No Solace in a Secret

I’m not one for secrets. (Don’t worry, if you’ve told me yours I’ll keep it.) But I prefer to not shut troubles away in the dark. Light brings clarity and that’s where, having lived with my share of shadows in the past, I choose to be. Thus, David Sheff’s passage, “The Peril of Anonymity” from his chapter on Alcoholic Anonymous in his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedyresonated with me.

Sheff acknowledges that the proliferation of AA is partly, given the stigma of addiction, because of the promise of anonymity. He agrees privacy should always remain a choice but points out that this very requirement reinforces shame and isolation for the addict. But Sheff makes the point that “The history of other diseases shows dramatically how closely linked openness and health are.” He cites the power of AIDS activists and ACT UP’s Silence = Death slogan in so effectively drawing attention, funding and research to AIDS that an HIV diagnosis became, in a remarkably short time, no longer a death sentence. Until addiction is brought out of the shadows, choices and solutions will continue to elude us. Dangerous failures like “The War on Drugs” will persist.

In Japan in the 1980s, I used to meet doctors at a hospital for English conversation classes. One evening, a young woman doctor choked back tears as she told me she had broken a rule of the Japanese medical profession by telling a patient they had cancer. At least at that time, (I suspect this has changed) it was believed that to tell the patient the truth about their cancer diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence – that knowing their disease would destroy their will to live.  And (this always got me) that they would feel ashamed. Seems archaic, doesn’t it?  But think about it — how is this so different from our attitude toward addiction?

Some will say, “it’s a choice!” To my very core, I know all sides of this debate as does anyone who has lived with an addict. We have all wondered why they do not stop? Why do they risk everything – job, friends, family, their very life – for a drink, a pill, a line?  It’s difficult to understand and accept that it’s not about ‘choice’.

Do you know a family, do you know anyone who has not been affected by alcoholism, by addiction? Tell me readers, that you cannot speak to at least one experience of struggle with this disease first hand or with a loved one? Still, like the unspoken cloud of fear and shame that hovered over cancer not so long ago, secrecy remains sacrosanct by the very groups offering up hope and successful stories of sobriety. I agree with Sheff that it’s time to open up, let the light in and reject, to rail against the stigma. Perhaps fewer will then end like my husband — never finding a way out.

The Times and Time (to Read)

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I only read the Saturday and Sunday edition of the New York Times – it’s all I can manage. Delivered early in the mornings to my driveway, folded neatly in a long blue bag, this is one of my favorite treats of the week. Getting it over two days gives me a head-start on what can seem a mountain of newsprint. I start by pulling out all the adverts along with the Sports and Auto sections since I almost never read anything in either. I take at least a brief look at every article in the day’s news, not reading every single article, but at least getting the gist. It’s important to me to have at least a good sense of what’s going on in the world.

The Book Review gets a once-over to see what’s being reviewed before I set it aside for a thorough read later. I like to know what customers will be looking for in the store this week and if any of the books I’m reading made it. I keep eyeing the Donna Tartt Advanced Reader Copy that’s in our freebie stack in the break room. I always pick her stuff up with curiosity but have yet to feel compelled to read any – always a bit too weird for my taste. Although today’s Review  makes her latest more intriguing, I see that Stephen King reviews it, affirming for me that it’s probably not my thing. I mean, there’s only so much time…

Back to the newspaper: of course I read all the fun stuff, Arts and Leisure – all the wonderful goings-on in the city I don’t go to. Same with the Travel Section, because with a kid in college ($) I have to be (and kind of am) content to get my travel thrills vicariously. I  am particularly fond of pieces where the writing about the food in a place is also terrific – a double pleasure. Unless there’s an article I find compelling, I’ll save the magazine section for later in the week or to read in bed along with the Book Review. I try and get through the Week in Review, reading my favorite columnists’ pieces. Now that they’ve ‘themed’ this section – it’s easier for me to skip through quickly if I’m not compelled by the week’s topic.2013-10-13 11.33.35

Reading the New York Times requires a lot of time. And meanwhile, my books (never mind my own writing, the laundry, the garden and my man) call to me. I have 3 going now. My Life in France by Julia Child is the book of choice in the One Town, One Book where the bookstore is located and I hope to come up with some charming way for us to participate. The book is delightful – just like Julia. What a joyful woman she was.

