Relationships

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

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.


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.


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.


My Friends’ Husbands

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marriage and Divorce Anniversary: Reflections on Being Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dementia at the Doctor’s Office

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Wakodahatchee Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Not his real name.  


Still Alone: Why Change?

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Sailboat off Lake Worth Beach

Recently, I went on two dates with a very nice man who I refer to as the Jewish Doctor. Alas, there will be no third date with said gentleman despite his clear intelligence and interesting stories—two strong positives for me, as well as his sense of enthusiasm for the future. What made me decide against a continuation was my growing discomfort with spending time with someone who has a lot to say, but not a lot to ask. As in, he was very interested in talking about himself, but not so much in finding out about me. On date two, we walked around a park where he seemed to enjoy his talking and my head nodding. When I discerned his lack of curiosity in me and my past, I let myself simply respond to him, which is not where I want to be in a relationship. It is tiring and uninspiring to see that someone sees you merely as a backdrop to himself.

During dinner I learned about his family’s history and dynamics. I also learned more about his desire to sail around the world when he retires in a few years—and his expectations for the “anointed” woman who would join him on his sailing adventures. It was, as older daughter noted, a job interview. But I will not take the job, as tempting as it may seem (and it was tempting), because in all the hours we spent together, he did not seem to care about me except as how I could be of service to him.  

As a teacher and, honestly, as an adult, I have learned to ask questions. While I may also interrupt people (I blame teaching, as well as being a New Yorker and Israeli for that), but I am honestly curious about them. I want to know about their experiences and how they responded to them and what they mean to them. Seems like it should be basic: an interaction based on words that creates a new experience.

Towards the end of our dinner at a Greek restaurant, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked if he had any questions for me. He answered, “No.” Mind you, by this time in the approximately eight hours we had spent together he did not know where I went to college or what I had studied (we covered his academic career), that I had lived in Israel (we had covered where he had lived and some of his travels), why I became a teacher (yes, I knew why he became a doctor), or even what I write (I had said that I go to a certain coffee shop to write, but there was no follow up question, not a “What do you write?” or a “Have you been published?”). I was stunned by his bluntness—and disregard.

Perhaps he realized that it was not okay to so openly admit his lack of interest in my life, so he asked—a repeat of the question that I had just asked him—what I was looking for in a partner. So, the one question that he asked me was, in reality, about himself and not about me.

Since that date, I have continued swiping left and right on the dating app I have been using. But I am back to thinking that nothing will come of it and that it is probably for the best. I like being a single retired woman.

It’s funny that I should feel that I’m in control of my life now when I live with my mother, watching to see if she needs any help, and that I plan to move to be closer to my daughters, with my mother joining me when she’s ready. I know that I generally try to adjust myself to accommodate others, so perhaps being with a man again would be too much adjusting for me. I fear that I would lose too much of myself that I fought so hard to gain after my marriage and divorce, and two short-lived relationships. For years in my marriage, I would do what I thought was necessary to please my husband—to be a good wife. But I don’t want to go back to shape-shifting to fit someone else. Maybe being married was the anomaly in my life and being alone is the natural state.

Thinking back over the beginning of the pandemic when we were in lockdown, I can’t imagine how hard it would have been if I hadn’t been alone. And, even now, living with my mother, it’s a challenge for me to always be so visible. The constant drag of interacting, of not being able to retreat into myself, is hard. Sometimes I wonder why being in a couple up is the natural order of things. Then I remember that there has been joy with others, whereas alone I only reach contentment.

Perhaps I need to rethink relationship possibilities, where the expectations need to be transformed to fit my changed awareness. As I told the Jewish Doctor, I’m looking for someone with whom I can get out and do things, Over the years of being single, I have discovered that there just might be some things that are better done together. Sure, I have enjoyed wandering around cities and parks on my own, but staying within my thoughts and observations sometimes feels like I am living in a loop rather than being in a dynamic situation. Perhaps I need to maintain my home as my space (mentally and physical) and not even consider sharing it with someone. With this as my baseline decision, perhaps I can imagine a different future. Of course, it still won’t work with someone who sees me as a backdrop.  

It seems that I just talked myself into still swiping.


Retirement Insights from a Picnic

Lake Worth Beach
Lake Worth Beach

The other night, the 55+ community where I live with my mother (I will not get used to saying that) held its first neighborhood picnic since before the pandemic began. The timing coincides with the trickling arrival of the snowbirds. Those retreating from Canada, Europe, and South America are taking longer to make it than those stuck traveling south on I95. It seems that the social scene is heating up as the temperature here plummets to 76.

