The Grace of Ten Years

The calendars of our lives become checkered over time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys or terrible sorrows. A certain day, once just another measure of 24-hours is ever-after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is such a day for me. It was ten years ago on a cloudless, strangely bright morning, that I found my husband dead. This year, May 1st was shrouded in fog and I was glad for one less trigger.

Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived with us 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 as the policeman confirmed what I knew – that he was gone.

My daughter and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened, how we feel we must 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 remember how frightened we were as addiction swallowed him. Our day-to-day lives were so unstable and his behavior so erratic, that we could not help but feel released from a terrible insanity. We have made our peace and now, we remember mostly the good. Ten years of healthy love and a peaceful home have given us that grace.

The anger gripping me for years has been replaced by forgiveness and a desire to understand what damaged him. His military experience – about which he was uncharacteristically mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating – for what? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us. Even as the years pass, I want to understand what destroyed this good man.

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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, always the center of attention, he made sure of that with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in a terrible war? Being in this role in the center of constant crisis worked like a fix for him for awhile. He thrived on what traumatized me, seizing every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years, he saved himself. He was at his best there.

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I am glad for the grace of ten years – to feel a simple sadness, for the chance to remember him so, on a date I can never forget.

My Hazardous Driving Condition

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On days like yesterday, when the roads are a mess of icy-slush, there is always that car that just seems to be inching along.  Annoying, right? That person should have just stayed home. Well… I hate to admit it but that’s me hunched over the steering wheel, staring wide-eyed at the road. Okay, maybe I’m not quite that bad. But I can’t help it – driving in lousy weather terrifies me. I promise you, when I can, I avoid it. But I’m a diligent employee and live closer than almost anyone else to the store.  It feels wrong to call out because I’m afraid to get behind the wheel.

Every winter I am determined to be brave. After all, other people drive in the snow and don’t seem traumatized. But my hands cramp from squeezing the steering wheel. I need to remind myself to breathe, I shrug my shoulders to release the tension that threatens to paralyze me. Plotting my route carefully – I go for the roads most likely to be clear – although I stay off the highway – the less speed the better for me and I certainly don’t want the additional terror of 16 wheeler trucks barreling alongside me. Usually I head for the Post Road – although equally frightening can be those crazy-huge SUVs with names like “ENVOY” disdainfully spraying me with slush as they speed by.

Honestly, I’m really a little embarrassed by this crazy fear of mine. Even more so because I drive a Subaru Forester with excellent tires. I mean, you can’t get much better than that for great snow driving. It’s me. I lack physical confidence and weirdly, I feel like even my car knows it, as if it were a horse. As a 12 year old, I tried horseback riding. After a summer of lessons, I finally admitted that I didn’t believe the massive creature I sat upon would ever think I was in charge. I certainly didn’t think so.

In other ways, I am not a coward. I’ll travel the world by myself without a thought. I willingly went to live in a war zone – and was not fearful. Public speaking feels completely natural for me – something many of my bravest friends are terrified of. But physically, I am a complete chicken. I don’t like adrenaline rushes brought on by physical thrills. I’ve never ridden a roller coaster and never intend to, in fact, amusement parks are a waste for me – I’m not going to willingly get jerked and tossed around.  I got as far as the swimming pool part of scuba diving training and bagged it.  The last time (and I mean, the last time) I took a ski lift ride I kept my eyes closed the entire time.

I think my dread relates to control — of my lack of it. That terrifies me. During those last years with my husband as he slid faster and faster down the steep slope of addiction, I felt like I was spinning across an icy highway full of traffic. Through the chaos, I tried to hang on, sliding along on the scariest, slipperiest slopes, flailing about for stability. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I kept trying. Until I didn’t. And then he died.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But a decade later, it’s only on those messy roads full of fearless, or maybe reckless drivers, that I get that same sick-to-my-stomach feeling. It’s a familiar horror as the steering wheel becomes useless in my hands as I slip on an icy road — even if only in my imagination.

What am I afraid of? Crashing the car? Injury? Death – either mine or someone else’s? Yes. I am afraid of all of those things. I should stay home.

Picking a Major and Life

As my daughter finishes her first semester at college and the need to declare her major looms, I think about my own school-to-life trajectory. I ‘majored’ in Fine Arts. Unlike these days, I don’t remember thinking my degree should be relevant to making a living. It’s not that I was some rich kid who didn’t have to think about that – in fact, I was financially independent from my school teacher parents by the time I was the age my daughter is now. My folks, to their credit, encouraged me to find and follow my passion, never discouraging me from the impractical choice of art. They and I too, presumed that I’d figure out a way to live as an artist even if that meant, as it did for years, waitressing. Eventually, I landed on other ways to earn money that I loved and that have no relevance to my major.

