Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Recovery Diaries: The Talking Dog


     The last time I saw Jean, she was about to celebrate her twelfth month of sobriety by auditioning for a part in a play. Before the audition, we went for coffee. 
      She told me a joke. Jean had never told me one before. I had no idea she had a sense of humor.
     "A guy sees an ad on-line about someone selling a talking dog for twenty bucks. So he shows up at the advertised address and knocks on the door. 
     The owner of the dog opens the door and the guy answering the ad says, "So, I hear you have a talking dog you're selling for twenty bucks?"
     The owner says, "That’s right."     
     The other guy says, "Can I see him?"     
     The owner says, "Sure, follow me."
     They go through the living room, up the stairs, and into a bedroom where a dog, is lying on the bed, reading a paper, and watching CNN. 

     The dog looks up and says, "Hi."
     The guy says, "Holy cow! You're a talking dog!"     

     The dog says, "Yeah, I guess."     
     The guy says, "Well . . . why are you just lying there in bed?"
     The dog says, "Well, I have been able to talk ever since I was a puppy. My first job was teaching other dogs how to be seeing-eye dogs for the blind which was rewarding but I needed different challenges so I trained to be a bomb sniffer and worked for the military for quite a while. Then l got a job helping the police sniff out drugs at airports. Found out I was  pretty good at tracking things but wanted a change so went into the theater and got some big parts on Broadway in New York. Then the whole World Trade Center 9-11 thing happened and I was recalled by the military to active duty and spent a lot of time retrieving bodies. At that point I figured as long as I was back in NY, I might as well help out the police again so I went back to work sniffing out drugs at airports. Then I realized I was just burnt out and needed some time off. So I moved to Chiang Mai. I just wanted to reflect on things, figure out what I want to do next, that kind of stuff. You know what I'm saying?"
     The guy says, "Uh, sure. I mean, Wow! That's amazing."
     The owner and the guy leave the room. 

     The guy says, "Why in the world are you selling that dog so cheap?"

     The owner says, "'Cause that dog is an incredible liar!" 
      I asked Jean how she was doing.
     "Well," she said. "Even though I went to a Twelve Step treatment program, the program and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings left me pretty cold.  AA works for a lot of people according to the testimony I heard in meetings. But for me, it was like joining a fundamentalist religion. AA is faith based despite what it says to the contrary and hasn't incorporated any of the new scientific evidence that's been gathered about addiction and recovery since the AA movement started back in the 1930s."
     "In treatment and in meetings, I heard that it was the "one" way to recover. If I didn't subscribe to "this simple program, I was constitutionally unable to be honest with myself." Whenever I brought up my concerns about lack of scientific evidence supporting AA's claims about how people recover, its rigidity, and its promotion of "recoveryism" as opposed to health, I was told that I was in denial or resisting."
     This one size fits all approach to treatment didn't sit well with me.  I started exploring other approaches to lose my drinking habit. To my surprise, there are quite a few. For example, science writer and author of Inside Rehab, Anne Fletcher, described a number of evidence based alternatives to AA."
     Truth be told, I was still wondering about the talking dog. But this seemed pretty important to Jean, so I listened.

        Jean showed me the following New York Times article written by science 

and nutrition writer, Jane Brodie, in February, 2013, about alternatives to Alcoholics 


      "According to Anne Fletcher's recent examinations of treatment programs, 

most are rooted in outdated methods rather than newer approaches shown

 in scientific studies to be more effective in helping people achieve and maintain

addiction-free lives. People typically do more research when shopping for a new

car than when seeking treatment for addiction."

