A Guy Goes to a Christmas Market…

  He passed a large skating rink and a children’s train track. When he wandered under an arch, Guy discovered a Christmas Market. His inner child gasped with delight.

Rows and rows of wooden market booths had been set up to create lanes.

At last distracted from visions of doom and gloom, he watched a gigantic nutcracker swallow a continually rotating nut.

20161209_161209A larger-than-life music box twirled on a roof top, the ballerina and her dancing bear partner going ’round and ’round. Real fir boughs and even little trees bedecked the stands.

The roofs were wrapped in shiny paper with tinsel ribbons and bows that transformed them into oversized gifts. Big Saint Nicholases drove twinkly sleighs pulled by reindeer whose heads bobbed.

He discovered a large fountain, turned off for the winter and surrounded by German food booths. Candles burned everywhere.

Guy looked at their pale flames and shivered. Flames, like those of a crash site….

He took a deep breath, and all at once the day smelled of almonds roasting in sugar. Customers laughed and chatted, indifferent to the cold. A couple stood in the frigid air and shared strawberries dipped in chocolate. The girl nibbled from the skewer her boyfriend held. Men and women stood at little tables with beers, and some people cupped steaming mugs.

NOTES: Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. From my chapter “What A Guy” in Tsunami Cowboys. Available online at amazon.com. This link will get you there. Give the gift of literature this Christmas!

Photo Copyright © 2016 Jadi Campbell.

Our House is on Fire!

On November 8, America voted for a new president. I sent my overseas ballot off weeks before the election.

I live in Germany, so it was early evening our time when the first results started being tallied. Uwe and I watched the nightly news and listened as stations began live reports from around the US. The living room glowed with candles. Around 10:30 p.m. Uwe said, “I think something’s burning,” and went out on our balcony. I got up and followed him. Sure enough, red flames were visible in the house right across the street from us.

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“Hilfe!” voices shouted, and from blocks away came the blare of fire trucks. By now smoke was billowing. Teams of firemen raced around to the back of the building. People hung out of windows waving their arms, or watched from neighbors’ houses. The firemen put up klieg lights and a long ladder to rescue people from windows and then aimed water hoses at the roof.

They quickly had the situation under control: it was more smoke than fire, so to speak. I kept ducking back in the living room to watch the election returns.

Life felt suddenly, completely, dizzingly surreal. The election-cycle reminder that I’m an American citizen living overseas; an election unlike any other; a house burning. Maybe the entire goddamned street where we live is on fire.

Later – days later – I learned that the whole thing had only been a drill. A practice fire.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the metaphors inherent in this experience. As I turn it around inside my heart and head I get dizzy again. I leave it to my readers to take from this story what you can.

I’m going to go light a candle.

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NOTES: Photos Copyright © 2016 Jadi Campbell.

Loss. Helping Refugees: Part 7

When loss arrives, if I’m lucky I’m prepared for it. My mother-in-law died at the start of the summer, and we were at her side when she passed. But usually I’m not at all prepared. A vibrant friend from high school died in July, one week before I was going to see her in the States. A month later my father passed away suddenly, just short of his 85th birthday. I was reeling from the losses when I returned to Germany.

I went as I have, once a week for exactly a year, to do massage therapy for a refugee woman I’ve called M. I need my routines back. I have to resume the comforting familiarity of work and my ‘normal’ life.

We meet for a single session. But when I show up the following week, I knock and see the chair outside the door where I always sit to take off my shoes has been removed. I knock again and peer into the apartment. Someone’s taken down the sheets of vocabulary words from the kitchen wall. Still no one comes to the door. Finally I press the buzzer, something I never do because M is hypersensitive to any sudden loud noises.

“They’re gone.” I turn and see a neighbor refugee (Nigerian? Sudanese?). In broken German she explains, “The police came last Tuesday in the middle of the night and took them. They’re gone,” she repeats. “They were sent back to Kosovo.” [1]

The flood of refugees reaching Europe includes people from earlier wars (like M). In the scramble to provide services for millions of people who have lost everything, hard decisions have to be made about who is allowed to stay. For example, economic hardship isn’t accepted as grounds for asylum. Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries have been declared safe places of origin. And now that the Kosovo ‘conflict’ has resolved, most asylum seekers from that region are sent back.

M and her family applied for years to be recognized as refugees. M’s fragile physical and psychological state were part of the reason they had been allowed to remain this long. But in a midnight action, officials came and woke the family, giving them an hour to pack their belongings. [2] They were taken to the airport and put on a plane.

