Books Can Save Us

I have an abundance of riches in reading material. Stacks of both purchased and advanced reader copies of favorite or new authors stacked in towers around my house. So how to pick what to read next? What do you do? I’m a sucker for a good cover. And of course I have favorite authors who I eagerly snag from the Advanced Reader pile at work. I am always hoping to understand my beloved ghosts so am drawn to titles relating to addiction, book-love, memoirs and weird places. That’s how I picked up The Lost Chapters: Finding Renewal and Recovery One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz. It checks all of the above.

Leslie Schwartz is a novelist and an addict who spent 90 days in a Los Angeles County Jail for a DUI. Before starting her sentence she chose the books she wanted to read and her family sent them to her weekly. They arrived just in time – as books seem to do. Her list included a book of Mary Oliver poetry, The Woman Warrior, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Unbroken, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (a book that saved me more than once) and one of my all time favorites, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

“…Ozeki showed me, that time in its clock-on-a-wall form, and story as linear, like a yardstick, is often the least truthful way to talk about or understand its passage. All stories can only be re-created by collapsing the past, the present, and the future. We are not what we do, like a resume. Jail, for all its insidious horror, its odious dehumanization, its dependence on the momentum of days, of counting along the agonizing progress of calendars facing ever forward, is really a place that embraces no time, for which there is no clear understanding of its movement. In jail, time moves backward and forward, It is without symmetry, a starfish with five arms and no central brain. We are not, it turns out, simply our crimes or our release dates. We are where we came from. We are how we change. We are what we remember, and what we don’t remember. We are the moments that pass, and also the moments that stand still. Time is not our enemy but our puppet. Memory is prophecy and what we think is real is just an illusion.”

This passage from the Lost Chapters is followed by one about addiction and finding recovery. It’s gutting and beautiful and everything I know from being on the other side – loving the addict. Neither of mine ever made it through the window.

“Forcing compliance doesn’t work. It inspires retaliation and usually still more relapse. This is why rehabs and jails don’t work. And yet, addiction itself keeps the addict enslaved, unable to want to stop. I am still in awe that I was granted that tiny window somewhere along the line and even more baffling that I slipped through it.”

I love this book. The author does not whine. She owns her shit and her privilege and shares her outrage and the injustice and failures of our system – particularly for women of color.

I’ve always adored books. Walking into a bookstore even after 21 years, I still feel the thrill of all those books! New titles! And I believe that books can really save us. I am not alone. My friend Nina was devastated after the early death of a beloved sister and found comfort, healing and JOY by reading a book a day for a year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

And have you heard about this extraordinary man, wrongfully convicted as a teen? He spent 17 years in prison — and how reading saved him. Here’s his story and here’s the organization the remarkable John Bunn created A Voice 4 the Unheard – with the goal of bringing books and literacy to prisoners. Note the story of the corrupt and wrongful conviction doesn’t figure on his website. Is it books, is it reading that allowed this man to not be bitter after 17 years wrongfully imprisoned!?  He humbles me.

Forget the deserted island – these are tricky times. What books would you want in prison?

This Fever I Have

Sorry I’ve been away so much these last months. It’s like I’ve been a little ill. You know, like when you have a low grade fever but it’s not enough to send you to bed but you wish you could climb between the sheets and sleep until it goes away? That’s the way I’ve been feeling. For almost 2 years.

But I’m not sick. I’m angry. That’s what’s heating me up, twisting like a knot in my chest. Fury is constantly simmering in my system, sometimes spurting and steaming like my old radiators in winter. It’s not a good way to be and I don’t know how to shake it. Worse, I am unable to turn away from the wrecking ball. I regularly check the latest news of the backward steps or outright assaults on civil rights, the environment, healthcare, veterans, poor and working class people, babies separated from their parents (last count – over 500 children still not reunited), outright racism, that continues everyday under this dreadful administration.

The problem is, I don’t know what to do with my fury and sometimes, like here, it’s been debilitating. I lack the political eloquence and appetite to write about it. I am a sputterer and that’s not useful. Engaging in these discussions with someone who is (so bewildering!) on THAT side, is like road rage – it’s a no-win situation. And too late. He was successfully installed and the damage is well underway. So if you had a role in this, I’m pretty damn mad at you too, I won’t lie. I don’t know what to do with that either.

