Object of Loss

I lost my pen today. This pen was a present from my late husband and was probably ridiculously expensive. It was a very nice pen and while I am a bit saddened, I’m more philosophical. It was bound to happen since it no longer quite fit into the little leather loop on my wallet. I often had to dig for for it between the mint tin, checkbook, tissues and coupon mess in my handbag.  Just like I did today at the grocery store before I returned to the coffee counter where I’d last pulled out my wallet. No luck.

My husband’s presents were always over-the-top. He’d buy amazing gifts but ignore the stack of bills. His tastes in everything were extravagant; he liked the best clothes, cars — you name it. There was a time when he worked in the movie business in England when he made great money and could really afford to indulge his expensive tastes, or at least so he told  me. This was before my time. When we were together, he never quite got the making-versus-spending money thing. Now I know this is typical of an addict, especially a cocaine addict.  But even when he (we) could no longer afford things like Mont Blanc pens, he couldn’t resist. That’s what I lost today – a Mont Blanc pen.  I’d been carrying this slick black, too-expensive pen around in my wallet like a Bic for… I do the math from N’s death year 8 years ago, and figure I had this pen for about 10 years. A long time for a pen in my wallet.

When we first got together I admit I was impressed by N’s extravagance. After years of watching my pennies and rarely treating myself, indulging in luxury – at least by my standards – seemed possible. After all, I was making more money than I ever had in my life, socking all my wages in the bank for 4 years while living on a UN daily field allowance in Croatia and Bosnia. In the early years we took some crazy trips and stayed in nice hotels and I bought nicer clothes than my usual thrift-shop finds, but mostly, I stayed my frugal self. N on the other hand, showered me with pricey watches, Bally boots, cashmere sweaters – fancy pens.  His generosity and love of nice stuff was seductive. That was before I became aware that he was spending money he didn’t really have. Then it became painful.

I liked the way the pen felt in my hand but rarely used it to write more than a check. Somehow, it never really seemed like mine.

We Would Be Haunted

This morning I finished a memoir by an American woman who met and fell in love with her husband in Sarajevo during the war, prematurely gave birth to her longed-for baby in a beautiful European location, and struggled unsuccessfully to sustain a marriage to a tortured soul with an addiction problem. No, not my memoir, The Things We Cannot Change (still agent-shopping) – Janine di Giovanni‘s just published, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. 

Reading her compelling story was sometimes eerie – as if some Balkan spell had been cast over us who, by choice, lived through those dark days in Bosnia. So much struggle and sadness in our lives, so many unhappy endings where there once seemed such promise – bright love out of the bleakness of war. And yet, of course we would be haunted: what were we thinking?

Janine di Giovanni’s time in Bosnia and mine overlapped although my experience was very different. She is much braver than me and as a journalist, hers was a very clear and admirable mission. As an international civil servant with an administrative job, I lived a comparatively cocooned and frustrated existence. Traveling from New York to be part of a very cloudy ‘Mission’ – I harbored the short-lived illusion, I might be serving the cause of peace.  My war experiences do not compare to her powerful accounts. But as women in love – with love, adventure, romance, our respective babies, our men – it was like reading my own story. And for the battle against addiction, there is no armor.

She writes beautifully – her heart pulsing in each word as she relives her life with Bruno. I vaguely remember him from the Holiday Inn and remember seeing Janine – such a majestic, striking woman. And I remember her friend Ariane, a French journalist who never seemed to leave Sarajevo yet always appeared to be cheerful. I wonder if they would recall the crazy, dashing Englishman, smartly dressed with an ascot tucked into his Barbour, who drove the ICRC around and certainly flirted and flattered them? He never missed an opportunity to leap from the balconies inside the Holiday Inn connected by the climbing lines one of the journalists set up. I think it was Paul who did this – Paul Marchand, the elegant, warm French photographer with a perpetual cigar was one of Neil’s favorite people in Sarajevo. Just this morning, from Janine’s memoir I learned that in 2009, five years after my husband ended his life, Paul also hung himself. So many memories stirred up – and so much sadness. But regret? No. Like Janine, I marvel at my child and cherish the love from those ashes.

Mother’s Day Without Mothers

My mother became a mother way too young to know what she was getting into. Irish-Catholic and in the 1950s – getting married and having kids (4 in 5 years) was just what you did when you wanted to get away from home. She told my siblings and I (young adults at the time) that if she had it to do over again she would have done grander things than just had children. This was not said in anger but rather announced as a confident declaration of her brilliance (she was) but our existence had thwarted her success. Certainly a strange thing to tell your children. Still, she believed she was a better mother than her own.

