Magical Thinking in May

Neil & Molly – Metkovic Croatia

This is Neil, my husband, holding our beautiful daughter. May 1st marked the 18th year since his death. I have been working on this post all month, stumbling along with lots of pauses and endless re-writes, beginning with these first sentences. Died, passed away, left us, ended his life, committed suicide – so many word choices. I always hesitate – realizing the impact when someone doesn’t already know the story. The word suicide is particularly harsh, sad, terrible. The reality will always be stark but with time, the way his life ended is no longer the thing. The wound of his leaving will always exist but the memory of him has become lighter. The idea of who he was and the ways that I miss him have become stronger. The dark stuff – of which there was a lot – has faded. The years have given me a gift of healing and renewed love for the man he was, the joy and fun we had.

Zagreb apartment.

Please indulge me as I leap into a complete fantasy of what life might be if he were still here and healthy.

Neil with kids somewhere in Bosnia.

The truth is, I think if Neil were alive today he wouldn’t be here with me now. He’d be volunteering in Ukraine using his ace logistics skills to move aid in or people out and in the course of a day, he’d be dashing into harms way to rescue anyone who needed rescuing. The riskier and more dramatic mission the better and him mentally crafting the story he’d tell us afterwards. Along the way, he’d find a way to make people laugh momentarily helping them to forget their own fear or pain. This was the man he was when we met in Sarajevo in 1992.

Maybe if he’d stayed living a life of peril instead of trying to tame his energy and demons into the routine of supporting and raising a family in Connecticut, maybe then, he’d still be with us. As dangerous as life in war is, for him the addicting mix of adrenaline and danger and purpose was less destructive than the self-medicating that eventually destroyed him.

Neil with ICRC Sarajevo pals

There’s no sense to magical thinking but anyone who’s lost someone to suicide lives with ‘what-if’. We all have a carousel of thoughts about what might have been done, what we might have done differently to prevent that ending.

Neil and Molly – CT

With the passage of time and because I have much more of it to myself, my memories and sense of his spirit have become more lucid. I share these thoughts with Molly. Last week she sent me video of an owl that was lingering on the roof of her apartment building and I told her how Neil had saved an owl that was caught in a fence during the early days when she in an incubator in Brindisi hospital. Of course this LA owl was her Dad watching over her! I believe it.

An owl rescued from a barbed-wire fence by Neil – Ostuni, Italy

Molly has many moments of Neil showing up in her life. I suspect the girls in England, Gemma and Zoe must too. On Molly’s plane ride when she moved to LA, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was one of the film choices and of course, she watched it. There he was on the airplane screen, accompanying his youngest girl out on the launch of her California adventure! (see the last photo below of him getting kicked in the face by Jessica Rabbit ) On another flight she took a few months later, she watched him appear in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ another oldie that happened to be a selection on the flight. Coincidence?

On the set of Jeeves & Wooster – taken off of Molly’s phone – obviously!

Before I knew him, Neil was a film and television extra in England. Handsome and tall and charming, he worked on lots of now-classics at Pinewood studios in England. He was a storm trooper in Star Wars and there’s debate whether he was the guy who knocked his head on the door frame because he was so tall. So of course he harbored fantasies of moving to LA himself – now his spirit is cheering his girl. Maybe a little ‘woo-woo’ but I believe this.

Neil with ICRC armored Landrovers

He is with me randomly – as a song comes on the radio when I’m thinking of him, when I’m watching an English mystery, as I work in the garden. Driving today I saw a vintage Land Rover Defender and he was craning his head out the window to get a better look, calling out his appreciation to the driver, probably making a new friend. When I feel like I need a protector – like a scary moment driving on I-95 0 it’s him I sense with me. I wrote before of the time I asked for him for help in finding Rob’s car key that had fallen into the Long Island Sound when we were kayaking. Finding it seemed impossible. I found it. (Here’s that post)

Neil would be thrilled to be a GIF. Here’s a still of his – getting kicked in the face by Jessica Rabbit.

What would Neil have made of social media? He loved television so much that I’m sure his screen time would have been off-the charts. He’d have the fanciest phone and would be a TikTok famous old guy with tons of followers. He’d certainly have figured out how to use it to make a few quid. Handsome, exuberant, funny in his outrageous English humor on-steroids way, he would likely have gotten into a trouble too! But maybe if he stuck to dancing. He was an excellent dancer in an 80’s kind of way. Remember those dance shows in the 70s and 80s? He’d have one of those solos with his own little stage – he was that good. Social media would have given all the attention and fame he delighted in.

I have never laughed so often and hard – nor cried as much – as during my life with this man. There was no in-between – no boring. When things were bad, I longed for boring and I still appreciate the predicable cadence of my life. But I miss him. I miss the him that I married in Sarajevo, that I lived and traveled through Europe with. I miss the dream of sharing life adventures, wandering the world, the promise of a partnership. I miss the laughing. I miss the heavy weight of his arm over me at night, his 6 foot 4 presence beside me. But I am grateful for the light and love of his spirit that I feel.

Do you still feel the presence of someone you lost?

Phew.

Winter has ended. Four years of bitter night. I have been hunkered down, building fires to keep the darkness at bay. As the possibility of another term of continued insanity loomed, I made contingency plans to flee to other shores. While horrified by the hate played out everyday through all outlets, I felt overwhelmed and sickened by my own abomination for that terrible, criminal man and his cronies. But now: he is gone!

It is day 2 and I still wake and pinch myself that it’s true and breathe deeply, thirstily gulping the cold air. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for years. I have. We are still in a dangerous time as lies and ignorance are traded like dirty currency. While I was happy on election day and exhilarated on Inauguration Day (whooping and banging a pot on the porch when Kamala was sworn in!) the numbers weren’t high enough. Not really. We are not out of the woods. Will we ever be? Why wasn’t it a landslide, why so close – even in Georgia? Who are all these people? Never mind that last question — I can look at my own neighborhood and probably tell you. Did you see that creep proudly marching through the Capitol with a Confederate flag? That image is my retort to any ‘but…’ response.

For four years I have struggled to find the internal quiet I need to be creative but have been unable to find a regular space of inspiration. Anger doesn’t leave much room in my head or heart. I know there are many talents that have beautifully channeled these feelings but I am not eloquent enough to engage with his supporters — I feel too much outrage and in the end, the only result is ugly. Social justice is not something I have an opinion on — that I can agree-to-disagree on. It is intrinsic to who I am yet I have felt neither talented or smart enough to write about it. My frustration and fury paralyzed my creativity as if a massive wall (haha!) was preventing me from writing, as if blocking the light. Besides, as an aging white woman of privilege, beyond shouting my support from the rooftops (and marching and sending money) it is not my voice that needs to be heard on this. And yet speaking about anything else felt wrong and frivolous.

No, it is time for voices like that glorious poet on Wednesday – the genius, gorgeous, Inaugural Poet – Amanda Gorman. I will try and take my cue and inspiration from the closing words of the poem she so gracefully shared with us – The Hill We Climb :

“…When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it”

There is another week of January left and plenty of dark, bitter days ahead of us. But have you noticed the days are getting longer? And if you look closely at the trees, buds of new life are beginning to swell, visible even from a distance. Out my window I see there is a softening in the complicated tangle of fractals in the wood across the way. And in my yard, pushing through the frozen dirt, there are glimpses of the bravest green.

Hope, my friends, there is hope!

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.