So I haven’t been able to share my usual passages of lovely morning walks or garden capers. I’ve been paralyzed and that makes me mad too. Over the years this blog is where I share meditations, stories, challenges of my life. It’s a personal blog – begun as good practice for maybe one day (or not) putting my memoir out there and I have come to love it. It’s lovely to have readers and people who cheer me on, to say, yeah – I hear you. Being part of a cyber blogging community feels rich. And, it gets me writing regularly. That is until I hit this roadblock.

But the hell with it. Today I’m going to put this out there and figure out where to go from here. That’s all we can do, isn’t it?  And come November — let’s vote the bastards out.

Remembering

On May 1st 14 years ago, the weather was just like today’s although Spring was further along back then. We’d already had many days of sitting out on the porch and working in the garden. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it probably looked so too, if you didn’t know the dissolution in progress. Molly on the verge of turning 9 years old – did her best to stay neutral between us. The evening before I thought we’d made a breakthrough – that we’d be able to move forward in creating a new life – as separate, loving parents to our girl. Yes, she could spend Christmas with him in England and summer holidays. We’d make it work. But no, I didn’t want a cup of tea, I was going to sleep.

The next morning, the light was extraordinary when I woke in the room that Molly now sleeps in. Shadows and light of morning glows like a treehouse when the trees are in bloom.

There are no leaves out yet – so far there is only the red weight of flowers on the tips of branches promising, promising to deliver soon. This morning I woke at an odd hour and did not return to sleep – remembering, feeling him here, one of my benevolent ghosts. For years, I took the day off, but I no longer feel paralyzed by grief. Time does this. The sadness comes in flashes, unpredictably – thoughts of the terrible morning, imagining the pain he was in was so great that he couldn’t have imagined ours. Could he?

Every day I remember him. And often, those memories inspire laughter. Out for a walk on Sunday, Molly and I greeted a group of men as we passed them, all hovering over an old car. We continued on and in my mind, Neil was with us but had stopped to join the banter. We walked ahead as he made new friends. Laughing, I told Molly this – that if her dad was with us how we’d be still standing at the end of the street waiting until he caught up, his long strides covering the distance in half the time. He’d fill us in on who they were and what they were up to – a marvel that he’d be able to garner so much information since he was usually the one doing the talking. He’d have told him about the Maserati we once owned for a month in Italy before it was stolen. Or some old beauty antique he’d driven in England before my time. He was there with us.

Out walking Rufus after work today, one of my neighbors stepped out of her house to chat with me. Our first post-winter catch-up. Had I heard about the mailman busted for stealing money and gift cards out of our boxes? We caught up on the kids and then she asked with a pause,  ‘isn’t this…’ yes, I answered, with my voice suddenly thick with the rumble of possible tears. Thank you for remembering. She said, I’ll never forget.

 

Being Quiet and Learning to Breathe Again

Sometimes, I need to be quiet. That’s my excuse for silence here. I can be a talker but recently I’ve needed to listen to the wind, the birds, the waves and an often elusive silence. I’ve been cultivating quiet inside of me even as I hear the endless hum of cars on the nearby highway.

Over the past month, I have started paragraphs of posts and then abandoned them as I wrestle with what this blog is for me. It’s personal yet not my journal. I write memoir and that requires raw honesty and so in this space where I have a kind community of readers and fellow bloggers, I should work on that.

I’ve had some dramatically rough patches but that’s just the stuff of life, right? Everyone has a story and together we’re here in a sea of waves of sadness and joy churning away on this remarkable planet spinning through the universe. Somehow we all do our best to hold on for the ride. I’m determined to live this downward slope of my life in as much joy as I can muster. I aspire to not be burdened by the past nor to worry about the future because it is only in the present that breath exists. And I’m filling my lungs!

Ushering in Love and Light

I start my New Year here, with a mountain of pillows plumped behind me, dog Rufus snuggled against my thigh, sunlight pouring through the window and not a single commitment to the outside world. It’s rare that I catch the movement of light across my room in a day. I will make another cup of tea and return to read, write and dream as the sun shifts in glorious show through my different windows. I am in heaven. This is enough.


I prefer to usher out the old and welcome the New Year in quietly. As my like-minded friend Jennifer put it yesterday – there are the revelers and the reflectors. In the past, I would feel compelled to join my jolly and beloved reveler friends in the neighborhood. It seems expected, and especially now that I am single, these dear ones worry about me. No one likes to think of us single people by ourselves, alone at New Year. We should be celebrating! It can even be hard for me not to buy into that notion – so sometimes, I force myself to join in.

