The Importance of Updating

Well, hello there! Did you miss me? I was locked out of my blog for more than a month. Yes, I was hacked but it was also my own fault: I’d ignored the pesky reminders to install updates. The format or something that I was using became so out-dated that I was no longer able to upload posts. What a perfect metaphor for my life. I need to keep up with the program. Lesson learned? I hope so but this feels harder as I get older. Does it for you?

I used to be adept at change, regularly going somewhere or doing something different. In my youth, I moved every few years – often to another state or country. The grand finale before settling here in Connecticut, was in Molly’s first year of life when we moved four times, three different countries. Same with jobs. A year in one place was my average until I landed at the United Nations where after a few years at the NYC headquarters, I left to work out in the field. Boyfriends? Rarely did I hit the six month mark with any of them. Friends are different – I’ve treasured and nurtured those loves and they’ve sustained and supported me for decades.

Physically COVID makes the advisability of change questionable. Time to hunker down and hang onto whatever is working and hibernate through the seasons. Luckily I adore being in my sweet house with porch and garden and the Long Island Sound only minutes away. I miss sharing meals and drinks with friends but not being able to meet up in big groups is not a hardship for me as I am more on the introvert than extrovert scale. My daughter is with me – a joy of daily laughs and hugs. Molly’s cheerfully helpful, running all errands including braving the grocery stores. She cooks gourmet meals and makes a mean cocktail. We have become YouTube fix-it experts with the latest accomplishment: replacing our toilet! And she’s my IT specialist — the reason why I am here with you today.

But: this is not what’s supposed to happen. She should be launching into her own adventures and discoveries – not stuck at home with mom.

We are in a kind of forced meditation, aren’t we?

I don’t hate it. I appreciate being forced to look inward. The search of self and being feels rich and interesting to me and if anything, I wish I had more time for that. But of course, I am distracted by practical questions too. How do I hope to spend whatever years are left to me? What can I sustain? I used to feel stressed going down this path — regularly doing math as if the answer lay in a budget I don’t have. But these days, I worry much less. So little and yet so much is possible. Does that make sense? What can we control, anyway? Breathe – because we know how precious that is, don’t we?

These days, as I imagine my daughter’s eventual adventures, I remember my once intrepid self and realize that gal, that ME is still here. A little rusty but that’s what happens when you fail to move. What’s next? I’m not sure but as my blog reminded me, it’s impossible to move forward if you don’t refresh and update. And dream!

What’s happening in your COVID world? Are you taking good care of yourself?

On the Water

gorgeous Sound

We get to the beach early, landing a parking spot right next to the kayak launch spot. Molly hauls our boats to the shore and I ferry the life jackets, paddles and water bottles. Within 20 minutes of leaving our house we are floating on the Long Island Sound.

As we push into the heaving tide my mind-muddle of to-do tasks is left on shore. At high tide our usual spits of land and sandbars that inspire lazy paddling, were nowhere to be found so we head to a more distant island with an inviting empty beach. This stretch can feel like Grand Central Station at rush hour on a sunny weekend day but in the morning, there are only a few oyster boats probably out before the sun. We have a few hours before motorboats with loaded beer coolers begin tearing through the water and we savor the quiet, only the lapping waves and sea-bird shrieks.

me on grassy island

Terns and gulls swoop across the sky. The rhythm of paddling returns even after a year. Pushing through the water feels good. Molly is usually ahead of me because she’s younger and stronger but also because I periodically pause to just float, my plastic boat bobbing, the morning sun warming my bare legs and arms. When I open them again, Molly is near the island. I straighten up and paddle hard to catch up with her.

Me and my gal

We pull onto the sandy beach. This island is city owned – it’s possible to camp here and the thought of sleeping on this patch of wild in the water has appeal – an easy getaway with only nature’s luxuries. For now we are happy to unpack the fruit and coffee we carried with us. We sit on our towel and marvel at the beauty until we are discovered by horseflies. To escape their nasty bites, we strip to our bathing suits and make our first plunge of the season. I am not much of a swimmer, but there is something about that deep breath and dunking into the muffled, other-world of underwater that shifts my brain immediately into vacation mode. My summer baptism.

