No Home of My Own: And Not Regretting It, For Now

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Suspension Bridge over River

When I first got married, my future ex-husband and I bought a fourth-floor walk-up in Petach Tikva, a non-glamourous (then and now) city east of Tel Aviv. After that, we rented an apartment in Queens and then one in Tel Aviv. After three years of looking, we bought our dream home in Ra’anana, an upscale city northeast of Tel Aviv, but within a year we ended up moving to Northern Virginia, and renting a house in Great Falls, selling the dream house, then renting a townhouse in Reston, until we bought our next dream home in Great Falls. But the marriage failed and neither of us could afford to live in that house, so we sold it (after two agonizing years). and I rented an apartment in Oakton, until I bought a condo of my own in Alexandria. It’s that condo that I sold last year, right before my retirement. That’s 36 years of worrying about finding the right place, paying the rent or mortgage and all the other costs involved; for the last fifteen of those years, I was a single mother/woman. 

Now, for the first time since I went to college at 17, I live with my mother, in her one-bedroom condo in southern Florida. I’m living rent-free, sleeping on a couch, with most of my things in boxes in closets.

My retirement plan is to buy a home near younger daughter when she’s more settled in a few years. Since her sister also lives on the West Coast, this will be, thankfully, much closer to her as well. For the past year, I’ve been thinking about buying this next home, with the occasional foray into Zillow to imagine possibilities. It’s been a balance between looking with dismay at rising prices and, now, mortgage rates as well, and excitement at the prospect of living someplace completely new where I can create a life for myself.

But as I make plans as a mother, I also need to make them as a daughter. At this point, it seems that my mother will join me in this move. While she’s not exactly thrilled about moving from hot, sunny Florida to chilly, rainy Oregon, coming with me overrides staying alone. And me, after living with her for a year, I see that she’s not the get-up-and-go person she was just a few years ago.

In a conversation with younger daughter the other day, she expressed her concern that I’m still living with Grandma. This, probably, followed me complaining about not having enough privacy there. It could also be her concern for me and, perhaps, a weirdness at having her mother living with her grandmother, seeming to lose some of the independence she's always known me to treasure. But she had a point. For a year, I’ve been whining about missing having my own space. Then it occurred to me that in this past year I’ve been free from worrying about those monthly payments for the first time in my adult life.

Hours of my life have been spent watching house hunting programs: tiny homes, off-the-grid homes, van life, living abroad, living in the country, living in extravagant homes, living in big cities, living in small towns, even DYI homes. Hours of watching people swoon over kitchen islands and complain about bathrooms, and always demanding more space, more rooms, closer to the water or downtown or the mountains or a better view. I have envied so many people.

Now, I’ve taken a sudden break from that yearning and jealousy. I’ve decided to appreciate the good fortune that I have and not push against it. It’s a new experience to think about myself without immediately connecting to the place where I live. While the four walls and what we do with them and how we feel in them—and even the surrounding area—seem to define us to some degree, I want to free myself from equating space with presence, existence.  

When I visited friends in the DC area in April, I drove by my old condo and went to places that I used to enjoy walking around, as well as favorite dining spots. Temporarily, I inhabited my old life. There were no longings to return. And now, for three weeks I’ve been visiting my daughters, staying in their homes and in Airbnb’s. It’s wonderful to see them establishing themselves, setting up their lives and the places they will inhabit.

Over the years, I’ve connected to each new place and, to some degree, the people there. It was about being grounded in a particular space and creating a life there. But now, I’ll focus on my actions and interactions: to be within myself, the moment, and the people within that moment. I will find freedom in not being tied to one place. Perhaps I can do this since I have found comfort in different places. I have learned that it is not the particular place that gives meaning, but how I interact with the place and the people who live there. I am my home.


The Book Clubs I Have Been In: Creating Community and Balanced Introspection Through Books

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Low tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

Books have always been where I immerse myself. They are my escape from the world, but they are also my way into understanding the world and us, the lovely, confusing, annoying characters in it. They are my ongoing hobby, where the only tool I need is a library card. Ironically, they have also been an essential way to find friends and create community.

Years ago, I was in a book club that rotated between the homes of about eight women in the Washington, DC, area. The tie that brought us together was that we had either worked for the same governmental organization or knew someone who worked there. Though a few women left and others joined, we stayed together for about four years. About two years in, we met at a new member’s home, a woman who had never been in a book club. After eating the lovely meal she had prepared, and just as we were about to start our book talk, she remarked, “Oh, I get it, the book is an excuse to get together.” We all laughed in understanding agreement. I would add that it’s not just an excuse to get together, but a way to meet women who have similar interests or even personalities. Book readers (who are interested in similar books), flock together.

The first book club I joined was in Israel, where we would, memorably, meet on the Tel Aviv beach when the weather permitted (which was most of the time). Sitting around a table in the sand with the whisper of the waves and the hum of Hebrew all around, while we talked in English—made me feel completely at home.  

This was the most eclectic book group I was part of since our tie was that most of us were originally from English-speaking countries. We decided not to decide on a book to read and discuss each month, but that we would be a book exchange club. Each woman would bring a book that she had read (whether brought over from the old country or purchased it at a local bookstore). Then, when we met, we would give a synopsis and our opinion of the book, and whoever was interested would take it home for the month. If more than one person was interested, you would wait another month or two until it was your turn.

For a few years, up until the pandemic, I was in a book club that was composed of teachers or staff who knew each other from working at the same school or being on the same countywide school committee. At the beginning of the pandemic, we tried to continue via Zoom, but some of us couldn’t focus on reading and it was hard to get the books in time for our meetings when the library was closed so often. But we still needed to talk, so that’s what we did for almost two years. Now, though, our numbers have dwindled. It seems that an organizing objective is essential. It was great while it lasted.

Two of us from that defunct book club couldn’t bear being without book talks. As retired teachers of language and literature (English for me and Spanish for her), who are quite happy to be out of the classroom, we both found that we truly missed talking about books— hearing someone else’s insights and analyzing together. So, we created a book club of two. We tell each other what we’re reading and if it sounds interesting to the other, she gets it and then when she’s done reading, we get together on zoom since she’s in Virginia and I’m in Florida. We still spend at least half of each meeting talking about what’s happening in our lives and the world, but we always get to the books.

Thinking about these book clubs and the women I have known through them makes me realize that we were part of a grand sisterhood. Though we rarely all liked the same book, the key was that we came together to hear each other, to learn from each other, to be with each other—we agreed on that—not on characters and plot and writing style. We all sought out a connection grounded in a common intellectual interest.

Life can be busy and diffuse, where so many of the things we do simply focus on the mundane realities of being fed, clothed, and housed. The reading of books is like a meditation, where I am both within myself and out of myself in a balance of here and there. The talking about books creates a thread that connects me to others; it’s like a conversation that brings out thoughts never before realized. My essence (my presence as me) is realized in these actions and interactions. It’s good to stop and acknowledge the power and importance of the things we do habitually, for too often we overlook them and miss out on realizing the impact they have on our days and our lives. It is essential for our souls to acknowledge that our days are not just the things on our to-do list, but our contemplations—together and alone.

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High tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

Moving to Florida: Not Just for the Sun

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There's the beach, and then there are the alligators. (Author's pic from a lovely stroll in the park)

The other day I met yet another person who had moved down to Florida to be near an older parent. I’m not sure how happy we are about it, but we’re doing it. Since I moved here a year ago, I haven’t met many people, but of those I’ve met, quite a big proportion have come to supervise the final years of one or both parent’s lives.

Back in Virginia, some retired people I know have done the opposite: they are stayers. They postponed their retirement dreams of endless travel in search of personal fulfillment because they didn’t want to abandon their parents who, somewhere along the way (generally after crossing the 90-year threshold), stopped recognizing them or became so annoying that only a child who feels a sense of responsibility toward those who helped them in their various crises would have the fortitude to keep finding caregivers for their cantankerous parents.