Clean by David Sheff tends to fall to the bottom of my current reads – where years ago, I would have felt an urgency for this important and helpful book, now I read it with more detachment. While still moved, since I am no longer dealing with an emergency of my own, it can wait. I still want to know and understand the insanity that destroyed my husband so I suspect that although I’ve borrowed this from work, I will probably end up buying it. Sheff writes beautifully about living and coping with your loved one’s addiction.

Night Film by Marish Pessl, author is a fat one – dubbed a literary thriller. Not usually my kind of thing as I’ve already noted – so I contradict myself here – especially as it’s compared to a Stephen King thriller. I picked this up because I am interested when publishers really get behind a book like they did this. So far, it hasn’t really taken off as I think they hoped – but who knows with these things. When it comes to choosing from my current 3 in-progress reads, this is the one I go for first. It’s entertaining, I want to know what happens next. There’s a racing pulse to the story that keeps it moving. My gripe about the book is that every page has an average of 8-10 italicized words. Every page. Throughout the book. I’m reading the ARC so I thought, surely this nonsense will be edited out. It feels so amateurish and irritating. Nope. This strange tic is still there. (you get the idea) Am I missing something? What’s the point? But otherwise, I’m enjoying the story narrated by a feckless journalist who, with two sidekicks he picks up along the way, becomes obsessed with finding answers about the death of the daughter of a mysterious director of dark, horror films. It includes ‘documentation’ – photos and news clippings that are kind of nice side-note. We’re talking New York Post here, not New York Times, okay?

Meanwhile, intriguing new books arrive in the store daily, enticing me even as the older ones I keep meaning to read, beckon. How will I ever get to them? I marvel at my friend Nina Sankovitch‘s discipline in reading a book a day and writing about it (same day!) for a year as she recounted in her beautiful memoir, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. Some tips: don’t turn on the television, and read everywhere.

We Did It

Children fidgeted on the miniature furniture, a few strained against their parents’ grip, trying to make a dash for the door. Many wept on that first day of kindergarten. Not my daughter. Her perky-pigtails pointy straight up like two exclamation marks over her bright eyes, she comforted her new classmates. Unlike these timid ones, she wanted me to leave so she could get on with this new chapter of her life. Without me. Already, she was in command of the situation, sure of how she might fit in, ready to lead the way.

I was the one who wavered, lingering at the door not quite ready to separate. She offered a quick hug and wet kiss and turned back to reassuring the inconsolable blond boy next to her. I walked down the long hallway and out of the school. In my gut, my aching gut, I knew that in some huge way, she was no longer mine. In my car, I put my forehead on my steering wheel and sobbed.

It wasn’t like this separation business was new to us – she was in full time daycare from the age of two. But kindergarten, her first day in mandated school, felt different. She became part of the education machine that would define her, arguably, in as fundamental a way as me. Bereft and with tears still flowing, I drove away from what would become, her beloved elementary school. Her world without me had begun.

Well, not quite. Waking her up, making breakfast, lunches, homework, studying, play-dates, violin lessons, plays, sports games, concerts — the requirements an endless list of juggling and challenges over the years. Still, I was a stage hand, providing the behind-the-scene assistance for the Molly show. And she was a star throughout the years.

Last week she graduated from high school. Her name in the program followed by real stars marking her achievement. I’m terribly proud of her of course, but I also feel a sense of accomplishment of my own that surprises me. While she is pretty self-motivated, I get to take a little credit, too, don’t I? After all, she might have turned out so differently.

She was only in second grade when her Dad and I told her the reason behind his erratic behavior and our terrible battles. Certainly, this was a young age to learn your father is struggling with drug addiction. Then, just a month shy of her 9th birthday, to know it killed him. After his suicide, Molly and I, with our precious dog, Tetley,  forged on with our fierce love, determined to seize joy.

We found that joy and more as our net of love expanded to friends and neighbors who became our family. Then, after a little more than a year, R joined us, bringing support, laughter and more love to our little house. These beloved ones, also get to share credit in steering Molly through this major stage of her life. She gets to move on now, sure of the support, laughter and love of all of us who stand behind her still. We did it — we grew a delightful child into a remarkable adult. And as usual, she is ready for the next stage.