 

Temporarily Out of Stock

I sell books. Selling houses, cars, clothing, even towels would earn me more money than books, but that stuff doesn’t stir my soul. Being a salesperson doesn’t come naturally to me but my love of reading allows me to convince myself it’s a good cause. Of course it helps that I sell mostly to teachers who have the mission of teaching kids to read. I know so many remarkable ones determined to mobilize the power of books to open minds and hearts. I’m lucky to tag along on their great work.

The perks of being a bookseller include a great discount and free advanced readers copies, ARCS – a sneak peek at soon to be published books. I’m just finishing The Buddha on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff (also author of one of the finest books on addiction, Beautiful Boy). Sheff’s newest title is a blend of social justice and Buddhism – a good read in my quest to live life from a place of peace and love rather than fury. Jarvis Masters has managed to do this through meditation and Buddhism, while living on death row in San Quentin. For 30 years and still today, this Black man has been denied a fair hearing and remains on death row for a crime he did not commit. Yes, more fuel to take to the streets.

book stack

I look to books to help me be a better person, to explain the world. And it makes my heart sing to report that I am not alone: last week, bookstores across the country sold out of  books on racism. Take a look at the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list transformed into a veritable what-to-read to know How to Be an Antiracist – my next read. What are you reading?

**In support of #BlackoutBestsellerList and #blackpublishingpower, we are encouraged to purchase two books by Black writers between June 14 – June 20. (Happy to recommend titles!)**

 

 

 

A Sadly Prescient Post from November 2016: Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

I am re-posting something I wrote and posted in November 2016. Four years later and the predictable tyranny, chaos and destructive forces are now in full gear. Did you vote for this?

I support peaceful protest and support my Black brothers and sisters with love. You lead the way – I am listening and I will stand with you. As a veteran of a war fueled and led by bandits who benefit by fanning the flames of division with nationalistic lies, racism, militias armed with assault weapons is familiar territory. We are in a very dangerous place. Pay attention — it is happening here. Where do you stand?

*************************************************************************************

This is an excerpt I’d edited 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

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.

Silver Lining: ZOOM Yoga with Robert

I love being at home, especially now as Spring explodes with flowers and my little patch turns into paradise. Pre-pandemic, I rarely wanted to venture out into the world beyond my little house and yard.  I was happy to clock every hour of the weekend at home. When the weather was cold and miserable, I was inside by the wood stove, sometimes climbing back into to bed after a quick dog walk. Days like we’ve been having, I’m outside for hours, pruning hedges, pulling weeds and sitting on the front porch reading the newspaper while the birds sing and the squirrels tear through the trees torturing Rufus. I am very lucky: while the reason is bleak, it remains a pleasure for me to spend every day and hour at home.

But there is one weekend outing I made religiously pre-Covid that I have missed. Every Saturday, earlier than I left for work most mornings, I was out the door to go to the gym. Yes, the gym. I’ve had a membership for at least 10 years. For a few of those years, the neighborhood gals would inspire me (meaning pick me up in their cars) to join them for a weight and a even a few zumba classes. (you don’t want to see me dance — sadly, I suffer from serious white girl-disease) Sometimes I forced myself to get my heart beating by huffing and puffing on the elliptical. Ten minutes was about all I could ever muster and that ten minutes felt like eternity. The only reason I kept my gym membership and got up and out at 6:30 on a Saturday morning was for Robert’s yoga class.

I’d wager Robert’s following is larger than any other yoga class at the gym although not everyone loves him. It’s not unusual for a new person to pack up their mat and leave the class early because they wonder what the hell this guy is up to. And Robert jokes about it. Light’s are dimmed and like most classes, each session begins with a few minutes of meditation. But he doesn’t play any woo-woo music and his non-stop talking veers from the profound to the irreverent — weighing more on the side of irreverent and to me, he is laugh out loud funny. No sun salutations for us — we may spend 3/4 of the class sitting on our mats twisting and leaning and stretching only inches at a time – and always, he’s talking.

By listening to him, I have learned to listen to myself. And the next day, I’m pleasantly sore and grateful.Robert’s quirky, warm and wise guy reminders motivate me. Since going to his classes, if I feel a pain anywhere in my body, I almost always know how to figure out what is causing and how to fix it. These days, sitting for long hours in front of my tiny work laptop, it’s not hard to know why my shoulders are tense or my hips tight. And I know what to do about it. I credit Robert for teaching me this.

