Barely awake at a dark sleeping hour, I need to find my way to the bathroom. Eyes closed, I do a rolodex spin of recent steps to map out the way through unfamiliar rooms I’ve stayed in over the past 2 weeks. Opening my eyes a crack I realize I am in my own bed. I am home after adventures in Athens and multiple Italian towns and cities.
A day later and the liminal space between sleep and waking is like a sci-fi film of images and moments and dreams of Italy and home, blurry and stretchy, my subconscious grasps on to time and space of my recent journey. As full consciousness moves in I appreciate the familiarity and comfort, my things, my language, but dread the inevitable hum-drum and stress of routine, what needs to be done, of work life. Traveling again after so many years made my heart beat stronger. It felt good, especially this trip with the best company.
While unpacking and taking stock of what I need in the refrigerator, I do my best to hang on to the magic. Jet lag helps – a dreamy state with odd waking times. I try to keep my shoulders and jaw relaxed and maintain the strength my legs after clocking in an average of 8 miles a day walking. This is how I want to continue to live: healthy and paying attention! Eating good food when I’m hungry, out each day in the fresh air. Listening to my body. Well, mostly – my feet are still mad at me for ignoring them too often.
For 2 weeks I lived happily out of a carry-on backpack and now I feel ambivalent about my stuffed closet and bureau of so much clothing. I am happy for my bed although every Greek and Italian one I slept in was excellent. I delight in my garden’s bounty – bursting with tomatoes and lettuce and squash. There are even a few peaches left on my trees and pears not yet ripe that I may be able to get to before the resident squirrels. But the food tasted better over there – all of it. Even the paltry cheese toast sandwich on the train to Brindisi. They do many things much better than we do. The trains were on time. I remember there used to be jokes about Italian train times. I have no such tales to tell you from our trip except for the train we took to Rome arriving early.
Yes, it is good to be home but oh, I really love Italy! This was a pilgrimage of sorts – launched in Athens for an amazing gathering of neighbors and friends to celebrate a spectacular wedding before Molly and I crossed the Adriatic over to Puglia, Italy to visit where she was born and lived for the first 4 months of her life. That will be another post. (at least) Meanwhile, I am treading in the in-between time, not ready to leave the dreamy space of the trip that was a journey of love and history and fuel for future chapters.
Forgive me for not being faster about updating you on the results of my previous post, but as you probably gathered, alas, I did not win the contest for an all expenses paid month in Portugal. A heartfelt thank you, for voting and kind words of support. It was actually quite a fun little adventure! And the winning couple seem perfect – both are writers and she’s already a travel blogger. I look forward to their insights on Portugal. And yes, I think I will also go see for myself – although winning would have given me the kick in the pants to get started.
It’s exciting being in the running for things, don’t you think? I love a good raffle and will buy the occasional lottery ticket for the thrill of a chance. Similarly, when I used to send queries to agents about my memoir, the let-down of rejection was less than the excitement of possibility. Entering the Portugal contest reminded me of the joys of having my hat in the ring. And I’m not giving up on the move overseas-for-retirement notion.
I’ve had this idea percolating for over a year as I try and figure out how life can be less expensive so I can stop working sooner than later. Where would be a more suitable place for the next, increasingly creaky chapter of my life? I look at Europe because I love so much about being there and because I have Irish citizenship.
I have mostly been looking at Italy because it’s familiar to me and has always brought me (mostly) comfort and joy. Even my daughter Molly decided it was the place to be, appearing almost 2 months early rather than sticking to our birth plan for Cambridge, England. My very first taste of Italy was at 18 when, halfway through a solo 4 month trip around Europe, exhausted and lonely in cold and grey Germany, I hopped on a night train to Venice. I can still conjure the heat of the stone beneath me as I stepped out of the station and sank down on the steps to marvel at the canal, the light, the warmth and a palpable joy. Neil and I used to drive from Zagreb to Italy to escape the weight of the war, even for a night and once just long enough for lunch – and as soon as we crossed over the border from Slovenia to Italy, everything seemed brighter, including our spirits. It’s a place that has always made me feel good. And the food can’t be beat.
