Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas In the UK, 2010

Christmas Carol Singalong at the Royal Albert Hall
Happy Christmas from the UK, where it is a tradition to give out ‘crackers’-- cardboard tubes wrapped in festive paper that, when pulled, pop out a tissue crown, a useless toy, and a silly joke! Where the Christmas meal includes brussels sprouts, sausages, and this weird, flaming clump called Christmas pudding! Where everyone gathers around the telly on Christmas afternoon to listen to an address from the Queen! Where Boxing Day is celebrated with as much enthusiasm as the day that commemorates the saviour’s birth!

It is snowy here in England, one of an endless stream of wintry grey days that fold early into dark, black night. We string lights around windows and wear colourful scarves and cling to any spot of sun that brings a bit of brightness to our dreary winter season. We plan long weekends on warm beaches or desert resorts and wait in quiet acceptance for the promise of spring.

On days like this, I wonder if I did not lose my mind, almost two years ago, when I left family, friends and the comfort of a predictable job to move halfway around the world at the age of 52. On days like this, I am mindful of what I miss about life in the US, but also of the things I love about living on this quirky island in the North Sea.

What I Miss Most

Space: London houses roughly 12,500 people per square mile, a sliver of land bulging at the seams with humanity, leaving little room to move and breathe. In the mornings, we cram onto buses and trains, scurry down steps to the subway ‘tube’, bump into each other on skinny sidewalks, trudge home at night to tiny sitting areas too small to be termed ‘living rooms.’ No large, sweeping lanais, grand back yards, or walk-in closets here, at least not where I and most of the working class live.

I miss wide streets, miles of saw grass dotted with ponds and canals, patches of trees that line highways leading to long stretches of sugary, sandy beach.

Infrastructure: Duo-mat washers that crumple clothes into a wrinkled heap, ageing radiators that sizzle and boil but leave the room with pockets of frozen air, refrigerators the size of the dormitory fridges we had in college, plumbing pipes connected with duct tape to toilets that were not brought indoors until the 70s. The 1970s. Crumbling streets that cannot handle the bumper to bumper traffic, repairs that take weeks to schedule, and the laughable ineptitude of the Royal Mail.

Six weeks of holiday and working days that start at 9 a.m. and end promptly at 5 are great for employees, but an infuriating lack of service is one of the unfortunate consequences of a society that is not so work-driven. Queuing up, (or standing in line), is a daily activity, here, for 30 minutes to an hour, in the shops or on the telephone. Even the subways close down at midnight, leaving people who have attended late concerts ‘scrambling to make the tube.’ And an inch of snow brings the entire country to a grinding halt. Apparently those who manage the inner workings of this country have never heard of a shovel or a snow plow.

I miss the ease with which things flow in the United States—late night stores and restaurants, providers willing to accommodate working people, clothes you can pull from the dryer and wear without ironing, more than two cashiers in a busy grocery or clothing shop.

My friend said that England is called the “land of inconvenience.” It is a title that fits.

Family, Friends, and Familiarity: It is the country that birthed ours. It is a country with a shared language, shared history, and shared culture. But it is only now becoming a familiar place. They drive on the wrong side of the road, love baked potatoes with weird fillings stuffed in them, have an odd fondness for Heinz beans, and smoke like chimneys on the streets. They are a distant and formal people, who hide their detachment with polite speech and terms of endearment like ‘darlin’ and ‘love.’

I miss the known world of the country from which I came. I miss being able to pick up the phone and call best friends, and drive to see them when I am feeling alone. I miss the daily connection with my son, who is studying hard at University, whose life has blossomed in spite of his mother’s absence. I miss being able to visit cousins and aunts and uncles and siblings and nieces and nephews with a few hours’ drive or a short flight.

There is something to be said for living a life at ease, surrounded by people who know you best.

What I Love
No Guns: Crime exists, here, of course. People are robbed, burgled (I myself was robbed in February), sometimes stabbed. But the streets here do not carry the same feeling of paranoia and tension as American city streets. Mass shootings occur rarely and, when they do occur, are met with outrage and shock. Even the police do not have guns, a feature of their role that requires them to rule through collaboration rather than coercion.

