In One Month: A Trip to My Past

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Positive thoughts on a morning walk

In a month, I’m going to Israel for a month. I haven’t been there since the summer of 2000 when my family and I moved to Virginia—a temporary move that became permanent. That’s a long time to be away from the place I originally immigrated to assuming that I would live my life there.

When I left, I had a good job in the high-tech industry (it relocated us), a husband who had an excellent job waiting for him at a DC law firm, older daughter was going into 4th grade and her sister was starting kindergarten. We stayed for a few days with my parents in Queens, then we made our move to Northern Virginia.

About a year before we left Israel, after years of house hunting, we moved into our dream home in Ra’anana (a city about 12 miles north of Tel Aviv). It was a huge accomplishment and we were both proud. But I was to learn that getting what you wish for can exist at the same time as creeping unhappiness.

When I left Israel, I thought peace was on its way. I had seen two cars with Jordanian license plates in Tel Aviv, surely, a positive sign. I thought that I was going to have a brief break from the tensions, that Israel was going to finally deal with the internal strife between religious and secular Jews, and that my daughters would have the opportunity to get to know my family better. I was also going to take a break from the Laura I was in Hebrew, almost fluent, but always missing a word or not getting an expression, and anxious about making grammatical mistakes. I missed being the funny, sarcastic Laura I was in English.

When I first moved to Israel, I was 21. I had a life to create and I did. My Israeli life. When we left, I was 39. Since then, my life became another life—almost every aspect unexpected. My second American life. I lost that high-tech job, got a master’s degree that I never really used, divorced my Israeli husband, became and then retired from being a teacher, and my daughters went on their own trajectories on the other side of the country. My father died, my mother moved to Florida, where I now give her emotional, tech, and driving support.

What will it be like to return to a place that I’m told is so different from the one I left? Will I feel at home in this new version? Who will I be there? Who would I have become if I had stayed? I fear going back, being a stranger to my past.

Perhaps I need to embrace then/now/if thinking with the understanding that people and places don’t have to be permanent to be impactful, and that permanence isn’t always what we need. There is always regret, because there are always opportunities not taken and experiences not lived. On the flip side, there were different opportunities experienced. Life is not a blank slate.

Regret exists in not having stayed, but there is also the understanding that if I had stayed and gotten divorced there, things would probably have been very hard for me. I gloss over this, but it is part of the reality that I must acknowledge to loosen the regret and accept that things unfolded the way they were meant to. Accept the trajectory, accept how our lives were created in its wake.

This time when I go, I’m not a young woman seeking adventure or a middle-aged woman still expecting others to direct her life. No. It’s me, seeking to return to the place that is so meaningful—the place that enlivened me and took me out of myself—that started me on my path to being a more compassionate person than if I had stayed in New York.

Now, I’m looking to spend time in the place that has meaning beyond my (a) single life, enhancing my perception of what it means to lead a purposeful, fulfilling life. Perhaps to embrace and absorb and share has always been the point. Perhaps the outsider that I became once I lived in Israel and then returned to the States is how I could fully life my life.

Trepidations for this trip, this journey. It is finally here. This past, this potential. This is me.


Back at School: Volunteering in an Elementary School

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I should have known that I would stop volunteering at the garden when I finally bought gardening gloves. For more than six months I worked bare-handed or wore gloves from a box of cast-offs in the garden’s potting shed. Then, I got my own gloves. I wore them once and now they’re on the floor behind the driver’s seat in my car. I’m trying to decide if I should put them in the trunk, hidden and unneeded, or keep them where they are, a reminder that just because the gloves fit doesn’t mean I have to wear them.

My Wednesday mornings in the garden’s nursery were wonderful. The other volunteers were, generally, the right amount of interesting and talkative to make the morning feel like an outing among friends and not hours repotting plants in the heat. But I began to feel more of an outsider as the other volunteers would talk about their evolving plans for their gardens (or “land” as one referred to her acre) and their familiarity with different plants, while I was only fostering a lone bromeliad on the lanai and uncovering no desire to immerse myself in botany books. I remained a plant lover on a “looks beautiful” basis, not a “Latin name and uses” basis. I also began to wonder if my volunteer hours would be better spent directly helping others, rather than puttering around the garden so it could raise funds through the sale of potted plants. It seems that for me the right volunteer activity needs to effectively blend dedication to cause with personal fulfillment. A true give and get.