Always, the question is where? Ostuni the village in Puglia where Molly’s name is written into the book of births is stunning, but I’d need a car there. I’m more drawn to northern Italy for living. Trieste, an elegant city on the edge of the water is a maybe and of course who doesn’t adore Florence? On another break from the war in Bosnia, I hitched a ride on a French transport plane out of Sarajevo to Ancona and took a cab to a place called Senegalia with sweet beaches on the Adriatic. I like the sound (and apartments) of Livorno and the Mediterranean coast too. I am more of a sea than a mountain gal. And I want to be close enough to a big airport that getting to my loved ones here doesn’t seem overly arduous. So no Greek Islands for me, I’m afraid, as much as I’m tempted.
I like to be cozy in my home and want to ultimately live in a place kind of like I live now, (if my house was paid for and if there was national healthcare, I could consider staying – I mean… look at that porch!) or where I lived in Kyoto or in Zagreb or Brindisi. On the outskirts of, or in a not-too-big city because – practical for my aging self. Preferably with even just a small outside patch so I can plant things, have a bird feeder and putter about with a cup of tea or evening drink. And I need to be able to walk or bicycle or bus/train everywhere as I will never, ever be able to drive stick shift. (trust me, I have tried!) I would do a little vespa. Can you see me with my grey hair blowing in the wind?
I spend a ridiculous amount of time scouring the real estate listings in Europe including Cheap Italian Dream Home. More than once I’ve fallen in love like with this place – yes, it’s cluttered and crazy looking but look at that fireplace! More practical because of space might be this one. I’d need at least one extra bedroom for Molly and other visitors. I must have light. Lots of light – a view. And a fireplace or wood stove.
So where should this sweet flat or house be? Scanning the listings I get sent by this newly launched site I subscribe to Bargain Homes Abroad, Scandinavian houses really appeal to me – but that part of the world flunks on sun and food and, well … brrr! France also has some beauties but my terrible high school level attempts make me feel inept in a way that Italians nor the Spaniards made me feel while butchering the language. Spain? My friends who are the most inspiring and joyful couple I know, just bought a place there. Ireland wins on delightful people and of course being able to speak the language plus the bonus of wonderful family — but while the light is pretty when the sun shines, it doesn’t do that enough for my ‘SAD’ inclined soul. And it’s not cheap. Same goes for England – where I count friends and beloved family – dearest Zoe and Gemma and their beautiful broods.
Maybe the Portugal venture was my prompt to explore a place that ticks so many of my boxes, with no memories that might inspire melancholy. Someone who has done more recent traveling than me said her vote is for Portugal – saying that everything works better there. And a writer I know who moved there from these parts a few years ago says she knew immediately it was right and it still is. Politically and socially it’s more progressive than the other southern European countries and certainly, more than we are and that’s important to me. And it sure looks pretty. Time to add Portuguese to my language learning app? Now if only this damn pandemic would settle down…
Okay friends, what do you have for me? Taking all suggestions!
A question constantly hovering in and out of focus in my life has been WHERE? Right out of college, my focus was a place to live as an artist – where could I work as little as possible so I can make my art? I ended up in Kyoto. As I crept towards thirty, my diminishing egg count led me out of Japan in search of where I might find a man to have a family with. This led to an interesting, adventure filled quest. I can tell you, years in NYC did not lead to success on that front. It took a few more years until the ‘where’ of raising a family – with the man I met and married in Sarajevo, would pop up.
The first year of Molly’s life, we moved 4, yes, 4 times – from her birth in Italy, 2 different parts of Croatia, arriving in Connecticut just days before her first birthday. We came here mostly by happenstance and here, I still am.
This year I enter my 6th decade and guess what question has been popping up? I am not alone in this: the topic is a hot one with my peers. Where to grow old? It’s happening so we let’s figure out if we’re in the best place to do that the way we want to. As much as any of us have control over this. This is certainly something of a first world problem and I say that only with some snark. Here in our wealthy nation, there is only a paltry social system and many of us do not have generations of family to absorb us with love and care. So how much better are we, really? It’s a lot to burden one kid with though I know she loves me, I hope not to need much besides just that.
So I think of the practical stuff: can I continue to afford living in the wealthiest corner of Connecticut? Mine is a charming old and drafty house but still and probably forever, owned more by the bank than by me. The guy who came to clean my ancient oil burner the other day, wished me luck that I might get another year without it breaking down. ($8K for a new one?) Will this house still work for me as I get creaky? Like the bedrooms and one bathroom at the top of the stairs. Yeah, I can’t believe I’m even thinking about this stuff – but there you are. (Are you too??)