       The body of The New York Times article went on to say:

"A groundbreaking report published last year by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University 
concluded that “the vast majority of people in need of addiction 
treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-
based care.” The report added, “Only a small fraction of individuals 
receive interventions or treatment consistent with scientific 
knowledge about what works.”
"The Columbia report found that most addiction treatment providers are not medical professionals and are not equipped with the knowledge, skills or credentials needed to provide the full range of evidence-based services, including medication and psychosocial therapy. The authors suggested that such insufficient care could be considered “a form of medical malpractice.”
"The failings of many treatment programs — and the comprehensive therapies that have been scientifically validated but remain vastly underused — are described in an eye-opening new book, “Inside Rehab,” by Anne M. Fletcher, a science writer whose previous books include the highly acclaimed “Sober for Good.”
“There are exceptions, but of the many thousands of treatment programs out there, most use exactly the same kind of treatment you would have received in 1950, not modern scientific approaches,” A. Thomas McLellan, co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, told Ms. Fletcher."
"Ms. Fletcher’s book, replete with the experiences of treated addicts, offers myriad suggestions to help patients find addiction treatments with the highest probability of success."
     "I did my homework after 28 days of residential treatment and a lot of AA meetings,"
 Jean said.

Women for Sobriety: "Women for Sobriety (WFS) was founded in the
mid-1970sby Jean Kirkpatrick, a woman with a doctorate in sociology 
who had a severe alcohol problem that she ultimately overcame herself
by changing her thoughts when she was lonely or depressed. Kirkpatrick
felt that women with drinking problems require different approaches
than men and began this abstinence-based program for women, taking
the position that drinking begins as a way of dealing 
with emotional issues and then evolves into addiction.

"Designed to bolster women’s sense of self-value, the WFS philosophy
stands in contrast with AA’s focus on humility and limiting 
self-centeredness, working from a position of empowerment. Members
are encouraged to learn how to better manage their issues by sharing
with and encouraging one another. A major emphasis is on 
substituting negative, self-destructive thoughts with positive, 
self-affirming ones. WFS uses 13 statements or affirmations that
emphasize increased self-worth, 
emotional and spiritual growth, not focusing on the past, personal
responsibility, problem solving, and attending to physical health."
Latest stats: WFS averages 
100 U.S. groups and a dozen in Canada.

SMART Recovery

     "SMART Recovery’s cornerstone is cognitive-behavioral approaches that help members recognize environmental and emotional factors for alcohol and other drug use (as well as other “addictive” behaviors) and then to respond to them in new, more productive ways. It also incorporates motivational interviewing concepts. Unlike some support groups whose principles remain static, SMART Recovery maintains a philosophy of evolving as scientific knowledge evolves."
     "SMART Recovery tools can help you regardless of whether or not you believe addiction is a disease. Working from empowerment, it encourages individuals to recover from addiction (as opposed to being “in recovery” or seeing themselves as having a lifelong “disease”) and is a recognized resource by multiple professional organizations, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Society of Addiction Medicine."
     "Although it is an abstinence-based program, SMART Recovery welcomes those who are ambivalent about quitting substance use. Its 4-point program guides participants in the following areas: (1) building and maintaining motivation; (2) coping with urges; (3) managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and (4) living a balanced life." 
Latest stats: 635 U.S. groups; 613 international groups. SMART Recovery also has a youth program and a Family & Friends program.

Refuge Recovery
     Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness meditation based community/program that practices Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of recovery. Refuge Recovery is an abstinence peer-led program that embraces people of all religious (or non), cultural, gender, socioeconomic, and mental health status. The core teachings are inspired by the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. Each RR meeting begins with mindfulness meditation, includes readings from Noah Levine's book Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovery and Meditation, and allows for personal sharing.
     From the Refuge Recovery perspective, the path of recovery begins with the first Noble Truth: addiction creates suffering. The second truth is that the cause of addiction is repetitive craving. Truth three states that recovery is possible. The fourth truth is that the end of addiction/suffering requires acknowledgement and full acceptance of the reality that there's no such thing as a life with no pain, and that recovering persons no longer need to harm themselves in response to it. All Four of the Noble Truths help recovering persons explore the root causes of their repetitive craving and to deal with those causes in a compassionate way.
     (The Refuge Recovery community program is not to be confused with treatment centers operating under the same name.)
Latest Stats: 600 meetings (U.S., Canada, and Chiang Mai, Thailand). Also on-line meetings.

