The Impossibility of a Simple Morning

Kyev – taken by me in … 1989? 1990? During a 10 day, 4 city trip – I led to what was then USSR.

Last night was cold enough for my furnace to kick on. I woke to a warm house and made my way downstairs. I switched a lamp on in the living room. In the kitchen, I filled the electric kettle from the faucet and then washed the glass and plate I’d left in the sink last night. The feeling of my hands in the hot water was soothing. Kettle ready, I filled the teapot and then added half a cup of boiling water into my mug to warm it up. After a few seconds, I emptied that water into the sink. I took the milk from the refrigerator and poured in a splash then filled the rest of the cup with steaming tea. Hot mug in hand, I paused at the window and looked out at dawn cracking red on the horizon. I returned to my still-warm bed to indulge in the luxury of a Saturday morning. At every step of these simple tasks and throughout the day, I am newly conscious of just how damn fortunate I am.

One of countless destroyed villages I traveled through in Croatia and Bosnia.

Dawn broke hours ago in Ukraine and brought no relief from the nightmare the rest of us watch from afar. I think of a woman in one of the places under attack and imagine what her morning is like. If she is still in her home, if she managed to sleep at all, it is cold enough inside for her breath to be visible. There is no water coming out of the tap – never mind, hot. Maybe she had the time and forethought to collect water in the bath and buckets but that won’t be good for drinking when there is no way to boil it because there is no electricity, no gas. If she is lucky, she will have bottles of water to use sparingly because who knows how long this will go on for. The collected water will be for washing – cold sponge baths at the sink, washing dishes, clothing. Maybe this already feels like an indulgence. The refrigerator is dark and functions only as a cupboard. And anyway, there’s not much in it. Food is getting scarce and fresh produce near impossible at this time of year with roads and supplies being blocked by the Russians.

More ruined homes – Bosnia – I think around Mostar? From Neil’s photos.

She is not having a Saturday like mine or probably, yours. No lolling about, no anticipation for the day, only dread. She has already learned how to identify proximity and risks for all the terrifying new sounds around her – shells whistling through the sky until they land in horrible explosions, endless gunfire. How close? What got hit? Who lives there? Have they gone?

I imagine this based on flashes of my life in Croatia and Bosnia during the war. These memories surface easily as I watch the news or check my phone to see reports and images – with deja vu, my stomach in knots. But it is Ukraine being bombarded. Hospitals, homes destroyed in minutes. (What Geneva Convention?) Women and children are being targeted. Familiar scenes and familiar tactics of terrifying bullies. Tyrants who murder and lie without flinching. I’ve seen this horror, these actions, before. But never, never at this level and before, there were no iphones, no social media with almost minute to minute updates. And so we watch. What else can we do?

On the streets of Sarajevo.

During my 4 years in former Yugoslavia, I was incredibly privileged as a well-paid international staff member with a diplomatic passport. I could and I did – leave when it became too much. My life and my perspective was not comparable to anyone from there. When it became too much for me, it was because the picturesque village outside of Sarajevo where I was based began to ‘clean’ the surrounding area and village right before our eyes. That’s the language shamelessly used to describe murderous ethnic cleansing. Can you imagine? It wasn’t because of a lack of basic services or the danger that got to me, it was the sadness and the shame and frustration of how ineffectual I was – that’s what broke me.

On the road to Pale. This is one of the guns that Serbs use to bombarded Sarajevo for 3 years.

What could I do to stop the madness, provide assistance or at least some kind of relief to the suffering? I never found that answer and so thoughts and feelings about myself in that time are complicated. And now, these questions are front and center again as is the question of how can I go about living my life so normally while this insanity is going on in Ukraine?

Sarajevo. From Neil’s photos from when he was with the ICRC.

Hell if I know anymore than I did 30 years ago. But here’s what I do know: send money (not your expired medicines or children’s old toys!) to organizations on the ground that you think are reputable and that spend most of their money on action, not bureaucracy. When I was in the field, a NGO (non-governmental organization) that was always the first to get into a troubled area, and the last to leave, capable, able to pivot and good people – is MSF (Medecine San Frontiers – Doctors Without Borders). I also support the vision and speedy action of Chef Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen (click on either link to get to site). What’s your go to?

Sarajevo. From Neil’s photos.

Certainly we need to make sure our representatives are doing whatever is necessary to support Ukraine in meaningful ways. And if you believe in prayer, say one for all the brave journalists and photographers bearing witness, and for the relief workers and most of all, to the incredible Ukrainian people — so many ordinary folk-turned soldiers and my lord — their incredible leader. And then – with all you can muster – send every hex and curse to the horrible, hideous man in the Kremlin.

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.

Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

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

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

***

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

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

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

destroyed-village

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

kids-in-sarajevo

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

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

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.

Sunday Silence

I lived without a television from the late 1970s through the early 90s and thus have lots of television related social gaps. Dallas? Laverne & Shirley? Mork & Mindy? Missed them all and didn’t miss them.