I too think my mothering skills surpass my mother’s. For a start, I wanted my daughter more than anything else in the world. Being a mother will alway be the most remarkable thing in my life and I can’t imagine how she would not have felt the same.  Like her, I also wanted to get away from home and did at 17 after my father moved out and my mother’s depression and neediness threatened to smother me. For the rest of her life she ignored suggestions to seek help, instead stoking her bitter anger and sadness with alcohol.  I stayed far away, living in the midwest and overseas where our contact was limited to often maudlin phone calls.

When M was a year old, I moved back with my new family, into an apartment within minutes of my mother.  She doted on her granddaughter, found her brilliant and beautiful, read to her, praised her, delighted in her.  She embraced being a grandmother and with this glimpse of her unconditional love for my daughter, our own relationship began to blossom. Six months later, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and six months after that, she died. It is as a grandmother I miss her today.

The Power of Herbs

Yesterday we finally enjoyed a Spring Saturday of sunny warmth. I gardened all day, transplanting, mulching, raking. My body now buzzes with the delicious, all-over, day-after ache of a good workout. I think that’s from wrestling with Mint. For years now, every spring I must rip out the thickly woven roots of this magnificently fragrant, insidious plant that threatens to take over my vegetable garden. And every year I think I have completed the job yet, between tomatoes, basil and beans, stalks of Mint emerge.

Standing, I loosen the roots with a pitchfork, a ripping sound my cue that I can pull them out without injury to my back. Then, sitting down in the dirt, I grab the roots with gloved hands and yank. As I do this, strings of tentacles pop out beneath the soil, leading me to another tangle of growth.  I planted this mint as a fledgling gardener, not knowing I would forever battle this harmless looking plant – so delicious for tea and in salads. Now I cautiously plant perennial herbs only in pots or where I want wild, fragrant coverage. Never in the vegetable garden.

Yesterday, I also pulled out a Purple Sage that for over a decade, has grown beside the vegetable garden’s gate. In spite of ruthlessly cutting it back every spring, by July I must squeeze between the fence and furry leaves on woody limbs, to get to the rest of the garden. With my pitchfork, I easily lifted out the Purple Sage and moved it to a flower garden where I am attempting to orchestrate a constant show of color of perennials and shrubs. Hopefully, it will thrive between the Irises and Azaleas.

Every time I bruised by the Purple Sage, or plucked some leaves for roasting a chicken or to be sauteed in butter for a simple pasta sauce, I think of the friend who brought it to me during my first spring in this house. She was visiting from NYC and arrived with a flat of herbs.  This plant survived those 15 years although our friendship did not. I have never known why she no longer wanted me in her life. She disappeared into silence during the height of addiction drama in my marriage, when she had just launched into her own, happier marriage. I imagine, we were too much for her — and don’t blame her: I would have felt the same aversion to us, her messed up friends. But she had been there at our beginning: she and I were off for a weekend break and were passengers on the same military transport plane out of Sarajevo when N and I connected for the first time. She predicted our future then – with a happier ending. Over those years in the madness that was former Yugoslavia at war, she was my dearest friend – family to N and I. Then, we all ended up here — her in the city, us in Connecticut. We saw each other less, especially as N descended into his hell of addiction and I scrambled to keep the pieces of our lives together. I left her a message or two and sent an email wondering what I had done, but I never heard from her. I still wonder what happened and miss her brilliance and hilarity. I moved this shrubby herb to gain more space to plant vegetables, but also, unconsciously, perhaps to end these flashes of mourning evoked by the scent of Sage.

Creativity Manifest

For years I considered myself a visual artist. I have a basement full of work as evidence. Paintings at least, are easier to store than sculptures. I have two very large wood pieces I carved in Japan, propped up in our tiny living room. They are superb dust collectors. I remember chiseling away at them for hours outside my little house in Kyoto. The wood is eucalyptus and carving released potent oils into the air.  My sinuses were always clear.

Believe me, I am even less delusional about my talent as an artist than as a writer, but I do have some pieces I like living with — like those big, old chunks of wood. But I don’t miss the stuff necessary to paint or sculpt or the ‘stuff’ (now art?) you are left with when you are done. What to do with it all? When my artist friends and I go to the Catskills for our week of retreat, it takes them many trips to unload the boxes of supplies and un-wieldly pads of paper and canvas.  I get to prance upstairs with my laptop. Okay… and bags of books I think I’ll read and don’t. The process of writing is so streamlined compared to the visual arts. And in the end, finding and settling into the place where creating comes from, and staying there for as long as possible, (ah, those summer retreats!) feels the same bliss to me.