Anyway, is this where I still want to be? Mostly I think yes. Although this span of Connecticut is crowded, the landscape suits me. There’s a good mix of accessibility of urban and nature joys including the Long Island Sound minutes away. I am not a mountain gal, I need to be close to a where salt water meets sky.
But wait a minute! Am I really ready to give up the notion of myself as being worldly and adventurous? There’s something about anyone who has ever led an expat life – a longing, an itch even – that never really goes away. Adored friends who live very far away and places across the world that somehow still feel like home – I want to see and spend time with them all again. For me that includes Jenny now in Australia, friends in Kyoto and cafes in Italy. Granted – those places are gorgeous and easy to love – but both also felt almost weirdly familiar when I lived there. I felt like me there, as if I had history there – even before I really did.
What’s that about? Why do certain landscapes, places feel like ours? I am not a desert person but my dear friend Paula feels a spiritual connection to the Southwest. When we drove across country in our early twenties, I witnessed her recognition, her joy when we got to Taos New Mexico. As if she’d arrived home although it was her first time there. I could barely breathe in the arid heat and while impressed by the beauty, was happy to get back on the road and our journey further West. And when we arrived in the San Francisco Bay area where we spent the summer, I fell in love with it. The light made me feel like I was in the South of France and every breath of air flavored with eucalyptus and brine, felt nourishing. I’d live there – at least in my memory of place.
But in the end (pun sort of intended), as we move in and out of our days, we’re all always here aren’t we? I find that a comfort – don’t you?
Did you search for your place or did you just land there? Where’s your ‘where’?
I bought these sweet wheels at a tag sale for $50 (with a basket!) in early summer and $30 for a very unflattering helmet.
I wish I could tell you that I regularly made the 5 mile roundtrip to the beach. I did not. It was so hot this summer! And to get to the bike-lane route I have to go up a hill. Such poor excuses. The fact is, I’m inclined to be a slug – what can I say? But the other day the light and temperature were perfect so I took a spin to the beach. Speeding down-hill the wind whistled in my ears and my heart lifted with a forgotten joy. On the way back, I push-push-pushed until breathless, I leapt off to walk.
Biking gives me a sense of being a participant – not just moving through in the bubble of my car. My body reacts to terrain, blood pumping, breath quickening. I easily stop to watch a bird, follow a slant of light, inhale the scent of a boxwood hedge, the musk of low tide, a gyro joint. I have a sit-upright, tootling-around kind of bike – not a speed-racer that requires dressing up like a lycra-bumble-bee to ride. My bike inspires cruising. I love spinning down a hill but speed doesn’t interest me much. I’m definitely a tootler.
I used to be more of a functional biker – it was how I got places. I didn’t own a car until I was in my late 30s.
When I graduated from college and became a banquet waitress at a hotel (Yay art degree!) I lived in a dicey part of Cincinnati and rode my bike to work at all hours. Leaving at 4:30 AM for a breakfast shift, I’d speed down the middle of the empty street – a little frightened by the shadows of the odd hour.
When I lived in Japan I rode everywhere. I pedaled to English teaching jobs, to shop for groceries, meet up with friends. More often than I should admit, I made my way home on wobbly-wheels in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone rides bikes – multiple babies will be tucked into attached seats and the very, very old will easily balance the day’s groceries in baskets. It’s a biker’s heaven. One of the things I miss most about Japan is exploring narrow streets, popping into Temples for moments of peace, making my way home along the river running north to south through the city. I can conjure the crunch of gravel beside the Kamo river – perhaps one of my all-time favorite stretches anywhere in the world.
For a time I also had a bike in Zagreb, Croatia. I zipped through the city streets on my mountain bike, hoping the tires were fat enough they would not catch in the treacherous tram tracks. For fun I pedaled through a nearby park, riding along dirt trails and bouncing over rocks. I became pregnant with Molly there and sold my bike.
Being a mother made me into a chicken. From the moment my daughter was a whisper within me, a new sense of vulnerability took over. Navigating through the world became a little more frightening when life became no longer just about me.