So, fun in the garden is out. Tutoring in an elementary school is in.

My Tuesday mid-days are now spent with 1st and 2nd graders in a high poverty school, helping out their teachers and them. Two weeks down. I feel of use there applying some skills, some compassion for the students, some empathy for the teachers, and lots of love being part of the village raising our children. And they are our children, because this isn’t about yours or mine, but about making each child feel valued.

I’m there to help with reading and writing, one-on-one or walking around the room helping whoever needs it at the moment. It is surprising, in a good way, how quickly I feel that I’m part of the group. In the first week, one girl was dismissive, as she had a right to be; after all, who is this new person in our classroom and why do I have to interact with her? This week, when I was at the door ready to leave, she came up and gave me a hug. Momentary mission-accomplished.

Not being the teacher in the classroom responsible for lessons and assessments is freeing. It is a distilled version of teaching, which, distilled even further, is an adult helping a child. Within the two hours I was there, I tied shoelaces, commented on drawings, enthused over sentences, and gave pep-talks on reading, oh, and permission to go to the in-class bathroom. Time well-spent. Experiences like this show me that I made the right move when I became a teacher mid-career (abandoning high-tech marketing writing), because one way my soul expresses itself is by reflecting back to children what is within. It also shows that retirement is the time to fully live that expression—in between a late breakfast and a swim in the pool.

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Pet Love: Protecting Our Hearts

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Since I began dogsitting last year, I have come to appreciate dog owners and the love they give their dogs. Sometimes their dogs substitute for the children they didn’t have and sometimes they substitute for the children they have but who have grown up (and usually moved on) leaving them lacking an immediate object for their affection. Perhaps this is why there seems to be a sadness intermixed with the joy of dog love. (It could also be that many of the dogs I have met are getting older and there is fear of anticipated loss.)

But it is not just love of a specific dog that I note, and I do note that and why not, why not be attentive to the needs of the dog that follows you around, looking at you as if you matter, as if being next to you is always the best place in the house, as if your goings out and comings in are of importance, because they are (and sometimes even commemorated with a treat!). What I see is a need for people to share their love; a need that reaches beyond the specifics of their living arrangements, where even couples who are growing old together no longer show their love or it is simply taken for granted. We need to give and to receive.

We have so much love to give that showering it on a pet who is always grateful and appreciative soothes the ache that grows within many of us as we get older. For so long our lives have been lived within certain parameters—our jobs, our families, our interests, our community—that dog love enables us to reach beyond the intellectual confines we live within and pushes us to acknowledge that we are also a person whose soul, self, essence, being, is a world—a worthy world simply within breath and consciousness. For a dog, our presence is the only needed proof of our existence, and isn’t it a relief to be seen for being me and not as a value to be calculated.

I wonder, though, about the structure of our world, where humanity and inhumanity seem to go hand-in-hand. Why is it that we cannot express this love we have within—the appreciation of our essence—beyond the confines of the animals with whom we live? What would happen if we could share this love with more than the dogs (and cats and other chosen animals) we have in our homes? Where would we be? What is it that gives us the ability to love, but also the inability to share it? Why are we prevented from sharing our true selves?

On yesterday’s morning walk, I encountered a woman who was out looking for her cat who escaped from her cat sitter’s home two weeks ago. She recoiled from this week’s dog, saying that she is not a dog person. I said that he is the perfect dog for a non-dog person, gentle and sweet. She was heartbroken as she told me about her missing cat. I thought RIP, to that cat who was not an outside cat who had probably already been forgotten as a satisfying meal. I felt bad for her, and wondered when she would stop denying the reality of her cat’s demise.

Perhaps this story illustrates why it’s so hard to share our love beyond our homes—beyond those we know love us. We need to protect our hearts, not from expanding, but from collapsing in pain. Perhaps the calculation for humanity is that things will be better for us all when our hope of sharing, of giving, of connecting in love is stronger than our anticipation of hurt, of loneliness, of disappointment, of anger in loss of love.


Hot and Humid Thoughts on a Summer Day in Florida

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View from my a perfect picnic spot

The other day I wanted (more than usual) to disconnect from the cycle of my thoughts and connect with something that lets me step aside from the constant nag to acknowledge, analyze, and assess what’s outside and inside. To not read the newspaper, emails, tweets. To not think about my position and thoughts. To not think beyond the scope of who I am at this moment.

