Disaster Preparedness

Tree damage in graveyard

Nature is boss. In case we’d forgotten, she recently blasted the Northeast with gale winds and a few tornado touch-downs. Uprooting trees and knocking out electricity and even taking off the roof of a local (unoccupied) house, she reminded us that we are kidding ourselves if we think we are in control. Heeding this kick in the ass, I am both practically and spiritually rethinking how I live.

When the whistling wind turned to a roar and our cell phones blasted a tornado warning, Molly and I descended into the dark, old-house basement with dog, water bottles and flashlights. We felt sure the house would blow down on top of us. It did not and except for a few downed branches we made it through intact. Power was out for 3 days — a minor inconvenience compared to many who are without almost 2 weeks later. We were without internet for 11 days and since I work at home these COVID days, that was tough in a first world problem way.

I have lived without electricity and water for long stretches, including in winter during the war in the Balkans. Nothing like being in the cold and dark with the rattle of machine guns and an occasional thud of mortar fire shaking the walls. But not having water is the worst. These recent days in the dark, even as I stumbled to the sink, I felt grateful as I turned on the faucet or hopped, gasping into a cold shower. Temporarily losing these conveniences I take for granted is a great exercise in gratitude. So many around the world, because of war, poverty and injustice, (thinking here about poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and Navajo Nations with no running water!) lack this basic necessity and it’s criminal.

It seems a little crazy that we are so electricity dependent and all of that can be undone in a flash. Even in my life with wood stove and clothesline, I found those few days challenging. I am, like many, addicted to the internet. My phone is never far away from me and for no particular reason. I am rarely expecting a call. But there are so many pictures to look at! News and gossip to follow! I still had phone service and while it was charged squinted at the little screen for updates on my corner-of and the rest of the currently sorry-world.

Solar light shot

Evening entertainment during electric-free days, we enjoyed light-pollution free star-gazing and reading on the front porch. Only days earlier, I’d presciently installed solar motion-sensor lights so we settled in the evening breeze with our books and took turns waving our arms every few minutes to reactivate the light. (photo above)

Have you ever read The Road by Cormac McCarthy? I wasn’t reading that on the porch– in fact, it’s a book I tried and abandoned years ago because it was so bloody bleak. I mean, I appreciate dark but I can’t do apocalypse. But I’m still haunted by what I did read. Too real? Too possible? These days, I’d say yes. But I’m a practical gal and a survivor and I’ve started to plan.

What I missed the most during the 3 day blackout was my own food and cups of tea and the electric bidet toilet seat. (you mean you don’t have one?)  I’m working on preparing solutions for next time. In my Kyoto kitchen there was a hatch door in the middle of the floor that opened into a little ground storage space perfect for keeping food cool.  Isn’t that brilliant? I won’t be digging any holes outside but I might get another cooler and lots of ice. As for cooking, I don’t have a grill but am researching little hibachis and for morning caffeine fixes, a butane burner with shelf-life milk. And there are simple bidet options that don’t require electricity. Note: all bidets online are currently sold out – no surprise after COVID scramble for toilet paper.

Now that I have internet back, I’ve been able to do a lot more research on how to weather storms and in considering other possible catastrophes, what countries in the world I could escape to. Frankly, I’d rather stay here in my country in my sweet house, but I know it’s better to be prepared. 

Any suggestions on preparing for storms, elections and other possible disasters?

 

 

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.

A Silent Witness Is Not Enough

February in 1992 I was waiting to cross the road to my UN peacekeeping job in a very small Bosnian-Croat village when 3 men in uniforms pulled a lone man out of his old Yugo, pummeled him with their fists then tossed him into a snowdrift before driving away in his car. I watched the whole thing in silence.

I crossed the street as the bloodied man pulled himself out of the snow and walked on. Fighting sobs, I flashed my ID at the distraught Danish UN soldier who was manning the gate and by UN rules was only allowed to use his gun for self-defense. I recognized his tears of shame – we’d watched and done nothing. We followed the rules. Of course this event was benign compared to the atrocities perpetuated under our watch during the Balkan wars.

It happened so quickly. That’s one thing I can tell myself but it doesn’t make me feel better. I was silent. I did not yell or curse at the bastards. Shock? Fear? I can’t recall. But here’s what I do remember: the shame of my silence, of being a small part of that terrible chapter of Peacekeeping history.

I feel it again, that sick feeling, as if I’m standing on a corner watching while history repeats itself faster and faster. Now it’s not even days but hours between white men in uniforms killing innocent black men while we watch. Now, it is being part of my race that causes me shame.

