Let Them Pass: August 1992 at a Croatian Checkpoint

Desperate scenes of refugees arriving by the thousands, crossing oceans, deserts, fields and forests carrying little beyond the weight of their terrible stories in search of safety and life, remind me of an encounter I had 23 years ago a few months after I began working with the UN in Croatia. 

zagreb

 

Yvetta and I replayed the highlights of our weekend as we sped through Zagreb on our way back to Knin, the dusty, sanction-bound town in the Serb held part of Croatia where we both lived and worked. Yvetta headed the UNHCR office responsible for relief and refugees. I was assistant to the civilian chief of Peacekeeping of Sector South in Krajina. Yvetta always ran a bit behind schedule but today she was late because she’d picked up a Satellite phone. It was August in 1992, pre-cell phone days and this new equipment would allow her to make phone calls from her car. It was worth waiting for.

Now it was Sunday and time to go back to work, back to what was for now, our home. We’d enjoyed our two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel – luxurious hot baths, television, busy streets and even Chinese food. We were heading back to our UN jobs in dusty, desolate Knin where electricity and water were intermittent.

We knew that after 5:30 we might be refused at the Croatian-Karlovac checkpoint so Yvetta stepped on the gas of her little UNHCR issued Honda. A few days earlier, we’d had to sweet talk our way through the checkpoints to get out and now we might have to do the same to get back in to the UN Protected Areas so we could make the three hour drive back before dark.

On Friday, we’d had to charm Serb soldiers, Kalishnokovs slung over their shoulders, red faced and rheumy-eyed from drink, to let us pass. “Nema problema” they said. As far as they were concerned, they’d move the mines blocking the road but we needed to ask the Croatians to move the ones on their side. Yvetta unfurled the UN flag from her car and stretching the cloth between us, we marched down the deserted road, lone marchers in a surreal parade past ghosts in burnt-out buildings, once shops, past houses once filled with normal life. Stepping carefully between and over the anti-tank mines, we walked the equivalent of a city block through no-man’s-land, giggling nervously at this weird spectacle no one could see, glancing at broken windows, into the dark rooms.

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Two Croatian soldiers stepped out of the small hut, looked at us like we were crazy, gave a cursory glance at our blue UN Passports and agreed to move the mines. We flinched as they kicked the heavy green metal out of the way while we jogged back to the car. Yvetta navigated us over the pitted road and through our now hysterical laughter, we called “Hvala!” to the soldiers, giddy with the insanity of our lives in this war zone.

Two days later and we were late again. Jokingly we wondered if we’d have to make that march through no-man’s-land but the Croatian soldiers let us pass with barely a glance. About half way to the Serb checkpoint, we were met by a cloud of dust and another car with flapping UN flag followed by 3 civilian cars and a UN truck driven by two Peacekeeping soldiers from Nigeria.  In that strange landscape of the time, civilian cars were more of a surprise than the Africans on this road, since sanctions meant there was no fuel for the local population. Paolo, Yvetta’s colleague from UNHCR Sector North pulled his SUV up beside us.

“Can you help?” he asked. “One Bosnian family has no papers. The Serbs let us through but I’m not sure the Croatian side will.” Paolo,  a soft spoken Italian with thinning hair, wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief.

We looked at the clobbered looking car behind him – a muddy Yugo with a worried looking father driving, his wife beside him and two little girls in the back. The man’s knuckles like white marbles, clutched the top of the steering wheel. Paolo told us, they were Moslems fleeing Bosnia and he was determined to get them through to Zagreb – they could not be protected in this Serb-held area.

Yvetta, swiftly turned us around and led the way back to the Croatian police we’d just left.

Our little convoy pulled up close to the checkpoint and all of us UN staff gathered to give the impression of greater authority. I glanced at the little girls in the back of the Yugo – they looked between 6 and 10. One had such thick glasses her eyes appeared larger through the lenses. They sat quietly. The mother, hair pulled back in a scarf, stared straight ahead through the windshield towards Zagreb as if it might disappear if she looked away. The father looked like an accountant with his business style slacks and button up shirt, too big over his slight frame. He opened the car door and stood there, not taking his eyes off Paolo and Yvetta as they spoke with the authorities who held his families fate in their hands.

“Without papers? No guarantee, no enter Zagreb.” the soldiers shook their heads and shrugged almost sheepishly.

