Life Lessons

Conversations with Friends About Our Parents and the Stages of Deterioration, Our Bodies, and Our Children’s Lives

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Tropical and desert plants living side-by-side in Lake Worth Beach

Conversations with friends lately have invariably steered, at some point, to our parents.  For most of us, it’s our mothers and mothers-in-law, though for some it’s concern for both parents, and for a younger friend it’s about a grandmother. Mothers are in the process of deteriorating, some are bedridden. The body seems to falter first, but, to differing degrees, the mind also shows signs of aging, where the range is from “not quite herself at times” to “who is that woman?” Maybe not all the time, but it does seem that once the walk becomes focused on maintaining balance, a shuffle ensues, and then the mind, too, exhibits a kind of shuffle.

Fathers, if they’re around (for most of us they’re not), remain stubborn, thinking that nothing has changed since they were young men, responsible for supporting an entire family even if they are now in their 90s and their children are grandparents. These guys need to finally release their grip and realize that the world will not collapse if they are no longer their own version of Master of the Universe. A bright spot is the father who’s finding independence in a wheelchair.

Our parents are in their 80s and 90s. Hurrah for long-life! Our hope for each of them is that they continue to enjoy life, and not simply hold on to the drudgery of life becoming an extremely long, super ultra-marathon.

Depending on a parent’s situation, we are involved in varying degrees of caregiving. One friend and her husband lived with her mother-in-law for years, most of their time devoted to her care. And others, like me, listen with dread to those stories, grateful that there is experience and wisdom being shared, though often coming from a place of frustration and despair, and heard with fear and trepidation.

Listening to those stories of active caregiving and actively arranging for caregiving help is heartbreaking. But to see how taxing it is to constantly make arrangements and deal—battle—with the bureaucracy turning a normally sane, organized woman into a harridan, is disheartening. We have been or still are professionals, most of us teachers, most with children of our own. We have spent our lives concerned for others and acting on that concern, and now when our children are starting to find their way, we are still stuck at home.

Here we are: middle-aged women who are starting to see our own slide into senior living, who want to be out and about, vacationing and lunching with the ladies, but we’re still tied down, to some degree, by the compassion that has always guided us.  

But here we are, too, talking about ourselves and how we are also starting to see our own things falling apart. Skin cancer. Breast cancer. Vertigo. Rheumatoid arthritis. Macular degeneration. Glaucoma. We take care of ourselves. But there’s so much that healthy living and exercise can do.

We are determined to live our lives to the fullest, doing what we can to take care of everyone and ourselves. But what does that mean? Do you postpone trips or, as a friend does, pay for travel insurance just in case a trip needs to be cancelled. We can’t wait around for the generation before us to go. But we can’t ignore their needs and existence. When I told older daughter that I was thinking of going on a trip to Spain and Portugal, her first thought was if it would be ok to leave Grandma on her own. My daughter asked me if I was going to be an irresponsible daughter. It’s not necessarily the travel that I needed, as the time to enjoy myself with no responsibilities.

At the end of an essay, there is a culminating thought that feels like a proper conclusion. Today, I don’t have one. Everything feels so open, unknown—lifelike. Perhaps there is only gratitude, flexibility, and love that guides us—but this also needs to be self-directed. And as I continue to sit here with these thoughts, I realize that this unknown and uncertain time reminds me of early adulthood, when there were so many decisions to be made. Then, I was mainly guided by my own intuition, desires, and fears. Now, there is guidance. There is this point in my history, which means there is what to look back upon. There are friends’ lives, showing how things work out in different scenarios. There is the understanding that looking ahead and looking back don’t give answers or even a roadmap.

But I do know that I’m grateful to my friends for being a forum for sharing thoughts as we each deal with what we deal, helping me understand my situation and myself.


Not Having a Room of My Own

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Hoping to dogsit here one day

I’m back dogsitting for Jerry, my best customer. I watch him for about a week every couple of months. His house now feels almost as uncomfortable as my mother’s apartment: neither place is mine, so in neither am I completely at ease, but I’m there enough to feel almost home, though always as a visitor. Nowadays, I exist in spaces that other people have created for themselves. The more I stay at my mother’s house and dogsit for different dogs, I find that I’m becoming detached from the space around me and becoming centered on self. Am I all the space I need?

The eight years that I was an empty nester, from when younger daughter went to college in 2013 to when I moved to Florida to be with my mother in 2021, were the only years when I lived by myself. Is that a long time or a short time? Or is it both? Time enough to see that it could be lonely without other people. Time to, also, enjoy not having to adjust myself for anyone or think about how my habits may be perceived by someone else. Enough time to know that the arrangement suited me.

I’ve finally taken a break (most of the time) from checking real estate websites for homes to rent or buy near younger daughter. It’s not that the move won’t happen, it’s that I don’t want to focus on the future—and my future space—when I have the present to live. Looking at homes that will be rented or sold by the time I’m ready doesn’t make me feel satisfied with myself at the end of the day. Enough time has been spent imagining what will be. So many minutes in a day in a life spent daydreaming—no, not daydreaming, suspended—just out of reach of the reality or the doldrums of the day. Perhaps at times I protected myself by looking for the future as an answer, but not now, not at 62.

I need to use each moment that I have in service of my life—of this moment—not on thoughts that are vague, wispy things. For so many years I lulled myself into thinking that my life—I—would be different at some future time. Alas, the same person who couldn’t accomplish goals that were beyond her personality and comfort level, is ready to see what has been done while thinking that nothing has been done. That suspended time may have passed unnoticed, but it is where I have spent my life.

Being in spaces that aren’t mine, I’m forced to think about what is mine—what is me. I cannot appease myself by thinking that the things around me make up my life, make a statement on myself and my accomplishments. Not having my own bed and pictures on a nightstand force me to think about the meaning of a life, of my life: the children raised, the connections established, the creations made, the morality adhered to. Perhaps this is to assuage myself to accepting what I have or don’t have, but that’s okay, because I’m generally at ease with myself. I am here, fully, in whatever space I inhabit.

 


Talking My Way Through a Food Tour

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Art Deco building

 

Last week I went on a food and Art Deco tour in South Beach, Miami Beach, which was part of acting on my decision to “travel” where I live. The tour met my travel needs of learning new things, trying new foods, and meeting new people. But after the three-hour tour, rather than having to continue looking for places to eat and things to do, or return to the discomfort of a hotel room, I drove home. Even the traffic didn’t bother me (too much), because, until I reached the congested highway (the always-congested I95), I got to see more of Miami.

