First Loss as Hospice Volunteer

Peonies

M, my first hospice patient, who I started visiting in June 2018, passed away in October. Expected, but still difficult. I was grateful to have been a part of her life and the lives of those who loved her and cared for her, so I have not wavered in my commitment to continue as a hospice volunteer.

She had prepared me to see her death as the natural progression of her life through her gradual decline to the point where death was, clearly, the next step. Still, to lose someone, even someone I just met knowing that death is the expectation, strains the heart.

When I first visited M, she sat in her wheel chair and I sat on an armchair next to her. I read to her. No, I tried to read to her. I was so pleased at the idea of going beyond the Memory Bag, which I got at hospice volunteer training, thinking that this could be my way to connect with her. Clearly, I was anxious about how my visit would go. I came with a feeling of expectant satisfaction to sit there and share with her a book that my daughter gave to me. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that she wasn’t interested in hearing the story, in sitting passively, in trying to listen to my voice speaking words, phrases, sentences, that, I would quickly learn, had lost their value to her. She wanted to hold the book, to look at the pages, the words, the images. She read aloud a few words, then looked at the small drawings, pointing to them, trying to say something about them. My response was to name things. Starfish. Dolphin. Seashell. It’s a book, so I thought words were the keys. But she had Alzheimer’s, so I couldn’t know what she was connecting to, trying to share with me. I did sense that nodding and agreeing with what I thought she was saying wasn’t a bad way to go.  

At that moment I realized that I was not there to do something or provide something, I was there to be: to be with her, as she needed me to be, as I tried to intuit. This insight helped me, and I hope her and future people I visit, understand that at our core we are people connecting to each other through our hearts. This was a relationship where there were no parameters to meet, it was simply two people sitting side by side.

It was for me to follow her lead. To me the book had contained a story to tell, while to her it was, honestly, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, it was something that I could share with her and that’s the idea, isn’t it? She was going to experience it her way, not the way I had intended, but my giving up control to her was key, both to appreciate her and to appreciate my role. Her determination, something I would learn more about at her memorial service, was obvious from that first visit. A personality, as changed as it may be from dementia, still contains the essence of that person.

The last time I visited her she slept in her bed the hour-and-a-half of my visit. I sat on a chair next to her and read the last two chapters of the book I brought on my first visit: Grayson, the story of a woman who helps a baby whale and his mother reunite in the waters off Seal Beach, California. This time, reading it soothed me and kept me from focusing on how she had changed. She had gotten so thin, just a skeleton. She didn’t look at me with her charming smile that was as much eyes as mouth; she lay there, mouth open, unmoving, I even checked a few times to see that her blanket rose and fell. I kept focused on the words and the story, because they soothed me and I hoped they did her, somewhere in her sleep.

The reading was a joyful recollection of being witness to the effervescence of dolphins swimming and playing together, and then experiencing the moving reunion of a mother whale and her child. It was stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, in its appreciation and celebration of life. While I wasn’t able to engage M at this moment, I was able to present myself to her, one last time, with words and a tone that, I hope, reflected the love that she had shared with the people in her life—and got back from them—us.


Friday Night Dinners

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Friday night dinners used to represent home and family time. Of course, that was when I had to share one bathroom; now, I have two to myself. Growing up in Queens, on Fridays the table would generally be set for a holiday (which works since Shabbat is the most important holiday) and we would light the candles, say the blessings on the wine and challah, then enjoy a meal with courses. Once a month we would go to synagogue where chubby me always looked forward to the oneg, the tea, coffee, and cookies (Italian sandwich!), after services rather than the sermon by the droning old-school rabbi. Priorities were clear!

In Israel, my father-in-law would recite the blessings at break-neck pace so that they sounded like one multi-hyphenated word, and then onto those celebratory courses again. The highlight was always my mother-in-law’s cooking; who knew that gefilte fish could be made fresh and tasty from a carp that had previously been swimming in a tank at the supermarket, and not just to emerge lifeless and tasteless from a jar? Afterwards, we would meet friends or walk on the promenade along the Mediterranean enjoying the end of a semi-relaxing day of getting all shopping and organizing done since most things are closed on Saturday. (In Israel, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.)

Now, post-family at home, it’s either frozen pizza and TV or out with friends. Both have their benefits. Not that I don’t profoundly miss those dinners of yore, but I have come to accept the evolution of Shabbat dinner. What is essential is that it is still a sanctuary created in the space between the pressures of work and the preoccupation with getting things done on the weekend. I might not observe Shabbat from sundown Friday to stars out on Saturday eve by eschewing technology, but I do appreciate the necessity of a break from the day-to-day active and re-active, to the reflective.

Last Friday I had dinner at a local restaurant with a group of friends that I met through volunteering with a political organization. This week a friend and I went to services, which included an interfaith community choir and then dinner where we spoke with some members of the choir. Next week I will have dinner and then go to the opera with my mother and younger daughter in Florida. Quite the range of ways to honor and respect the Shabbat and myself. Thinking about these Friday night dinners makes me realize that community is family. This open policy feels liberating since it acknowledges that adherence to labels limits one’s interactions. It’s the weekly version of Friendsgiving.

As a social introvert, this weekly engagement satisfies both my need to interact with grown-ups and my need to not overdo the whole being with people thing that can be so draining. Once in a while or once a week, a celebratory evening, a break-feast, and then home alone. It might not be sacred, but it feels sanctified. Setting aside time to acknowledge the present, the passage of time, the separation of the working self from the self’s self, might not follow any dictates, but it certainly does adhere to the underlining meaning and importance.

