Life Lessons

"The Future Is Feminine": Insights from a Lecture

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Recently, I attended an online lecture by a Chassidic rabbi titled, “The Future Is Feminine.” I’m not sure what I expected, but nowadays I want to hear thoughts that haven’t been floating around in my mind for years. I’m also in a religious and spiritual seeker mind-frame where my focus is on learning from the accumulated wisdom of the sages of my Jewish heritage. October 7th propelled me faster down a path that I was already meandering along. A motivating thought: Why should I accept your concepts if they end up leading to—and even encouraging—the dismissal, death, and destruction of my people?

What surprised me, when I listened to the rabbi and heard the direction he took, was that I remained attentive to ideas that, until recently, I would have been aghast at and probably mocked. Now, I’m willing to listen. It seems that when concepts that had seemed valid turn out to twist and distort reality, casting good as evil and evil as good, that becomes the time to be open to hearing other ideas.

As I explained the main points to younger daughter’s boyfriend later that day, he summed it up succinctly, “Oh, it’s about women staying home.” It horrified me to think that I had listened to and found worthwhile thoughts in that vein. But rather than rip up my notes and turn my back on the rabbi’s ideas, I decided to read through them and think about whether there may be something to what he said, while still firmly in my feminist perspective.

While the ideas he presented are simplistic and stereotyping, I still found them thought-provoking.

Women

  • Women are motivated by how good the good is. Things can be so good, why not make them better. For women, achievements come from their identity, and contentment is their natural condition.
  • Women are motivated to do something good, which leads to their doing more good deeds; for example, keep Shabbat, then start to eat kosher food.

Men

  • Men are motivated to eliminate the bad. I must do something to get rid of the bad. They are anxious, then they become active to complete a task, upon completion there is a moment of contentment, then they return to anxiety, to begin the cycle again. Men identify with their achievements. They are motivated by anxiety, to make a change or to fix something, which is their natural condition.
  • Men are motivated to stop doing something negative, which leads to doing something positive; for example: stop eating non-kosher food, then keep Shabbat.

The Desired Direction

  • We all need to be more like women. Rather than focus on not sinning (the masculine approach), we need to focus on doing more mitzvahs/good deeds (the feminine approach).

I’m not necessarily thinking about what he said from the male/female dichotomy, though it may have some validity, though certainly not on a universal scale. Instead, I’m thinking about these two ways of moving through the world. It does seem more peaceful to go from the perspective that things need to be improved and to work at that, rather than that things need to be broken and then rebuilt. Not only is the latter way destructive, it’s also arrogant. It’s as if all the contributions of those before you are valueless and only yours are of worth. Each time re-creating, rather than growing a creation and maintaining its fruition.

The wars that were and those that are, could they have been prevented if the world had been more feminine, or acting from a place of improvement rather than destruction?

Since October 7th, my thoughts keep returning to this moment: Israeli hostages still held in terror tunnels, Israel living through the drain and devastation of war; the reignition of the nasty flame of antisemitism; Gazans suffering from the impact of Islamic terrorism and, ironically, antisemitism; and supposedly caring people failing to see the humanity and worth of every human.

And I think about how the rabbi’s ideas could help me think forward, to a way out of the gloom. The rabbi may have been talking about men and women in personal relationships, but that is not where I take them.

These days I see women baking challah, reading psalms, writing, speaking, informing, and organizing as their way of prayer to the Eternal Spirit to protect their loved ones, to return the hostages, to protect the soldiers, to stop the deaths and harm to all civilians—to bring about lasting peace. And I think, too, of the people I know who remain devoted to bringing together Jews and Arabs—people are people—because they cannot abandon the idea that Things can be so good, why not make them better, because they want to make that the way forward rather than I must do something to get rid of the (perceived) bad.

Perhaps the way forward, using the rabbi’s insights, is for me—for each of us—to commit to improving the world—focusing on that which is good: using and sharing our sparks within as best we can so that there is more light, and not a diminishing. Perhaps each of us—man and woman—needs to see what we can contribute to making the world a better place and not letting others, or even ourselves, rip apart the good with the bad.


Four Stages of Retirement

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Seeing far and fog on a walk in the woods


I’m slipping into my next, the fourth, retirement stage or mindset. I call it Detachment.

First, there was the astonishment that I don’t have to be at a specific place, at a set time, to do a certain thing, and that nothing can be demanded of me by anyone. That was Relief.

Second was Disappointment. This was when Relief was awash with negative thoughts. No one needs me. What am I going to do with all these days stretching ahead of me? How can I fill my time so that I still feel needed, important, alive? This mindset began the stripping bare that’s happening even more now. But, as a courtesy to ourselves, this doesn’t happen all at once.

Third was Unretirement. Looking for activities (volunteer and paid) and get-togethers that made me think that I still have it, that I’m still the person I was, that I’m still good at the things I trained in and practiced for years, the things that, in fact, enabled me to retire early. This stage is when people often go back to work, escaping the freedom of retirement.