As I write this, I’m in a bakery (Aioli, WPB) that I recently read about in the paper. It’s about 20-minutes from my house and would count as a great find on a trip, but is an especially great find since I can return whenever I want. Even the fact that it doesn’t have wifi ended up being a benefit because rather than wasting time reading emails and news items, I got right to writing (which was one of the purposes of coming here in the first place).

On the food tour, we went to four restaurants. First a Colombian restaurant (Bolivar) where we tried the national drink, Aguardiente, which is a combination of beer and the Colombian version of cream soda. An acquired taste to be sure, but liking isn’t necessarily the point when trying new things. With that I had a cheese empanada (I asked for vegetarian and non-alcoholic drinks, but I was on “vacation,” so I let myself mix things up. I mean, how can you turn down trying a beer and cream soda cocktail?). There was also a tomato spread on a kind of cracker. The meat-eaters had a meat empanada and ceviche with passion fruit instead of lime.

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Colombian meal

Next, a Miami culinary requirement: Cuban food. After learning that the much-faded paint on the sidewalks had been red to make us tourists feel that we were celebs on the red carpet, we went to a Cuban restaurant on Ocean Drive (Havana 1957). After hearing that I would get a veggie alternative to ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban meat stew which, according to our guide, was based on a stew that Sephardic Jews made for Shabbat, I decided that I preferred to try that. I’m glad I did. The tostones that came with it were excellent, too: just the right blend of crispy and chewy.

Ropa vieja
The next stop was a Mexican restaurant (Naked Taco) for what were original tacos. I went back to being a non-drinking vegetarian and had a roasted pepper taco and a shot of pineapple juice sans tequila. The last stop, in the guide’s homage to Miami Beach’s mafia influence, was a bakery where I had a mini-cannoli. It was my first cannoli in years. Tasty, but too rich for what I have gotten used to.

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Red and green pepper taco

But I left out the best part of the day: meeting Roz. She became my tour partner from the moment I sat down opposite her in the first restaurant. The two single ladies bonded. So, instead of feeling left out around the couples and families, I spent the day with a friend-for-the-day. We had lots of similarities: age, daughters’ ages, divorced since 2007, and teaching. It was non-stop talking, except when the guide was talking (usually). Turns out that life in Australia and here in the states can be pretty darn similar (which perhaps answers my question of what my life may have been like if I moved to Australia when I wanted to at 21).

She was at the end of her annual trip; this year she went to Mexico and Cuba, and was in Miami for a few days before heading home and working to save for next year’s trip.

As we walked down Ocean Drive, she saw an iguana and ran to take a picture of it. She was so excited by her sighting of this exotic creature. I told her that it’s an invasive animal here and that I see them all the time. Different perspectives. She made me realize that to really be a tourist at-home I need to leave aside assumptions and prejudices. It’s not just about being open to trying new things, it’s about seeing the things you’ve become accustomed to with new eyes.


Aging Is So Much Fun!

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South Beach in Miami Beach


My 89-year-old mother is at the time in her life when she has enough pills to take that she needs a pill organizer. Of course, organizing the pill organizer requires remembering what she needs to take and when. When I say “what,” I don’t mean the name of the pill and/or its function, she remembers what she needs to take by size, color, and shape. She is, to put it mildly, a reluctant pill taker. She doesn’t think about how they’re helping her, but how they and the doctors who have prescribed them are torturing her by making her swallow them. Though credit where credit is due, she has finally managed to swallow each of her pills, one-at-a-time, without loud complaints. Instead, she now gives herself a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back when her mission is accomplished, each time.

There are also eye-drops and ear-drops, which, surprisingly, she manages to take without too much complaining, and astonishment at her expertise.

For a month, she needs to measure her blood pressure morning and night. But this is too technological for her, so I put the cuff on her upper arm. I make her push the button to turn it on because it seems important that she participates in her care and maintenance. It could also be that I’m uncomfortable taking on a carer role.

It’s interesting to live with an older person, where “interesting” needs to convey an element of sadness. I told my daughters that she’s not the grandma they remember taking them all over Manhattan, rushing uptown, downtown, and crosstown like a true New Yorker. There is a progression. There is change.

The other day, she commented on her good skin. I thought she was kidding. She was not. Her skin had been smooth for years, even with her never putting on moisturizer or face cream. But at some point, her entire face creased and crinkled. Can you consider your skin being good if it resembles a caricature of an old lady’s wrinkled face?

Perhaps I’ve finally learned not to correct her, so I nodded, wondering how we see ourselves when we’re away from mirrors.

At dinner recently at yet another lousy local Chinese restaurant with her and a friend of hers, they talked about how the previous week at lunch my mother seemed like a different person. That didn’t sound good. And when she got into the car after stopping at the local library, she said that she had been a little confused and someone asked her if she needed help. That didn’t sound good either.

And she fell again. This time, just a cut. But still.

It makes me realize that I, too, don’t see her for who she is. It’s not easy to see a parent as no longer the fully capable person they’ve always been. A parent holds us in-place, makes it so we aren’t really this older person who is called “ma’am” and overlooked. This is about me aging too.

About a month ago at a different restaurant, I joked with the server about older people and then I realized, before I could laugh, that he probably saw me, too, as an older—old?—person. That dinner was for my 62nd birthday.

I realize now, as I sit here thinking about my mother aging, that I need to use the life I have left on life, not on a holding pattern till death. Glass half-full. Glass half-empty. There is sustenance in both. One feels more enjoyable than the other. I want that! To feel refreshed as I move forward, not lukewarm and worn out. Perhaps I can help her see how full far less than half-a-cup can be.


Making a Single Lady, Netflix Watching Bowl

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Improvement has been made, but still a long way to go

In this week’s pottery class, we learned how to make bowls. As the instructor demonstrated pulling the thick walls and developing the shape, we talked about size.

