Art: 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 27

Day 27: I am grateful for the arts.

the Art Institute of Chicago

woman painting a painting

Today I am grateful for all the arts. Literature, poetry, photography, sculpture and painting are just some examples of arts that enrich our lives in inexplicable ways. All of these have played meaningful and important roles throughout my life and in some ways have made me the person I am. I am a person who loves artful things; perhaps you are as well.

Painting is its own complex art that reaches back centuries, and also something I enjoy studying in all its forms. Painting is certainly not something I am accomplished at, but we do not have to master a thing in order to appreciate it. I am grateful for all the richness painting brings into our lives, and for all it teaches us about history, thought, place, and even values such as religion. When I first observed Renaissance painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, I unexpectedly stood before one painting for nearly an hour. Its artistry was so powerful it felt almost overwhelming–a painting! It felt somewhat similar to watching a film, fluid in its movement and intrigue. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favorite places to visit. I have also been to the Smithsonian and to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, and am hoping one day to visit the Louvre.

Here is a link to the National Geographic’s top ten list of art museums and galleries:

Here are some famous paintings that I have viewed:


Monet, Claude, French-Impressionism, The-Regatta-at-Saint-Adresse, 1867, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Botticelli, Sandro. Primavera (a.k.a., Allegory of Spring). ca. 1482. Italian Renaissance, tempera panel painting, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.


Seurat, Georges-Pierre. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 1884. French, Pointillism, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

Seurat, Georges-Pierre. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 1884. French, Pointillism, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL


Renoir painting

Renoir, Pierre-Auguste. Two Sisters (On the Terrace). 1881. French, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.


Click here for a Facebook page to enjoy daily posts about art.

For an interesting article in The New York Times about a famous painting, click here.

The report of the top selling Modigliani, the second-highest price painting ever sold at auction, here, and almost twice the cost, the highest ever priced Gaugin, here.

Here is a list of top ten artists of all time.


Some questions for reflection:

Do you enjoy art?

Which arts do you most enjoy: painting, photography, poetry, literature, sculpture, or something else?

What museums or galleries have you visited or contributed to?

What famous paintings have you viewed?

How has art enriched your life?


See other gratitudes listed on the link on the top of this page, marked November Gratitudes 2015.

© debra valentino,, all rights reserved.

Architecture: 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 23

Day 23: I am grateful for architecture.

Here are just a few of the many wonders of man-made creations, which exist throughout the world.

ancient Roman aqueduct

The Towers Bridge of Spoleto, Italia

Rome, Italy

Vatican City, Roma, Italia

Roman architecture

Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, Roma, Italia

Florence, Italy

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze

Università di Bologna

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

Renaissance arches

ancient Greek architecture

the theater of Dionysus in Athens, Greece

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The Gateway Arch of the West, St. Louis, MO, USA


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Chicago River, Chicago, IL, USA

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Chicago, IL, USA

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Trump Tower, Chicago, IL, USA

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Marina Towers, Chicago, IL, USA

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John Hancock Building in Chicago, IL, USA

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street level at the Willis Tower, Chicago, IL, USA

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side entrance of The Art Institute of Chicago

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Chicago skyline, Chicago, IL, USA


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The Tower Bridge in London, UK

Do you also enjoy viewing large structures in new cities and countries,

or even familiar ones in your own city or hometown?


In the comments below, I would love to hear your suggestions of great places to see.

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original photos; copyright Debra Valentino,



Imagine a place far from home.

Say that it’s spacious…an old stone Georgian manor with French floor to ceiling window casements. Built in the mid 1800s, and still standing stoically in the damp, often foggy English countryside.


Imagine acres of gardens and farmland, livestock grazing, stone paths with a large latched gate and not a few concrete goddesses.  A magical place of mystical worship.

Outside, a garden of fresh herbs, vegetables, and orchards of nourishing, delectable fruit.

Inside, an intriguing interior with a magnificent staircase central to all activity.  A kitchen that has a life of its own—the place of early morning greetings, musings, ready smiles and spontaneous laughter…endless cups of tea, and plates of homemade cake so varied and reliable that you simply cannot continue to say no.

Imagine a joyous embracing—being gloriously welcomed, then toasted by candlelight on a crisp autumn evening with bubbly flutes of Prosecco. The excitement of it all–adventure, friendship, spirit, wonder.

Add to this setting a chef with trained cooks waiting to serve your every meal from a country kitchen set just off the stately dining room—a place of elegant evening meals with its large, expansive table that, in addition to the kitchen table, becomes as central to community as the hearths that warm the two rooms beyond.

Imagine one room, lightly touched with delicate incense, distinctive, yet barely perceptible.  Imagine sage, cedar and juniper bound together in a wand, used in a smudging ceremony to prepare this room, to prepare the energy of the room to receive you and send you yonder.

Imagine with this no need to plan, no need to shop, no need to decide anything really. Just come to the table and state your pleasure: vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free. It’s all there, prepared and waiting to nourish and satisfy a hunger you didn’t even know you had.

Imagine at this table, candlelit and clothed, raising one’s glass in unison–toasting, clinking, belonging. Moonlight lifting through the windows. A yurt waiting outside with more magic than you can hope for. Change.  Epiphanies.  Tears.  Wonder.  A fire glowing in the cold air.

Imagine conversation at every meal. Caring. Hearing. Feeling fed, feeling full. Being seen, nourished. Imagine a space of your own. Company. Time to be quiet. Time to be raucous. A universe beyond.

Here you will enjoy a library of books. Wood fires crackling–first in the parlor, then in the salon. Darkly painted plum-colored walls, deep as your memories. Bouquets of flowers, varied as your dreams. A velvet Buddah. Your heart’s delight in every room.



Imagine a circle. A sisterhood of support, loving your soul to fullness. Imagine change, breakthroughs, release. Tears that have waited an unbelievably long time. A new meaning for yes.



Imagine all of this framed in exploration—a hike in the wind, a breathless climb, a Shamanic reading near a Chalice Well.  Finally, a deep tissue massage in a converted stable that once was a cow shed.

Rain falling hard.

Imagine a woman. You.  A woman weary from the journey there.

Imagine women. Fifteen women. Six groups of two and always one group of three, where you are never sure where you will end up—but where you will always feel you belong.  A family you never expected.

A family of women also present at the inevitable sendoff.  Yet this sendoff, like their welcoming, is one that reaches beyond your wildest dreams. A veritable scene from a movie, with you playing the lead role.  After Letting Go, a celebration of Can’t-Let-Gos–revelatory, with so much love, so much knowing.  Their wisdom and your own, whirling all around and through you.  A newfound confidence.

Just imagine. Imagine having company all hours of the day, with nothing to do but connect, look within, reach beyond, process, dream.

Imagine this space for yourself, quiet, silence.

A surprising room of your own of safety and freedom.

This is bliss.  Clean sheets and a fluffy duvet.  Your own bubble bath with no interruptions. Stars on your door, circling your name.




 © Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved

Veterans Day 2014: On Re-entering and Honoring my Favorite Veteran


Re-entering one’s life is difficult whether one has experienced a traumatic event (such as war…or a debilitating head injury, which some veterans have experienced), or something magical (such as a honeymoon…or the women’s retreat I just returned from yesterday).

For one thing, time presses on and never seems to afford enough space to process all one has experienced. After all, you can’t exactly just sit around all day reflecting, whether you would like to or not.  In addition, something is always needing to be done; people may be waiting and perhaps needing or expecting something–like the old you to show up!

Such was certainly the case when I returned from London yesterday afternoon.  I also held the desire of seeming like the same familiar person that left–not floating on some foreign cloud (like I felt)–yet internally desiring to do better on every level.

