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.


Retirement Morning

Air plant
Air plant

These are observations and thoughts from two weekday mornings this week at a chain coffee shop.

It gets busier the longer that I’m here. Today, I got here at around 7:30 and it is almost 9:30. I will leave soon. I’m getting tired of sitting, of thinking, of being around people. The smell of bacon is also becoming overwhelming.

The other day an older couple sat by the window. His back was to me, but I watched her carefully spread jam on her bagel while she talked to an employee. I missed the question, but it must have been something like, “How are you today?” since I heard her respond, “The same as always, here for breakfast.” Then the staff member continued talking and the woman continued jam spreading, barely nodding in response. Maybe she’s tired of this daily conversation. But isn’t the point of coming here to have a conversation with someone other than her husband—or to have a conversation, since I haven’t seen her and her husband interact. Or maybe it’s the employee’s chance to have a conversation beyond order-taking.

Unsurprisingly, the couple is back today. They are sitting in a booth that is too far from me to observe them. He is wearing an orange shirt and shorts. I am pleased with his fashion choice; perhaps he is not as lost as he seemed the other day.  

Last week my mother and I had lunch two days in a row in a restaurant in this same shopping center. On our second day, we saw a few people who had been there the previous day. One pair, an elderly woman, still dyeing her hair red, and her caregiver, sat opposite me, so I could see how bored they both seemed. They were there to get out, for a break in the monotony of the days. It was part of their routine. I wonder what boredom and routine do to a person.

One of the women in our group the second day we ate there said that she had also been there the previous day, and that she goes there frequently and has for a long time. She didn’t sound bored with being there so much, even though she said that she only switches between two different orders each time she eats there. She was enthusiastic when she greeted our waitress, joking about seeing her so soon. I guess boredom is the problem, not routine. 

In South Florida, there are a lot of retirees, but there are also lots of people living their lives, at all stages. Earlier this morning there were five middle-aged men having some kind of gathering. They ending their conversation with bowed heads, so maybe it was a weekly or daily prayer or bible group. Over the years in coffee shops, I have noted morning prayer groups, always men, never women. I could go into a discussion about women needing to do things at home, but I’m just going to acknowledge their gathering, thinking that their time together helps them and their relationships back at home.

There is a group of four women and a toddler sitting around the big table in the middle of the space. Their attention goes from the child back to their conversation. A white-haired woman sitting nearby with her husband waves to the child and plays peekaboo with him as the women talk. After a little while, she gets up and speaks to someone in a booth. Perhaps they are also regulars, people connecting for a moment. If I keep coming here (and the other coffee shop), I can be a regular, knowingly nodding to others, being a part of a community. Such a thin bond, but maybe it will lead to conversations. I haven’t made any friends down here, yet.

It is a weekday morning and I am only now realizing that it is relatively quiet and calm: there are no school-age children here. When I was flying to see my daughters recently, I noticed this as I sat waiting for a flight to be called and then as I took my seat, thrilled by the realization and its impact on the flight. The atmosphere is so different when there aren’t young children around; children and parents and their anxiety hovering over us all. It is nice to be able to fly and be out and about when children are in school. Such a thing for a former teacher to say.   

At a table near mine an older man and a couple around my age are reconnecting. The older man said that he was recently hospitalized. The other man said that he recently retired. Quite the update. When the older man asked his friend what he’s doing now that he’s retired, he quickly responded, “golfing.” He then said that yesterday he went on a ten-mile bike ride. His wife commented that he had to lay down for hours after that. Was that a dig or was she acknowledging that he’s committed to staying healthy? I’m going to think that she was being supportive because no one wants to start retirement being mocked by the person you’re going to spend most of your time with.