Up until that class, we had been making “vessels,” with a mug being the vessel of choice. I mean, who doesn’t want to drink out of a mug of her own making or gift one to an appreciative loved one? Since they don’t need to be too big to handle morning coffee (the size of mine has been so small that I can pretend I’m in a diner and continually need a refill), we were only using a pound of clay for each cup. But bowls, well, bowls need to contain much more: soup, salad, smoothie, ice cream, OR

a full meal for a single lady eating dinner while watching Netflix! Yes, we all agreed, that is the optimal size we’re aiming for (even the married mother with two young children). A bowl that contains everything with no need to get up from the couch for seconds, or thirds (I love thirds!). No dainty bowls for us. No, we wanted to make a bowl that satisfies. One-and-three-quarters of a pound of clay worth—that’s how big our bowl’s would be!

Perhaps it was because half of our class members weren’t there that night and because we’re more than halfway through the session, but over bowl size and purpose we finally came together. We weren’t just individuals at our wheels trying—over and over and over again, pound by pound—to perfect our pottery—no, not to perfect, but to at least have something that’s good enough and to keep improving. There was levity as we dripped in the barely airconditioned space, simultaneously in this moment of making together and a future moment of using alone.

We smiled as we imagined what we would put into our bowls that would satisfy our need to nourish and nurture ourselves, and with no one watching, the growing heap of satisfaction that would be piled inside. And then (ok, it’s time now to find the lesson in the lesson), I realized that this whole pottery-making enterprise is about having control over my world. Here is the cup I made; I’m drinking from it. Here is the bowl I made; I’m eating out of it. I can be satisfied within the world I’ve created. I can even binge-watch TV (probably dating shows; oh, the absurdity of sitting alone on a couch watching other people so desperate as to offer their loneliness and desire as entertainment; oh, how we can’t escape our mind and our hidden desires).

But back to big bowls. They’re the equivalent of one-pot or -skillet meals. Nothing fancy. No division of foods by category, no concerns about items touching each other. Just all in. Each bite, each moment, different. Big bites for small moments. Who cares? It’s all to be enjoyed.   


Happy Hour Conversations: Making Connections

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Lunch for one along the New River, Ft. Lauderdale

It was one of those events at which you don’t think you’ll see the people again, so you talk freely or question others with abandon. Somehow, in my desire to use my time wisely and listen to other people, I ended up being questioned and talking more than I wanted to about a subject that I had no desire to talk about.

The woman who sat to my left at this “Women Over 50” group dinner still works part-time as a marriage therapist. She was disappointed that I was long divorced and, thus, unable to save my marriage with her sage advice. Nonetheless, she plowed forward, wanting to know what I did or did not do that may or may not have contributed to the failure of the marriage and the bitter divorce process itself. Fun Happy Hour!

As I talked, she seemed more interested in the conversation than me. I had no desire for this ancient rehash. There’s a point when the past disconnects and transforms into a narrative that has no relation to your current life or self. It’s history that you already learned from and have no desire to see what else can be gleaned. We last lived in the same house in 2009. Don’t I get a reprieve from all the know-betterers at some point?

Once I managed to get the conversation to her, I realized why she wanted to focus on me. Her husband died two years ago, but she had been his primary caregiver for years and she still seemed exhausted by the experience and the loss. Her sadness came through, but so did the frustration with a chain of unhelpful home aides. This then transitioned to anger and more frustration when she talked about her step-daughter with addictions and all that comes with that, including a system that put her grandchild back into an unstable situation. It seems that perhaps my divorce was the light part of the conversation for her, the place where she could be the professional, not the patient.

I next talked to a woman across from me who had been a social worker and was also still clearly identifying with her profession. When I said that I planned to move to live near my daughters, she kept saying “live your life, live your life.” This, also, turned out to be advice to self as she told me that her husband died a year ago. and her son and daughter-in-law, who had moved in with her temporarily before COVID, were still there. In fact, she left with bags of take-out for them. She also warned me about scams on dating apps. I’m not on any of those any more, but I was glad for her that she hadn’t given up yet on finding someone. Her advice to me, noted, but I don’t see how spending time with family takes away from my life.

Somehow, I managed to talk to those two before the conversation-hog across from me got to monopolizing the table. With her, I was definitely off the hook of having to answer any questions about my divorce or my future. What was interesting about her was how uninteresting she was, very boisterously. She mainly talked about a birthday party her family had for her mother back home in Colombia. There was time off from work. There were flowers. There was music and dancing. There was even her surprising her mother that she was there. (Since she didn’t need any dialogue, just our nods, I didn’t get to question the wisdom of surprising a 90-year-old woman.)

In the last few minutes when we were paying our bills, I spoke to the woman on my right. Her advice, after telling me that she can’t travel anymore because she needs knee replacement surgery, was that I should make sure to travel before it’s too late.  

On the drive home, I felt surprisingly good about the event. The food was mediocre and the conversations frustrated me, but I got out of the house and my head, and met some new people. It’s not always necessary to have an insightful conversation for it to be a worthwhile one. Each of us got out of the walls we live within to connect, however lightly, with other people. There are now some new people and stories in my head.

Looking back at the evening, I’d say that it had been a few happy hours because connections are just as important as relationships.


Retirement Hobby: Pottery with Purpose

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Were they supposed to be bowls?

Throw clay on a wheel—whatever that meant—I wanted to do it! Shape clay with wet, slick hands. Go beyond painting-on-pottery that I did when my daughters were young. I wanted to create something that I could use and look at, thinking with pride, “I did that.” The time finally came about a month ago.

In the first lesson, I learned that it’s harder and more frustrating than I imagined. It’s also more satisfying. Now, after five classes, it’s slightly less frustrating, but still satisfying. There aren’t any finished products yet to use and wonder at, and having an end-product is starting to feel like a bonus.

It really is about the process, about being absorbed in the making. There are specific steps. While going through them, a connection is created between myself and a lump of clay—many lumps of clay—as I keep repeating the process, feeling the clay in my hands, and my body becoming centered as I focus on centering and shaping the clay. I am my hands, my mind is focused—in/on—my hands, all other thoughts fade away. (Except, perhaps, ugh, another failure; time to try again.)

It's not easy. It feels as if I’ve pulled the walls up as high as one pound of clay can go only to see that it’s barely an inch, or two if I’m on the right track. (From what I see, looking around the classroom space at the others who’ve taken this intro class before, it can get as high as 6 inches.) Clearly, this takes a lot of practice. But it’s also a test in patience.