After reveling in a walk with my dog in surprisingly warm, breezy, unseasonal and unforgettable weather, then dinner out with my family, I felt both jet lagged and exhilarated.  The phenomenal experience of traveling on my own for the first time since my injury seven years ago taught me not only just how far I have come, but also how far I still have to go.

Though I purposely planned the retreat to advance my own continued healing, I also missed my husband every bit as much as I feared I would.  Traveling without him confirmed all the things I knew I had grown dependent on him for, in ways I was previously independent, and I wanted to thank him once again for his steadfast devotion, particularly during the hardest days of my convalescence (months…years!), and even now as I navigate what I hope are the last vestiges of my condition.

Returning to the U.S. on Veterans Day seemed the perfect time to thank my Navy Seabee spouse for his service, both to me over the years and to our country.  I think of my husband at just 19 years old, working midnights and entering his 8 a.m. college chemistry course one ordinary day to find a group of his fellow classmates reading the newspaper, calling out to him, “Hey, when is your birthday?”….And my husband telling them as they looked up his date on the draft lottery.  And then their exclaiming, “EIGHT!  YOU’RE NUMBER 8!”  And I remember the fear and the anxiety the Vietnam draft instilled at the time, 1969. Monday, December 2, 1969, to be exact. My husband will never forget.  And fast forwarding to today when he happily sings in his deep baritone marching voice as he “swabs the deck” (aka., mops the kitchen floor), swishing and swaying enthusiastically, “In the Navy”!  And how he always says he served, “Three years, nine months, and fifteen days”…(and sometimes adds with a smile, “in the world’s second largest nuclear navy” to underscore the irony of the Soviet Union’s threat at the time).

So in deference to all that, on my first morning back, I left the unpacking and reflecting for another day and planned a few outings to honor him.

First, I took him to a nearby bakery, Sweet T’s, that was offering free coffee and pastry to all veterans today.  As it turns out, this is also the same bakery where I recently ordered our granddaughter’s first birthday party cookies, which just so happened to be delicious.  I also wanted to register there for an upcoming workshop.


So I brought my husband to the bakery, where he received his free veteran’s cup of coffee and he got to pick out one of his favoriteIMG_2073 pastries–a cinnamon roll, which always brings him happy memories of his maternal grandparents, “Mom and Pop.” While he was enjoying the cinnamon roll (with a little help from me), one of his favorite songs came on in the bakery.  It was a magical gift in its entirety, which left him touched and flattered, particularly after serving in an unpopular war, which always made him otherwise feel like “just an appendage.”

IMG_2115After the bakery, I took him to a nearby optometrist to schedule our eye examinations, which are long overdue. It felt good to get something so important accomplished.  Next, we went to the bookstore, and I encouraged him to pick out a book–my thanks, once again, to him on Veterans Day.  He was hesitant to accept the gift since, as new retirees and consequent “minimalists,” instead of purchasing books, we now prefer to patronize the local library.  He finally settled on a new novel by one of his favorite authors, LILA by Marilynne Robinson, which he already began reading this evening, proclaiming aloud, “She’s such a good writer!”

By this time, my husband was feeling so charged that he made an unexpected turn into the home improvement store, where we spent the next hour or so picking out a lavatory, pedestal and faucet for a bathroom we are renovating, as well as a new light fixture for our dining room.  This is an errand I left for London miserable not to have accomplished, so my plan of gratitude paid back in unanticipated spades!  My day of surprises was not over yet, however…

For our last stop, I took my husband to a local park, which houses our veterans memorial.  We spent time there listening to the rush of the fountain waters, reading the names on the memorial bricks, and snapping a few photos with our cell phones.  Then it was time to return home to walk the dog who had waited for us patiently.  By now the sky had darkened, the wind was biting, and the weather had changed to near freezing.

Just to show how really thankful I am, I insisted that I take the dog for his walk, and I left my husband to enjoy some well deserved down time, warming up and reflecting…I hope on what a great guy he truly is.

Thanks to all our veterans for their service to the armed forces.























On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

“Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants…. Sentimental literature is “tear-jerking” literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.” — Laurence Perrine, from Sound and Sense



We love people for all sorts of reasons.  We love celebrities, it seems, for fewer reasons.  Sometimes it is their looks, but more often it is a celebrity’s talent that captures our attention.  We are fortunate when celebrities take up causes that we care about, and sometimes we care about the celebrity because they care about the same things we do.  John Denver’s interests in the beauty of nature, a sustainable environment, ending world hunger and attaining world peace are revered by so many that he has secured an audience of hundreds of thousands of faithful followers since the 1970s, most still active today, even though he’s been gone from this earth since 1997.

As a former college English instructor, I became interested in the history of a letter writing tradition that once took place during the annual John Denver Tribute Week in Aspen, Colorado.  It was difficult finding locals who knew of this event or who were wiling to discuss it.   Instead, I located representatives from Australia (where John has a huge fan base to this day) and Monterey, California, USA (where John’s experimental aircraft went down).  These affiliates very much wanted to see the tradition revived in Aspen.  When I was unsuccessful at securing interest or writers, I found a tribute radio show that would run live from Aspen that was willing to let the letters be read on air during the broadcast.  I gathered the letters written by fans in California and Australia, and when I couldn’t find anyone willing to write one from Aspen, composed one myself.  When it came time to read the letters on air, I looked for volunteers and found one woman visiting from Australia and one woman who used to live in California willing to fill in as readers — and I read my own letter.

How long has it been since you wrote a tribute to someone?  A love letter?  It’s an interesting exercise worth pursuing.  However, love letters are sentimental, and as such are off the radar of most English teachers, who are consumed with form, with style, with craft.  My training taught me to be self-conscious and dissatisfied by such sentimentality.  Yet given the kind of October I was having (stuck with an unusual and persistent cough that went on for six weeks, along with lingering grief from the loss of my mother the spring before), the opportunity to express such heartfelt sentiments seemed somewhat healing and oddly liberating.  Maybe expressing our love for something or someone–no matter how schmaltzy the end product turns out–isn’t such a bad idea after all.  Remember, in his songwriting, John Denver himself was often accused of this sort of simplicity by jealous critics and fellow artists who never reached the peak of popularity he still receives. There’s something inspired, it turns out, about writing straight from the heart.  At any rate, here is the text of the letter I wrote and read last October to the great spirit of John Denver:


Aspen, Colorado / October 11, 2013

Dear John,

It is hard to imagine all that this world lost when we lost you sixteen years ago. Not only did we lose a man we all felt close to, a man who just happened to be of incomparable talent and perspective, a man of keen wit and perception, but it seems even more evident than ever before that when we lost you, we also lost a treasured compass–our guide and our guru. We knew when we lost you that the road ahead would never be the same, but we never envisioned how we would carry on—what it actually meant to live without your remarkable influence.

All these years later, we lament that many of the causes you dedicated so much passion to continue to go unresolved. We haven’t ended poverty or world hunger. We are only marginally closer to non-polluting sources of energy independence. We continue to make weapons and feed the war machine, spilling untold billions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives each year. Our economy has been suffering as you predicted it would, and we are probably more politically divided as a nation than in any time since the Civil War. Without your voice, we are left yearning for the kind of comfort, optimism, leadership, and direction your songs so triumphantly celebrate.

We want you to know that we continue to honor your memory. Inspired by your work, we have stayed close to your ideals. We care for our land in small ways and big. We walk and we ponder, and often we look anew with the eyes you taught us to use. We see the hawk and the eagle, and we continue to marvel at the wondrous skies and the beauty you saw and now we see in all of nature. In these ways, we are consoled, and yet we still grieve.

