A Reader Reminds Me Why I’m Doing This

“May I just say thank you for caring about a really big issue. My son has his own story to tell about his re-entry and his attempt at suicide…we still have him. For this I am eternally grateful. And now I have a book to share with other single moms who are looking at re-entry.”
–A Veteran’s Mother

Dear Friends,

Those of you who are subscribers to my newsletter will have already seen this in your inbox (or soon will depending on how eager you are to open email!). I wanted to share it here too because it feels so important to share those moments when we all really connect. I won’t do this regularly but when there is something I think you’ll like, I’ll give it a try.

Here goes:

The lines above came to me a recent Sunday night in an email. I was about to shut down my computer and head to bed, my thoughts already focused on the week ahead with its to-do’s,  anxieties, and promises to myself to just focus on the writing and not worry about reviews or sales or my future as a writer.

Then I saw it. The subject line read, “Your book is helping yet another military Mom.” I opened it. I learned that the sender had not only finished Casualties but had lent it to a friend whose son was due home from San Diego after serving four years in the Marines.  She wrote:

“It made her rethink the times she was planning to spend with him and listen to the things she would normally dismiss.” 

Then she shared with me a bit of her own story: the return of her son, his attempt at suicide, the long road he is still walking. With tears in my eyes, I wrote back and told her how much her note meant to me and how glad I was that she and her son still had each other. In a second note she shared more of her story. With her permission, I share excerpts below because they give us all something to think about:

“We, (family and loved ones) somehow think that things will resort back to “normal” when they return. NEVER will normal have the same definition it had before they left.”

“The person returned to us from deployment is not the same one who left with dreams for making a difference…”

“They come home feeling guilty that they got to come home.”

There were times when I wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this novel. It took so long to finish. When I finally did publish, the triumph of the moment came with ever-growing worries I’d never anticipated. Then I began to hear from readers — not reviews actual letters from actual readers. I heard from members of book clubs who have shared their surprise, their concern, their sympathy and, ultimately, their empathy for families that may not have looked much like their own. Some readers have lost children in all kinds of ways and relived that loss with me. Some simply fell into the story and simply told me they couldn’t put it down. Some have not loved the book, or all of it, but were still glad they read it. And they took the time to tell me this.

Every time I connect with a reader I understand all over again why I wanted to write a story in the first place. Every time someone shares his or her own story with me, I understand even more why I wanted to write this one. They make me want to keep going. I am grateful every day for their gift.

Two new novels for two new winners

With gratitude in mind – and knowing what it means for an author to know her book is out there connecting — I’d like to share the work of two authors who have written novels full of life, conflict, adventure and the opportunity to consider questions that compel attention long after the last page.

First though, congratulations to Jodi and to Cyn who won copies of The Nest and The Forgetting Time after responding to the last newsletter.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond.  I gobbled this book down in two nights. I loved the story. Loved the protagonist and loved her first love: the continent of Antarctica and the penquins who live there. The premise is frightening: what would happen something like Italy’s Concordia cruise ship accident happened in remote, unforgiving, yet increasingly fragile Antarctica. Bonus: this copy is signed by the author!

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This wonderful novel just came out a couple of weeks ago but back in the spring, I was lucky enough to leave a writers conference with two advance copies. I’m reading one (and loving it) and I want to share the other one. “Dreamers” is the story of a Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who imagines a brighter future for his family after taking a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy couple. This future is threatened by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and forces Jende and his wife to make an impossible choice. Here is what the New York Times book review has to say: “Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . There are a lot of spinning plates and Mbue balances them skillfully, keeping everything in motion. . . . Behold the Dreamers is a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

To enter, just respond to this email before midnight PST on Thursday, September 8. I will use an app from Random.org to draw two winners. If you’d like to check out all the official rules, just click here: giveaway rules.

Feel free to let your friends know and join us as subscribers.  Here’s the link to sign up: http://elizabethmarro.com/subscribe/

And if you are in a book club, let’s talk!

Thank you! So good to know you are out there!

Betsy

P.S. And now, here’s your moment of Zen courtesy of…Mr. Beans?

His Mission Now

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Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project

 

 

Learning to Walk, Learning to See

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We’re two friends walking along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. For one of us the walk is preparation for a 200-mile pilgrimage, for the other, it is a chance to taste a part of the adventure vicariously.

Patty is training. I am tasting.

Later this month, she’ll fly to Spain and walk two-fifths of the 500-mile journey from France to Santiago de Compostela, a path trekked by thousands of pilgrims over nearly two thousand years. I’m going to be right here waiting for her to come back and tell me all about it.

Patty isn’t religious. She just wants to walk that road, sleep with strangers in hostels, sip coffee in the company of pilgrims and taste the food she will find along the way. Although she has logged thousands of miles on planes, trains and automobiles, walking or biking is her favorite way to travel. She will leave laptop and cell phone behind as she always does. She will leave her husband behind this time too, although he has put almost as many miles on his feet and bike as she has. The trip will find its way unfiltered into her soul and her memory.

I am not exactly jealous but I feel something, a kind of longing. I have always been fascinated by long-distance walking. Theoretically, anyway. It held no fascination for me when I was in college with an infant and no car. As a kid, I used to hide when my mother organized multi-family hikes up one of the hundreds of mountains surrounding our house in northern New Hampshire. For a long time, I thought people who walked by choice were a little insane, sort of like the robot police car thought Leonard Meade was in Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.”

Now that I don’t have to walk and in fact spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer screen, I am fascinated by the idea of covering great distances by foot. I follow blogs or news reports of cross-country walkers. I order catalogs for walking tours in Europe, Africa, and Asia. I like to imagine myself seeing a place up close for the first time, feeling it in the fatigue of my muscles and the contours of the road beneath my feet. In my mind I’ve walked thousands of miles which is a little like saying that I’ve written ten novels without typing a single sentence.