Wheel throwing has become a way to be absorbed in something outside of myself. I knew that I needed to do something physical as a counterbalance to all the reading and writing that I do in a day. And while I usually walk and swim as exercise, my mind still wanders amidst words and memories and ideas. I need an occasional break from myself and my thoughts. Friends recommended meditation, but that feels like too much of what I do; I don’t want words swirling around, even if I acknowledge them to dismiss them. 

As the practical person that I am, I needed a hobby where I make something useful. I thought about sewing, but that would mean my being more in the small apartment I share with my mother. And I definitely needed a break from being there as well.

About two months ago, I signed up for this wheel throwing class after telling a friend how much I enjoyed my initial dipping-the-toe-in lesson, but that I wouldn’t continue since what would I do with all the things I create. Her response was that I can give the stuff away, but why not do something for myself—mind you, this was right after my mother was sick and intense caregiving duties seemed to be looming on the horizon. While those duties have retreated as my mother got better, they are still a concern for the future; truly, she’s not getting younger. My friend, and her daughter, were right: pottery is the meditative, creative, centering activity that I need right now, active caregiving or not.

For a change, I’m doing something with no motive other than the thing itself. It’s not a walk for my health, or a meet-up to make new friends and perhaps meet a man. I went because it was something that I needed to do—for me. The women I’ve met there have all been nice, but we’re focused on our pottery. And it feels good to leave after a few hours not thinking that I didn’t make any lifelong friends, but thinking that the brief conversations, mainly about what they’re making and some helpful tips, were part of the experience of the moment and not meant to go beyond it. They are of the time and place. And that’s okay.

It turns out that the throwing part is momentary. Prepare the clay by wedging, which is like kneading. Form it into a ball or a cone and then throw it onto the center of a pottery wheel (actually a bat, which is a disc that goes on the wheel itself). Now, using your hands and water to keep them wet so they can glide over the surface, shape the clay to form it into the vessel you want. Throwing is so brief. Oddly enough, the act of the throw isn’t satisfying because you’re so intentional on getting it centered that you can’t throw with abandon. It feels good, though, to hear the thunck when it hits the surface (kind of like a good thwack of a pickle ball). Yet another surprise.

Even with all the positive feelings about this foray into pottery making, I’m not sure that I’ll continue and I’m not sure why. The frustration is real, but so is the incremental improvement. Maybe it really is that I don’t make to make things. Or that I’ve gotten so used to being alone, that it’s uncomfortable with other people around (which should probably be a reason to continue). But maybe it’s okay to not know. And maybe it’s okay to just try something, enjoy it, and then move on. I don’t have to commit to something, I don’t have to have one specific hobby.

During the first lesson, I jokingly told the other beginner in the class, “I’m glad I’m not thinking of making this a career.” I tend to think that my activities need to be important. When I started baking, it was to have a bakery. When I came up with ideas for toys and games, it was to have a company. (And this was before Shark Tank.) Maybe I really can just enjoy something in the moment for itself without having to turn it into more than an enjoyable activity. Perhaps this is the lesson here: I’m allowed to do things for myself without feeling guilty that not every action is about giving.


No Bucket List for Me: But Still Places to Be

20230317_163816(1)Street about 20 minutes from home

I don’t have a bucket list. That phrase doesn’t make sense to me: how can a bucket be a list? Anything related to a bucket would be chaotic, a mess, a blob, a pile, certainly not a list with bullets and indents. Also, as a city (or suburban) woman, I’ve rarely used a bucket, so why would I use one to contemplate the things that I may, on occasion, daydream about?

On a non-literal level, I’m easy on myself. I have no desire to do something that scares me or could kill me even more than driving in southern Florida. I don’t get what’s accomplished—what you get out of—jumping from anything, be it a bridge, a ledge, or an airplane. Overcoming fear? If you’ve gotten to the age when people around you talk about their bucket lists, then you’ve surely done plenty of things that were scary in your day-to-day living. Why push fate? Anyway, isn’t it more about you trusting in whatever technology is used and the people who used it as opposed to you doing something that proves you’re stronger than you thought? So how is that validating? Why not just take a deep breath, acknowledge where you’ve been, where you are, and have a nice meal to celebrate survival, and then contemplate what is yet to come?

I don’t even have a “Places to Visit” list because it doesn’t matter. So what if I never get to Australia, which I dreamed about visiting after watching Walkabout when I was a girl. Anyway, the girl who was moved by that movie is a different version of me—do I want to visit Australia or am I simply holding onto her desire? Besides, I think my response to that movie was about wanting to be somewhere completely different, to have an adventure. Does it have to be in Australia where I was fascinated by two kids who have a very sad adventure after they’re abandoned in the Outback by their father who commits suicide? I did live in an entirely different place where I walked around its semi-arid landscape and had adventures, so mission accomplished, sort of.

Maybe if we think about what our goals and destinations represent, it could prevent disappointment and clinging to outdated notions of ourselves. What we need to do is realize how far we’ve come in our lives and what we’ve done—dare I say accomplished (this really is a note to self)—and not look to do more before taking stock and reassessing. Which, of course, needs to be free of competitive accounting, which, I dare say, is often the culprit in contemplating goals. Again, does it matter where I’ve had delightful days, as long as I’ve had a few?

A few months ago, I realized that in all the places I’ve lived: New York City, Buffalo, the Tel Aviv area, Northern Virginia, and now the West Palm Beach area, I’ve never gone to all the guidebook-worthy places. Now, I’m determined to change that. Walk in nature, a city, a quaint town. Go to a museum. Discover foods and restaurants. The focus now is on where I live as opposed to seeking to do the same things I like to do after having spent a lot of time, money, and anxiety, to just get from here to there. With home as my base, I have the benefit of returning to my comfy space after the hours of exploration. Do I feel challenged? Why do I need to be? I’m enjoying exploring without discomfort. Am I really a better version of myself if I’ve managed to get from the airport to a hotel to a tourist site to a nice restaurant and have even stood up for myself if something went wrong?

At the base of all these places to visit and things to do should be an understanding of what I need to feel that I’m not standing still as a person. More times than not, that happens sitting on the balcony writing. Of course, the writing is informed by the meanderings, even if they only took me around the block. Perhaps appreciation of what we have and who we are matters more than checked lists of places seen. What does it say about us if we can’t appreciate experiences that happen close to home?