 


Flowers for Me

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As a rule, I don’t buy bouquets of flowers for myself. Occasionally I’ll buy a flowering plant that I can replant or expect to last long enough for me to feel that I got enough flowering out of the investment. But sometimes when I look over at the bouquets in the supermarket, I wish I would just splurge and get a bouquet, leaving aside rationalizations why not to purchase and just let myself go for ephemeral beauty. It’s hard to splurge on myself, and it’s not just about wanting to save, or rather not to spend, but that I have a hard time convincing myself that not everything needs to pass a purpose test.

While this is clearly not a serious problem at this time of national turmoil and humiliation seeping down from the top, it does get to a self-punishing mentality from which I occasionally need a break. Even when I get together with friends nowadays, we commiserate and rant about the administration, then re-gain ourselves and declare a need for a break. Then we back down from disgust and get into the details of our lives.

The other day I was in Trader Joe’s when I thought that I needed to do something different. Defiantly I stood before the buckets of bouquets and forced myself to find a bunch. It wasn’t to fulfill a resolution, it was more that I needed a break from my sternness. When I got to the cashier, one of the flowers in the bunch fell apart, so I went back for another bunch. That’s when I saw the packages of 20 tulips in brown paper. The decision this time was instantaneous: the dark purple closed blossoms. This time I wasn’t being defiant, I felt graced by their beauty. It was about appreciation, not a lesson.

It is good sometimes, isn’t it, to simply let ourselves remember that truth is not always in words or explanations. It can be found in those generally unacknowledged connections that exert pressure on our hearts through our senses. It’s true especially now, isn’t it, that we need to remind ourselves that hearts connect through webs of compassion as fully as flowers bloom.


From Eating Out to Taking Out

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Rocktree

The progression from needing to be around other people at mealtimes to accepting being alone represents an arc to wellness that incorporates, dare I say it, happiness. Suddenly I realize that the need to sit in a booth consuming fries and diet Coke while staring at a book has become a remembrance, no longer a salvation.

In the five years it took from separating, to divorcing, to selling the marital home, to moving on my own with shared custody of younger daughter while older daughter escaped to college, I would weekly escape to a favorite diner for a Sunday meal. It was an escape valve from the hothouse atmosphere at home. Those moments of disconnection and quiet amid the sounds of other people’s mundane conversations were as sweet as the smells of syrup and bacon. It’s funny the things that save a person. It is a balance of things, though, for how can I separate the range of interactions to an essential one; it is a distillation of experience that is now my past.

Now, more than nine years after moving on my own and discovering that, indeed, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, but only because there were mini-lights along the way, I think about how I rarely eat out alone. When I do, it’s usually for the eating, not the necessity of escape, of company, of saving self.

When I am with friends at restaurants it is as interaction, not as preservation. We look back, we look forward, we are not mired in present. We mull the present, but it does not weigh us down. Is it acceptance? One friend just turned fifty, another sixty. Are our lives less dramatic or are we realists with more time behind than ahead, aware of less time to squander, consolidated better into self? Have we accepted the positions we have reached, the families we have or have not created, the men we do or do not love, the people we have become?

Now, I do not need to escape the silence that I come home to since it is not the alternative to something else, it is what I have created, what I need, who I am.


Not My Holiday

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The other day a friend sent a pitying text concerned that I don’t have anything to do on Christmas. She failed to remember that not everyone celebrates Christmas. In the mad crush to bake cookies, buy gifts, regift gifts, model ugly sweaters, decorate trees, some people forget that the holiday is based on (as the carol sung at my school’s winter celebration melodiously stated) the birth of the savior. Some of us who are not Christians and have not been tempted by the tinsel, do remember that.

This is not my holiday.

Unlike an Indian friend who is able to enjoy her Hindu holidays and seamlessly let Santa in for her nieces and nephews, I have not been able to blend holidays. And unlike friends and family who are in mixed religion relationships, for me Christmas does not represent mutual respect for each other’s traditions. Sure, we Jews have our tradition of going to the movies and eating Chinese food, but these fill a day when so much is closed more than anything else.

Since this is the first winter break in a while that I haven’t visited one of my daughters, it does seem like a bleaker season than usual. But how would taking on something that doesn’t relate to me ease my aloneness?

Though alone, my life is not still.

The quiet experiences of self are not an alternative, they are the basis, the breath, the source. I have learned (am learning) that external experiences that bring smiles and memories complement, supplement, support. I do not need to be entertained endlessly to be fulfilled. I cannot talk if there are no pauses.

The answer is not to place my happiness on the transient, the substitute. No, it is to accept and grow. It is also to acknowledge that my daughters are independent women living their lives and I cannot demand inclusion. I would never want resentful traditions. A few years ago, I visited older daughter in Palm Springs two years in a row. The first year we cooked all the traditional foods. The next year they let me bake an apple pie to go with the non-standard fare. Perhaps the traditions that thrive for us are those that we create—we want—and not those of external conventions.

Tradition, as is so eloquently, though tragically, shown in The Fiddler on the Roof, is to accept that the past will neither dictate the present nor the future.

Yesterday, while I did a 5k around my neighborhood, I came up with an idea for a book project. I came home and started doing the research, and then I had dinner of homemade Chinese food and watched Roma on Netflix (highly recommended). It was a fulfilling day.

When so many people are off doing their family things, it is not that I want to join in, it is that I need to remember my joys. Which makes me think of Wordsworth’s powerful poem of remembrance, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

 

A poetic gift to those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t. May there be beauty in your every day, lived and recalled, now and in the future.

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Roses ready to bloom in the winter

 


Living Loss and Life

Blue Heron 2018

Yesterday, as I was pressing 7 repeatedly to delete the messages a saleswoman at a bathroom design company left for me, I accidentally pressed 7 an eighth time before I realized that I was in my saved voice mail box and deleted the message my father left for me two months before he died nine years ago.