But here’s the thing – a silver lining to the current state of things: Robert is teaching on ZOOM twice a week. So now, I enjoy his class in my own cozy room with the sound of birds wafting through the open window rather than the clank of weight machines outside the freezing cold room at the gym where we met for a mere 40 minute class. Robert’s classes are over an hour – that flies. And YOU can join too – no matter where you are in the world! There’s a class on Tuesday at 12:30 PM or Saturday at 11:45 AM Eastern Standard Time. This will be the best $15 you’ll spend in a week — you should try it – no matter how creaky and stiff and challenged you might feel. All the better – as Robert says – use it or lose it! Even if you have never done yoga. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you the info. It would be fun to see you there!

A Pandemic Inspired Rant

Rufus Rakes

What will the world look like when we come out at the other end of this? For me these days are mostly an exercise in being present to the moment, made easier in a sweet house, with beloved daughter, plenty of food and still – a job. But the freaky specter just beyond both our physical and metaphorical doorstep creeps up on me in the evenings in that familiar chest-tightening way that fear and anxiety has.

At the end of the day when I watch the news, read Twitter, look at Facebook — my cozy bubble bursts, fury erupts and my heart breaks at the pain and injustice in the world. What does the future hold for any of us — especially living on the wrong side of the financial brink?

I am privileged and feel currently graced in my life — but living close to the bone is not unfamiliar to me. With no partner to share expenses, no trust fund family, no bulky bank account to see me through my old age, like most people, I must continue to work until…? That’s fine except it would be nice if I could imagine an end in sight that didn’t include destitution.

I’m exaggerating. For a start, I’m good at living on little and in fact delight in finding clothes at thrift shops and furniture at flea markets. I mow my own lawn, clip my own hedge, refer to Youtube tutorials to make repairs around the house. I heat the house with my wood stove, hang my laundry and have no dishwasher. Yes, I’m a veritable pioneer woman. None of this feels like I am denying myself – I prefer to live simply and I have more than so many.

But I also believe there IS enough to go around so we can all have a better life and we should not accept the stark inequities that exist. One solution resisted by the powers that be who will fight to (our) death against it — is that richer people of course should pay more taxes. And the obscenely rich (who really needs to be a billionaire?) who pay none, need to pay them instead of posing as heros or our benefactors, sprinkling a fraction of their wealth on pet projects or the latest emergency, while we gratefully send thanks for the money largely earned off the backs of others or just because money begets money.

Other countries take care of the health and good education of their people as a matter of course. I’ve lived in a few of them, enjoyed their health care, healthy and fresh food choices on every corner, cleaner more efficient public transportation. While working with UNICEF in Croatia during the war, I once visited a school that had been damaged by a mortar. I was given a tour of the classroom – the sky visible through the hole in the ceiling. But the thing that struck me beyond the damage was what a beautiful, well equipped and updated school this was in a not-wealthy village. The destruction of the class was sad and it was awful to imagine if students had been there at the time (they were not) but I couldn’t help thinking what a more beautiful school this was compared to let’s say, the South Bronx not far from where I grew up. I think of that cheerful room with colorful desks and plenty of books and equipment (back in the early 90s) now when I visit some classes in schools in urban Connecticut. I am a witness that the quality of life in countries not as ‘rich’ as ours is often better. The gap between rich and poor here is shameful and has only been getting worse.

I want to believe that this pandemic is shifting us into a new understanding and reality where we really are in this all together. I don’t think, nor do I want to, go back to ‘normal’. For one, I haven’t felt ‘normal’ in almost 4 years. I’ve been on a low, angry simmer. The need for change has been amplified to a deafening decibel with this dreadful disease. Can you hear it?

Chapter 35

Kyoto 2004

 In July my friend Naomi called from Japan. When I lived in Kyoto, Naomi and I spent many late nights in hip bars discussing art and men. Now we spoke only once or twice a year. I told her about Neil’s suicide and heard the shock in her silence and quickly filled it in with reassurances.

“We’re doing okay now. And hey – I made Molly a promise that within the next two years, I’m taking her to Japan to show her all the places I always talk about.”

“Two years? Why two years? What about this year? Come now! I have some money just sitting in the bank in San Francisco. I’m going to send it to you so you can come to Kyoto this year.”

“That’s very generous of you Naomi, but I can’t take your money.”