“Wait! I have a phone!” Yvetta surprised herself with the memory. “Can he call someone? What if he calls and you can talk to them and they tell you they will come get him?”

The police shrugged again. She waved the father over to her car and all of us gathered around, our UN badges dangling against the hood of Yvetta’s car.

“Is there someone you can call? Do you have a number?”

The man nodded and said in English, “I think.”

The phone shook in his hands as he dialed the number. We all watched him carefully, collectively willing someone to pick up at the other end. We heard ringing. “Halo?”

“Damir! I’m in Croatia!” he exclaimed, “We are here! We are here!” Through sobs, he spoke with his relative then passed the receiver to one of the soldiers who asked a few questions then handed the phone back to the man.

“Hvala, hvala! We are here!” the man said through tears. His guarantor would come to Karlovac and they would be allowed to pass. The father burst into tears and embraced his little girls who’d climbed out of the car and now stood beside him. The mother collapsed on the dashboard in sobs. Yvetta and I dissolved in tears.

I wept for miles, overwhelmed by relief, by sadness. I wept at the desperation of that family, their lives packed into a car. What had they left behind? What had been taken from them? And they were lucky ones.

Multiplying by numbers and gravity the glimpse I had of that family’s story by thousands now fleeing their homes, saddens me. Watching barbed wire fences erected to block their movement as they stand at the border, enrages me. I think of this family – just one family – and the relatively tame drama of their simple crossing back in 1992 when things in Bosnia were just beginning to simmer into what would become an explosion of violence, harassment, of war crimes, massacres. I think of that one family as I watch the current scenes of families, fleeing the rubble of their lives, trying only to get across to safety however they can. Mostly, they seem to carry nothing but their children. No one takes to unknown roads with infants unless they are desperate.

I conjure the face of that mother staring at the horizon imagining a better life, willing it to be. The father, ill equipped to navigate a war, only knowing one thing: to get his daughters to a place they could safely sleep. I recall the bewilderment magnified in the glasses of the little girl in the backseat of the car. And how we all wept with relief when word was given that they could pass. That’s all they wanted to do – to pass, to join the caring friends, relatives, who waited. I think of them now, 23 years later, while watching thousands of refugees trying to cross borders to a better life. They do this because there is nothing left to leave behind. I would do this too. I would not take my eyes off the place I needed to get to. I know better than to think such a fate is impossible for any of us.

  • There are so many organizations that do great work but I send my donations to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) as I remember the great work they did in the field and also, most of their budget goes towards programs – not administrative costs. Check out Charity Navigator to see how the NGO of your choice rates.

Relief in Recognition – War

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

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

knin rail river and empty roads

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

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

view from Knin window

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

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

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

window view

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking a Major and Life

As my daughter finishes her first semester at college and the need to declare her major looms, I think about my own school-to-life trajectory. I ‘majored’ in Fine Arts. Unlike these days, I don’t remember thinking my degree should be relevant to making a living. It’s not that I was some rich kid who didn’t have to think about that – in fact, I was financially independent from my school teacher parents by the time I was the age my daughter is now. My folks, to their credit, encouraged me to find and follow my passion, never discouraging me from the impractical choice of art. They and I too, presumed that I’d figure out a way to live as an artist even if that meant, as it did for years, waitressing. Eventually, I landed on other ways to earn money that I loved and that have no relevance to my major.

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My life became more interesting than I imagined while plodding towards my college degree. Twists and turns took me around the globe for rich experiences and encounters that include some well known, mostly very great people. This week, I remembered one extraordinary morning when I was in the same, albeit very big room, with Nelson Mandela.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke at the United Nations just months after his release.  At the time, I was UN Tour Guide and happily crammed in with the rest of UN Secretariat staff, into the General Assembly. As Nelson Mandela walked regal-like to the podium, we leapt from our seats – a massive wave of global citizens – roaring our love for him. We clapped and clapped, ignoring the stinging, then throbbing of our hands. Tears ran down our faces while our smiles made our cheeks ache. That great hall thundered, on and on. We could not and did not stop applauding for what must have been 5 or more minutes. Elegantly, he stood and waited. Here’s a taste of that moment, courtesy of the UN.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVw22jWD2T4

How lucky was I to have been there? I loved working for the United Nations and I was lucky to get hired with my degree in sculpture and mediocre Japanese. Most of my fellow guides were fluent in at least 2 languages, many spoke 5 or even more. I applied for the job just back from a stint of living in Japan where I barely studied the language between making art and teaching English. My Japanese was (and remains) pretty awful. Lucky for me, at the time there were only 2 Japanese tour guides and those gals wanted a break. Yukiko assured me they’d help me learn the tour and I’d be daijobu – just fine.