When I called Verizon, the message informed me that the wait time was unusually long. After ten minutes, I agreed and hung up. I called back an hour later. Still an unusually long wait time, but this time I read my book while on hold. When my call was finally answered, I was told, three times because I thought that if I kept asking the answer would change, that once a voice mail message is deleted, there’s no getting it back.

For nine years I have been pressing 9 for save after my father tells me that he hadn’t heard back from the doctor yet, but that he was still on some endless-seeming line to actually hear back from a specialist. He did eventually hear back to be told that he has esophageal cancer. Within two months he would die from it. After two chemo treatments he felt horrible and declared that he wouldn’t do that again. He died a week later.

In his last days he was in the hospice wing of a hospital where younger daughter and I visited him (older daughter was abroad), and my brother and one of his children visited him. It was hard for my mother to comprehend that she had to stand by as he was only given pain-relieving drugs and not supplemental food. How does a wife who for thirty-years conscientiously cooked his heart-healthy food relinquish the idea that food saves?

Remembrance has become a part of life.

My gentle, but loud in a protective-way, Poops died two years ago. A cookie jar in the shape of a Maltese sits on the box that contains his paw prints. I couldn’t comprehend wanting to have his ashes; it was death too physically present. When I see little white dogs, and even the occasional little black dog, I think of Poops and miss him. But I don’t want another dog: he was so perfect for me that I can’t imagine another dog being so flexible to my schedule and needs. Besides, I have no desire to cater my life to an animal’s bodily functions again.

My ex-husband is still missing; he hasn’t had a stable address for six years and no one has heard from him for a year. He will turn 56 at the end of the month. He was lost to me years ago when he started demeaning me. Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t know what she was talking about when she said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” When someone you had loved and admired insults you, it’s darn hard to disregard it. And as much as that is in the past, moments of his meanness are never completely forgotten.

I have lost friends, not to death, but to misunderstandings and contradictory needs. One, I assume, did not like that I cancelled attending a party of hers. Another asked me to do something for her that I was not as good at as she had expected I would be, and neither of us wanted to admit that to the other. With another friend the your-time-to-support-me balance got out of sync and so we both lost any support. Other friends simply drifted off into their lives. It is both easy and not easy to lose a friend. Sometimes it is a sloughing of skin that forces you to grow into your newer self. Other times, it rips off an appendage that never grows back. It is wearying.

I remember when I lived on a kibbutz and was told that the children who grew up there didn’t get involved with the volunteers since it’s so hard when the volunteers are constantly leaving. I had two sexual encounters that I had hoped would be dating experiences with two men who had grown up on the kibbutz and were serving in the military. It was the time of the first Lebanon War in 1982. Seems so long ago. They lost friends in the war. I guess I comforted them, though I don’t understand how unsatisfactory sex can make someone feel better about losing a childhood friend.

This, too, is life; this remembering. It hurts and it heals. It is not good to forget or be forgotten, even the pain.

 


The Couples

Chincoteague Beach 2018

All around me people are holding hands. Hand covering hand. Thumb caressing back of hand. Fingers soothing fingers. The gentlest of here I am gestures continually, lovingly, regretfully, thankfully. The activity room in a memory care facility. Husbands and wives. Non-patients soothing patients, their spouses.

Watching them I can imagine scenes from other, healthier, times on a drive, at a celebration, on a walk, when the fingers of both were grasped in love and unity, while now they are the hands of the caregiver and the care-receiver.

It is both a sad and joyful scene. This is love as an expression of concern and history, not passion. It is not the necessary culmination of a lifetime spent together; it is what may happen when one mind remains intact and the other wanders, then goes beyond reach.

The man I visit has dementia; my visits often include talking to his wife who visits him daily. She includes him in our conversations. He sits in his wheelchair, occasionally responding. This is and isn’t the man she has loved for decades. This love is a beautiful, painful thing. For me, the volunteer who visits them, who did not know him before, this is who he is; I am not overwhelmed with the imposition of memory on present moment.

Children who are my age, the middle-aged children of these parents who they have and have not lost, look stricken. They cringe at the parent who is in the baby phase, at the parent who may or may not respond to them, at the parent who is so changed, who needs to be in his facility. 

My mother, who lives in Florida, is on a cruise.

In two weeks, it is the yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father’s death nine years ago.

Tomorrow I will make my weekly visit to my patient. It feels like visiting a relative. I enjoy having an older person to visit, to spend time with. Being too, even for an hour, part of a community that lives within the walls of the facility and their minds. So much kindness, gentleness, but remoteness and pain too. Eyes looking: what do they see? Eyes closed: what do they see?

So much of my time is spent with the young, the anxious to go do be, but in these visits, I watch and share. I surprise myself that this can be enough. It is a break from my apartment where alone I live the life I have created for myself. Perhaps these visits help me see that it is an illusion that I am alone. Other people are in my thoughts and I am in theirs. We are connected, holding hands and memories, threads of lives interweaving even as they unravel.

 


Thankful for Conversations

Fall 2018

I used to be a conversation snob. Small talk was not for me. If we didn’t discuss the meaning of life, then, why talk. Now, I find that all my conversations are casual update conversations. This is surely a by-product of only seeing friends occasionally. It’s hard to get into philosophy, or even politics beyond the rant, when you need to share what’s happening at work, what you did on vacation, what your children are doing, what your body parts are—or are not—doing, and a dissection of dating life. By the time that shared litany is over, so is the meal or coffee and it’s time to go home, to go shopping, to go onto the next thing.

Living our lives only leaves time for limited interactions.