Progressive, liberal, bleeding heart: There is a safety net for the poor here that, while insufficient, at least exists. People receive housing. Jobless receive a small allowance. Everyone is entitled to a basic level of care, including health care. Though the Tories are now in charge, and are making massive cuts, there are certain things they do not dare to question: the right of people to have a bed in which to sleep, a roof over their heads, and food to eat--the right of people to seek medical care without it crippling their future. Trade unions are celebrated and not a dirty word. People still protest in the streets. And the only tea baggers here are ones who pull them from their English tea!

Diverse: The other day I was walking down the street when an old Jamaican lady became tickled by the greeting honk of a bus driver speeding by. She spoke to me in a blend of Patois and English that I could not understand. But I delighted in her joy. Every day I share my work space with people from Zimbabwe, the Congo, India, South Africa, the Caribbean, Iran. I work with young men fleeing war and persecution in Eritrea and Afghanistan. I ride the bus home with women in saris and men in kufis and others in dreadlocks that reach the middle of their backs. I have learned about the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Muslim observance of Ramadan and their celebration of Eid. I have shared foods and juices prepared by foster carers who come from all over the world. Each day I learn something new about the people and cultures that surround me here, where we all manage to live together in community.

Culture and History: I have seen live theatre productions with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum and James Earl Jones. I have seen plays that I read and cherished as a child enacted on the greatest stages in the world. I have been to concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and seen the original works of Vincent Van Gogh. I am surrounded by the spirits of the greatest writers that ever lived—Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. I have seen the great works of art at the Louvre. I stood at the site of a 6th century monastery in Ireland. I have experienced a world far beyond an Indiana girl’s wildest dreams.

Travel: My father once boasted that he had been to two foreign countries and all the states. His two foreign countries were Canada, and Hawaii before it was a state. My sister’s last wish was to visit a foreign country, a wish that she did not live to fulfill. I like to think that part of this travel is for them. I have been to the highlands of Scotland in search of the monster at Loch Ness. I walked the freezing streets of Paris with my son, and sat in "Le Deux Magots” that once fed Hemmingway and Oscar Wilde. I stood at Chopin’s and Jim Morrison’s Paris graves. I have been to Dublin and Wales and Denmark and walked the clean, symmetrical streets of Sweden. In January I go to Morocco and will catch a ride to Casablanca on the Marrakesh Express. In February I travel to Istanbul. I have other destinations planned, places I had thought beyond possibility not so long ago. Amsterdam in August. Italy in July. Prague in September. Vienna for Christmas next year.

I do not know how long I will be here. Immigration laws are becoming more severe. Events and circumstances may eventually call me home. If I have learned anything from the last few years, it is that it is foolish to believe in the sanctity of plans. Our lives can change in a moment, our futures turned upside down. Perhaps I was slightly mad when I decided to make this move. But I am so happy that I did.

Happy Christmas to all from across the pond~

~ Until we meet again.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hair! The Musical

I recently had the privilege of witnessing the phenomenon of Hair! The Musical, playing in London, and I remembered when I first became aware of it, around 1969. I was twelve years old. It was a bold production, surrounded by controversy, with nude bodies on stage at the end, a story of drugs and hippies and the horror of sending young boys to war. I stood around the bonfire in the back yard of our house with my brother and many of his friends, the summer it came to Indianapolis, and listened to Junior, one of the wild ones, regale us with his tales of the performance. I had been deemed too young to attend, and, as with many experiences of the sixties, I was forced to learn of it second hand, from the mouths of those older and wiser than me.

The current cast members of Hair were not even born when the first production hit the stage, yet they were able in some small measure to capture the scent and the feel of those heady times—the sense of freedom and the naive hope that filled the air, the firm belief that we could actually change the way the world worked, that we could operate with a new paradigm, and from that paradigm build a new society based on love and togetherness and mutual respect for the earth and each other. It was a short lived dream, dampened by hard drugs and Charlie Manson and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, finished off by the violence at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont Springs. But, for awhile, it was a glorious ride.