Every October on the days surrounding the anniversary of your death, many of us who love you most gather across the continents to pay tribute to the gifts you so lovingly shared with all of us. Here in Aspen, we visit your Sanctuary; we travel to Windstar to see Spirit and walk the land, which to our dismay was recently sold. We ride the gondolas up Aspen Mountain. We renew old friendships and make new ones with people from around the globe. We share stories, sing your songs together, hang out into the wee hours of the night at Mountain Chalet sing-alongs.  We laugh and we hug, grow closer, smile a lot, find the healing we seek, and say, “FAR OUT!,” and even occasionally “MAGOOMBA!!!” And sometimes we cry.

We attend concerts and campfires, go on hayrides, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and have a luncheon at the Cookhouse. The thing we want you most to know is that we have become a family. We call it, “Our John Denver Family.”

We know that you would be so pleased with the friendships we develop, and we feel a fulfilling sense of pride in all that you gave to us, not the least of which are these shared experiences. We remember that this level of recognition, this sense of community and at oneness is something you always wanted for yourself and for all of humankind.

In addition, because current times provide us with a wealth of resources such as text messaging and Facebook, we even manage to communicate with one another daily. You are always the main topic of conversation. On the internet, we also have access to your autobiography.  We have websites and Facebook groups dedicated to your memory. Nightly, we visit recordings of your concert performances, music videos, and television appearances. We feel incredibly fortunate to be your fans and your family. We feel lucky to have known you, to understand what you were all about.

Our dearest John, you gave us your energy, your talent, your spirit and your time, and we celebrate it all with unfaltering gratitude. We are the brothers and sisters your vision created. We are the world peace you sang for with all your heart. Your grand life was full of purpose, and it mattered to all of us and it continues to matter. We love you, we miss you, we appreciate you, and we thank you.

All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino


On Losing My Mother, and Fulfilling Dreams (part 4): Bon Voyage, Great Spirit!

On Losing My Mother, and Fulfilling Dreams (part 4):  Bon Voyage, Great Spirit!

Santorini, Greece

When grandparents die it can be the end of an era for a family.  Particularly in an ethnic culture where old world ways dwindle and traditions begin to fade.  Such was the case in our family when my grandmother died, though my mom was a good steward of making delectable artichokes, and knew how to make the prized biscotti, pizzelles, rozettes and cannoli, as well as expertly execute the preparation of the manicotti and ravioli with her cylindrical tubes, heated press, crepe pan and pasta machine.  They could have made an action figure doll of her with all her various culinary accoutrements.

so many memories together

so many memories together

I got through this first Christmas without my mother partly by trying to make most of her signature dishes.  It made me feel close to her, and yes it brought unexpected tears and new insight into who she was. I even wore her apron some of the time; perhaps more often than she herself might have, so focused was she always on the process and not the pretty.

I didn’t get the artichokes or the homemade pasta accomplished, but I made almost all of her holiday cookies, realizing the hard way that experience does indeed keep a dear school.  Fortunately, I’m not an altogether bad cook otherwise, and I’ve pretty much mastered the kids’ favorite, eggplant parmigiana, as well as the most important endeavor of making “the gravy,” (known to non-natives as “spaghetti sauce”).  Italian family traditions don’t begin and end with cooking—they just sort of center around it.  There is also history, music, singing, dancing, church, art, debate, beauty, conversation, wine, stories, love, and best of all, laughter.

My daughter’s grief is also great like mine, because she was especially close to my mother.

     my daughter and me              --in our Christmas aprons--

my daughter and me                                            –in our Christmas aprons–

So similar in nature, they were truly kindred-spirits, more so than my mother and myself.  It was a joy to witness their bond, and to hear them cracking-up together when they both should have been sleeping.  So, after my mom passed away, I couldn’t be much surprised when my daughter had the idea of fulfilling one of her grandmother’s few dreams.

My mother had one Greek uncle, the father of my mother’s closest and favorite cousin, whom we always referred to as “Aunt Franny.” She and Franny were closer than sisters, the best of friends, and their relationship alone enriched our family history with endless stories of their adventures.  Because of their



bond, we were all closer and happier.  They made us feel anchored, and I can only imagine what my mom’s absence must feel like for Aunt Franny.

It seems my mother’s Uncle John would regale her siblings and her and all the cousins with splendid stories of his home country, and these stories stayed with my mother all her life.  So much so, that even though she was Italian by origin and not terribly well traveled, she would say in her ever-unique way of thinking that she never much cared to see Italy, but she always wished she could see Greece.

(Great) Aunt Jenny, Aunt Franny, (Great) Uncle John

(Great) Aunt Jenny, Aunt Franny, (Great) Uncle John

She wanted to see the beauty of the Mediterranean islands that her Uncle John affectionately painted so vividly with his words, which she said could bring you to tears, and often did him.

And so this year, for our first birthdays that fall so close to the anniversary date of our great loss on April 10, 2013, my daughter and I will be traveling to Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens to see through our eyes what my mother said she always longed to see.

It is just the only way we can bear to say “Bon Voyage” to the greatest mother and grandmother either of us has ever known.



@ Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

Aspen in October 2012, Part 4: Leslie and John

‎”Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” — Pema Chondron

 Part 4,  Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet:  Leslie and John

Within moments of meeting, our eyes were locked, rapidly welling with great big John Denver love tears.

No one but the two of us had arrived yet, aside from our husbands who accompanied us. Both men sat sort of surreptitiously off to opposite sides, poised as the proverbial good guys that they are, not really knowing what to anticipate. We didn’t know what to anticipate either, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

The facilitator casually grouped us two women together, seemingly so she could tend to the crowd that never did appear (not while we were present, anyway).  For whatever reason, she didn’t seem all that interested in engaging us, but rather eager to cluster us together to free herself.  Perhaps she was tired, having already participated in many of the festivities and other storytelling sessions.  Regardless, her subtle complacency only underscored our shared enthusiasm.

As it turned out, in the lifelong friendship race, this match could surely set some sort of record.  You know simpatico when it arrives.  You know when you are with someone who actually makes it all so easy.  Someone who doesn’t put on aires.  Isn’t competitive, unduly complicated, suspicious, judgmental, self-absorbed, petty, or self-righteous.  You realize how important personality is, character.  Meetings like this are seamless.  It’s as if they started long before you were aware of them.  You can’t see any endings in sight.  You simply don’t expect acquaintanceships like this, because they are so rare.

With a set gaze and some help from her hands for emphasis, Leslie shared how she was a groupie — my word not hers; I’m pretty sure what she said was, “crazy in love with.”  She told in explicit detail how half a lifetime ago she met John Denver both backstage and at a lavish event she wasn’t even invited to.  How nice he was, how inordinately kind.  How, while everyone else was waiting in line to meet him, he thoughtfully took time out to fix her little camera when it jammed. “The last picture that camera took was of John Denver,” she reflected tenderly, as if knowing instinctively how much I would care.  She repeated that she was crazy about him, and told me that all three of her daughters grew up listening to his music.  Then, she  stopped to qualify that on that first meeting backstage, even though he fixed her camera, there was only a hug.

Whispering rather coquettishly, she continued — in a low, hand-curled-around-her-mouth voice, leaning decisively inward, “You’re going to think I’m terrible…”  Of course, her preface only piqued my curiosity.  Apparently, it wasn’t until that second meeting, in the cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City, that it happened.  Unexpectedly, she had to enact some quick thinking after the one man concert.  She persuaded her husband Bill on the spot to crash the gathering that was forming.

“Just stay with me,” she told Bill, as she hurriedly blended in with the crowd.  Moments later she found herself enjoying a cocktail, standing right beside John Denver, again. She introduced herself, reminding him of the time he fixed her camera.  She said he chuckled, that he said he remembered!  This time, he was even more generous.  This time, she asked for a kiss, and he gave her one!

With his wife Annie standing right there. With her husband Bill, standing right there.