Paradoxically, I can’t decide if I know my friends better now or before. Which reveals a person more: thoughts or actions?

With one friend, for years we would get together twice-a-year for an update brunch. We did an excellent job of covering the basics and keeping the enthusiasm for our friendship going. But when we tried to meet more often, after all we were having such a good time together, the friendship ended up being stretched too thin. We didn’t have enough in common to sustain more than those updates. Thankfully, we went back to the less frequent get-togethers and we added other people so that we could stay engaged. At some point in our more than fifteen years of meal-sharing, it seemed that our history together had become an important part of the friendship itself and clearly neither of us wanted to lose that.

While I look forward to these conversations, sometimes they leave me with an uneasy feeling. Has living alone meant that I lost my ability to converse? Do I have what to say? Have I gone shallow? Perhaps I should think about the source of my dissatisfaction? What do I crave from these interactions? Is the problem that I am too much like my friends, so that while these conversations comfort me, they don’t stimulate me. Or is it, as I realize as I write this, that I’m beginning to long for a relationship whose basis would be a continual, developing dialogue rather than these choppy conversations.

This last point surprises me. While I have been on dating sites, I didn’t think that I wanted to meet anyone, it was more as a way to not close off possibility.

On Thanksgiving I spent time with two second-cousins, their spouses, and their children. I’ve been divorced so long that I’ve gotten used to being the single in attendance, but I did appreciate the easy banter within the couples, the gentle touching and praising. My part in the conversation was in the words, while theirs was also in the non-verbal communication that is, at its positive core, emotionally supportive. Maybe it’s not that I miss intellectually challenging conversations from my friends, perhaps it’s that I miss the range of sustenance that you can receive from a partner. Perhaps I am getting what I need from my friends, it’s just that I need more than those pop-up meetings can give me. Food for thought as I eat my leftovers.

 


Women Will Not Be Shushed

Oct 2018 Chincoteague

 A weekend on an island,

Respite from the

Malevolence of

Sexism, of

Women’s lives

Discounted, ignored, contested, belittled—raped.

 

But still,

Feasting on oysters,

Watching ponies by the sea,

Riding bikes to the beach,

Climbing up the lighthouse,

Were not enough to

Contain disgust and anger, nor to

Suppress the

Drive to push back for change—for

Justice for All—

For every single woman who has been harmed

Because she is a

Woman.

 


Summer Vacation: Together and Alone

Bike Ride in Northern Vermont 2018
Cycling in Northern Vermont

 

My Quebec vacation was each person encountered, activity endured, meal enjoyed, accent savored, view valued, knowledge gained (then lost), and solitary pauses, as well as the totality of the week, which together fill a space of recollection in my mind’s kaleidoscope. It was, in detail and in sum, a resolute realization of self.

Some have their bucket lists, but since I don’t like that type of conceptualizing that minimizes and objectifies, I simply have daydreamy repetitive thoughts about possible experiences I’d like to live. Since I know that so many of those ideas will remain lovely wisps of thoughts, it was even more rewarding to accomplish so much in that one week.

First, the very fact that I went on that vacation itself was an accomplishment. The vacation entailed a Roads Scholar trip that was filled with physical activities, then two days by myself in Quebec City. I didn’t visit a relative. I didn’t go with a friend or relative. I didn’t take a class. I simply went on vacation by myself. Being alone is not new since I’m an empty, empty, empty nester (no children at home, no husband, no pet), but at home there are always things to do and work to think about, so this week someplace new, doing new things with new people, was pure detachment and discovery. Vacation.

For years I’ve been envious looking at images of kayakers solemnly convening with the still blueness of nature; and bikers, in their sleek gear, beckoned seductively, but those thoughts just kept stewing until I decided that the time had finally come to act on those desires. Maybe I feel more secure financially. Maybe I realized that I should stop imagining that a relationship will appear and I need to keep my schedule open for a couple’s trip. Maybe I sensed that if I don’t do it now, I might never do it. Younger daughter saying that I was not an adventurous person and that my one adventurous act (moving to Israel at 22) was a long time ago, stopped me in my self-image, and made me realize that she was right. The settling in had happened (thankfully): I had been teaching at the same school for more than a decade, teaching the same classes, and had turned my apartment into a home. Yes, time for some adventure.

As I looked around for trips, I found this Road Scholar trip at a drivable distance that included biking, kayaking, and nature walking. I figured that this was the ideal way to get the guidance I needed, and since there were a few sports, I didn’t need to commit to a week in a kayak’s cockpit before knowing if I even liked it. While it turned out that I was the novice bike rider and kayaker in the group, I was the only one making myself anxious about it since everyone was supportive of me and the challenges that I had placed before myself.

My fear of speed (even in the car my daughters hate my love of the brakes), made me hold off on going down the first hill in very hilly northern Vermont. So, I was driven down the hill to a relatively level spot to start my first bike ride in more than 40 years. The level spot soon got to a very long uphill battle that I lost. In the end, I walked my bike almost as much as I rode it. I walked uphill and downhill, and biked a bit in-between. My anxiety about losing control when the speed was too fast, my lack of bike leg muscles, and my aversion to even trying to figure out the gears, were things I could deal with. They were not things to feel bad about. Nothing to be told I needed to overcome or figure out or push through. I did what felt right for me. There was nothing to prove: it was me trying something, being right about why I had been anxious about it, then figuring out how to do it with minimal discomfort. After lunch when I was asked if I want to ride the van back to the inn rather than confronting another series of hills, I had no qualms in opting for the van ride.

