Piecing and Pasting: Re-Membering (Part 2)

It’s the forgetting I remember most.  The fact of forgetting.  The past is fuzzy for me, something that will make memoir difficult.

So, for me, re-membering will partly be a process of re-constructing and re-assembling the story, piecing and pasting.  Largely, this is due to trauma.  Trauma around growing up in a dysfunctional family whose front door was broken down by the FBI on way too many occasions.  Trauma around having a mental illness that at times disconnected me from reality and the people I love.

However, I have a strategy for doing this detective work, because I, clearly, need to research and document the parts of my life I can’t recall.

So today I’ll outline the most obvious steps to take in reconstructing both the story about my father’s connection to organized crime and the one about my mental illness—what amounts to a 20 year struggle to win (and sometimes seemingly lose) the battle against bipolar disorder.

Though I don’t know that my family is entirely comfortable with my writing about my father, who, in fact, died in 1981 (when I was still a teenager), I plan to do the following to document my dad’s story:

  1.  File a “Freedom of Information” act, so I can access my father’s FBI file.
  2.  Search news paper indexes to locate articles that were published about my father in the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post Gazette during the 1960s and 70s.
  3. Access transcripts of court proceedings, so I can understand why several grand juries indicted my dad and can appreciate the nature of my father’s testimony in court proceedings against him.

And in order to reconstruct the bipolar narrative, I plan to:

  1.  File for copies of in-patient medical records, so I can review notes taken by doctors and nurses during my many hospital stays.
  2. Request copies of notes kept by doctors and therapists during out-patient treatment.  (Some of this I’ve already done.)
  3. Review journals kept from the time I was 15 until the present.  I wrote a lot during the years I was sick.  And though I don’t recall everything about that time, the journals recorded much of what I don’t remember.
  4. Watch video tapes of several years’ worth of out-patient and in-patient therapy.   This will be an invaluable source of information about my symptoms, my behavior, my thoughts and feelings at the time.  (This first involves having the videos transferred to DVDs, so I can bring them back to Haiti.  Frankly, the thought of watching this material terrifies me.  I can’t imagine what it will be like to see myself so sick.  I tried to watch one video a couple of years ago, but had to stop.  It was too painful.)

As I lay out this agenda, I want you to be assured, also, that I am well these days.   No one would ever know I had ever been sick or still carry this diagnosis.  In fact, when I’ve shared this information with folks in recent years, they’ve been shocked. 

My partner can certainly see how moody I remain.  I’m not always easy to live with.  As Sara says, when I feel something, my emotions fill the entire house.  I still hallucinate at times, but you would never know.  I’ve learned to manage the symptoms that remain, the ones that still break through despite the medication.

I hope some of you will help by holding me accountable with regard to the strategy outlined above.  Renee over at “Life in the Boomer Lane” recently posted a two-part series on memoir writing (something you should check out by clicking here and here).  But in the second of those posts Renee suggests assembling a supportive group of friends to keep oneself on track during the process of writing a memoir.  (So, I hope some of you will be willing to “support” me with periodic kicks in my memoir-writing ass.)

Thanks to all of you who read my blog.  Please know how much I appreciate your on-going support.  You all have given me the courage, the faith in myself as a writer, to finally take on this task I’ve been avoiding for years.

Peace to each of you and, as always, hugs from here in Haiti,


Re-Membering the Past is Not an Easy Task

And for me it is, indeed, a matter of re-assembly.  Sorting and piecing , cutting and pasting. 

(So, today I have a confession to make.)

From the beginning, I’ve wanted this blog to be an avenue into memoir, since, in many ways, the story of my past is far more interesting than the narrative that is now.  And, in fact, the most significant “event horizons” in my life happened a long time ago.

I know that may be hard to believe, as the life Sara and I have lead over the past several years has been an exciting one—taking me to places like Bangkok, Hanoi, New Delhi, Port-au-Prince.

But in many ways to travel backward in time is the bigger challenge—more over-whelming, more frightening, yes, but also more meaningful, and perhaps even profound.