I was only twelve years old at the end of the decade, too young, most would think, to have taken in the flavor of those days. But I was lucky. I was the youngest of four, with older siblings, and my home was, shall we say, a rather open environment, a place that inhabited all the sordid and profane and beautiful elements that belonged to the era. We provided shelter for many houseguests, during those years, some dodging the draft, some hiding from police, some who came to either indulge in or kick their drug addictions. Smoke filled the upstairs bedroom, (the smell of ‘burning rope,’ my mother used to say), drifting down the steps and through the windows into the yard, where bonfires were held, guitar notes picked, folk songs sung in unison. I sat on feather mattresses with people ten years older than me who engaged in deep discussions about communes and rock music and the draft and the war. I grew my hair long and parted it in the middle, like them, made sand candles, learned to macramé. Our coffee table held underground newspapers sold in the street markets of Talbot Village in Indianapolis. I listened to my sister argue with my dad about the Chicago 7 and the Democratic Convention of 1968. Our bedroom, painted white with black curtains, in honor of the “White Room with Black Curtains” song by Cream, held posters blazoned in psychedelic colors and declaring “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” I spent hours with my face in front of the hi-fi, my ears against the speakers, the albums of Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Janis and Jimi and the Doors, piled all around me.

As a chubby girl from a family with no money, surrounded by kids dressed in crisp trendy clothes whose parents had boats docked on freshwater lakes in the south, I struggled with a sense of isolation and alienation most of my young life. I received Ds in citizenship at Crestview Elementary for my outbursts of temper and endless streams of tears, and I developed a reputation on the school bus for my ability to beat up all the boys. Let’s just say I had issues.

But then I discovered “the sixties,” and I drank it in, all of it, like milk laid out for a starving cat. Suddenly I had found a place I belonged. If I couldn’t afford the latest white fringed go-go boots the girls bought from Ayres Department store downtown, I could tie dye old tee shirts and string love beads to wear around my neck. If I couldn’t shake pom poms and put on a cheerleader outfit, I could wrap a leather band around my forehead and sew patches on my bell bottom jeans.

And “the sixties” gave me another gift: a sense of purpose. No longer did I think only of myself and my own perceived problems and sorrows. I could focus instead on the suffering of others, and try to do something to put an end to it. I could take all the outrage that had been smoldering in my internal cauldron and unleash it on the world. I read all I could about the movements of the day, inhaling the literature of the Black Panthers, the Yippies, (Steal this Book!), the anti war movement, the American Indians. From them I learned that there were other ways to live and be in the world, that there were things more important than shopping and grades and homecoming dances (to which I would never be invited anyway) and proms. From them I found a world outside the tiny, myopic vision of suburban Indianapolis. From them I gained a sense of the new world and my place in it.

That sense of purpose is with me still, though perhaps the anger and passion have waned a bit, having been tempered with loss and sorrow and joy and reflection and age. Today I live in the most ethnically diverse area of London, where I sit on the top deck of my double decker bus and listen to the languages of the world—Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Mandarin, Polish, French, Italian, Spanish—being spoken. I tread through government bureaucracy to help young Afghan boys who come from a country at war, who seek shelter and asylum and receive it, here, who are stuffed together behind boxes in trucks lined on ferries and, if they are fortunate enough to escape the watchful eye of the UK Border Patrol, manage to land in a place where they might have a chance to survive and thrive.

The sign outside the production of Hair! The Musical calls it “A Beacon of Hope in a Fallen World.” In spite of all the silliness and impetuousness and ultimate destructiveness of “the sixties,” they still carry the flavor of hope for me. I am so happy that I had a chance to be a part of those wild and heady years. I could not have survived my youth without the gift of their vision.

Sunday, May 16, 2010



Saint Kevin's Monastery in the Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

On Wednesday nights, I’ve begun to tune in to a riveting reality show called “Hoarders.” It is set here in England, and profiles the lives of people who hang onto piles of unusable and unnecessary collections, until their piles have spilled into the outside world, devastating their neighbours and their families, and most tragically, themselves. Space is a precious commodity here in the UK, our homes much smaller than those in the states, so their collections fill up the skinny hallways and tiny sitting rooms much faster,  thus exacerbating the severity of their plight.