So, I drove to the ocean and sat for about an hour (until the free parking time was up) for a lunch and no-learn. I let myself sit. (I also let myself eat two burritos, which was one too many.)

Happily, I discovered a new beach in Palm Beach where there was ample parking and I could sit under a palm-frond-covered hut over a picnic table instead of on the burning sand with the scorching noonday sun pressing down on my head.

This being Florida and, apparently, land of the iguana, as I turned into one picnic area a huge brown and tan iguana with what looked like a mane of spikes, headed for the bushes when it heard me, but, thankfully, I saw it and I scurried away even faster. I had no desire to share the space with a resentful iguana.

The next picnic area seemed iguana-free, so I sat there. Every few minutes I banged on the picnic table with my palm or water bottle. I didn’t want to see any angry iguana relatives. While there, I was (mainly) at peace (at least as at peace as you can be when you fear lizards lurking nearby).

The waves rolled in and out like breath, enabling me to meditate without needing a mantra or to call myself back to breathe. I caught the waves. The intention that I set for myself was simply to be at peace. How sad that I must force myself to absorb and be part of a scene instead of always demanding that I find a meaning in the moment. (Ah, here I am, doing just that.) But how glorious, too, that my purpose can be to understand what motivates me—a person—when there are no external factors. Now, without a job that constantly overtakes my thoughts, I can be an existentialist, focusing on what I need to find purpose and be purpose.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a library and it’s pouring outside while the thunder rolls and rolls. Another aspect of a summer day in Florida. As much as I may think that one thing defines a place—a person—there are always more dimensions.

I am of myself and of the world. I need to balance between the demands that I put on myself to be myself (just look at my ever-growing pile of books to read, and restaurants to try), and my assertion that one’s purpose is to be of service to others using skills and guided by heart. I need to work on the feeling that time tending to me is not time away from, but time preparing for.


Marriage and Divorce Anniversary: Reflections on Being Alone

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Thirty-seven years ago this week, I got married. Fifteen years ago this week, my divorce was finalized. This week, I’m dogsitting, which means that I’m staying in someone else’s home taking care of their pet. (Coincidentally, the owner went to a wedding.) These three points in time could be the things that I tell someone I’ve just met to explain my life. I can’t decide, though, if this is cause for tears of sadness or joy, or just a bit of bitter self-reflection in which to stew.

It wasn’t easy to have moved on from a failed marriage and a nasty divorce; that took years. Time during which I savored my independence. Time when I also experienced being fully myself and the stillness that is me.

Does the demand that we live in the moment punish us, make us feel we are not doing life the right way, if we live a mainly sedentary, word-engrossed life?

Having moved the day I retired, from Northern Virginia to South Florida, meant that I was starting over, once again. There had been the move from New York to Israel, and then from Israel to Virginia. There had been the change from being single to married to divorced. There was the transition from being a parent with children at home to being a parent who occasionally sees her adult children after long plane trips.

It's good that I forget what I thought my life would be like and accept what it is, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience malaise and disappointment. My life is steeped in solitude and knowing that it could have been different, leads to both regret and relief. It also makes me determined to not let inertia win.

This last move seemed so easy: just get into my stuffed car and drive south on I95. But it not only took away the one home I created on my own, it changed relationships with good friends, and meant the loss of acquaintances whose good mornings and hellos were comforting acknowledgements. While I don’t regret the move, I can still experience it as a loss.

The pain of divorce is not just the resulting aloneness, but the feeling of failure at having picked the wrong person, at not being able to make it work, at wondering if I missed what my life should have been. After the divorce, I had two other failed relationships, which just adds to the burden that I carry that I will remain alone, when, sometimes, I wonder if I would be happier with a partner.

It's funny. For a long time, most of my friends were single. Now, mainly because of fallings-out, those women who had been my rocks and activity partners are no longer in my life. My married friends have proven their friendship and over the time that I have known them, I see the solidity and safety they have created with their spouses. Clearly, we are all different and we each have our own path to travel, however circuitous, but to not pause and wonder and feel the moment’s emotions seems that it would be a stop and not part of the journey into my future.

This is a day when I acknowledge that I have so much to be grateful for, but remorse has captured my heart. When I finish writing and posting this, I feel that tears will no longer be held back by the process of trying to understand. What is there to understand? I made choices and I am living with the result. All is well. Though I ache for change and I know, oh, yes, I definitely do, that it is up to me to do what I must to not face regret more than joy.