Well, almost. Sometimes, I miss the smells, the excitement and immediacy of making something. The physicality of ripping up paper for collages, the trance-like state of carving a piece of wood. The really gut feeling when something works – the incredible, physical burst of energy when I can’t stop working on the thing. It comes from a different place — a place I haven’t been to in a long time.

I made a stab at getting back to work when M was about 5 or so. The painting in this photo is one of those. I have no memory of the title of the piece or where it is now.  I suspect it is buried with whatever paints I still have left. I really don’t like it, so if it is in the basement, it’s staying there. I see on that canvas and in my eyes, a miserable heart being smothered. I remember standing in that bank where I hung my paintings in the hope I’d sell something — a finger in the dyke of financial, spiritual and emotional chaos of living with an addict.

Maybe this summer, I’ll pack a small box of supplies and re-visit this visual-art territory again just to see what comes out. I wonder – will my happier state translate into a better painting?

A National Day for Thanking

How strange and wonderful to have a national day that is just about giving thanks.  Of course, the history is much more complex and suspect than that, but except for grade school classrooms where the shortened story of pilgrims and Indians is still told, we only focus on the thankful part. Or at least, that’s what I do and therefore, really like this holiday. It’s a predictable pause (always on a Thursday) in regular life that precedes the frenetic month of December.  At least for today, there are no presents required – just a time to gather with loved ones to eat and be grateful, to nourish body and spirit.

In recovery programs, gratitude is a key step. Focus on the good in your life, appreciate it, savor it – hang onto it for dear life!  There is an exercise I learned about from time ‘in the rooms’ for when you can’t get to sleep: make your way through the alphabet thinking of something or someone you are grateful for, that begins with each letter.  This may sound juvenile to anyone who has never suffered the insanity of addiction, but it is can be profound and soothing, and anyway – beats counting sheep.

Today, while cooking the orange and green vegetables assigned to me by the dear friends hosting us for today’s feast, I will go through my alphabet of gratitude. Most letters will be people’s names — (A is so easy, Anne) the family of friends, near and far, it is always this bounty of love I am most grateful for.

Veteran’s Day

It should be no secret that soldiers are as vulnerable to mental damage as they are physical. This is obvious from the mental illness and drug addiction so rife in returning soldiers. My late-husband was a veteran.  Always a voluble guy, he told compelling tales of his past, of growing up in England, his travels, the movie and music business of which he was also a veteran, yet he rarely spoke about his time as a 17-20 year old British soldier in the 70s.  Like most over the past decades, the battles his government sent him into were dubious ones – even secret – and he lived with the resulting nightmares of terrible violence and shame with uncharacteristic silence.  And ultimately, he paid the price as we, his family did.

This excerpt is from the memoir I am working on:

I used to wonder why veterans are reticent to talk about their war experience. They flinch at the thoughtless question, “Did you ever kill anyone?” yet put them in a room with other soldiers, even former enemies, and in hushed tones their stories flow. Soldiers believe their experiences are too terrible to repeat to civilians. Ian did.

Can anyone who inflicted and suffered terrible violence ever really experience peace again? Maybe only those who see at least a glimmer of possibility through the demons of their past, manage to survive.  Perhaps the veterans of war keep their terrible memories locked away in the hope they will eventually disappear. And maybe I need to tell mine so they won’t.

This nod of a named-day or a float in a parade, a bumper sticker — none of these are enough. Soldiers, are claimed as points of righteous patriotism and used as political batting rams.  They return home from ostensibly protecting their country, their people — and are left with little support of the kind that can make a difference. Instead, after being feted with parties or a parade, they are expected to return to their roles of parents, children, brother, sister and friend. To carry on. Instead, an increasing number are so damaged and without support, they kill themselves and sometimes, awfully, their own families.  Something is wrong.  Silence is a killer and must be broken to save these lives tasked by governments with the notion of protecting ours.

A Time for Birds

Branches almost completely bare of leaves are now busy with bird life.  Mourning doves sit silently shifting their proportionately huge (their heads are so weirdly small!) bodies around the maple tree.  Cardinals line-up at the bird feeders and chickadees creep upside-down around the crab-apple tree at the end of our driveway, now heavy with fruit.

My neck cricks, watching all of the fluttering action on this bright Sunday morning walk with Tetley.  We turned the clocks back an hour, another milepost for the season and technically, it’s still early and quiet (no leaf blowers) enough so I heard a distant line of geese, flying as only half a vector.  Why did they fly in a straight line although there were enough of them to form a V?