These people may function fairly well in careers and in friendships outside of their homes, although not all of them do. Some of them have become imprisoned by the stacks of papers and plastic cartons and boxes that permeate their world, and they hide among their piles in shame, embarrassed to allow anyone else into their sphere. Others are able to find clean shirts and trousers, somehow, amongst their piles, and trot off to their workplaces and afternoon pub gatherings with friends, never revealing the enormity of the problem that lurks within their homes, behind closed curtains and locked doors.

I am fascinated by them for a variety of reasons. My sister was a hoarder, and my mother, and my father, to some extent, as well. Perhaps this compulsion to collect became a part of our genetic history, I have thought, passed down by ancestors who lost so much in their treks from their home countries to the United States, and across the states in wagons, where all that they owned was reduced to a couple of trunks and a few old dusty pictures. Perhaps it is just a facet of human nature gone awry, accentuated by our western focus on material wealth. I don’t know—but it seems to flow through our family’s blood, an inexorable trait, like our stocky builds, our angular faces, our sturdy thighs.

This peculiarity of the human condition fascinates me, too, because I have struggled against it myself. I moved many times, as a young person, from a tent in a field, to a pickup truck, to hole in the ground (or kiva) in Santa Fe, to a dorm room in the Marin Headlands, to a room that once held pigs in a village in Mexico. Each move, back then, forced me to come to terms with the amount of stuff I held onto, and through it all, I managed to keep my hoarding to an acceptable level—a few boxes of books and pictures, a can full of protest buttons, a container filled with posters and tee shirts.

Then I became a mother, a wife, a householder. And for the last 25 years of my life my definition of necessary stuff expanded, until it encompassed all things related to my son, my husband’s interests, my spiritual beliefs, and my career, eventually filling a three bedroom home. Books, clothes, Christmas decorations, pictures of my son in all his stages, school mementoes, all his awards, articles I found interesting, literary journals, magazines, boxes of my own writings, in various drafts, with and without critiques, pens, markers, scrapbooking materials, books on social work, religious texts, books about how to write, how to organize your writing, how to publish your writing, how to get over a writing drought—the stuff surrounding me, creeping into every available space. I kept it neat and tidy, stacked and hidden, but still. It was too much stuff.

From time to time, I would venture into the home where my mother and sister resided, attempting to help them come to terms with the mounds of things they held onto, and several times, when my sister was away, I would plough through it myself, filling dumpsters and second hand stores with the things they had collected, clearing the hallways of debris so that my mother could get through them without falling, cleaning off their beds so they could actually sleep in them. But usually, within months of my efforts, their place would be packed, again, and I would be filled with feelings of helplessness and resentment. Finally, I decided, for the sake of our relationship, to leave them to sort it out on their own, and I would meet them at the door, when I came to visit, taking them to dinner or to church, rather than trying to spend time in their home.

It hindered their quality of life. They’d lose things and misplace important papers and spend hours searching for documents that were hidden under piles of trash. They couldn’t organize their daily activities, they’d forget to write down dates for appointments, and, if they did write them down, they couldn’t remember where they had left their calendars. They couldn’t have friends come to visit. Once, my mother fell over a vacuum sweeper and broke her shoulder. Another time, she fell out of the small area she had carved out as a sleeping space at the edge of her bed, and broke her nose.

My social work training and my writer’s nature led me to search for and to analyze the deep seated issues that drove their need to hold onto things that did not matter, and their almost psychotic refusal to part with the most inconsequential collections. (I once came across a bag filled with dryer lint, that my sister had been saving, she said, to use as a stuffing for a pillow one day.) For both of them, the collecting was a response to their many losses, I think, an effort to claim back a part of themselves, to hang onto history, to return to a time that was somehow more meaningful, when they felt more complete. Or, perhaps it was an effort to stave off the emptiness they felt inside, as if their things could protect them, somehow, from feeling alone.

Then Debra got sick, and it began to dawn on her that her time on this earth was short. Shortly after she was diagnosed, she let me go through the boxes in her bedroom, and she became willing to part with the Oprah magazines that she had saved for five years, her collection of greeting cards, enough to open a Hallmark store, her Child Life book series, that filled an entire bookcase, along with myriads of other collections. It was as if a light switched on in her head, and she saw, suddenly, how little these things meant to her.

