Claire’s Pack List

Passport with extra photos

Visas and immunization records

Travel insurance, important numbers

Video camera, camera, tape recorder

Batteries, cords, adapters, converter

Flashlight, pens, notebooks

International cell phone, language translator

$800 cash (50 singles), credit cards

Emergency contact info, freq flyer #s

Money belt, empty tote

Light jacket and pocket poncho

2 capris, 1 pair shorts

3 pants, 1 nice

7 tops: 2 long sleeve, 3 tees, 2 tanks

1 long skirt for Muslim countries


1 scarf and 1 pashmina

2 shoes: walking, sandal

Undies, bras, jammies

Swimsuit, sarong, flip-flops

Makeup and toiletries

Eye mask and earplugs

Travel towel, duct tape, sewing kit

Portable laundry line, Woolite packets

Tamiflu, antimalarial, chlorine tabs

First-aid kit, sanitizer

Antidiarrheal, Dramamine, aspirin

Medication, extra glasses and contacts

Sunglasses, sunblock (SPF 50)

Bug spray—30% DEET

Vitamins, PowerBars


Mia’s Pack List







"One word, Mia—schistosomiasis.”

An occupational hazard of writing is research; you look up the risk of eating sushi and five hours later you’re an expert on the Loa loa eyeworm and the E. japonica flatworms that are teeming in rivers like the one my grown daughter, my only child, wants to plunge into today.

I’m holding the bathroom stall door closed for Mia at Kuala Gandah, an elephant rescue sanctuary located in the rain forest of Malaysia’s Pahang region, where we’ve come to ride the elephants and learn about their rescue program. They allow a handful of visitors to ride the big gals into the muddy river and cavort with them as their handlers scrub them down. My devil-may-care daughter is among the select.

Look, I’m a big risk-taker, an intrepid traveler, but I stop at taking home larvae as souvenirs.

“You don’t even have to swallow it,” I whisper loudly, “they bore right through your skin and make a beeline for your liver.”

She comes out, rolling her eyes. “There are fifty other travelers here, Mother. Do you see anyone else worried about it? By the way, these are probably the only sit-down flush toilets we’ll see all day, I’d try to go if I were you.”

“No one who gets it worried about it before they got it! It lives in rivers in the tropics. That,” I point emphatically out the window, “is a river, and this is the tropics. What are you not getting here?”

“Mom, if you’re going to be like this the whole trip, the only pain I’ll have in my butt won’t be from traveler’s diarrhea. You don’t avoid London because people get hit by buses! How many opportunities will I get to swim with elephants?!”

I follow her out of the welcome center to a clearing in the jungle where a group of people, mostly stout, sturdy Brits, are wandering down a dirt trail through the dense flora toward the elephant area.

She hurries ahead to catch up, with me in tow trying to figure out a way to do what every mother of an adult daughter does when left with no recourse—bribe, threaten, or frighten.

“Exactly thirteen-point-nine percent of the field police officers of this country have tested positive for it!” I call out after her.

The Brits turn to look at me, not sure if they should be worried about the Malaysian police force or me.

Mia gives me a surprised look. “How the hell did you remember that?”

Given my lack of sleep and estrogen, it is impressive. “Actually, I have no idea why that stuck, but it’s true. And don’t swear.”

She just shakes her head and scoots around the bend so she doesn’t miss her “opportunity.” I personally know people who struggle with par- asites decades after trips to places like this. But she’s twenty-five; I can’t stop her. Once upon a time, when she was under eighteen, I had options.


My mom’s hardly one to talk about parasites. The first thing she did when we arrived in China was drink three glasses of water—from the tap. It’s not every day one gets to swim with elephants. In all fairness, however, I should probably add that her being overprotective doesn’t exactly come from out of the blue.



Chapter One - The Big Bang

I was on my way home from work when I got the call. The one that would make me quit my job, sublet my apartment, and take off for the great unknown alongside my mother. The call that led to the book you’re now reading, an around-the- world adventure that’s intended to entertain, educate, and, above all, explore the changing dynamic between mother and adult daughter.

But before you pack your three-ounce liquids, buy a trashy magazine you’d never otherwise read, and settle in for a cross-continental flight, allow me to hit the pause button. This isn’t the first journey my mom and I have taken together, and you might need some background information so that, for example, if I refer to spending some of my teenage years locked up in the Czech Republic, it won’t come from left field.

If you’ve read our 2006 memoir, Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back, this will be a brief refresher, and if you haven’t, well, you may want that $10 cocktail because it gets a bit intense. Come Back was like a darker version of The Runaway Bunny; baby bunny hops away from home, mama rabbit follows in dogged pursuit until her runaway offspring’s back home for good.