Some boomers (generally those whose parents are no longer in the here and now) have decided that rather than continuing to fill/hoard their house with precious mementos for their children to deal with when they’re in the minimalist great beyond, are moving to be closer to their children.

I certainly haven’t done a statistical survey, but these moves or lack thereof give pause for thought. It seems that amidst all the moves we made after we rushed off to college, abandoning hometowns and families, a deep desire or sense of responsibility is now thriving and driving us back to our core families. (This, of course, is contingent on that family having been supportive and kind, and worthy of one’s dedication.) Perhaps we (the big “we” where I generalize and the individual “we” that is me) are not as frayed and selfish as we feared we were. Perhaps after all the trailblazing to get out of the house and establish careers and independence, we are more similar to earlier generations than we thought. Perhaps we have always known the importance of family and giving, we just hadn’t realized it until we needed to direct it toward our parents, who had always seemed so formidable, enabling us to set out.

As we phase out of our careers and begin to identify ourselves in ways that don’t relate to a paycheck, we free ourselves to find meaning in things that we had perceived as old school and limiting. Now that our children are establishing themselves in their careers and having their own children, we can redirect our attention to our parents who may now need it. This truly gives a tangible feeling of what it means to give back. This is not a cause we are devoted to and feel good about donating to. These are our parents: they gave, we give. Even though I may rush out of my mother’s apartment to volunteer at the garden or close myself off for Zoom meetings, she knows that I’m there for her. And I know that insightful essays are not the only things that give meaning and enhance my sense of self. 


On Losing and Keeping Friendships: the Bitter, the Sweet, the Reality

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The garden where I volunteer. (Author's pic)

I have not been great at keeping friendships going.

In 1982, when I left Buffalo (where I went to college), I didn’t stay in touch with friends for very long. I saw my post-grad trip to Israel, which was supposed to be the beginning of a year of worldwide wanderings and then living abroad somewhere—which is almost what happened—as the start of a completely new life. In those days, it was harder to stay in touch (as in it took more effort), and the longer I was in Israel, the more my life/me seemed so far from what it/I had been in college, and the more distant I felt from those friends.

To be fair to me, those former friends didn’t reach out to me either. Years later, I maintained a presence on Facebook for a while, so that I could be found. My positive spin is that we needed each other during that time period, but then moved onto other friendships for the phases that came next. Yes, this explanation does make me feel better.

When I returned to the States in 2000, with a husband and two daughters, to what was supposed to be a temporary stay, I, unfortunately, repeated the inattention to friends left behind in Israel. Again, the paring off was so casual, but the missing out of those continuous connections is something that I still regret.

It took a while to realize that I was wrong. Friends, the good ones, aren’t for phases and to be easily replaced; no, they are to accompany us through phases. They give us the support and company we need to continuously find our way.   

So, when I moved from Virginia to Florida a year ago, I was determined to not let the same thing happen again. Thank goodness for Zoom and, perhaps, the fact that my friends and I are in our 50s and 60s, and they have also realized how important it is to keep onto the friends who have made it with us thus far. 

But amidst all this action and inaction and decision-making on my part, there is also the fact that despite my desires, sometimes friends no longer want to be friends. A friend-divorce.

Recently, a friend broke-up with me via text, which followed a phone conversation that had been surprisingly contentious, even in the pauses. She said that I didn’t give her the support she needed and decided to end the friendship. Bye. When I told the women I volunteer with at the garden about this, they quickly said, “She was looking for an excuse to end the friendship.” The harshness of her action was mitigated by the pointed, yet supportive, voices of these few-hours-a-week friends. I miss our weekly talks, but, clearly, she did not. It saddens me that a process, for isn’t that what a friendship is, was cut short. It’s not that I invest in friends to get something back, but when you spend time with someone, and show them who you are and tell them your stories, you expect (“hope” is how I will frame it going forward) that this a foundation upon which a lasting friendship/relationship will be built.  

This past year, I reconnected with a friend who I hadn’t been in touch with for a few years. At first it worked; we clicked again. But then I realized, as older daughter knew I would, that she had seen me as an acolyte more than a friend. When I said that, there was no more contact from her.

Before that, I was ghosted by a friend who had also worked at the company that relocated me to Virginia in 2000. It had been so nice to have someone who I would get together with a couple of times a year to catch-up on our lives and the lives of our children. I thought that this was the casual friendship I had gotten right. Until I failed her in cancelling attending her third housewarming party in five years because her home was an hour’s drive away and I had a lot of work (weekend grading, the bane of the English teacher’s existence). You would think that a 15-year friendship could survive a cancellation for any reason.

It seems that we each set different bars (tests?) to who is a friend and who is not. There’s the any person I can have an enjoyable meal with is a friend policy, and then there’s the only the people who meet and maintain my criteria can be friends policy. Turns out that friendships are as hard in midlife as in middle school. Friendships are not always a safe haven.

As I write this, I can feel myself working through the uncomfortable feelings I have about these friendship losses. I’m moving toward focusing on the good friends I do have, and how wonderful that is—how wonderful they are.

Clearly, you can’t guarantee anything in life and certainly not our relationships with other people. The older I get, the more I realize how essential friends have been throughout my life. I’m not the introvert I thought I was, for I have always needed a good friend(s). Most did not have longevity, but that’s okay, they each added to my life and for that I am grateful. And I am grateful, too, to those friends for whom judgment is reserved for food, not friends.


On Deciding that I Matter: Which Helps to Motivate Myself

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Bans Off Our Bodies March, Washington DC, May 14, 2022

Clearly, there are a lot of bad things happening now. Young men with assault rifles killing children with summer dreams and Black people with groceries (and dreams)—this ongoing American war. Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and Ukrainians. Republicans’ political attacks on women for whom pregnancy should not be terrifying, and children who may want to read a book or learn history. Homophobes’ attacks on a person’s different experience of gender and sexuality—of life itself. Antisemites’ attacks on Jews, in Israel and around the world, including NYC (the Jew-ish city of my childhood); as this teeny-tiny ancient minority just tries to live and give. Greedy assaults on the earth when we know that the real price is in lives, not cheap goods. And COVID continues taking victims and showing how little some people care about each other. UGH!

The public horrors seep in. There is no casual humming falalalalalala as I skip down the street knowing that freedom is being attacked, and that each of us needs to do what we can to stop the hate, the madness, the attacks. We must be alert, convinced that our anger and our angst—and what they motivate us to do—will realign the tilt of our world so that kindness and compassion are the baseline. I will not accept this infantilizing of women, this “knowing what is right for you” b-s, this ‘women as baby factories’ mindset. Guns kill. Abortions save. This is clear. None of this restricting our sovereignty over our bodies, and our reading material, and our talk topics. This is absurd, beyond absurd! Cataclysmic. How is the clock being turned back? Why are people okay—still okay—with this mistreatment of other human beings who aren’t just like them? So, yeah, there’s a lot going on. Clearly. I just went into rant-mode in seconds. Infuriating. This fear and anger are not separate from my life, they are part of it.

But even as that pit of horrors eats away at my waking thoughts and my sleep, life continues.

And living a meaningful life remains the goal and the challenge, especially when so many of us are forced to live in fear, sadness, deprivation, without the luxury of contemplation. Can the focus of my life, the way I live my life, help tilt the balance? Are we as the trees in the forest, not isolated neighbors but interconnected beings—where poison can be flushed out, eventually, by nourishment?

A few weeks ago, I visited friends in the DC-area. On Saturday, May 14, I went with one friend and her husband (also a friend), to the Bans Off Our Bodies march. Another friend assumed that I had come up from Florida for a march about something. A friend of my mother’s assumed that I went to the march, saying that “your daughter is such an activist.” I hadn’t realized that I was perceived that way. My impression of myself is that I go to marches because it’s what I can do, though, always wondering what good it does. But now I think that besides my being physically counted and making me feel that I did something, however small, to act on my beliefs, it shows others that we are not alone. The task for each of us is to find the right ways to express ourselves and then to acknowledge them, so that we don’t disparage ourselves and stop, but encourage ourselves to continue.