“What do you mean? Of course you can. I’m sending you a check today, so make plans. I’ll also send you the name of my friend who’s a travel agent – she can find a great deal on flights,” she insisted.

A few days later, a check arrived in the mail for $3000. I brought it down to Chris’s house.

“Look – she really did it – she sent me the money! What do I do with this?” I held the check up in disbelief.

“What are you talking about? That’s great – you go to Japan – what do you think? What a good friend you have.”

“I have many good friends, including you guys. But Chris, I can’t take this!” I waved the check.

“Why not? She wants you to have it or she wouldn’t have sent it to you.”

“But it’s too much!”

“What if she had sent you airline tickets instead? Would you accept them?”

“I guess.”

“So what’s the difference? You have to go. You need this and Molly needs it too.”

We were sitting in Chris’s kitchen drinking red wine. Molly and I came here almost daily for the warmth and comfort of being with this family, sharing both tears and laughter. Chris was right, if Naomi had sent tickets, I would use them. We would go.

 

In late August, Molly and I wandered through Kyoto’s sweltering streets as if in a dream. We often spoke of Neil on this trip and I continued to try to make sense of his suicide. We wondered aloud to each other why he chose to give up a chance at having even one day like we were enjoying. This sadness ran like an undercurrent through everything – wading into the Kamo River trying not to disturb the elegant egrets, ducking under the noren into tiny restaurants where Molly learned the etiquette of slurping her noodles. How could he have chosen to miss this experience – to miss life? I imagined him here with us, too tall for the little Japanese souvenir shops near Kiyomizu-dera temple, flirting with uniformed schoolgirls, giggling behind their hands at the attention of so handsome a foreigner. They would have thought him a movie star and he would have played along, rattling off the movies he’d been an extra in. Molly watched as smokers made their way into the designated smoking car on the Shinkansen train and said, “That’s where Daddy would have been!”

Conjuring him like this, we laughed affectionately, his phantom presence always with us. I had often imagined the three of us one day making this trip. Now as Molly and I visited spots I once described to Neil, I wished he were.

My life in Kyoto had been a time of solitude, contemplation. It was the perfect place for me to be now. Perhaps I might rediscover the centered person who had spent hours wandering temples and gardens for inspiration. Back then, I’d pedal my bicycle back from the rock gardens to paint or carve wood sculptures in my postage stamp sized garden. After a decade of obsessing over Neil, I needed to find my way back to that self-possessed person once so alive to the world. Kyoto was also where I first recognized the longing to be a mother, to have a family. I held Molly’s sticky hand in my own as I led her through my old neighborhood.

“That’s where I lived.” I pointed to the heavy wooden gate hiding the patch of garden and an old wooden house. I stood on the hill over the little river listening to rush of water over stones, remembering that at night, as I lay in my futon under the open window, how the flowing water sounded to me like the cacophony of chattering party guests.

We got lost in the narrow streets, stopping into gardens and temples, stepping across mossy boulders and gravel paths. We sat in the shade of verandas looking out at the sculptural gardens of gravel and rock, the cool wood and tatami mats beneath our bare feet. Meditation came naturally in these ancient spiritual places. I felt I was learning how to breathe again.

 

It had been 15 years since I left Japan, but some of my expatriate friends still made their homes in Kyoto. Jenny, an Australian with flaming red hair and freckles, now had two daughters around the same age as Molly. Jenny’s marriage to a Japanese man had not worked out either. We had a lot to catch up on as we traipsed the girls around Kyoto together. Climbing up the rocky path through the tunnel of seemingly endless orange tori gates of Fushimi Inari – a huge Shinto shrine south of the city we smiled at each other as whooping and laughing, our girls ran ahead of us.

“Well, mate – it’s a credit to you that Molly is wonderful. She seems like a really happy child,” Jenny said.

“Do you think so? I feel like she is okay, although the future will tell. It’s amazing for us to be here together and it feels like coming home to me.”

“Yes, Kyoto really gets under your skin. Would you ever think about living here again?”

Moving back to Kyoto was tempting on so many levels: the safety of the place, the beauty still felt so exotic. And while I knew it was a ridiculous notion, I couldn’t help thinking that by dramatically changing our world, our painful memories might fade faster.