     It was interesting stuff. Like most people, I had only known about AA. But what about the talking dog?
    "That story has nothing to do with my recovery," Jean said. "But it's a good laugh, don't you think?"


Friday, September 9, 2016

The Recovery Diaries: Chinese Cemetery

This is a continuation of interviews with and journal excerpts from Jean, a woman in treatment at a recovery center in northern Thailand. I am grateful for Jean's candor.

"I'm in treatment for drug and alcohol use. My idea. I'm staying in a low key former resort in northern Thailand. It is surrounded by fields and trees, and overlooks a Chinese mausoleum carved into a hill. The hill is covered with grass that a caretaker mows slowly every day with a push mower. Chickens follow him searching for grubs. In the distance, you can see mountains. There are telephone poles and wires along the road next to the hill. Birds gather on the wires.

I'm no poet but I wrote a verse about the cemetery.

If I were that bird on the wire, gazing on the cemetery planted in the hill where chickens scatter. The man mows the dead every day. Deliberately. Slowly. Clouds lifting and falling in the mountains beyond. Then I too would sing.

It's beautiful here although there's nothing upscale about this "resort". The red metal roofed bungalows are dark and austere inside so it's nice to be outdoors most of the time. There's a clean little pool. My fellow "inmates" are nice."

One is a very young man with no responsibilities in the outside world. His family takes care of everything for him. His use and dealing make a lot of drama for them that they then clean up. He has already tried to create drama here but has been cautioned with expulsion. It's up to me not to get pulled in. The other fellow staying here is a dad with lots of kids. He loves them and is trying to get straight for them.

All three of us are daunted by the journey to sobriety.

Journey to sobriety! Sounds like an AA slogan. This is in fact a 12 step program. Unapologetically so. The drill sergeant in charge/head counselor is a street wise British bulldog of a man. We're required to memorize and work the steps. It is not possible to bullshit him so I respect him. He is unrelentingly honest but not brutally so. The others might disagree.

The young man constructs what seem to me to be lies about himself and his use. He does this in the mandatory counseling group sessions. The drill sergeant confronts him relentlessly. I wonder what it will take for him to get square with himself? However, his recovery is not my business. My recovery is. He is a distraction. A shadow.

I am not wanting to be a shadow which is what I was turning into by drinking and hiding. I tricked myself into believing that I could just drink myself into that good night in a gentle quiet way. I forgot that alcoholism takes your body by the inches. I have watched people die from it. It does not take you gently into that good night. There is a lot of puke and blood and shit. There is a lot of suffering.

Strange that I would choose suffering in such a way for myself. Alcoholism--my parents' in particular--has always disgusted me. Drunks do disgusting things. Abuse their spouses and their children. Chase away their friends. Piss away their money.

God, but there are some big insects here! Grasshoppers the size of sticks and bees as big as my thumb! I'm writing this on the porch of my bungalow. I've set up the fan so as to have a breeze. Although cloudy, it's quite humid and in the nineties.

We had a group this morning where I admitted that Mother's Day (in Thailand today) gives me a pang and brings up unpleasant memories of my mom. I especially like to dwell on her attempted suicide when I was in tenth grade. The shame of walking in on it with some friends after Saturday afternoon at the movies. My friend Lisa's father coming to pick her up and silently assessing the situation. Broken down door and the police milling about. What blows me away now that I think about it was that the police just left us-- a sobbing suicidal woman on the bed with her incredibly angry daughter and a broken down door. There were no follow-up visits from a social worker. No treatment for my mom who should have been taken to the hospital that evening for observation. It's funny but I just realized that. We were left to fend for ourselves.

It didn't occur to me or to my mom to ask for help. I condemned her for being weak and for thwarting my hopes for a happy family with her boozing and drugging and serial loser boyfriends. She was in a world of hurt and had been for some time. I was as an adolescent wrapped up in my own world as teens are. As an adult, I remember many times suggesting that she get counseling. She blew it off. The honesty required in counseling would have killed her.