My “failure” has come, I realize, in measuring my actions against the wrong scale. Since I had hoped to be different, to be a mover and a shaker who starts a movement, runs an organization, speaks on a stage, the fact that I am just a supporter in the crowd (with neither a savvy sign nor tee-shirt) has taken a long time to appreciate. I need to accept the way I am, but not the way things are.

This thinking on the page makes me realize that this, too, is a true expression of self. I have not failed in becoming who I am not, I have not acknowledged who I have succeeded in becoming. Now is the time. This is true for each of us. We each have what to give; we each need to believe that what we do—who we are—matters. Roots spreading out and joining to create a fertile environment for positive, supportive change.

 


The Carnage

Photo by Yuliia Tretynychenko on Unsplash
Protected Windows. Photo by Yuliia Tretynychenko on Unsplash

Most of us in America are here because of suffering that we or our ancestors endured or could no longer endure. Oppressed. Enslaved. Tortured. Starved. And those who were already here, they, too, endured those crimes. Perhaps some came to escape perpetrating crimes, while others came to perpetrate them. Some of us have learned that we must help those who suffer, while others have learned that it pays to oppress. An ugly, horrid web.

Seeing the carnage on the streets of Ukraine shows so bluntly that wars may be motivated by the grotesque ego of those sitting on their hollow thrones, but the men who carry out their plans of conquest are not innocent. They shoot people who are trying to survive and rape women who, perhaps, represent victory to those who are tiny in their hearts and minds. Perhaps they are motivated by hurt and imagined indignities, not beauty or compassion. This is a hard world.  

We learned about “rape and pillage” from centuries of war, and thought (hoped?), naively, that there could be a time—that this was that time—that is post-war. But that was just us not paying attention to over there and there and there and there. Has that time ever existed? It seems to be a base/basic method of human expression; surely, our worst method. Can we ever have peace if we are basically the same people we have been for thousands of years?

Communication. Miscommunication. Misleading communication. Words lead to debasing actions. To death. To destruction. To denying another’s right to live unfettered in body, heart, and mind.  

I watched a video of a displaced child talking softly of the green gardens of her hometown that are now gray rubble. What has been won? What has been lost? There is no balance.

The ache continues here, in its way, as I also read the news of America. The brutality of pushing against one’s neighbor, of imposing one’s venomous vision on others, makes it so clear that the push to oppress is not just done in air raids, but in a blindness of ethics, for how can it be ethical not to recognize the rights and dignity of those who aren’t you?

We see the cruelty that seems always to be lurking, ready to exert itself. We know fear—the feeling of anticipating that the worst could, yet, happen. But we have also been inspired by wisdom and the actions of those who have come before—those who always seem to rise—those who have not succumbed to holding power—over. They must be supported.

Those images of bodies—hands tied behind backs, lying on the streets of their city, fallen guardians—reach in so deep, to the fibers within that twitch with ancestral memory—human memory. This cannot be. Yet, it is. It should not be. Yet, it is. I refuse to accept that, concede to this dark reality. We must each, in our way, stand up and push back and protect. Move forward, undeterred by what is, focused on what should be.

May the war end soon and with it may the violence, the destruction, and the killing end.

May those who have been harmed find healing and safety and trust and peace.

May those who have harmed others acknowledge in anguish, remorse, regret, and grief what they have done and who they are, and may they be guided evermore to redress what they have done, as much as can be.   


A New Sense of Worth

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Other people's hobby which I saw on a walk

The way I have settled into retirement— away from what had been my home for eight years, away from a job that I had for sixteen years, away from an area where I had lived longer than any other place, away from a set schedule and responsibilities, away from friends and most family—has unmoored me, cast me off—made me feel how solitary I am.

Having stepped off the work track means that the only expectations that I have to live up to are my own. It is as if I had been living in one world and, now, I’m in a different one. Or, perhaps, it is simply that I’ve moved into another phase of life: from childhood, to young adulthood, to devoted-to-others-and-accomplishments adulthood, and now to the phase whereby a mature adult transforms experiences into wisdom. It’s also as if the ground I stand upon has shifted and now, surprisingly, it’s more stable, because it’s more dependent on me.

Recently, I heard from one friend who is anxious that she’ll be fired from her job, another who is counting down to retirement and trying to figure out the best way to make it there mentally and physically intact, while another tries to configure the right balance where too much work and commitment aren’t always stressful, only sometimes. I also heard from another friend, who retired a year before me, who wants to schedule a zoom call to talk about the books that we’ve been reading and writing.

Amidst those conversations, I spoke with someone (who was talking to me as part of her job) who complimented me by saying I look too young to be retired, and then proceeded to express her disappointment that I’m not working. What would be the lure of working if it’s not financially necessary and not mentally positive? Why is having a “job-job” the sign of a productive person? Perhaps her concern is for my mental health now that I’m not employed. But not everyone’s identity is wrapped up in their job, or remains so.

The pandemic was hard on students, parents, and teachers, but I no longer felt that the balance of giving and receiving was healthy for me. As a teacher, I found that I was spending my time and mental health adhering to and concerned by rules and regulations, and being buffeted by the whims of students, parents, and administrators. And what if I took a job just to have a job? Would I be more valued if I was folding clothing in a store or serving coffee in a cafe? And what if I started tutoring students in writing (one of my favorite parts of being an English teacher)—would helping those who already have so many advantages (hence their ability to pay the hefty hourly payment that I do sometimes daydream about because, yes, it would be nice) make me a more valuable member of society—or more valuable to myself?

My reaction to her off-handed comment brought me back to a question that I do think about: What makes a life of worth?

I recently read The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg, in which Arthur says that his value as a retired person is in appreciating the work of others. I like that perspective, but I’m not at that stage, yet. My mother and her friends, who are in their late 70s and 80s and 90s, are in that stage. And they deserve to just enjoy the moment (even in the ever-present pain of not having their husbands with them)—the fruit of many years of work. But I’m only 61. (I removed the quotes from around only, since it does feel young down here in retirement-land. Being around much older people does have its advantages.)

My daughters are both embarking on new careers and jobs, and I am thrilled and excited for them. I’m also glad it’s not me. Whatever mistakes I made, I’m okay with them and their consequences. I don’t want the exhaustion, struggle, and confusion of a redo.

This after-work part of life is like being a child (with a hands-off parent) who says, “Be home by dinnertime,” and “I’ll drive you to whatever lessons you want.” It is circling back to engaging with the things I want to do without concern for a purpose. No recompense required and no need for it to lead to something that could lead to a good job. This is true purpose. This is my freedom.   

 


Sadness and Horror Equal Dread

Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash
Fence proclaiming its stand. Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

The war continues. Watching the news continues. Reading articles and tweets continues. Donating to organizations helping Ukrainian refugees continues. Crying in empathy continues. Being within the fog of dread for what is and what may be continues.

The horror of watching death occur, knowing that more people will die or be injured is an unremitting feeling of sadness and helplessness. But not hopelessness, when seeing bravery, communal and individual. But still, the deep sadness of knowing that death and destruction are so central to what is seen. Why is it always so?

Sitting comfortably at home is a blessing, but to know and not be able to stop it is a different aspect of the horror of war.  

How is this world possible? How is it possible for there to be flooding and drought at the same moment? How are some huddling from the cold while others are harmed by the heat? How is it that some people starve while others, with stocked pantries, have more groceries delivered to their homes? Why is there good and evil, empathy and indifference? It hurts to see that so many people cannot accept people with any difference from what they are. How can I be created in God’s image but not you? Who gives you the right to impose yourself on others? Are war and peace as natural as the seasons? Can we not overcome this aspect of nature as we have used our brains to develop the tools and medicines that improve our lives?