Interspersed amongst those mindsets is Escape. Travelling, especially when teaching, was hard during the school year. We all seemed to have someone determining when we could or couldn’t escape. Now, my schedulelessness is another bit of proof that I’m in control of my life and my time. This one also feels good when I hear about other people’s trips—it’s not just mine. There’s less envy than there may have been in the past. Now, it’s about appreciating that other people are cutting loose from whatever schedule they created for themselves and are setting out to have new adventures.

Two weeks into my Oregon sojourn, I realize that I have transitioned into the fourth stage, Detachment. This is me figuring out what I want to do without the imposition of external shoulds or shouldn’ts.

I’ve been spending whole days without anything to show for my time and it barely bothers me. When younger daughter asked what I did one day, I told her, without apologizing, that I read emails, watched lectures, viewed stories on Israel, napped, and took a walk. I can now spend my time productively for me without needing to have anything to show for it. Receiving—information, thoughts, observations, ideas, learnings—are just as important and necessary as output. The veneer of acceptability is being scratched through: I don’t need do something to prove (especially to myself) that I’m not lazy or that my life is of value. Every moment is to be lived and embraced as I need, and within every moment I am figuring out how to keep growing.

As I’ve been thinking about why I continue to write and what I hope to get out of it, I’m becoming aware that I don’t contain within myself all that I want to know and share. I’m ready to learn new things and be a conduit to others. But, and this is key, this is self-directed.

For years, I was fixated on needing to get a PhD to prove (to myself and others) that I know something, that I am an expert in something. But I never did it and now the idea of going back to school and spending years putting my mind under the scrutiny and assessment of professors feels like a waste of the time that I have left and a waste of what I have learned up to this moment.

This, too, is a shift in mindset. I realized that what I want—need—to know is not more detached information. What I need is as pertinent as breath: how can I keep improving as a person.

With no job that demands and drains my time, and adult children who don’t need me for their sustenance, I’m free to follow the path that leads me to be as me as possible, giving me the opportunity to fulfill my purpose as I understand it to be.


Daughtering My Mother

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A walk in Oregon

My 90-year-old mother is clearly a child of the Great Depression: she saves and reuses everything, and not out of concern for the environment. There are cottage cheese containers holding dried apricots, supermarket bags as garbage bags (in Florida, we still get plastic bags at checkout), and envelops doubling as notepapers. But the efficacy of using every scrap of paper, including yesterday’s newspaper that’s about to go into the recycling, as a place to write a shopping list, a relative’s address, a friend’s phone number, or even a reminder to take one’s pills and eyedrops is questionable when one’s memory dulls and the pieces of paper seem to disappear, somewhere.

Growing up, there was always a notepad with a pencil by the telephone (back when they were rotary and connected to the wall by a cable). This woman had it together. It’s taken a while for me to notice that she doesn’t anymore and to realize that I need to help her. It's not easy to realize that your parent needs you in a way that infringes upon your independence—and the image of them that you built over a lifetime.

Remembering that younger daughter used a daily planner to keep herself organized in school, I decided to get one for my mother. We went together to Target and I showed her the one that I thought was right. Feeling conflicted about making decisions for her, I didn’t want to buy it without her participation. She might forget where she put a note, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t remember what she wrote on the note and why she needed it.

There is the intense fear that she will lose her independence and become dependent on me. It’s not an unfounded fear. Too many people I know have stories of parental dementia and dependence to not think about how I would respond to the challenge. And knowing that my brother won’t be a partner to me in any care, means that the decision-making is mine.

But here is where love and good parenting are appreciated. As I make decisions, and deal with new confusions, and get frustrated with and question myself, my daughters have become my sounding boards. Perhaps if I was married or if my brother was a better son, I wouldn’t have to turn to them for feedback and support. But this is the situation. The cycle of mothering and daughtering continues: none of us is in a fixed role.

My mother is still trying not to need me, even as she thanks me and says that she doesn’t know what she would do without me. I’m finding that I need to stand up for myself and not glide into letting her needs overshadow mine.

I’m taking a class in Mussar (an ancient Jewish spiritual tradition) where the goal is to work on different personality traits to better ourselves (and in the religious sentiment, better serve G-d). The first trait covered is humility. We were given a focus phrase, which seems appropriate here: “No more than my place, no less than my space.”

Perhaps this is what I need to have in mind when I think about daughtering my mother and mothering myself. The place and space may change depending on the circumstances, but there should never be a negation of one for the other. This is what I need to have in mind as I continue creating my life, and not denying it for my mother, whatever her situation.

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A walk in Florida

Traveler’s Prayer: Looking for Comfort along the Way

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Before going to the airport to fly from Southern Florida to Oregon, I removed my car fob from my key chain. I wanted to keep with me the key chain with the hamsa (a symbol thought to thwart the Evil Eye) that has on it the Jewish Traveler’s prayer in Hebrew. I never did that before, but it felt important to have it with me.  