I’m really at a loss for how to respond. I sympathize with the officials. Germany takes in more refugees than any other country in Europe. Even the little town I live in received over 600 refugees last year. But it’s another person ripped from my life. Death is final; so is deportation. [3]

I went home, contacted the Town Hall, and told them I’m prepared to offer free therapy for a new refugee. The need still remains, and I still want to help if I can.

NOTES: [1] In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. M’s family speaks Albanian. [2] The deportation of asylum seekers who have their applications turned down take place in the middle of the night without warning. This is to prevent refugees from going underground or into hiding. [3] They won’t be allowed to enter a European Union country for the next three years.

***POST SCRIPT***: I’m about to start massage therapy for a refugee from Iraq. She and her husband fled last year with their family, but had to leave a baby behind.

 

Cold Comfort. Helping Refugees: Part 6

I missed several appointments to meet my refugee and give her massage therapy. I didn’t show up, because my father died while I was on vacation. I had to cancel my flight home and extend my visit to America.

I called M’s daughter the day after I finally got back to Germany. We set up another appointment. Just like always: Monday afternoon. I got there and took off my shoes.  M’s husband offered me a glass of strong Turkish tea. “No sugar,” I requested. (It’s usually served with enough sugar to send me into diabetic shock.)

M was sitting up in bed with a smile. I sat on the edge and took her hand. “Please tell your mother how sorry I am that she didn’t know where I was for the last three weeks.” (I’d sent a SMS from the States, but they hadn’t read it.) Her daughter dutifully translated my German words. I looked into M’s eyes and talked slowly, willing her to understand.

I tried for a session that would make up for the long summer pause in her therapy. I began with foot reflexology and moved on to treat her knee and hip joints, her shoulders and neck, her hands. When I was done, M surprised me by taking my hands back in hers and scrutinizing my face. She spoke for a long time.

The daughter translated for her. “My mother says to tell you, don’t be sad that your father died. Everyone’s going to die sometime. And you and I, we’ll have to die too someday.” M kept holding my hands and I felt tears come. We kissed one another on the cheeks.

The tears were for my father; they were for myself and my loss; and they were because that day was the first time that M comforted me rather than the other way around. Cold comfort, to be sure…. She gave to me out of her terrrified flight, her pain, the violence and death she’d seen in her home country. Her words were framed with the bitter truth of the life  she’s known. But she presented me with that truth, because she wanted to ease my ache.

And it helped.

 

 

The Long Haul. Helping Refugees: Part 5

At the start of each week I spend my afternoon massaging a traumatized refugee. When I volunteered back last fall I promised her, her family, and myself that I was committed to doing this, that I’m in it for the long haul.

Almost a year later, the haul feels long indeed.

I knew on all sorts of levels it wasn’t going to be easy. Progress was going to be slow and probably measured out in small increments. We would face language barriers. Culture barriers. Experience barriers. The trauma she’s gone through.

No worries. I figured, I’m a trained professional, I could deal with the patient work her therapy was going to entail. Sure I could. In reality, I was clueless. Ten months later, I’m still clueless. I don’t see any improvement other than the way she no longer cries through the entire session. Now she only cries for most of it or just a few minutes. But she always sobs with pain at some point while I’m working on her.

With the exception of Christmas, a week when I had the flu, and a day when she had other appointments all day long, we’ve never missed a Monday. So why isn’t she better?

I arrive at the refugee housing and some days there are lots of small children playing in front of the building, their asylum-seeking parents going about their chores. We all say hello. Then I climb the stairs to the apartment where M and her family live, take off my shoes outside, and knock on the door. I greet the daughter who translates for us and head for the bedroom where M is on her side in bed with her eyes closed, or propped up on pillows in bed with a smile, waiting for me. Either way, she’s never without pain, her body is still a treacherous surface of hidden nerve hotspots. The family insists I should keep returning each week, that the massages help her and she’s always happier on the morning she expects me. So what am I doing wrong? What do you do with expectations and hopes that seem to go nowhere? The long haul looks like a long road to no place I can predict or hope to reach.

I go back each week anyway. To do so I’ve needed to reconfigure everything, and I mean everything, I thought I understood about the goals of therapy and the protocols to measure success.

I threw them all out.

I can’t have goals because there’s never any visible improvement. I can’t aim for success as I understand the term, because success in this case has nothing to do with measurable, quantifiable progress. Give your level of pain a number from 1 to 10, I told her. Is it worse here? Better when I press here? If I can’t end her pain, maybe I can help her to see it as lessened.