But honestly – I’d rather be reflecting.

Or at least quiet. I’m not a fan of the American way of celebrating the end of the year – being noisy and whooping it up in a frenzy towards midnight. I don’t judge anybody else for wanting to do that, but please don’t feel sorry for me either. Just beam me up to Kyoto every year at this time, and I’ll be happy.

New Year celebration in Japan is a saner business. It’s a time for ritual cleaning and getting rid of negativity. So I celebrated Japanese style here – cleaning my space – especially this space where I wake every morning and now revel in the light and quiet. I lit some sage and ‘smudged’ the house – briefly opening the window to fan smoking old energy out into the frigid air.

Although 2017 brought me profound sadness, there has also been incredible pleasure. This is the year my dear daughter graduated from college. We adopted Rufus – a pretty perfect dog. My daughter and I are healthy. And these last two weeks, the cloud of sadness blocking my joy, lifted. Somehow, I feel in my bones that in our vast universe – Rob is at peace. And his love – still with me.

Of course I’d rather be moving ahead in life with either one of the two beautiful  yet troubled men I committed to and once believed I’d grow old with. I miss them. But — I am not unhappy alone. I am grateful for the love and that I still sense – and them both, now at peace, freed from demons they tangled with in this life. I have that — and this beautiful girl and our pup delivering regular doses of love and light – even at night. I am lucky.

I wish love and light for you, dear readers, and a Happy New Year!

The Window Closes

He moved out two years ago this month. After more chances than I can count, I gave up. He already had. I’d been slow to accept defeat but when I did, I prepared myself that things wouldn’t end well for him. When his sister called to tell me she’d found him it was some version of what I was expecting. What surprised me is the wave of terrible sadness I am flailing in. I thought he could no longer break my heart. I thought we were done.

Yesterday, his friend Ian and I went to his house to salvage what we could of music and his instruments – an effort to lessen the sense of waste and for me, to search for clues. I asked Ian if he ever spoke about me and was it with anger. He said, never anger – only regret.

We’d known each other a long time – had tried and failed at romance 20 years earlier so when we reconnected again, it was magical. His smile always made me weak in the knees – but there was more: his long, graceful limbs, beautiful face, that jawline. Even aging, his enviable head of hair turned perfect salt and pepper. And he was funny. So damn funny and a mischievous prankster. And so smart – patiently trying to explain string theory and black holes to me as my eyes glazed over. He understood and actually loved Charles Ives and Stravinsky – but most of all, Zappa who inspired his own complex, quirky music that he worked on constantly. He was a brilliant musician – as in everything, going for the difficult, mastering complicated drum riffs. When he moved in here, he built a studio in the basement and Molly and I always loved hearing him play the drums.

My friends became his friends, our home – his. He couldn’t believe his luck. But none of it was enough. A story I’d already lived through before. And again, I chose to save myself and Molly.

A few months after he’d moved out, he came over for a cup of coffee and asked me if maybe, maybe if  he could get healthy, maybe when he’s seventy — we could get back together. I told him yes, of course there’d be a chance –  he was a great love of my life. We both knew our story would not really end that way, but in a flash of fantasy, a window opened for a breath of hope.

Just last month, he turned 62. I’d watched his painful disappearing act over these last years and thought I had already braced myself – but his final exit – breaks my heart. Goodbye my sweet love.

Searching for Memories

Bosnia 1992

I watch a lot of English television shows – mostly the mysteries on PBS. In general, they have finer scripts and better acting than American network television, don’t you think? And there’s another reason. Sometimes, with some slang or turn of phrase, I’ll hear my late husband.

Neil would have liked the kind-but-tough main character from the series George Gently with his tortured, wise guy sidekick. The smoky scenes would have reminded him of his childhood in the 1960s. Watching it, I hear Neil’s voice in my head telling me how he once had a car like that, or exclaiming how he’d love a chip butty from a caff, an onion bajhi or some other peculiar delicacy he misses from home.

Venice 1993

The other day was his birthday – the 12th one he didn’t get to celebrate. Sharon, a friend who knew and misses him too, joined me in raising a glass to him. We reminisced with laughter. I miss the adventurous, charming, funny and generous man I loved and thought I’d grow old with. Instead I search the televised streets of England for memories of him.