A few hours into waiting at the airport for my connecting flight, it was cancelled due to the weather and icy conditions at the destination airport. Rather than wait a couple of days until flights resumed and I could get a seat, I decided to take the bus—which was leaving in 40 minutes. As I was trying to find the bus stop (which, not surprisingly, is hard to find in an airport), my daughter’s anxiety (I wonder where she gets that from) about the road conditions was tempered by her boyfriend’s confidence that I-5 would be clear.

Since it was still only early afternoon and I didn’t want to sit around waiting in a hotel room for days, I got on the bus. The ride was supposed to take seven-hours instead of an hour’s flight.

The ride from Seattle to Portland was relaxing, since there was no evidence of snow or ice most of the way. I enjoyed being a passenger looking out the window watching the world go by instead of focusing on the road and the aggressive drivers down in Florida. I could see the view that we miss when we fly: the dusky shapes of hulking mountains and the dark green of a northern forest were a nice change from the flatness of the land and the bright greens of Florida’s greenery where palm trees are the only natural thing with height. Not that I’m complaining about living in the tropics, I just felt myself transition to appreciating the experience of being a detached passenger on a dimly lit bus and not a stressed, stranded traveler in the charged energy of an airport when delays abound. 

It was dark when we departed cold, snowy Portland, where we had to wait outside in the cold for our connecting bus. No one sat next to me, so I remained in my little mental bubble. As we pulled out and onto the snowy streets, I remembered my key chain and took it out. I tried to read the traveler’s prayer, but the lettering was too small and I wasn’t familiar with the Hebrew. I used my phone to read an English version of the prayer (see below). I read it over a few times, wanting to get a sense of what it said, the dangers that a traveler might expect, and what a traveler could ask of G-d as they embarked on a journey. I tried to absorb the prayer as a whole, and not necessarily think about the individual words.

A friend told me that she always recites this prayer before she goes on a trip, and raised her daughter to do the same thing.

I had never read it before. But it seemed right to think about G-d, or appeal to G-d, or consider other Jewish travelers (now and in the past) and what they needed to feel safe, or at least not completely alone on their journeys. And I wonder now, as I think about that moment of speaking and appealing to G-d, of wanting to connect to that spirit to protect me and look out for me—what will it take for a Jew of this generation to ever feel safe again on this journey. Is it possible? Is it something to desire?

When we arrived at my destination, I thanked the bus driver for his cautious driving and tightly hugged (and got tightly hugged back by) younger daughter and her boyfriend.

The next day, I ventured out to start discovering my new neighborhood, where I’ll live for a couple of months. It was icy and neither the streets nor the sidewalks were cleared. Not far along on my walk, I slipped and fell on my right arm. I took baby steps to make it back without falling again. It took 15 minutes to walk a square block (about 1,000 feet). Gratefully, nothing broke and it took a couple of days for my arm to be almost back to normal.

As I was recovering, I was thinking of the pain that injured Israeli soldiers are experiencing, and the pain that the recovered hostages are experiencing, and the pain that everyone impacted by the massacre on October 7 is experiencing, and, of course, the unimaginable pain of the hostages. I thought about how much my arm hurt just from falling on it, compared to what Hersh Goldberg-Polin might be experiencing after having his arm blown off.

This is not a time, I realize, to be alone in one’s thoughts—there is only how to use one’s thoughts and experiences to try, in whatever way possible—to connect with and help Israelis and Jews. This is a time to support each other in our pain and our (eventual) healing.

I wonder, as I’m trying to drop my skepticism and doubt, what impact all those prayers to G-d have. As I told my daughter the other day about a prayer session that I attend, “It can’t be a bad thing to send out positive thoughts into the atmosphere.”

The other day, this line in Psalm 54 stood out: “Behold, G-d is my helper; G-d is with those who support my soul.” It’s a line to linger with, to think about what it means to support my soul and to consider, too, that it is not just a job for myself.

How do our recitations and prayers and thoughts connect and build? How do they help us protect ourselves and each other? How are they heeded and what does it mean for a prayer to be manifested?

As a secular woman who has always seen my identity as a Jew as important, I think that perhaps I have missed the essence. I’m not sure where I’m going, but saying a prayer for a safe journey, and praying for the safety of those battling for Israel’s safety, and those traumatized by hate and terrorism, feels like the right direction. And knowing that there are others who are doing the same thing brings me the comfort of knowing that I am not alone.

May it be Your will, G‑d, our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace (If one intends to return immediately, one adds: and return us in peace). Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world. May You confer blessing upon the work of our hands and grant me grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow upon us abundant kindness and hearken to the voice of our prayer, for You hear the prayers of all. Blessed are You G‑d, who hearkens to prayer. (link)


Jewish Women Are Lionesses, Not Material for Mockery and Easy Jokes

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Jewish mothers are rising and we are lionesses!

We’re done being mocked for loving our families too fiercely. There can be no “too” much love, as there can never be enough kugel or rugelach (two tasty signs of that love).

Jewish mothers have often been portrayed in movies and TV as meddling, overprotective, domineering, aggressive, pushy, and even a tad bitchy in support of their brood. Is that bad? This is how we do generational trauma!