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My life became more interesting than I imagined while plodding towards my college degree. Twists and turns took me around the globe for rich experiences and encounters that include some well known, mostly very great people. This week, I remembered one extraordinary morning when I was in the same, albeit very big room, with Nelson Mandela.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke at the United Nations just months after his release.  At the time, I was UN Tour Guide and happily crammed in with the rest of UN Secretariat staff, into the General Assembly. As Nelson Mandela walked regal-like to the podium, we leapt from our seats – a massive wave of global citizens – roaring our love for him. We clapped and clapped, ignoring the stinging, then throbbing of our hands. Tears ran down our faces while our smiles made our cheeks ache. That great hall thundered, on and on. We could not and did not stop applauding for what must have been 5 or more minutes. Elegantly, he stood and waited. Here’s a taste of that moment, courtesy of the UN.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVw22jWD2T4

How lucky was I to have been there? I loved working for the United Nations and I was lucky to get hired with my degree in sculpture and mediocre Japanese. Most of my fellow guides were fluent in at least 2 languages, many spoke 5 or even more. I applied for the job just back from a stint of living in Japan where I barely studied the language between making art and teaching English. My Japanese was (and remains) pretty awful. Lucky for me, at the time there were only 2 Japanese tour guides and those gals wanted a break. Yukiko assured me they’d help me learn the tour and I’d be daijobu – just fine.

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I still remember some pretty obscure Japanese – “Trusteeship Council” being one of my favorites since even explaining that defunct council in English is tricky. And imagine this American gal’s discomfort guiding Japanese tourists through the disarmament exhibit displaying artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While my Japanese, mostly memorized tours were lame, most visitors were delighted to have a gaijin guide and I was happy to use up the extra minutes left on what should have been a 45 minute tour, posing for pictures. They were always very polite, most not asking questions and if they did, accepting my Japanese style of sucking air and saying “Muskashi…” (“hmmm… that’s difficult…) as a satisfactory answer.

I like to think that my English tours made up for my lousy Japanese ones. I passionately delivered my love and interest in world affairs to groups of all ages, tailoring each tour to the group – responding to faces, encouraging questions and discussion while sticking to the UN line of answering – most of which I fervently agreed with. Mine was no rote delivery but rather an always changing glimpse of issues and the UN’s role. Each morning, us guides had our own briefing on the latest world events. We knew and understood every Security Council Resolution, we could discuss every conflict, environmental and humanitarian issue. These briefings could put CNN to shame. I felt like I stood at the threshold of world events and so much was happening at that time – and a lot of it good.  The Berlin wall came down! There was the first World Summit for Children (I met Vaclav Havel!), the European Union was established. For a time, it seemed that borders were disappearing – giving us an utopian flash of hope that so might prejudices, that resources might be more equitably shared. Then came the end of the USSR and almost every day it seemed that a different flag of newly recognized countries was being added to the flapping fabric on First Avenue.

Then Yugoslavia imploded and I left my corner couch in the Guides Lounge to join the Peacekeepers. Another amazing opportunity I never studied for in college.

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Have times changed so much that it matters now that it really matters what Molly decides to major in? I wonder.

 

Anniversary of a Premature Birth in Italy

ostuniEighteen years ago, my beautiful daughter was born in a white-washed little village located just above the heel of the boot of Italy. She emerged on a blazing hot and sunny Tuesday around 4:30 PM. Everyone in Ostuni was still siesta-groggy.

In retrospect, I understand that I’d probably been in labor at least since the night before, but until my doctor peered at the state of my cervix, smacked the side of his head and said ‘ba fungul’ like a cliche, Italian cartoon character, I was in utter denial that my baby might be born 7 weeks ahead of schedule.

We’d already decided that she would not be born in Italy. The plan was, I’d travel in a few weeks to the flat we’d rented in Oxford, England, not far from where my husband was from. I’d spend my long summer days taking a Lamaze class where I’d learn correct breathing technique, indulge in fish-and-chips, wander in bookstores and libraries in search of a perfect girl’s name. And I’d read – spoiled by the abundance of books in English. And I’d wait. In England.

While welcome (no: celebrated!) my pregnancy was not easy. For most of it, I was in Croatia fighting bouts of nausea brought on by the insidious smell of vinegar and cabbage. The war that brought me to the Balkans 4 years earlier with UN Peacekeeping, saw some definitive battles that year, (1995) eventually ending the conflict with a bang. In late spring of 1995, shells were lobbed at Zagreb city, and each time, I lumbered down the 17 flights of stairs from my office to take cover in the building’s garage. A month earlier, I’d been catapulted through the sky on a particularly rocky helicopter ride that rode the crest of the famous “Bora” wind. So I welcomed the early maternity leave offered to me by UNICEF and the chance to join my husband at his new, plum job in Brindisi, Italy.