Once we determined that there was something strange about the sauerkraut (turns out that celery seed was accidentally dumped in and it was cooked with pork, which completely cancelled out the bragging about how considerate the organizers were having bought Hebrew National hotdogs because they were kosher), that we liked the hotdogs (I had asked about a vegan option when I first found out about the picnic, but had gotten a look of incomprehension, so I compromised my diet to be a community member and get my mother to attend), and that the potato salad had all the right ingredients (again, not vegan—besides non-vegan mayo, I would like to know: Why are hard-boiled eggs in potato salad?). We also found the cake slices were really hunks that were far too big to even make a dent in them with a delicate nibble, but the brownies were tasty and in small bite-sized portions.  

Food talk aside, there were some insights given by the two still-married women at our table of five women. We were to learn why their husbands did not accompany them to the grand event. Now, I will add a huge caveat here that, surprisingly, about half of the fifty or so people who attended were men, and that one, of course, was manning (word choice, indeed) the grill. So, these insights are limited to these two women, their men, and the understanding nods from the three women at the table. I, of course, did open up this little can of insights by asking why their husbands weren’t in attendance. As a friend told me recently, be a big mouth and engage with people. It is her fault that I asked personal questions, but it did lead us to talking about more than the food.

One woman (both she and her husband still work in physical jobs) explained that after a hard day at work, her husband lives the stereotype: drinking beer and sitting on the balcony. He does break with tradition by making his dinner before going to bed. She is one of those life-of-the-party type people, who even livens up the pool when she goes after work. She has learned that just because he has gotten dull and disappointing, she does not have to keep him company in his disengagement. Learning that not everything needs to be done together is surely a sign of a mature marriage, and probably at least one too-often frustrated partner.

The other woman got philosophical and cast her insights wide to include older retired men in general, not just her hubby. She noted that men need their group to stay social—and when they don’t have it, they fall into depression. They can be active and engage with the world, but only when the guys they’ve been playing ball and cards and hanging out with for years are around. Once they disperse to different retirement communities, or move to be near their children, or move because of health issues, or even bid the long adieu, they lose their way and sink into their recliners. They’re unable to be on their own, unable to find new best buds, not wanting to interact, becoming solitary men sinking into depression. Their wives, then, need to leave them behind for excursions out so that they, too, don’t get weighed down by loss and change.

Perhaps those insights apply to us all, at all stages of life: independence, even within a relationship, is strength; it is not a threat or a weakening. The people in our lives are supplementary, they should be enhancers. We, each of us, is the main act and we need to proceed through life with that understanding. Otherwise, we may be missing out on good food, seeing the night sky with planets clearly illuminated, and hearing people say how great it was to see you.


Fall Morning at Huntley Meadows Park

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This morning I walked at Huntley Meadows Park (5,063 steps).

The dried plants and coloring trees attest that autumn has arrived.

It was early, so the camera birders were out

with their tripods and huge lenses to capture birds

in flight, at rest, at prey.

I am not a birder: there were gray birds (herons?) and white birds (egrets?).

I have seen them there before; they are what I expect to see.

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As they focused and hoped for the photography gods, as one woman said,

I saw a heron attack and spear a fish in its beak:

that moment is captured in my mind. After it happened

the photographers took, I assume, close-ups of the fish in its beak.

Their pictures are surely better than mine taken with my phone,

but I saw the moment of action that defines instinct, not thought.

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My father was a birder. He would know their names.

My mother and I often go birding when we are together.

It will be ten years in December.

 

Yesterday, I spoke with a friend. Two of her friends have cancer.

It is upsetting, to be sure, to anticipate those losses.

But in trying to keep herself upbeat, she spoke about

beating cancer, mind over cancer, belief in belief.

I stopped her.

It was painful to sit on my balcony on a Friday evening

and think that people can fault my father for dying

within two months of his diagnosis.

 

There are so many things we cannot control.

It is not acquiescence, it is reality.

A bird, a fish, a man, a disease. Even a season.

 

Today I did not see many birds or turtles, as I usually do.

Instead, there were frogs, half hidden in the muck,

eyeing the world that passed by. Delighted,

only I took pictures of them.

 

Afterwards, I went for latte at Grounded Coffee.

I went to be amongst a flock. I did not want to separate.

Perhaps I am the frog, barely visible at my table, watching

The couples, the families, the children (one boy in an octopus shirt)

even myself, as we live this moment.