Or so she thought.

I brought up my mom in group today and one of the counselors-- the youngest one whose own mother had just died-- said that eventually I'd let it go or that I needed to or words to that effect. Later, the head counselor said privately that he didn't think anybody ever let that kind of anger toward parents go although we did come to realize that our parents were also very sick. Which is true. And toward the end of her life, I did come to see that she was a lonely sick frightened woman who had done the best she could given who she was. Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough.

I forgive her as an adult but the lonely, scared teen inside me hasn't. She is still looking for a mother. I am looking for peace. I am looking for peace. I am looking for peace."

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Recovery Diaries

Note to readers: I recently met a woman named Jean, in her sixties, who was in treatment for alcoholism. She agreed to be interviewed about her recovery provided I respected her privacy by not disclosing her name or location. In this and in future blog entries, I will publish these interviews, entitled The Recovery Diaries.

"Both of my parents were raging drunks. The last thing I ever expected to do was follow in their footsteps. I have been abusing alcohol for twenty years and was a full-on drunk for the last four.

My childhood was lonely and painful due to my parents' alcoholism. The feeling I had most as a kid was shame. Their drinking was supposed to be a big secret. The fights, poverty, and abuse that resulted, too. All of it was too terrible for anyone outside the family to know. Outsiders couldn't understand anyway. I carried this shame through adulthood up to the present day. I am in my sixties with a lonely child who is in a lot of pain living inside my heart.

Of course it bewilders me that I went out and developed my own cozy relationship with a bottle! This relationship got even closer after my husband died several years ago. During post-husband time, I moved to Asia where I did a lot of interesting (I think) things. But I was mostly intoxicated when I did them. My memories are foggy. Such a shame. I would have liked to have been there.

I have been sober almost six weeks. It feels good. I'm actually present, thanks in part to my open friendship with Bill W. Met a lot of interesting people at meetings since accepting The Steps. Do I have stories to tell! Except I won't because one of the principles of AA is anonymity. But I will tell you that there are mostly men at the meetings I have gone to all over the city. I know there are women drunks out there but I guess they don't go to meetings. Not sure why that is. Wish they would.

My sponsor tells me that AA is a spiritual program. Who knew? All these many years I have been a spiritual seeker wondering why I wasn't making any progress. I've wandered down the Christian trail and up the Buddhist path with detours at Universalism, New Age, and agnosticism. Turns out there was no reason to wonder. The problem and solution were right under my nose.

Problem: alcoholism. Solution: a simple, non-ego reinforcing spiritual practice that demands abstinence, honesty, communication, and community.

It's amazing how much of a given I thought alcohol was. Never even considered that it was the reason I could not get grounded and floundered around, unable to get traction.

I'm now working the Third Step.  Already worked the first two which have to do with admitting that your life is a mess due to powerlessness over alcohol. Step Three is, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." Truth is, my belief in God is pretty murky. The God I was exposed to in my Christian upbringing seems pretty ineffectual. First, He sent me alcoholic parents and then did little to stop the damage they inflicted on my life. For a follow-up, He sent me depression at age fourteen. Depression liked me so well it decided to be my life long companion. All I can say is, God if you are out there, thanks a lot!

I've studied Buddhism also. Buddhists say they don't believe in God. They believe in meditation. But meditation is cold comfort when you wake up lonely and in pain in the middle of the night.

Alcohol numbs the pain. So, you might say that my religion was alcoholism and my God was alcohol. The only problem is, the practice of this religion means you die slowly by the inches.

My sponsor says to have faith. More will be revealed. Sounds like a carney's pitch at a side show. But this side show happens to be my life. Without faith, I've ended up at the brink of suicide.

Ah, well, to be continued. So much of this feels like going around in circles. Seen lots of doctors and therapists for depression. The relief they provide is much like alcohol. Temporary.