A month later, I returned to visit, quickly realizing that they could no longer manage on their own, and I brought them to live with me. The night we left, my mother scurried around, trying to figure out what to bring with her, but, by then, my sister didn’t care about any of it. She wanted to feel better, she wanted to sleep comfortably, and she wanted to be able to eat. She left all of her stuff behind, not giving it a second glance.

My sister died at hospice house, in a room that held a few of her favourite belongings, some Christmas decorations, my mother, and me. And, in the end, it was all that she needed.

It was very hard for my mother to let go of her things, and I tried to surround her with the possessions that mattered most to her. We brought her china cabinets into my living room, and filled them with her depression glass and her Indianapolis Race Car glasses. We put up all of her old pictures and hung her plates on the wall. Still she felt uncomfortable and displaced, in my home, as if, without her things to define her, she no longer belonged in the world. And before long, she became ill herself, dying less than a year after my sister. Perhaps parting with her possessions was just too much for her, along with losing her daughter. Perhaps the loss was too great for her to survive it.

When they passed, I became obsessed finding a way to change my life. I wanted to experience the world free of the clutter that had turned my mother and my sister into prisoners. And six months after my mom died, I arrived in England, my new home, with two suitcases. I gave away my record albums, shelves full of books, clothes and dishes and pots and pans. I left my furniture for my son, and gave Mom’s china cabinets to two of my nieces. I still have stuff stored back in the states, but I hope to pare it down each time I return, to get down to the bare essentials, to free myself of the material possessions that clog my life and weigh me down. I’ve lived a whole year with just a few things, and for the most part, I haven’t missed the stuff I’ve left behind.

Recently, I travelled to the site of a monastery outside Dublin that was formed in the 6th century by Saint Kevin. It was a cluster of stone buildings and churches set in a beautiful valley at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains. The story goes that he allowed anyone to come to his monastery, to take refuge there, but they had to leave all their possessions at the archway, and they could enter only with the clothes on their backs. Mother Teresa required the nuns in her order to limit their possessions to only what could fill one paper bag. It is who we are, that matters, she told them, and how we treat each other, not what we own.

I don’t know that I could emulate the example of Saint Kevin or Mother Teresa. But I know that my life feels simpler, now, that I own less, and that I am able to tread much more lightly through my days, no longer shackled by the treachery of stuff.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living with the Dead

On my way home from the shops this afternoon, I wander into the local cemetery, or crematorium, as they call them here. I used to walk through this cemetery, often, after home visits in the neighbourhood, and I have missed it. When I lived in the village in Mexico, the graveyard was the only place I could go to be alone, and I took refuge there, daily, sitting among the plastic flowers and tissue-wreathed crosses with my journal and a pen. Here, in England, the world outside my little flat is noisy and crowded, my solitude penetrated by the sputtering of car engines, the pounding of footsteps against my ceiling, country and western music blaring from the fellow who lives in the flat next door. Sometimes I long for the wide open spaces of the states—big roads, big yards—lots of room to roam without intruding upon another person’s domain. So I have come to sit for a moment, at Croydon Crematorium, where I share space only with the dead.

I feel peaceful here, seated on a wooden bench, my hands gloved against the cold. Old gravestones, toppled and worn, are interspersed with marbled monuments, their etchings elegant and deep. This cemetery allows people to plant colourful plants and leave flowers at their loved one’s graves—not like my dad’s cemetery, with its symmetrical stones lying flat against the earth, designed for the convenience of riding lawn mowers, who shear the grass in summertime. These graves seem more natural in their uniqueness, like the people who inhabit them once were. Some of them are covered by a layer of coloured rocks, framed by silver incense urns, and I picture weeping relatives at these tombs, their grieving somehow soothed by the pungent aroma of smoke as it rises to the sky. Others show fresh tulips, resting in plastic vases, next to their monuments. Still others display green plants, slightly wilted by the cold, rooted in black dirt plots, bordered in stone.