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Alligator in park about 20 minutes from home

Single Women and Their Blood Pressure

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Flamingo Park, West Palm Beach

In the latest edition of—whether you want it or not, you’re getting it—the AARP magazine—I read the article, “8 Habits That Are Raising Your Blood Pressure,” which got mine up from reading it, when I had hoped that it would give me tips on lowering it.

The first listed reason for high blood pressure details the harm of being “an antisocial woman or an overly social man.” It then goes on to talk about “socially isolated” women, and men who have too large of a network. (Maybe with all the talk of AI taking over the writing world, I’m back in teacher-mode, focusing on words and their usage, and why we still need people to see the not-so-subtle nuances). Why are they equating someone who is antisocial with someone who is socially isolated? These are not the same. In one case, you go out of your way to stay away from people; in the other, it’s not that you don’t want to socialize, it’s that connections aren’t there, for whatever reason, and that’s stressing you out (and, oops, there goes your blood pressure).

I also don’t understand how, in our extrovert-focused society, the author can say that someone who hangs out with lots of people is “overly social.” What does this even mean? Maybe it’s about lacking deep connections or downtime to process all the excitement you’ve been having, so that your blood pressure can have a breather? 

Clearly, the article is meant to be helpful, with yet another list to help us live our lives. But it feels like judging is happening. It’s not healthy for women to be too alone or men to be too together, in relation to (only?) blood pressure. But what is a person supposed to do about that? It’s not as if lonely people haven’t tried to unlonely themselves, and the overly social have become used to that way of being. (I assume that they have heard of meditation, reading, and walks by a body of water, but perhaps there may be some realizations, insights, and thoughts that they prefer to keep at bay. And the lonely of us, surely, they have been defeated by multiple attempts at making enough lasting connections to keep loneliness from impacting their health.)

Which brings me to thinking of the things that we’re constantly told (even if we’re not seeking them out) that can help us be healthier and happier. I wonder, is the goal to be a better version of ourselves or to become a bland, generic version?

For a time, I was going to a fair number of meet-ups (for me it was a lot; for the social, a blip on their calendar) and each time there were the introductions that covered the usual condensed life story. After a while, I was tired of introducing myself repeatedly at each event. But it gets tough to rethink both the past and the present, which leads to a review, which leads to a critique, which leads to stress, which leads to, once again, high blood pressure. It was also dull to hear the same things from the people I was meeting. At times it felt that we had all hit the same milestones which resulted in our being in this bowling alley, restaurant, or walking path at this moment. It was as if a flattened version of ourselves was in attendance.

And who wants that? At a certain point, the potential for a life-changing meeting with the man of my dreams (do I even have one?) or even of making a new friend to go to brunch with (oh, how extravagant the desires) are too insignificant to bother. Better to be single dealing with high blood pressure than to be constantly presented with one’s failures.

Ok, I correct myself, these are not failures. These are the choices I have made as I try to lead a full and fulfilling life. And it’s still up to me, AARP suggestions or not, to figure out what degree of lonely and social is right for me. Perhaps today’s plan to go by myself to a museum I have never been to in a city I have never been to is part of that ongoing process.

 


Retirement Phase 2.0: My Mother’s Keeper

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It’s retirement 2.0 for me! The change from 1.0 is not because I’ve relocated to a Caribbean Island with—or without—a lover. Nor is it because I’ve become a babysitting grandmother, correcting mistakes that I made with my daughters. Nor is it back to working full-time because of boredom or overly optimistic financial planning. No. It’s 2.0 because my mother has had some health issues lately and now depends on me for more than my charming presence in her home.

The tentative plans that I started contemplating when I last visited my daughters, where I would stay for a few months near each of them out on the West Coast, have dissipated. Gone, now that my mother needs me to help her out more—physically (if she’ll take my arm) and mentally (if she’ll listen to me through the cycle of woe and anxiety that has become her internal voice track). Now I get to take her to her doctors’ appointments, which have become more than annual—and to remember for her when they are, and to not get chocolate cake (wink wink—GET chocolate cake) when I go to the grocery store for her.

She went from being a supremely capable older woman to an unsure elderly woman in a single illness. It is the age, I understand from friends, on the cusp of 90, when that happens. Hopefully, the treatment(s?) will heal her physically, but it still seems that this was a before-after moment. She has been touched by the idea of her mortality, something that she has kept hidden in the back of her mind, even as the wrinkles took over. From what I’ve been told from those who’ve gone through this before me, the before-after switch into being elderly—feeling frail and forlornly fearful of mortality—is often because of a fall. With her it was a fall and another fall, a passing out, a few days in the hospital, visits to new specialists, and tests. No broken bones, but a fractured spirit. And even as self-focused as I can be, I know that this is not the time to be two flights away for an extended period of time.

It’s funny, she still thinks that I don’t have to make any changes to accommodate her. After all, I’m still doing my occasional dogsitting nearby, now that she's recovered enough to not need me there to make sure she makes it to the bathroom. Her sense of independence, or is it an inability to ask for and accept help, perhaps keeps her strong and fighting. But, looking from the outside and also thinking about myself and this inherited family trait, it also seems to mean losing out on a way to connect to loved ones and people who care.

Independence does not mean that you eschew help just for the sake of showing that you can do it. At a certain point, this seems more a sign of stubbornness than logic. No, it means that you’re making your own decisions while also appreciating that there are ways for others to make your life easier—to enhance your life. If we offer a hand, why can’t we accept one as well?

It's not as if you’re dumping the burden of you onto someone else. It’s not even sharing it, since it’s still your reality. Rather, it’s being aware that there are people who care and who you can trust to not diminish you, but to encourage you to be fully you, within whatever limitations time and gravity have done to your body.

It seems to me that this is a lesson all of us could use, whatever stage we’re in of the aging process.

 


My Friends’ Husbands

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Dogs and Cats Walkway Sculpture Garden, Maurice A. Ferré Park, Miami


My friends have nice husbands. That observation came about when a friend’s husband briefly chatted with me as I started a zoom call with his wife. Later that same day, another friend’s husband did the same thing. They made me feel included in their lives and that I was their friend too.

Because of them, and a few other husbands (who often do the same thing, wave included), I lost the last vestiges of the bitter lumping together of all men that had been lingering since my divorce in 2007. Their generally kind demeanors have forced me to be more accepting and to become a feminist who is not against men, but for women. I don’t know if it’s more effective in getting women through those darn glass ceilings and with complete authority over their bodies, but it feels a little calmer inside me as I go about my life. It's nice not to distrust every man.