But I've never done treatment before. Never worked the steps. Never undertaken a spiritual program for my problems with Spirit. Wish me luck."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Singing In the Rain

At age sixty-one, I’m learning a new language. Why? l live in northern Thailand. The culture here is generally gracious and playful, and it would be fun to be able to participate more in what’s happening around me. Speaking Thai is a good way to do that.
But studying Thai means learning to sing a very long song.
That’s because Thai is tonal. It is sung-spoken. So, in addition to memorizing words, I must also learn a word’s tone on “a scale” in order to sing-speak and be understood.
The scale has five tones: high, low, rising, falling, and middle. For example, “kau” pronounced with a short rising tone means “he” but said with a longer falling tone means “rice”.  The syllable “maa” can be pronounced five different ways and mean five different things--I think. Even with my limited Thai, I could give you a lot more examples. If you’re confused, mai bpen lai (no worries)—so am I.
As you can imagine, tones lend themselves to a lot of word play that Thais enjoy, and also make for sophisticated poetry and literature. But tones can be baffling to those learning the language. The more I study, the more confused I am. For the past ten weeks, throughout the rainy season, I have been studying for a total of one hundred twenty hours (not counting homework). Singing, confused, in the rain.
My teacher, Ahjaan Noi, keeps saying, “ Thai ngai! (Thai is easy!)”
But Thai is not easy. When I visited America, my native country, this past summer, many people asked casually if I’d learned to speak Thai, “Asian” and/or Taiwanese, yet? For the record: there is no language called Asian, just as there is no tongue called European. German, French, Hungarian, Polish and a host of other languages are spoken in Europe. Asia is home to Mandarin, Malay, Khmer, Hindi, English and myriad other tongues. (There is no language called Taiwanese. I don’t live in Taiwan so there’s no practical point in learning the languages spoken there right now. But I digress.)
Thailand is in Southeast Asia; Taiwan is an island off eastern China

Friday, July 31, 2015

Divorce and Re-Marriage (with the Same Person)

     My second husband, Nat, and I married about fifteen months after my marriage of twenty-nine years ended. After two years, we divorced. Recently, we married again in Chicago. Most people don't remarry after they divorce. We are a statistical anomaly.

     My first husband, John, died in January, 2008. He was 55--I was 53-- when he died. A devoted Christian and gifted math teacher, he preferred to live rather than talk about his faith. Although death comes to everyone, I fell into shock and depression when he was gone. I had loved him deeply and he me. We had started a school in an inner city together, traveled the world with each other, and written books as a team. More than that, we were totally committed to each other.

     After a time, I realized that I needed to make some major changes in my life if I were to survive his death and ultimately thrive. Type A, driven personality that I used to be, I dove into medical school to earn a much longed for masters of public health and tried to figure out how to live and work abroad. This had been my dream since I was 18 years old, but for various reasons and insecurities, continuously put on hold. John's death underscored that life is short. It was time to move forward despite all my grief and insecurities.

     However, I wanted a life partner to explore this next part of my life with me.  Relentlessly, I put out a request to God for a soulmate. Be advised! Such a request is dangerous. Soulmates show you where you need to grow the most. But that is what I wanted--not to be admired but to grow. So after a time, I signed up for on-line dating--Perfect Match-- (for those of you who are curious). There I met many very nice and not so nice men. The last match was Nat.

     His picture featured a handsome dark knight in shining armor (that's how he described himself) with sexy eyes and a stained T-shirt. (Oddly, I found the T-shirt endearing.) For weeks, we talked for hours on the phone. Finally we met. But our first date was a disaster. There was too much anxiety on both our parts which manifested as arguing. However, during subsequent dates, the anxiety disappeared. We became good friends, and realized we had some pretty deep spiritual, intellectual, and emotional connections.

    Nat was the only person I wanted to accompany me to Chicago when my mom was dying in the hospital.  Putting it mildly, our relationship had always been difficult. Maybe in the hospital, there was a chance that some healing of our relationship could finally occur. But even if this didn't happen, I wanted to spend mom's final hours with her. I didn't want her to die alone.

      Once at the hospital, my mom told me she knew she was dying. She could scarcely breathe. Mostly she was sedated and slept. But two days before she died, mom woke up and asked me to tell her a joke.