PS – I am witness to the fact that addiction treatment is not always effective for every patient – but nor is cancer treatment — and THIS, this is criminal! Please speak up.

“GOP health-care bill would drop addiction treatment mandate covering 1.3 million Americans”

PPS – My shared memory inspired Neil’s ICRC mate and our friend Bojan to fill in some backstory on the top photo. And he’s letting me share it here…

“Speaking about memories, that tape on the window of Land Rover is ICRC tape…it was there to hold bulletproof glass together. We (Neil and myself) were driving to the airport. Heavy beast (land rover) slid off the road, nose down to the ditch. That happened on actual front line (Sierra 3, you might remember). We go out and radioed French to bring a crane and pull us out. In the meantime Serb soldiers came and tried to steal the car. They shot several times from their AK 47 at windows trying to break in. 
This happened in early January 1993. Check point was set smack in the centre of front line on the road going from UN HQ (aka PTT building) to the airport. That Landrover was fully bulletproof. Weight of that car was 4 tonnes (almost 10,000 pounds) which made it impossible to control on the snow (well, to everyone but me….hehehe). We got stuck (crashed), Serbs showed up shortly and then took off. We hitched a ride to the airport in Ukraninan APC. By the time we got French to take us back there in their mobile crane, Serbs were all over the car trying to steal it. Guns were drawn (French) reinforcement called and for some reasons, Serbs decided to leave it alone and finally left.
I looked at Neil and said: “what just happened”? He replied with simple…. fuuuuck. We did not talk about that much afterwards, do not know why.”
Type a message…

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.

Out of Shape: A Ramble

My writing muscles have atrophied from lack of use. Here’s what happened today when I decided to sit down to blog:

I’ll wash the dishes first. Is that a cloud? I better take the laundry off the line. Phew, it’s hot! I need a cold drink. I better refill the ice tray. Now I have to pee. I’ll text Molly and see when she’s heading back from her weekend jaunt out of town. I’ll just read the first section of the newspaper…

You get the idea. In the end it took me nearly an hour to finally hunker down. This is typical these days as is using the delete key like crazy, backspacing out as many words as I write, sometimes clearing away full paragraphs so I’m facing the same blank page I began with. Left to ferment, my perpetual inner-critic has grown bigger than ever.

From lack of use, I struggle to find my voice again. And then there’s the existential part. Why do it? This is what I’ve been wrangling with.

Last autumn I experienced a big change – I felt like a rock at low tide – upended to reveal things I never imagined beneath me. I’ve yet to process it all and will not do it here except to say I ended things with the man I’d lived with for 10 years. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a brief statement about the break-up of her marriage that resonated with me. “…I trust that you understand how this is a story that I am living—not a story that I am telling.” I can write about my late husband because he’s dead and because my daughter’s okay with it. Thanks to the gift of time, I do so from a loving place. But this new chapter in my life, put my writing life on pause.

Did you see Everything is Copy the excellent documentary about Nora Ephron by her son? I flinched more than once at how meanly, even if brilliantly, she wrote about people in her life that she’d once cared for. I don’t have the stomach for inflicting pain with my writing. My blog once went ‘viral’ read by thousands a day for a few days. Part of the blog was critical about someone I didn’t know, who I never imagined would read it since I usually had only a few dozen followers. My thrill at having so many hits was eclipsed by a sick feeling when the person (not identifiable except to her) read it and let me know. I was mortified, deleted the reference and still feel badly. I could never be a critic! And where does that leave me as a writer, period? Am I brave enough to write without restraint? I grapple with that.

tet

Then there are safer subjects – my meanders through the world, observing nature through the seasons. Without the sweet ritual of morning walks with Tetley who died in early Spring, I have floundered. My quiet time out on the street at the beginning, the end of the day, to look at the sky, smell the change of seasons, search for the songbird in the wood, feel the grit or slip under my feet. This discipline put me in a good place to write from – all senses alert. I miss that, but no I’m not ready for another dog. For one, it’s not fair to leave a dog alone all day and I haven’t won the lottery yet and must keep my day job.

Why write? Why blog? Even an inkling of those questions will halt my presses and the less I wrote these last months, the more I questioned.