The obscenity of me sitting here watching the sunlight reach out from the dimness of dusk to create a bright day while people in Ukraine will never see the trees, they planted, grow. There should not be guilt in living, a life, a comfortable life.

During my graduate studies in conflict, I came to the understanding that wars and conflicts are based on a person’s desire for power and greed (which is surely a desire for another kind of power). Why do so many of us need to suffer for the grubbiness of people who never have enough, who never see what they have, who will never be satisfied beyond a moment before they desire more?

The war is in Ukraine. There are other wars. There is suffering, more suffering. Will the bully-beasts ever be defeated for long? Long enough to know/care that it is better to grab for less; to see that each life is deserving; to hear the cries of a child, a partner, a parent, and know that it is as important as your rattles of mememememe?  


To Watch in Sadness and Horror

Photo by Olga Subach on Unsplash
The Life of Ukraine's Colors: Photo by Olga Subach on Unsplash

 

My heart goes out to the Ukrainian people who are suffering from the war that Putin, and Russia, have hurled upon them. As I sit here writing, it’s shocking to realize that just a few weeks ago Ukrainian writers were also in libraries and cafes and at their kitchen tables writing down their thoughts and not struggling to survive the brutality of war—of a war machine—that does not value human life, that sees value in destruction. So much pain and its impact. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated our stuff may be, there is still so much baseness within.

The images of brute destruction of the places where lives have been lived; the voices speaking up and down the scales of pain; the faces expressing horror, exhaustion, desperation, pain, anger, love—fear. The shrieks of why, which may get a response, but, really, can never be answered in the way a heart can comprehend. Why is it so hard to live without trying to hurt someone else?

The other day I spoke to a friend who was a refugee when she was a child, more than 70 years ago. The pain of the loss of her father and the loss of her home and all that she knew have remained with her. She is heartbroken knowing the painful path before these new refugees. The images we see of children pressing their hands against the glass to touch their father's hands before their train takes them away, represents a pain that will never go away. This moment remains forever—its presence is always present.

There have been other images of children that have distilled in our minds, not of a specific war or conflict or tragedy, just the horrible impact of using deadly weaponry to resolve human interactions. Will words ever be enough?  

And while I sit here thinking these thoughts, I get an update from Ancestry that a cousin has added previously unknown relatives to our expanding family tree. My family tree that has branches that escaped death and pain and oppression that were rooted in what is today Ukraine and Lithuania and Belarus. From century to century, there have been horrors. The cycle needs to end.

When will the cries be more powerful than the bombs?

May this war end soon—with a peaceful, self-determined future for Ukraine (and Russia and the rest of us)—with leaders who know how to laugh and know that, sometimes, they are laughable.

 


Uniquely Ordinary: Aren’t We All

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Another hobby: Going on walks (Wakodahatchee Wetlands)

I can still remember when I thought that being unique was the most important quality a person could have. It could have been that I was protecting the introverted book worm that I was who didn’t fit in or have many friends. It also could have been the ego of a self-conscious, confidence-lacking young woman trying to figure out what it meant to be herself without succumbing to the temptation of putting herself down for somehow not being like everyone else. It wasn’t a choice to not fit in. Neither was it a joyful experience. At some point, though, I accepted the situation—dealt with it through a balance of superiority/inferiority complex—neither helpful, but, somehow, a protective mix.

When I went to college in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, women were finally able to navigate their way out of the teacher/ secretary/ nurse silo into which we had been placed for too long. I put pressure on myself to have a groundbreaking career. It all seemed so possible. Alas, I didn’t have enough drive or hunger to commit to anything other than a vague notion of being a writer. I say vague because I wrote barely enough to even say that I wrote, but just enough to maintain the illusion. So, instead of committing to a career or giving up and slogging through years of being an assistant, wearing the de rigueur string ties and boxy jackets of the ‘80s, until I figured out what I wanted to be, I jumped ship and moved to Israel. Just being there enabled me to be unique. I didn’t need a career to define me, create me. Perhaps this was both my downfall (career-wise) and also what saved me as a person who never fully identified with her job.   

So now, in the first year of my retirement, approximately 40 years after graduating from college, I am confronted with reckoning time: What have I accomplished in my working life? I always did enough to be good, never enough to be great. I was committed, but never enough to be on a fast trajectory up the ladder. In the first part of my working life, I was a technical and marketing writer, and in the second I was a high school English teacher. I got a master’s degree in conflict studies in between that I never used directly, though it informed my understanding of people and the world. Along the way I wrote books and developed toys and games for children and adults. Briefly, I was the founder of two companies, but they floundered as I discovered that creativity is not enough for business success. But I have no regrets. Okay, a little, but I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been happy with the trade-offs that would have been required. Generally, I’m okay with how things played out, except, of course, in my marriage, but that is a different story of failure. I have been able to use and develop innate skills, and interact with people in ways that have helped them and made me a better person. No gloating, just acceptance. (Is that a runner-up or the surprise winner?)

The other day, I told a friend that I look forward to gardening when I have outside space again. It’s useful (yeah, fresh herbs and tomatoes from my own garden!) and it’s outside. Then, I thought about how much I look forward to cooking for others again. So ordinary, these things I like to do, I thought of/to myself, not unique.

The next day I read an obituary that said the deceased woman liked to garden, cook, and read. Just like me, I thought. I didn’t think about the smallness of her interests—she hadn’t sailed around the world rescuing sick seabirds—but just the honesty of what was important for her survival. Her interests may not have been flamboyant, but, I hope, they indicated that she accepted herself for who she was and that she hadn’t adjusted herself for others.

And I remember now that it is said that we are each born with our own unique soul. Thus, we each have our own, unique, life to live. Acknowledging this makes me realize that every moment of a life expresses its uniqueness and that it is imperative to live acknowledging that my essence is the foundation for all that I do or am, not the other way around.


The Yellow Box of ‘Your Turn to Talk’

Beach walk

There are people and articles out there stating how bad Zoom is for us, but I disagree. I have found that zooming is making me a better listener and, hence, conversationalist, especially when there are more than two people involved. Not only can only one person speak at a time, but you are immediately made aware of your attempt to overtalk or interrupt in a very visual way: your box becomes outlined in yellow. It is the new mark of shame. You can actually see that you “grabbed” the box—the microphone—from the person who was still talking. It is a bright lesson to shut up, pay attention, and wait your turn.

When we first started socializing via Zoom, I wanted to be heard. For a teacher to go from having classrooms full of students listening to me (surely some were listening) to having no audience was a hard transition. Besides, I thought, many of the people I was zooming with had a partner with whom they could chat at home, so I figured it was okay to hog the talk time. Then, one day when I exited a zoom meeting, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on with my friends. I had squandered a rare opportunity to hear from them and get out of my ceaseless internal monologue. In another moment of clarity, it occurred to me that just because they have a partner, didn’t mean that they were having all the kinds of conversation that they needed to have. There’s a reason why there are book clubs and ladies meeting for lunch.

I was to learn another aspect of my listening lesson in my zoom conversations with my daughters. I really did want to hear from them and would constantly interrupt with more questions. But, between poor connections with younger daughter who lives in the middle of a forest, and my interruptions, I found that the two people I wanted to be in a zoom room with most were getting a bit annoyed at me. I needed to not interrupt and let the conversation flow.

Over the years, I became aware of how much I interrupted people with my, supposedly, more entertaining stories. I can blame growing up in NYC and living in Israel and even being me, but it was still a way of being that I knew was disrespectful and that I needed to change. It doesn’t matter whose stories are “better,” what matters is the conversation, the interchange, the listening, the being heard, the learning. It’s been a while that I’ve been working on shutting up and listening, but with the pandemic method of gathering in our online boxes, I have finally come face-to-face with the fact that I wasn’t as improved as I hoped I had become.