The next day, thankfully, the bike trail included some spectacular hills (one woman estimated that she sailed down at 40 mph) as well as an 11-mile section of Rails-to-Trails riding that was essentially flat as it meandered along a river. I did this part of the ride which enabled me to enjoy the scenery, the faster-than-walking pace, the quiet of riding through corn fields, the smell of the cows creating dairy products, and the butterflies coasting in the stillness of a hot summer day. I got bike riding, at a leisurely pace.

Kayaking day made me grateful for summer camp and canoeing lessons, even though I still remember the thrill the counselors got scaring us by saying that we had to navigate through a chute by the side of a waterfall at the last bend, when, in fact, we simply ended the ride by coasting into our camp’s placid dock on a lake in Great Barrington. In spite of the spite, I knew a bit about paddles and directing things so I wasn’t completely terrified when I, as one with my kayak, splashed into the water. Of course, by the time I got in and started figuring out the two-sided paddle and how uncomfortable a kayak is, everyone else was ready to go—right into the ¼ mile stretch through the choppy water of Lac Broome to the calm, winding marsh.  

Again, it was me, along with the mostly retired people who all seemed to be life-long athletes, on the water. One of our guides, noticing my slightly raised and agitated voice, adjusted something in the back so that I wasn’t going left no matter how I paddled. After that, I calmed down enough to appreciate the fact that I was still on the water (rather than in the water), my arms weren’t noodles in the first five minutes of paddling, and—look ducks!

My roommate for the week, an avid kayaker (and biker), pulled her kayak alongside mine to give suggestions and encouragement. Later, when I told her that neither of the guides stayed at the end of the group with me, she commented that it was because they had confidence in me and that I was doing fine. New friends sometimes know the right things to say.

But this part of the trip wasn’t just about deciding that I hadn’t discovered two new favorite sports, it was about being with people who I didn’t know and becoming friends with many of the 19 people (5 men and 14 women) on the trip, as well as the 8 people who fed and led us. It was me deciding to change the table (there were two large tables) and seat at which I sat for each meal and trying to talk to everyone. It was me listening and trying not to focus on telling my own stories. It was about not judging or making assumptions about people. (It also helped that on the first night five of us vociferously proclaimed our disgust for t- and the administration.)  

St Lawrence River and Quebec City
Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River

 

The next part of the trip was on my own: two days wandering around Quebec City. I continued to stretch my leg muscles walking up and down hills for an all-time record of 9 miles and 70 flights of stairs on my final day. Knowing that I was heading into a long day of driving the next day, I kept pushing myself.

Those two days spent in this beautiful Europeanesque city made me realize that I don’t want to take a long trip by myself since there is too much silence and talking in my head. Taking pictures is not a substitute for conversation, nor is the occasional text to my daughters. On the three tours that I took, I was the one asking questions. It was to learn, but it was also to engage in conversation—to be seen and noted. I now know that being alone at home is fine, is sought after, but solo travel for a person who isn’t going to strike up conversations with strangers at the next table, is isolating. After spending five days with strangers-to-friends on the first part of the trip, I was in my friendliest mode, but even so, I nod here, a suggestion there, a discussion about paint colors, doesn’t change the fact that sharing experiences can enhance them.

Granted, I’m immensely glad that I went on this trip, both parts of it, because now I am aware of the balance that I need between group travel and solo travel. Previously, I had thought that I would like the solo adventure more, but now I can envision myself excited about the opportunity to meet new people, as well as to rethink how I perceive and present myself.

 

 

First Nations Sculpture at Governor General's Home
First Nation sculpture in the Governor General's home.

 


Finding Value in the Small Things Amidst the Horrors

Rhyming Words

 

It’s hot, but the windows are open

for the sounds, the bare breezes,

the connections that reach beyond

my imaginings as I sit at my table.

Closed doors and windows confine cooled air,

but they separate me from the raucous cicadas,

the passing cars, the carried snippets of voices,

the reminders that

all is not outrage, fear, turmoil.

 

Yesterday was a day of talking about poetry:

imagery and the power of figurative language

with ten-year-olds before

hearing, reading, seeing the news of Treason,

of a man who stands for nothing, not even himself.

It was far too literal to compare to

peering down a rocky cliff,

dredging a septic tank,

razing a blooming field,

depriving an infant of sustenance.

 

The encroaching overlap of the day and my day

as it played out, as it plays out in far too many iterations,

shouldn’t make modeling being kind to each other

seem like a noble act.

The only fealty we should have is to honor and respect

each other. To do no harm.

Maybe it’s like having a peanut free room or table:

We take care to protect those who could be harmed

by our actions. And then,

We take care of those who just need

a kind word, a supportive nod, an encouraging smile.

Humanity. Compassion. Love.

No t-words.


Initial Hospice Visits

Potomac Vista
Potomac River from Alexandria

 My hospice visits have started, though I’ll refer to them as elderly visits since the people I visit will not necessarily be in hospice. One of the two people I started visiting is, thankfully, healthy enough to no longer be in hospice; he lives in a memory care facility in a senior community. The hospice patient lives in a relative’s home in an in-law suite. Each of them suffers from a form of dementia, amongst other maladies, including cancer.

Before my volunteer training, I had thought that hospice was a physical place where people go to die without being poked and prodded to prolong life just for the sake of prolonging life. But I was wrong. Hospice is a status, whereby a doctor evaluates a patient and estimates that the patient has up to six months to live. Obviously, this is not an exact science, but a general guideline. Hospice care itself is generally covered by Medicare, a person’s insurance, or Veteran’s benefits. Having a volunteer visit is a part of the umbrella of services offered.