And now we see the reason for having developed those behaviors playing out right before our eyes. We see the devastated mothers of kidnapped Israelis battling the world to get their children back. We see mothers whose children were killed in a modern-day pogrom and mothers whose children, Israeli soldiers, died as they fought for our survival, bereft, grief-stricken, but still rising with an untamable fierceness to find their children, to protect the memory of their children, to roar in pain.

Does it still seem like a burden that a mother would want to know where her children are and when they’ll be home? Just one, two, three generations ago, it wasn’t a stretch for her to wait with real trepidation and supreme relief to hear from them, to see them, to pamper them.

Is it funny that Jewish mothers seemed to smother their children with constant concern when we are now presented, in the supposedly safe USA, with the reason behind the behavior: vile antisemitism?

It’s clear now why Jewish mothers always need to know where their children are and who they’re with. Today, their children are on campuses where students and professors mass together to call them murderers and chant slogans for the destruction of their people, and where administrators are dangerously silent—where exactly is the line between overbearing and sensibly protecting their children?

It’s clear now that this protective stance may be one of the reasons why Jews have survived through so much destruction and turmoil over the centuries.

Look at those Jewish lionesses whose sons and daughters have been abducted. They are not settling for letting men in high places figure things out quietly or standing behind any man. Nope. Centuries of institutional oppression, wherever we have lived, taught Jewish mothers to be the strength and the backbone of the family. But now, finally, they don’t have to do that quietly, salvaging what is left of a destroyed family—no, they’re demanding to be seen and heard. Let’s heed the cries of these modern versions of our Biblical mothers. They are a force to be reckoned with. And their voices sear our hearts.

I’m in awe of Jewish mothers in Israel. One woman I know has two sons serving in the military, and still she goes out and volunteers, determined to do more to support other people who are suffering. Another mother, with two daughters in the military, provides succor to those with whom she interacts, even as she herself is consumed with worry.

Thinking back to Jewish mothers who sacrificed in ways big and small (which is it when she gives an extra matzoh ball to her children, but only takes a single lumpy one for herself?), nagging them to keep studying so that they can get into the finest schools in the land and have professions that they could take with them wherever they may be forced to live. Now, somehow, they need to protect their children on campuses rife with antisemitism and hate, reminiscent of the baying crowds of the pogroms that drove so many of our ancestors from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

How can it be funny that a Jewish mother sees her children as little princes and princesses? Why not smother your children with things when just a generation ago all was taken and destroyed: all that your family had managed to amass from the previous pogrom or expulsion. I finally understand that being raised as a Jewish American Princess was aspirational and not something by which to be embarrassed.

We Jewish women need to channel our inner lionesses, demanding that all Jewish lives and what happens to them matter.

I recently joined a daily women’s prayer group where we recite tehilim (psalms), as an act of calling to God. I’m not really sure why. But part of me feels that through it I’m establishing a connection with Jewish women in the past for whom prayer was an integral part of their lives, their expression of faith, of that which is within and which they could control. I’m also connecting with other Jewish women in that zoom room who are earnestly praying for safety, victory, and peace. It’s not that I believe in the power of prayer, but I realized who am I to not believe in it. Why not do something that I don’t understand, something through which I send out my voice and my heart.

Once I would have mocked them—me—but now I see nothing to mock in hoping that there is a force that binds the world and that, perhaps, the positive energy that we create can somehow be for the good. We are quiet lionesses. We each need to find a way to express our pain and our hope—to not give in to the drag of fear and anger, but to let our pain lead, somehow, to something better.

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On Reading in Retirement: The Lesson of Too Much of a Good Thing

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I thought I learned a lesson about retirement when I visited my grandparents in Miami Beach when it was still a retirement haven, long before it became the hip place to party.  

By the shuffleboard court (with nary a pickleball court in sight), a neighbor of theirs told me, “I have a list of books that I told myself I’d read when I retire.”

“How long have you been retired?” I asked, thinking that he would say a few months, settling in before tackling Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and War and Peace.

“About five years,” he responded. Then, he went on to talk about all the volunteer activities that were keeping him busy.

A person doesn’t change who they are when they retire, I thought at the time. I even used this as an anecdote when talking to people about my perception of retirement. Recently, I learned that I was wrong.

A friend, another former high school English teacher, and I talked about how our main hobby is reading. It’s our “activity” of choice whenever we have downtime. So, I expected to luxuriate in my reading hobby in retirement. And I did, I do. But a funny thing happens when your wish is granted—or when I got unlimited time to read—I realized that it’s not enough to live for or focus on.

It’s not that I don’t have good books to read, especially since my list of recommendations is always growing and I got over the mental hurdle of reading on my phone, but I feel uncomfortable giving in to the couch and a book in the middle of the day, especially weekdays. Friends have told me, “You’ve given of yourself for your entire teaching career and as a mother, you’ve earned it. You can relax.” But I can’t. It feels too selfish, like I’m just taking.