The men talked about how a group they used to belong to has fallen apart. I wonder if it was a bible study group. Suddenly, as they talked about how busy and built up the area has been getting, the recently retired man said and repeated a few times, “Socialism at its best.” Seems more like capitalism to me, but he can have his opinion. It seemed that this was his way to begin expressing his thoughts on the state of the nation: his discontent with the current administration and his admiration for the previous guy. He and his wife segued into the ridiculousness of vaccine mandates. Their friend didn’t respond. Maybe statements like these led to their group disintegrating. Their points made, they returned to talking about their plans for the day and then they left.

With them gone, I can hear that the women behind me are talking about testing scores and the education classes they’re taking. Something I don’t want to think about, so I tune them out.  

It seems more upbeat here today, a Wednesday, than Monday when I was here last.

Now, I see another group of four sitting together, behind where the reconnected group had been. They seem to be a family; similar faces and gestures. They are enjoying their breakfast together.

Groups of people speaking in English and Spanish. I can just imagine how the couple that just left feels about that. How hard it must be to always be upset. Wouldn’t acceptance be easier than the “it’s all bulls---t” they said about the hordes of immigrants invading the country?

Now that the group with the toddler left, the couple I noticed today and last time, quickly sat at the big table in the middle with three other people. Perhaps I was wrong about her. Perhaps she only wants to talk to the people she wants to, when she wants to. Perhaps, too, my assumptions and conjectures say more about me than the people I observe.

Woman sitting alone at a booth focusing on her laptop. She’s drinking from a mug brought from home. Maybe she likes to make herself comfortable wherever she goes. Maybe she doesn’t like the feel of a paper cup or how wasteful it is. Maybe she doesn’t like drinking from a metal travel mug, but doesn’t want to be wasteful. She’s been here a while. I bet she hasn’t been distracted, googling jobs, and restaurants, and library hours, and reading emails.  


Back to My Coffee Shop

Lake Worth beach
Back to the beach too

I haven’t been to “my” coffee shop for more than a month. I was looking forward to being back here, doing some writing, observing the other customers, and having a cup of coffee and a vegan baked good. (I have been mainly vegan since the beginning of the pandemic.) Since I started coming here in June, there were the same four vegan choices, and since I don’t do chocolate chips for breakfast, there were three: lemon poppyseed muffins, cinnamon rolls, and banana nut bread. All fine, though I preferred the banana nut bread by far. I knew that this was a bonanza, but I figured that it was their thing to have vegan choices, which was definitely a draw. Why not wish for a fall change even if I haven’t felt the arrival of fall here in Florida? It was to be, but not in a good way.

The four guys who always sat at one of the tables outside weren’t there. I came later than usual (I slept until 8), but they had seemed to always be outside. They were a part of this place and my experience of it. They were a greeting committee—and I appreciated that. I missed not seeing them.

Inside, the two baristas were new and neither was wearing a mask. The selection of baked goods had changed, but not for the better. The only vegan option is now banana bread muffin—with chocolate chips. No thanks. So, I jumped the vegan ship and tried the blueberry thyme scone. Why is thyme in a scone? Let’s just say that I’m not a fan and the changes have not been an improvement.

At my mother’s apartment, the changes that she made while I was gone were to reassert her design sensibility. Any traces of my things that I had put out, she returned to my little corner. I get it. When I was in my daughters’ homes, I didn’t think of making any changes or adjustments. I settled in to how they had organized their spaces. It seems that I had overstepped my guest status here. And that’s okay. It seems that I am now at the next step of downsizing: recognizing that the space I take up can be narrowed down to the space that my physical self stands within: I don’t need to see myself reflected on the walls and furniture and knickknacks around me.

This coffee shop has lost its luster for me. But perhaps here, too, the problem is not with the place, but that I had thought of it as mine to some degree, when I am just a guest.

On my trip I did a lot of dog walking. First, the walks were lakeside and forested in Central Oregon. Then, they were around a small park in Las Vegas, with a view of the mountains in the distance. The time outside was mentally expansive and soothing, even with handling poop bags for two dogs at a time. Perhaps I have adjusted to finding my comfort, my space, outside. Perhaps I don’t need an inside space to reflect me, needing, instead, paths to traverse and vistas to breathe in.

