Tag Archives: coming home

Vacations and Holidays

IMG_3739“What is the purpose of your visit?” the English customs officer asked as we approached his window 20 plus years ago on our first visit to Europe. “We’re on vacation,” we said.

“Oh, on holiday,” he corrected us. I’m not sure I know the difference between the two even now, but  these last couple of weeks I’ve definitely been away from my regular life. Traveling with my husband to several Scandinavian countries we’ve taken a cruise up the coast of Norway and into the fjords, and flown and driven to visit our grandson who is playing soccer this summer in Sweden. That reality was the inspiration for the whole trip.

It sounds easier than it is, to cease and desist working. My “To Do” lists are quite long and there are always multiple projects in various stages of development. When the clock and calendar indicate that I must let them go and pick them up when I return in two weeks, it’s definitely a challenge. I took some files with me, just in case there would be moments to mix some business with pleasure but it’s lucky I didn’t count on this happening. When I felt the energy to reconnect with my work life, the travel schedule or access to technology didn’t cooperate.

The travel brochures don’t mention it but with a six-hour time difference, jet lag is a real thing. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 am their time, 2 am for us. We disembarked, and in our middle of the night stupor, found the train station, figured out how to buy tickets, where to get off, and which direction to walk to find our hotel. We had only one small mishap, leaving a borrowed tote bag in the overhead storage of the plane. We realized it just after going through customs but this mistake turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We reported our difficulty to the information desk at the airport and they called the gate. The next thing we knew a young man from behind the information counter was on his bicycle traveling through the terminal on our behalf. He returned in lessthan 10 minutes with our reclaimed bag.

boy on bike

My visit to parts of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was greatly enhanced by intermittently dipping into a book recommended by a Pittsburgh friend who had just returned from the region. British author, Michael Booth’s “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” explored the notion that on multiple self report measures, people in these countries turn out to be the happiest in the world. As Booth paraphrased Lady Bracknell, “to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

Moving through small villages and medium and large towns I found evidence for much of what Booth was pointing out from his experiences living and interviewing people in each of the countries. In spite of punishing weather, extremely high taxes, and an uninspired diet of fish, sweet rolls, and beer, Scandinavians find happiness supporting one another socially and financially from cradle to grave, taking frequent time away from work, recreating on weekends with family members at summer cottages, respecting, protecting, and staying close to nature, and honoring and practicing ancient and modern art forms.

In visiting the historical amusement park, Tivoli in the center of Copenhagen, we found it outfitted with features for people of all ages. Besides the modern amusement rides for kids and teenagers, there were beautiful gardens, restaurants and an amusing, artfully costumed ballet performance of Cinderella that had me laughing out loud.

We visited the inland city of Orebro, the 115,000 person Swedish town where my grandson is living. Instead of finding a dull backwater town as I had expected, I was delighted by a vibrant city, awash in art instillations in every nook and cranny of the city as they celebrated their 6th annual OpenArt Festival. http://openart.se/2017/en/about-openart/

The primacy and beauty of design in modern architecture had me photographing container buildings, green roofs, and intricate tile surfaces – even the enormous waste composting plant on the waterfront in Copenhagen. Instead of being an eyesore on the riverbank, when completed it will be covered with green vines in the summer and an active ski slope in the winter.IMG_3719

As traveling often does, I found myself making comparisons to my home country. The nearly religious fervor for protecting the environment in the three Nordic countries we visited had me feeling embarrassed to say I live in the U.S. The large middle class, and the lack of extreme poverty in these counties reminded me of a former time in the U.S. when our country felt “great “ to more of our citizens. I’m betting that the state of happiness in these countries is affected by their emphasis on gender equality, consensus building, and looking out for the common good, all values that I personally hold dear. I’m not ready to move to Scandinavia, but I’d love it if we could imitate more of what they do.


Las Vegas Happened To Me Twice

Last week Rich and I got up at 4 am to make a direct flight to Las Vegas, one of my least favorite destinations. If you don’t count stops at the Vegas airport on the way to somewhere else, I’d only been to Vegas twice before. In 1992, my in-laws took the family there to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember the kids sneaking onto the casino floor with Grandma Pearl hoping to learn how to be as lucky as she was at playing the slot machines. 