Reading was always an escape for me; it was how I learned about the world and the people in it. In college, when I decided not to major in Political Science, I wavered between switching to literature or psychology. Literature won out because it felt truer to me to learn from stories that people create based on their lives and perceptions (and I stayed awake reading novels, except for the Victorians), while psychology, with its dense textbooks that put me to sleep, was too detached and dry.

When I was teaching, not only did I get to read for work, but when I read non-school books, it was both an escape and the source of insights and lessons that I could share with my students and daughters. My reading served a purpose outside of myself. Now, it’s just for my own entertainment. Which doesn’t sit well with me.

The other day I overheard two men talking. One commented that he was feeling old at 60. The other said that a relative of his just turned 101, noting that if the other man lived that long, “you have almost a whole life ahead of you.” The preternaturally elderly 60-year-old, thanked the other man for the perspective, as did I, silently. Just because I have accepted certain things about myself in the past doesn’t mean that they should determine my future.

It seems that the question I need to ask is “What do I want to get out of my reading?” since a few hours of retreat into a book’s world makes me feel that I should be doing something productive. Then the question reframed itself: “What do I want to do with the things I learn and absorb in a day?”

Which immediately made me think of how we interact in real life: in conversations. I thought of the two main types of conversations we have. There are the details conversations, where you hear (even if you don’t want to) about what a person did and said and ate and bought. Then, there are those which are an exchange of ideas and experiences, where questioning and receiving support are integral, raising a conversation into a productive activity.

Now, I see that my conversations continue to be fruitful because of the words I read on the page. It’s as if I come forward—across a table, a phone, a Zoom screen—bolstered by the stories and insights I’ve gleaned from a supporting cast of characters and authors. This is especially true in retirement when I don’t interact with many people. Rather than a way to retreat from the world, books enhance the way I engage with it.

Which means, that, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hit the couch (or beach), book in hand. We can talk later.


Rosh Hashanah Gifts for My Daughters: A Delicate Balance

Thinking about the upcoming Jewish High Holidays and my triannual conundrum of gift-giving and holiday reminding to my daughters, I wrote my latest post, "Rosh Hashanah Gifts for My Daughters: A Delicate Balance." You can read it at The Times of Israel, by clicking either of the links here.

Thanks, Laura


The Use of Regrets; Or, Appreciating Conversations with Friends

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Stormy waters at Ocean Reef Park

After a few wide-ranging conversations with friends recently, it’s clear that each person has their own issues to deal with. We have empathy for each other, as well as opinions (stated or implied) about what the other is doing and the decisions they’re making. The takeaway is that we wouldn’t live each other’s lives. We’ve each ended up where we are for a reason and we’re each living with the consequences. And, as Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I've had a few.” Though regrets don’t mean that we would want a complete do-over or exchange.

My dogsitting, for example, is a temporary solution for me, and a “heck no” situation for others. The weirdness of going into other people’s houses and living in them for a few days or weeks is not tempting to most people, especially those who are at least a decade into living in their own homes. But for me, I get a break from living with my mother and sleeping on a couch in the living room, without having to make a “rent or buy and where” decision.

It also enables me to live the life that I could have lived—in the nicest of houses in the nicest of neighborhoods—if my life had meandered differently.

What’s not to like about having a private pool and high-end appliances without having to pay for them, and even being paid, in a sense, to use them? There is the issue of too many people liking white sheets and towels, and not providing soap and shampoo for the dogsitter, but, still, not the end of the world. Now I know to travel with more things in my bags than when I started a couple of years ago.

The problem is the bitterness creep. If I wasn’t in these “it could have been me” houses, then I wouldn’t be so aware of the discrepancy between what I don’t have and thought I would, and what I do have. Sure, I know that my teacher’s salary wouldn’t buy much more than a small dated house or condo in Palm Beach County these days, and I watch enough house renovation programs to know that I couldn’t afford high-end finishes. But, being semi-retired and living off my teacher’s pension is because I divorced the, at-one-time, well-compensated attorney husband. 

With one friend, we have our occasional Shabbat talks where we inevitably get to the “if only” part of the conversation when we reminisce having been married to successful, dynamic Israeli men with so much potential. But the realities of living with them made the vision of extra bedrooms in the right suburbs and tropical island vacations worthless.

Not having a home—especially not the home I had envisioned for myself—has made it so much easier to be ok, satisfied, with what I do or don’t have. The craving for more, for what others have, vanishes pretty quickly when I realize how unnecessary most things are. A fancy faucet is still a faucet. Three places to have a meal are just spaces to move between with a single plate. And, yes, lots of cabinet space is nice, but who needs eight cutting boards, service for twenty, and storage space for thrice-used gadgets?

The reality of having divorced when I did, and working the job that I did, and retiring when I did results in my having stopped caring—mainly, except for these moments—about what I don’t have. My life feels like the Michelangelo quote: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” where my life is what is in the stone and I am the sculptor, chipping away at the unnecessary to get at what is.