The story of how I’ve gotten here—how I’ve gotten “now” is one that must be told.  And how I’ve gotten here involves telling at least two stories, requires that I follow two narrative threads.  (There’s actually three but only two I’m even close to comfortable sharing now.)

The first is the story of my father’s involvement with organized crime and the second is the story of my twenty-year struggle with bipolar disorder.

Neither of these is easy to tell.  And honestly I’m afraid.

I still intend to write about Haiti.  I still intend to write about the “now” that is the life I share with Sara on this troubled island.  In fact, I believe the struggles Haiti faces nationally are not dissimilar to the personal challenges I’ve endured.  My story and the story of Haiti both involve sickness and corruption, oppression, endurance, even hope.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll outline my strategy, share my goals, my hopes, my fears.

I don’t know how to tell this story.  I don’t know where to begin.  I feel swallowed by the enormity of the task, dwarfed by it.

So, I’ll pray for peace—and if you’re a praying person, please offer your own prayer; if you’re not, please say you care, please say you’ll share.

I still need that massive infusion of grace.  I still need that holy yes.

She Sheltered Me (In the Shelter of One Another, Part 2)


Today I’d like to welcome my friend and fellow writer Mindy Shannon Phelps to “Reinventing the Event Horizon.”  Mindy’s  guest post is also about “sheltering,” a topic explored in yesterday’s poem and one inherent to the recovery effort here in Haiti.  Mindy’s narrative negotiation of this issue–an event horizon of its own–is stunningly poised and powerfully moving.  (Mindy’s bio is below and her post “She Sheltered Me” just below that.  Mindy will personally respond to comments, so feel free to ask questions.) 

A journalist by training, Mindy Shannon Phelps is a project management and communications specialist.

Over the past 17 years, her clients have ranged from Habitat for Humanity 
International and the US Department of Justice to the FEI World Equestrian Games and the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, which she launched in 2007.  As a consultant, she focuses primarily on not-for-profit organizations.

As a wife and mother, she says she is humbled by the grace and love of her two daughters and husband, who encourage her to “write it down.” She does write – prose and poetry – and she is an editor, as well.

Her maxim: “Woman hath no greater satisfaction than editing someone else’s copy.”


She Sheltered Me

It was the spring of 2004 in one of the worst years – work wise – of my life. I had been hired to transform a well-known non-profit organization from an affiliate of the national group to a state-only organization.  The group’s mission was completely embraceable – justice and fairness for all – but the group was hamstrung by about 60 long-time stakeholders – board members and advisors and founders – who each decided to be my boss. I also had an entrenched staff that I simply could not manage.  My associate director made Machiavelli seem like a decent person.

I could not win for losing. 

One morning, on the drive to work, I stopped at Starbucks and stood in line behind a very odd person.  She was very colorful.  A black lady whom you could immediately recognize as being from Africa or the Caribbean.  Not used to the chill March weather.  Bright knit cap and scarf. Bangles and rings and clothing that seemed to surround, rather than actually fit, her body. Sneakers and thick socks. Carrying a knapsack and a small pair of bongo drums, she was about to beg the barista for coffee for one dollar. Before she got to the counter, she turned around to me and told me I was a “rainbow child” and that I blessed her with my smile. 

She turned to the counter and the barista refused her request.

She hurried out the door. I was troubled that I did not quickly step in and get her some coffee. But I could see that she frightened the clerk and the customers. And she, herself, was frightened.  So I got my own coffee and went on my little way.

She walked across the street and I overheard her asking for directions to Main Street. I really wanted to pick her up and debated with myself through a light change, then crossed lanes and stopped and offered a ride. 

We sat for a minute and chatted and she explained how she had traveled from Jamaica to live with her sister – had sold $2000 worth of jewelry that she makes – and her sister had taken her money. My passenger was headed to the Hyatt Regency downtown to stay the night.  Her sister had a reservation. 

You know, I like to think I at least try to take people at face value. But I’m just as shallow as they come, really.  I wasn’t sure I believed this woman’s story. Making it even more difficult were comments that interspersed her narration, such as, “but, you know, I am not worried because God takes care of me.  We are all His children and He loves us.  I used to be a rainbow but now I am here.” I was with her on God’s love but the rainbow metaphor was beyond my ken.

