Nutrition and the Stress of Tragedy

Naomi appeared lean and fit, although a bit pale, when she arrived for her appointment in the Nutrition Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first glance, before taking her history, I thought she might be a long-distance runner, an ice skater, or a gymnast. I had counseled many elite athletes over the years. They usually wanted to know what kind of foods would enhance their performance and if it was true that some nutrients or supplements made it easier to build muscle. Sometimes they had an eating disorder brought on by the constant competition to be strong, but look thin. As soon as Naomi began to speak, I realized that her nutritional challenge was completely different. “My mother thought I should see someone,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t eat – I have no desire to eat – in fact I feel full all the time – but also empty.” She described a feeling of heaviness in her chest, lack of concentration, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and frequent tears. Further conversation revealed the source of her emotional and physical state: Three months before, her fiancé had been killed in Iraq. Many people don’t realize that learning terrible news – being suddenly and powerfully aggrieved – triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to handle emotion, it is the body’s way of trying to stay safe. Both the physical stress of athletic training and the emotional stress of a sudden tragedy can create the same reaction in the body. As we battle to survive, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. As these hormones surge throughout the body, they enable us […]

The Adventure of Travel Writing

Travel has a way of slowing you down, says author and traveler Rolf Potts, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end on your return home. It can be one of the benefits of planning, before the trip,  to write about experiences on the road. I love this notion of living each day with the anticipation and exhilaration of seeing, hearing and smelling a place for the first time – even if I’m visiting my living room. But what is travel writing – today?  A look at styles, purpose and tradition is worth a moment of consideration as we gather pen, paper, journal and IPad before setting out on a journey. There are writers who create “service” articles and guides – those helpful hints about what to do, for example, if you come upon a shark while swimming off the coast of Australia, or how to find the oldest church among the thirteen in San Miguel de Allende, or the best restaurant in Los Gatos, CA, (where they claim to have the best restaurant in the US) or the site of a Civil War battle in New Jersey (did they battle that far North?). And then there are those writers who take us on their journey. They might be searching for ancestral roots in Poland or describing how they managed to know how to behave at a luncheon with members of the Communist Party in China. The common thread among travel writers dedicated to a […]

Mental Clutter: Organizing the mind for writing

  Perhaps it’s the winter season and I think I should be hibernating. Why else do I have the sense that I can’t get myself organized to write an essay? The ideas are there, piling up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They fly around in my head, meteors intent to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an interesting adventure on the page. But – the big BUT – I seem to have turned the lights off on the landing field. My brilliant gems zoom off untethered into the stratosphere. The end result: my mind is cluttered with bits and pieces, words, storylines, plot ideas, and nothing is happening on the page.   Peter Walsh, an authority on organizing the content of homes, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than in our basements, closets or garages. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter and cluttered minds on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects (things) when he helps people to tidy up, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want and the home you want?” He works room by room with people, starting with the purported “purpose” of the space. In each area he picks up objects and asks the owner if the thing moves them closer or farther away from their vision of the life they want. If it’s further away, out they go.   Let’s visit […]

Remembering War

This essay entitled “My Buddy’s Hat”  also appears in the winter issue, 2013, of the on-line Journal PersimmonTree.org “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”  Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April, 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This is the recreational outing during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  They include me in their repartee – as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’. “ How amazing to be on a road trip with some of the guys who were with my husband forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m […]

Writing When the Time is Right: Memoir and Emotional Events

On this New Year’s Day, I am stuck on a thought: When is a writer ready to write about an emotional life experience? Most writers of memoir say that we need time and distance to enter the reflective process, especially with a highly charged memory. We know we have been transformed, but how? Transformation (healing, movement of ideas, change) occurs slowly over weeks, months and often years. Each person responds in their own rhythm with the revelation and understanding of how the event is part of the big picture – the story. For those who want to nudge the process along, taking notes and keeping a journal is useful. Then, at the right moment, a voice says: Write something, now. Surprise yourself with ideas about what happened. Go as deep as you can, for now, always asking: Is this true?   My mother and I were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She lovingly tolerated me when I was a child, but a deeper, more collegial bond emerged when I became an adult. I was surprised when I felt “orphaned” after her death on January 1st, 2008 at 12:00 noon.  I was sixty-one and thought it odd to feel bereft of a parent in this way. I had witnessed her decline for years and I watched her battle against impending death during the four preceding days and nights that it took her to depart the world. The sudden awakenings, the furtive looks, the grasping for my hand, the noisy, ominous breathing, the calming effects of morphine doses – only during the last four hours of her life did she seem […]