So, as I sit here looking out at the pool that I will swim in soon (with the dog I’m watching because she likes to swim and I am, after all, here to cater to her), I force myself to stop looking back, again, into a world of what-ifs. But it’s hard when I also wonder if this is all there is and all there will be.

Then, I recall what a friend told another friend who recently turned 60: “You can expect to have ten good years ahead of you with your health intact, so stop moaning and use them.” Tough love, but useful words to consider.

It made me think that not having a house as an anchor has let me be as free as I’ve ever been to indulge myself in doing what I want to do—with no should’s or have to’s. I can be here for those I love. I can live my empathy, embody the essential.

It’s up to me to not regret my future, my meanderings.

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The spikes and tape indicate where there were turtle nests; I hope they made it!

The Aging Body—Not Mine, Yet

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My private pool at one house where I dogsit.

A comedy skit of old women going out to eat wouldn’t be as funny and poignant as my mother and her friend, Ann, getting out of and then back into my Corolla when we went out the other night. They ignored my suggestions about what to hold onto and where to walk. Or they didn’t hear me. Or they were too preoccupied with their own thoughts of how to conquer the curb that had morphed into a mountain to pay attention to me. Or, even though they both walked with a shuffle, they were not going to give up any autonomy, so they pretended that I was “the girl,” who they didn’t have to heed.

As a disclaimer and a warning that this could be me—or you, my mother played tennis for years, learned how to golf in her 70s (even making a hole-in-one), and power walked Manhattan for years. Ann has mobility issues and uses a walker, but she was less steady than usual, as if she had taken advantage of the $7 martinis even before we even got to the restaurant.

Since I hadn’t been my bitter, critical self during the drive there and the meal itself—even when we told the waiter at least five times that we weren’t ready to order because my mother couldn’t decide what she wanted to eat, so we ended up ordering when the restaurant had filled up, resulting in a long wait for our food—I was able to see humor in the drama and sound effects of their attempting to exit and then later enter my car. I even got them to be momentarily lighthearted in the face of their own dismay. It would have been a pee-in-my-pants moment if I hadn’t crossed my legs in time. (When will that not be enough and I will need a lady diaper or a post-period pad?)

Ann needed to figure out where to hold onto my car, so that she could maneuver up and down the curb. Not only is there the fear of falling, but the frustration of not being able to do something that should be so simple, added to her heightened mood.

Because of curbs, my mother needs to start taking and using a cane. Something she, obviously, hasn’t acted on yet. Who knew that those few inches could pose such a grave danger? I told her where the cutout was and it took her about five minutes to round the corner that would have taken me seconds.

Our evening out made me see that my mother does need me more than I realized. While she’s not bedridden or so felled by memory issues that she can’t be left alone, there’s a sense of daughterly responsibility (that feels a lot like being a mother) that is uncomfortable. When I recently visited my daughters, one told me that I need to stay by Grandma and the other told me that I need to live my life. Yes and yes.

As friends tell me, it’s not easy. Seeing these women try to maneuver the world reminds me that I, too, am aging. There are sags here and there that I’m not happy about. Someone much younger than me told me that she has a herniated disc that her doctor told her is because of age.

How to balance this one life we have so that it’s lived, but also to be responsible and caring because that, too, is part of life? Clearly, we each have our own answers and they change depending on circumstances. I need to remember, as I watch my mother navigate the perils of walking, that there is no answer, there will never be complete satisfaction, and that that is part of living life.


Dogsitting and the Perils of Temporary Love

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One dogsitting neighborhood had a flock of peacocks wandering around and in the trees

Jerry, a laidback chunky Beagle mix, one of my oldest and favorite clients, died last week. I cried when I read his owner’s text. When I spoke to her, she was as upset as can be expected when a beloved 14-year-old pet dies suddenly. She had taken him to the vet after he wasn’t feeling well at night. Then, as she sat in the waiting room scrolling on her phone, the doctor came to tell her that Jerry needs to be put down. Losing a pet is agonizing, I thought as my mind went back to my Poops who died seven years ago, also at 14, at home in my arms.

Jerry’s death caused me to sit a moment with my decision to be a dogsitter. It has been a good retirement gig, where I get to stay in (usually) lovely homes, make a little money and save even more by living with my mother (when not dogsitting or travelling). But loss, I hadn’t thought of that, as we tend not to think of death if we don’t have to.

And I recall the death of one of my daughter’s dogs in a tragic accident (dog meets motorcycle), and the deaths of a dear friend’s two dogs. And the cats who I have known who have passed their nine lives.

Seems like a fulfillment of some statement that there is always a flipside to that which is joyful: if there’s a silver lining, then there needs to be a dark exterior.

This week, I’m dogsitting a 6-month-old puppy, Sally, owned by a soon-to-be-divorced man who didn’t get the dogs in the settlement. She is still learning to do her business outside and chewing on everything she can get into her mouth before I can even say “Drop it!”—which she heeds, Good Girl! Later in the month, I’ll be dogsitting for a rambunctious 18-month-old who is owned by two 80-plus-year-olds. A recently retired friend just got a “delish” puppy and continues to save kittens in her Queens neighborhood.