I started this blog years ago on the advice of someone in publishing who said I should ‘establish an internet presence’. Initially I was reluctant thinking it self-indulgent. I hesitated to reveal myself to complete strangers – or even friends. Ironic since I’m also flogging my very personal memoir.

But in blogging I discovered the joy of being read. And of reading other blogs. And the tremendous benefit in regularly excavating, spewing and honing and finally letting go of something, surrendering it to the world.

Ultimately I know getting in shape is like any exercise: it’s about discipline. I also know it’s worth it. When I am in the flow of writing a piece, even if only for 30 minutes before going to work, I get to carry it with me as I go about my day, incubating my piece. It almost feels physical – a sense of well being, excitement.

That’s it, I guess – why I write at all. I feel better for living a creative life. In examining the unexpected world beneath that rock at low tide, I learn things about myself. Writing helps me figure out where I am, where I to go. Sometimes I think you, my dear readers, find it interesting too. I cherish that and frankly – wouldn’t do it without you.

Forgetting and Remembering a War

UN helmet

Excavating memories of Bosnia, I stumble on buried sadness and shame. Since my husband’s death there is no one who shares this time of my life with me, no one who understands – and so I can forget. Even when the Balkan war was raging, like any war that’s not yours, it was more than most can fathom so questions do not get asked, stories are never told. But the recent conviction of Karadzic and the new novel by Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (beautifully reviewed here) launched me into emotional archives.

I arrived on New Years eve and heralded in 1993 by drinking too much beer with British and Danish soldiers in the basement of a hotel-turned-UN base in Kiseljak, just 20 miles outside of Sarajevo. UN Peacekeeping seemed like a chance for me to make a difference – an idea quickly squashed by hopelessness and a murky mandate. I followed orders and stuck to the rules like a good neutral, well-paid international civil servant.

My job was to take notes at meetings with now-convicted war criminals. In bombed-out factories and airport hangars, freezing schools devoid of students, the men smoked, drank slivovitz and monologued about ancient grievances. On the way to one meeting, we passed burning houses, doors open, laundry flapping – the people fled – or worse. As I watched the thugs suck on their cigarettes, it was the smoke of the village that made me cough until tears ran down my face. The reports I wrote up were received on waxy paper that faded within weeks. At night, when I hid under my covers listening to the HVO (the Bosnian-Croat army) moving through the streets and thought of the violence of neighbor on neighbor, I wept and felt guilty for being there and doing nothing, ashamed for being part of the human race.

Whenever I could I spent the night with my husband-to-be at the Holiday Inn where he lived with the rest of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I envied them the good work they did, delivering tangible results – reuniting families, bringing in relief supplies. Neil brought cigarettes to prisoners and did his best to make everyone laugh. A natural rule-breaker, he looked to save lives, smuggling people out of the city more than once. I fell for him because of that and for the laughter. Also at the hotel were the many journalists who passionately exposed atrocities and relentlessly pushed for the world to see what was happening on their doorstep. I was quiet at these dinners, not wanting to identify myself as part of UNPROFOR – the Peacekeeping Operation regularly under fire by them – for me – doing nothing. I felt a fraud.

On one snowy day, I sat in the back of the armored car driven by the sweet young British soldier who’d been assigned to drive my boss. The 5 ton vehicle strained to get up the winding hills over Sarajevo. The view was incredible –  the hills from where the Serbs lobbed thousands of shells into the city, torturing their former neighbors for more than 3 years. One big gun erupted – as if shot for our benefit or warning – just as we passed. The massive car lifted and we continued up the road deafened, to the well-fed town in the hills above the city they were strangling.

My boss and I sat across the table from him and his wife and between bites, chatted about their work as psychiatrists, the time they spent in my old neighborhood not far from Columbia. She made some comment about New York being a good place for psychiatry. He mentioned the poets Charles Simic and Kenneth Koch as if they were friends. He asked how the food was where we were based. Only after the crumbs were swept off the table did he discuss his map – getting up with a toss of his hair to point out his version of the future – using the word ‘cleaned’ in referring to entire area of Bosnia and into Croatia. Cleaned. Of the many men I met who did terrible things, he was most clearly evil.

Perhaps forgetting makes sense for what is there to do with such guilt? Who do I ask for forgiveness? So I bury it and wait for the discomfort, the sickening feeling to fade. What is to be gained by remembering? Or what might be lost in forgetting? There was little I could have done – but I did so little.