M can finally breathe into the painful places. One day she spoke in a loud voice and I asked her daughter to translate for me. M had growled something along the lines of, “I don’t want to give you a stupid number! Just give me the massage!” It was the first spark of will I’d seen or heard from her. The fact that this traumatized, raped refugee felt secure enough to snap at me was a good thing. This is how I now measure ‘success’, this is what I can call ‘progress’.

The journey she and I are on together inches its way forward.

NOTES: Go to my earlier posts Helping Refugees-Part 1, 23, 4 to read more about my attempts to come to grips with the refugee crisis.

 

Breath

Her chair is in our living room. I curl up in it cross-legged; the air around it is empty.

I wash the leather cushion and back with a damp cloth. It swivels under my touch, then stills.

Her limbs did too, shortly before she died. I gave her the ritual of a final loving massage. It was gentle touch, my palm on her forehead, my hand over her heart.

Her ragged breathing calmed. I found myself matching her breaths. You can go, it’s okay. I thought those words, and said them aloud.

Her breaths slowed. In, out. In. Out. In….. out. In.

And just like that, she was gone.

Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. A hole in the everyday has punched through the solar plexus of life’s waistcoat. I discover I can’t fill the resulting void.

My mother-in-law and I breathed together, the same air, for 24 years. I’m not able to breathe back out, because Mama’s no longer here to do it with me.

Remembering How to Feel

I have to relearn how to feel. My mother-in-law went into the hospital with a lung infection for a long week and a half. She rallied, and returned to the nursing home. I finished my third novel Grounded and began preparing it for publication on Amazon. Then Mama grew weaker again. A few days later we got the call we’d been expecting. The home phoned and said that we should come. Uwe and I had the blessing of being at her side as she died. Less than 48 hours later, my book became available.

We were busy with all the details that follow a death. People had to be contacted, and a funeral arranged, and Mama’s body transported to the town where she would be interred next to Uwe’s father. We drove down to meet with the funeral hall director and a pastor, and to visit Mama’s sister and her family. We cleaned out her room in the nursing home, sorted through the little that remained, moved furniture. The book would wait. I’d celebrate its release later. And I wanted to stay strong and present for Uwe, because these are the moments when your partner is so much more important than anything else.

When we finally got done with all the details a few days ago, I turned my attention back to a very special project that will take place next Monday, June 6th. My first-ever writing commission has been to write a story to connect an evening of Gershwin songs. In February I wrote in a 2-week blaze of inspiration for NEAT, the New English American Theater in Stuttgart.  The four singers and a pianist rehearsed the songs. A Welsh actor will read my story. All I have to do is show up and sit in the audience and marvel and enjoy the talent on the stage.

I went to a rehearsal a few nights ago and heard my story spoken aloud for the first time. It is a surreal experience to hear one’s creative work interpreted and combined into a greater artistic work. I was speechless as I watched and listened. Up to that night, I’ve been numb. I figured I could finally allow myself to feel proud, to be satisfied with all the hard work I’ve done with my writing. I gave myself permission to be excited about my book and the Gershwin evening. But when I let myself open up to feeling something emotional, a tidal wave of grief hit me. I’m mourning my mother-in-law of course. I’m grieving for her, even knowing she was ready to go and had given us the gift of waiting until we got to her bedside to leave us. One of us, Uwe or I, have visited her pretty much every other day for the two years that she lived in the nursing home near us. I don’t have to feel bad about not seeing her enough, or caring enough. But I write this in the present tense, because it’s all occurring in real time still. The birth of my book, the death of Mama, the use of my words to connect the magic of timeless songs, it all weaves together for me, I can’t separate out any of the strands. I’m a hot mess, trying to remember how to feel again. I remind myself that any one of these emotions is huge, fraught with anticipation and months or years of living and taking form and interconnecting with hopes and expectations. Love, sorrow, hope, creativity, illness, dying, death, coming into being, leaving this earthly plane…. Trying to remember how to feel any one of these emotions, let alone all of them all at once, overwhelms me.

But mostly, mostly, perhaps what I feel is gratitude. To know what I have in my mother-in-law and my art. To literally feel in body and soul how it all connects. To be able to feel again, even if it leaves me in tears.

And to know I’ve got a lot more tears in me.

NOTES: In loving memory of Margaretha Hartmann.