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Thankful for Conversations

Fall 2018

I used to be a conversation snob. Small talk was not for me. If we didn’t discuss the meaning of life, then, why talk. Now, I find that all my conversations are casual update conversations. This is surely a by-product of only seeing friends occasionally. It’s hard to get into philosophy, or even politics beyond the rant, when you need to share what’s happening at work, what you did on vacation, what your children are doing, what your body parts are—or are not—doing, and a dissection of dating life. By the time that shared litany is over, so is the meal or coffee and it’s time to go home, to go shopping, to go onto the next thing.

Living our lives only leaves time for limited interactions.

Paradoxically, I can’t decide if I know my friends better now or before. Which reveals a person more: thoughts or actions?

With one friend, for years we would get together twice-a-year for an update brunch. We did an excellent job of covering the basics and keeping the enthusiasm for our friendship going. But when we tried to meet more often, after all we were having such a good time together, the friendship ended up being stretched too thin. We didn’t have enough in common to sustain more than those updates. Thankfully, we went back to the less frequent get-togethers and we added other people so that we could stay engaged. At some point in our more than fifteen years of meal-sharing, it seemed that our history together had become an important part of the friendship itself and clearly neither of us wanted to lose that.

While I look forward to these conversations, sometimes they leave me with an uneasy feeling. Has living alone meant that I lost my ability to converse? Do I have what to say? Have I gone shallow? Perhaps I should think about the source of my dissatisfaction? What do I crave from these interactions? Is the problem that I am too much like my friends, so that while these conversations comfort me, they don’t stimulate me. Or is it, as I realize as I write this, that I’m beginning to long for a relationship whose basis would be a continual, developing dialogue rather than these choppy conversations.

This last point surprises me. While I have been on dating sites, I didn’t think that I wanted to meet anyone, it was more as a way to not close off possibility.

On Thanksgiving I spent time with two second-cousins, their spouses, and their children. I’ve been divorced so long that I’ve gotten used to being the single in attendance, but I did appreciate the easy banter within the couples, the gentle touching and praising. My part in the conversation was in the words, while theirs was also in the non-verbal communication that is, at its positive core, emotionally supportive. Maybe it’s not that I miss intellectually challenging conversations from my friends, perhaps it’s that I miss the range of sustenance that you can receive from a partner. Perhaps I am getting what I need from my friends, it’s just that I need more than those pop-up meetings can give me. Food for thought as I eat my leftovers.

 


All the Middle-Aged Single Ladies

 

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Flat tire on the Meadowbrook Parkway; I managed to call for a tow truck.

 

Just about every conversation I have with my middle-aged single lady friends will, at some point, touch on the subject of dating. That part of the conversation generally comes after the updates on children (even if only applicable to me) and work (always applicable and often accompanied by sarcastic comments); angry, frustrated, bleak statements about the latest outrage by the little men and women (ugh—Yeah Feminism!) in charge; then, in a little white flag of hope will be vague thoughts about retirement; and, finally, updates on whether or not we are on the manhunt or not, and how it’s going or why we’re not participating.

We do not bemoan the lack of good men (we’re still hopeful that they exist out there behind a swipe in an as yet undiscovered app or even in line for coffee). It’s more that we wonder if we want to be in a relationship. What’s in it for us? A male friend wondered how I and another friend could still be single since we are both great cooks and have nice homes. If this is the stereotype that we’re fighting against then hope is lost since I have no intention of offering a tasty sanctuary to anyone (except my daughters).

We wonder about the value of a relationship not just because of past agonies, but because of current comfort. None of us wants to lose all that we have gained since the defining breakup. We don’t want to lose the lifestyles we created to conform to someone else’s desires. It took so long to stop doing things for someone else that any compromise could feel like a defeat. And since it took even longer to figure out what we need to make us happy, the thought of losing any progress for a few man-woman interactions is shrug-worthy. Why bother still needs to be adequately answered.

It’s not just that we are post-divorce, it’s also that we’re post-children-at-home. Once you’ve stopped supplying services to your loved ones, it’s hard to go back. Sometimes it feels to me as if the years when I was a full-time mother never happened. It’s a black hole that absorbed my time and memory. Surely no man will need that involvement (and if he does, he should stay away from me and my friends), but once you only need to worry about yourself, it’s hard to go back, even to a part-time position.