At the same time that I made that realization about my friends’ husbands, it also occurred to me that most of my friends are married. That hadn’t been the case for a long time. When I was getting divorced and then for years after, most of my friends were divorced. Except for one (and I wonder about that now), we all had stories of control and abuse—emotional, verbal, or physical—that we bonded over, where “to bond” means that someone understands you without blaming you or telling you what you should have done differently.

Perhaps the good guys do finish first since their marriages are the ones that last. Seems to me the charismatic guys that some of us were drawn to turned out to spoil, like the last piece of cake that turns your stomach because you just couldn’t resist eating it even though you knew that you already had enough and were going to get sick if you had any more sugar. Next time, you keep hoping, you will finally listen to your body and stop.

These men, who wave and say hello in the background of zoom calls as they go on their way, and their wife and I settle down to analyze our lives and the world (and the horrible things that, mainly, men are doing—ah, the temptation to generalize because sometimes there is truth behind the generalization), add a dimension to my life—in addition to what their wives add.

With one friend, we have had mutual “speaking to the choir” rants for years, where we basically echo each other’s thoughts about the state of the world and the people in charge. Another friend, who I have known since elementary school, while she has a much different life than mine, our similar beginnings and the things that matter to us have created a strong friendship. I’ve joined a relatively new friend in trying to change the world, which is, surely, a powerful bonding experience. (Wave to husbands and wives here!)

And now another realization: with these friends I focus on the external world, rather than wallowing in the warmth of self-pity (which I did enjoy; I don’t understand why self-pity is a bad thing when it’s a building block of “things can only get better”). Until this moment, I didn’t even realize that I had made this transition. I had mourned the loss of my divorced-friends’ friendships, but I see now that it was more of a sloughing of what was no longer essential. Our important work was done. We had built each other back up. Sharing our bitter stories helped me (us, I hope) heal into appreciating a wave of hello without feeling a stab of regret and thoughts of bad choices. Rather, they helped me to think that maybe I could have a small slice of cake now.


Retired Women Don’t Like Clothes

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Lake Worth Beach Parrots

It turns out that retired women don’t like clothes. Okay, maybe not clothes altogether. I don’t think that they’re turning clothing-optional, but the process of having to dress to head outside and, you know, interact with people who have things to do and places to be is not something that they look forward to doing. Apparently, years of interactions and dressing for those interactions, has sapped us of our desire to do it one more time. Stay-at-home-retirees! That’s a thing.

It's also a thing to be surprised by the person we used to be. Who is that woman who ran meetings and talked to people all day long? Could she possibly be the woman who lives in her Boomer sweats, tries to sneak out to the stores when no one else will be there, and who cringes at the thought of chit chat?

The idea of the older recluse is not far from our minds—in an envious way.

We did not retire to waste more time on mindless activities and conversations. If that’s what you’re offering, then there’s no getting dressed for you!

Tied with not wanting to get dressed in outside clothes in general is not wanting to get dressed at a specific time for a specific event. If us older people aren’t in the work force, it’s because we have no desire to set an alarm clock for anything other than zooming with friends or family. If we need to set aside even a couple of hours a week consistently to do something, well, that’s another hurdle that we’d rather not overcome.

The ability to roll over in the morning when you see that it’s gray or rainy or snowy or sunny and not feel guilty about it is pure joy. It’s not the same as pressing the snooze button. No, it’s the freedom of knowing that no button can dislodge me.

A lifetime of busy schedules and commitments has led to this, a generation of women who would rather retreat than plan, or attend, another event.

We have become as flighty as our teenage selves, or even our own kids. Sure, we sign up for volunteering and we’re committed to making the world a better place (or is a less horrible place?). Unless, of course, there is that urge to just stay home, with no places to be and people to see, no one expecting anything from us.

It’s lovely to know that you’re in charge of your time—and your wardrobe. You can finally just suit yourself.


The Ways I Define Myself

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas

During the holidays, I travelled out West to visit my daughters. (Thankfully, I was neither delayed by storms nor technical meltdowns, and my luggage stayed with me, though it was tight in some bathroom stalls.) It was a break from “daughter living with mother” to “mother visiting daughters.” Now, I’m back in Florida and dog sitting for a few days, so I’m on my own and thinking about how both of those identities define me and, yet, leave me missing me.

The longer I sit here thinking about this, it finally comes to me that I must stop using them as an alternative to establishing a post-retirement identity. I cannot place these relationships in a position where I relinquish my independence, without anyone even wanting that control. These three people are supremely independent and expect the same of me—know me to be the same. Now is not the time to change that.

As has been clear for years, and though I have allowed myself to ignore the evidence and let myself imagine my role differently, my daughters don’t need me in the daily running of their lives. That is a good thing. I am an accessory, maybe a necessary one, but certainly not one needed on a daily basis. I am the pot that you need to cook a specific dish; you may cook it often, but not every day. Perhaps I am like the keychain charms that I keep giving as gifts (first a bedazzled initial from Las Vegas and then a hamsa with the Traveler’s Prayer from Israel), something that you take for granted that is part of something that you need.

I am in limbo. And I feel this even more sitting here in this house that is not mine with the sweet dog who is not mine. Years ago, I had a house and a dog. But I don’t have those things anymore because I married the wrong person and life unraveled to this point. I wish I were over regretting the way things turned out. I need to accept it as history, not as something that could have been different.

Which makes me realize, too, that I should rejoice in this situation where I am in control of the next steps that I take. I am not in constant consultation with a partner or in demand by an uncertain child. The quietness of my days, my ability to spend hours facing my computer without any interruptions, is not a twist of fate, but the way things were meant to be, for me.  

Perhaps thinking of my relationships with my daughters and my mother is to see that we are in a kind of voluntary relationship now, where our past is a benefit, one that feeds the present and the future. If the cost for the things that I don’t have is this peaceful existence and relationships, then there is nothing to regret.

Sometimes, when I read with dread of yet another husband who has killed his wife and maybe also his children, I remember back to a colleague who feared for my life when I left work each day. And I am eternally grateful that I am here to think this thought. It brings me back to this realization that life itself is the gift.