She was wild and racy and full of fun, with a ready heart that just popped right out of the top of her white turtleneck sweater.  She looked like the girl next door, the preacher’s daughter, with all the requisite wild stories attached, a nurse or a teacher.  She was all and both…a devoted mom, grandmom, a wife, an EMT, and the recent past president of their local first aid rescue squad. By the time she shared her John Denver stories with me, and I shared mine with her, we were both not only teary-eyed, but somehow bonded ecstatically in one of those surprising kind of ways that cosmically suggest there is a unique and particular order to the universe.

Leslie’s husband Bill was equally engaging.  He was open and animated.  An interesting guy with an interesting career, now retired and full of spirit and wonder.  Having once taught Calculus, he recommended to Rich a book entitled, A Tour of the Calculus, which Rich ordered, and recently received in the mail.  Our husbands also seemed to take an instant liking to one another, and also seemed to have plenty to talk about (even though it probably wasn’t John Denver).

After meeting Leslie and Bill, Rich and I rode the chairlift up Aspen Mountain to see the view credited with inspiring “Annie’s Song.”  It was a wet, cold ride, as the weather had changed from perfect to wintery, deteriorating particularly that day as we gained elevation. Fortunately, I was dressed for it, and the experience was worth the rain mixed with snow.

The view from Aspen Mountain of the 15th anniversary of John Denver’s death.

We returned to the Mountain Chalet cold and wet to hear new artists perform their original pieces and some more John Denver music.  Afterward, we warmed up at Little Annie’s with some hot tea, homemade soup and stew, then turned in early because I was getting pretty wiped out and Rich wanted to watch the Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals in the season playoff game.

On Saturday, we walked through Aspen Farmer’s Market in the rain, and stopped in the shops to make a few souvenir purchases.  Rich bought some locally made honey that I’ve been enjoying in my morning tea.  We ran into Leslie and Bill on the misty streets of Aspen, and as we were dropping off our purchases back at our hotel, Leslie texted, inviting us to join them for dinner. They even picked us up at the Mountain House Lodge, and Bill drove us in their rented SUV, pointing out several interesting homes and sites along the way.  In clearer weather now, we meandered through Roaring Fork Valley to Woody Creek Tavern, one of John Denver’s purported watering holes.  There, among the garish memorabilia that kept reminding me for some reason of Wisconsin, Leslie said enthusiastically, “Okay, you tell us your story, and we’ll tell you ours.”  Some arguing commenced about who had the wilder story, but really, it was Leslie’s delightful interest in the literary that made her so charming and intriguing.

Bill holding the door as Rich and Leslie enter the Woody Creek Tavern for dinner.

inside Woody Creek Tavern

John Denver photo on the wall


more JD inside the Woody Creek Tavern

We enjoyed some really tasty food while sharing our stories.  That evening, we all attended the John Denver Tribute Concert at the Wheeler Opera House, where during intermission Leslie said to me, “I’ll never see a door the same way again in my life.”  I was amazed that that part of our long story had stuck with her.  Simpatico, once again.  At the concert, many of John’s former band members (Mack Bailey, Denny Brooks, Jim Curry, Bill Danoff, Alan Deremo, Richie Gajate-Garcia, Jim Horn, Pete Huttlinger, Chris Nole, Jim Salestrom and Steve Weisberg) performed some of the pieces that helped him make popular.  There, too, John’s daughter Jesse and his former wife Annie joined the finale.  Such loss, recognized by so many–those who truly loved this man and his work. All through the night, it seemed the gravity of John Denver’s tragic ending was in equal proportion to the gifts he gave us. As though he died as he had lived, in an extreme, unexpected, and intensely passionate way.

John Denver projected on the large screen as musicians play
a tribute concert in his honor at the Aspen Wheeler Opera House

Long into the nights, throughout Aspen this October, people of all ages shared as Leslie and I did songs and stories of a man dear to their hearts. There were stories about concerts, about songwriting, about lyrics and chords, about travel and about family members, about meeting dignitaries and winning (and losing) cribbage games.  There were many stories of unparalleled love and kindness and generosity.  There were stories about weddings, about babies being born, about camping and hiking, and about where we were when we heard the tragic news—and what it all meant to us, this incredible loss.

Somehow, people all over the world were brought together by one enormous spirit–the music of an especially gifted storyteller.  And that talent of bringing people together has become part of John Denver’s legacy.  He did it in so many ways while he was alive, and Leslie and I are proof that he still does.

Leslie and Me together at the John Denver Sanctuary

Leslie and I pointing to the line, “I know I’m going to hate to see it end” in the Poems, Prayers, and Promises lyrics.

wild Leslie, wild me, and wild Bill
on Goodbye, Again day at the John Denver Sanctuary
Aspen, CO

© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

Aspen in October 2012, Part 3: New Friends in Aspen

one of the woman working at the
John Denver Sanctuary, 10/11/12

Part 3:  New Friends in Aspen, 10.11.12

Teresa asked me to tell my story to Julie, the resident horticulturist, and then to the site architect.  I was a little self-conscious, but heartened by her supportive curiosity.  People seemed to be coming and going in the conversation, so I didn’t fully realize until we were posing for photographs that I was chatting with THE main developer, designer and architect, Jeff Woods.  The guy who walked the land with Annie (Denver) just days after John died, looking for the proper venue, helping her begin to unveil the best way to honor John Denver’s memory.  Wanting also to offer a financial donation, I had asked Teresa what the approximate cost was for engraving (with lyrics from John’s songs) the large boulders, as they had done and were wanting to continue doing.  She called Jeff over to answer, and he said it was as much as a thousand dollars.  I asked if it was relatively easy, did they use engraving templates, and he said yes, they did, it went surprisingly fast.  Then I told him about my purpose in attending and about my journey back from closed head injury, as Teresa had requested.

I was surprised when Jeff said that he, too, had suffered traumatic brain injury, that he was badly beaten at age eighteen.  He said he had been athletic at the time of the beating, but that the injury destroyed his ability for quite some time; for one thing, he no longer could golf.  I told him exactly the same was true for me, that my injury was profoundly physical—I had to give up all my hobbies, and couldn’t even swing a golf club until I was coming up on my five year mark–then, how exciting it was just recently to have that first day back on the course.  He said, “Oh, yours was much worse than mine.  I wasn’t out of it for that long.”  Then he added, “But my brother still catches me to this day on things I can’t remember from that time.”

As it turned out, Jeff and I had something else in common, too.  We had both grown up just miles apart, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  ‘Nothing like driving a thousand miles to discover just how small the world can be sometimes!

chatting with Theresa
and landscape architect, Jeff Woods

Naturally, it was inspiring to meet someone who had overcome the odds of severe head trauma and gone on to accomplish this phenomenal achievement.  He was a degreed landscape architect and designer, and he was responsible for creating one of the largest outdoor gardens in our country—maybe the world.  He modestly compared it to Kew Gardens in England.  I was enthralled by the thought and passion put into it all.  Still, I had some ideas I wanted to share with him.

As I worked and walked the grounds, many ideas came.  First of all, I noticed how many additional boulders had been added since my initial visit with my daughter in May–quite a good number.  The additions changed the landscape so that there was significantly less greenery and grassland, though far more boulders upon which to sit and ponder or converse.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was a welcomed change.  But as we discussed handicap access, I decided that the sanctuary had become a sort of mock-hike, the feel of the terrain one would experience while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, without the dangers of slipping and falling (due to the lack of incline and elevation).  In this way, the mountains were being brought down to the valley, set on safe land, so that even the wheelchair bound could now experience something they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. Fortunately for me, Jeff Woods was affably approachable that day.  He talked readily to me individually and to the group at large about the construction of the sanctuary and the newly erected Theatre Aspen tent on site, where some performances had already taken place this summer before it was closed for the season.