The boob-tube, or idiot-box as my father referred to it, came into my adult life when I got together with my late husband in Sarajevo. He loved it even risking his life for his favorite television shows. To placate the the journalists who made up most of the guests at this Holiday Inn smack on the front line, the satellites on the roof were carefully angled for best reception of CNN, ITV and Sky News. Neil figured out that if he could shift a dish just so, he might see his shows. Donning his flak jacket and helmet in case any snipers spotted him, he crawled across the hotel roof. Armed with a walkie-talkie, he communicated with a friend stationed in his hotel room. Neil shifted the dish until Captain Kirk and Spock were in perfect focus.

When Neil and I moved-in together in Zagreb, he insisted on having a television with the necessary dish. I settled easily into watching his English comedies (and I sheepishly confess to still being hooked on Eastenders). Initially, like all beginning romances, it felt cozy and fun especially after living without electricity and minimum home entertainment for over a year.

From having no TV presence, my life soon became dominated by it. It was constantly on. I learned to tune-out the canned laughter and Rocky machine gun fire. But I never liked the constant noise. Eventually, I asserted myself and demanded that Sundays be TV free until after 5:00 PM. No cartoons, no morning news programs – no irritating commercials!

Sundays became blissfully silent. I still stick to this rule – even when Molly’s at school and I am alone in the house. While I confess to now having my own addiction to shows like Downton Abbey, Homeland, British Mysteries and the news, I never turn it on until the evening, no matter the day. Even so, I still watch too much and it’s an incredible time-suck, don’t you think? But never on Sundays. That silence feels sacred.

When do you watch television?

Embracing Doubt

During this terrible week of murders in Paris, massacre in Nigeria – more chapters added to the growing tome of senseless killings by extremists around the world, I’ve thought about how embers of belief can be fanned into flames of terror. Even traditionally peaceful Buddhists are not immune to extremism as we’ve seen with the violence perpetrated by monks and their followers in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. How does this happen?

How can religious ideology become warped into motivation for such horrible behavior? How can faith turn into terrifying righteousness?  How can an individual ever be so sure that the way they have chosen, is the right way? I don’t get it.

The seeds of doubt were sown early in my childhood and continued to be fertilized throughout my life.

I attended Catholic School through the 3rd grade. When we moved to a different Bronx neighborhood I entered the glorious freedom of the NYC public school system. Preferring to sleep late rather than shlep to the new parish church for mass, everyone else in my family abandoned Sunday rituals. But loathe to have a mortal sin (as opposed to venial – think felony vs misdemeanor) on my soul lest I die and immediately be sent to hell, I continued going to this new church by myself. Imagine a 4th grader sitting self-consciously alone in the back pew, bored stiff.  By the time Easter rolled around, my routine had lapsed and I needed my tainted soul to be absolved in order to receive communion again.

When I admitted to my missed masses, the priest behind the screen in the coffin-like confessional box, barraged me with questions including the rather invasive (since confession is supposed to be anonymous) “Where do you go to school?”  I slunk out of the box up to the altar to recite my long penance. With knees pressed into velvet, hands clenched together against the polished wood bannister, I peered up at Jesus on the cross and completely blanked on the words of the prayers I’d been assigned to recite multiple times. I’d forgotten how to say an Our Father or Hail Mary so abandoned my post. To this day, I don’t really remember.

Instead, I cleansed my own soul on that walk home from St. Margaret’s Church, leaving my belief further behind with every block between me and that 1960s edifice. And over the years, nothing, including this new, admirable Pope, has enticed me back to the Church. Yes, you might argue, that was an unfortunate experience with just one asshole priest. But what clicked for me at that tender age, was a conviction that I needed no intermediaries in my spiritual life. And that is where I stand today. Not even the Dalai Lama – as much as I think he’s a very cool, enlightened guy gets to stand between me and my not-knowing.

More so than ever, as contradictory as it sounds, I trust my doubt. I am less righteous than I have ever felt before and that feels right. I have lived too close to the destruction caused by those convinced that, in the name of their religion, their ethnicity, destruction, murder – war – was acceptable. Four years of living in what used to be Yugoslavia where cousins killed each other mercilessly was all I needed to feel clearer about my uncertainty.

To some extent, I understood how hatred came to combust in hamlets, villages, towns and cities across the Croatia, Bosnia. I experienced the power of oral history growing up in very Irish-American home. Repeated tales of injustice left me with no love for the British. My animosity was further fed in the dark years of the Troubles and the death of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers of the Maze prison in the early 1980s. A decade later, I met and fell in love with my husband, a Brit who’d been a soldier in Northern Ireland during those years I was hating his people. His perspective, his stories and experience including shame, anger, compassion, laid my righteousness to rest. We loved traveling together between the torn communities of the Balkans, happily flashing our Irish and English passports at checkpoints, like some poster-children of reconciliation. We married during the siege of Sarajevo – our personal gesture of putting ancient ethnic hatreds to rest.