I try to distance myself, prove that I am not racist, that I’m different because I come from generations of leftists including my grandmother who voted for Jesse Jackson back when he ran for President. I can tell you how I proudly live in an economically and racially diverse community, how I struggle financially and raised my daughter on my own after losing her father to addiction and suicide. I will tell you that to distance myself from the oppression, to let you know that mine has not been just a life of privilege since I am a woman. I will tell you these things as if to prove I am an okay-white person. But how ridiculous – I will do this to make myself feel better. It doesn’t let me off the hook from the collective truth.

I am waiting to cross while the street is exploding.

And I just don’t know what to do.

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.

Relief in Recognition – War

People who have lived through war are often reluctant to talk about their experiences – it’s like you are speaking another language – one that most people don’t understand nor care to learn. So when someone shares even a smidgeon of common experience or gives you a speck of recognition, the feeling is relief. We don’t really want to be alone.

About a year ago after an event at the store, I heard a young woman behind me say she was from Croatia. I turned and asked, from where exactly? She responded, you probably don’t know the place: Knin. I said, I do – I lived there. Knin is often described as dreary, sitting over the last rocky mountain range before reaching the stunning Dalmatian coast. In 1991, the Krajina Serbs declared it the capital of their self-proclaimed country. From June until December 1992 I was based there with the UN Peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia – UNPROFOR.

knin rail river and empty roads

I didn’t always feel comfortable on those dusty streets – strangely dark with soldiers looking out from the shadows of the perpetually open bars. But gradually, I made friends – mostly with women. Relationships were usually limited, because of language barriers, to smiles and shared Turkish coffee cooked over propane or wood stoves because more often than not, there was no gas nor electricity.

A few months older than Molly, the girl in the bookstore had been an infant when the shit hit the fan. I left Croatia around the time she was born, on my own maternity leave – earlier than expected because the slow simmering conflict of four years, was escalating. Shells were being lobbed between the two sides. The Croatians were done waiting and were taking back control of what had been UN ‘protected’ but Serb controlled areas. In August, I was across the Adriatic in Italy with Molly in my arms as I watched the news – the roads out of Krajina to Serbia packed with cars and horse drawn carts for carrying hay loaded with suitcases, refrigerators, whatever they could carry. I searched the faces for my former landlord, my neighbors and local colleagues.

view from Knin window

The girl told me her mother would know about that time and worked nearby at a hair salon not more than a mile from here.

It took me a year, but last week I called the salon and asked for an appointment with the woman from Croatia. An attractive, fashionably dressed woman greeted me with a warm hug. She said, “It’s been awhile! How have you been?” I told her we had never met. “But you look so familiar. I know your face.” Well, I said, that’s interesting… and then I told her how I knew her tiny, troubled town twenty years ago. Her eyes filled and so did mine. She grabbed me and insisted on introducing me to her colleagues, “Look! She lived in my town!” They smiled politely. “Come, I have to tell my boss.” A short man sat going over a paper with another stylist – he looked up as she said, “You have to meet this lady! She lived in Knin!” “Was there water and electricity?” he asked, thinking he was making a joke. “Only sometimes,” I answered. He went back to his work.

Sitting in front of a mirror for the next 40 minutes as she combed and snipped, we disappeared into another time and place. I wanted to hear her story and I knew what questions to ask. I know something of the roads she traveled.

window view

She told me they were a ‘mixed’ family meaning she was Catholic (Croatian) and her husband, Orthodox (Serb). She remained in Knin with her husband and the Serbs instead of leaving for the beautiful Croatian town on the coast where she was from. She didn’t mention this as being unusual but I know, it was. The family fled Krajina that August with only some clothes packed beside their babies in a Yugo. They crawled along on the road full of refugees, driving to Serbia. She’d had a good gig cutting the hair of UN soldiers from Kenya and the UN police from all over the world, and saved her money – enabling them to rent a little house in Serbia rather than be put in refugee hotels. Her husband was called up by the army and he said, “To fight for what? I’ve already lost everything.” So they threw him in detention. After a few years, they made it to the States as refugees and landed in a large, very depressed city in Connecticut. From there, they rebuilt their lives.

She nursed her baby during the 10 hour trek out of Krajina or she said, her daughter might not have survived since there was nothing else. Across the Adriatic in Italy, I nursed my girl and watched the news.

“You don’t seem bitter or angry. How is that?” I asked.  She shrugged and said, “I was young. If this happened now, I’d have a heart attack.” But I think it’s more than youth this ability she and others have to not be swallowed by sorrow. Of course, she knows she is luckier than too many from those years – her family alive and well – her beautiful daughters all thriving. But it’s more than that – this woman of warmth, life and humor seems determined to always choose love. And she also has a skill. While we were talking she’d stop and say, “You should put some color in you hair!”