Reading, Writing: The Natural Life of a Reader

I read for pleasure, information, adventure, enlightenment and inspiration. I read other writers who are writing in the same genre as myself, usually the personal essay, to keep up my energy and try to understand what I’m doing. Reading is an unending source of nutrients. When someone recommends a book – and I like it – it’s the best present I could receive. A friend recently suggested Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories, and now I’m ready to read everything written by Steven Millhauser. I enjoyed the same feast years ago when I discovered Robertson Davies and Carol Shields. I could read The Stone Diaries again and again except that now, waiting for me, there are new discoveries: Out Stealing Horses, The Library at Night, Travels with Herodotus, and on and on. Barbara Holland says in Endangered Pleasures, “ move permanently into one’s head and construct their own space there, a kind of walled garden full of tame dragons that we can walk around in whenever we want.” Love of books and stories bubbled up through my family. I remember my father reading the Encyclopedia Britannica throughout my childhood; he was never put off by an obscure or dry subject. As we sat in the living room together in the evening, whatever we were doing separately was punctuated by enthusiastic yelps from dad, like, “Listen to this! You’ve got to hear this,” and he would read aloud about an explanation of mitosis or yet another lost tribe. At bedtime, he would spin a new rendition of Brer Rabbit and Reddy Fox as my brothers and I […]

Parenting, Motherlove, and Guns: Why Teach Children to Kill?

I’m not sure we can understand the “how” or the “why” in the aftermath of this recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, but there are reasons to see this event as an anomaly; the result of negligent stupidity on the part of a parent. The National Association of School Psychologists is suggesting that children should be reassured that this shooting was an unusual event and they are safe in their schools. http://www.nasponline.org. This may be true, but only if parents of children with mental health issues make wise decisions about which activities are beneficial and life enhancing. The mother in this case collected guns and taught her child how to shoot them. Her relationship with her son was described as “close.”   It is also a reality that the winter holidays are accompanied, for many people, by a malaise: a sad inefficacy, a complex of emotions that can become almost intolerable. Some folks are unhappy because they think they “should” be happy. Others resent that they are no longer children and they can’t line up at Santa Land and sit on the lap of a benevolent fat man who will make all wishes come true.   What is this unhappiness that spreads over so many like a film of grimy discontent during this holiday when hours of daylight decrease and the symbols of childhood magic increase? Decorated trees, wreaths, toys, red and gold wrapped gifts, diamond studded fake snow – all full of the promise of happiness.  Some could experience a kind of profound disappointment that life isn’t what it appears to be.   When people are disappointed and desperate for solace, they might do almost anything. For example, if they think their mother loves guns more than […]

Giving Thanks: Healing and Resiliency after War

Those to whom I give thanks today. As much as we might feel alone in the aftermath of tragic life events, there are many surrounding who have open hearts.   The veterans of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry Division found me by posting their words of tribute and thanks to my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., on the virtual Vietnam Memorial wall. My reunions with them since 2006 have provided a consistent strengthening of my spirit with their stories, communications, love and support. Without them I would not have had the courage to visit the  Memorial Wall at a reunion in Washington, DC in 2008. Without them I would never have heard the stories of what a great leader Dave was until his death in Vietnam in 1969. To those people who wonder if there is a benefit to being in contact with old comrades, please don’t hesitate. Take the chance. It may feel uncomfortable, even painful, to imagine meeting people from that difficult time which many have tried to forget, but what you will find is joy; pure joy. Living through the experience of war, losing friends in front of your eyes, needs to be shared. Find your old friends from far away and embrace them. They want to provide support and comfort. Visit www.vietnamtripledeuce.org and www.22ndinfantry.org to get started and reconnect. The members of the Gold Star Wives (GSW) have battled since their formation in 1947, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, to assure that spouses […]

Looking for Mr. (and Ms) Goodness: Writers and Teachers Who Inspire

“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us… Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprised, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable….In a higher manner, the poet communicates the same pleasure. By a few strokes he delineates, as on air, the sun, the mountain, the camp, the city, the hero, the maiden, not different from what we know them, but only lifted from the ground and afloat before the eye. He unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.” An excerpt from “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson   What a pleasure it is to bask in Emerson’s words, even if his style from the mid-nineteenth century requires slow, close reading. When I reread this essay, it brings me back to my first meeting (with his work) in high school. I still feel that intimacy of recognition as if he is speaking directly to me, tapping me on the shoulder, creating the “bling!” moment of a new idea. This was my introduction to what a poet might be doing – unfixing nature and experience. Until then, I hadn’t a clue and I hadn’t expected to fall in love with a man ten times my age.   I was fortunate to have an English teacher in 1962, Miss Whalen from California, who not only immersed her students in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but also hired a bus and took us on the three-hour trip from Connecticut to Concord, Massachusetts. She wore the same spike heeled shoes that day as she […]

What’s So Funny? Humor in Non-fiction Writing

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that […]
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