      "Everything is too serious in this hospital," she gasped.

       It was understandable that my mom needed a laugh. We both did. But telling jokes is not my forte. And anyway, what kind of joke do you tell your dying mother?

        So I bided for time.

        "I'll come back tomorrow with one," I said.

         Mom went back to sleep.

         When I got back to our hotel, I asked Nat, who used to be in sales, and knows a lot of stories, for advice. He told me an Ole and Lena joke. Those of you from the upper Midwest have probably heard more than a few Ole and Lena's-- jokes about a married Norwegian/Minnesotan frugal farm couple who aren't too quick on the uptake. They are best told with some kind of Scandinavian accent.
       Here's the joke.

       Ole is on his death bed at home.
       He asks his wife, "Lena, is everyone here?"
       Lena replies, "Yes, Ole. All your friends and family are right here in the bedroom with you."
       "Lena, are you sure?" Ole says.
       "Yes, Ole, I'm sure they are all here."
       "Well, if that's so, Lena, why are the lights on in the living room?"

       My mom, who had always been extremely frugal of necessity as a single mom raising kids on a clerical salary, laughed when I told her this joke. Then she said was happy that I had found a new love.
       She died the next day.

      Shortly after my mom died, Nat and I married. I landed a job as a counselor at an international school in Hong Kong. We lived in Hong Kong and then after a couple of years retired to Thailand.

     Not to be repetitive, but soulmates, despite great love for each other, point out the areas where both need to grow. Depending upon the resistance, obstinacy, flexibility, and ultimately love of the partners, this can lead to deep growth or great pain and/or both. The ability of both partners to love ultimately decides whether the relationship continues.

     Our first years were painful. We reached an impasse through which there seemed no thoroughfare and divorced. But we never parted ways. Our connection remained. We nurtured it through counseling (painful but insightful), phone calls, dates, and trips. We let go of unnecessary expectations and discovered commitment to core values.  Our love deepened as did our relationship.
We realized that love is the most powerful force in the universe. So we  tapped into it. Two years ago, Nat and I remarried. We remain steadfastly a statistical anomaly.

      In many ways, we have an unconventional marriage. But it suits us. And that's what matters. Upon remarriage, we had a honeymoon in Alaska complete with the blessing of humpback whales we saw in sunny Juneau.

          Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Let go. Tap into it.


Friday, May 15, 2015

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been


The subtitle of this blog site is "my second life". My second life began at 11 am on January 9, 2008. That was when I decided to turn off life support for you in a hospital room in Madison, WI.

For three days, the room had already smelled like decay -- ever since you were carted out of surgery where something had gone terribly wrong. It was supposed to have been a routine heart valve replacement procedure. Turned out it wasn't.

You died almost immediately on the operating table near dawn on January 7. There was a thunderstorm right after you went into surgery. This was strange for January in Wisconsin. It felt ominous.

For reasons only known to your doctors and other hospital staff, you were kept "alive" through technology in a private ICU room after you died. Sometimes in my dreams, I can hear the whoosh of the machine that was breathing for you. And even though I knew you were already gone, deciding to turn off life support was excruciatingly painful. It was so final.

Today would have been your sixty-third birthday. We always made a big deal out of birthdays and celebrated them for days. After all, there was much to celebrate. You were kind, smart, funny, generous, and adventuresome. You loved me unconditionally, warts and all. If I was queen of the universe, everyone would have the opportunity to be loved the way you loved me.

And I loved you back with a persistent intensity I had never felt before. This intensity lasted twenty-nine years, the length of time we were married.

A few months after you died, an acquaintance pointed out to me that not everyone gets to experience the kind of love I had in my marriage. "At least you got to do that," she said in a  voice tinged with envy. "Count your blessings." Although she meant no harm--I think-- her words only served to make me more painfully aware of what I had lost. In my bubble of being so completely loved, I had been blind to the fact that many people had marriages or relationships that were based upon money or safety or habit. All of these had little to do with love.