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.

The Next Big Thing ‘Blog Hop’

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Some time ago, the wonderful Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tagged me to participate in an online ‘blog-hop’ or ‘blog-tour’. If this were a relay race, my teammates would be wondering where the hell I was. Well, huffing and puffing, I am finally catching up to answer some questions and pass the torch on to 5 more writers.

The Next Big Thing, as this online ‘blog tour’ is called, is a great way to find out what some of your favorite writers are working on and, discover new ones.

More about the next fab-five writers: Gabi Coatstworth, Lea Sylvestro, Jessica Speart and Linda Urbach,  Jennifer Wilson, later. First,  I must answer the 10 questions…

What is the working title of your book?The Things We Cannot Change: Loving an Addict Until Death

Where did the idea come from for the book?
 I don’t think I ever had an idea as much as a compulsion to write down the sometimes thrilling, often crazy story of my marriage.

What genre does your book fall under?
 Memoir with cross-over into addiction and grieving.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
 I thought about waiting to post until after I scrutinized every actress at tonight’s Oscar awards with this question in mind, but instead, I solicited my daughter’s advice. She suggested Anne Hathaway – who she (sweetly) says I resemble. Maybe once-upon-a-time this was true …but in any case, she would be brilliant, especially in the scenes of misery of which (spoiler alert!) there are a few.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A love story between an American and British humanitarian relief worker launches hopefully in wartime Sarajevo, but turns into a tragedy of addiction and suicide in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
 I’m holding out for the traditional route. I work in a bookstore and would like to see it on the shelves. I have an army of friends and colleagues in the business who could help hand-sell it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
 One year, but I’ve written many drafts since.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. Honestly, there’s not much else on the Barnes & Noble shelves from the point of view of the sober, so I believe there is room for mine.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? I’ve been hosting authors for signings at B&N for years and I’ve learned from them that writing isn’t some kind of crazy alchemy (well, maybe a little) but rather demands discipline and time – so I mustered some of both and got cracking. I wanted my daughter to know that our story is nothing to be ashamed of. She’s read and okayed my manuscript otherwise, I would not put it out there.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I’ve yet to find anyone who has not been affected by a loved-one’s addiction or suicide. Survivors of tragedies find comfort in knowing we are not so alone and that life can get better again. There are also chapters set in exotic places – including Croatia, Italy and Kyoto – for the armchair traveler.

That’s it! Now let me introduce to you…

Gabi Coatsworth, a British-born writer who has spent half her life living in the United States. Gabi has been published in Perspectives, a Connecticut literary journal, and the Rio Grande Review (University of Texas at El Paso), online at and in Mused, an online and print publication. Gabi is a prolific blogger.  She blogs regularly on local items of interest in the Fairfield Patch and The WriteConnexion – a writer’s life in Fairfield County CT. In 2012, she was featured in an anthology of women writers, Tangerine Tango. She is currently working on her first novel.

Jessica Speart is a freelance journalist specializing in wildlife enforcement issues, Jessica Speart has been published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, OMNI, Travel & Leisure, Audubon,and many other publications. She is the author of ten books in the Rachel Porter mystery series. In her eleventh book, Jessica chronicles her real-life sleuthing in the narrative non-fiction thriller WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.

Lea Sylvestro’s subjects range from woodchucks to witches, cancer to colonoscopies, travel, beach walks, birds, and beloved cars. Her essays explore the heart and humor in life’s big and little bits.  She writes from her eighteenth century house in the woods of Easton, where she lives with her husband of thirty-seven years. Lea’s day job is at Eagle Hill, a school for children with learning disabilities, and she still  finds time to be a women’s literacy volunteer in Bridgeport.  Her essays have appeared in newsletters for Save the Sound, The Aspetuck Land Trust, and Citizens for Easton as well as the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, Danbury News Times and Minuteman newspapers.  She has two travel memoirs in progress.