I had jokingly thought that when it is time to settle down and buy a home, I should buy land and put a tiny house on it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps it was more of an insight than a joke.  


Around the Bonfire with Work Campers

Rainy morning
Rainy morning

For the past few nights, I sat around the bonfire (the Forest Service has permitted them again in this area after two days of soaking rain) with some of my daughter’s colleagues and, now that they’re back, YEAH, my daughter and her boyfriend. Some of her colleagues live in their RVs, while those who will winter here have moved from their RVs into employee cabins, like the one I’m in now. This is a completely different world from what I’m used to with neighborhoods of apartment buildings, townhouses, and private homes. I like the difference: seeing that differences exist, that possibilities expand with and beyond those differences.

I don’t envision myself living in an RV in the future, but I do like the idea of not always being tied to a specific place. Without realizing it, though, I’ve done the first step in that direction, with no longer having my own home and living with my mother, and now travelling to visit my daughters. In one place I have my own bedroom and in the other two I have a couch in the living room. At first it was uncomfortable, disorienting, not having an entire home to myself, but I realize now that I’m getting used to a whittled down space of my own. What I need to figure out is what I need from my own space. Though, I think the issue is less about the amount of space than the quality: a space where I can be completely alone.

But back to the RVers and their need of space. Some of their RVs are huge and some are relatively small. It seems that the decision of RV size is both monetary and personal; they are each figuring out how much space they need to feel comfortable, for living and hauling, to feel that it is home. From what they have said, it seems that each time they switch to a different RV, they are getting closer to realizing how much space and stuff, they need. There seems to be the continual search for their Goldilocks-sized RV.

Getting the right size does seem to be a preoccupation until reaching the correct balance in RV size and vehicle hauling strength. People in RVs are not indifferent to having a home, they may be more involved with it than people in permanent homes.

The people who work here are called work campers (or workampers) and they range in age and experience, where one woman is 21 and in a silent, observational stage of life, and another is in her 80s and talks about her adventures growing up in the rural Northwest. They spend a season (summer or winter) or more at one site (usually some sort of lodging or camping site) and then move on to another site. The work is generally in housekeeping, maintenance, and/or at an on-site store or restaurant. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the jobs are gendered with the women in housekeeping and the men in maintenance.

As the retired people among the group explained to me, work campers used to be all retired people, but now there are people of all ages and family situations doing it, which is making it harder to get jobs. Some of the retired people I spoke to here are doing it for the adventure, while others are doing it for the adventure and to make a living.

Being a teacher, routine had been such a big part of life. You have your set schedule of classes, group of students, calendar of days on and off, classroom (of course, there was that one year of teaching from home…), group of colleagues. Within each day there was certainly variety, but it was within generally set variables, and most of us even taught the same things year after year. So, it’s fascinating for me to see lives being lived outside of a box.

The jobs themselves are all similar from one site to another (they are not the draw), but what does vary are the people you work with, and, the key, the change of place, the often dramatic change of scenery. It makes me wonder what impact change of place can make on a person. For my entire 16-year teaching career (not counting after-school Hebrew classes before that), I taught at the same school. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t played safe and tried teaching at another school or even schools? One reason that I stayed there is that I didn’t trust myself and my skills as a teacher to go to a different school. Among the advantages of staying at the same school meant that I developed strong friendships with some colleagues, but maybe I would have made more friends by not being in just one school. And I might have realized that I’m a better teacher than I thought, or I would have pushed myself to improve.

The work itself had been the focus for my entire career, from when I was a technical writer to when I was a creative writing teacher. I wonder if I can do the switch, as the workampers have done, and focus on what I want to get out of life for myself and not just what I can give and produce. Can I value myself as a person enough to stop assessing my worth? Can I put myself in different situations to see who I am as a person, to grow into other aspects of self? How does space protect me and how much does it prevent me from finding out?