In Zagreb, the only helmet I owned was UN issued kevlar for when I traveled to active war zones. I did not wear this biking. Nor did I wear – or ever see one in Kyoto. Do cyclists wear helmets there now? Now, although it hurts my vanity, I wear my dorky helmet. While the city I live in is making an effort to be more bike-friendly, too many people stare at their phones while driving. I choose not to chance my mortality to look a tad cooler.
Maybe it’s because my daughter is 21 and capable and launching off on her own adventures, I’m getting my courage back. I’m ready to risk getting toppled for the pleasure of the wind whistling in my ears. And I need the exercise.
My birthday was last week. I always try and celebrate by taking the day off work and doing whatever I feel like. But for dodging icy rain drops on the way to a morning yoga class and later, delicious dinner out, I stayed inside, sitting here, in the little room off of Molly’s bedroom, that in her absence, I claim as mine. I wrote, I read, I napped and spent way too much time reading Facebook posts and other people’s blogs. I made myself tea and took Tetley out when he wanted to go – although my handsome old guy is mostly content to sleep by my side. Bliss.
Is this what I would do if by some miracle, I can, one day, I can not work – you know: retire? Maybe. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about traveling. Not the 10-day visits to 15 places kind of travel. More of the life-changing, where else might I live kind of travel. Partly this is financial – there are so many other places that cost so much less than here. It’s crazy how much money we need to even live ‘simply’. The car no sooner is paid off and it needs big repairs. The house always needs fixing or just requires constant ‘juice’ and electricity, oil, water bills are daunting, especially during these long, frigid winters. Add to that the cost of being hooked-up to society – telephone, internet, television. I have a good life but lived fairly close the bone and without a solid job, I would not be able to sustain all this for long.
Now that my daughter edges closer to independence – meaning half-way through college, I have started to imagine what I might, like on my birthday, want to do every day. Having a kid means turning that spot of what “I want to do” over to what you need to do for your kid. I did so willingly, wanting nothing more than to make her my joyful priority. But the deal is, the kid grows up and goes out into the world and figure all this stuff out themselves. Mine will be ready soon, I’ve no doubt. So time for me to re-evaluate, to ask the question I haven’t seriously considered for 20 years: what do I want?
When I was the age my daughter is now, all I thought I wanted to do was travel, to see the world, live other places and so, I did some of that. After hopping on a Freddie Laker special ($100? something crazy like that!) I traveled through Europe for 4 months – from Ireland as far as Greece. I think I had barely $1,000 with me – all in traveler’s checks. I wrote letters and if anyone wanted to write to me, they did so c/o American Express. I think I picked up a letter or 2 in Athens. I never called. Can you imagine? No email never mind Facebook or messaging! I remember many adventures, wonderful connections – and an almost constant ache of loneliness. First of all, I’d made the mistake of falling hard for Gerry Clancy who I met in a pub in Limerick on the first day of my trip – and after an extraordinarily romantic interlude with him, continued on. I might have stayed were he not still spinning from a recent breakup. That story deserves to be told on it’s own another time, but for now, let’s just say, I spent many Europass miles for the rest of the trip, pining. And lonely. Would have things been different if I’d been able to connect through cyber space with family, friends, lover(s)? Absolutely!
While I look back and marvel at the richness of those days, the months of living an interior life out in the world, on my own. Really on my own with no loved ones ever really knowing where I was for long, what I was doing, hell – if I was alive – all of us just trusting in the universe. I think this set the foundation for the rest of my life – to believe I was okay in the world – anywhere.
But I do think the ability to reach out and connect and sustain relationships and share images, stories, joys, sorrows, and most of all – meals, while traveling, has changed the game, the experience, to one I would enjoy even more today. I love my solitude but I love connection. I like to have hours to myself to read, walk, contemplate – but I love company, sharing my experiences with like-souls, something not always so easy to find in a strange place.
I get inspiration from many traveler’s blogs – a few of them (like this and this one) are kids not so much older than my daughter so I follow them with a dual traveler interest and maternal concern. Some are young couples, some are a little older – a dreamy idea. Some have settled in one spot for awhile so are less traveler and more expat now, living for a time in a place – probably more my speed these days. But I devour their news, thrill at their adventures. And I start to imagine my own. These days, I’m thinking about Burma/Myanmar – a place that’s always appealed to me. Maybe they need English teachers? Or Cuba? Something about these places that seem locked in time appeal to me. (I’ll pass on North Korea, thank you, especially after reading this book.)