We were both moved – and perhaps me more than her. She told me she Skypes regularly with her family there and couldn’t wait to tell them about me. And of course she is with her husband – they made that long journey together. But I have no one to speak with about this time – it’s too complicated to explain and frankly, no one is really interested. I was glad to remember and share this stretch of history with this vibrant woman. The stuff of our lives, the joys, the sadness — we long to have it recognized by someone else, don’t you think?

Like any war, there were many villains and so much evil there. But there were also families, nursing mothers and little children wanting nothing more than to live there lives.

I am glad to have connected with this kin spirit of shared roads, a mother who moved beyond her loss and obstacles to live a life of joy.

An Unexpected Expat Birth

UNICEF’s mission is to protect children and their mothers so when bombs began falling on Zagreb in May 1995, my employers insisted I take an early maternity leave from my job as a Program Officer. I gladly exited the bitter Balkan war zone where I’d spent almost 4 years and joined my husband in Italy. He’d left a month earlier for a new job, renting an extravagant villa in the picturesque town of Ostuni – about 40 minutes away from his office in Brindisi.

me prego

Behind the villa, a narrow staircase led to a hidden lemon and lime grove. Cherry trees full of ripe fruit and a magnificent rose garden filled the grounds. I would while away the hot June days in this fantasy location before traveling to Oxford England where my friend Chloe, a breastfeeding specialist and midwife I’d worked with at UNICEF, would deliver our baby girl who was due August 1. That was our plan.

I spent my days waddling across the cool tile floors, napping in various rooms in the too-big house, picking fruit and deadheading flowers in the garden, reading Willa Cather, cooking delicious dinners — imagining that some how, all of this was practice for my imminent new life as mother. Those pregnant, sweaty days, strangely alone in Southern Italy, far from friends and family, I washed and folded the soft, tiny baby gear and imagined my baby, trying out different names aloud to no one but the cats.

On the roof, I wrestled our sheets over the laundry line where they dried within minutes in the hot wind whipping up the coast. Beyond the golden fields of sunflowers stretching out towards the horizon, shimmered a sliver of the Adriatic. Just across the sea from my little paradise, war still raged and I felt guilty about my own escape. Meanwhile my baby elbowed, shoved and squirmed within me, insisting I pay attention to her.

My maternal hankerings had survived 4 years of life in a war zone, even as I witnessed the worst in humans. There was nothing I wanted more than this baby although I had no idea how to care for an infant. Far from friends and my own mother, whose advice I might have disdained anyway, there were no baby showers, no chance for baby tips from my peers. I looked forward to traveling to England at the end of June where I could easily make friends in my own language with other new mothers-to-be in a birthing class I’d sign up for.

Instead, just after siesta time on June 13th, in a frantic fifteen minutes, my baby girl was delivered in a tiny hospital in Ostuni almost 2 months early. From there, they whisked her away by ambulance to Brindisi Hospital’s neonatology unit.

I woke from my drug induced sleep, in a dark hospital room that felt like a 1930’s movie set.  Other new mothers slept in the other 7 old fashioned, heavy metal framed beds.  A full moon shone in warped rays through the glass of the casement window, a weird spotlight on only my bed. I clutched the hospital gown closed behind me, while dodging balloons bobbing from the other beds, celebrating the babies safely swaddled just down the hall. Where was my baby? Hobbling barefoot past the life-size statue of Virgin Mary whose lightbulb halo lit the hall, my physical pain was indistinguishable from the psychic pain tearing through me. Was my daughter alive? With remembered prayers from my Catholic upbringing, I begged Mary for her intervention and continued down the hall where I was met by a nurse.

With a smattering of Italian words, I begged the sleepy woman to help me call my husband or the hospital to find out news of my baby. I knew no phone numbers, there were no cell phones. The nurse insisted everyone was asleep and I would need to wait until morning. She steered me back to the maternity ward where I sunk into my still moonlit mattress and wept.

premie 1

When morning finally arrived, my husband came barreling into an impossibly bright room, he was grinning. She was alive! He rushed to my bedside and told me his story of the day before: how he sped after the ambulance, about the sweet care and expertise of the doctors, of their assurance our baby would be fine, how he tried to call to tell me but the hospital insisted I was sleeping and was it okay that he had gone ahead and named our daughter, choosing our current favorite womb-name because they wanted a name at the hospital. Yes, yes, I said while trying, through tears to see my daughter in the photograph he’d brought. It was another 2 days until the hospital released me to go to her, and during that time I joyfully clutched that sad little image of my baby poked full of tubes, tiny limbs akimbo, and thought: she is perfect.

me at incubator