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I still remember some pretty obscure Japanese – “Trusteeship Council” being one of my favorites since even explaining that defunct council in English is tricky. And imagine this American gal’s discomfort guiding Japanese tourists through the disarmament exhibit displaying artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While my Japanese, mostly memorized tours were lame, most visitors were delighted to have a gaijin guide and I was happy to use up the extra minutes left on what should have been a 45 minute tour, posing for pictures. They were always very polite, most not asking questions and if they did, accepting my Japanese style of sucking air and saying “Muskashi…” (“hmmm… that’s difficult…) as a satisfactory answer.

I like to think that my English tours made up for my lousy Japanese ones. I passionately delivered my love and interest in world affairs to groups of all ages, tailoring each tour to the group – responding to faces, encouraging questions and discussion while sticking to the UN line of answering – most of which I fervently agreed with. Mine was no rote delivery but rather an always changing glimpse of issues and the UN’s role. Each morning, us guides had our own briefing on the latest world events. We knew and understood every Security Council Resolution, we could discuss every conflict, environmental and humanitarian issue. These briefings could put CNN to shame. I felt like I stood at the threshold of world events and so much was happening at that time – and a lot of it good.  The Berlin wall came down! There was the first World Summit for Children (I met Vaclav Havel!), the European Union was established. For a time, it seemed that borders were disappearing – giving us an utopian flash of hope that so might prejudices, that resources might be more equitably shared. Then came the end of the USSR and almost every day it seemed that a different flag of newly recognized countries was being added to the flapping fabric on First Avenue.

Then Yugoslavia imploded and I left my corner couch in the Guides Lounge to join the Peacekeepers. Another amazing opportunity I never studied for in college.

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Have times changed so much that it matters now that it really matters what Molly decides to major in? I wonder.

 

What a Painting Reveals

My remarkable friend Naomi in Kyoto, has generously featured a collage of mine on her website’s Chasing Writing in Art link. It’s humbling to be there with so many amazing artists.

Here’s my collage and a few words. Please check out Naomi’s site here.

Return from Journey Collage 1998 24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm
Return from Journey
Collage
1998
24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm

I painted this piece at my home in Connecticut about two years after returning from living and working in a war zone. From June 1992- June 1996, I was with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia and UNICEF in Croatia and Bosnia. During that time, I met and married my husband and Molly was born.

I remember setting up my paints in front of the fireplace, imagining I’d capture a peaceful image. Instead, what I see now in this image, is torment. I recall the turmoil and demons we were living with, even as the trappings of our life seemed ideal. It was a struggle for us – especially my husband – to switch gears to a normal life away from war. The supposed tranquility  of a chair in front of a fireplace – this scene that should be cozy, looks like the center of a storm.

Indeed, it was. 

I still live in this house and love sitting by the fire. Twenty years on since the Balkan wars ended, almost ten since the death of my husband and these days, ghosts have mostly settled and my life is serene. I write more than paint. But I should attempt this interior again to see what would reveal itself.  I imagine it would be an image of warmth and peace – but who knows? The subconscious reveals itself almost in spite of us.

Love for A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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The Brazilian guy who cleans the bookstore, speaks only a few words of English. I always say good morning and make small talk, but he’s not friendly and I think he’d rather I didn’t. He wears one of those blue-tooth phones that fit in your ear, vacuuming around customers browsing books or right next to where the morning staff meeting is being held, all the while bellowing in Portuguese to whoever is in his ear. I suspect he doesn’t mean to be annoying but that he is in a kind of oblivious state of other-ness. I remember when I lived in countries where I did not speak the language, how hard it can be. (although I think he might also just be a jerk)

I have lived in 3 different countries where initially, like the Brazilian man, I spoke barely a word of the language. Anyone who has been a tourist can get this stupid feeling, but when it’s your day-to-day life the loneliness, otherworldly feeling, is profound.

Life with UN Peacekeeping in Croatia and Bosnia was insular – my life and relationships existed mostly within the international community. My understanding of Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian (virtually same language but for different words for bread!) never grew much beyond the superficial greeting, shopping, weather chats with neighbors, sometimes against the backdrop of not-so-distant shelling and machine gun fire. My time in Italy was briefer but my isolation even more intense as I spent 3 weeks by my daughter’s hospital cot in Brindisi hospital when she was born prematurely. That was some zone to be in.