For now, I relish my life here, in almost-Spring Connecticut with a little room looking out at the oak, my dog beside me, my man in the next room both enjoying their sleep on this Sunday morning. Oh – and the New York Times delivered to my drive. I’m thinking about dinner – crockpot pulled out from a cupboard. So much stuff under there! Juicer, rice cookers, food processer, pots, pans, serving trays pulled out once a year. I’m still a long way from hitting the road. For now – I’ll dream, longingly gaze at friends photos of the cherry blossoms now in bloom in Kyoto, and check on the croci in my own garden, bravely torpedoing their way out of the frozen earth.
This week, I escaped the crazy-cold of Connecticut. Yes, those are pansies now in bloom in Florida. Although mostly my hours were spent in a windowless conference room, between meetings I practically skipped around the artificial lake outside the hotel. Giddily, I marveled at the bold birds, the flowers, being in shirt sleeves, feeling warm. For 3 days, I went sock-less!
Beyond the thrill of feeling like a prairie dog popping my head out of this veritable tunnel of winter, this was an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone. I live my life mostly within a 30 mile radius. Driving to work takes me less than 15 minutes. This trip reminded me that if we get out of practice we can lose important life navigating skills and risk becoming timid, even fearful.
I hadn’t been on a plane since taking Molly to England almost 10 years ago. After smiling back at the flight attendants, I rounded the corner to see that mine was a little plane with only 4 seats across. My heart started beating double time. This narrow tube of metal would be flying up into the clouds and taking me to Florida? I disappeared into my book rather than peer out the window at the disappearing winter-scape, rather than think of the increasing distance between me and land. I wondered to myself, since when am I afraid of flying?
Once, I considered myself a traveler but for many years, I’ve lived closely within my routine. I love my routine, my family, my bed! After too many years of living in chaos, I appreciate the predictability of it all – cherish the feeling of being relatively safe. But this little get-away – even just to a distant hotel room on an all-expense paid work trip, refreshed me and reminded me of the joys of stepping away.
Winter paralyzes me and this one has been particularly brutal here in the Northeast. Some weekends, I’ll only leave the house to walk the dog around the block. At least now I have the excuse of winter, but honestly, I rarely venture far anymore, even when the weather is fine. It’s pitiful how infrequently I take the train into New York City – a regular commute for much of this community. Even if it’s just to realize that I want to BE in the place I AM, I need to do this more often.
Look at this frigid landscape. This is where we launch our kayak from in summer. In winter I rarely make the 5 minute drive down here to gaze out at the horizon, to watch the boats. The same boats that headed out to work yesterday, fishing or clamming on the Sound. This is their routine.
It’s good to be home again – and that alone is reason to go somewhere: to fall in love again, with where I am – winter and all.
In this car-dependent community where I live, walking is something I do with intention. I walk my dog Tetley before and after work. More ambitiously I walk with my friend Chris. We walk fast and far and sometimes with weights – for the fresh air and exercise. Where I live, like most American communities, walking is not a viable way to take care of daily business. I miss that.
I did not own a car until I moved to Connecticut in my 30s. I lived in Kyoto, Japan; New York City; Zagreb, Croatia; even Cincinnati, Ohio (I lived in the city) and never owned a car because I didn’t need one. Stores, markets to buy food – were in every neighborhood. And public transportation was accessible and good. Or, I rode a bicycle with a basket big enough to fill with groceries. I knew the fastest, scenic, safest routes to work. I became familiar with the patterns of light, cracks on sidewalks, faces and sometimes the names of shopkeepers, my neighbors. All of my senses were attuned to my place in the world. In Kyoto, the sound of ancient weaving machines heaving away down the narrow streets of my neighborhood, were my cues I was nearing the old wooden house where I lived, as did the splashing of water from the tofu shop on the corner. When I moved farther north in the city, I smelled the fermenting kimchee from the Korean community on the next street, the scent of the pine forests up the hill and felt the wind, the first snow.
In Zagreb, I befriended neighbors and shopkeepers passed daily on my walk to catch the tram to work. After Molly was born, I walked with her pram to the market where I piled fresh produce and maybe something from the butcher in the rack beneath her. In Cincinnati I lived at the edge of a ghetto surrounded by empty buildings, accepted by the few residents in that mostly abandoned neighborhood, as one of the weird artists that lived in the building that used to be a school. I only felt nervous when I had to leave at 4:30 in the morning to pick up a waitress shift at the hotel downtown – I’d throw my ten speed onto my shoulder, dash down the broken church steps and pedal furiously through the empty streets – the dark morning terrifying and thrilling me.
