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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. All 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. John was a positive person, an athlete, and watched what he ate. 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 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 the Universe 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. For weeks, we talked for hours on the phone. Finally we met. Our first date was a disaster.

     However, subsequent dates were magical. Nat was the only person I wanted to accompany me to Chicago when my mom was dying and I wanted to spend her final hours with her. He gave me an Ole and Lena joke to share with her hours before she died. She laughed and was happy that I had found a new love.

     Although this sounds trite, Nat and I recognized on a deep level that we had known each other in many previous lives. Our connection, despite many superficial differences, was deep and uncanny. We married, left America, and lived in Hong Kong and then 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.

      In many ways, we have an unconventional marriage. But it suits us. And that's what matters.We remarried this past July and this time 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?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Robin Williams and My Friend Norm in What Dreams May Come

In memory of Robin Williams, last night I watched What Dreams May Come, one of my favorite movies. Williams, in the film, plays a man who descends into hell to rescue his wife after she ends her own life. Hell is portrayed as a surreal state of self-absorption and denial that results in a person's total isolation.

This lines up pretty closely with what I think hell is.

I've watched What Dreams May Come many times, but what struck me last night for the first time was how much Robin Williams--if you added a beard-- looked like Norm, a friend I made in Portland, Oregon's skid row back in the late seventies.

Norm had been a philosophy major at Santa Clara College and it showed. Whenever we got into political, theological, or otherwise "deep" conversations about anything, he would inevitably switch sides in the middle of the discussion and argue the opposite point of view. This drove me crazy until I realized that although he could argue any perspective passionately, he really didn't have a point of view. Rather, Norm had points of view. It wasn't the position that mattered to him. It was the discourse.

We were both in our twenties, fresh out of college, and still believed that positions, opinions, ideologies--whatever you want to call them--mattered. Four decades later I marvel at the energy we had then to expend on such heated exchanges.

But we weren't just debating in an ivory tower. Both of us worked in an agency that tried to help chronic alcoholics in Portland's skid row. For the uninitiated, skid rows can be found in any city. They are areas packed with dank single room occupancy hotels (also known as flophouses), convenience liquor stores, Gospel missions, and bars where you can get fleas with your beer. The residents are generally men, many of whom are disabled military veterans, who have chronic alcohol and substance abuse issues. My job--on paper--was to be a crime victims' advocate. However,  I did very little crime victims' assistance. The agency I worked for was pretty disorganized and rarely knew when cases were going to court. So mostly, I went around to the flophouses with a nurse and did health checks, delivered Meals on Wheels, and listened to the sad life stories of those who were sober for the moment.

It's an understatement to say that most chronic alcoholics living on skid row aren't especially concerned about hygiene. It took me a while to learn to control my gag reflex upon entering the foul smelling hotels. A lot of the guys told me they got mugged pretty regularly. Disabled and drunk, they were easy targets.  You'd think the acrid odor of urine, excrement, and vomit that emanated from the men would have provided some protection against crime by acting as a chemical barrier. But when they staggered out to buy booze or smokes, thieves apparently didn't mind the reek, and clubbed or knifed the guys to steal what little they had. Who knows? The thieves probably smelled pretty bad, too.

Having the stench and violence of skid row as the backdrop for our heated debates about the meaning of life, the value of religion, and the causes of poverty and other social evils, gave Norm's and my exchanges even greater intensity than they might have had under other circumstances. To top it off, Norm was a Catholic-he was raised in an arch conservative Irish Catholic family-- while I had grown up in a fundamentalist Protestant church and had had a bellyful of Christianity. Mercifully, Norm was not pedantic or proselytizing about his religion. Even about Catholicism, he had multiple points of view and could poke fun at the Church with the best of them. He, unlike me, didn't take himself too seriously. In the heat of debate, he would wink at me, stroke his unruly beard, and break into the goofiest grin I have ever seen on God's green earth.  The grin said, "Connie, you've been had." I saw that grin again and again as I attempted through arguing with Norm to make sense of skid row and to some extent of the larger world.

Norm was very popular on skid row. He was known for his kindness and integrity. The men who came into the agency always sought him out. Even when he had to put on a stern look to remove a client from the agency for being disorderly, he did it in a way that allowed the man to keep his dignity. I admired and respected that about him. Norm had a light touch with people. One of his favorite ways to get folks to ease up when they were getting too intense would be to say in a fakey hypnotic tone, "You are as light as a feather." And then grin. It usually got people to laugh. Even the drunk ones.

I haven't seen Norm for a long time. After a few years in Portland, he went back to California and became the director of a social service agency and I moved to Wisconsin to work as a counselor. What were the personal demons that attracted us to skid row in the first place? I don't think Norm had any but mine was that my father had died of liver disease due to alcoholism in a flophouse in Chicago. I never saw him when he lived on skid row but after he died, I guess some part of me wanted to see what that version of hell looked like. In Portland, I got to see the end game: the slow and excruciatingly painful suicide that uses alcohol as a weapon. My dad had definitely suffered as much or even more than those of us who had borne the brunt of his illness. After working on skid row, I hoped he wasn't suffering any more.

I can see and hear Norm in my mind's eye now. He's grinning. "Remember, Connie, you are as light as a feather." He's right, of course. In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams' character rescues his wife from hell by being willing to leave heaven and to go and stay with her in hell. This action breaks her out of her self-absorption. They both float up like feathers into a heaven of their own making.                                         

Wow. This would be a great discussion to have with Norm. I wonder what he's doing now?