For information on work camping, the Cook Works site is a good place to start since it gives lots of information about jobs across the country.


Isolation Is Not So Alone

Dusk
Dusk

 

It is now Tuesday morning. Since last Wednesday afternoon, I have been living in a cabin in a rustic lake-side resort in a national forest in Oregon. This is where younger daughter and her boyfriend live and work. I’m here dog sitting while they’re on a two-week vacation in Hawaii with his parents. There are guests and other employees around, but I’m not here to engage, I’m here to completely disengage. I now see the impossibility of that.

Since I retired in June, I have been living with my mother in her one-bedroom apartment in Florida. That was quite the change after having been an empty nester for eight years in my own two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia after younger daughter went off to college and, like her older sister, only came back for the occasional visit. The transition seemed easy for my mother; after all, I did go to help her out and make her feel less alone after having been a widow for over ten years. I have found it challenging. I haven’t lived with a parent since I was 17—I’ve been the parent for 30 years!—so being watched over by my 87-year-old mother was jarring. Living with anyone after being alone for so long was going to be difficult for me; I didn’t think that I would ever live with anyone again. Which means that I really did look forward to this retreat in the woods.

A mental and physical retreat. A writer’s retreat.

I was going to focus on learning to be okay with myself as a retired person, not feeling that I should be filling my time with activities and interactions, and some kind of work. I was going to settle into my own rhythm, with four daily dog walks mixed in. Walks in a forest and along a lake surely fit into any type of retreat. What’s more, I had decided that I would use this time to see if I was a writer, where the only way to pass the test would be to work on a book and, in my brazenly optimistic moments, write a draft!

I did start the book. And start. And start. And start. Never pleased with the previous day’s direction, each morning I would start again.

Then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and with them the time to think. My religious practice is certainly not strict, but for a while now I haven’t worked on Shabbat (Saturday) and important holidays. The day of rest: a day when I don’t write or work. I also try not to shop, wanting to have a day when I am satisfied with myself and the current contents of my life. A day when I don’t critique myself and, when I was teaching, I didn’t critique my students either by grading their papers. It is a day when I don’t write, which inherently involves criticism. A day when I don’t think about the productive thing I should be doing. This has helped me perceive myself as a person, not just as a producer of something of “value” outside of myself. There is value sitting in the moment, as I have learned, not just on Shabbat.

My retreat was supposed to be a time to see how stripped down I could get into myself. No people around to interact with and no distractions. Just get my essential story inked on the page.

But this cabin is not minimalistic and, it seems, neither am I. There are meals to think about and being almost an hour to the nearest supermarket makes that a more thoughtful task than usual. There are my mother’s constant update emails and calls (even if the connection is so bad that we only hear half of what the other person says). There are emails and calls from friends and my daughters that mark my days—and are the only things on my calendar. These have made me realize that I am not a person who fully lives within herself—needs to retreat in, as I thought I did. Rather, this retreat has made me realize that solitude is a chapter, not an entire book. My life is enriched with connections, they don’t detract from contemplation-time. After each conversation or email, I realized that there were more things to think about. These are added dimensions—the interweaving of lives through shared stories, perceptions, concerns—not detractors.

I had the entire pandemic to realize this, but it has really come home here in the woods where the solitude that I thought I craved in its totality is neither what I need or want.

If I value others for their presence, their essence, then I, too, am valued for those same aspects of self. I don’t have to produce something to be valued as a person—to value myself as a person. But these friends do have expectations of me, born of my own expressions over time and their perceptions. They expect me to fulfill my desires for myself, even if those desires change. They will not let me cede my passions and skills.

Perhaps they are helping me see that I flourish in the space between expecting too much from myself and not enough. That to flourish means that I need not be alone and solitary, isolated. That to flourish means that I know that there are people who believe in me, as a person and a creator.