Then she told me something I had always believed. 

“We need to continually stay in prayer.” With that, she began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and I headed the car down the road.

When I got to Main Street, I pulled into a parking lot next to a bakery. I don’t know why I didn’t just take her all the way down to the Hyatt. It was as if I was dreaming and did not have control of the car. This is what she told me in that lot.

“God bless you.  Be on your guard. Satan has demons driving on the streets today.  You are under attack and you don’t know it.  You need to call on Michael. Do you know Michael, the archangel? He’s my angel and he will be your angel, too.  You are God’s child and He loves you. You and I will see each other soon in paradise. We’ll be so happy then!”

All of this, she repeats, several times.

I began to weep because she touched something I didn’t know needed comforting. My heart.

The lady from Jamaica had blessed me and she was of God; that I knew. And I think God was there in the car with us and so was Michael, the archangel.

Before she got out of the car, I fished into my wallet and gave her a fifty-dollar bill. It was my two-week “allowance.” I felt as if I were giving it to God.  

She cried when I handed it to her.

I never saw her again.

A holy yes?

I’m one of those people who, for better or worse, can only write what’s true.  And the  truth for today is ugly:

I’m overwhelmed.

I’m tired.

I’m disappointed by my seeming inability to cope.

I need a massive infusion of grace.

A holy yes.

So I offer this poem about my struggle to even write:

Country we come to only by leaving 

There are no words

            with weight and


                        only a limp

                        phrase which

                        sags in the

                        center like

                        wet clay

            dampening the tips of


            moistening the verbs

the hinges are in place

            but there is only

            the low blank

            noise of sentences


I remind myself though that writing is never a solitary  act. 

That is the holy yes!


Haiti’s 35 Second Tragedy: a Second Chance for Peace

A mere 35 seconds nearly sealed the fate of Haiti. 

At 4:53 pm on January 12, 2010 an earthquake lasting just over half a minute devastated Port-au-Prince, killing close to a quarter million, injuring hundreds of thousands more, and leaving, still one year later, more than a million homeless in and around the Haitian capital.  The earthquake may have leveled Port-au-Prince  in half a minute, but cholera continues to kill Haitians by the thousands.  Every 35 seconds more are sickened.   More die needless deaths.

It’s not a pretty picture.  There’s nothing pretty about Port-au-Prince.

And as an outsider, clearly, I know nothing about the real suffering of the Haitian people.  I know nothing of a mother housing a family of 14 children in a tent the size of a suburban bathroom, nothing of another mother trying to quiet a baby crying in the dark, while torrential rain turns the ground beneath her tiny tarp to liquid mud.

How can I, a privileged white woman from a wealthy nation, speak of Haitian pain with any real authority?  

The fact of the matter is I can’t.  I have no right.  I have no knowledge of not enough food to eat or no clean water to drink.  I can only speak of what I see—

And what I see—every 35 seconds—is a city still in ruin.  I see the weary but not teary eyes of human beings too stunned to grieve even colossal losses. 

I may indeed presume too much, but I am here in Haiti on this historic day and I will take 35 seconds to pray for Haiti—

To pray for peace in the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince this morning.

Please take 35 seconds to share this prayer with me.  Take 35 seconds and pray for peace in Haiti.

Please Post for Haiti: Pressing Port-au-Prince

As many of you know, tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake and accordingly huge numbers of media and NGO big wigs are here in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the event.  The streets, still strewn with 95% of the original earthquake rubble, are more crowded and crazy than ever, which is saying a lot for a city whose roads boast potholes the size of swimming pools and mounds of debris that dwarf the SUVs that try to travel them.

So, I’m back in this city I love, hoping to participate in some small way—hoping to commemorate along with many others, both here and around the world, a catastrophe that shook this nation to its historic core, killing nearly a quarter million and leaving, still today, more than a million homeless in Port-au-Prince, entire families living in tents and under tarps that remap the landscape, blanketing the city in a patchwork of sadness and resignation–the hillsides and former parks of Port-au-Prince quilted in the aftermath of tragedy.