Also, once you have dealt with the breakup of a marriage, you lose the illusion that satisfaction can be found in having someone to lean on. It’s not bitterness that speaks, but the reality that dependence, or the expectations that dependence breeds, simply cannot be trusted. Even if you were to be in a relationship now, it would never be as two into one, but always as two individuals, side-by-side. And if that’s the case, why do I need to be with the same person all the time as opposed to doing different things with different people? And why, dear God, do I need to have breakfast with anyone? Can’t a woman enjoy her first cup of coffee in peace without having to worry about looks, conversation, or how someone else wants his eggs?

It seems, doesn’t it, that what we single middle-aged women have attained is wisdom. Or learning how to live as realistic cynics, which, honestly, is probably the safest way to live. Could it be that since we no longer look for someone else to make decisions for us we have shed useless softness, and since we are flexible in the moment neither are we too tough to deal with. No consultations are required before making decisions since we are not hedged in by someone else’s desires or moods or schedules. I would say that we are ideal companions.

The problem, I guess, is that we don’t want to change this lovely status quo for someone who can’t make up his mind without consulting us first.


Easing into Purpose, My Own

Palm Beach April 2018

Too many epiphany moments may be unbelievable, but not enough can make you slide into a complacency that starts to feel like boredom. It’s not helpful for all insights to be incremental. In that case, are they insights or merely a growing awareness? I need the occasional ah-ha moment to jolt myself back from the inertia of comfort into self-assessment.

A few weeks ago, as I read about another non-profit created by a driven woman out to save the world, I could feel myself about to dive into the usual lamentation that I have done nothing, that I have not pushed myself to achieve what should be achievable—look, she did it—when the ding ding ding of realization descended: if that had suited my personality, I would have done it already. I’ve tried to save myself the angst of this cycle of recrimination before, but this time my mind went beyond accusation to insight: I’m a one-on-one person. Strength for me is not in numbers: of people, of actions, of activities. There have been opportunities to move mountains, but I have always shirked from them to come back to my quiet activities. The “rally the troops” attitude just doesn’t work if you’re the only troop and you’d prefer to read a book, take a walk, bake a cake, go to bed. And that doesn’t make me a bad feminist or bad person. It makes me who I am.

It was at this moment verging on tense disappointment that the ding ding ding occurred, but only because, perhaps, I am finally letting myself acknowledge—and respect—who I am. I talk. I listen. I joke. I interrupt. I probe. I want to hear people tell the big and small stories of their lives. What could be better than looking into a person’s eyes as she tells you an anecdote that defines her? What could be better than telling a tale that surprises yet doesn’t. Those are the moments that I thrive in, that bring me joy. One-on-one. The intimacy of relationships and small groups is where I live.

This realization brought me back to thinking about how to spend my un-designated time. As much as I need to be alone to think and gather my energies, I need, too, to connect. Over the years I’ve done a variety of volunteer activities, but nothing more than a couple of times. Nothing seemed right or had enough direct interaction. I don’t want to help someone who will help someone. I don’t want to live in the abstract. After editing a book for an organization that never got back to me, I decided that I don’t want to use my skills, but myself. I don’t want to keep defining myself by my roles and abilities; it’s time to go forward robed just in personality.

As these things happen, shortly after that realization I learned about an opportunity to be a hospice volunteer. I signed up for the training, did the pre-training reading and viewing, read a couple of books that I thought would help me understand what I was headed for (Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death, Henry Fersko-Weiss; Being Mortal, Atul Gawande) all of which helped me to see that the topic didn’t get me down, rather it made me thoughtful and inspired to engage. Then I participated in the two-day training program itself.

Would it be surprising to say that everyone in the training, both the trainers and the soon-to-be-volunteers, was a lovely person? I don’t think so. What joy it was to spend two days with people whose hearts aren’t hidden far up their sleeves.

In this hospice program, many of the clients have memory issues, rather than having reached the end of suffering from cancer, which is what I had expected. The apprehension I felt about engaging with people whose memory was a victim of their disease was somewhat alleviated when we toured a memory care facility. A few residents joined us for the tour and sat with us as we learned about the activities and services the residents receive. Their joining us wasn't to explain anything, other than their presence made it clear that they didn't quite know what was going on and this looked like something fun to join. The distance between perception and reality was breached in seeing that age and significant loss did not diminish humanity.

My hope for myself is that I don’t come up with excuses to stay home, but that I find fulfillment in the mutual reciprocity of giving of self. And that I ease into the quiet meaning that is created by two people being side-by-side, together. 

Palm Beach Sculpture Garden


My Eclipse Experience

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Totality: the sun is hiding behind the moon and clouds.

 

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Totality: I think the white dot is Jupiter.