And now it is time for walk two of the day. The dogs are restless, as am I. It is time to get back to the freshness of mountain air and to moving my body that is tired from sitting on this wooden bench facing my laptop. It is time to move and observe, alone. An aspect of my day, myself, my needs. An aspect that I can share later, in some way.

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Back to Blogging: Writing, Thinking, Sharing

Forest walk
Forest walk

When I started this blog in 2008, I had just finished going through a contentious divorce from a verbally and emotionally abusive man, but I was still living with him—and the abuse—in the same house with our two daughters. (Note the date and the correlation to the tanked economy and real estate market—it would take another year to sell the house and finally feel divorced.) I can remember writing posts as he was banging on the door of the guest bedroom, yelling at me, my daughters angry at me for not quieting him. It was scary and intimidating. I would huddle over my laptop, feeling less alone in the writing and the posting, even with tears dripping down my face. The writing enabled me to focus on thinking and analyzing me, him, our daughters, the situation; it kept me detached enough to not crumble continually—only some moments, every day. Friends would tell me that they would read the blog to see how I was doing. Readers would comment, letting me know that I was not alone. I would feel strengthened by the connection that writing and sharing made—it was the most secular and heartfelt of prayers.

It took years to get through that experience with my dignity and a shred of humor intact.

At some point, my posts transitioned from internal pain to observing that the world outside of me does, indeed, still exist. It was fun to write and see where my thoughts went, rather than being held within the grip of needing to write as a cathartic experience. I started to write with less pain and more joy. I could write about the comedy of online dating (it may be funny after a failed date, but it was rarely funny during one) and the frustrations of teaching. I shed my main identity as an abused woman, as a divorced woman, and was able to write about life. Yes, the deep meaning of it all, well, as deep as I go. I came to see myself as an essayist, and that did bring me some satisfaction.

While I have always been anonymous on the blog, it is hard to strip all connections, especially if you link to it on other apps in order for people to find it and read what I have to say. Over time, a few students and parents found the blog. Parents complained to administration. I’m not quite sure what there was to complain about; after all, at the first “sighting” of the blog, I deleted the post about having divorce sex. Funny, parents complaining about an English teacher writing. Well, not so funny when you realize that they expect you to be fully committed to their children, more than them it felt like sometimes. I can say that now that I'm retired! And some students, well, they seemed to think that they had one up on me by letting me know that they found it. It’s not as if I was hiding my thoughts in a drawer, but it was uncomfortable.

In the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, a parent spoke to my assistant principal who let me know that it would be wise to hide the blog from the public. For the first time a student commented on the blog, rather than just looking around silently and making a comment to me. This time I felt violated. So, I took the blog offline, until right before I retired in June. In that time, though, I also stopped writing. I wrote a few poems at the beginning of the pandemic, but I just wasn’t sure of myself as a writer, what I wanted to express and if I wanted to express myself in words.

I focused on retiring after 16 years of teaching and wondering what I would do after. I’m only 60 (wow, using “only” with that number), so I'm not retiring from the world, just a job that got increasingly difficult and unsatisfying, and at the minimum age to get a partial pension. There are things that I enjoy doing (especially baking and cooking in concert with eating), and while I might do something with that (I do make excellent veggie spreads!), I have felt a bit lost without writing. It really is true for me that I don’t explore my thoughts without writing. And now that I don’t have classes to teach, and students and colleagues to talk to, it seems that my mind is fluttering about. It needs to land occasionally.

At first, I thought I would write a book. But whenever I start writing a book, I don’t get anything done. (I will add in my defense that I have written a few books in the past, but the process was always an unsatisfying battle.) Each day I would rewrite what I wrote the day before, filling my “notes” document, but not my Chapter 1 document. When it comes to writing these shorter posts, personal essays, I get right to it. One sitting, one post. My body and mind sync with that. Why fight who I am and what I do best? Doesn’t being 60 and retired mean that I need to be honest with myself about my abilities, and my strengths and weaknesses. My truths! So, here I am, back here.