Patty, on the other hand, is the real deal. She’s packed her fourteen-pound backpack and is training by taking long walks around San Diego. Not that she needs much training. This is a woman who makes a business out of walking the neighborhoods of the city and bringing them alive to tourists and natives alike. She bikes around town as often as she drives. She has logged thousands of miles visiting nearly 80 countries and has tried to spend at least some time walking or biking in each. Not long ago, she walked across the English countryside with her husband, Rusty and in the eighties, they spent two and a half years circling the globe by air, boat, train, car but as much as possible by foot and bike.

“When you’re walking or riding a bike, you’re living the way people always have lived,” she says. “You wake up, head in the direction you’ve picked out and find food and shelter as you go. We do these things home at home too but we don’t think about it. So much is already done for us.”

For Patty, traveling is defined simply as, “going someplace new.” She adds, “I don’t care if it is pretty or not or if the food is good. I want to know what it is like to live in a place.” This doesn’t mean that no one has been there before her. It simply means she has not been there and when she does go, she wants to take it all in, warts and all. She understands that seeing a place, really seeing it, makes it new.

As we make our way along the edge of the ocean, I find myself thinking how differently we travel but also about the similarities in our work and lives. We are both pilgrims in a way.

We both come from small towns miles from anywhere “exciting.” Patty is driven to explore a place she has never seen. I am driven to explore the terrain of the heart and mind. She is always searching for something new to see even in places she knows by heart. I am searching for a new way to express ideas so old they have no age. She likes waking up in the morning, setting out in the direction she has picked and finding what she needs along the way. I get up in the morning with a plan, a direction and then, along the way must forage for material, for ideas, for words. Sometimes they come just exactly the way I thought they would.

Most times, though, they surprise me and alter my course. And this Patty understands too. The surprise is the thing that pilgrims are most in search of whether they realize it or not: that serendipitous moment, a flash of insight, a family that lets you pitch a tent on their farm and then invites you in for dinner, a glimpse of a rare bird or a view that no photograph can ever capture.

There is art to it, discipline and joy. I am thinking that this is why writers like Dickens, Twain used to walk ten miles or more a day and why, more recently writers like Cheryl Strayed have chosen to make one spectacular journey with nothing between them and their goal. Their physical journeys feed their journeys as writers.

I wanted to tag along with Patty on her training walk to see if I could get a little of her journey to rub off on me – to make it mine. But that’s not how it works in walking or writing. To really see something new, even in a place you have lived for years, you have to do it yourself.

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bonus links:

If you are or will be in San Diego, you can take a walk with Patty. Check out her website here: Urban Safaris

Another bonus link I found for Bradbury fans. It is in German but even if you do not speak that language, the story comes through loud and clear and the images are perfect.

The Pedestrian – German live action short.

Reconstruction Day

On Good Friday last year, my step-daughter checked into the hospital for the second phase of post-mastectomy reconstruction. As we packed to go help her through the recovery, I found myself pondering the word, “reconstruction” as if I’d never heard it before.27288_10151213158720924_692673827_n

Reconstruction is what people do after tsunamis, floods, fires, and wars. Builders in New York and New Jersey can’t keep up with the demand to put back what Hurricane Sandy took.

It is a short leap from “reconstruction” to other “re” words: Restore. Revisit. Reword. Reinvent. Replace. Remove. Remodel. Renew. Hope lives in these “re” words. I too have at times clung to them like a drowning person hugs a hunk of driftwood. Revise. Retrench. Remarry.

But does any amount of rebuilding truly replace what is gone? The answer is no, of course not, though, years ago, I believed that attaching “re” to the front of a verb meant I could erase a mistake or some damage I had done to myself or others. In order for “re” to work, you have to incorporate bits and pieces from the past even if they are not wood and brick, flesh and bone. Sometimes the only things left to work with are lessons learned or memories shared.

My stepdaughter and her husband have been caught in a storm for the past seven years. It took their child. Then it took her uterus, her breasts, several lymph nodes and countless ounces of bodily fluids or bits of flesh required for medical tests. It attacked the economy, their livelihoods, drained their savings and stripped away any illusion that life was fair.

They don’t go on about it but we know that rebuilding is painful. There are daily reminders of what has been lost: bills, surgical scars, chronic pain, pink ribbons crossed in solidarity with other women and pink roses planted to remember their little girl. Each day is an anniversary of what might have been.

Still, there she was last year on Good Friday, heading into surgery to continue the reconstruction of her breasts. There he was, telling her a joke to make her laugh and then holding her against his chest and telling her how much he loved her. It was impossible to see that surgery as anything but an act of faith, if not in the future, then in themselves and in each other and in that one moment.

It’s been nearly a year since then. In that year, there has been a shift in the tides. Things are still not easy for these two we love but the cancer is gone and they celebrate that. He has completed a Master’s degree while working a full time job. She works on her art and at her job with a wellness center that specializes in helping people with pain and with problems like autism. We are often mystified but delighted by the running jokes and movie references that  crack them up on days when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Without ever saying it, they remind us every day that while the instinct to rebuild or restore may be in our DNA, acting on it is a conscious decision that takes courage. Rebuilding is an integral part of the healing process, not an attempt to conceal the pain or damage. They remind us that true healing doesn’t mean that the pain goes away or that things will be “good as new.” It means understanding that nothing is permanent and then choosing to really live, right now, in the best way possible.

For them, for all of us, every day is reconstruction day,  an opportunity to begin again. And again. And again.

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