So I imagine I know something about how the Brazilian cleaner feels. I remember the apartness, the feeling of kind of living an incomplete experience. So many nuances around you are undecipherable.

A bewildered looking me with Watanabe-san and Suzuki-san in the early 1980s.
A bewildered looking me with Watanabe-san and Suzuki-san in the early 1980s.

But it’s mostly my years in Japan I recall.  Although I studied Japanese in my feeble fashion, so many Japanese people wanted to speak English, it was easy to be lazy about learning their language. And even as I became fluently-flawed and gathered Japanese friends and boyfriends, I remained an outsider, oblivious to the reality and details of my Japanese neighbors – and they, to mine.

Still, for all the loneliness and discomfort, something still draws me to that expat existence, to that strange-state of being, the challenge to find a place. My focus, by necessity, turned inward, I filled journals with ramblings. My recollection of those sometimes uncomfortable times, was the richness of my interior life. A consciousness that, now in my familiar, task driven day-to-day existence, I strive for. A state of being alert in time.

Ruth Ozeki’s long awaited beautiful new novel, A Tale for the Time Being has really gotten under my skin and I think it’s not only because I love her writing (My Year of Meats is also a favorite) but because she captures this bubble existence – this weird sense of being, of being somewhere but not of it. We all are in that place at some point but some, by dint of the harshness of society, the struggle to exist in a world you do not feel part of, is often not by choice.  Striving for … place? peace? love? Sometimes, giving up.

In A Tale for the Time Being Ozeki poetically takes us along on her quest to discover more about Nao, the Japanese teenage author of the journal she picks up out of the flotsam of a Pacific Northwest beach.  I fell in love with Nao and Jiko, her ancient grandmother who lives as a Buddhist nun in Sendai right at tsunami ‘ground-zero’.

While reading this, I returned home from work each day to immediately pick up from where I’d left off, retrieving my book from beside the bed, where fighting sleep to read, I’d dropped it the night before. Perhaps because Ruth of the novel is Ruth the author, I felt sure such a diary really exists, and worried right along with Ruth (s), that Nao had been swept away in the tsunami… I’ll let you find out.

What have you read lately that you loved? This question is often asked of me in the bookstore. I’m usually reading at least two books so you’d think I’d always have an answer. But I often can’t even quite remember or at least, I can’t say I LOVE whatever I am reading. But I LOVE Ruth Ozeki’s new novel A Tale for the Time Being. What a beauty. I finished it a few days ago and the magic of it still lingers with me. Read it!

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 TheSisterProject.com 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.

“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.

A Closet of Journals

Stashed in my closet is a plastic bin overflowing with journals of scribbled emotions, recordings of events, travel notes. From adolescence up until a few years ago, I compulsively filled notebooks with thoughts, thrills, anxieties and dreams. It was as if by recording it, I might save my life.

College journal.

Early journals have the curvy writing of teenage angst, annoyance with my parents, first love, terrible heartbreak. College – more adventures in love, discovering and floundering on my own. Studying was eclipsed by my desire to travel the world, so for a few months at eighteen, I traveled alone through Europe, a lined notebook (now missing) my constant  companion.  The next batch of beat-up spirals are scrawls of years in Kentucky where I enjoyed the friendship and support of the community of fellow Studio 70 artists. Kyoto is next – bicycling through the narrow streets, hours sitting in gardens – dream-like musings. Returning to New York, I filled books with my life in the city, job at the United Nations.  Pages brim with romantic thrills followed by heartbreak. Then, the war in Croatia and Bosnia – meeting and marrying N, having Molly.  The joys of being a mother, the pain and confusion of living with addiction. All of it jotted into these books.

From today I will try to write every day as a way of taking time for myself, of touching/listening to something from within, as a way of organizing my time in a way that some ‘work’ is possible. I would love to write – to have the life of a writer. For this I think I need not only discipline and stories to tell but an ability to listen and to tell, of the inner life. So from today I will take at least half an hour every morning, if not more, to keep this little journal. I can do this now as Molly sleeps…  a way of not just getting swallowed by the daily chores of my life.