And New York – well, everyone knows New York – half the fun of being there is just walking, walking, walking. Most days I happily joined the river of pedestrians rushing down Broadway, dodging around the slowpokes, when I remembered to have change handy in my pocket, giving to the usual gauntlet of panhandlers. Sometimes I’d choose West End Avenue – a wider, emptier expanse of only apartment buildings with no shops – a short reprieve from the masses before cutting over to join the flow at 96th Street where we descended to the subway.
But here, an hour outside of New York City, I’ve never even boarded the bus. The grocery store is at least a mile away so not practical to walk to unless I’m just buying milk. Work is 5 miles and my job requires a car for visits to schools and companies.
Except for the hurried morning Tetley walks – so short they hardly qualify – me following him at a snails pace as he sniffs and pees, sniffs and pees, barks at long-gone creatures from the night before. I have to get to work so we barely make it down the street before I have to tug him to hurry along and take care of business. Still, I get a glimpse of the day, a sense of the seasons.
Recently, I walked a different route to pick up my car. Not a pretty street, but one I drive down often. And in walking it, I noticed new things. This company’s name intrigued me – its a wholesale distributor of body jewelry – so if you’re in the market for nipple rings, check them out.
American communities do not encourage pedestrian life. In fact, walking can be deadly. Sidewalks are intermittent — even along busy thoroughfares like the Boston Post Road. I’ve seen families pushing baby carriages along a busy stretch between strip malls, hugging the curb while traffic barrels past. Throw in the frozen snow banks of winter and a texting teen…
According to the CDC: “In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, and another 76,000 pedestrians were injured. This averages to one crash-related pedestrian death every 2 hours, and a pedestrian injury every 7 minutes. Pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to be killed in a car crash on each trip.”
This doesn’t exactly make you want to break out your walking shoes, now does it?
I miss the easy exercise of being a functional walker but even more, I miss the intimate connections to the world around me only possible beyond the boundaries of my home, my car. I devour the blogs of madcap adventurers biking around the world, shlogging through all weather, up mountains, through cities, camping by rivers, part of it all – meeting up with hospitable citizens who share their food and drink because who doesn’t love a traveler – someone pedaling, walking, wanting to know about your place in the world? And in doing so, in getting out of a car, slowing down and being in a place, we make it a little bit, our own.
Don’t get me wrong – I love to drive around in the warmth or the cool of my car, my music playing. But so much of life is missed when you travel 30+ miles an hour.
There is a bright glow in the dawn sky on this cold morning. At first I think it is the light of a plane passing and I imagine the sleeping passengers heading home to loved ones or departing on adventures. I watch, waiting for the plane’s glow to disappear across the sky but instead the light remains, slowly rising away from the horizon as the earth turns towards the sun and fading only as the morning light moves in. Venus.
The planet Venus, named for the goddess of love, after the Sun and the Moon, is the brightest planet in the sky. Only slightly smaller than Earth, and with densities and chemical compositions similar to ours, Venus’ surface is so windy and hot, speculation is that any water once there, all boiled away. Venus is sometimes called the morning star. That’s what I thought, this early morning when I realized I wasn’t looking at a plane. Maybe it’s a Nova – one of those stars that burn so hot they explode. Like people sometimes do.
It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s kids I can’t stop thinking about. The older two are about the same age Molly was when her father died. A tough memory from that nightmare blur of a morning, when I told her that her father, who she’d been watching a movie with before she fell asleep, was dead. How? She wanted to know. Rather than tell her that he’d put a noose around his neck, I said: drugs. She knew about his drug problem – we’d been living with that struggle for years and she’d known for at least this last one. Tough stuff for an 8 year old. That morning it seemed liked ‘drugs’ inferred an element of accident rather than stating the truth of his intention to die.
Besides, I wasn’t lying. His addiction did destroy him. It took me years to finally step away, to stop trying to find a way to fix him. Eventually, to even let go of hope. That was the hardest. I rode that roller coaster of hope and disappointment until it was one too many times. Yet even in deciding to finish the marriage, I harbored a touch of magical thinking that in doing so, I was giving him the ‘bottom’ – the wake up call he needed to finally get clean. I still deluded myself I might possess that kind of power. I still hoped.
So I look at those kids and I think of mine. And, I think of their mother, his partner, and remember myself. I remember the dark months, weeks and days leading up to my husband’s end. I lived for so many years with lies, sometimes even knowing I was making a choice to believe them, as if that might make them true. Did she do that? What ultimatums did she give him? Did she feel relieved when he moved out of their home, feeling that bitter relief of not having the risk of drugs in the house, of being better able to protect their children from being with him when he was high? Of, while heartbroken, relieved not to have to wonder why he wasn’t coming to bed yet? Or worry why he was still in the bathroom? The not-knowing. Ever.
After all, if this can happen after 23 years of sobriety. Once there, even if for a glimpse, how can we ever trust our addict is clean? Our addict. We all have at least one addict that is ‘ours’ because we love them. They can never really be ours.
And we wonder why? Why our love, why the love of our children provides no cure? As much as I learn about addiction and accept that it’s a disease, there will always be that tormenting truth that nothing I ever did was enough. So yes, as the death of yet another celebrity throws a spotlight on addiction, I welcome the attention being paid to this complicated issue, although there are no answers here, we have to keep asking the questions. The heartbreak continues, with only a terrible comfort in the knowledge we are not alone. The loss of this great actor and good man saddens me too, but it’s those kids and their mother that I think of as I watch the morning star of love fade away at the break of another day.
Christmas is over. Phew. The craziness of retail is exhausting. Not unpleasant, just whirlwind-busy with very little down-time. Unwinding at the end of a day was nearly impossible as even in my dreams I was ringing up customers and searching for books before I got to wake up and do it all again for real.
And really, it’s enjoyable. Most people are happy to be in a bookstore and that makes for good company. Customers exclaimed over and over again how nice it was to see the store so busy and I agreed. Other stores that sells clothing or towels usually just feel frantic and unbearable when they get crowded. A good atmosphere exists in our store because we sell BOOKS – books that inspire, excite, move — hell: that sometimes save us!
Most of the year, my position entails a lot of hours in my little back office and outside the store’s walls, working on sales to schools and companies. (Call me when you need to buy in bulk!) But during this time of year, it’s all-hands-on-deck, the ‘deck’ being out on the book floor. For me, being with customers looking for books is a treat. Of course, we sell a lot of other great and beautiful things, but it’s books that really jazz me.
After all of these years, the store feels a bit like my home – and when customers come in, I genuinely welcome them. My favorite is seeing a blank face – an obvious call for help in finding a book, or even better – making a suggestion. Best of all is when they are looking for a book for themselves. I ask questions: Are they taking a trip? Where to? What was the last book they loved? Together we wander the tables and shelves – a mix of gems, new and old. Of course, suggesting is particularly easy if we share the same taste, but if not, I still can connect them to other books that they’ll like based on the clues they give me. Or if it’s sci-fi (sorry, I’m lost then) I’ll introduce one of several of my colleagues who love that genre. Likewise, we have history buffs, mystery and of course, kid’s book experts.
Grandparents often seem stumped when it comes to finding books for grandchildren and I suggest they choose ones they loved as children rather than trying to figure out the hot new series and whether the kid will like it. This usually launches a great discussion about their lives as we ponder the selections together. (The Wind in the Willows anyone?) What beauties there are on those Children’s Classics shelves!
Hearing my customers’ stories while trying to find them a book is an honor and the connections made in the aisles of the store can be profound. I’ve shared tears with people struggling with addiction-fall-out, or grieving the death of a loved one. I’ve shared travel stories with customers planning trips across the globe, recipes and favorite cookbooks, dog stories in the pet section, garden joys and woes in the gardening section and every kind of story in fiction. You name it. The stuff of life, everyday.
When someone is nearby while I’m discussing books with one customer, sometimes I’ll see another listening in. That third person may pipe in too, making their own suggestions, unable to resist the urge to passionately gush about a book they loved – or hated – often going on to share their story. I love this infectious engagement, a beautiful face-to-face bonding over books made possible in our brick and mortar bookstore. Not available on Amazon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have times changed so much that it matters now that it really matters what Molly decides to major in? I wonder.