Jeff Woods explains the treatment and filtration of storm water run-off (before it’s allowed to go into the river) at the John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen, CO

He explained the underlying storm water runoff purification system below, the sand and plant filters woven beneath and between the rocks, and about planned future phases—eventually making the park some two to three times its current size.  As he readily discussed these ideas, I mentioned to him the significance of also honoring John Denver’s creative spirit, his artistic inspiration.  It’s true that the park already does this in its novel way with the rock and tree sculpture that simulates a stage and John performing on it (somewhat reminiscent of a Greek theatre), as well as with the inscriptions from his original work on the boulders that were donated early on, along further still with the sound of rolling water over a rocky riverbed…but there is additionally room for possible enhancements that hearken the creative imagination at large, the focused endeavor of all artists, which is of course the very thing John Denver so consistently mastered.  I told Jeff that this sanctuary could appeal not only to musicians but to all artists and craftsmen, poets, writers…drawing to it not only a celebration of music, but of all forms of creativity.  He agreed, and seemed inspired, or at the least once again surprised by the breadth of this sanctuary’s purview.

Now, when I told him of my desire to create a course for college students, however–a sort of seminar in John Denver and/or the music of his time, Jeff just sort of backed off and said, well, “Good luck with that.”  I didn’t get the impression he was being sarcastic or thought it was a bad idea–just not his area.  Leave it to an English teacher to think designing outdoor gardens is her area.  He gave me a good laugh at myself, even if he graciously didn’t enjoy a good laugh on me.

Jeff Woods with me and Rich
Fall 2012 Volunteer Day at John Denver Sanctuary

Of course, I still think I could design and implement that course, and do my part to bring John Denver’s popularity to the next generation.  Maybe that’s something I’ll think about again when I prepare to head back to work next spring or fall.

Jeff Pine performing at the Aspen Community Church

On Thursday afternoon, we returned to the Aspen Community Church to enjoy a performance by Jeff Pine.  Jeff Pine was at least the third Jeff we would meet that day alone, but the only musically gifted and performing one, as far as we knew.  He told a story of his father taking him to a John Denver concert when he was just a boy, and how John’s talent motivated him to learn guitar.  He was a gently connected soul, the one who actually carved John Denver’s name in a branch and placed it at the coast near the site of the plane crash for John’s first memorial (under “Posthumous recognition” see “on September 24, 2007”).  At this concert, we noticed a woman that was staying at our hotel.  A woman who we learned had fallen off a horse in nearby Glenwood Springs, just before arriving in Aspen.

After Jeff Pine’s concert, we walked the warm streets of Aspen. A large group of both locals and tourists had gathered in front of a restaurant where a bear on a balcony ate wistfully the berries off an overhanging tree.  Everyone was entranced, and probably too close, as we watched the bear eat hundreds of berries.  The police observed the scene nearby, in blue jean attire, which is something we have certainly never seen back home in the midwest.  We stopped to eat at The Meatball Shack, where we met and conversed with the owner, and enjoyed the best truffle fries imaginable.  Then, we walked the rigorous walk back to the Mountain House Lodge, hoping to join the morning hike to Williams Lake, the site purported to be the inspiration for the song “Rocky Mountain High.”

Jeff (L), Pete Mikelson (C), and Marcia (R)

I was already beginning to fatigue, however, and Friday morning was rather slow going for me, along with a less favorable weather forecast.  Instead of hiking, we sat at breakfast with a couple we had met the morning before, the woman who had fallen off the horse.  I asked how she was feeling, and she told us the story.  We became fast friends with Marcia and Jeff (now the fourth for us), and literally sat talking for hours.  It seemed we’d been friends for years, with no distance, no pretense, plenty to discuss, some good laughs and the kind of resourcefulness and comfort that good friends offer.

After our leisurely breakfast, we moved on for some Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet. The weather was continuing to gray and mist, and it was already past 11 a.m.

And then I met Leslie.


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

Aspen in October 2012, Part 2: At the Santuary

Part 2:  At the Santuary

Fifteen years after an experienced pilot and irreplaceable American folk artist was lost in a panicked moment over the waters of the Pacific Ocean near Monterey, California, people from all over the world gathered in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado.  Hundreds of devoted fans traveled thousands of miles to celebrate this man’s vast contributions—a full fifteen years after he was forever gone from the earth and sky he so steadfastly celebrated.  Some of the people were friends and relatives, band members and constituents, and some of them had been coming every year for all fifteen.  Many were musicians inspired by his craft, spanning in age from the early twenties to the mid seventies.  Although it was my first attendance at Aspen in October, the pilgrimage offered unexpected insights and unanticipated personal growth, some connected to my experience with post-concussive syndrome, and some not.  Old friendships were reignited, and new ones were forged as the spirit of this man, John Denver, was palpably with every one of us throughout, and with all of us at once.

Mark Cormican playing at the Aspen Community Church

On Wednesday evening, we attended a concert by Mark Cormican in the intimate setting of the Aspen Community Church. Mark’s rendition of “This Old Guitar” at the end of the evening moved me to tears, but I did good with this (losing it) until a couple days later when I heard Keeper at one of the musical sessions Friday afternoon perform “Poems and Prayers and Promises.”  That was one of the toughest moments, not only because Keeper is good, but also because that was my first-ever John Denver favorite, the first John Denver song I played a thousand million times on my little record player in my early teenage room.  It is noteworthy when a songwriter’s music punctuates one’s own ideology, as John Denver’s music does for me.  I’ve never grown tired of that song, and it simply represents so much about who I am and how I’ve lived  my life.

Still driving from Denver during Wednesday morning’s Meet and Greet, our initial bond took root with a volunteer cleanup and bulb planting Thursday morning at the John Denver Sanctuary, sponsored by the City of Aspen Parks Department. This event was especially well organized, well attended and well supported. The moment we appeared, we were warmly greeted by other workers and by the Parks’ office manager, Teresa, with whom I had corresponded via email.  Much to my delight, there were packs and stacks of planting gloves, kneeling pads, and even metal bulb planters. There was even a pre-made picture sign indicating the types of bulbs we would be planting (Purple Allium, Yellow and White Narcissus, Blue Muscari, Orange and Red Tulips).

All of this impressed the pedant in me.  And better yet, before we arrived, all the flower bulbs had been placed in specific beds, perfectly spaced and arranged for planting. 

Everything I worried about was attended to in advance, and we were off to a perfect start.  They also had refreshments set up, some snacks, including hot water for tea, and cold and delicious water with which to rehydrate. I must have had four or five glasses of that water, so refreshing it seems I can still taste it, taken during short breaks to catch my breath in the thin mountain air. Planting was surprisingly more work than I remembered. Though it is something I did most springs and falls, it is not something I had done since obtaining my closed head injury.  It made me realize how much I missed it, if I had forgotten.  I was so grateful on this day to have enough stamina at last.  For all I had missed over the past five years, and for as bad as all of it had made me feel, I was here, fairly pain, fatigue and nausea-free, maybe not feeling terrific, but fully aware, participating in a meaningful event that re-connected me to a part of my lost and worn self.  I worked conscientiously in the magnificent Aspen sunshine, enjoying every moment, remembering the many quite contrasting, darker days when I couldn’t even lift my head, let alone leave my bed.  Those years were certainly no bed of roses, but here I was after so much agony.  I was mindful with the drop of every bulb of the great spirit of the man who did not survive, of the remarkable human we were honoring—how pleased this tribute would make him, how delighted he would be to see the flowers blooming in the spring.  It was an incredibly beautiful morning under the bluest autumnal sky.

blue sky over Aspen

A perfect place to leave the past behind.

