I’m walking on Santa Monica beach. The sun is out, the sky outrageously blue, the gulls and other sea birds calling out. I have always loved this part of the world, and my husband Larry and I worked to make sure we would end up here eventually, not the upper Midwest where we spent a large part of our lives. Will I ever take it for granted? I hope not……I watch the planes take off at Los Angeles International Airport, which you can see clearly from the beach, and think that I too have to go back “home” soon, before I catch myself. Home is here now…and in Hanoi, Vietnam.
How did we get here? The answer includes, of course, our two lives together. But it also includes things like my battle with depression and eventual breakdown in my mid-thirties, my life as a musician, my remarkable marriage and breathtaking two sons and two stepsons, and eventually, my father’s death and my role of caretaking my octogenarian mother. But for now, it started back in the Spring of 2006. Larry was part of a group photography exhibit in downtown Milwaukee, where we lived in a suburb. He came home, I was in the kitchen after teaching violin lessons into the early evening, having some wine while fixing food. He looked slightly puzzled.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“Well…..” He looked even more puzzled.
When you’re married to someone for over twenty-five years, as I was back then, you have a sense when something is up that is not in the normal scheme of things. This was one of those times.
“A young guy was at the show who told me about an artist residency in Vietnam, and he asked if I wanted to be one of its artists.”
“What?” He could have been speaking another language, that’s how much sense his statement made. “Why would you go to Vietnam?”
“Well, he said you could come too.”
“Okay, why would we go to Vietnam?”
“I don’t know,” he sort of agreed, like it was the very last thing we would have put on our list of things to do and places to go. The Vietnam War was a very troubling memory, as Larry had resisted and succeeded in not going to fight there, and my generation, (ten years his junior) was part of great protestation about being in that part of the world with our military. The first so-called televised war, our collective American consciousness conjured up images of napalm, mangled bodies and screaming, terrified little children. Of course, that was thirty years prior, but still.
And so, we moved on, continuing our lives as artists in Wisconsin. Or so we thought; Vietnam apparently had other ideas. The man at Larry’s show called again, reminding us of the “opportunity”. Larry went to a portfolio photography review in Houston, the biennial Fotofest, where one of his reviewers was a book producer. Larry mentioned Vietnam, and that guy said, “you have to go.” Larry came home and repeated his encouragement, but I still wasn’t convinced. We delved a little more into the idea, and darn it, it started to take root as a thing higher up on our list.
I could take my violin, I could collaborate on “projects”. What? I was a classical orchestral violinist, we don’t collaborate, we do what we’re told, and try to play the billions of notes set before us as accurately as possible. We could learn Vietnamese. What? The last language I learned was French, and that was (really?) almost a half century ago! And Larry didn’t know any languages other than his own New Yorker brand of English. We could contribute culturally to an emerging country. Well, that brings up a great question: how will we be received by a country the U.S. tried its best to bomb back to the stone age in the ’60s and ’70s? Won’t they absolutely hate us to the point where we can’t get anything done?
We bought books on Vietnam, we checked airline pricing. We talked about being gone for three months; who would care for our adored cats, Rosa and Athena? We discussed the impact on our careers.
Larry and I had taken on many potentially scary (at least in other people’s eyes) things in our lives.
- He had started an art investment mutual fund in the seventies, the first of its kind. It bought and traded fine art collectible photographs as if they were equities, and unlike equities, allowed investors to borrow the photographs and use in their homes before the fund needed to sell them. (The company, Photography Collectors, Inc., was buying up vintage photographs like an Ansel Adams for under $1,000, an investment that became exponential over time.)
- We started a small chamber orchestra in Milwaukee when we were first married, investing some of our own money in the startup phase and running it out of our small apartment. I remember the first mass brochure mailing and not being able to see my floor for days.
- I challenged the State of Wisconsin when they tried to collect back taxes from me for hiring musicians through my booking agency as my employees, instead of the independent contractors I claimed they were. (I actually won, and Wisconsin had to back off.)
- After Larry left the Milwaukee Symphony, a career that had stagnated for him, we started an aviation company (airplanes are a lifelong passion) and ran the fixed based operation at our suburb’s tiny airport, also using our savings to fuel its growth. As an add on, we developed a mail order tool business. I became Managing Director of a small contemporary music non-profit after those companies were folded. These were just a few of the ventures we tried over the years.
To buoy these pursuits, we began looking into success conditioning programs, investing in Tony Robbins’ courses and reading authors such as Wayne Dyer for moral support. Deepak Chopra became our virtual mentor, and we started to consciously step into the unknown each day. Our spiritual guide became the Tao Te Ching, and we bought various translations of it and the Bhagavad-Gita. In short, we became gurus of our own paths, reaching for that most elusive of all states, enlightenment.
So, it wasn’t the first time we had embraced something that might be considered by most risky on the one hand, disastrous on the other; in other words, it began to look like a pretty attractive option. As time went by, we were pulled more and more to the light, and the light turned out to be Vietnam. Things started to fall into place without even working at it: a dear and gentle student said she could come twice a day to care for the cats (and we were reassured our first week away by photos she emailed cuddling the scared one), we found fairly inexpensive airline tickets, Larry got a lead for some funding through a local foundation. And then we found ourselves on an airplane, landing in a country that looked like it couldn’t have existed on the planet we thought we knew. Vietnam, for the first of many times, had bewitched us.