Linda Howard Urbach’s most recent novel is Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Random House). Her first book, Expecting Miracles, was published by Putnam in the U.S (under the name Linda U. Howard) as well as England and France where it won the French Family Book Award. The book later sold to Paramount Pictures. Her second novel, The Money Honey, was also published by Putnam. Linda is the originator of “MoMoirs -The Umbilical Cord Stops Here!” performed by members of the Theatre Artists Workshop. It premiered at the Zipper Theater in NYC. She created and runs www.MoMoirs .com. Writing Workshops For & About Moms and was also an award winning advertising copywriter. (CLIO: “My Girdle’s Killing Me”)

Jennifer Wilson has been writing for 15 years for folks like EsquireNational Geographic TravelerBetter Homes & GardensBudget TravelBon AppetitParentsMidwest LivingIowa Outdoors, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer-PressSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and (the dearly departed) Gourmet and many others. She’s the travel maven for Traditional Home magazine and Midwest expert at AAA Living. Her first book, Running Away to Home, received the Best Nonfiction of 2011 Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Emerging Iowa Author Award in 2012.

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy.

The Sunday New York Times this week has three front page stories that disturbed me:

President Claims Shooting as a Hobby, and the White House Offers Evidence

By  and 

Pete Souza/The White House

In a photo released by the White House on Saturday, President Obama is shown skeet shooting at Camp David in August 2012.

This somehow feels like pandering to the creeps. “See, I shoot guns too!” Ugh. But then, I suppose this is what is necessary to reach the level of ridiculous but scary, gun people who cling to this archaic 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. Whatever.

In Hard Economy for All Ages, Older Isn’t Better … It’s Brutal


David Maxwell for The New York Times

Susan Zimmerman, 62, has three part-time jobs.

Then this article – of course struck close to home because, um, that’s me they are talking about, at least, could be. Of course, as that annoying mantra goes: I’m “lucky to have a job”. In fact I am lucky to have a job that I love – but when I thinking of my fellow ‘boomers’ under or unemployed and struggling, it sucks. And, as bookstores struggle to survive against the Amazon tide, who knows how soon it might be me.

Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions


Before his addiction, Richard Fee was a popular college class president and aspiring medical student. “You keep giving Adderall to my son, you’re going to kill him,” said Rick Fee, Richard’s father, to one of his son’s doctors.

But this article affected me the most. Beautifully, it was given front-page-center.

Unlike Richard Fee’s, my husband’s addiction was kickstarted not by doctors but by the choices he made during his life-in-the-fast-lane 1980s. But the story I share, along with so many families across the country, is how we were so badly failed by the professionals who were supposed to help us, and how tragically undermined we were by the pharmaceutical industry.

Before I knew why my husband couldn’t keep a job, slept for 12 hours at shot, spent too much money and behaved so erratically, we went, upon my insistence, to a string of psychiatrists who prescribed a rainbow of drugs, including anti-depressants. He happily took them, adding them to his other cocktail of cocaine, Nyquil and whatever else. When I found out about the cocaine, we went to another shrink who prescribed more pills including anti-psychotic drugs that he popped at an alarming rate — I admit, I counted them. When I called the shrink, he brushed it off despite the dire warnings on the bottle. Once I brought went to a walk-in clinic and ranted at a doctor who’d prescribed oxycotin. “He’s an addict!” I yelled. “You just hand this shit out like this?” Yes, they do.

A few months after my husband’s suicide, the posh rehab place where my husband had spent a (useless) week, sent me a bill of a few hundred dollars not paid by insurance. I insisted they send me his records first, then I’d pay the bill. (If I recall correctly, I had to send them a copy of his death certificate.) Reading through the fat file was heartbreaking for it’s lack of information. Multiple choice boxes as diagnoses, rarely a comment and rarer, any insight. He had the doctors, (who I remember he said, he rarely saw) as he had me for so long, completely snowed. They’re good like that, addicts are.

I understand that an addict must want his recovery. My husband saw those doctors only because I insisted he do so. He wanted to appease me, to keep things going – the illusion of a normal life. I think he thought one day he would be able to quit, that he’d get his life back – but twenty years was just too many – the man he had been, might have become – was gone.

I don’t mean to bash the entire psychiatric or pharmaceutical industry as I have benefited from both — but I have many questions and suggest that everyone should.