Dementia at the Doctor’s Office

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Wakodahatchee Wetlands

JOHN*. MOVE. NOW. NO. JOHN. JOHN. STOP. JOHN. STOP. NO. MOVE.

That was the background “conversation” at the doctor’s office the other day when I went for my annual. One old White woman in a wheelchair, a late middle-aged White man pushing her, and her young Black aide. I did a double-take at them when I heard the man say something to the receptionist about his wife because she looked much older than him, her husband, who I thought was her son, a very good son.

When I was brought back to an examining room, the nurse and I could still hear her shouting. I said something about how hard it is to hear the woman yelling at her husband so harshly. The nurse said that the woman hadn’t always been like that, that she had been a lovely person. Apparently, the anger is an expression of her dementia. It was upsetting to be witness to such an open display of what would normally be hidden in one’s home and to see what dementia can do to a person, that memory loss is also a loss of self.

Up until COVID put a stop to visits, I was a hospice volunteer for about a year. During, that time, I visited a few patients with dementia. Since some of them lived in a memory care unit in a senior living community, I saw other people with dementia when I visited them. In all that time, I hadn’t seen anyone so hostile, though there had been glimmers of insistence and impatience. Hearing her was scarier than when one woman called me “Mother.” If the harshness is not uncommon, then perhaps the angry patients there were in their rooms or medicated or taken care of differently.

Weekly for most of that year, I visited a man whose wife visited him daily. She used my weekly visits as a little break for herself—she would go an hour later to be with him. She was watchful over the aides and took care of him like a mother hen. The situation, his dementia and other health issues, took a heavy toll on her, even with the help he received. It was so hard to see that everything she did was from her love of him, while he was sunk into his own world. I couldn’t imagine how the husband in the doctor’s office was managing when it seemed that it was just him and one aide. Not just the work of taking care of her physically, but the drain on him to care for this woman who had taken over his wife. How does a person keep going, keep giving from love, when the spousal relationship no longer exists? Is the connection at the soul-level or the commitment and vows level, so that the nature of the relationship no longer matters?

One of the things that I learned that year of volunteering was how difficult it is for a spouse or child to care for a loved one who is sick, especially with dementia. It was relentless, harder than caring for an infant. There is no positive trajectory to expect or a break in demands when independence comes, and, perhaps, too, it is hard knowing that all the love and care you give will be unrequited. Not that we do things to be appreciated, but this is a truly selfless love, where your giving takes so much from you—even if you don’t think of it that way. There are so many things that can push a person into being fully committed to another to practically blanking of the self, even if it is temporary. Maybe my thoughts say more about my fears, than they do about this man and his patience.

Perhaps I’m focusing on this because it’s a fear that naturally comes when a parent is in their 80s. My mother’s memory and sense of self are firmly intact. Sure, she forgot what time her haircut was a few times, but I would forget that, too, if I didn’t put it into my calendar. Knowing that she took care of her mother and my father when they were sick at the end of their lives and that I said I would do the same for her scares me. Living with her, seeing this woman who would walk at a New York City pace now hesitant to walk from the living room to the kitchen concerns me, makes me anxious about the future. We each have tests, a lifetime of tests. Some we pass; some confuse us; some we learn from the hard way; and some we anticipate or fear, but hope that we won’t disappoint ourselves and those we love.

* Not his real name.  


Still Being Asked “What Do You Do?”

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The “What do you do?” questions have not stopped being asked. And I’ve decided that it’s a good thing.

Last week I went to an event to meet other Jewish women who are members or potential members of an organization that helps women and girls. It was a glad-I-went event, where I met interesting, enthusiastic women and I’m excited to see where this will lead, regarding the organization’s work and my involvement. Besides the regular committee work, I also volunteered to help with their communications, after meeting with the director who bemoaned the poor grammar skills of people applying for content writing jobs.

I’ve gotten used to mainly meeting retired people who ask, “Where are you from?” so that when I was asked repeatedly, “What do you do?” I realized that I need to come up with a better answer. Saying that “I’m a retired teacher,” was met with confusion. It’s not just that I retired relatively young, it’s that people assume that being retired means that I don’t do anything, except lunch with the ladies and maintain my health (which are not bad in the big scheme of things). It seems wrong to them that I have opted out. Assumptions about retirement, and what people should do, abound even here in Retirementland (southern Florida).

Beyond the retirement part, I also realize that I don’t want to identify myself as a teacher. I enjoyed being a teacher and, in many ways, it saved me when I was going through my divorce and needed a job. It enabled me to have purpose, as well as financial and job security. Moreover, I’m a better person after having taught because it forced me to become more outgoing, compassionate, and thoughtful. So, I’m definitely thankful to teaching.

Continuing on the idea developed in previous blog posts that what I do for a living doesn’t define me, I realize that I need to come up with a better answer. Teaching was my last job. It was never a life goal; it was unintentional and, thankfully, it worked out for me. Ultimately, it was a way to make a living. (Imagine if you didn’t need the money from your job. Would you still do it? I probably would have lasted a few years as a teacher, but not as long as I did.) But even if it had been my only career and I fully identified as a teacher, shouldn’t I imagine myself in another way—not job-as-identity—as I embark on this next phase(s?) of life? Isn’t that what retirement should mean?

Knock on wood, I live for another few decades, decades that would represent a significant portion of my life. They will probably be the most intentional years that I live. The major milestones are in my past: to go to college, to have a career, to get married, to buy a house, to raise wonderful children. Those accomplishments required that I focus outside of myself, while now I can focus on what I need, so that when I go to bed at night, I don’t berate myself for wasting another day. I’m hoping that my time going forward is a true expression of self. So far, besides when I’m wasting my time, I’ve been reading and writing, interacting with the people who are important to me, using my skills to help others, and learning new things (a lifelong learner, another definition of a teacher!). So, what does that make me? “I do what I need to do to feel good about myself by sharing my thoughts, and trying to make the world safer and more equitable.” Wordy. “I’m focused on self-expression and community betterment.” Pretentious. “I write and volunteer.” Devoid of meaning: what do those words mean in this context? Clearly, I’m still working on this, and that’s ok. I’m in no rush. Sometimes I really am using my time fully.


Retirement & Year One in Florida: Some Observations on Living in the Heat

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Sitting on the balcony on this light-clouds, gentle-breeze morning, looking out over the golf course, it should be relaxing, but it’s not. The throbbing sound of the riding lawn mower as it works its way around the palm trees, coming CLOSER and then receding, LOUDER then not-as-loud, LOUD not-as-loud, CUTS the image of pleasure to one of unpleasantness. This, I have decided, is an apt metaphor for retired life in Florida.

The weather is generally lovely, but there are hitches. It rains a lot, and it can come down so hard that you can barely see where you’re driving. Then it stops, or you reach the edge of that cloud, and it’s back to a sunny day. Unless, of course, you drive into the path of another rain cloud.

It was generally so hot or warm or comfortable this past year, that except for two weeks, I didn’t need to wear a sweater outside, though I certainly needed one in the over air-conditioned stores and restaurants. I have a long-sleeved shirt and a lightweight jacket in my car at all times. I know that this is not just a Florida problem, but the difference between the temperature inside and outside is so stark that it’s a jolt to the system and the cold feels so darn cold.

In the summer, in the height of heat and humidity season, the air presses down on you. It’s uncomfortable to be outside. You gasp for air as your pores respond by dripping with sweat the moment you step outside. It’s so hot here that I can’t remember the last time I saw someone wearing jeans. It’s just not done. And, in the summer it’s hard to sit outside to dine on a lovely home or restaurant patio, even with a fan going, because it can end with a headache and a big take-home box, because who can eat in the heat.

I’m still getting used to encountering lizards and iguanas of all kinds scurrying away as I walk anywhere (and looking out for alligators). No need to go to a nature preserve to see them. Curled tails and straight tails, bright green or more subtle shades, they all make me realize that I really do live in the tropics, even if the palm trees and heavy air didn’t, but they make it fun, in a kid-at-the-zoo kind of way. The occasional squirrel who moved down here seems so out-of-place. Which brings me to the snow birds, who surely are the smartest people around. Why stay here year-round if you can escape somewhere during this ridiculous heat, and escape the snow of that other place for the winter warmth down here.

Those of us who are here all year round, not only are we aware that the summer is hot, but it’s also hurricane season, so there’s an underlying tension or anticipation. The meteorologists seem to be giddy with potential, though I’m hoping that the only hurricanes I have to experience are ones that I already lived through in Virginia. There are hurricane shutters, but even on a regular windy day, it sounds like a wind tunnel in here. Today, there has been no hurricane talk. No, today there is talk about sand from Africa suppressing the rain. I guess there’s always something.