So, while I did finish a book and I did bake quite a few loaves of bread during the pandemic, I think this may be the most important lesson that I’ve learned. Now I need to see if anyone still wants to zoom with me.


Contemplating Volunteering

 

MLK Day 2022 Painting Front Door
Painting a front door on MLK Day 2022 (Photo: Jewish Federation of PBC)

 

Over the years, I’ve volunteered with different organizations, doing different things, for different reasons. I’ve filled bags with food, cleaned a beach, canvassed for politicians, sat with people in hospice, and translated Holocaust survivor testimonies. This week, I’ll start volunteering at a local public garden and continue helping to write fundraising materials for two organizations in Israel focused on coexistence. My retirement days are not just filled with reading and wandering.

You’ve likely heard the statement that the giver gets more than the receiver, but I will buck the trend and say that I don’t agree with it. It must be more of a balance. How can you say that my peace of mind for having done something good for two hours is the same as a parent receiving food for their hungry children, or a dying person having someone sit beside them for part of their endless day? If it were true, then I would need to feel guilty that part of the reason I do these acts is for me to meet people and be engaged. It’s not purely an altruistic move and I don’t want to feel bad about that.

My volunteering really started when I became an empty nester, since I had more time and less financial stress. It was a sign that I had transitioned from survival mode to fulfillment mode. It occurs to me now, though, that just when I no longer needed to focus on someone else, I chose to continue focusing on others, which, I also realize, is my way of taking care of what I need, both morally (Jewishly) and psychologically. It seems to be impossible for me to be in this world and not try to be a part of it, to help improve it, to ameliorate its pains in the ways that I am able, even while trying to make friends.

During my on-boarding interview at the garden, the interviewer asked me if I had volunteered anywhere else. I quickly mentioned a few places, but later in the interview and the day, I remembered other places. All of them had been for causes that are meaningful to me. But at most of the places, for various reasons, I hadn’t become engaged with the activity or the people with whom I worked. It seems that finding a good volunteer fit is like finding the right job or partner.

At an organization that helps abused women where I volunteered a few years ago, the woman who ran the volunteer training program had started out as a volunteer and was so dedicated that she ended up as a full-time employee. For me, it wasn’t the right fit and I only volunteered there the minimum required following the (excellent) training. At other places, I could just sign up for a few hours. In many places, there was either too little engagement or too many people coming in groups that resulted in my feeling left out. This shouldn’t be a concern and maybe it sounds selfish, and maybe it is, but I don’t want to feel bad about myself or uncomfortable when I’m trying to be of service to others. I have also realized that I would prefer to use my skills, which utilize my very being, then simply do a task. I haven’t ruled those out, but they would be more occasional than ongoing.

While some of these volunteer adventures have been frustrating, I have remained persistent, knowing that I need them and knowing that when it is the right fit, I have felt whole—as a part of what is. As I sit here pushing this thought, wondering why this has been so important to me, Hillel’s statement of ancient wisdom comes to me:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And me as a human being—not the women who needs to understand everything—knows that the answer is simply that this is the way for me to be in the world, to share in the world. It is to know something intrinsically. It is to be.


Wandering as My State of Being

Lake Worth Pink House
Lake Worth, Pink House

As I sit here in a local coffee shop, staring into space and at the people sitting at their tables and walking by, I realize that wandering, mentally and physically, is my natural state of being. Of course, that is a paradox, for how can I be unfocused and have an insight at the same time? Which is, I also realize, the normal state of my mind: to be aimless and purposeful, to be suspended within myself and part of the external environment.

Growing up, I lived about a mile from Little Neck Bay in Queens. As soon as I was old enough to physically wander off on my own, I would walk through my neighborhood of six-story red brick apartment buildings and two-story garden apartments to the bay, then walk along it focused on the water, the cattails growing tall, the birds seeking sustenance, and other people walking, skating, or biking on the paved path, while trying to ignore the busy highway on the other side, pretending that the rushing sounds of the cars were waves coming in and going out rhythmically.

When I could drive, sometimes I went to Jones Beach where I would walk along the wide sandy beach, the wind and the waves my walking partners. The hour drive was prologue and epilogue to the walk, cocooning me within the car. Other times, I would go in the opposite direction: into Manhattan. There, I would walk for miles, often on Fifth Avenue along Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then in the museum through gallery after gallery of people and beauty and other people’s insights. Sometimes I would walk up Madison Avenue, walking by shops that I would never enter, and down the streets between looking at the brownstones where people lived in luxury that I could only daydream about. Then, to Third Avenue where there was more vibrancy, less preciousness, more of a sense of belonging, and back to the subway on sturdy Lexington Avenue.

Over the years, wherever I lived I had “my walks” where I would wander and wonder. In Israel, it was in Tel Aviv along the gentle Mediterranean Sea as well as Europeanesque Rothschild Boulevard, with its greenway, a whole world in the middle of the street, and the area’s low white buildings evocative of hope and purpose, where I always felt like a tourist and a resident. In Virginia, it was along the Potomac River in River Bend Park with Maryland right across the way, making water, for the first time, feel limited, or in Old Town Alexandria where the river was backdrop to centuries-old brick and wooden homes that forced me to think back in history. Now, here, in Florida, I walk along the Atlantic Ocean easily walking for miles in the space where water and sand meet, sometimes soaking ankles, calves, rolled-up-pants, from the occasional big wave, or in local parks watching wading birds and the too prevalent invasive iguanas. The quaint cottages in Lake Worth’s historic districts give me the created environment I need to be a counterpoint to the natural one, answering different needs of my wandering mind.  

The walking—thinking, moving, observing—being active and passive simultaneously—has been a key experience for me. Since I am alone on these walks, untethered to conversation and someone else’s impressions, I remain separate, as an artist re/creating a scene. Fundamentally, I realize, this is not “what I do,” rather “who I am.” My state of equilibrium. These walks enable the being, the writing.

For a while I listened to music and podcasts when I walked. I don’t anymore. Concern for ruining my hearing is one reason, but also those other voices in my head infringed upon my own voice from stirring around the random and developing thoughts. These walks have been an opportunity to lead within my own mind, to not be led or directed. My safe space out in the world.

Lake Worth Hiding House
Lake Worth, Hiding House

Being Adventurous

Breakfast view
Breakfast View
I’m still troubled by something that younger daughter said to me a few years ago. She told me that I wasn’t adventurous. Mind you, she said this on our trip to New York City where she expected me to decide on all activities and dining establishments, even though I haven’t lived there since 1995, when I was pregnant with her, worked full-time, and was the mother of a preschooler. Still, it has stuck with me in a way that someone else’s truth infringes upon one’s own imaginings.

My immediate reaction was to remind her that I had moved from New York to Israel on my own when I was 21. This, surely, rated as adventurous, I said. She practically yawned when she replied how long ago that was. I could have added that we had moved from Israel to Virginia for my high-tech job, that I went to graduate school in my 40s, changed careers, and divorced her father with a tenacity that surely rated as a different kind of daring, but all she saw was that I was a teacher who taught the same thing year after year. Since then, I think about her blunt assessment when I consider if I am hesitant to do something new because I honestly don’t want to do it, or if the hesitation is in actually doing something new.

Mind you (and I should have thought of this when she made her pronouncement), the degree to which I have been adventurous should be compared to the degree to which I was exposed to that quality in my childhood—of which there was practically none. My parents lived in the apartment they moved to when my mother was pregnant with me until she moved to Florida a few years after my father passed away, which means that she lived there for over 50 years. And even the apartment where I live with her now was a bequest from her aunt. Clearly, I see moving as an indicator of adventure or change.

Since I graduated from college 40 years ago, I’ve had a number of jobs and two careers; I lived in three states, two countries and quite a few homes; and I even got citizenship for another country (Israel). But what she focused on was that I had stayed for a long time in one school and position—and it would have been the same classroom if we hadn’t undergone a renovation. For me, I didn’t see that as being stuck, probably because I never imagined that I would be a teacher, so the career itself—even my daily entry into my classroom—was always a bit of an adventure.