There is so much to say about having a pet and leaving behind loneliness. Of bringing joie de vivre into your life simply by watching how excited they are to make a discovery in the grass. Of playing their version of fetch and tug-of-war with a tattered formerly squeaky toy until you, too, are tattered. Of having to get out at set times to walk them and see that the world still exists, and that you aren’t as alone as it sometimes feels within the walls of your home.

I may not have loved all these temporary pets, but I have appreciated each of them: these animals we’ve brought into our lives for the express purpose of having a companion. Clearly, some dogs are trained to protect, but I’m talking about the dogs, like Poops, who would notify me with incessant barking that someone was outside our house, but his little Maltese self was not there to physically protect me. He did save me, though, by coming to my room every night when I went through my divorce and still lived with my ex. There was always room for him on the couch that was my bed for two years. Good Boy, indeed!

And now, I have these borrowed pets to provide what it is that dogs so readily give, but to still have the freedom not to always be ruled by their potty schedule. Win-win, as I see it.

When I’m back at my mother’s house, sometimes I see the older neighbors walk their little lapdogs who are as slow as they are. Their owners sit with friends on a bench, the dogs patiently waiting for them to resume the walk that is so often delayed, since it is to return to the loneliness inside. Except it’s not completely lonely, since this little dog demands food, attention, and space on a lap.

A couple of single friends got dogs at the beginning of Covid that helped turn the endless days of isolation and social distancing into an opportunity to talk and interact with a new kind of partner.

I wonder about myself sometimes: my desire not to have my own dog and my satisfaction with an unpartnered life. Am I living unengaged and protecting myself, or is this as engaged and open as suits me? When I talk to a friend who has a husband or when I finish a dogsitting job, I don’t feel that I’m missing out on having someone to continue the conversation with or a dog to walk in the heat and humidity. I simply accept that this is my life at this point. Will it always be like this, who knows? But these temporary pets have added permanent love to my heart and psyche. They may not be my pets and my time with them is limited, but that time (except for cleaning up throw up and poop—Bad Girls and Boys!) has soothed me.

It's also helped me see that I’m a kinder, more caring person than I give myself credit for. And as much as I enjoy being alone, wandering within my thoughts, I’ve learned that I really do enjoy the company of others—people and pets—but in balance. And for that, I say, Good Girl! Good Boy!, to all the lovely pets waiting for a belly rub, and a walk, and an approved treat—they’re coming! 

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Redneck Man & City Woman Talking: Seeing Across the Red-Blue Divide in Conversation

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Sunset in Snoqualmie, Washington (author's pic)

When the people who had already boarded the plane (they had seemed so lucky a few minutes ago, already sitting and with their luggage in the overhead bin long before those of us in later groups were still worrying if there would be room left for us) started to exit, and the airline’s counter agent announced that there would be a delay because they needed to investigate an issue with a door, there was a universal groan and words of complaint. Those of us who were at the Phoenix airport on a summer Thursday afternoon hoping to get to Eugene, Oregon, in just a couple of hours, dreaded the thought that we would become another sorry group of stranded airline travelers.

I turned to the man standing next to me and voiced my frustration. And he, responded that he really needed to get to Eugene that day to bury his brother who died the previous day.

Quite a conversation killer—or starter.

In our case, it was a starter. We stood there, amidst impatience that was tinged with hope, since it was still so early in the delay, and talked. He told me about his three brothers: the one who had died the previous day and the one who died the year before. He told me about his parents, old-school farmers in rural Oregon. And then he told me that he was dying of cancer, that he was given nine months to live, but hoped to live past the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death, not wanting to burden his parents with so much sorrow so quickly.

Again. A conversation killer—or starter.

After a few more, “still checking” announcements, we were told that our plane needed more work than could be done at the terminal and that they were waiting to see if there was another plane they could get for our flight. At this point, I was glad that it was only mid-afternoon and that we were at a large airport, hopeful that we would be on our way, as some point today.

The man I was talking to kept our conversation going, and not on the morbid side of things. We next got into, sort of, politics. He told me that he was a redneck but that he was not all that one assumed from that, telling me that his daughter-in-law was Black and that his granddaughter was biracial. I told him that I was from New York City, to which he nodded. We further indulged each other in saying the things that we believed in—the things that were similar or adjacent, as we like to say these days. And I said that I was Jewish, just to make sure that he knew the extent to which I was originally from NYC. And since I wasn’t in a classroom where I had to watch what I said (or even going back to a classroom in the fall, so I don’t need to watch what I say here), I talked to him about abortion and the devastation of Roe being overturned. And we kept talking and listening to each other.  

He told me that his name was Randy. I smiled and touched his arm, saying that when I was visiting my older daughter in Las Vegas, where I had just flown from (he had flown to Phoenix from Tombstone, AZ), I met a friend of hers, named Randy, who casually said that we should hang out, but he never followed up on that. I told this Randy that he was the Randy I was meant to talk to. Funny how you can find meaning in coincidence; funny, too, the meaning that you can find in a random conversation that seems less random the more you think about it.