The villa he’d found in Ostuni was lovely, surrounded by fruit trees and roses and I was tempted to revamp plans and just have my baby there – but Chloe, the Oxford based midwife I hoped would deliver my baby, suggested that I might as well return to Sarajevo if I was going to consider giving birth in Southern Italy – that it wasn’t much better. A visit to the teeny, run-down looking Ostuni hospital cemented our decision to stick with our plan for me to go to England. Flat was rented and plane tickets purchased. My due date was August 1. I’d leave Italy at the end of June to leave enough time to settle in.

At first I ignored the bouts of cramping on Monday evening. When they continued through the night, I called Chloe in the morning. She suggested the baby’s head might be settling into position but I should certainly call my doctor. I would – later. I hated feeling like a moron when making phone calls in baby Italian. It was awkward trying to make myself understood and painful to follow someone blathering on at the end of the phone. My husband went to work in the morning – but called me every hour and finally, hurried home around lunchtime. By this time, I could barely get out of bed. I remember I was reading a very bleak novel set in the Eritrean war and had to constantly flatten the splayed paperback on the bed as yet another pounding cramp ripped through me.

My husband, much more confident about faking his way through languages he didn’t really speak, called the doctor who instructed us to come to his office in a few hours – after siesta. Traveling the 5 minutes to his office by car was excruciating. I couldn’t sit, but rather crawled into the back seat, dizzy watching the clouds spin by through the back window as we sped through the narrow streets of the town. In the waiting room, I stretched across the pleather seats, not caring about the other patients stares as I moaned. Quickly, we jumped the queue and quicker, were told by the doctor to drive to the nearby hospital.

Brindisi Hospital 1995
Brindisi Hospital 1995

In a salmon pink room that reeked of antiseptic, the pretty Italian nurses undressed me while giving me a crash course in breathing (in Italian) then, wheeling me into the small surgery room. After a two few intense pushes, my daughter was born. That’s it. That was the birth. Within minutes, she was being tapped and prodded on a table to my right.

I craned my neck to see her. The doctors and nurses had unsuccessfully tried to shoo my husband into another room, but he would not budge beyond the doorway and now gave me a blow by blow – telling me she was gorgeous, her legs were so long, she has my eyes. Beyond the doctor’s back – I could only catch a glimpse of her weirdly-moving limbs and tiny rib cage. Wrapping her up, the doctors told me they’d need to take her to the larger hospital in Brindisi. My husband told me he’d follow the ambulance. I was left with the nurses who pattered on in Italian while they stitched me up. All of this happened within 30 minutes.

It was night when I woke in a room with big iron beds that seemed plucked from an old movie set. The other beds were festooned with either pink or blue balloons celebrating the births of healthy babies. My bed in the corner by the window, had none. Most of the women appeared to be asleep but the young mother in the bed next to mine spoke some English. Pulling myself upright, I told her I needed to find out about my baby and she insisted I borrow her slippers – feather adorned, heeled slippers that were at least 2 sizes too small for me. Clutching the back of my hospital gown closed behind me, bleeding and achy, I waddled down the hall to find a telephone.

In my sorry Italian, I tried to explain to the nurse on duty that I needed to call Brindisi Hospital or my husband to find out about my bambina. The nurse put her hands in prayer position and cocked her head to one side to mime sleep. “Domani,” she repeated, ushering me gently back towards my room. I spotted a pay phone but remembered I had no change nor did I know what numbers to call – not even my own. My head low, I clip-clopped back down the hall, past the life size statue of the Virgin Mary, her light-bulb halo casting a strange glow against the ceiling.

My premie - day 1
My premie – day 1

Mumbling thanks to my neighbor, I stepped out of her silly slippers and she cooed sleepy  reassurances. I stepped barefoot across the tiles to my bed by the window and crawled between the sheets, weeping silently, praying to the sky. A full moon emerging just over the tree tops sent a silver light shimmering through the warped glass windowpanes, bathing my face, my arms limp over the starched linens. As this mystical glow washed over me, so did peace. I knew my daughter would be fine.

Home from the Hospital  Six Weeks Later - July 1995
Home from the Hospital
Six Weeks Later – July 1995

Portraits of a War Photographer

Last week, between watching Sebastian Junger‘s beautiful film homage to his friend, Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? and reading Alan Huffman’s Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, I feel like I knew this remarkable man. And I mourn his loss. th

I’ve thought about why I was so affected by this man, this story of Tim Hetherington. It doesn’t hurt that besides being extremely smart, charming, kind, and of excellent character, Tim was also handsome. With all of this, how could one not fall a little in love with him? Clearly everyone – women and men – did. But there’s something else about him that got under my skin, something sad and familiar.