I stood solidly on sacred ground, sensing a long awaited emancipation.  You can’t imagine fresher air than that in the Rocky Mountains, and you understand when you are there, even all these years later, how it became the perfect inspiration for so many of John Denver’s most famous lyrics, and why he felt compelled to capture it in a song (in this clip, “High Flight” begins at 3:55, but fans will want to watch it in its entirety).

Volunteers working at the JD Sanctuary in Aspen, CO

All around us, people planted the four varieties of bulbs, many in small groups, some more individually gathering bags full of fallen leaves.  As we worked, the city office manager, Teresa Hackbarth, came by to chat some more.  She was curious where we were from and how many times we’d been to the sanctuary.  I explained this was only my second time, that my daughter had gifted me the past Mother’s Day with a weekend together, hiking, which I once did avidly–and visiting John Denver’s sanctuary, an item on my “bucket list.”

Our conversation led to a somewhat less brief introduction of my condition. Teresa seemed intrigued.  She said, “So, this is a bit of a spiritual journey for you, then?  I love that!”  Her interest seemed rather foreign to me, yet genuine and sincere.  I thought, what would it be like to have this kind of validation always?  To be taken seriously and not dismissed?  To be believed, and to be given sufficient notice?  To be regarded, valued?  To meet head to head, not watching the other’s back turning, then walking away?  Those who suffer know what I mean, those who are ill.  Something about Teresa just read “Aspen” through and through.  She had purity of spirit.  Perception. Identification.  Focus.  Goodness.  These were many of the very things that fed John Denver as he strummed new chord progressions, as he wrote songs that touched heart strings far across the continents.  His influence seemed palpable throughout the town.

chatting at the John Denver Sanctuary
with Theresa and Julie from
the Aspen Parks Department

And, really, this event set the stage for the rest of the week.  People everywhere just being real, fully alive.  As my new friend Leslie kept saying, “happy.”  There’s a wonderful level of trust enjoyed by travelers, and sharing so many of these moments was magical and uplifting.  It removed all suspicion, any lingering doubt, and gave well deserved meaning to that controversial phrase, “Rocky Mountain High.”  Skeptics generally don’t know this particular world.  Perhaps one actually has to travel to Aspen to find it.


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.




Aspen in October 2012, Part 1: Introduction

Intro: Music, Music, Music (and some poetry)

John Denver’s music arrived quietly in the late 1960s and would span fervently like eagles wings across three decades.  The whisper that was his entrée was the windstorm that would become America’s voice, thanks to his vast contributions.  Many of the over two hundred songs he himself penned would sustain popularity beyond his untimely death on October 12, 1997, and well into today (including the induction of two state songs, one official, and one that might as well be).

Older fans gathering this past week in Aspen unanimously agreed that the next generation needs to know both of John Denver’s musical talent and his global activism.  They told stories of children and grandchildren’s first words and unending recollections having to do with John Denver.  Daily they shared how they want young people to learn of his greatness at a time when true heroes are nearly inaccessible.

Notably, during today’s especially divisive political campaign, John Denver fans gathered to regain the seemingly elusive values that traditionally sustain the hearts of all Americans, the steadfast ideals John stood for:  love, joy, artistry, nature, song, ecology, fairness, peace, community.

John Denver was a humanitarian who campaigned in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.  He traveled to Russia and was instrumental in achieving foreign diplomacy.  He was a friend to presidents and dignitaries alike.  John Denver’s politics tell us a lot about his values and about the people who continue to honor him faithfully.  John was against all forms of violence, opposing war and oppression.  He was ardently devoted to world peace.  He was a maverick, and accomplished all these things before it became fashionable to do so among celebrities.  One could say that John Denver set the stage for wealthy people contributing to global concerns.

John Denver was a popular figure with a particular fan base, and his music was exceptional in its depth of expression both artistically and vocally.  Although John Denver was not classically trained, he had a great tenor voice, perhaps one of the greatest of the popular singers of his time, rivaled only by the likes of highly accomplished opera singers such as Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo.

What I always appreciated about John Denver is that he had the confidence to be himself, to create and celebrate his own voice.  He didn’t resort to gimmicks to create an image, such as painting his tongue black, biting off the head of a bat, or gyrating his hips, like so many of his equally talented competitors did.  He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, a skin that was often chastised and mocked for being too pristine (despite the alleged and seemingly ever present alcohol and marijuana controversies), too nerdy, geeky, a dweeb, dorky.  His boy next door image cost him the respect of many in his field, but to me, as a young teenager and then young woman following his career, I saw him as a stoic, gracefully meeting the challenges of his distasteful bullies.  John Denver cared, and he was not afraid to care.  He wasn’t ashamed, and he didn’t hide…even when others determined he might have had something to hide, such as his tumultuous relationships or his admitted sterility.  He was the gentlest soul with the biggest heart.  He was both as human and as divine as they come.  The pressures on him, living in a post-machismo time of opportunism, must have been enormous.  But somehow, John kept his focus.  He turned everything into a song, and even his laments into songs of praise, and in so doing, he gave us hope.  You could be in the darkest mood, listening to one of John’s darkest songs, and still, somehow through listening, come out feeling better.  His voice was not just that of an angel, but of a comforting angel–one who had especially for you a kleenex and a warm embrace.  He made you think.  He made you celebrate.  He let you despair and rejoice, and he was there for you to do it with.

Perhaps, compared to many John Denver was a regular guy.  Not just a “country boy,” but a nature lover, a tree hugger, an environmentalist.  He knew what mattered to him, and he left whatever mattered to the mainstream to them.  Yet, he was ardent about getting his message out.  The proof that he succeeded was everywhere in Aspen this week in the eyes of the hundreds of people who gathered specifically to remember his work.

Coming together in a harmony like this, at this event known as Aspen in October, marking in solemn solitude and in group assembly the anniversary of John Denver’s untimely death, was collectively and individually not only enormously fulfilling, but easily one of the greatest tributes anyone could possibly pay.

I will always remember John Denver and sing his praises–well, speak and write of them (you don’t want to hear me sing).  We are all better for having had him here with us, and we are all the lesser for having lost his brilliance.


 © Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On the Vast, Open Road

It really seemed we might never leave for this road trip.

This is what head injury travel feels like.

I am still struggling with the ninety percent obstruction they found in my nasal passages before my sleep study, which won’t be able to be fixed until we return.  It’s very uncomfortable, and the lack of oxygen makes me sleepy and weak, and ultimately restless, which seems ironic given all the sleep I seem to be getting.  Once I finally packed, I needed to shower, and then surprise–nap again!  Plus, Rich was frustrated that we lost the bid on a condominium near my parents’ village.  Sick of house hunting, we had taken the leap and found a nice place, reasonably new and newly painted and carpeted, albeit much smaller than we originally considered.  Rich and my father were especially excited about it, and Rich wanted to pay full price, but I discouraged him because it was a bank owned property.  Something about their delays just didn’t seem level.  In the end, the other guy, a fireman, bid full price, and we lost it by just a couple thousand dollars.  I was good with it, because even though the location was perfect—in the heart of town, and right next not only to the fire station, but also to a large library–there was virtually no storage and only a one car garage.  Our search will need to continue when we return from this trip, but then the holidays will be here.  No one wants to house hunt during holiday season, let alone show their home.  Who ever thought “retirement” could be so stressful?

I plan on calling my parents every day while we are gone, just to see how they’re doing, and hopefully keep them from dying of boredom.  My dad gets fidgety in the house all day, and my mother is for the first time ever feeling a little vulnerable to be left alone for long.  I am even worrying about leaving our dog, feeling so horrible about it I snapped a photo as Rich left for the kennel with him.  I’m going to miss my baby (dog) Romeo so much while we are gone.  I don’t know what is wrong with me. Sometimes it feels like I went from Wonder Woman to Wonder Wimp.  Travel is always difficult on me now, no matter what we’re doing or where we’re going, whether by train, plane or automobile. My neck and spine (not to mention head) are still tender from the (severe) whiplash, arthritic already, and the vehicle and road vibrations still cause fatigue and a low-grade sort of nausea.