 

My eclipse trip to South Carolina with a good friend turned out to be what we had hoped for (except for the cloud cover at totality): an adventure. The adventure ended up spending the day at Green Pond Landing staring at the sky with a charming English gentleman we met at a coffee shop in nearby Anderson, SC.

Both of us are single women who don’t spend much time trying to change our social status, since we’re both living the lives we have and with enough experience with disappointing dates to know not to have realistic expectations for change. Nonetheless, having the attention of a handsome, thoughtful gentleman with an accent for the day made a small opening into my comfy closed mindset.

First off, let me state that there was no flirting. We were three people who flowed with the day: each adding to the collective experience. A platonic threesome. Neither my friend nor I subverted our intention of having a lovely eclipse experience together in order to gain the attentions of a man. No one was elbowed to the side, the conversation was not hogged, and there were no coy hair tossings and eyelash batting. We are mature women who value our friendship over any dalliance.

But we were attended to, and it was refreshing. Yes, of course we could carry the blankets and the cooler (how else did they get into the car), but wasn’t it nice that he offered to take them from the car to where we decided would be the ideal spot to experience the eclipse. We shared our sandwiches and snacks with him (he was completely unprepared—he didn’t even have eclipse glasses until we gave him our spare pair), and he took us out to dinner. The day-long conversation was a hopscotch game between bits of personal history, the eclipse experience itself (yes, you can have a somewhat thoughtful conversation wearing eclipse glasses), and, of course, the fall of the American Empire with t- at the helm.

The details of the day, though perfect for conjuring in my mind’s eye when lying in bed before sleep, have more heft when I think about how the experience made me feel as a woman. There was the smooth, relaxed interaction of a confident woman who did not undermine her personality in the presence of an unattached man in an attempt to attract said man. I was not running down Possibility Lane, and still, yes, he seemed to be attracted to me. (We did exchange numbers at the end of the day; alas, he never contacted me even after I contacted him after a couple of days—but still, the exchange at his request.) Nor was I waylaid by my shadow self who always comes to life in a date situation, wondering if I would want to touch this man, if I would want to spend any more time talking to him, and even (in the best of times) if I could imagine being naked with him. Nope. I was focused on the moment. And him, he did what many men I meet seem incapable of doing: he listened, he asked questions, he seemed to care about my comfort, and he did not mansplain. None of us were eclipse experts—and he did not take it upon himself to pretend that he was one just because he’s a man. We Googled any eclipse questions we had. We three lived the day thriving on the exchange of tidbit stories, and the casual and open way that one story leads to another when you’re not censoring your every comment.

While younger daughter joked knowingly that he wasn’t found on OKCupid, and even I joked about how it just might be true about meeting someone when you’re not trying or expecting to, there was more to the day than this specific interaction. It offered a hint at what might be possible: that my future might not only hold re-creations of past relationships in which I was Hercules to their Princesses. I had decided that a balanced and supportive relationship was an impossible achievement, so why even bother attempting to meet anyone. But now, I see that I was wrong. Yup, Eclipse Man made his appearance to illuminate the point that I need not always assume the worse. It also made me realize that, while not courting courting, you never know what can happen.

But, simply, this experience reinforced my understanding that friendships are the core relationships in my life (after my daughters and my mother, of course). Not only would I not have traveled to see the eclipse, but I would not have been in the upbeat “let’s see what happens” frame of mind if I were not with my friend. I also might not have let down my guard, at least not enough to have had a daylong conversation that gives me hope that I will meet my match.

All in all, an excellent trip. (Of course, I didn’t do the driving; the traffic was horrible in both directions.)

I’m definitely planning on a 2024 eclipse adventure!

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Green Pond Landing, SC: A little while before the eclipse

Morning Waves of Envy

June 2017 Bronx Botanical Garden
Rose Garden, Bronx Botanical Gardens

 

I’m trying to figure out if I’m envious of my colleagues and friends who have recently entered into serious relationships, or if I’m just a good friend who’s happy for their happiness. The of-the-moment me, before my me-me-me thoughts intrude, jumps up and down for joy, echoing their abandon and confidence. Who could deny the sensuous pull of new love?

The cynical part of me, though, feels as would a woman in a long-term relationship (I had been in one of those; 21-years) who looks on with a haughty, bemused expression, thinking back to her own romantic beginnings and where they had led her. Wondering, as the weight of her accumulated grievances bring her down, how could anyone be so naïve.