Moral Injury after War

Last week at the library, I picked up a book from a display set up for Veteran’s Day. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini. The authors, themselves having lived with the consequences of living with family affected by war, wrote this insightful book on the damage done to hearts and souls in war.

Moral injury after war – not PTSD, something else – a “…deep-seated sense of transgression (that) includes feelings of shame, grief, meaninglessness, and remorse from having violated core moral beliefs.”  Invisible to rest of us, the conscience of a returning soldier can create havoc on the lives of these men and women — and those who love them  — forever. I am sure that just such damage was done to my husband.

Think about it: we raise our children with certain basic moral lessons, then we send them off  to war where they experience, witness and sometimes do, terrible things. Their stories may be so awful, they feel they can never tell those of us at home, instead living in silent shame with terrible torment.

This was the case for my husband who joined the British military at 17 – the age my daughter is now. He was a soldier in Northern Ireland and also sent off on furtive missions in Africa that his government would never claim. I remember being woken up by his nightmares of violence. He was vague about what he’d done, as soldiers usually are, and I didn’t press him for details, not really wanting to know.

The following passages captured what I think my husband struggled with, suggesting possible answers to questions still with me since his suicide:

“The consequences of violating one’s conscience, even if the act was unavoidable or seemed right at the time, can be devastating. Responses include overwhelming depression, guilt, and self-medication through alcohol or drugs. Moral injury can lead veterans to feeling of worthlessness, remorse, and despair; they may feel as if they lost their souls in combat and are no longer who they were. Connecting emotionally to others becomes impossible for those trapped inside the walls of such feelings. When the consequences become overwhelming, the only relief may seem to be to leave this life behind.

The tired truism, “war is hell,” is also true of its aftermath, but the aftermath can be endless. War has a goal and tours of duty that end; its torments are intense and devastating, but they are not perpetual. War offers moral shields of honor and courage. Its camaraderie bonds warriors together around a common purpose and extreme danger. War offers service to a a larger cause; it stumbles on despair. On the other hand, moral injury feeds on despair. When the narcotic emotional intensity and tight camaraderie of war are gone, withdrawal can be intense. As memory and reflection deepen, negative self-judgements and torment a soul for a lifetime. Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble cause. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible. Its torments to the soul can make death a mercy.”

Little attention is ever paid to the injury done to the conscience, the soul — at least in our society. As number of veteran suicides continues to climb, it is past time for us to do so.

How Much Does It Hurt?

I been having thinking about what I wrote in my last post, suggesting that hurricanes are not as terrible as war. It’s the suffering-comparison part that I’ve had second thoughts about.

Over the last few post-storm days, as neighbors share damage notes (mostly just lack of electricity around here), they almost always say, “I really shouldn’t complain, it could be worse.” We feel guilty about complaining when we know our not-so distant neighbors have endured more loss. And while having this perspective can help move us beyond a very low spot, when it hurts, it still hurts.

In a moment of pain, when we stub our toe, all we know is the pain in our toe. It does not help to hear, “at least you are not having a heart attack.” Last Saturday, I brought my daughter to the hospital to make sure her foot was not broken. Throughout our visit she was asked multiple times what her level of pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. She said 6 and an x-ray revealed there is no break. How can they judge an individual’s capacity for pain? Everybody has their own threshold, don’t they?

During some of my darkest hours, I found tremendous comfort in groups like Al-Anon and grieving groups. Hearing other people’s stories, the terribleness of life with their addict, their child — seemed infinitely worse than my struggles with my spouse. And after his suicide, deaths of a partner by accident or heart attack seemed more awful than those of us who’d been living with our mate’s sickness for a long time. We reluctantly admitted that death also brought an element of relief, whereas an unexpected loss of a loved one seemed it must be harder to bear. And maybe these fellow survivors felt the same about my story. That’s the way it seems to work — paying attention to other people’s pain can lift us beyond  our own, inspire compassion and most of all, make us feel like we are not quite as alone.

Regardless of the root or severity, pain still hurts and deserves recognition. And I think, that’s often all we want.

I went through a spell where I felt very sorry for myself and wished my troubles might somehow be visible out in the world.  A few months after my husband’s death, I went for a mammogram and discovered I had breast cancer. The most innocuous, benign cancer one can have — needing only a lumpectomy and radiation. I mostly felt lucky during my weeks of treatment, that things weren’t worse, that I didn’t need chemo.