Nevertheless, it’s unsettling to think that I am perceived as lacking in a certain oomph, because that’s not how I perceive myself. It has become important to me, especially since retiring (and I would say that retiring at 60 requires a bit of jumping into the unknown) that I act on my perception of myself as dynamic, and not just think that I am.

Which brings me to dog-watching and dog-sitting, which I did recently. It was completely new for me, entailing trying a new job, entering the gig economy, meeting new people and becoming comfortable in their homes, and testing my identity as a dog person. It also meant that I pushed myself past the parameters of my day that I had quickly gotten used to.

After two jobs in two weeks, I realized that I liked the dog-sitting, which was ostensibly a sleepover with the dogs in their home, but not the dog-walking, where I had to go over to the dog’s house three times a day to walk him and take care of him and his cat sibling. What I didn’t like about that was that I lost my sense of freedom. I had become tied to the clock and an external schedule, making it feel like an imposition—like a job. I quickly changed my profile on the dog-walking app to only show that I dog-sit. The immediate lesson here was that it’s good to try new things, but not to commit to them just because they’re new.

As I sit here writing, I’m watching a woman attempt to hit a golf ball. (The apartment is on a golf course, so during the day I watch golfers swing, golf carts roam, and hear the whack of club on ball.) She is terrible. I will be generous and assume that she’s trying a new sport. Her way of being adventurous, perhaps, as I was in trying pickleball.

I wonder, as I watch the steady stream of golfers on this beautiful winter day, about trying new things. What does it mean to be adventurous to me now? Does it have to be big things, like a new job or home or international travel? Can it be in little things, like new local beaches and restaurants and even recipes. What makes me feel that I’m pushing myself? As a single woman, sometimes just stepping out of the house feels like embarking on a grand adventure, since there’s no one to rely on or with whom to share the experience.

It finally occurs to me that what matters is that I am comfortable with myself, that I believe in myself as an entire world. I don’t need to get lost in a foreign city or figure out new colleagues and neighbors to feel alive. Just because I’m still doesn’t mean that I need to overturn things to know that I’m not settling into dullness. I see now, for who I am now, that to be with wonder and anticipation, to know that each moment is never the same, is to be adventurous.

Lunch View
Lunch View

Still Alone: Why Change?

Sailboat
Sailboat off Lake Worth Beach

Recently, I went on two dates with a very nice man who I refer to as the Jewish Doctor. Alas, there will be no third date with said gentleman despite his clear intelligence and interesting stories—two strong positives for me, as well as his sense of enthusiasm for the future. What made me decide against a continuation was my growing discomfort with spending time with someone who has a lot to say, but not a lot to ask. As in, he was very interested in talking about himself, but not so much in finding out about me. On date two, we walked around a park where he seemed to enjoy his talking and my head nodding. When I discerned his lack of curiosity in me and my past, I let myself simply respond to him, which is not where I want to be in a relationship. It is tiring and uninspiring to see that someone sees you merely as a backdrop to himself.

During dinner I learned about his family’s history and dynamics. I also learned more about his desire to sail around the world when he retires in a few years—and his expectations for the “anointed” woman who would join him on his sailing adventures. It was, as older daughter noted, a job interview. But I will not take the job, as tempting as it may seem (and it was tempting), because in all the hours we spent together, he did not seem to care about me except as how I could be of service to him.  

As a teacher and, honestly, as an adult, I have learned to ask questions. While I may also interrupt people (I blame teaching, as well as being a New Yorker and Israeli for that), but I am honestly curious about them. I want to know about their experiences and how they responded to them and what they mean to them. Seems like it should be basic: an interaction based on words that creates a new experience.

Towards the end of our dinner at a Greek restaurant, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked if he had any questions for me. He answered, “No.” Mind you, by this time in the approximately eight hours we had spent together he did not know where I went to college or what I had studied (we covered his academic career), that I had lived in Israel (we had covered where he had lived and some of his travels), why I became a teacher (yes, I knew why he became a doctor), or even what I write (I had said that I go to a certain coffee shop to write, but there was no follow up question, not a “What do you write?” or a “Have you been published?”). I was stunned by his bluntness—and disregard.

Perhaps he realized that it was not okay to so openly admit his lack of interest in my life, so he asked—a repeat of the question that I had just asked him—what I was looking for in a partner. So, the one question that he asked me was, in reality, about himself and not about me.

Since that date, I have continued swiping left and right on the dating app I have been using. But I am back to thinking that nothing will come of it and that it is probably for the best. I like being a single retired woman.

It’s funny that I should feel that I’m in control of my life now when I live with my mother, watching to see if she needs any help, and that I plan to move to be closer to my daughters, with my mother joining me when she’s ready. I know that I generally try to adjust myself to accommodate others, so perhaps being with a man again would be too much adjusting for me. I fear that I would lose too much of myself that I fought so hard to gain after my marriage and divorce, and two short-lived relationships. For years in my marriage, I would do what I thought was necessary to please my husband—to be a good wife. But I don’t want to go back to shape-shifting to fit someone else. Maybe being married was the anomaly in my life and being alone is the natural state.

Thinking back over the beginning of the pandemic when we were in lockdown, I can’t imagine how hard it would have been if I hadn’t been alone. And, even now, living with my mother, it’s a challenge for me to always be so visible. The constant drag of interacting, of not being able to retreat into myself, is hard. Sometimes I wonder why being in a couple up is the natural order of things. Then I remember that there has been joy with others, whereas alone I only reach contentment.

Perhaps I need to rethink relationship possibilities, where the expectations need to be transformed to fit my changed awareness. As I told the Jewish Doctor, I’m looking for someone with whom I can get out and do things, Over the years of being single, I have discovered that there just might be some things that are better done together. Sure, I have enjoyed wandering around cities and parks on my own, but staying within my thoughts and observations sometimes feels like I am living in a loop rather than being in a dynamic situation. Perhaps I need to maintain my home as my space (mentally and physical) and not even consider sharing it with someone. With this as my baseline decision, perhaps I can imagine a different future. Of course, it still won’t work with someone who sees me as a backdrop.  

It seems that I just talked myself into still swiping.


Pickleball Anyone?

Pickleball
My new pickleball paddle and ball

When I was about 14, I flew on a plane for the first time with a cousin to visit our grandparents in Miami Beach. This was so long ago that if you said “Miami Beach” at that time people knew you were going to the land of shuffle board, shuffled walking, and blue hair, which then meant dyed gray hair not peacock blue as an expression of your personality. There was a lot about that trip that still stands out to me, notably that you can get a sun burn behind your knees making it very painful to sit for hours in a plane, but what one of the elderly twin brothers I met told me still resonates.

“I always thought that when I retire, I would have time to read the books I never had time to read when I was working.” Ten years into his retirement and he still hadn’t made a dent in his reading list. Turns out that if you’re an active, busy person when you’re working, you’ll still be an active, busy person when you retire. Instead of working for the paycheck, he was doing a lot of volunteering.

Which brings me to a recent pickleball game. I got an introduction to the sport when I visited my younger daughter, who plays the game with her boyfriend whenever they can. She even got an athletic (dare I call it tennis?) skirt as a sign of her dedication. I had a free introductory lesson on the roof of a hotel in Las Vegas with my older daughter who told me after the lesson that she doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination for ball sports—who knew? I think she just doesn’t like group sports because when we were at the golf range the ‘expert’ next to us was giving her pointers and encouragement. It could also have been the fact that she was 26 at the time, but still.

I liked the idea that the serve is underhanded because the overhand serve in tennis was always my downfall. Also, the last time I played tennis was almost ten years ago and I hurt my shoulder in yet another attempt to successfully serve the gosh darn ball.