My seemingly unending search for a volunteer program to which I could be dedicated has brought me here, to the end of the road, so to speak. After realizing that I need ongoing one-on-one interactions with the same people rather than the occasional help-us-out activity, as well as remembering how important hospice was to my father (he died in a hospice in a hospital), and after seeing a flyer about a volunteer opportunity at another volunteer event, I decided to sign up and see how it goes. Two days of training and a binder full of information to read, as well as suggested books about dying and hospice and dementia, which were not as depressing as I had feared, I was ready. You know, it’s not bad to understand where life may lead us, especially with a mother in her 80s and increasing discomfort trying to hoist myself up from the ground, as well as hints of a droopy jowl.

After my initial trepidatious visits because I didn’t know quite what to expect (even though the training was excellent) or how I would react, at four weeks in I am much more comfortable. It is shocking—in a positive way—how a little bit of experience can dispel a lot of angst. Now when I head out for my weekly visit, I’m not concerned about how I feel or how I’ll do, rather I focus on getting out of the Me Zone. It’s like when I started teaching: initially I was consumed with my stress and what I needed, but after a few years, by gaining confidence in my abilities, I have been able to bring the focus on my students and what they need from me.

The woman I visit, my first patient, exudes both a gentle kindness and a stoic frustration. She seems aware of some of her memory issues since she will try to say something, but the wrong word will come out. When that happens she’ll pause, shake her head, and say, “No, that’s not it.” Then she’ll stop trying to talk and retreat from my attempts at conversation and interaction to just sit quietly. Still needing to engage her, I find myself commenting on the clouds outside the windows. One day she tried to tell me about something she saw, but she could only say, “Black thing,” and then she laughed uneasily. I think she was referring to a bird.  

Watching someone else deal with a loss of words—and not recovering those lost words—is scary in an ominous what-will-be-with-me way. At the supermarket the other day, I was in the self-check-out aisle holding this nubby thing that I got for my stir-fry, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Faced with the alphabetical listing on the screen, I blanched at the idea of going through the entire alphabet of fruits and vegetables. The letters b and g came to me, so I started at the beginning of the alphabet. When the image of and word “ginger” appeared, relief rushed through me. It wasn’t the joy of winning something, rather of being released from dread. But that night, when I was telling older daughter this story (maybe I shouldn’t tell my daughters these stories, but I feel that I must), I momentarily blanked on the word “ginger” again.

Who amongst us has not momentarily forgotten the name of something or someone? When a teenage student tells me that she forgot what she was going to say, I gladly tell her that it will come back to her, making me feel a little less anxious about my own lapses. Other than no longer needing to remember phone numbers, there’s so much to know and keep track of as we get older. But still, these temporarily blanked out words are troubling, and being exposed to someone who has Alzheimer’s is both less and more anxiety-inducing than not. Less because I realize that this is still a person beside me. It could be that since she is not too far along in her disease I am able to experience her humanity, even with few words. And more because she seems so much like a lost child, not able to express herself, not remembering that her parents are dead, that her husband is dead, where she used to live, where she lives now, or even that I previously visited her. So much is lost when we can’t access our words and memory.

She seems to like holding a book, looking at it. But after the first time when I read to her for a few minutes, she doesn’t want me to read. Perhaps she no longer understands many of the words or she cannot create a picture in her mind. This is surprising to me. I had envisioned myself quietly reading to the people I visit. It is such an elementary way that we have devised to experience being together. Now I must think of other ways to do that. The key, I am realizing, is to shed my need to impose upon our time—to fill our time—and to let an hour of being together be the accomplishment itself.


All the Middle-Aged Single Ladies

 

Flat tire
Flat tire on the Meadowbrook Parkway; I managed to call for a tow truck.

 

Just about every conversation I have with my middle-aged single lady friends will, at some point, touch on the subject of dating. That part of the conversation generally comes after the updates on children (even if only applicable to me) and work (always applicable and often accompanied by sarcastic comments); angry, frustrated, bleak statements about the latest outrage by the little men and women (ugh—Yeah Feminism!) in charge; then, in a little white flag of hope will be vague thoughts about retirement; and, finally, updates on whether or not we are on the manhunt or not, and how it’s going or why we’re not participating.

We do not bemoan the lack of good men (we’re still hopeful that they exist out there behind a swipe in an as yet undiscovered app or even in line for coffee). It’s more that we wonder if we want to be in a relationship. What’s in it for us? A male friend wondered how I and another friend could still be single since we are both great cooks and have nice homes. If this is the stereotype that we’re fighting against then hope is lost since I have no intention of offering a tasty sanctuary to anyone (except my daughters).

We wonder about the value of a relationship not just because of past agonies, but because of current comfort. None of us wants to lose all that we have gained since the defining breakup. We don’t want to lose the lifestyles we created to conform to someone else’s desires. It took so long to stop doing things for someone else that any compromise could feel like a defeat. And since it took even longer to figure out what we need to make us happy, the thought of losing any progress for a few man-woman interactions is shrug-worthy. Why bother still needs to be adequately answered.

It’s not just that we are post-divorce, it’s also that we’re post-children-at-home. Once you’ve stopped supplying services to your loved ones, it’s hard to go back. Sometimes it feels to me as if the years when I was a full-time mother never happened. It’s a black hole that absorbed my time and memory. Surely no man will need that involvement (and if he does, he should stay away from me and my friends), but once you only need to worry about yourself, it’s hard to go back, even to a part-time position.

Also, once you have dealt with the breakup of a marriage, you lose the illusion that satisfaction can be found in having someone to lean on. It’s not bitterness that speaks, but the reality that dependence, or the expectations that dependence breeds, simply cannot be trusted. Even if you were to be in a relationship now, it would never be as two into one, but always as two individuals, side-by-side. And if that’s the case, why do I need to be with the same person all the time as opposed to doing different things with different people? And why, dear God, do I need to have breakfast with anyone? Can’t a woman enjoy her first cup of coffee in peace without having to worry about looks, conversation, or how someone else wants his eggs?