You told me often, "Connie, you have no idea what we have." You were right. We were innocents enjoying life together in the Garden. When you died, I was cast out of Eden.

My life since you left, has been wandering around in the wilderness without a map. True, it has been filled with accomplishments and travel. I didn't wrap myself up in widow's weeds and climb into the tomb with you, much as I wanted to. But believe me when I say that I can understand why Indian widows traditionally often joined their husbands in death. Life after the passing of someone I loved as passionately as I loved you has been an act of will.

By outward appearances, my "recovery" has been successful. Since January 9, 2008, I have traveled to many countries, lived and worked in Thailand and Hong Kong, (both of which were life long dreams), and earned a graduate degree from a medical school in the U.S. I've had adventures too numerous to mention--including performing in plays in Chiang Mai-- and made many new, albeit transient, friends.

But what do you do when the person who gave you the greatest joy is no longer around? What accomplishment compensates for when the person who knew and loved your deepest secret heart is missing in action?

I know that my more metaphysically inclined readers will say that you're still here with me. Or that we'll be reunited in the afterlife.

There was a dream I had shortly after you died. In it, I was wailing and "woke up" to see you standing next to my bed.

"Why are you crying?" you said.

"Because you're dead!"

"Are you sure?" you smiled. I was puzzled. And relieved. Maybe I was mistaken.

Then I woke up for real.

So, even if you are still with me in spirit, not having you here right now in the flesh is not even remotely satisfying.

One of my friends likes to tell me that "Life is meant to be enjoyed." I have no doubt that for some people this is true. But for those who grieve, enjoyment is elusive. And the expectation that I should be enjoying grief is burdensome.

Perhaps for me life is meant to be survived and questioned?

In any case, surviving and questioning are the things I find myself doing, as I wander along on this long strange trip since you and I went our separate ways seven and a half years ago.

Happy birthday, my love.

In memory: John L. Mudore, 5/16/52 to 1/9/08

Thursday, December 25, 2014

And We Still Have a Long Way to Go

It’s been almost six years since my life partner of 30 years died. He died this time of year. This is the first holiday season since John has been gone that a fog of grief hasn’t enveloped me around Christmas. Partly, I’ve been too busy to hang onto grief—working and rehearsing for two plays have been pretty all consuming. (There was also a wonderful trip to Hong Kong in November.) Partly, the compassionate intelligence that runs the universe pushed me through a door to the other side of grief. It's pretty interesting on the other side if for no other reason than it requires me to be a lot less self-absorbed.

This month's blog is a little different: it's another excerpt from the novel I'm writing. It's a fiction/nonfiction blend like all novels-- not autobiographical in many respects-- yet it describes the foundation for why I live in Asia.... Oh, and one more thing...I have always loved libraries and The Brighton Park library was my first love. (To jog your memories, the main character of the novel is Kate, a sixth grader living in blue collar Chicago in the 1960s.)

Kate had once written a book report about Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary who ventured from France to explore the Great Lakes region in the1600's. Her geography assignment had been to write something about a pioneer explorer with some connection to Chicago. Kate's favorite park was named after Marquette so she picked him.

Jacques Marquette spent a lot of time in what were now Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois before canoeing down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River. When he got to the Arkansas, he found out that the Spanish were already there. This spooked him. The French and Spanish were not getting along at the time. He feared being captured. So he and his friends turned around and paddled back up the Mississippi. They returned to the Illinois Territory in late 1674. The World Book Encyclopedia and various biographies said different things so Kate wasn't too sure how it happened, but somehow Marquette became one of the first Europeans to winter in what would become the city of Chicago.

Winters in Chicago were windy, damp, and often brutally cold. When she asked her best friend what Catholics knew about Father Marquette, Daiva said that the nuns at Immaculate Conception called him Pere Marquette and told students that the Jesuits were the smartest priests in the Catholic Church. Kate thought that even if he was adventuresome, and according to her research, very good at learning languages--something Kate envied--Marquette couldn't have been that bright if he had other choices but decided to winter in Chicago. Or leave the sparkling light of France for that matter. But smart or not, Marquette was a famous pioneer explorer and many places in the Midwest were named after him.