I wasn’t a baby so much as I was an extremely self-destructive teenager, and my mother’s version of “dogged” involved putting her little bunny in a lock-down boot-camp school for nearly two years. In the Czech Republic. In a place where (for the first several months) you ate food with no condiments, bid shaving and makeup adieu, communicated with the outside world solely through letters to your parents, and spoke only during group therapy or to ask questions in class. And when the school in the Czech Republic closed, I was sent to a similar facility in Montana, a part of the world where “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” was then a hit song.

Granted, my behavior warranted it: dropping out of high school, repeatedly running away, heavily abusing hard drugs, felony drug charges. My relationship with my mom had shattered, we alternated between not speaking and big fights, and by my last disappearance we were completely estranged. She tried everything she knew of: traditional therapy, the psych ward, an alternative school, my aunt’s house in rural Indiana (thinking cows and fresh air would be more wholesome than L.A. was erroneous; in small towns, there’s often the 4-H and the other H, heroin). Hearing about the school in the Czech Republic was a miracle to her. Everyone, of course, thought she was crazy, but my grandmother is from that region, so it wasn’t quite so alien, it was pre-euro and therefore a fraction of the cost of stateside treatment programs, and, mainly, she’d have sent me to Mars if she thought it’d help me.

No sane teen would trade driver’s ed or prom for draconian rules and confrontational therapy, but, considering how many people I knew who ended up dead or in prison, I’m glad she did because the school saved my life. My behavior stemmed from being sexually abused by my biological father when I was a small child (anyone who thinks small kids will “ forget” about abuse sorely underestimates how durable a trauma it is), and over the course of my time there I healed from it, and became accountable for the role I played in my self-destruction. I also reconnected with my mom and my stepfather, Paul, whom I now consider and call Dad.

It was February 2000 and I was seventeen when I came back home from Montana and started community college. There was a learning curve; while I was gone, something called e-mail and the Internet had exploded, Bill Clinton’s name had become synonymous with cigars and a blue dress, adults had become obsessed with some children’s book about wizards, and white rap had advanced from Vanilla Ice to Eminem. I couldn’t reminisce about first dates or prom with my peers, I dressed like a lumberjack, and ninth grade was the last time I’d actually paid attention in class.

But I threw myself into my schoolwork, and thanks to a 4.0 GPA and a rather unique college essay, Georgetown University offered me a partial scholarship. I transferred there my sophomore year and spent the next three years pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t still high—I had phenomenal teachers and classes, interned at the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic, and made lifelong friends.

I was a senior when my mom and I decided to tell our story, something that, because my mom was a screenwriter, we’d been encouraged to do. I was scared to share my life’s nitty-gritty details, but I also wanted to help break the silence surrounding incest and let people who are struggling see that change is always possible. When you’re at rock bottom it can be hard to see past it, and if you can’t imagine feeling or acting differently than you currently do, what’s your incentive to change?

So while my friends were off finding first jobs and apartments, I turned down a job offer at National Geographic to sequester myself in a room with my mother and a computer. A year and a half later, Come Back was released and met with enough success that we spent an additional few years speaking about and promoting it. In person and via e-mail, we connected intimately with thousands of people, and, to my total surprise, I loved public speaking. My mom and I both were continuously inspired by the work that dedicated individuals and organizations were doing to prevent and treat child abuse. It was an amazingly fun and rewarding experience.

It also came with unique challenges, and once publicity died down, I felt lost. I’d been living in the past for a living—and a radically different past at that. At twenty-four, I was more comfortable speaking to hundreds of people about drug and sexual abuse than mingling with other young professionals during happy hour. I loved every element of being an author, but I was also beginning to wish my sole identity wasn’t as recovery’s poster child. I wanted to be just a regular twentysomething.


Few places allow you to reinvent yourself so easily as New York, and in April 2006 I moved to the Upper West Side and dove into city life. A day in Manhattan will leave you feeling either invigorated or like a drowned rat; like a high-strung and intelligent dog, if you don’t take charge New York will end up walking you. But for a curious person with a short attention span, its endless supply of restaurants, museums, parades, and parties made me feel like a kid in the ultimate candy store.

It took a few weeks to decode Craigslist’s rental euphemisms: cozy = expect to live in a closet; character = you may eat, sleep, and bathe in the same room; bustling neighborhood = you’ll hear the noise level through earplugs. So where am I currently living? In a cozy room in a bustling Brooklyn neighborhood and a building with more character than Dame Edna. Buildings don’t typically have facial expressions, but the bricks in the center sag so much that from across the street my building appears to be smiling. And because it’s above a popular local bar, weekends mean pushing through a drunken mob, explaining to them yes, I live here and no, you can’t use the bathroom.