It seems, doesn’t it, that what we single middle-aged women have attained is wisdom. Or learning how to live as realistic cynics, which, honestly, is probably the safest way to live. Could it be that since we no longer look for someone else to make decisions for us we have shed useless softness, and since we are flexible in the moment neither are we too tough to deal with. No consultations are required before making decisions since we are not hedged in by someone else’s desires or moods or schedules. I would say that we are ideal companions.

The problem, I guess, is that we don’t want to change this lovely status quo for someone who can’t make up his mind without consulting us first.


Families Belong Together Day

Marching to DOJ and Capital 30 June 2018

I went to the Families Belong Together Rally and March in DC with my march friend. At first we couldn't understand how people were grouped. Then we realized that they were gathered around trees: everyone seeking the "cool" shade. You see, no differentiation between peoples, just seeking comfort from the elements. Can diversity show unity any better than that?

Marching to DOJ and Capital 30 June 2018

I finally got my chance to hear Lin Manuel Miranda sing live from Hamilton--free. Of course, I couldn't see him since we were behind the stage, but all of a sudden I heard a single voice sing and all the phones around me starting popping up in the air to record the moment. Sharing hearts and beauty shouldn't be a hard thing to do or a difficult concept to grasp.

Marching to DOJ and Capital 30 June 2018

Marching from the White House down to the Department of Justice to walk around it and then to the Capitol. I didn't plan it, but I love how the Statue of Liberty's beacon in the poster is right next to the Capitol in the distance. They really do go together and there were tens of thousands of people marching all over the country to proclaim that.

Marching to DOJ and Capital 30 June 2018

Vigil at dusk. Representatives from different faiths spoke; very powerful expressions from faith-based perspectives which basically boil down to treating each other with respect and dignity. This is Mark Levine (Democratic Delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates from Virginia's 45th District) speaking  from the Jewish perspective against family separation. Except for the Christ candles, which I didn't hold, it was a lovely gathering and affirmation that We're Not Backing Down. 

 


Hostility and Humility

Butterfly on goose poop

 

Two horribly contrasting images of people have lodged in my mind. There is the vile image and the poignant image.

There are the people who are okay (pleased, I dare say) with ripping children away from their parents, with taking healthcare away from children, with manifesting that vile thing that lives in them on the rest of us. These people can explain why they do these things, logically and with big words, and they can even expound on the purpose of boundless pain.

Unfortunately, this ease with evil is not new to our world.

There seem to be stories from every generation that reveal curdled hearts. These people, whose minds and souls are sealed within vast vats of self-serving rhetoric, cannot be fathomed. These are the people who, generation after generation, have enslaved, branded, burned, lynched, pierced, shot, macheted—and still they have the audacity to think that their actions are valid, have a purpose that is more than to manifest evil.

How does a person skip compassion? I understand the meaning of the term “dehumanization,” but its very inhumanity still boggles the soul.

I hate to say “these people,” but sometimes blanket statements feel necessary. And one more: These are the people who never find blame in themselves because these vile acts are what brings about the world they want.

Then there the people who touch you because there is no artifice to them. Their presence shakes you to contemplate that which makes a person good. The connectivity does not degrade or propel, rather it is the gentlest nod of inspiration to simply be in the moment, of the moment, expecting nothing gained, except the internal breeze of positive soul meeting positive soul.

Such interactions remind us that all is not bile and bluster. They remind us, don’t they, that generally it is children and the elderly, with no axes to grind or ladders to climb or ideas to prove, who let us settle into a shape that does not shift—a self we can find comfort within. They remind us, too, how important it is to have shelter for the soul—that there is within a place that cannot be invaded. To know that our core (and the core of so many) has not been corrupted. To know with solidity that a mind can mesh with another mind in respect that can be akin to love.

There are tears of sadness, and tears of joy.

There are pangs of pain, and palpitations of hope.

There is suppression that cannot smother.

There is the will to never succumb to the sordid nature of evil and hate.

There is hope to propel and prevail, for never is it all lost.

We must find, create, inspire all that may be a bulwark against all that tries to debase.

We are each other’s soul supports, especially now.


Easing into Purpose, My Own

Palm Beach April 2018

Too many epiphany moments may be unbelievable, but not enough can make you slide into a complacency that starts to feel like boredom. It’s not helpful for all insights to be incremental. In that case, are they insights or merely a growing awareness? I need the occasional ah-ha moment to jolt myself back from the inertia of comfort into self-assessment.

A few weeks ago, as I read about another non-profit created by a driven woman out to save the world, I could feel myself about to dive into the usual lamentation that I have done nothing, that I have not pushed myself to achieve what should be achievable—look, she did it—when the ding ding ding of realization descended: if that had suited my personality, I would have done it already. I’ve tried to save myself the angst of this cycle of recrimination before, but this time my mind went beyond accusation to insight: I’m a one-on-one person. Strength for me is not in numbers: of people, of actions, of activities. There have been opportunities to move mountains, but I have always shirked from them to come back to my quiet activities. The “rally the troops” attitude just doesn’t work if you’re the only troop and you’d prefer to read a book, take a walk, bake a cake, go to bed. And that doesn’t make me a bad feminist or bad person. It makes me who I am.

It was at this moment verging on tense disappointment that the ding ding ding occurred, but only because, perhaps, I am finally letting myself acknowledge—and respect—who I am. I talk. I listen. I joke. I interrupt. I probe. I want to hear people tell the big and small stories of their lives. What could be better than looking into a person’s eyes as she tells you an anecdote that defines her? What could be better than telling a tale that surprises yet doesn’t. Those are the moments that I thrive in, that bring me joy. One-on-one. The intimacy of relationships and small groups is where I live.