There are graves of children who died too young, and graves of ninety year olds who died soon after their partners passed. Across the paved path, in perfect rows, stand the gravestones of young soldiers who died in WWII. The English do not seem comfortable with the word death. Their stones bear anachronisms like ‘fell asleep’ and ‘taken from us.’ Their etchings are wordier than ours, poetic, almost, with long descriptions of how much their people were loved, and proclamations that God must have needed them in heaven, more than they were needed, here. It is strange how we use kind words to soften the ugliness of death. It is like a mask we don to spare those around us from witnessing the full measure of our loss. Perhaps such gentle words serve as a balm for our wounds, as well.

I’ve found my own ways to soothe my grief. I’ve sought the aid of mediums, here, where they are abundant, and work without the stigma attached to them in the United States. I have attended a spiritualist church, here, too, in hopes the ‘presenter’ would find, among the souls whose loved ones are in the audience, a message from Mom or Debra to me.

I wanted to have a chat with them, to find out why they had to leave so soon, and to let them know how much they were missed. But the sessions did not accomplish what I had wished. They could not fill the hole in my heart, or make me feel like part of a family again. I still dream of them, at night. So maybe it is only through my dreams that we can meet.

In every country I have visited, I have found myself drawn to their cemeteries, where I read the names and dates of those who lived and died and are memorialized, there. In Wales, the dead lay below moss-covered tombstones in old church yards, close to where their loved ones worship and pray.

Sweden’s grave sites are clean and orderly and sleek, like the country’s quiet streets. I visited the grave site of Jim Morrison, of The Doors, in Paris, the resting place of Chopin and Oscar Wilde and many other famous folks. For years, the relatives of families buried in that cemetery tried to have Jim Morrison’s body removed. They grew weary of the scruffy young folks flocking to his site, where they smoked dope and broke whiskey bottles and had sex atop his tomb. His grave is surrounded, now, by a chain link fence, and patrolled by a private guard, yet people continue to leave their offerings of liquor and pills next to his stone—a twisted tribute to the tools of his untimely death.

My mother never asked for much, but she did make explicit her desire to have her remains interred with my dad. I asked her, through the years, if she was certain she wanted to spend eternity with the man who made her life so tumultuous and crazed. But she loved him, with all his wild faults, and it was her wish that she rest at his side. I wasn’t able to spare her from suffering in her last few months of life, but I am happy I could place her where she wanted to be, in death.

Like many cities in Europe, Paris lacks the space to bury their dead, and the plots are rented as family plots, with one body piled on top of another inside them. People in England, too, tend to cremate their loved ones, adding only a name, instead of a body, to an already established monument. For some reason these monuments are important to us. It is as if the names of those we loved, immortalized in stone, grant some kind of final meaning to their time on earth, an assurance that their impact on us will be remembered for generations to come.

My sister, Debra, never wanted to be buried. A diabetic since the age of 14, with few of the customary complications, she often referred to her body as a miracle of science, and she hoped to have it donated for research. But an earlier infectious illness made her ineligible for donation, and shortly before she died, I had to tell her she would be cremated instead. She took the news as she had taken most disappointments in her life—in silence, and without protest.

On a cool winter evening in Florida, my sister slipped away, and Mom and I watched them lift her body from the hospice bed. Within a week they called me to pick her up—her presence reduced to three boxes of ashes—one for Ben, her son, one for Dennis, her twin, and the other one for my mother and me. A year later, I added my mother’s ashes to my shelf.

Debra wanted to visit a foreign country, and it was one of her last wishes before she died, but her time was too short, and she was too weak. So I brought her ashes here, to England, where they sit upon my tiny mantelpiece. I still cannot look at pictures of the women I have lost, but the urn is a comfort to me, somehow, and I am glad that I have her with me, here.

It is almost dark, when the crematorium closes its gates, and I must enter into the stream of noise and life, again. There is quiet among the dead, but a bit of sadness too, a sense of missed opportunities, perhaps, a swell of lingering regrets. I walk the path past toppled stones and marbled monuments, and board the bus that will carry me home, to the world of the living, in my little flat, footsteps on my ceiling and country music blaring, its lilting rhythms a blessing to me.