He was wearing a “I'm Not Retired, I'm a Professional Grandpa” hat. I commented on it. He said that his grandfather could never wear a hat like that and he seemed proud that he broke a cycle. He was beloved. I wondered if he was thinking about the legacy that he would leave for his children and grandchildren, so soon to come.

They announced that they found a plane for us and the new gate number. I needed to take a walk before I would be shut into a plane, so I said goodbye to Randy, overwhelmed by the encounter, the connection that we made, and my sadness for him.

It was a short flight from Phoenix to Eugene. He sat toward the front of the plane, since I said “Hi” to him when I passed him and kept walking back to reach my seat. I wanted to see him before I went off on the next leg of my trip, this time visiting with younger daughter. I felt that we were missing something—another moment of connection.

As I was walking out the doors of the small airport, he was coming back in. We both smiled and hugged without a moment’s hesitation. Not a quick, barely there hug, but a hug that you give a friend you haven’t seen in a while and want them to feel that you’re there for them. He smelled like cigarettes; I guess he went out quickly to have a smoke. No comment on what he may be dying of. (Oh, those hard-dying assumptions).

My heart goes out to Randy and his family who are dealing with so much grief.

My heart goes out to us—all of us—who don’t find ways to connect to each other, no matter how different we may be, even though it’s the easiest thing in the world.


My Latest Post at The Times of Israel

My latest post at The Times of Israel has just been published. Please go there and read, "My Failed Aliyah: Back in the States, But Where Is My Heart?" In this piece I talk about my initial aliyah journey to Israel and how I ended up back in the States for so many years, understanding that a place can have physical and emotional meaning.

And now, while there is so much going on in Israel, it's important for me to think about what it means to me--and clearly to so many Israelis.

 


“This Thing,” Or Thinking about Death and Getting Older

Mt. Charleston
Mt. Charleston, Nevada

“I’m bothered about this thing with Sandy,” my mother said.

“You mean that she died? You can say that she died,” I responded, a little harshly.

The “thing with Sandy” was not just her discomfort with the word “died” (if you don’t say it out loud, you keep it away apparently), but Sandy, a woman she knew for over 60 years, recently died of lung cancer even though she never smoked. Who in their generation wasn’t exposed to second-hand smoke? So now my mother worries that this will happen to her, especially since both my grandmother and my father smoked.

There seems to be a lottery wheel constantly rolling around in her head with things that she could die of. Unfortunately, the wheel keeps expanding when she hears about yet another person’s death.

At 89, so much of her life exists in memories and then recounted in long phone calls with friends, where the focus is on taking turns to retell, to relive, but not to listen, because that’s not the point, that’s not what’s needed in the exchange.

Women in their 80s and 90s, holding on, rarely going out because of illnesses or fears of the dangers out there. Their increasing frailness and so few positive things to look forward enable trepidation to become a barrier.

Do they only look forward to seeing their children and grandchildren, and hoping for great-grandchildren? Are they done thinking of things to do? Are memories enough? Has life become a waiting game, even though the end is dreaded?

Looking at my mother, at her life that has been still for so long, I wonder what I want to be doing or thinking about if I make it to my 90s.

At 62, I have a hypothetical 30 years to go—not a pause or an epilogue, entire chapters, a new book, a lifetime. Looking at it in stark numbers terms, if I don’t want to regret my life as still life, I need to commit myself to more than I’m doing now. How should I spend the next third of my life (fingers crossed, tfu tfu tfu), so I don’t live with regrets for/in 30 years.

The other day I realized that I’m always searching for meaning. But I’m not content with that; I can simultaneously wonder and do.

With all the time I have to write, I realize that I don’t want to just sit and reflect. I need to be thinking about what I’m doing, gaining insights from living, not only remembering or observing.  

Lately, my focus has been on where I’ll live, but that’s not a cure or the core. That won’t satisfy my endless desire for purpose, to push beyond the borders of my life as it is.  

What will make me feel fulfilled? What new stories will I recount, animating conversations with as yet unmet people?

I’ve been retired for two years; enough time to know that I need something new; but not travel, or a hobby, or a relationship, or a pet. Studies and related work: to get me out of my meditations, not letting my concern for my mother overshadow concerns for myself.

I’m a busy person with two paid part-time jobs and two volunteer jobs: dogsitting, course evaluator for online courses, grant writer, and translator of Holocaust testimonies. Each of these jobs brings satisfaction, but none is enough. None animates my entire being and I realize that I want that: I don’t want to retire from contributing of myself.

In the past, I have often fallen into things. Now I need to be intentional, to get off the conveyor belt. I’m leaning towards expanding my knowledge in a chosen area that aligns with who I am and what I’ve done, so that I can express myself fully in mind, being, and actions. The direction is mine to determine.

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Blooming cactus on Mr. Charleston

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.