This realization brought me back to thinking about how to spend my un-designated time. As much as I need to be alone to think and gather my energies, I need, too, to connect. Over the years I’ve done a variety of volunteer activities, but nothing more than a couple of times. Nothing seemed right or had enough direct interaction. I don’t want to help someone who will help someone. I don’t want to live in the abstract. After editing a book for an organization that never got back to me, I decided that I don’t want to use my skills, but myself. I don’t want to keep defining myself by my roles and abilities; it’s time to go forward robed just in personality.

As these things happen, shortly after that realization I learned about an opportunity to be a hospice volunteer. I signed up for the training, did the pre-training reading and viewing, read a couple of books that I thought would help me understand what I was headed for (Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death, Henry Fersko-Weiss; Being Mortal, Atul Gawande) all of which helped me to see that the topic didn’t get me down, rather it made me thoughtful and inspired to engage. Then I participated in the two-day training program itself.

Would it be surprising to say that everyone in the training, both the trainers and the soon-to-be-volunteers, was a lovely person? I don’t think so. What joy it was to spend two days with people whose hearts aren’t hidden far up their sleeves.

In this hospice program, many of the clients have memory issues, rather than having reached the end of suffering from cancer, which is what I had expected. The apprehension I felt about engaging with people whose memory was a victim of their disease was somewhat alleviated when we toured a memory care facility. A few residents joined us for the tour and sat with us as we learned about the activities and services the residents receive. Their joining us wasn't to explain anything, other than their presence made it clear that they didn't quite know what was going on and this looked like something fun to join. The distance between perception and reality was breached in seeing that age and significant loss did not diminish humanity.

My hope for myself is that I don’t come up with excuses to stay home, but that I find fulfillment in the mutual reciprocity of giving of self. And that I ease into the quiet meaning that is created by two people being side-by-side, together. 

Palm Beach Sculpture Garden


An April Sunday

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Cleaning up in Lake Accotink Park

Has the world changed?

It still revolves around the sun.

Daylight comes in the morning and

Dusk darkens into evening.

People kill.

People mourn.

Some shout yes, others shout no.

There are those who no longer love,

And those who want to love.

I’m just checking because there must be differences

Since hate and negativity are in ascendance everywhere

I read and hear.

But if I look

I see the unfurling seeds and

Petals floating in the warming air.

It is then that it comes to me that politics is not life,

And we, the you and me who breathe breath into the world,

Will overwhelm, always, eventually, that which tries to break and impede.

Our stance, our backs, our commitment

To optimism, to believing in the eternal

Triumph of good over evil.

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Spring

 

Gray clouds hover over the dimming day,

I turn to an empty room and into that which hovers

I sigh a prayer of and for compassion,

For seeing that your toes and mine need to tread lightly,

Honoring that which exists without us, beyond us;

That differences that define should not negate.

But I worry that they cannot perceive  

My humanity because of

Labels

That state but do not

Respect.

Look into my eyes,

Be close enough to have no fear:

Why do you want me not to live freely?

Why do you want to shout over my voice?

Why do you not recognize my needs—my humanity?

We each have a life to live,

One life!

Overcome the call to smother, instead

Remember that no one is always right.

Trust me—

I will not cause the earth to tremble or the

Heavens to fall.

It is merely my voice and my heart—

Beating against yours

For acknowledgement that I have

A right to my opinions, my presence,

My equality—

Our equality.

Holocaust Memorial Service JCC NOVA 2018
Holocaust Memorial Service, JCC NOVA

Realizations about Religion

 

Foggy Day

No glass of wine, bottle of beer, or Colorado gummy bear can make my mind fuzzy enough for long enough to stop the realization that is finally solidifying.

I have wished that I was a religious person for much of my adult life. Hence moving to Israel at 22 and wondering about becoming a rabbi last year. I have wished that prayer could reach into my depths, and for religious rites and observances to motivate me, give me meaning beyond rote repetition. I have longed for inspiration from a fast or adherence to a food restriction that would propel me to deepen my commitment. Throughout, I have wondered what I lack since I have remained steadily unmoved.

Yet, my perceptions and groundedness, I realize, have remained steadfast in being connected through time and space with Judaism, with being a Jew. I have finally realized that the basis of my morality, my concerns, my commitments, my perception of what is a good life and a good person, are based there, and in the unending stream of generations that has continued to hone and embody that way of being—a belief that embodies one’s entirety. The consistency of the believers has enabled the wonderers, like myself, to be grounded in a truth that for us is human-inspired rather than divinely inspired. Perhaps we each are meant to have our role to make the whole.

I have always wondered and longed for meaning that I thought religion could foster. Alas, I am not an acute observer of rules, regulations, or restrictions as set down centuries ago by or for this God. But while I thought this created a hollow space within, I am realizing that all this time my internal space has been filling up with a connectedness that reaches as deep as any sacred prayer or act could.

Finally, I have ceased to ache for what I lack; instead, I perceive that inspiration—meaning, purpose—comes from an interconnectedness that transcends direct guidance, propelling the self without command, rooting purpose within that expanse. An expanse which is the underlying beat of compassion that connects us all, the breath of the earth and its manifestation in all that is, here, within each of us.

Compassionate congregating occurring each moment we interact, engage, think about another, the other, the not me, which, within this connective thread, is somehow me.

Crying when hearing other people’s stories.

Smiling when watching other people’s joys.

Carrying concern.

Perhaps I lost a reality that I thought I wanted, but perhaps, too, that desire helped form who I need to be.