Rich, however, wanted to drive to Aspen, Co, our final destination, because he enjoys seeing the USA from two-lane highways, taking short off road excursions whenever we pass places of interest.  The post-traumatic anxiety I get from Rich’s driving, or really just from being beside trucks on the highway (all that steel) keeps me intermittently panicked, whether I arouse from sleep or am wide awake.  It is all stuff I never before had to cope with, and the coping detracts from the pleasures, which is why I sometimes dread traveling.  Did I mention how difficult it is to stay awake in a car, and how equally difficult to actually reach REM sleep?  I’m not as bad as I was, but there is still a good deal of a sort of semi-consciousness–enough to keep me reminded of what I’m trying to forget, anyway.

Our first stop, long anticipated by both of us, included a trip to Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, near the University of Iowa.  Since we were nearly a day off schedule, we couldn’t browse leisurely as we had planned.  We still managed in our short stay to spend well over a hundred dollars, and even picked up an audiobook to listen to on the drive, Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott (which turned out to be a good decision).  Not all authors read their works in a way that compliments their text, but Anne Lamott’s steady cadence, coupled with her son Sam’s interspersed excerpts in his own voice, made for compelling listening through the lush and rolling farmland of Iowa.

The fall foliage along the way was far more colorful than we imagined possible after this summer’s record-breaking drought.  As we traveled the first four hundred miles, and certainly by the time we left Prairie Lights, we both began to experience a transformation nearly as magnificent as the beatific site of those hardwood trees blazing their glory. Suddenly we were smiling again and light-hearted, the way we were pre-fitness-distress, pre-post concussion syndrome, pre-house hunting.  Our thoughts, our senses, our hearts began to fill with images we wanted to take in, images we longed to behold.  Our souls had grown absolutely weary, but this trip, the trip that very nearly didn’t happen, was off to a perfect start.

Things only got better when just a few doors down from the bookstore, we happened on an Indian restaurant named Masala.  No one was in the restaurant, but we took a chance and stopped in for an early dinner.  I ordered tea, which came to me as chai tea, an acceptable variation.  Looking over the menu, I paused at Saag Channa, a vegan and gluten free dish of spinach delicately cooked with chickpeas.  Then I saw Vegetable Jalfrazie, fresh seasonal vegetables sautéed in spices, ginger and garlic.  Rich was still studying the menu when I located still a third possibility, a rice specialty, Lamb Biryani, a Basmati rice cooked with pieces of lamb, herbs, spices, and nuts.  I couldn’t taste the nuts (if they were there), but, upon our waiter Bilal’s recommendation, Lamb Biryani won the competition nevertheless. When Bilal came to take our order, Rich also asked him for guidance, more specifically what their most popular dish was, said in a sprightly narrative, “When I go back to work on Monday and tell everyone I ate at Masala, they’ll say, “Oh, did you try the ________?”  Bilal smiled jovially, saying in his lovely accent, “Okay, gotcha!” He proceeded enthusiastically to solve the word puzzle promptly by eagerly flipping menu pages and pointing to the Chicken Tikka Masala and Malai Chicken (chicken barbequed in a clay oven and cooked in a rich and tasty sauce), which turned out to be both Rich’s choice and the most delectable authentic Indian cuisine either of us had ever tasted.  With our meals, Bilal brought Garlic Naan, a leavened bread stuffed with garlic and baked to perfection, as well as some Raita, which he said was a yogurt for my rice.

Bilal was actually from Pakistan, “But it’s right next door,” he said in a charming, boyish way (meaning, to India).  He was an undergraduate at the university, wanting to live and study abroad, which led to an interesting analysis of diverse cultures.  As I listened to Bilal, he reminded me of my own son and a few former students, expressing a familiar lamentation that seems to be shared by many intelligent young adults.  Or perhaps it’s one that has been experienced by the generations, the anxiety that popular culture coupled with capitalistic ideals just leaves them feeling disillusioned.  This exchange paralleled our nourishing and flavorful meal, fresh and exquisite to the palate.  As I ate, it felt as if a few vibrant folk dancers had taken up residence in my mouth, heels popping and skirts swirling.  The fullness of it all made me feel almost as if I’d been airlifted back to the life I’d lost five years ago.  If life were a story, I might have lingered there in Masala’s for another chapter or two.

We drove another 250 miles to Council Bluffs, IA, then left the next morning for Scottsbluff, Nebraska.  Iowa, with its expansive, lush and rolling farmland was so beautiful, in contrast to the desolate, flat prairies of Nebraska, so uneventful that even the trains didn’t move.  I slept most of the time Rich drove, but not by choice.  I couldn’t seem to stay awake, although I was actually doing better than the day before. Rich’s fascination with the sprawling vistas made the trip pleasant, and we would enjoy a good laugh on me when we reached the Windlass Hill at the Ash Hollow State Historical Park in Lewellen, NE.  “What were you saying about Nebraska being flat?, Rich chided.  Here the terrain suddenly exploded in to hills and hollows that left me breathlessly saying, “What?” and “Wow!”

looking west from Windlass Hill
at the wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail

We walked up a steep path to the top of Windlass Hill to view ruts made from the pull carts and Conestoga wagons. Standing in the path of history, forged by the pioneers well over 150 year ago, we marveled over the long, rugged trek they somehow completed.  The desolate and dangerous Oregon Trail, once only an idea, was sprawling before us.  Somehow, I didn’t find Nebraska boring anymore. Also on site was a replica of a sod house, which the pioneers built for shelter out of grass and sod.

replica of a pioneer sod house
on the historical site at
Ash Hollow

Only two trucks and one car passed on the entrance highway in the hour we spent walking in sunshine and gentle breezes.  It was a phenomenal experience, and I loved listening to Rich relay all the history he learned as a boy, as we enthusiastically explored the area.  Plus, the fact that I stood there breathless from walking up one steep hill made me think of those pioneers carrying bags and sacks and all their belongings, hungry and tired, thirsty, and perhaps even injured also, and those thoughts humbled me.  I really have nothing to complain about.  I may not have been a pioneer, but I have survived my own sort of Oregon Trail, and for that I rejoice.


Celebrating Tough Journeys
on the Oregon Trail



© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.


On What You’ve Got to Do

packed at last and at the airport, four years post injury

One of several unanticipated changes that happened while I was recovering from traumatic brain injury was that I developed an utter and deep distaste for packing. More generally, when I was much more ill than I am now, one of the major skills I lost was the ability to organize.  This showed up in a myriad of activities, but above all, this cognitive deficit made packing for all excursions a much dreaded nightmare for me.  Even if all I needed was an overnight bag, it would take me hours, in some cases days, to get my things together.  It was hard to plan, hard to think, hard to judge, and mostly, hard to have enough stamina to get the job done.

Eventually, packing a suitcase became so difficult that I seriously needed assistance, as I did even with dressing, particularly when it meant going off to work.  The choosing and arranging was made even more difficult by two things in particular.  The first was that the picture making mechanism in my brain, visual memory and recall, seemed to be compromised.  I had a lot of trouble with this as I would place items in their familiar places, but somehow not be able to locate them when I went to retrieve them.  On more than one occasion, I lost things of value–my engagement ring, a new camera, another favorite ring that I still miss today. Once, I lost my keys, and it took me over a year to find them.  Another time, I somehow locked myself out of the house, and had to call a locksmith to get back in.  Before the injury, I was the one who remembered not only for myself, but for everyone in my family as well.  I wasn’t even the type who had to check and re-check whether I locked the door or turned off the stove; I remembered vividly doing nearly every action.