But there were bad days when I wished everyone could see the psychic pain I was in. I felt ashamed at the time, (and even writing this now) that I briefly wished I had experienced the hair-loss of chemo. I would have hated it of course, because of my vanity and also because sympathy from strangers makes me uncomfortable. Yet there it was — a desire to complain about my lot, to tell my sad story – not as sad as some – but it definitely sucked. At the time, I think I wanted the world to know so I could get cut some extra slack. I wanted extra kindness – because no matter the level of  pain, it helps.

Look What Happened!

Not so long ago, the age I am now seemed impossibly old. But I don’t feel old. I refuse to join the AARP – not yet. Still, I have to face it – I am aging – and mostly, it’s okay.

My gray hair doesn’t bother me much and is easy to camouflage; a bout of vanity hits every six months or so and I get highlights. Although the occasional joint gets achey, especially my hips, and sometimes my back threatens to act up, but I blame that on too much sitting at work. Immediately reviving my erratic yoga practice gets me back to normal. I’m pretty fit and my weight is good. I’ve cut way back on how many glasses of wine I imbibe and I mostly get enough sleep. But look what I discovered last week —

This is my mouth in repose. Okay, the jowly bits are an unfortunate family trait, but I’ve already had a few decades to get used to them.  The pinched look of my lips isn’t the worst of it, although it is as if my flesh is drawing inwards to better secure my teeth (getting long) in my mouth. The general slackness of my skin is also not very attractive, but still, that’s not what disturbs me.

What upsets me is that when I am in thought, just going about my day, walking down the street, driving my car, RIGHT NOW, my mouth settles into a doleful expression. Look! In a few more years, mine will look like a marionette’s mouth, with lines creeping down along either side of my chin.  How did this happen? In spite of quite a few years of incredible stress and sadness, I am a happy person. And yet, there it is: when I am in an unselfconscious state, mine is a sad face.

I suspect the state of my mouth disturbs me more because it reminds me of my mother’s. From a way-too-early age, my mother internalized and defined herself by unhappiness. She certainly had her own, but she also glommed onto other’s losses and betrayals, almost taking pleasure in co-opting their tragedies as her own to grieve, to tell. My mother died at 64. That’s only 10 year more years for me. I am determined to keep smiling through whatever I have left.

So if you see me with a foolish grin on my face, I may be thinking of something funny or I might just be doing mouth calisthenics. I want my face to reflect my joy and damn gravity!

“Seek Shelter Now”

j.halman credit

This alert was emailed out by on of the local newspapers: Seek shelter now. Surreally alarming, don’t you think?  Tornado warnings are unusual in these parts and I’d wager that not many of us in the northeast know where we should shelter. Even after years of living in Kentucky where tornados are more common, I am not sure. (or the answer to the question – windows open or closed?)

But this headline resonated with me for other reasons, triggering memories. Seek shelter now! Is my home shelter? That question surfaced in my life more than once in the past, and not inspired by the weather. There were harrowing days when I needed escape from living with an addict.

I am reminded of the times when, as a traveler, I sometimes wearied of seeking shelter and longed for a home of my own as I peered out the train window at landscapes in Europe, in Asia.

I remember my first experience of war – shelling within days of my arrival to Knin in June 1992.  I had just checked in to a bleak Communist-era hotel, ready to start my job with the peacekeeping mission UNPROFOR when the building shook and my ears popped from a mortar shell landing just over the mountain. I went down to the lobby where the hotel staff answered my question of what to do? where to go? with blank looks. Marco, the interpreter from Belgrade I’d met earlier in the day, showed up to rescue me. His calm demeanor a comfort, he smiled and said, “There’s nothing we can do, so let’s go eat and drink wine”. That’s what we did, at first flinching, then, warmed by the good local wine, ignoring the thunder of shelling. A few years later in Sarajevo with my soon to be husband, shelter at the Holiday Inn meant sleeping under flak jackets but mostly feeling protected by the flush of new love.

The tornados did not land in our Connecticut city this time, but we were warned and I am reminded, grateful for safety today.


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