Tomorrow the American Refugee Committee is organizing an event called “Bells for Haiti”—asking churches, schools, and city halls across America to ring their bells for 35 seconds, beginning at 4:53 pm EST—the time it took the earthquake to topple Port-au-Prince one year ago.

Likewise, I’m asking those of us at WordPress to somehow remember the Haitian people in our blogs tomorrow.   

Please post for Haiti on January 12th

I don’t know how.  I can’t tell you what to say, since I myself fell muted by the enormity of what we face here.  I’ll post my part, but it won’t be enough.  My voice isn’t loud enough.

But I know the blogosphere can raise a collect cry against the pain and suffering that still cripples Port-au-Prince, still haunts all of Haiti.

So, please press your words for Haiti tomorrow.

Post!  Pray!  Remember!

(And if you’re willing, please re-post this request to your own blog to help spread the word.)

A Rant! A Rave! A Prayer?

I miss Sara terribly when we’re apart, but now that it’s been four days since she’s returned to Haiti, I’m experiencing the separation more intensely.  I tend to isolate when Sara’s gone.  I want to be alone.  I want to sleep.  I can barely tie my shoe or utter a coherent sentence—let alone clean the house, cook a meal, or walk the dog.  It’s a sad state of affairs. 

Yes, yes—I know I exaggerate, but I did have one small victory yesterday afternoon, having managed to extricate myself from the green chair I’ve been living in for days and drag myself kicking and screaming to the grocery store.  But then again, hunger’s a pretty strong motivator, and the only thing I want to do more than absolutely nothing is eat—eat everything—eat any and all things unhealthy and heart-attack inducing— I could so Twinkie and Ho-Ho myself to an early grave, it isn’t funny.

It doesn’t help that I’m on a diet. It doesn’t help that the date I return to Haiti has yet to be determined and will depend on security in Port-au-Prince over the next several days.  It doesn’t help that Kentucky, besides being famous for its fried chicken, is in fact one of the most boring places on the planet—no rioting, no cholera, no real election fraud to speak of.  Things are so comfortably tedious and middle class, that even the excitement phobic find themselves twiddling their thumbs and begging to be mugged, praying to be clubbed by a decent natural disaster.  Even a blizzard would do.

Obviously though, I shouldn’t tease about these things.  Obviously I should change this ornery desire to be anywhere I’m not—and never where I am—never in the here and now, in this city, in this state, on this day.

Please help me, God, to be content in the coming year—grateful for today, in this house with warm meals and clean water to drink.  Please teach me to be grateful for the little things and thankful always for the heart-pounding passion that makes me miss Sara when she’s away. Please keep her close.  Please keep her safe.  Please take me to her soon.

How do you handle separation from the ones you love?  Does humor help?  Writing?  Prayer or mediation?

(And thanks for the fabulous feedback and comments on my previous post.  Please share your thoughts and feelings on this one, as well.  My readers rock!)


A Holiday Prayer for Haiti

This morning Sara’s office is closed for a second day in a row, as announced results in the Haitian presidential election, have thrown much of the country into chaos.

Yesterday hundreds of protesters rioted past out house in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petion-ville, and shots rang out across the city.  Throughout the day we could hear explosions and smell tires burning.  The toxic fumes of burnt rubber and tear gas left me with a near blinding headache and induced an allergic reaction in Sara, her eyes watering, face swollen from irritants in the air.

Given the seemingly insurmountable series of obstacles the country has faced since the January 12th earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince—hurricane Tomas, cholera, and now election fraud—I’m reminded of the Haitian proverb, “dye mon, gen mon,” which roughly translates into English as “beyond the mountains, more mountains.” 

Here the expression images topographically the never-ending struggle of the Haitian people, outlining a belief shared by many, that conquering one challenge only brings the next one into focus—a belief mapped in the furrowed brows of many who fight the good fight one day, only to see the sun rise the following morning on the summit of the next.

As the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince are brightening today, those of us holed up in our houses are left with little to do but pray—

Pray for peace on these angry streets—

And in the mountains—the mountains beyond mountains—

May the hills be alive with a sound of peaceful music–

A peace that passes understanding–

May God bring peace to Haiti this holiday season!