This blog has been home to me for longer than any physical home since I went off to college at 17. I still feel that I am a rebellious woman expressing my thoughts. I hope you will join me in this continuation of my/our journey and subscribe (Yeah! I figured out how to do that now that the app I used before is no longer supported), and even comment. I look forward to continue meeting here into the future.

Welcome!  

Laura


The Guy Downstairs

IMG_20191006_133341240

The guy downstairs moved in recently.

Before him was a young woman;

we would nod and say hello, have a good day,

as we entered or exited our homes or cars.

This guy has upset my equilibrium:

he uses the harshest voice on his two small dogs.

I hear them bark when I walk by his door,

giving me sweet memories of Poops.

But then I hear him yell commands

breaking my heart that they are

confined with so much meanness.

 

I don’t know his story:

he is a young man who lives alone with his dogs.

Friends of mine live alone with their pets, but generally

they are older than him, past the relationships that have made

living alone with pets a comfort and not a consolation.

Maybe his pets are surrogates for someone he no longer has,

or a person he still dreams of meeting. I think, though,

that if he cannot be kind to the animals who depend on him

he should wait a long time.

 

Tone, I tell my students, is easy to hear in a voice while

harder to discern in text. It is harder still to know

what underlies the tone: the story, the narrative, the history.

But then I catch myself because it doesn’t matter:

your pain should not invade someone/something else.

We are here, we should be here, to provide peace.

 

He has brought me back to remembering the

voice of my ex-husband and how harsh it was

in tone and content. How good it is that

I no longer need to hear him; that

my scars have healed; that I can wonder

about someone else; that I am

not mired in bitterness and hatred.

But knowing that

others are in pain is painful.

 


Local Waves

IMG_20191005_174457674_HDR

I had thought about going to the beach today

as an escape from the ordinariness of my days:

to walk on the boardwalk and look out as the waves roll in,

to think about the vastness behind what is seen and then

to eat at a seaside restaurant (I had already checked the menu),

and perhaps, before or after ice cream, walk to the lighthouse;

but then I decided that I don’t want to sit in the car for hours

alone or with friends.

Something about being contained repelled me.

I didn’t want silence nor did I want constant conversation.

 

So here I am, in a coffee shop that I walked to from home.

It is not scenic. But the coolness of an early autumn day was lovely

and the podcast that I listened to kept me company.

Maybe I will buy something for dinner on my walk back home.

In the end, this has been another ordinary day that, upon reflection,

was fine for me to feel part of a world where people

come together to live their lives

and not always feel burdened by the darkness of hate and selfishness.    

 


Rosh Hashanah 5780

IMG_20190930_081033129_HDR

It came to me as a thought,

an acknowledgement on Rosh Hashanah eve:

I do not believe in God as a being, an existence.

Though I perceive that ideas and rituals which accompany  

belief have their origins in the core of man/woman

and our connectivity to the forces of life experienced

(observe a gray sky, a bare breeze, a soaring raven, a red geranium).

Tell me, please, what is this that makes my heart seek

to grow to share to help to gather together?

 

Then, a rabbi, in his sermon, said, through a metaphor about editors,

that God is dead.

Why, then, does he wear a prayer shawl and stand

before us?

Why make his declaration and its pronouncement as if

for us?

I expected an apology from him the next time he spoke,

but it was just to give a page number to turn to.

What is a belief that cuts connections?

 

Perhaps he has lost something in trying to lead, to teach:

perhaps he needs to sing from his soul,

(a friend told me the human voice is the primal instrument)

and find meaning beneath consciousness

because God, whatever it means within,

drives us to come together for confirmation for beauty for comfort

to acknowledge existence and struggle and shared burdens and blessings.

 

There are threads (perhaps he should try a weaver metaphor)

of praises and doubts, endlessly forming,

that have healed tears (tairs and teers).

No, that is not right. It is not healing:

there is the pain and joy of alone and in community,

there are expressions of self that stay hidden

and those that find company.

