Cincinnati studio with bike.

When I graduated from college and became a banquet waitress at a hotel (Yay art degree!) I lived in a dicey part of Cincinnati and rode my bike to work at all hours. Leaving at 4:30 AM for a breakfast shift, I’d speed down the middle of the empty street – a little frightened by the shadows of the odd hour.

From a bridge over the Kamogawa - Kyoto.

From a bridge over the Kamogawa – Kyoto.

When I lived in Japan I rode everywhere. I pedaled to English teaching jobs, to shop for groceries, meet up with friends. More often than I should admit, I made my way home on wobbly-wheels in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone rides bikes – multiple babies will be tucked into attached seats and the very, very old will easily balance the day’s groceries in baskets. It’s a biker’s heaven. One of the things I miss most about Japan is exploring narrow streets, popping into Temples for moments of peace, making my way home along the river running north to south through the city. I can conjure the crunch of gravel beside the Kamo river – perhaps one of my all-time favorite stretches anywhere in the world.

For a time I also had a bike in Zagreb, Croatia. I zipped through the city streets on my mountain bike, hoping the tires were fat enough they would not catch in the treacherous tram tracks. For fun I pedaled through a nearby park, riding along dirt trails and bouncing over rocks. I became pregnant with Molly there and sold my bike.

Being a mother made me into a chicken. From the moment my daughter was a whisper within me, a new sense of vulnerability took over. Navigating through the world became a little more frightening when life became no longer just about me.

In Zagreb, the only helmet I owned was UN issued kevlar for when I traveled to active war zones. I did not wear this biking. Nor did I wear – or ever see one in Kyoto. Do cyclists wear helmets there now? Now, although it hurts my vanity, I wear my dorky helmet. While the city I live in is making an effort to be more bike-friendly, too many people stare at their phones while driving. I choose not to chance my mortality to look a tad cooler.

Maybe it’s because my daughter is 21 and capable and launching off on her own adventures, I’m getting my courage back. I’m ready to risk getting toppled for the pleasure of the wind whistling in my ears. And I need the exercise.

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Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it  chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of  ‘hedge’. What I did was enough.

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