“You know, in some ways I’d love to but it would be too much for me now – and not the best thing for Molly. Besides, my Japanese was never great and I don’t have enough brain cells to really learn to speak it well now. And, I’ll never be able to read which would drive me crazy.”

Jenny laughed, “Yeah, it’s embarrassing how us gaijin live here for all of these years and are still functionally illiterate.”

“I know – my reading ability only goes as far as identifying what bathroom to go into!”

Up ahead the orange tunnel of gates opened into a small clearing with a temple and teashop. The girls stood expectantly, obviously hoping for a treat. Jenny bought them all a drink then we stepped into the little temple. Rows of flickering candles reminded me of my Catholic childhood then the gentle notes of wind chimes, rushing stream behind the temple and Buddha, eyes closed, surrounded by more crudely carved, smaller figures, brought me into my exotic present. I knew the little figures to be jizo, each face and mood different: smiling, laughing, angry, serene, many with little hats on or aprons wrapped around their simple stone torso. The O-jizo-sama is believed to ease suffering and shorten the sentence of those in hell.

“Do you want to light a candle for your Grandpa?” Jenny asked her girls. Her father had died the year before. The girls nodded solemnly. Molly looked over at me.

“Yes, Moll. Light one for Daddy.”

Jenny dug in her bag for coins to give to the old man who sold them their drinks. Each came back with a long match. Jenny showed them how to use a flint stone at the altar to get a flame. The girls carefully chose one of the unlit candles as their own. Molly watched as the sisters expertly lit the wicks, turned to the benevolent face of Buddha, clapped two times then bowed their heads for a few minutes, eyes closed.

“Mommy, do it with me.” Molly whispered, tugging on my arm.

We stood side by side, the air thick with the smell of incense. I watched as she lit a candle in front of a laughing figure. He appeared to laugh even harder in the flickering light of Molly’s candle. She extinguished the long match into the ashes as she’d seen the girls do and side-by-side, we clapped to get the attention of the gods, bent our heads, eyes closed over our prayer hands. A cool breeze broke through the humid air and the leaves on the trees made a strange rustle that sounded like laughter. Molly and I opened our eyes and looked at each other, eyes wide.

“It’s like Daddy is answering us!” she whispered.

“I think he is honey. I think he’s telling us that he’s okay. I can almost hear him laughing!”

I felt it. Tears welled up in my eyes and a profound peace and lightness swept through me. I looked gratefully again at the laughing jizo and silently thanked him for delivering Neil and for delivering me, safely out of hell. Molly’s hand in mine, we stepped out of the temple onto the path. One of Jenny’s girls tapped her on the arm. “You’re it!”

Giggling, Molly followed her friends into the tunnel of orange gates.

 

Epilogue

 

The calendars of our lives become checkered with time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys, terrible sorrows. A certain day once just another measure of 24-hours is ever after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is that day for me. I remember the cloudless, strangely bright morning I found my husband dead. But this year, the morning was shrouded in fog and I was grateful for one less trigger.

Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived in our little house for years. After his death, mixed in with my shock, anger and anguish was also profound relief. “It’s over.” I said to myself even as I doubled-over in sobs when the policeman confirmed what I knew.

Molly and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened to her father, my husband. We reassure them after they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” with dismay, maybe a little horror. Sorry to have upset them, we answer, “No, it’s okay, really!” And of course, that’s a weird thing to say – it’s not okay and it was terrible, and it’s still sad. But we have not forgotten how frightened we were as the man we loved was swallowed by addiction. Our day-to-day lives were unstable, his behavior so erratic that we ultimately felt released from a terrible insanity. We have largely made our peace with the bad parts and now remember mostly the good. Time has given us that grace.

The anger that gripped me for years has been replaced by forgiveness. But a desire to understand what damaged him remains. Was it something in his military experience – about which he was so strangely mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating but for what? Bipolar? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us.

The years pass and I still want to understand what destroyed this good man. As I look at photos, I remember the early days when I first met him in that crazy war zone. There he is standing amidst the ruins in Bosnia, making children laugh. Wasn’t he handsome! His personality filled the room and he made sure with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics that he was the center of attention. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in that terrible Balkan war where we met? In the center of constant crisis seemed to work like a fix and he thrived on what traumatized me. He seized every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years at least, he saved himself. He was at his best there.

I am grateful for the grace of time that allows for sadness when I remember him on a date I can never forget.

 

THE END