Here I am: I have no job, no permanent home, no partnered relationship; I have a pension and some savings. I am a person with a ticket to try to be fully herself in as simple and effective a way as suits me. Leaving aside the hindering weight of expectations and disappointments is surely an important step in the process. This recurring step is perhaps here to remind me that my past—myself in the past—is neither positive nor negative, but the reality of lived life. Recognition of self at this moment: always an initial step, always different.

Even as I sit here thinking that I am stagnant, I see that I am not. And that is the beauty, isn’t it? As this earth hurls through space without our feeling it, we, too, hurl through our lives without realizing it. Not noticing, noting, the changes, but they have taken place. Life is being lived; even here, within thoughts, desires, regrets, acknowledgments.

I see now that there is always purpose, even if it doesn’t seem so. Something that I feared was not true, hence the reliance on being needed.

It comes to me as I stare out the window waiting for thoughts to come that the weight of each life, as it exists in balance with the other lives in its range, is unknowable but that does not negate its force. The essence that is unique to each of us—impacting, impacted—is the distillation of the experiences we have lived to reach now. There must be satisfaction in this moment, for there to be more in the next.


Fate or Meeting a Long-Lost Friend in the Holocaust Museum

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View from the grounds of Yad Vashem (author's pic)

I met my ex-husband waiting for a bus at Haifa’s central station. I was by myself because the person I went into Haifa with wanted to stay and shop, while I wanted to get back to the kibbutz where I was living to start getting ready to fly to England in two days. We briefly chatted while waiting for the bus to Tiberias, then, once the bus came and I sat down, he slowly walked down the aisle and sat next to me. We talked, somehow; I had enough Hebrew and he had enough English to hold a conversation. He visited me the next day and we exchanged addresses. Over the next six months we corresponded and when I made aliya (moved to Israel), we met again, beginning our very romantic romance that didn’t end romantically.

Shortly after my family and I moved to Virginia, knowing no one, I took my daughters to a children’s festival. I was alone with them since my husband, who wouldn’t have wanted to go there and would have suggested something else, had briefly returned to Israel to deal with his green card. After sitting down, I looked behind me to see how full the auditorium was, and, there, a few rows behind us was a friend who I had lost touch with when I went away to college. Our friendship was a foundation upon which my life in Virginia depended.

The latest fateful encounter was a few days ago in Jerusalem. Some people have religious revelations there; I had a supremely human one.

In the midst of the emotional experience that is Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, I saw a friend from New York who I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I was watching a short video on the experiences of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, a special interest since I’m translating and condensing survivors’ stories from there for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I watched, I noticed a woman to my left who was also watching the movie. She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her. I stepped back as if to turn away. Then I thought that I can’t walk away just because I couldn’t remember her name.

I turned to her and said, “I know you. I’m Laura.” She looked at me with eyes full of the sadness that weighs on you in that museum. Then they widened into excitement, and said, “I’m G.” And in that moment, we remembered each other. We hugged with all the emotion that bears down on you there, but also from the deep well of disappointment that had been our lives when we had last been in touch, each dealing with our turbulent divorces from our husbands.

How to explain how unexpected this encounter was? Neither of us lives in Jerusalem, or even Israel for that matter. Both of us on vacation, in a large, busy museum with our minds engrossed. It is not a people-watching place. An unexplainable meeting. Fate.

It turns out that she was showing Israel to her second husband and the next week they would visit her daughter (who had been a childhood friend of older daughter’s) who now lives in Tel Aviv. They visited the museum the previous day, but hadn’t finished, so they came back and started where they had gotten up to when the museum closed. I thought that I wouldn’t get in since they said that there were no entry tickets.

Once in, though, if either of us had gone at a different pace or turned to look at something else, there would not have been that moment of recognition.

We hugged and cried, loudly. (I wonder what the people who saw us thought had brought us to that emotional state at that spot.)

We talked for a few minutes, it was hard to stop, but there was still so much more of the museum to experience. We arranged to meet later that day at her hotel, which was a few minutes from mine. As I continued, my thoughts were full of excitement and surprise at our meeting, reconnecting.

Fate? Something brought us together. Made those other chance encounters happen too. Not many over a lifetime, but they had been significant, had brought so much to my life. Those people at those moments. Me at those moments.

What is it that we want from friendships, relationships? To feel heard and be asked to listen. To be encouraged and give support.

I was in Jerusalem for three days and it was fascinating. But I was not moved. I did not experience a connection to God, or the force that is.

I reconnected with a friend.

It makes me wonder if friendships are part of the essence that is. Part of the fiber that connects all living things. The people, who may be briefly in our lives or present for much of it, bring us deeper into ourselves. They accompany us as we—timidly, irreverently, thoughtfully, naively, trustingly—trod our path. Perhaps what connects us—that otherworldly thread—is that we each need something outside of the self to help us fully become ourselves, to experience and appreciate our lives and who we are, in all that is.


Back in Israel: A Tourist in a Place that Had Been Home

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Where we used to live in Tel Aviv

I’m in Israel visiting for a month after not having been here for more than 22 years. Much is different; much is the same. For Israel; for me.

When I left in the summer of 2000, I lived here with my family, my husband and I were about to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary in the dream home we recently purchased, one daughter was going into 4th grade and her sister into kindergarten, and I worked in the high-tech industry. Now, I live in southern Florida with my mother (after leaving Northern Virginia where we moved that summer for what was supposed to be a temporary stay), I’ve been divorced for many years, my daughters have both graduated college, and I retired from teaching (a career I hadn’t even envisioned in 2000). Twenty-two years of living, but always wistfully thinking that I should be in Israel.

This trip represents action—finally back—and a moment to pause before moving forward, unstuck. It’s time to accept, I see now, who I am and where I am. I need to acknowledge that the past is different from what I thought it would be. How many of us are living the lives we had imagined when we were 20?

Looking forward, I need to think about what I need to do so that this moment becomes a stepping stone for what will be, rather than a memorial keeping me stuck contemplating what was not.

From 0 to 20 in New York, 20 to 40 in Israel, 40 to 60 in Virginia. Maybe the moves and the timings were right. There was enough time in each place to adapt and feel at home, as least as much as possible when I live so much in my own (internal and external) space. 

On this trip (because that is what it is), I see that I have always been a woman who spends much of her time wandering around by herself, people-watching, contemplating, being in motion and still at the same moment. I feared encountering this aloneness (one reason why it took so long for me to come back). But that’s okay, I realize; it’s my core.