But the part of me that’s a tad uneasy about being alone in the somewhat-distant future, when I start to fall apart inside and out, wishes that envy were at my core, driving me to actively seek out someone whom I could love for making me feel protected and adored. A stroke to the ego and a helping hand can’t be the worst things in the world, especially when I can imagine regret tearing at the edges of my days and a wobble as I steady myself for standing.

My bitter divorce (10 years next month!—unbelievable how time zooms), my brief manipulative relationships, and various bland dates should have cleared me from harboring envious thoughts, but, I realize sadly, they have not. I really do wish my thoughts were untainted, but, unfortunately, they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to act on them, though, because my envy-penetrating walls still offer more comfort than unease.

As I see picture after picture of couples enjoying summer baseball games at stadiums around the country, I wonder, as I sit at my dining/writing table, about missing the opportunities that paired life seamlessly present. Again, envy prickles, because isn’t that, still, what I’m supposed to want. It’s hard to look past the social norm that summer vacation is to accumulate shared experiences, especially with a partner.

For a while now my purpose has been unmoored from that base, though still tenuously tethered to that ill-fitting norm, hence the creep of envy. But what if my purpose has morphed to ensure that I always have solitary breathing time and space from which the thoughts that nourish me propagate, and not for the activities and chatter. Perhaps the envy surfaces to force me to continually re-assess my stability and happiness. Perhaps it is not to unnerve me and push me toward abandoning my path, but rather to check in, to see if this is still right for me.

Looking at those paired smiles I need to invite the envy, not fear it, for I want my life to remain vibrantly my own. I need to anticipate that my perceptions may change and not shut them out, beyond my walls. For now, envy quickly fades back to sympathy, signaling that, for now, I am right where I need to be.

 


Why Date?

Cherry tomato

The last of the cherry tomatoes growing on my balcony.

It’s been a while since my ex-husband ruined my life. So long ago, in fact, that sometimes I think about how his life has been ruined and feel sorry for him, and not in the pitying vindictive way people imply when they mention karma.

The years of shredding my self-confidence have faded, leaving behind the dullness of disappointment. In him. In myself. Making me, not quite regret, but wonder about what might have been if we had caught ourselves before bitterness seeped into the solitary spaces of a marriage between opposites.

The impact, though, is on far more than the lost possibilities in our joint past; it is in my resistance to wanting to have a relationship today.  

I tell friends that there are no men to meet, that no men attract me, and I joke about the men online (who start each sentence of their profile with “I,” and have manly pictures on motorcycles, and refer to women as girls, and write about wanting to impale a woman’s mind into his mind to discover something worthwhile). And about the men who make it past that hurdle to a date [there were the guys with whom I barely made it through the complementary one hour of conversation; the antisemite who thought he was going to score; the guy who brought his own teabag to Starbucks (not because he was a tea snob, but so he could just pay for his cup of hot water); the guy who didn’t believe in evolution (he made it to date five and sex before this revelation); and the married guy whose wife had a brain tumor who left (after paying the bill) when I was in the bathroom, sick from attempting to drink two lemon drop martinis]. I even comment, in a completely judgmental way, to my mother that when I look at my friends’ husbands, there is not a one who, in other circumstances, would entice me. Nice men, but not the man for me. She, being a supportive mother, states the same about her friends’ husbands.

Notwithstanding my objective lack of success, I wonder if there is a subjective element that bars me from meeting the/a man. Perhaps the question isn’t Why haven’t I met someone, but—with a slight shrug—Why would I want to meet someone.

The last time I was in a relationship was more than four years ago, with Kenny, who lived with me and my younger daughter for a year and a half. He said he loved me with all his heart and would do anything for me. Anything, it turned out, but make me happy. In that relationship I was increasingly stifled by his need to be acknowledged and loved in the ways that suited him. Which, not surprisingly, inevitably meant his disappointment in something I did or did not do in accordance with his desires, which, of course, made his love for me “better” than my love for him. I will freely admit that I ignored his request to wear dresses when we went out. Even if I liked wearing dresses, which I don’t (and he could have seen that in our closet), that was a huge invite for me to definitely not wear a dress even if I felt like it. Why is it so difficult for men to understand one of the thickest redlines they should not cross with a woman (it can’t just be me) is to tell her what to wear. I got the petulant silent treatment for wearing pants.

My reaction to his suggestion/demand shouldn’t have been a surprise because during our long conversations, when he was living in Beirut and then Belfast, I would tell him how harmed I had been by my husband’s controlling ways. He had been so understanding and supportive. He knew that I was dealing with the residual pain of insults and put downs, of my desires deemed wrong or inappropriate, and my need to not be curated.