I wrote this when Molly was 4 months old. The rumbling of desire to write a book –  I imagined a love story about  meeting and marrying N in Sarajevo during the war, giving birth to Molly prematurely in Italy. I thought I had the elements for a good story — little did I know of  the drama yet to unfold.

I no longer keep a journal. No time? No inclination? Because I blog instead? Perhaps a little of each. I think the answer is in the closet — that bin of books. I will probably just burn them one day. Braver now and less inclined to keep secrets, I am ready to move beyond the closet – and write with the hope of being read.

Admitting I am Powerless

The first of the 12-steps has always been a challenge for me, although I’ve had plenty of lessons. Like when my daughter was born 17 years ago last week — in the wrong country, almost 2 months early. You’d think that physically experiencing my powerlessness, I would have gotten it…

Mind you, there were things I might have done differently. (see, there I go!) I certainly should not have taken a helicopter to a UNICEF meeting 6 months into my pregnancy. Whipped through the sky by the Bora, a fierce wind that blows across the Adriatic in the spring, was like riding a roller coaster. It was the only time in my pregnancy I threw up. I felt her tightly wound up inside of me, my stomach taut. I imagined her holding on to the umbilical cord for dear life as we lurched through the air. Or perhaps it was descending the 17 flights of stairs from my office to the safety of the garage every time Serb shells were lobbed into Zagreb that spring. Maybe if I hadn’t done those things…

Or it may have been Molly’s first declaration of independence, claiming her right to Italian residency, like the smart girl she is. In spite of all our best laid plans, even though we had  plane tickets to England and an apartment rented in Oxford, and a midwife ready to deliver her. Molly’s name is instead, forever inked into the registry of births in an impossibly picturesque town in the heel of Italy. My little (just shy of 5 lbs) premie Italian.  I admit I cannot control a boundless love for her.

 

Parade Conjured Memories

As a child growing up in New York City we always went and sometimes, marched in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Wearing my Mary-Janes and double-breasted wool coat, I proudly strutted alongside my Grandfather as he walked, shoulder-to-shoulder with other tweed-cap wearing immigrants from County Cavan. My parents also used to bring us to anti-war marches — a little less festive than a parade.

Lately, in working on my memoir, I have been recalling these protests. Perhaps a key to how, armed with a Bachelors Degree in sculpture, a resume full of waitressing, and a few years of teaching English in Kyoto, I ended up with a job in a Bosnia during the war. What do you think? Here’s a (still raw) excerpt:

“Nights in my apartment in *Kiseljak were harder to bear as the winter dragged on into what should have been spring. For days on end, my cold apartment remained without electricity or water.  To stay warm I crawled into bed to read by candlelight, falling asleep early just to pass the time.  I missed Ian. These days, the telephone rarely worked so there was no comfort in our evening talks. Time apart became harder to bear since our weekend in Italy.

When the sun made a rare appearance in this mountain village, I felt the promise of spring, but nights remained long and frozen. Alone in the darkness, I listened to the terrifying grumble of tanks rolling through the street outside.

What the hell was I doing in this place?

Terrified my sweaty fingers might slip out of my father’s dry, soft hand, I squeezed harder, hoping he might notice my fear.  Shuffling along in a sea of adults protesting the Vietnam War on the streets of Manhattan, I kept my eyes on his profile against skyscrapers, sure I’d get lost in this crowd. I dared not tell him. I was 7.

My English teacher parents often brought us kids to marches and peace rallies. Personally, they followed the Irish-Catholic script of the 1950s – marrying at twenty and producing four children within 5 years. They sent us to Catholic school, happy to have others instill the fear of God in us. But socially and politically, they were proudly liberal and they encouraged us to speak up against injustice.

We lived in non-descript apartment buildings in the nicer parts of the Bronx. My brothers squeezed into one tiny bedroom and my older sister and I shared the other. At dinner, to avoid the cacophony of four children vying to be heard, my parents required we raise our hands when we wanted to speak. After dinner, we watched the Vietnam War on the news, full of gunfire and dead soldiers in black and white. The memory of anger, the shame and conviction that something must be done — daunting as that may be.

Idealism still pulses through my veins, but just as years ago, I hoped my distant father would lift me up safely above the terrifying anti-war crowd, I longed to be swept away out of the dark cruelty of this war.”

(Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent!) Anyway, not everyone loves a parade, do they?

*Kiseljak a Bosnian-Croat village about 20 miles outside of Sarajevo where I was based with UNPROFOR – the UN Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia.