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May 2022

Posts from June 2022

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.