So his man-structing was unexpected and devastating.

When we argued, I couldn’t leave the room because of his fear of abandonment. But what of my need to be alone and think so as not to immediately lash out? Being told that I needed to argue in a way that supported him was another redline too many. The relationship became as if on a continuum with how my husband had tried to control my actions and thoughts and emotions, or maybe it was worse because I had opened up to Kenny about retreating into self and how I was trying to not shut down.  

The best part of that relationship were the trips we took together. We would talk in the car, opening up our internal monologues as we drove along the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or along highways and backroads from Virginia to Key West and back again. We wanted to stop at the same time and try the same places, and we even needed pee breaks at the same time. We were in unison, at least on the road. But at home, his need to be taken care of, which had to be done exactly as he wished to prove my love and to prove that he was lovable, underpinned his declarations of love. I was increasingly reminded of how unhappy I had become in my marriage as I tried now to make him happy. I didn’t have the energy or the desire to take on someone else’s emotions.

If you’re not one of my daughters, then I don’t want to take care of you. (Except, maybe my mother, and I’m dreading that scenario.) And he did want to be taken care of. As did my ex-husband.

And I did it.

But I don’t want to anymore.

On weekends, I don’t want to think about what someone else wants for breakfast and I don’t want to try to anticipate his desires. And to be fair, I don’t want someone trying to cater to me.

My standing weekend desire for a soft scrambled egg with feta and fresh herbs from my balcony garden, right after I wake up and take Poops for his morning walk, and as soon as the coffee in the French press is ready, the bread toasted to a warm brown, every section of the newspaper available, and no talking required, is, frankly, why I don’t want to date.

Beyond the fear of being hurt and undermined again, lies the very basic question: What do I want out of my life?

Surely my inability to formulate a substantial why I should want to be in a relationship is a reflection of past failures, but I can’t help but dread that it would be more of a diversion from how I want to live and what I want to do, than a benefit. Do I want to be in a relationship just to have someone with whom I can travel or rehash the stresses of the workday? My inability to even perceive a relationship as a source of respectful, supportive love shows my state of being.

My two friends who date the most, and are in and out of relationships like my high school students, are also the ones with the most out-going personalities. Both of their lives center around doing, and not around contemplation (there are no books in their homes) or fulfilling an inner drive to create or express themselves. Perhaps relationships are their manner of expression.

I would rather sit by myself in an internal monologue than have a conversation, day in and day out, just to fill the time and play a role.

Am I missing the chance at a great love that will imbue my world with joy?

I had that grand romantic love when I was first with my ex-husband. I needed it then. He helped pull me out of myself and into the world. I was aglow; I bubbled. Now when I think about those years it occurs to me how intensely focused we were on each other. I can’t imagine wanting to narrow down my life again. If by some outrageous dating app algorithm that intensity of love at 22 were to revisit me, that insular quality of being part of a couple is not something I want to relive. An identity as part of a couple is not something for which I yearn.

I was married for 21 years; approximately 15 of those made the marriage worthwhile. So moments of envying people in marriages and relationships are quickly overridden when I realize that I prefer to be alone or with different friends, without limiting myself, then always having a partner, even if he is not physically present at that moment.

A life of placid contentedness is not a surrender, it is lake upon which I float or into which I plunge, knowing that no one will interrupt my daydreaming in the tub.  


ALWAYS LEARNING

 

C&O Canal, Washington DC

C&O Canal, Washington, DC.

 

The other night I dreamed that I was in a synagogue. I put my pocketbook down on a pew and went off to do something. When I got back to the pew, my pocketbook was gone. It doesn’t take years of analyzing dreams to figure out that this dream shows that a place that had been safe is now unsafe, and I immediately knew that the synagogue represented the school where I teach. Between the initiatives from the newest principal, to the impending changes from the county which is gung-ho for uniformity, to the cliquishness and negativity that some of my colleagues have elevated lately, I’m feeling that life has become a bit nightmarish.

 

My sanctuary from the cacophony of the classroom used to be the twenty minutes of lunch with my colleagues. It was the only daily meal that I would eat with anyone, and it used to feel like we were a family sitting. As much as I like my dinner companions (House Hunters International and Cooking with Lidia), solo eating requires the occasional break for it not to be an emotional drain. So, those few minutes of grown-up conversation of lampooning and commiserating were important for my ability to be okay with all the other solitary meals, and hours of only talking to teens. To effectively live a lone life, there needs to be the right balance, however seemingly unbalanced, between aloneness and togetherness.