In the category of living in a 55+ community, there is the benefit of a mainly childfree pool, except when there are visiting relatives, which is generally during the holidays (and, unfortunately, yesterday). I can live with that. The no jumping, no splashing, no floating into swimmers, the no screaming Mommy Mommy Mommy Papa Papa Papa watch watch watch makes seeing the evolution of the body (both male and female) in all its 55+ stages a beautiful alternative.

Speaking of the bevy of bellied pool patrons, I would like to tell them that it is not a badge of honor to be in the pool at 3 in the afternoon when there’s nary a cloud in the sky, the sun a blazing ball, and the temperature at 91, but feels like 102 because of the 57% humidity. You have the entire day, so why would you torment your body at precisely the worst time? Can you not change your card game or golf game or coffee meeting or lunch date or dinner plans? I fear people schedule their days around mealtimes. I would like to tell them that mealtimes can be changed. Once you’re a teacher and you’re given a 10:30 lunch schedule, you realize that time is externally imposed and you should eat when you want to eat. Personally, if I have breakfast at 7, I see no reason why I can’t set my lunch flag down at 11 without feeling that I will be disdained for being on the early bird special. But the swimmers (no not swimmers, they are pool walkers or pool talkers), well, it seems that they figure if they made it this far in living they can forget about sunblock or worrying about what the sun will do to their already leathery skin and lightheaded heads, and just do what they feel like, consequences be darned.

Which brings me to the end of this first set of insights on living in Florida. Being new to a place is great because you see things with a different lens than someplace where you’ve been living for a while and become accustomed to. What kind of interesting things stand out to you about where you live?


Retirement Self-Exploration and Expression: Being Free from External Supervision and Validation

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Looking Up

I’ve been thinking again about my back-of-the-mind desire to have a small business and I’ve finally come to the realization that the business (selling something) itself isn’t the true desire. No, it’s about being recognized for my creativity. Afterall, I barely shop (except for the supermarket because I don’t know what I’ll want to eat in two days) and I’ve always found not spending money more important than having things (just ask my daughters how long it took to convince me to get a TV instead of using my laptop). It’s about being seen and acknowledged for who I am. Why, though, would someone who I don’t know paying for something that I created make me feel good about myself? What does external validation, or the lack of it, mean?

More than 20 years ago I created a card deck for self-discovery that I called “A Minute to Myself.” I didn’t end up selling many copies. The personality that could create an introspective game was the same personality that struggled to sell it. For years I’ve felt bad about that, but I shouldn’t. My pride in creating something should not be clouded by my lack of business acumen or a not aggressive-enough personality. Why should one ability be perceived as more important than another? That is another realization.

Now that I’m retired, I should be free from thinking of myself in terms of trade, in terms of an exchange. Sure, there’s still money to earn (because, well, the economy), but I need to finally separate myself from this thinking. There is me, and then there is the world around me and its hierarchies. As I am finally without a boss and a big boss telling me what to do and how to do it, I need to also expel that externally formed internal self-assessor from influencing my decisions. I need to free up my internal space so that I can think for myself, rather than stay/become entrenched. Why would I use this time and opportunity to be yet another producer of products that may be found on a table at a future yard sale.

No bosses to appease. No parents to please. No students to supervise. No controlling deadlines. No regulating alarms. Retirement should be self-directed. Why would I want to put myself back into being judged, especially when I know that judgments generally reflect those doing the judging and not those being judged? Why would I want to re-encase myself when I can finally act on these realizations—the realizations that show me that I am a better me when I skip the comparisons, and focus on living my life.

From “A Minute to Myself”: Self—Are you pleased with what you have become, with what you are doing with your life? Why? Why not?


What Do I Know? Learning to Value My Experiences

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Grateful for beauty and talented people

Sometimes I wonder what I know, which is a way of thinking about how much I do or do not value myself and my life experiences.