My initial time in Las Vegas was half a century ago in the glory days of the Rat Pack, when I wasn’t old enough to drink legally. I lived in Vegas for eight weeks while working as a dancer in the Tony Martin and Peggy Lee Shows, at the now defunct Desert Inn.  The pull of working in Vegas for New York dancers like me was the enormous salaries they paid. I don’t remember the amount, but if you watched expenses and brought a good portion of your salary back to New York you could live on it for six months. This meant you could avoid taking odd jobs that interfered with staying fit as a dancer and being available for frequent auditioning. In order to accomplish this end, refraining from gambling was critical as was economizing on living expenses.

It was winter, the rainy season, which meant sunbathing, swimming, golf and tennis were not frequent activities. For us, the highlight of most weeks was the other shows we were able to catch on our night off, and the dance classes we took from whatever choreographer’s’ assistant happened to be in town.

The glamour of the place, then as now, did not extend much beyond the footlights. Though we wore elaborate beaded costumes and glued on false eyelashes to perform, my roommate and I grocery shopped after we got off work at 2 am, cooked and ate all our meals in our motel-style apartment, and to further economize, we rented a sewing machine and made the evening clothes we were required to wear in order to come on to the property.

Weird Las VegasThe weirdness of the place is still intact. We encountered people clearly under the influence of something, forgetting how to walk or talk properly, but the dress code has changed dramatically. Locals and tourists alike dress in what I would describe as “grungy casual,’ jeans, sweats, and workout clothes. I noticed this especially because all the women, from waitresses to chambermaids, to teenagers on the street, proudly sported elaborate eye makeup and glued on eyelashes.

Students on the campus dress like students everywhere, though a hundred or so wore black tee shirts with the letters TEAM on their backs. I came to appreciate their dedication and effort as the purpose of my return trip to Vegas was to present a talk, “When Death Threatens, Life REALLY Matters.” at the TEDx UNLV event. It was fittingly titled, “Living in the Extreme.” Who says the universe doesn’t have an outlandish sense of humor?IMG_1888

Music for Whiling Away the Miles

Finally  a rainy morning where I can lounge a bit in my version of the universal writer’s uniform, my pajamas. The past ten days have been relentlessly busy with mostly all good things, but going the speed of the body means at this point, some stationary down time. In the past ten days I’ve driven to Youngstown to Perform the Book with guest artist, Soyinka Rahim and Atlanta InterPlay leader Jennifer Denning at her family’s home church. I’ve driven to Racine Wisconsin for the Body Wisdom National Board Meeting and Leaders’ Gathering, capped off by performing a solo drive home to Pittsburgh. Last night I headed to WV with two members of the Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and was especially grateful to friend Amy for her willingness to drive us home.


Driving in my especially comfortable car is, for the most part, a delight. A sing-a- along with InterPlay musician James Schattauer kept me alert through miles and miles of monotonous turnpike terrain. James’s simple rhythmic tunes inspired me to try my hand at composing my own verses, and a likely theme that emerged was finding suitable food to eat at the roadside oasis. Here are the words to the song I came up with – “My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, Like Popeye the Sailor Man, I too am a fan, But I must admit, I don’t like them out of a can.”

In defense of my “poetry” the purposes of this exercise, which I accomplished, were to amuse myself and to keep myself alert through a long day of driving. To get the full effect, you really have to hear the tune.

Home Sweet Home

On the road for ten days, half the time in Dallas/Fort Worth and at a ranch 100 miles north, I spent the remaining time in Atlanta, returning to Pittsburgh and temperatures in the teens. Each place I visited was having unusual weather, mostly colder than expected, but on the ranch we couldn’t visit the rocks because warm weather there had awakened the snakes. A wood fire in one Atlanta house did little to warm the downstairs, and the wind whistled through both houses where I stayed as I slept in borrowed long johns under my pajamas. Now I’m happy to be settling into my well-insulated Pittsburgh townhouse.

fireplace Sitting at home being warmed by the gas fireplace, and noticing the seagulls flying past my riverfront window I wonder, “What is it that makes a house feel like home?” Most people would answer, the people and pets that greet you there. But I’m alone for this homecoming, my husband’s out of town and our nine year-old dog, Clancy had to leave us a month ago. But still there is in me, a dropping down into a comfortable feeling of safety in the familiar surroundings.  

