A Tale of 2 Cities...

I've never taken a trip without a book before-not even a trip
to the breakfast table.

But here I was, in Croatia sans reading material of any kind.
I'd crossed an ocean without a book! Heavens!
But there was a purpose...probably long overdue.
It was time to do life without the protective layer that a book so often affords.

It put me in mind of my move to New York City when I was 27.
My first glimpse of the teeming metropolis at 23 had left me in tears
for 3 days and nights- thoroughly unnerved and distraught.
Had you told me at that time that I would be living there someday,
I would have told you you were crazy!
But 4 years later, I was drawn to move there.
I had a few friends in the city, a fiancé and best guy friend who were
more than willing to host or accompany me, but I elected to go solo.
I wanted a raw, unvarnished experience of the place.
I wanted to live as the ordinary people lived and take the true pulse
of the place...and that is just what I got.

I drove around the city in a 17yr old VW bug, trying to get a feel for where
I should be. Brooklyn appealed...near a park, I reasoned. Diversity. Reality.
I drove around Prospect Park, familiarizing myself with the neighborhoods.
Flatbush Ave. beckoned. I noticed 2 high-rise apartment blocks near the subway station. The place felt 'right'. I spotted a "for rent' sign out front.
I entered the leasing office and inquired about the apartment for rent.
The curiously dressed man behind the desk curtly informed me that there was no apartment for rent.
"But you have a sign," I replied plaintively.
"Lady," he declared in exasperated tones, "I just told you there is nothing
for rent here."
Like a complete bumpkin, I persevered, asking "Then why do you have the sign out front saying apartment for rent if you don't have an apartment for rent?!"
"Lady...you don't get it, do you!?" He stood to full and imposing height.
In that moment, I realized he was a Hasidic Jew, a people I had only read about. I had never seen one in full array.
"We have 2 buildings, each with 70 units. Yours would be the only white face
for 140 units! I can't rent you an apartment!"
"Well, if you HAD an apartment to rent, about how much would it cost?"
"It would be $650 a month," he said distractedly.
He'd gone back to his paperwork. I was dismissed.
I fingered the bills in my pocket.
THIS was my building--my real, unvarnished New York experience.
But how to get around his refusal...
A thought popped into my head!
"Sir, I believe the law states that if you have an apartment and I have the money, that you are required to rent it to me," as I slid the correct amount across the desk to him.

Ha! Using the discrimination laws in reverse!
His mouth gaped open, he sputtered and reached for the keys.
Well! I'd done it! My adventure was beginning.

The elevator was broken, so I climbed 7 flights of stairs.
Everything smelled of piss, there was open garbage in the stairwells
and the elegant marble walls were scrawled with graffiti.
A once-elegant building going to ruin.
I smiled and said hello to the few people I encountered, but there was no sign of friendliness in return. Scowls and dirty looks mostly.
When I let myself into the apartment, I noted with some concern that there was no furniture, something I had completely failed to take into account.
Every place I had lived before had been furnished.
I was wondering where I would put my sleeping bag for the night when there was a sharp knock on the door.
I opened the door to a huge black man whose frame nearly filled the doorway!
"Lady, I didn't see any moving truck come in with you."
"Uh...it'll be here tomorrow sometime."
I lied. He didn't buy it.
"You don't have any moving truck, do you? Where you gonna sleep tonight?"
Then he introduced himself as the 'super'.
"You're gonna need some things. Hey! I've got a whole basement full of things people left behind. You just wait a few minutes...let me see what I can find."
Well, over the next few hours, he and his son made trip after trip to the basement. By the time night fell, not only did I have good, serviceable furniture of every kind, but they had hung curtains on the windows,
there was silverware and dishes in the cupboards...in short, they outfitted me with everything I could possibly need.
I stood open-mouthed in amazement the whole time!
At the end, we all had a good laugh and said goodnight.
There was so much kindness and good will in their gesture.
What an introduction to New York...

The raw and unvarnished was yet to come...

As winter approached, the apartments were dismally cold and damp.
The wiring was too old and touchy to allow for electric heaters.
The boilers providing heat and hot water were turned on for 20 minutes
in the morning and only occasionally for 20 minutes in the evening.
People could not survive these conditions.
There was ice on the inside of the windows. It was warmer outside than inside.
Questions and complaints were ignored, or if pressed, various lies were told.
It was maddening.
I would hope to catch a warm shower in the morning and then get out of the building till nightfall. Then a night of shivering cold.
I spent the better part of the winter on the phone with the city lobbying for adequate heat for the people.
Hundreds of calls yielded scant results. We might have a few days of tolerable heat, but then the furnace would 'go down' again.
In the end, I suppose higher bribes to city officials held sway.