This same feeling extends to patriotism. I do not have it. I do not believe the United States is the number one country in the world and that we are better than other places. Yes, it’s my home and a beautiful, lovely country full of wonderful opportunities and benefits but so are other places I have also called home. I do not fly the flag outside my home and though I will stand respectfully for any anthem, you will not find me with my hand on my heart pledging any allegiance.  Rituals like this were banned in other places because of the atrocious destruction caused by nationalism. I do not participate in any kind of chauvinism.

When I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I rarely saw the Japanese flag – certainly not in classrooms, never outside a private home or flapping from cars like the ubiquitous display of the American flag here in the States. Nationalism was a prime ingredient used to inspire the Japanese to commit atrocities during World War II. The Japanese haven’t forgotten that shame and a commitment to never repeat history.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect others beliefs, pride in their country.  But personally, I am at peace with my not-knowing. I am at home in this corner in the country of my birth where I landed but remember well, and still long for, other lands where I was also home. If a label is necessary, I pick – agnostic citizen of the world with allegiance only to love and justice for all. Anything else feels dangerous.

A Pain in the Neck, Creativity and No Plans

DSC_1138

I am at the edge of an ocean of time: a week off from work with no plans! Yet, since joyfully levitating out of the store, I’ve already kayaked every day  (R was my Prince waiting with water-borne chariot on Friday) done Yoga on the beach, washed fresh oysters down with good beer while listening to live Jazz in the breezes off Norwalk Harbor. I’ve baked an apricot tart, concocted a potato salad with olives and shallots, and a lentil salad with red peppers, mango and the tiniest bits of kale so maybe Molly won’t notice. Plus R and I finally moved the messy piles of branches punctuating our lawn since the tree came down over a month ago. Fun, delicious and productive and my week has only just begun!

apricot tart

I love not having to go to work. Of course these days to myself are precious because I work full time but a few friends have recently retired and are coping just fine with their new time-wealth. I would too, but retirement thoughts are with my lottery winning fantasies: firing up every time I buy a ticket while keenly aware of the lousy odds.

Even with a dream job like mine, pausing to restore some life balance is crucial. A stiff neck has plagued me for weeks. No amount of rubbing or heat or yoga has eased it. I began researching acupuncturists and massage therapists but on Saturday, floating on the glasslike Long Island Sound, paddling to nowhere, I felt my shoulder and neck begin to unlock. Ah!

2012-06-06 07.02.38

While gazing at the islands, I remembered a time when my neck was so bad, I could not even turn my head: Bosnia. For months I’d put in 10 hours, 7 days a week. Work was simultaneously compelling, frustrating and sad. I was part of a peacekeeping operation with no effective mandate; essentially we were sticking our skinny fingers in a big dike. As happens ‘on mission’ or ‘in the field’ in the lingo of that business, work was my life and down-time meant drinking too much with the same people I’d just spent all day with. I never unwound – thus my neck muscles became so tight, aptly, I could not look around.

I’m no longer in a war zone so why is this happening to me again? I’m surrounded by books, regularly meeting people with common interests and I’m not usually stuck behind a desk. Most days fly by. Still, as is true for everyone I speak with these days, there is a lot to do and less time to do it in.  Friends employed in education, medicine, business and of course, self-employed authors and artists, are all working harder than ever for results rarely what they once were and certainly not as easily achieved. And thus we are stressed. Aren’t you?

I know there’s a problem brewing when I wake up on a Sunday morning worrying about something that is job related: what school order is due? will I have enough books for an author event? I’m afraid I’m a “good girl” making me a great employee and it’s challenging to have ME be the most important boss, to be the ‘customer’ that matters most. It doesn’t matter how great or exciting the job is (I have had both) my subconscious is best fueled by creative, not task-driven juices. To get there, I need a daily routine, a time set aside to pay attention. Only when I do this can I sustain a rich interior self throughout the day, no matter what I do.

I want my first thought on waking to be about whatever I’m writing, not job issues.  In the past, I obsessed over my painting or sculpture but the form of art is irrelevant.  My stiff neck has alerted me to the importance of nurturing, sourcing and keeping alive and well, the sorcery of where art comes from. I need to look and really see the world around me while also digging down deep inside. There in that gazing within/without, lays the magic and the bliss. That’s what I’m after this week – to get back to that daily practice of being.

Yesterday, I was gabbing with my beloved and brilliant sister and she reminded me of Walter Mosley’s slim little book, This is the Year You Write Your Novel. He recounted how he always got up early to write before going to his bill-paying computer programming job, thus ensuring he gave his best to himself. The old, pay-yourself-first wisdom taken to another level. I credit Mosley’s book for inspiring me to diligently do the same, and I did, getting up every morning to write my memoir – yes, in a year.

I have no plans this week but hope to wake to no one’s story but my own.  I may also get a massage.

My Hazardous Driving Condition

image

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.

photo-5

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.

photo-4

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