Basically, it’s your quintessential first apartment (and the $750 a month price tag was too good to pass up).

Like most first apartments, I share it with roommates whom, thankfully, I adore: Guenn, a spunky blonde who bakes sugar-free cookies for her grandmother and zips around town on a Vespa, and Alanna, a redhead who looks and acts as though she stepped daintily from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Plus the cozy room overlooks a beautiful courtyard and a bustling neighborhood means everything I need or want is within walking distance.

I work as a literary publicist in Union Square, an area known for huge outdoor markets, rallies and protests, a great dog park, and a fleet of leggy models. There’s even a modeling agency on the same floor I work on, so my five-foot-three self often rides the elevator sandwiched between two women whose chests are level with my head, one breast on each side of me like earmuffs. I often commute home from work with Soraya, a close friend from college who lives three blocks away. I noticed her in my senior writing class because she was unusually poised and mature, not to mention physically striking, with delicate features, high cheekbones, and beautiful Persian coloring. Once she started talking about Adam Gopnik and growing up reading issues of The New Yorker lying around her grandmother’s house, however, I knew I’d found a lifelong friend.

Soraya’s one of several college friends of mine who now live in Manhattan, and while they entered the workforce two years earlier than I did, we all seem to be on the same page with our ambivalence toward the adult world. Your first period may unequivocally announce puberty, but your first 9–5 doesn’t definitively mean you’ve grown up. Just last week I passed a group of college girls and was taken aback, saddened even, to realize that I didn’t relate to them anymore. But nor do I feel like I fit into the world of my older colleagues.

Some of our ambivalence is probably just disappointment; adulthood’s no more or less fun than college, but the levels of stress and responsibility skyrocket. And my weight seems to have done the same since my metabolism came to a grinding halt about a year ago. The only thing decreasing in size is my bank account; after taxes, my boss’s caffè latte costs about what I make per hour.

Angst about adulthood aside, however, I’m having a lot of fun and am generally happy. But there’s one thing missing, and it’s a big one: my mother. Sure, we wrote a book together, talk often on the phone, and see each other regularly for speaking engagements. But much as working together has brought us closer, it’s also driven us apart, creating a disconnect because it deals with who we were rather than who we are. Some days I’m not sure she really knows me, or at least the “me” I am now. Ever since I moved to New York and she moved to Florida a few years ago (completely out of the blue, mind you), we’ve been wrapped up in our individual lives.

Lately I’ve found myself letting her calls go to voice mail, because if they’re not about work, they’re filled with unsolicited advice. Now that I no longer have a lunchbox to leave notes in, she uses my inbox, sending e-mails with subjects like “Link Found Between Stress Levels and Belly Fat,” “Six Subtle Career Moves That Hold Women Back,” and “Cell Phones May Cause Salivary Gland Tumors!” Then she’ll send me Frédéric Fekkai samples from Sephora, “because the ends of your hair are like straw.” I don’t know if she’s bored in Florida without her old friends and colleagues, or if it’s turning fifty and this is motherhood’s last gasp, but something’s up with my mom and I wish I knew what it was.


“Mom,” Mia asked halfway through a recent call, “is this how you pictured your life would be when you’re fifty?”

I opened my mouth to rattle off a packaged answer, but nothing came out. It was one of those defining moments (nothing coming out of my mouth is always a big moment, if not for me, for someone).

“This isn’t going to sound very good,” I said after a moment, “but I’ve never actually had a concrete vision of my life at fifty.”

“Well, what do you want to be doing with your life now?”

That answer wasn’t any better. “Not what I’m doing right now.”


That call prompted a solitary trip to the beach at sunrise the next morning. I sat in the sand, my brain still lit up with all the mind chatter that accompanies my waking and tends to hang around most of the day. I wanted to contemplate my life, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

“Sit up, old girl, and focus on your breath.” (My inner instructress has always been veddy English, probably because deep inside I’m far more Victorian than New Age. I hear a brass gong in a dim yoga studio and wish not for surrender but for a butler.)

The horizon yawned up the sun and I watched its yellow arms stretch across the sea, frosting the waves and warming my face. I opened a book I grabbed randomly from my bookshelf on the way out, Eckhart Tolle’s Silence Speaks. My eyes fell on this paragraph: “To lose your inner stillness is to lose touch with yourself. To lose touch with yourself is to lose yourself in the world.”

Which shut my mind up immediately. I had a good cry, took myself home, and set an intention before bed for the first time in three years, for clarity and vision. To find myself in the world.

Which means finding myself in my own life first. Because there are few things the world can throw at you that will cause you more grief than what you manage to throw at yourself. The last few years my aim has been deadly. Determination is one of my strongest traits. Unfortunately so is impulsivity. It can be a bad combination.

