Life Lessons

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.


Hot and Humid Thoughts on a Summer Day in Florida

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View from my a perfect picnic spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marriage and Divorce Anniversary: Reflections on Being Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dementia at the Doctor’s Office

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Wakodahatchee Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Not his real name.  


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

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Looking Up

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

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

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

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

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


What Do I Know? Learning to Value My Experiences

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Grateful for beauty and talented people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grateful for the beauty in nature




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

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Suspension Bridge over River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Low tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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High tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

Moving to Florida: Not Just for the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I have not been great at keeping friendships going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Deciding that I Matter: Which Helps to Motivate Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A New Sense of Worth

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Other people's hobby which I saw on a walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Uniquely Ordinary: Aren’t We All

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Another hobby: Going on walks (Wakodahatchee Wetlands)

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Yellow Box of ‘Your Turn to Talk’

Beach walk

There are people and articles out there stating how bad Zoom is for us, but I disagree. I have found that zooming is making me a better listener and, hence, conversationalist, especially when there are more than two people involved. Not only can only one person speak at a time, but you are immediately made aware of your attempt to overtalk or interrupt in a very visual way: your box becomes outlined in yellow. It is the new mark of shame. You can actually see that you “grabbed” the box—the microphone—from the person who was still talking. It is a bright lesson to shut up, pay attention, and wait your turn.

When we first started socializing via Zoom, I wanted to be heard. For a teacher to go from having classrooms full of students listening to me (surely some were listening) to having no audience was a hard transition. Besides, I thought, many of the people I was zooming with had a partner with whom they could chat at home, so I figured it was okay to hog the talk time. Then, one day when I exited a zoom meeting, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on with my friends. I had squandered a rare opportunity to hear from them and get out of my ceaseless internal monologue. In another moment of clarity, it occurred to me that just because they have a partner, didn’t mean that they were having all the kinds of conversation that they needed to have. There’s a reason why there are book clubs and ladies meeting for lunch.

I was to learn another aspect of my listening lesson in my zoom conversations with my daughters. I really did want to hear from them and would constantly interrupt with more questions. But, between poor connections with younger daughter who lives in the middle of a forest, and my interruptions, I found that the two people I wanted to be in a zoom room with most were getting a bit annoyed at me. I needed to not interrupt and let the conversation flow.

Over the years, I became aware of how much I interrupted people with my, supposedly, more entertaining stories. I can blame growing up in NYC and living in Israel and even being me, but it was still a way of being that I knew was disrespectful and that I needed to change. It doesn’t matter whose stories are “better,” what matters is the conversation, the interchange, the listening, the being heard, the learning. It’s been a while that I’ve been working on shutting up and listening, but with the pandemic method of gathering in our online boxes, I have finally come face-to-face with the fact that I wasn’t as improved as I hoped I had become.

So, while I did finish a book and I did bake quite a few loaves of bread during the pandemic, I think this may be the most important lesson that I’ve learned. Now I need to see if anyone still wants to zoom with me.


Contemplating Volunteering

 

MLK Day 2022 Painting Front Door
Painting a front door on MLK Day 2022 (Photo: Jewish Federation of PBC)

 

Over the years, I’ve volunteered with different organizations, doing different things, for different reasons. I’ve filled bags with food, cleaned a beach, canvassed for politicians, sat with people in hospice, and translated Holocaust survivor testimonies. This week, I’ll start volunteering at a local public garden and continue helping to write fundraising materials for two organizations in Israel focused on coexistence. My retirement days are not just filled with reading and wandering.

You’ve likely heard the statement that the giver gets more than the receiver, but I will buck the trend and say that I don’t agree with it. It must be more of a balance. How can you say that my peace of mind for having done something good for two hours is the same as a parent receiving food for their hungry children, or a dying person having someone sit beside them for part of their endless day? If it were true, then I would need to feel guilty that part of the reason I do these acts is for me to meet people and be engaged. It’s not purely an altruistic move and I don’t want to feel bad about that.

My volunteering really started when I became an empty nester, since I had more time and less financial stress. It was a sign that I had transitioned from survival mode to fulfillment mode. It occurs to me now, though, that just when I no longer needed to focus on someone else, I chose to continue focusing on others, which, I also realize, is my way of taking care of what I need, both morally (Jewishly) and psychologically. It seems to be impossible for me to be in this world and not try to be a part of it, to help improve it, to ameliorate its pains in the ways that I am able, even while trying to make friends.

During my on-boarding interview at the garden, the interviewer asked me if I had volunteered anywhere else. I quickly mentioned a few places, but later in the interview and the day, I remembered other places. All of them had been for causes that are meaningful to me. But at most of the places, for various reasons, I hadn’t become engaged with the activity or the people with whom I worked. It seems that finding a good volunteer fit is like finding the right job or partner.

At an organization that helps abused women where I volunteered a few years ago, the woman who ran the volunteer training program had started out as a volunteer and was so dedicated that she ended up as a full-time employee. For me, it wasn’t the right fit and I only volunteered there the minimum required following the (excellent) training. At other places, I could just sign up for a few hours. In many places, there was either too little engagement or too many people coming in groups that resulted in my feeling left out. This shouldn’t be a concern and maybe it sounds selfish, and maybe it is, but I don’t want to feel bad about myself or uncomfortable when I’m trying to be of service to others. I have also realized that I would prefer to use my skills, which utilize my very being, then simply do a task. I haven’t ruled those out, but they would be more occasional than ongoing.

While some of these volunteer adventures have been frustrating, I have remained persistent, knowing that I need them and knowing that when it is the right fit, I have felt whole—as a part of what is. As I sit here pushing this thought, wondering why this has been so important to me, Hillel’s statement of ancient wisdom comes to me:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And me as a human being—not the women who needs to understand everything—knows that the answer is simply that this is the way for me to be in the world, to share in the world. It is to know something intrinsically. It is to be.