Kate considered herself to be a budding, although not yet famous, explorer. She could get to Marquette Park by taking the Archer Avenue bus, transferring at Kedzie, transferring again at the Kedzie/55th Street bus hub and then riding to 67th and Kedzie where the park was. It was a forty minute trip from home. Kate knew this wasn't as long or dangerous as canoeing around on the Mississippi, but it was not as easy as taking one bus to get downtown to where the museums were. As a result, Kate didn't get to the park much. But when she did, she was glad for the effort. For one thing, Marquette Park was green and alive. At three hundred acres, it was the biggest city park on the southwest side of Chicago. It had lots of huge trees, a sparkling lagoon, and a rose garden. There was also a stone field house that looked like a castle. Once inside the park, Kate forgot the factories and rough and tumble industrial neighborhoods that surrounded her. She could almost see the light of France.

In late July, her parents, much to her surprise, told her not to go there anymore because it wasn't safe. Dr. Martin Luther King was set to lead a march at the park on August 5. Everyone was expecting trouble they said. Kate was stunned. Not safe at her beautiful park? And even worse: who was the snitch who told her parents she went there?

Her dad was edgily excited the entire week before the march. He drank even more than usual and muttered things about how they'd show that King troublemaker he shoulda stayed down south where he belonged. He began singing the Oscar Maier Wiener song around the house which was strange since he rarely sang. Plus, he didn't actually sing the real words which were, "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Maier winer. That is what I'd truly love to be. 'Cuz if I were an Oscar Maier wiener. Everyone would be in love with me." Instead he bellowed, "I'd love to be an Alabama trooper. That is what I'd truly love to be. 'Cuz if I were an Alabama trooper, I could hang a nigger legally." 

Kate was disgusted. This was a new low even for him.

The day before the march, Kate went to The Brighton Park Library. She'd been working her way through the library's most up to date collection of World Book Encyclopedia published in 1965. Her goal was to read all the volumes cover to cover. Although currently in volume 10, she decided to detour to eleven that covered J/K.

Maybe the encyclopedia would help her unravel the mystery of Dr. King. Why was he going to march in Chicago? What was this "open housing" that he kept talking about? Why did so many people have such strong opinions about him? She had watched him speak on TV. He talked a lot about peace and nonviolence. But what did that have to do with Marquette Park?

World Book wasn't much help. There was only a brief entry about Dr. King describing him as a Baptist minister who was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He had attended a bunch of different colleges including one in Chicago called The Chicago Theological Seminary. In 1958, he had written a book called Stride to Freedom. The encyclopedia went on to say that he led a Negro movement to end racial segregation in the U.S. by organizing peaceful protest marches as part of his "passive resistance program". It didn't explain what passive resistance was. Dr. King took part in these marches and for some reason was jailed several times. In 1963, he also did something to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama but there was no mention of what it was.

She checked the date to make sure the volume was actually published in1965. It was.

Kate searched the shelves and card catalogue for books about him. There weren't any, including the one he had written, in the library. She even investigated the children's section where she rarely spent any time even though all she had was a juvenile card. Kate had devised a way to check out books from the adult collection which was where all the interesting books were. If questioned by the librarians who snarled when she tried to take out adult books, she said they were for her dad who worked long hours and wasn't able to get to the library when it was open. After all, this was partly true. Her dad--unlike her mom--loved to read even though his drinking prevented him from getting to the library often. He had taken Kate to the library when she was in second grade to get her first card. Because he especially enjoyed books about military history, he selected one for her about World War Two, but  because he was drunk, it was from the adult collection. She had struggled with it. Besides having a lot of big words, the story--something about a submarine--was pretty dull. However, she finished it and returned the book for a more interesting one about Paris. Kate had been hooked on the library ever since. 

But if this library didn't have books about Dr. King, what else didn't it have?