As I look around the room, everything here has a history. Every object contains a story, interwoven with events in my own life. Perhaps that’s what causes me to feel I belong here. The fireplace mantle holds two tall golden candlesticks I’d bought to match the living room lamps in my first home. I presume my first husband still has those lamps in his. Beside the candlesticks is a wooden clock, a gift handmade by him, and given as a gift to my present husband and myself many Christmases ago.  

The framed hand-drawn stock chart on the wall is from Rich’s stockbroker father’s chart book. Finding that remnant of his father’s life after his death, Rich had me take pages from it to the neighborhood framer. Now each of the heirs have their own memento, though I can’t say if the other charts occupy such a prominent place in their homes.

 The stained glass pieces hanging in the windows were removed from our 100 year-old Nebraska house over thirty years ago. They were windows in a closet where no one ever saw them, so at the suggestion of the repairman, we framed them and have carried them with us to live in five houses since.

French-Chairs-Pair-125x125 Looking at the pair of French chairs reminds me of the history of our color schemes and living spaces. I first saw them in the front window of the Goodwill in Detroit when I drove past there on my way to the university. We were renovating a dark 1928 house at the time, nicknamed by our four year old, the “Adam’s Family House.”

 Originally in pristine condition, they were upholstered in pink and green silk plaid, and became the centerpiece of our white-carpeted living room in 1967. They later wore a floral print when we moved to Nebraska and tailored blue wool in Texas where they provided seating for my counseling office in our clinic. A do over in Pittsburgh has them now dressed in a blue and brown plaid. Admiring their flexibility, I’m not sure we’ve held up as well.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

The Dance of Flexibility

Until a month ago, if you’d asked me if I consider myself a flexible person I would have said yes. In face, on some occasions I may have been too flexible, putting up with things longer than I probably should have. But there’s nothing like a construction project in your home space to test whatever good qualities you thought you had.

learning-flexibilityEver since coming down the stairs to my studio on the lower level and being greeted by water pouring from two light fixtures in the ceiling, tests and challenges to my character have abounded. Learning to sleep while fans the size of airplane propellers ran night and day to dry out the damaged wood, followed by weeks of waiting for insurance estimates and ordered materials to arrive. The workmen have been as polite and unobtrusive as possible under the circumstances, but I’ve been relegated to finding workspaces in various places around town. A senior center down the street hosted our improv troupe rehearsals for several weeks, and friends graciously allowed me to camp in their spare room when the paint fumes and disarray got the best of me. I’m told we’re nearly to the end of this destructing and constructing project but checking in with my insides, it’s clear my belly doesn’t believe it. 

Sitting in my upstairs bedroom, which is now the sum total of my living and working quarters since the floor refinishing crew has taken over the downstairs, I’ve thought of the quality of  “flexibility.” Being a dancer I’ve always thought of myself as having perfected the ability to bend and stretch in many directions at once but this experience has been showing me, I’m not that good at it. Especially when the impetus for such movement is coming from something outside myself and leaving me with not much ground to stand or sit upon.

There have been some humorous moments. One night we actually watched television seated on high kitchen stools in the living room in order to see over the stacks of furniture piled between the sofa and the screen. I’m sure I  overreacted today when my husband told me the floor might need one more coat than we’d planned on. I saw what I aspire to and how far I am from it when I read the late Everett Dirksen’s description of himself. “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

Coming Home

I’m just back from 10 days away from home, which is a bit longer than I like to stay away. One of the best parts of going away is to experience the welcome home I get from Clancy, our dog. His ritual begins with energetic barking as his salutation, and then develops into a speeding race past me, his white fur hurled back by the wind. He circles the coffee table, runs through the living room, and loops into the dining room. His excitement seems uncontainable and this is his way to express it, and run it off. As he swishes by me, he might pause for a second for me to pet him, but then he’s off again, because apparently the dance isn’t done.                                                                                                          

But this time, he didn’t give me his full version. There was the barking and the stopping for a petting, but circling the West highland Terrierfurniture wasn’t part of his choreography. This told me that he wasn’t quite himself, which I knew from the reports I got while I was away. It was actually when we came home a month or so ago that we first noticed his belly was distended, like he was pregnant, which isn’t possible for a neutered male dog. Tests revealed that he has a problem with his liver that is causing him to hold fluids. He’s been on a diuretic but I noticed, having not seen him for a while, that his condition had worsened.