Yesterday, half-a-dozen parrots decorated our oak tree. I rarely see them still – usually they flash by as noisy-green squawking mobs. But there they were – sitting, tropical green and magnificent throughout the oak’s dull branches, unusually quiet, they let out only the odd screech.  I love to see these accidental-immigrants (the story goes that years ago there was a crate-escape from a shipment landing at La Guardia airport.) but don’t want them moving onto our property — which makes me sound like some kind of bird-bigot. It’s just that they make way too much noise and their nests can overwhelm and kill a tree. So Molly and I stood beneath them, doing our best screeching imitations of parrot-speak, to say: ‘move-on!’ before collapsing in hysterics.

I hope to see our neighborhood raptor soon.  The branch in the neighboring wood where he sits in-watch or to digest some unfortunate, small creature, is visible again. In the summer we sometimes heard his distinctive high-pitch, plaintive scream, but rarely saw him for more than a few minutes, majestically floating by.  While I am sad to be edging closer to winter, I love our new view of the birds.

The Promise of Brighter Days

Snow is virtually gone – washed by the past few rainy days.  At the end of the driveway on a sloping bit of land, the strawberry plants I transplanted out of the vegetable garden last summer, are a stunning green against the wet brown leaves and earth around them. In fact, the plants seem to have multiplied under the icy cover of the past two weeks. I let myself be thrilled by these crazy promises of spring – although it is not yet January and there will be plenty of snow and frigid days ahead. Technically, winter has just begun. Still, this glimpse of green and the pile of seed catalogues on my table feel like harbingers of spring.

This is partly how I navigated through some bleak days in my life: years of my husband’s addiction, his suicide, my bout with breast cancer.  Although there were times it was difficult to see the light, I always could imagine brighter days lay ahead. Nature is the key for me.  Throughout the seasons, there is always comfort to be found in the natural world. Planting bulbs, for example.  Placing the parchment skin covered bulbs into the cool autumn earth was an act of hope. Winters of the world or of the soul can feel long and dark but the bulbs helped me to believe that life would get better: a faith rewarded each spring as the crocus, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths emerge from the still-cold earth.

Brave New World

Authors regularly call me wanting to set up a signing at the store. Unless you’re a psychic or television personality, you better tell your friends and family to come out and support you.  Tell no one and that’s who will be there.  Even acclaimed authors who you’d expect to have an audience can tell you about events spent reading to one passerby and the homeless guy dozing in a chair.  My suggestion to authors is go to your target audience rather than expect them to find you. Wrote a book about WWII?  Speak at a veteran’s group. Gardening? Meet with gardening groups. Rotary Club, Senior groups, schools – are always looking for good speakers and will give you an opportunity to get the word and your book out.  That’s what I’ll be doing.

Recently, a generous, smart woman in the publishing industry gave me the same advice I usually give to others  – only she was referring to the cyber world.  The internet provides a whole new opportunity to build an audience, find readers before you even publish your book.  And in fact, you improve your chances of landing a publisher if you manage to capture an audience.  Times are tough everywhere, and publishers want to know that the book they’re getting behind has readers at the ready.

It was as if a light bulb went off in my head.  I have been slow to embrace this new media of blogs and twittering but after a week of exploration in this brave new world, imagining the possibilities – I’m sold.  It’s an exciting new world available right now on this snowed in Sunday morning when everyone else in my immediate world, is still sleeping!  So here I go, ready to launch out into this new dimension. Bear with me as I get the hang of it and thanks for spreading the word.

My memoir, Light Between Shadows, is about how love and a life were destroyed by drug addiction.  I needed to write the book for me but I know that my story is not unique. I hope to chip away at the secrets and shame associated with addiction and suicide.  We need to talk about this stuff, help each other through the dark days. We are not the only ones. Show me a family that doesn’t have an addict, an alcoholic, mental illness.  My community – friends, neighbors, co-workers, family all helped me survive those days of living with an active addict and the aftermath of suicide. I hope I can do that for others who are navigating the world that was once mine.  We are not alone.

Life is different now – the shadows are mostly gone and each day feels like a gift.  I marvel at the difference between then and now: ‘then’ makes the ‘now’ all the more precious. I watch my bright and beautiful daughter move through her world, wisely and with joy and am grateful. I wake each morning next to the rediscovered love in my life and can’t believe how lucky I am.  Now is a different story than the one I told in my book, but only because I lived it. I don’t forget that – ever.


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