I was 20 when I completed my BA in English Language and Literature, with an emphasis on writing. When I moved to Israel not long afterward, I learned Hebrew to integrate into life there. Since then, I’ve taught Hebrew and translated articles, a book, and Holocaust survivor testimonies from Hebrew to English. My first real job was writing user’s manuals for software programs (back when they were printed and shrink-wrapped). After typing, “Press Enter,” one too many times, I got creative and became a marketing writer. For a creative after-hours outlet, I developed toys and games—my drawer is full! More than twenty years after finishing my undergraduate degree, I completed an MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. As part of my studies, I became a trained mediator. Then, for sixteen years I was a high school English teacher, who enjoyed resolving conflicts between students doing groupwork, as well as explaining how to use commas and semi-colons, among other prized punctuation marks. Over the years, I’ve used my writing and editing skills to help friends, family, and non-profits to improve their documents, so that they effectively represent them. I’ve written two novels, a memoir, a few children’s books, a play, and (what would amount to) volumes of personal essays.

And, I’m the mother of two adult daughters, who both have college degrees (one a graduate degree as well), who are in stable relationships, and who seem to enjoy spending time with me. I was married for 21 years. Then, I divorced him before I was completely broken by his controlling ways (though I was definitely broke). As a single woman, I purchased two cars, and bought and sold a condo.

So, clearly, there are things that I know. Life. I know how to live. I know how to use and develop my skills, so that I can benefit myself and others. Yet, self-doubt arises. I wonder what I know because I think that I should know other things—things that I value more than the things I know, things that other people know.

I can blame this on being a woman in this ridiculously male-centric and misogynistic society (where “society” is used in the global sense of the word), but I don’t want to. I want to think about how I can emotionally support myself without needing a societal upheaval first (because that seems to be a long way off, though now I’m volunteering with an organization helping to change that). I don’t want to use this valid excuse. I want to confront myself and create a space where I look up to myself. This doubt should not still be accompanying me.

When I first became a teacher in my 40s, I doubted that I could do it because I didn’t think I knew enough or that I had anything to share. Turns out, with studying, a few helpful colleagues (and students), teacher editions of textbooks, and my own life experience, I knew enough. No. I knew a lot. But that was in the classroom. I conquered my doubts there.

Still, this disappointment that I didn’t accomplish more—that I didn’t become more—continues to beleaguer me. It overrides what should be a sense of self that lets me focus on what will be and not what wasn’t. My three professional regrets are that I’m not a published author, an entrepreneur, and/or an expert in a chosen field. But when I think of those aspirations, ones that put a lot of time demands on a person, I realize that they were never within reach because I always sought work-life balance over professional dedication. (No leaning in here.) I didn’t stay up late delving into whatever it was that I needed to delve into. No. I read books for pleasure, lots of books. I drove my daughters to their lessons and to friends’ houses, and I enjoyed weekend baking and afternoon naps. I made things easy for my husband, so he could devote himself to his work. I went easy on myself, because oftentimes just getting through a day felt like an accomplishment. It still does.

A few months ago, I went to a women’s discussion group where we focused on gratitude. We all talked about the things we’re grateful for. After health, we mainly focused on people, and a few pets. I wonder now if changing how I think about gratitude would help me on my path to no-excuse self-acceptance. Perhaps I need to look within when I contemplate gratitude. Why should it be based on external indicators? Funnily, health is an internal factor. Maybe that’s my clue. Why do we judge ourselves against external factors (because it seems that gratitude has a certain degree of comparison)? We’re playing solitaire, not poker.

At the end of the hour, the leader suggested that we keep gratitude journals. If I had done that, and was still doing it, my entry for today would read: I’m grateful that I didn’t abandon this essay, but kept writing until I wrote into understanding. I’m grateful that I decided to change the in-person volunteer work I do so that I feel that I’m giving more than I’m getting. I’m grateful for my health.

And if I expanded my journal to includes words to focus on, I would write: Appreciation. Purpose. Compassion.  

May you all find the balance and words that inspire and protect you.

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Grateful for the beauty in nature




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

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Suspension Bridge over River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Low tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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High tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

Moving to Florida: Not Just for the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I have not been great at keeping friendships going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Deciding that I Matter: Which Helps to Motivate Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Carnage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A New Sense of Worth

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Other people's hobby which I saw on a walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Sadness and Horror Equal Dread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To Watch in Sadness and Horror

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

When will the cries be more powerful than the bombs?

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

 


Uniquely Ordinary: Aren’t We All

Wakodahatchee Wetlands
Another hobby: Going on walks (Wakodahatchee Wetlands)

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

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

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

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

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

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