We now know that what he has cannot be cured, only managed for an unspecified time, like many diseased that people get. It’s hard to get that news, and to look forward to his having some of the same difficulties our son Ken had before he died 15 years ago today. One difference is that, within the limitations of his disease, we will have the say about when and how Clancy’s life will end. So far, he’s eating and pooping, he’s still interested in going for walks and in the other dogs he meets along the way. But when that is no longer the case, our pack, which is what we have become these past 8 years, will have to let go of one of our own. And though I dread the time when it will be necessary, I am grateful that we can insure that he goes peacefully into that goodnight.


My husband and I admitted to each other on the plane home that we rarely get this tired in our regular lives. Seems visiting family for a grandson’s graduation, followed by attending a playshop in a beautiful retreat center in the midst of the California wine country have worn us out. There is of course, the stress of airplane travel itself; the hour it takes to return the rental car and get through the electronic pat downs, the forty minute delay on the tarmac due to high winds, the ten minute sprint to a different terminal in order to not miss the connection to the last flight home.

My husband would say that what we did doesn’t match his definition of a vacation. He would opt for a vacation, vacation, where we’d totally relax by laying on a beach. This itinerary is more to my liking, something that serves as an intermission from our usual routines. For me, a break from the technology that so structures my life is relaxing. When Wi-Fi is only available in a space the size of one or two picnic tables, it’s easier for me to let go of the stress of constantly staying in touch. But coming home, there’s the nearly overwhelming catch up activities; picking up mail at the post office, sorting and returning phone calls and emails, and the need to bravely face a desk of unfinished projects. It’s hard not to ask, was it worth it to go away?

Perhaps it matters what we call it. “Are you on holiday?” the English customs officer reviewing our passports asked. Since going on holiday sounded so celebratory, we decided to adopt that expression when anyone asked us the purpose of our trip.

A sabbatical is another term for an interruption from work. Ten years ago, in order to avoid the burnout that was beginning to set in to my experience as director of a clinic, I gave myself a sabbatical. Being self-employed, I didn’t work for an institution that paid for sabbaticals, but I hoped that the expense would be worth the renewal and revitalization I would bring back to my work life after having a few months away.

Since this is the first day back to work, it’s too early to tell whether the effects of this furlough, this breather, this holiday, will be to enlighten and enliven our regular work and home lives. But if it does that seems to me to be the proper measure of its true worth.


As often happens, I’m needing to recover from too much of a good thing. The “good thing” this time has been travel, or rather several back-to-back trips without a single night in between to sleep in my own bed.  I saw a sign once, “Home is where your dog is” and I can relate to that. A brass band couldn’t provide a better welcoming committee than our little westie, Clancy. He jumps up and down in excitement, then circles the kitchen island at breakneck speed, big loops through the dining and living room if I’ve been gone more than a few hours. Finally his paws slide to a first base stop at my feet. He sure knows how to make a gal feel welcome.

Catching up – that’s what makes homecomings so daunting. My husband returned a week before I did so the usual gigantic pile of mail was pared down to just what was mine. There’s laundry, a need to wash what seems like everything I own, and phone calls to return. The garden tells a tale of neglect, though a neighbor’s watering has insured survival of the flower boxes and hanging baskets. The room that is my office looks almost neat, a definite sign of its not having been occupied. 

As I pour my oatmeal into the bowl I used during my time in Iowa, (the woman I stayed with gave it to me as a gift, “to remember me,” she said), I think about what makes home feel like home. Carrying the cereal bowl I circle the main floor of my house more slowly than Clancy did and notice the many gifts from people I’ve known and loved. The people I’ve spent time with around a kitchen table seem to reside here, in the vase and sculture of a dancer, the turquoise bowl and silver cheesetray. Too much luggage to cart around at my age, but wonderous to behold. “Welcome home” it says.