So, I took a class for intermediate beginners the other day. There were four women in the class, the one male instructor, and, for some reason, another older man hanging around. Maybe he is a pickleball pro or instructor in the making? Anyway, once again I found serving a challenge, but one that with practice I am sure I will succeed at. Unlike in tennis when you get two chances to serve, in pickleball it’s one and done and on to the next person, so there’s still serve-pressure.

The lesson went well, I felt that it could be a good sport to add to my retired repertoire because, while my daily swim is great, I’m not meeting people that way, especially if I purposely time my swim for when the pool is empty.

After the class I exchanged numbers with two of the women: one could play during the day and the other after work. The day-player said that she had reserved a court for the next day and that if she finds a fourth player, we could have a game. I should have been wary when she said “game,” as opposed to practice or casual interaction on the court.

The pickleball court was reserved for 90 minutes. It turned out that the day we were to play was the hottest day in a long time and we started at noon. Not an excuse, just a setting of the scene and my mental state as the game progressed.

When the other women each talked about how much tennis they used to play, I got even more anxious. Then, two of the women talked about wanting to practice and improve, so that they could compete. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. During our play, there were intense, as in it really matters, discussions of the rules, of which there seem to be many in pickleball, but, I assume, that is true for many sports, though I never really cared about them because aren’t we here to have fun and who cares if we win or lose the point? I can get competitive, but I don’t like it. Maybe I fear failing, so I give in without pushing myself. And maybe I don’t like comparing myself to others, which seems to be at the heart of competition. Sure, you’re competing against yourself, but that is just part of what playing a game entails.

I’ll admit that we played three games (a game is 11 points in pickleball) and the team I was on lost all three games thanks in large part to my failed serves and no one caring that we’re new at this and let her try again. These women might have said that they wanted the practice, but they also wanted to get back into the spirit of winning.

A problem with pickleball, as I see it, is that you’re supposed to come to the net and play the game there, focusing on your dinking, which is dropping the ball over the net in the kitchen (no volley) area. (Yes, the terminology does indicate a lightness to the game that belies the seriousness with which it is played.) This means that the ball will often be aimed right at you. It seems a particularly aggressive game for one named for a fermented vegetable.

The next day, I had lunch with my mother and some of her friends for our new, monthly lunch. One woman, whose husband recently retired, said that she looked for a card game for him. She said that she thought she found a group for him until the person she spoke to mentioned that the kitty would get up to $50. She realized that it wasn’t for her husband, who was used to playing for pennies. When she said that, I realized that I don’t need to give up on playing this new-for-me game, but that I need to find the right people with whom to play.

I already committed to playing with those women next week. They said that it went well among us, but I think they’ll only say that as long as they still consider themselves at the warming up stage. I’ll try to keep an open mind and focus on improving my game, and see how it goes. Hopefully, the instructor will get back to me to tell me that he has a spot in a lesson before then.


Food Bank Wednesday

Shell
Beach walking find

A few mornings ago, I volunteered at Kind Kitchen, which is dedicated to providing homemade kosher meals to anyone who needs help. We were preparing for the big Thanksgiving and Chanukah delivery that will be made next week. (This year Chanukah starts on Sunday night.) There were about ten older women and one older man helping out and, since it was a school break, there were two mothers with their children who were doing some of their required service hours. Coerced volunteerism. It works for everyone.

For about 45 minutes, I ladled corn-muffin mixture from a big bucket into a few hundred muffin cups in industrial-kitchen-sized muffin tins. Between myself and the woman opposite me, we prepared more than 500 muffins. Another group ladled cranberry sauce into small plastic containers, another group put horseradish into very small containers, and one group put pumpkin cake batter that the women who work there made into cake tins. When we each finished our jobs, we went to another part of the synagogue to continue onto the next assignment.

Most of the women were putting together Chanukah gift bags with a note containing the holiday prayers, a menorah, and a box of Chanukah candles.

I ended up in the kids’ section with the two mothers and their children. We put together about 200 gift bags for children that included a note of well-wishing, a Thanksgiving napkin, two dreidels, and one bag of gelt (chocolate coins). We wondered about the napkin and what its purpose was. The mother at my table was sure the note and the napkin would be dropped and ignored in the rush to the chocolate and dreidels. I mused over the fact that the napkin had a cute image of a smiling turkey, but yet we go ahead and eat the turkey at the meal. Are all Thanksgiving holiday paper products like that? The mother excitedly told me about a holiday centerpiece she makes: another happy turkey, this time surrounded by fall leaves. It does not sit right with me this idea of eating the entertainment. (I’m glad to report that the table where I had my holiday meal did not have such an insensitive display.)

In the past, I’ve volunteered at the Palm Beach County Food Bank. There, I generally helped put together bags of food so school-aged children would have food for the weekend’s six meals and two snacks: two small milk cartons; two small containers of cereal; two or three cans of food such as tuna, chicken, rice and beans, beef stew, chicken soup; two bags of dried food such as pasta, noodles, beans; dried fruit; a snack bar; and a face mask. The items filled half a plastic grocery bag that we intently pressed out the air, so we could fit six bags into a box. It is sobering to see how little space that weekend supply of food takes, especially when I consider how my home always had a full refrigerator and pantry for my daughters, and there was often eating out as well.

After that morning’s volunteering, I drove 45 minutes to a beach I like. The drive was through the commercial streets of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, and then the residential streets of Palm Beach with its palatial homes behind high hedge walls. What you can see when a driveway is visible are generally mansions of cream-colored stone and manicured grounds.

There is no fairness in who has and who doesn’t have, I thought as I drove my Corolla surrounded by Mercedes after Mercedes. Between the walls and hedges of the estates and the two-lane road were parked the gardeners’ and service workers’ trucks. The stark difference is obscene. I wonder what those workers think about the difference.

I had felt good about my morning until I saw those homes, which in most cases are merely vacation homes.

Now that it is the season in Florida (no more sweltering heat and thick humidity), the beach was more crowded than it’s been since I first arrived in June. I sat on a towel and ate the snack that I bought at a nearby grocery store. Then I took a walk along the water, glad that I had worn shorts because the splash of the waves was so refreshing. After my walk I sat again for a little while. It is not comfortable to be aware of being grateful, envious, and angry at the same time.

After leaving the beach, I walked across the road to the parking lot and used the beach shower to wash off the sand from my feet and ankles. Still not ready to leave, I sat on a nearby bench, continuing to dry off my by-now dry feet. A few minutes later another beach-leaver approached the shower, which had three shower heads and one foot faucet. She was dressed and, like me, just looking to clean off her feet. I stopped her from soaking herself and showed her where the foot faucet was. We laughed for a moment. Connected. I was ready then to get back into my car and continue my day.


An Errant Poppy Seed

Bagel

I love everything bagels. If there isn’t an everything bagel in the house, I will often sprinkle everything bagel spice mix onto a slice of buttered toast. Two key components of the spice mix are the stealth seeds, like beige sesame, and the brazen seeds, like pop-of-color poppy. If you’ve eaten an everything bagel, then you—or the person you’re talking to—have probably found a poppy seed lurking between your teeth. (A silver lining of the pandemic mask-wearing is that you can go a day with poppy seeds ensconced between your teeth and no one would even know.) So, it seems likely, doesn’t it, that a seed or two would fall, missing mouth, hand, plate, napkin—all the things that are designed to catch seeds—and drop onto clothing, chair, floor.

It is not the end of the world.

But it is if you are one of those people who notice these things, who care about them, who wonder what people would say about you if they were to come to your house and scrutinize your floor. And if you look quickly, those seeds might look like bugs. Yes, this is the end of the world.

I, though, am amongst the don’t notice/don’t care people. This could be because I generally don’t wear my glasses in the house and so I don’t even notice that I have caused seeds to drop, leaving a clear sign that “Laura has eaten here.” But probably it is because I am not rankled if something is out of place (which means not precisely placed where previously positioned).

What to do when these two types live together? The answer may be that the living arrangements won’t last long. An alternative might include compromise: there would be a slight looking away by one coupled with a more intense concern about droppage from the other.