Four years ago I woke up and decided that it was high time to buy a house. We’re throwing money out the window every month! I told my husband, Paul. Prices just keep going up! One week we were in our huge, beautiful apartment in L.A., three weeks later we were making an offer, not on a charmingly decrepit farmhouse under the Tuscan sun, oh, no—on a historic fixer-upper money pit under the blistering Florida sun. At the peak of the market. With no central air-conditioning and a moldering guesthouse so jerry-rigged that you turn the kitchen light on by turning on the oven.

Paul flew out for the inspection, sat on the hearth, which was covered in lizard droppings, hung his head, and said, “Claire, this is too much work, it’ll bury us.”

“It’s all cosmetic! You always see the problems instead of the possibilities! The New York Times is raving about this neighborhood! We’ll flip it at a big profit!”

Two weeks after closing, a category-five hurricane made a direct hit on our neighborhood . . . followed by a category four . . . then we found mold in the bathroom walls . . . then two more hurricanes hit us . . . and “cosmetic” turned out to be around one hundred fifty grand in needed repairs. Oh, and I’m not even going to mention the hot flashes that started the day we signed the mortgage. Not that I think it’s a coincidence or anything.

And then the market tanked. We owe more on the house than it’s worth. That Paul hasn’t killed me is a miracle.

On the plus side, a 1920s Mediterranean is not without its charms. Most of the walls have their original hand-plastering, each an evocation of culinary delights: frosting in one bedroom, grits in the other, ricotta cheese (my dining room looks like it has cellulite), and the pièce de résistance, one-inch pie peaks on the top half of the living room, with the bottom half paneled in rare pecky cypress. Pecky beams run up through the plaster and across the cathedral ceiling. My living room looks like Noah’s Ark meringue pie.

The rest of the walls lean to the creatively repurposed: asbestos floor tiles on the kitchen walls (useful in a meth lab) and, as God is my witness, kitchen-counter Formica not in the kitchen but on all four bathroom walls, from floor to eleven-foot ceiling. The bathroom mold actually turned out to be a blessing. Paul got to swing a sledgehammer really, really hard, for two whole weeks, knocking out the bathroom walls instead of me.

More significant than the house, however, was that in my excitement at finally being a homeowner (of a piece of architectural history!) I didn’t fully consider the life I’d be leaving behind. I was a working screenwriter; I had a personal and professional network of people I dearly loved that had nourished and supported me for fifteen years; I lived in a city buzzing with culture, major research libraries, perfect weather, and mountains where I hiked three times a week. I had a life I pretty much loved.

I managed to avoid the full impact of my choices for several months by spending all my time in a library studying to get a real estate license. Writers have an unpredictable income, and I got the harebrained idea that I actually had the sales skills needed to make a killing in our hot-hot-hot! area, thus earning extra money to pay for renovations. Just before the exam (thank God, because I would have flunked) we got the book deal and I was able to get out of Dodge for much of the next year and a half.

I wrote at a friend’s home in a much cooler state to escape heat, house, and husband.

Once Come Back was published, I was away even more for book promotions. Two years later that tapered off and there I was, sitting on the hearth as Paul once did, reality fully settling in. Not much fixing, and no flipping, had occurred, because Paul and I agreed on absolutely nothing about the house or yard. It took us a year to agree on bathroom fixtures, but because the city wouldn’t let us touch a thing until we rewired the entire house, we still had a bathroom with a brand-new tub and fixtures, but no walls, meaning no showers, only baths.

That I haven’t clobbered him by now is an even bigger miracle. Unlike most men, who are happy to let their wives handle decorating, Paul, being a graphic designer, refuses to do a single thing until he has a perfect blueprint for everything, down to the last detail. I can’t even plant a single shade tree in front till I know the genus and species of the border plants in the alley.

And I always thought infidelity and canoeing were the biggest dangers in a marriage.

Every woman’s circumstances vary, but I imagine a midlife crisis feels pretty much the same for most women—boredom, fear, self-doubt, restlessness, dissatisfaction. I can’t seem to meditate anymore and, worse, have lost the discipline and focus to write anything other than blog posts. Writing has always been so central to my identity. Aside from replying to reader e-mails and plotting how to kill our neighbor’s ficus tree, which is picking up the foundation of our house, my greatest joy is that my daughter is happy and healthy.

Not that my relationship with Mia is where I’d like it to be. It’s good, but far from what we enjoyed in the first years following those dark days when even her physical survival wasn’t assured, much less our relationship.

A woman’s relationship with herself is mirrored everywhere in her life, but no place more than with her daughter. In the last couple of years, I’ve gone back to some of the old fears and habits of a controlling, perfectionist mom. The kind of mothering I’m doing sends daughters to Everything else I’m doing sends me to