This problem was particularly confusing because no one alerted me that this change could happen. In fact, even after reporting several times to various health professionals that I lost various items, I never did receive a direct explanation as to why.  So there I would be time and again, laying out a scarf or a sweater to take on a trip, finding myself looking all over the house for where I had placed it.  Sometimes it was right in front of me, but my brain either didn’t remember or didn’t take the snapshot that helps us retrieve images.  I can’t give you a more scientific explanation other than this, for this is as I remember it finally explained to me by a neurologist.  

The second thing that made packing for a trip so difficult was the fact that I kept going up in size.  I would no sooner give in and purchase larger clothes that I would outgrow them. Once the affects of post-concussion syndrome set in, I just really didn’t get out of bed or off the couch much, whether I ate or didn’t eat.  When it came to having to pack, I just struggled, and sometimes the sheer frustration of it would overwhelm me to the point of crying. Usually in puddles of clothing that no longer fit me.

I had gone from actively planning and organizing daily, to not really being able to plan or organize at all.  Yet, it wasn’t the contrast between who I was and who I became that upset me the most.  It was the actual fatigue the activity caused that upset me the most.   I might start out focused, but the process would absolutely wear me down.  By the time I was ready to leave, I couldn’t stay awake in the car for twenty minutes without falling asleep.  My brain had such little stamina, and this always affected my body, and still does. And, of course, I almost always forgot something I meant to take.

It’s hard to admit that despite all the progress I feel I’ve made, I’ve still been in bed all this week.  I’ve just had head pain that keeps me down, and felt more tired than is even usual. Usually, I can’t sleep, but lately, it seems I can’t get up, and now, even my stomach hurts.  I once had an iron-clad stomach.  It’s this weird avalanche of feeling lousy almost all the time.  I don’t recover quickly, and I don’t have that power-through it ability I once took for granted.  I’m sure it is all the stress I’ve spoken of in earlier posts, but I used to be a stress machine…and nevertheless, it’s time for us to leave for a trip, and I haven’t even started packing.

Today we were blessed with a strong, steady rain.  The kind of rain that just begs you to curl up with a good book.  I have been reading nearly all day today, albeit mostly with my head on a pillow.  It finally occurs to me that I have developed an avoidance to packing, because packing and organizing are truly not nearly as difficult as they were for me, say, just six months ago.  I could do it, and I should do it, and I know that, but I don’t much care.  This is very unlike me–not to care–about anything.  I am generally a person who always cares way too much–about everything.  Now, I just want my book.  It feels so foreign and so selfish, but so much easier than the struggle.

One of the first things I learned about frontal lobe injuries is that a person tends to lose her motivation.   Still, I believed for a long time, in spite of the theory that frontal lobe damage causes poor motivation, that my motivation had not been affected at all.  Compromised, perhaps, but surely not gone for good.  After all, I have a list of accomplishments to prove I am still very motivated.  This blog, for one, is an attempt to motivate further healing.  I am writing again.  That takes effort and time.  It’s certainly not a lazy person’s pastime, although it does pair well with my fatigue and lethargy (which might be originating in part, doctors theorize, from the nasal obstruction and current lack of optimal breathing at night, which I am waiting eagerly to have resolved).  Learning how to navigate this blogging software is not exactly for those who lack motivation, although I’m just keeping it as basic as I possibly can for now.  The point, as I said, is to write.

Every day, I have to do this constant dance of pushing myself beyond what is comfortable. “Comfortable” for me could be to do nothing.  Like not packing.  Instead, I fill my time with activity that other, completely healthy, people avoid…reading, writing, worrying.  I’m not sure if I’m just wanting to assess myself as normal, or whether I’m actually being extraordinary.  All I know is that I somehow have to keep going.

I am worried about leaving for an extended trip because my parents are elderly, and my mother has terminal cancer.  She was not well yesterday, and the nurse said she was dehydrated.  Today she is better, but I can’t help worrying.  Two of my friends lost their mothers just this week, and now both of them are without either parent.  I still have all that ahead of me, and grief is not something that’s easy for anybody.  I’m worried I will be worried the whole time we are away traveling.  I keep trying to psych myself up to let go of worst-case scenarios, to stay in the moment.  This is partly what trauma does to a person.  It speeds everything up that once was seemingly well-regulated.

me, unpacking and organizing my son’s first dormitory room, two weeks before the accident

I am so different from who I was.  It would feel as if I have lost all my armor, except that I have gained some, too.  When going over cognitive testing, the neuropsychologist told me I could still write a book if I wanted to, but that it would take me longer to write than it once would have.  I knew he was correct, because even my writing has changed.  I recently looked at a journal entry written years before this accident, and the writing was so sophisticated and so beautiful, it made me weep. One doctor said it would be interesting to track the changes.  The thing that resonates with me is the approach another doctor, the neuropsychologist, took when reviewing my test results, and the irony those words hold even now:

“You have to pack your own suitcase,” he said.

I took this to mean that my recovery depends largely on me, my attitude, and what I do, or in this case, don’t do.  I am going to have to work for whatever I want now, for everything I want–nothing will come easily any long.  I’m going to have to be the one to decide–not doctors, not God, not my husband.  How and if I recover is largely up to what I push myself to do…and I’m going to have to push myself even when I don’t want to do anything.  I was always a hard worker, but now nothing is going to come easily, the way some things once did.  I’ve got to get this through my head, and keep starting over, no matter how long it takes.  I don’t like it.  I’m angry I got hurt so unfairly, so randomly, but there it is.

For certain, I am nobody’s superstar, if ever I was one.  Still, I haven’t given up.  I’m writing.  And I’m writing here where anyone can see.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Because even though I now hate to pack and sometimes even to travel, I still want to write…

I’m still that little girl who put pen to paper in her little room so long ago, long before she knew a thing about where she was going, what she would become, or what could happen to her along the way.


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

working hard at not working on Labor Day 2012

It’s Labor Day and we just got back from Chicago.  We’ve been house hunting for a home closer to my ailing parents.  My mom has stage IV lung cancer and my dad has congestive heart failure.  They are still a couple of spitfires.  We love visiting with them and helping them out (even keeping them entertained), but they are in their eighties and I am in my fifties, so after the long drive home, we are pretty wiped out.

By “us,” I mean my practically perfect husband, Rich and me.  Rich is already in his early 60s, even older than I am (!), so we are just chillaxin today, thank goodness! Neverthe-less, we have been working for hours now to get this “user-friendly” blog software movin and shakin.  The hardest part of anything always seems to be how to get started.  In this case, which server host and what blog software, if any.  We weren’t even sure exactly what we needed, and we’re still not sure we’re doing this correctly.  Rich is a great project assistant.  We work well together, and he’s good at things I’m not always good at, and vice versa.  Even with his help, though, I have to say that in comparison, setting up a blog can make the act of writing seem pretty damn easy.

I have been an avid blog reader for a few years now.  Mainly I’m just a reader, but when I get online and links start popping up, I inevitably end up reading some random post by just about anyone on just about any topic.  I have a lot of interests, but above all, I find human beings and their insights worthy of pause and consideration. I like to think a lot. This was one of my strengths as a teacher (at least it felt that way), because whenever I called on a student who said something unexpected or surprising, it would often bowl me over.  I would stand there stunned, saying, “that’s an interesting point, student whoever…,” and I would walk around thinking about what they said for days.  Sometimes the entire semester.  That is one of the few things I think I will miss about teaching.

I also have trouble posting status updates on Facebook, because every sentence begs a back story.  To abbreviate them, I end up typing things such as, “This was one weird week.”  The ambiguity of the word “weird” has left my audience wondering, and maybe even worrying what might have taken place.  I wouldn’t let my own students get by with that sort of generalization.  I knew it was probably time for me to start a blog when so many of my updates wanted to be essays.


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.