Finally a climax was reached.
One early evening, I arrived home to a bevy of fire trucks surrounding
my building.
An officer approached me and asked for my name and unit number.
"Miss...I'm sorry, but your apartment was set on fire...it was torched.
You can come back tomorrow to retrieve any personal effects."
"What happened?! I don't understand! Who would have done such a thing?"
"It was a young man a couple of floors down.
He and his wife had just brought their first baby home from the hospital.
A few days later, the baby died of exposure to the elements.
The young man just went berserk and lashed out at the first white person
within reach. It's a good thing that you weren't home."
Oh my God...of course. We all understood.
The heartless owners had caused this tragedy.
When I confronted them, they coldly demanded the rent remaining
on my lease... Unbelievable!

So, here I was in Croatia, needing once again, to experience the place
and its people without filter or distraction.
I had visited for the first time just 6 weeks before.

The former Yugoslavia was a place I had longed to visit for many years.
The folk dancing that I love comes from this region of the world.
I'd heard such glowing reports of the traditions, the beauty of the countryside and the villages, the enviable lifestyle.
I was on a lovely island for a conference of like-minded people.
The island was ancient, peaceful, pristine...so wonderful!
I had set an extra week aside for some independent touring.
I decided to cross the region by bus...local rather than a tour bus.

It was there that I saw war up close for the first time.
A war that I, like many Americans, knew nothing about.
Traumatized people, burnt out villages, mosques, churches in ruins.
Not the happy place that had been portrayed all these years.
It was a series of shocks, punches to the gut, jarring the brain,
ripping the heart and mind.

What they were living with was incomprehensible.
I couldn't describe it to people back home.
I felt compelled to go back, learn more, lend aid somehow.
I was far too ignorant.
I needed to 'enter in' to their experience.
I had to remove the filters and take it in...raw and unprotected
from the fact of what happened across the region.
There could be no distraction or looking away...only seeing...
entering in, if possible.

There was a curious lead up to this trip...
It started unfolding 4 years before.
I was a massage therapist, finding my way in my new calling.
All of this was born from an interest in healing that I'd had since youth.
Finding the right form to express that passion has taken me on
an unconventional path through life.
Healing takes so many forms...
The path evolved as I evolved.
I found that working with difficult and complex issues suited me far better than playing the servant to wealthy and self-serving clients.
I began to make choices...and sacrifices to find my best outlet.
There just had to be a higher purpose...
As my mind wandered in search of a more authentic expression
of what was within, I played out various scenarios mentally.
Refugees? Wounded vets? Africa? Haiti?
There were many possibilities, but nothing felt quite right.
Finally, by a slow process of elimination, the only 2 remaining ideas
concerned working with 'displaced' people and the Balkans.
That made no sense to me at the time, ignorant as I was of the war in the 90's. It seemed ludicrous...wishful thinking at best. But it persisted.
The longing grew and intensified over the next 3 years.
I began to obsess about the region, thoughts intruded day and night.

Then I had a remarkable experience one day as I worked on a woman.
I was briefly taken into trance where I 'discovered' a different paradigm
for working with trauma in the nervous system.
It was a dramatic departure from what I had been taught.
When I 'returned', I found my hands doing a very different type of work...
not massage at all, but something 'other'.
On a deep level of being, I understood what was being done.
Over the next several months, I began to grow into the work.
Traumatized people started showing up.
The work was amazing for releasing trauma on many levels.
Shortly afterward, I received an unexpected invitation to a conference
of European Thai therapists being held in Croatia.
My opportunity at long last.

Then I took the fateful bus trip and began to see...
Everything lined up.
This was a nation of displaced people...5 of the 8 million had been displaced. The Balkans indeed...

I cherish those times in life where reading comes to a close
and real life is finally engaged.
It seems much of my life is governed by waiting and yearning.
Everything was finally lining up and falling into place.

I was in a position recently to take a few weeks away from the practice.
I found a volunteer assignment and cobbled together another opportunity outside the mainstream clinic.
It would be an intense period...seeing as many patients as possible
and taking the new work where it was most needed.
It would take a book to describe the totality of the experience there.
The learning was as wildly complex as the conflict and the histories,
both personal and societal.
It enlarged my soul.
The depth of their need brought forward the most extraordinary healing energies...
I wish that I could have stayed...
But as I said earlier, medicine takes many forms...

In many ways, they are already living in their own medicine.
It is not always for us to determine what is best for others from afar...

I was dismayed to find, that 'help' had become institutionalized...
corrupt...for the benefit of the institutions.
Too much aid can create a society of permanently 'broken' people,
leaning on outsiders for help, rather than marshalling their own resources.
The younger generation was bent on forgetting and were not interested
in helping their fellow countrymen.

But also there was, for some, a failure to learn from the tragedies.
Some were bent on setting the stage for the next conflict, stirring up hatred for the generations that follow.

In the final tally, I would not be allowed to go again.

They remain ever in my heart and thoughts and prayers.