There is this cycle of existence, with meaning and none,

in a mind, or millions.

 

Hineni. Here I am.

Who?

There is what there is:

a tenuous solid connection.

And, I think, that is enough

To contemplate

when I lay my head down and when I rise up

and what is in between and after and before. 


Fall Morning at Huntley Meadows Park

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This morning I walked at Huntley Meadows Park (5,063 steps).

The dried plants and coloring trees attest that autumn has arrived.

It was early, so the camera birders were out

with their tripods and huge lenses to capture birds

in flight, at rest, at prey.

I am not a birder: there were gray birds (herons?) and white birds (egrets?).

I have seen them there before; they are what I expect to see.

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As they focused and hoped for the photography gods, as one woman said,

I saw a heron attack and spear a fish in its beak:

that moment is captured in my mind. After it happened

the photographers took, I assume, close-ups of the fish in its beak.

Their pictures are surely better than mine taken with my phone,

but I saw the moment of action that defines instinct, not thought.

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My father was a birder. He would know their names.

My mother and I often go birding when we are together.

It will be ten years in December.

 

Yesterday, I spoke with a friend. Two of her friends have cancer.

It is upsetting, to be sure, to anticipate those losses.

But in trying to keep herself upbeat, she spoke about

beating cancer, mind over cancer, belief in belief.

I stopped her.

It was painful to sit on my balcony on a Friday evening

and think that people can fault my father for dying

within two months of his diagnosis.

 

There are so many things we cannot control.

It is not acquiescence, it is reality.

A bird, a fish, a man, a disease. Even a season.

 

Today I did not see many birds or turtles, as I usually do.

Instead, there were frogs, half hidden in the muck,

eyeing the world that passed by. Delighted,

only I took pictures of them.

 

Afterwards, I went for latte at Grounded Coffee.

I went to be amongst a flock. I did not want to separate.

Perhaps I am the frog, barely visible at my table, watching

The couples, the families, the children (one boy in an octopus shirt)

even myself, as we live this moment.

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Kugel in the Oven

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A potato zucchini kugel bakes in the oven.

Grandma used to make them for us,

children and grandchildren,

in her tiny kitchen in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

She made foods from her childhood in Zhitomir,

from before she came to America, back when, I was to learn,

her mother cooked and the Russian soldiers ate.

Protected, perhaps, until 1922, when she, her mother, and her siblings

could join their father in America.

 

This kugel is not for my daughters and their partners;

nor is it for my mother, and my brother and his family.

It is for me, for me to share with

my group of Jewish and Muslim women

who gather monthly to learn from each other,

to know the other as a friend.

 

The Jewish women are, like me,

second and third generation American.

Of the Muslim women, some came already

mothers. Now they make the foods from back

there to show love here.

 

It is not hard to comprehend

this cycle of love and survival,

and the foods that bring memories

that help us survive past and create present.

The us around the table is different,

but not the fact that hearts open

when we become stories ‘round the table.


Today Is Saturday / Shabbat

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Today is Saturday / Shabbat,

a day of rest.

I will not work or do

anything I have to.

I deserve a day with no obligations.

 

It is afternoon.

I just got my hair cut

an inch-inch-and-a-half.

Earlier, I got a pedicure

choosing a reddish orange

polish to bring a smile

when I look down.

There are metaphors there,

comparing toenails to flowers,

or smiles to butterfly wings,

but no one knows or cares.

 

I sit alone at a small, round table;

we are both sunflowers, perhaps,

but so are the other three women

and one man here: each alone.

We are all doing things:

writing notes, reading articles, reading phones.

We got out of our homes to not be alone,

but only I look up from my screen / shield.

 

A sneeze, a god-bless-you, a thank you:

conversation.

 

Now I know why I don’t go

seeking not to be solitary

because I am more alone,

in this space

that is not a haven,

since, I see, it is better to acknowledge

aloneness than fight it

among strangers.

 


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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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.