The way it is working out in my living arrangement (where I currently live with my mother as my first-stop in my retirement journey) is that the other day a dustbuster was casually brandished by my mother after I finished my breakfast bagel. Someone mentioned the phrase “passive aggressive” recently. I thought that it suited, but I also thought that we cannot be defeated by an errant poppy seed.

I don’t know what she was thinking about as she vacuumed up seeds from her new beige floor and the chairs on which I have sat at breakfast time.

I do know what I was thinking: it was anger that she was picking up after me, that she couldn’t speak to me. It is frustrating living with someone with whom I can’t really speak.

After my outburst, where I expressed my frustration and feelings in not the most elegant manner possible, and after my swim, and after she returned from her three-hour supermarket shopping trip, I tried to engage her in an “I” conversation. I told her how I feel. I thought it might clear the air now and into the future. She told me “You are wrong. You are not thinking right.”

I hadn’t realized until that moment that to have a successful “I conversation,” the other person needs to understand that we are stepping back from accusations.

At that moment, I realized she is right. I am expecting her to be someone who she is not and, perhaps, I expected her to change. I am wrong. She does not need to change; she will not change. I need to adjust, aware that this is temporary and that she is getting close to 90.

I am reminded of a friend who lives with her mother-in-law, in addition to her husband, thankfully. The first piece of advice she gave me when I moved in with my mother was to be patient. Patience, I have learned, is like an everything bagel. It is not just one thing. It is how you react to each situation. It is how you don’t react in others. It is how you act toward the other. It is how you reason with yourself. It is how you enjoy the experience as a whole. It is a lot harder than I thought.  

 


Retirement Insights from a Picnic

Lake Worth Beach
Lake Worth Beach

The other night, the 55+ community where I live with my mother (I will not get used to saying that) held its first neighborhood picnic since before the pandemic began. The timing coincides with the trickling arrival of the snowbirds. Those retreating from Canada, Europe, and South America are taking longer to make it than those stuck traveling south on I95. It seems that the social scene is heating up as the temperature here plummets to 76.

Once we determined that there was something strange about the sauerkraut (turns out that celery seed was accidentally dumped in and it was cooked with pork, which completely cancelled out the bragging about how considerate the organizers were having bought Hebrew National hotdogs because they were kosher), that we liked the hotdogs (I had asked about a vegan option when I first found out about the picnic, but had gotten a look of incomprehension, so I compromised my diet to be a community member and get my mother to attend), and that the potato salad had all the right ingredients (again, not vegan—besides non-vegan mayo, I would like to know: Why are hard-boiled eggs in potato salad?). We also found the cake slices were really hunks that were far too big to even make a dent in them with a delicate nibble, but the brownies were tasty and in small bite-sized portions.  

Food talk aside, there were some insights given by the two still-married women at our table of five women. We were to learn why their husbands did not accompany them to the grand event. Now, I will add a huge caveat here that, surprisingly, about half of the fifty or so people who attended were men, and that one, of course, was manning (word choice, indeed) the grill. So, these insights are limited to these two women, their men, and the understanding nods from the three women at the table. I, of course, did open up this little can of insights by asking why their husbands weren’t in attendance. As a friend told me recently, be a big mouth and engage with people. It is her fault that I asked personal questions, but it did lead us to talking about more than the food.

One woman (both she and her husband still work in physical jobs) explained that after a hard day at work, her husband lives the stereotype: drinking beer and sitting on the balcony. He does break with tradition by making his dinner before going to bed. She is one of those life-of-the-party type people, who even livens up the pool when she goes after work. She has learned that just because he has gotten dull and disappointing, she does not have to keep him company in his disengagement. Learning that not everything needs to be done together is surely a sign of a mature marriage, and probably at least one too-often frustrated partner.

The other woman got philosophical and cast her insights wide to include older retired men in general, not just her hubby. She noted that men need their group to stay social—and when they don’t have it, they fall into depression. They can be active and engage with the world, but only when the guys they’ve been playing ball and cards and hanging out with for years are around. Once they disperse to different retirement communities, or move to be near their children, or move because of health issues, or even bid the long adieu, they lose their way and sink into their recliners. They’re unable to be on their own, unable to find new best buds, not wanting to interact, becoming solitary men sinking into depression. Their wives, then, need to leave them behind for excursions out so that they, too, don’t get weighed down by loss and change.

Perhaps those insights apply to us all, at all stages of life: independence, even within a relationship, is strength; it is not a threat or a weakening. The people in our lives are supplementary, they should be enhancers. We, each of us, is the main act and we need to proceed through life with that understanding. Otherwise, we may be missing out on good food, seeing the night sky with planets clearly illuminated, and hearing people say how great it was to see you.


In the Pool and in the Coffee Shop

Ocean sky (2)

I went back to my usual coffee shop a few days ago because I planned to walk on the beach after my writing session and it’s on the way. I also wanted to see if the changes I saw last time were permanent. Happily, they were not.

Vegan choices were back and there were fall options; I got a slice of pumpkin, cranberry, and walnut bread.

The two guys who usually sit outside weren’t there when I first arrived. But they came a little bit later. They had a meeting inside with two women before they went outside to their usual table. The man who I will talk to will tell me that they run a foundation that feeds the local homeless. It’s nice to see that people sometimes confirm and exceed your assumptions about them: they seem like nice guys who have lived through tough times.

Four police officers were there when I first came in, but soon afterwards they all left, probably on a call. Later, another police officer will come in and he will confirm that assumption, saying that things were not as quiet as usual this morning.

When I got my order and arranged my laptop, I saw that an older man was sitting at the table opposite mine and instead of facing the window, as I was doing, he faced inside. Which means that when I looked up, I looked right at him. It was hard to keep my head down and ignore him. He was friendly and said good morning to me, then we started talking. It was so strange to have my solitude interrupted.  

Which is what happened to me in the pool the day before. I went earlier than I’ve been going lately, so that I would be at home with my mother when a repairman arrived. Over time, I’ve learned the hours when the pool is generally empty and I can swim uninterrupted by pool walkers and floaters for an hour of solitude. But since I have that perfect time, I don’t mind if sometimes I go when other people are there. Exercising in the pool or sunning on the deck on a weekday morning is a lovely thing. It’s more relaxed in that utilitarian pool than a pool at a five-star resort since we aren’t forcing ourselves to relax in a vacation-window, but are settled into the calm that comes without work concerns. That is not to say that we don’t have concerns (and some people do work in this 55+ community, though they usually come later), but everything seems easier without a boss to worry about.

When I’m swimming, if someone else is there I may have a brief conversation, but I’m generally focused on my strokes and thoughts. But the other day I heard a man saying something about Medicare to the other people in the pool. I’m still too young for it, but I wanted to know what he was saying. So, rather than keep my silence, I asked him. This led to a long, rambling monologue. I regretted breaking my usual quiet because I swam less than usual, but I didn’t really regret it since I’m learning that sometimes it’s okay to drop my solitude when I’m in public spaces and merge with others.  

Which is why I talked to the man in the coffee shop. Once I clarified that the “we” he referred to was his wife, I felt more comfortable talking to him. It’s interesting how I become a little bit on edge when a man talks to me—a woman’s natural, protective stance. He ended up joining me at me at my table and we had a nice conversation. Since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve barely had conversations with people other than my mother and a few of her friends. With COVID restricting our social activities and not knowing people here, talking to him made me realize that I miss meeting people and having casual, exploratory conversations. I thought I was happy without them.

Without a workplace, I don’t have a built-in group of friends and acquaintances. Living in a new place, I don’t have friends to get together with. Though I live with my mother, there’s just so much we do together. It’s on me now—now that I realize I don’t want this degree of solitude.

I just remembered that when I first moved down here, I signed up as a volunteer at the local food bank. I’m now signed up to help out on Wednesday afternoon. Seems like a good start.