In Junger’s film, there is footage of Tim during his first experience of war in Liberia.  Visibly buzzing from shock and adrenaline after a very close-call, he says something about feeling stupid for taking the risk – ‘all for a fucking photograph’. Yet he kept at it, making his way to war-zone after war-zone, with his clunky, old-style camera. He took the risks repeatedly, although his images were primarily faces, portraits of intimacy, capturing something internal, not typical war-action shots.

At a weirdly prescient talk in Moscow given not long before he was killed by mortar shrapnel in Libya, he tells his audience that the odds of staying safe the longer one kept at it, were not good. He knew. He knew early on in his career and yet, compelled, he continued, going closer and closer to the edge. Huffman writes that Tim recognized a pattern of behavior among soldiers and “He also saw the same patterns of behavior in himself. They were all looking for a sense of purpose, which the extremes of war gave them…”

In the film, one of the scenes that moved me the most was Tim with his family. The room brims with love as Tim kisses his mother, embraces, and holds his father. This footage was as affecting for me as the images of violence. He was so loved by family, friends, his stunning, smart girlfriend. Why did he leave them to knowingly move towards death? What did he seek? Yes, he left a powerful body of work behind — but it cannot outweigh the tremendous sense of loss that this fine man is no longer with us — too young. Read Huffman’s book and see Junger’s film and you will feel it too.

Something infects those who go to war – a kind of madness with no apparent cure. An essence of human nature is laid bare only out in those fields, amidst the mortared rubble. The weird and compelling intensity is like no other and impossible to adequately describe to one who has not experienced it. But Junger and Huffman have each done as brilliant a job as their subject did, in their loving, honest portrayals of the remarkable life of Tim Hetherington.

What a Painting Reveals

My remarkable friend Naomi in Kyoto, has generously featured a collage of mine on her website’s Chasing Writing in Art link. It’s humbling to be there with so many amazing artists.

Here’s my collage and a few words. Please check out Naomi’s site here.

Return from Journey Collage 1998 24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm
Return from Journey
Collage
1998
24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm

I painted this piece at my home in Connecticut about two years after returning from living and working in a war zone. From June 1992- June 1996, I was with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia and UNICEF in Croatia and Bosnia. During that time, I met and married my husband and Molly was born.

I remember setting up my paints in front of the fireplace, imagining I’d capture a peaceful image. Instead, what I see now in this image, is torment. I recall the turmoil and demons we were living with, even as the trappings of our life seemed ideal. It was a struggle for us – especially my husband – to switch gears to a normal life away from war. The supposed tranquility  of a chair in front of a fireplace – this scene that should be cozy, looks like the center of a storm.

Indeed, it was. 

I still live in this house and love sitting by the fire. Twenty years on since the Balkan wars ended, almost ten since the death of my husband and these days, ghosts have mostly settled and my life is serene. I write more than paint. But I should attempt this interior again to see what would reveal itself.  I imagine it would be an image of warmth and peace – but who knows? The subconscious reveals itself almost in spite of us.

Moving Forward

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Why aren’t we terrified to get out of bed in the morning? How is it that we can send our beloved children to venture out into the world on their own? Where do we find the courage when, like this past week in Boston, our world erupts in violence and a fog of fear descends? How is it that even when it is our own disaster, when we are at the epicenter of the storm, we carry on, eventually, finding at least a modicum of joy again?

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That light can eventually penetrate the darkest night of the spirit, fascinates and inspires me. Religion is the key for many, but I find no comfort nor convincing explanation there.  I’ve seen up close, soldiers wearing the icons of their religions, pumping their AK47s in the air as they sped towards the front line, off to kill and maim under the guise of the superiority of their own belief.  The righteousness that religion inspires feels divisive and dangerous to me and personally, I find no comfort in it.

No, what fascinates and moves me is the grace to be found in uncertainty. The ability we have to move on in our not-knowing. To just keep moving. It seems that this is what survivors do – (and we are all eventually survivors) as dark as our individual night might be, instinctually, as long as we might cling to sleep, wish for our own oblivion, eventually, a crack of light breaks through.

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It is this transcendence of the human spirit that touches me. Passing through the darkest siege, even with awful losses, violent memories, we continue. Time — terrible, wonderful, time keeps us shifting forward through the bleakest winters, through the insanities of war. And one day, we meet the spring – more beautiful than we remember – we go on, stepping forward, into and beyond the fear. A force of nature, of spirit, of love. A beautiful mystery.