But I’m not always alone here. I have come to meet people I volunteer with long-distance and to finally see the two institutions I’ve spent hours helping raise funds for, so that they can continue the important work they do in bringing people together, providing an education, showing that equality and mutual respect are not just for other people in other places. I am necessary. I have purpose. I may be a wanderer, but I’m also a giver. That balance maintains me, wherever my home may be.

Israel is busier, more crowded, more built-up, than when I was last here. But still, the characters and the character, the sounds and the Shabbat silence, the foods and the interactions, remind me of why I moved here so many years ago. To be Jewish in Israel is a somber and satisfying fulfillment of identity and history. It is to feel connected from the root.

The Hebrew that took years to learn looks and sounds wonderful: I read signs and advertisements, listen to the news (oh, the news ☹), and I can still eavesdrop (this was my first indication that I had learned enough Hebrew to integrate into society), and ask for help, and hold conversations. To see people dressed like me, the many secular Israelis, and the religious Jews, with their head coverings and clothing styles signaling their belief systems, is comforting. It is to re-immerse into a world that feels so comfortable, even though it has been so long. At home, but not home is still a satisfying to experience.

Being confronted with my past in such a physical way makes me realize that life is not about the choices we make, but how we live from them. My actions and inactions have led me to a fulfilling life, with people who I love and who love me. Not an outcome to regret, but one to celebrate.

Going forward, perhaps I can incorporate more frequent visits here so that my past, my present, and my future blend together.

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My view now in Zichron Ya'acov

Retirement Brain: Things I Forget Intentionally and Unintentionally

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Driving to the beach the other morning, I heard about a not-new study that tested the brain function of people 14 years before retirement and then 14 years after. Deterioration occurs. Verbal memory was negatively impacted, which means people forgot words and verbal items (referring to analogies, antonyms, sentence completion, and reading comprehension). “Use it or lose it.” This made me think about some trade-offs that may occur upon retirement. My fear of forgetting where a comma goes and for whom the bell tolls contrasted with my fear of not spending time with the people who matter to me, of having my life overshadowed by concerns for my students (who have probably already forgotten me), and of not having the opportunity to figure out who I am without thinking about my career. The fear of staying in a job for fear of forgetting could result in not getting to experience post-work life.

This made me think of some of the things we need to remember over the course of our lives: people (faces, names, stories, birthdays); homes; schedules; career terminology; driving routes and walking paths; recipes; events; family histories; the books read; the movies, plays, and TV shows watched; and the places visited. Thinking back, or trying to, it’s hard to even realize how many things have been forgotten. But just because something isn’t recalled doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been absorbed somehow into our essence. The croissant of life (much nicer to think about than an onion’s layers).

What do we want from our memory? From our lives? We want them intact and for us to be in control of them. But how much of that is possible?

Even before I retired at the end of the 2019-20 school year when I was 60 and a few months (right at the age when I could start receiving my pension), I already felt myself needing more time to access words and to regain a train of thought. It’s so odd to experience those inside wrinkles, just as it is to feel the thinning hair and see the age spots. In class (here’s a partial excuse), it became apparent that I really needed to watch what I said because it could be recorded and twisted to be turned against me (by a parent whose darling was not getting the A they absolutely deserved), so I took my time composing my thoughts before speaking. (Self-censorship or wisdom?) Even so, I could feel my brain working instead of it just working. Kind of like watching my mother get up from a chair: at 88 it was a slow-motion process, not a simple act.

Of course, I don’t want to forget things, especially if it’s my fault. I play Wordle and Quordle daily, and read and write, but I talk a lot less than I used to. Oh my, the amount of talking that goes into teaching. But that’s now countered with the calm I feel (except when looking at the stock market and my life savings experiencing loss). The balance of words lost to calm maintained must surely count as a significant benefit.

I hadn’t realized how much thinking about work overtakes our thoughts for so much of our lives. From a young age we’re directed to think about what we want to be when we grow up, and then we study for that and work at it, and then realize that we were wrong, so we try to figure out what we really want to do, and then work to transition into that new field, and then there’s the money we need to make to support ourselves and our growing families, and self-satisfaction takes a backseat to money for our children so they can start the process themselves. It’s never-ending, until it does end—at the point when a new version of us can emerge.

I remember words and their meanings, but now I also think about finding my own meanings so that I want to hold on and not loosen my grasp of life.

Here I am. A person focusing on being a better me and figuring out what that entails. It’s not selfish to continue within this unfurling, to live fully within my allotted time and space. It is to live within my expectations, not society’s.


Finding Meaning and Being Meaning

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In the distance are several small brown shapes. Perhaps they are napping birds, waiting for the heat to dissipate (October and midday heat still offends), so they can resume their search for food. Maybe they are tree stumps, forever moored to the ground. Or maybe they are palm fronds torn from their treed-connections by Hurricane Ian, which seemed to have gardened our area, not gutted it like it did the west coast. (Yes, when people here say the “west coast,” they are referring the west coast of Florida, not to California. A singular mindset in a peninsula.)

Without binoculars, I cannot tell what they are. I guess I could walk over there when I finish sitting in this library, soaking in the quiet until the students arrive to wait for their parents to pick them up or to work with tutors.

Groups of white birds (storks?) have just taken flight. They are too unattached and small in number to count as a flock. A small yellow butterfly has raced past at an astounding pace. The birds have flown to another grassy area, all except for one bird that seems to be looking for a mini-flock to join or rejoin.

The brown shapes have not moved, so I assume they are not birds for, surely, they would have responded to all the movement around them, even if to bristle at the disturbance as I will do soon when the children arrive.

When I taught, I prided myself on always finding meaning in even the smallest details in a story. It was a challenge I enjoyed. But now, I’m a person who doesn’t need to instruct on how to think and how to analyze. I am simply a person experiencing a moment with no agenda to find or impose upon it.

Which is better or truer to me? Does it matter? Are both meaning-finding and being true expressions of my existence? And at this moment, this day after Yom Kippur, I can find gratitude for the wholeness of this moment. I can adjust my demands/expectations/hopes for myself and try to be purpose—as a bird or butterfly or fallen leaf. Do I need to proclaim (to myself) who I am in order to be enriched, or is acknowledging and respecting each moment enough?

In each moment, to be and to be that being is purpose. My insight.


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.


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.