 

On Wednesday, with the intention of driving home to make stir-fried tofu and vegetables for dinner, I drove straight from school to a Greek restaurant. It wasn’t that I needed a gyro (though it has become a comfort food; or is it the fries?), but I needed not to be alone, and I needed to be served. Although the waitress seemed to think that I needed to be alone and barely served me, I was still comforted by not sitting in my dining room, staring at the screen, feeling alone.

 

The desperation for the grand dinnertime escape came from two days of hostility, closed doors, and whispered conversations. It’s not only that I don’t agree with all of the conspiracy theorists around me (regarding the new initiatives), it’s that I am confronted so starkly with the fact that I am the eternal outsider. As much as I think I am friends with this core group of women, there are times (whisperings about happy hours that I am never invited to and dinners that I never know of) when I am forced to realize that, just like when I was in high school, not only am I far from being a cool girl, I am outside of all groups, a group unto myself. There seems to be no escaping how your character is interpreted: I am always alone, an internal design feature it seems. Sometimes I wonder if having created and been part of a family was the anomaly, and the aloneness the norm.

 

But while I am an introvert who surely needs her alone-time, there are times when I need to be with other people, when I need to see faces and hear voices and feed on the energy of interaction. And, honestly, being a teacher surely negates the assumption that I am a “pure” introvert.

On my drive home from the restaurant I decided that maybe I’m not the problem. I vowed not to keep putting myself into an unwelcome and needy situation. If I’m not wanted, then you’re not wanted, and I did the grown-up thing: the next day I abandoned my usual seat and sat, instead, at the other end of the long lunchroom table. It felt immature, but, you know, confronting things sometimes means that retreat is the best course of action.

 

As I sat there, it occurred to me as I listened and talked to my other-end-of-the-table colleagues that these women were the women I should have been sitting with all along. These are not the mean girls grown up, who always have something critical to say, but the considerate girls, who have compassion to spare. So now, I wonder, why did I not realize sooner which was the better environment for me? Do I always need to try to push myself forward, always to think that I am not quite who I am, always to assume that I shouldn’t be myself? No wonder I am still in high school. I still have lessons to learn.


MY SOCIAL LIFE

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Funny title: "My Social Life." It implies something, but there's nothing beyond the implication. Initially when that phrase came to mind, I was thinking about my romantic social life, but upon further reflection, I realized that sloth has settled into all of my interactions. It's winter. It's self boredom. Hence, it's my non-existent social life.

 

Looking past the winter, though, I wonder if the scene has already been set for more of the same non-ness into the future. Once there have been a certain number of repetitions of your most exciting stories to diverse people, the whole Gosh, I'm an interesting person mode wears off and you feel yourself becoming as charmless as a charm bracelet. There are just so many times that you can meet new people before you lose your lustre, and your assumption that you and your stories have lustre, which is why it is so critical to establish strong friendships, romantic and otherwise, when you're young and deep in the process of living those stories, and being thrilled by them, and the possibilities ahead. That is in contrast to the midlife now, when those stories have become a part of your history and the recollection of them feels as draining as if you were required to relive them as you tell them, embellishments and all.

 

Sometime this summer I popped my head out at the possibilities of social interactions, but after a bit of dabbling, I popped back into my tortoise existence. There's no getting around the reality that it's as hard to feign interest in yourself as in whoever happens to stride or sit beside you. Alas, my social life has given in to the pull of the cynic's couch, a darn strong pull, especially in winter. Or perhaps I need to realize that the people, like me, who are looking to expand their social horizons and fill their empty hours as I do are not the people who captivate a crowd. Perhaps I need to accept my social reality, and stop assuming that there is more to me than the people who are reflected back to me. Perhaps, too, I need to stop looking, still, to be impressed, and learn to better base my interpretations on warmth and kindness. People as soup; unfortunately, I'm not a soup person. Stew, I am a stew person, and there, too, is comfort, stability, and trust.

 

Where do I go from this point of unsteady acceptance of disappointment? Will it transition into a steady acceptance of self and life, and the joys that are contained within simplicity? For isn't that point the truest assertion of who I am, and not who I thought I might become. Alas, I fear that I must acknowledge that perhaps there never will be a peaceful sitting down to stew; rather, there will always that misplaced herb that conjures an alternative, unsettling and fiery, an alternative me that counts even if only because it refuses to mute away into my history.

 

I am as much me as my trepidations, distillations, and acceptances. Disappointment as a function of existence, of taking the next step, of meeting the next person. Is it possible to be satisfied with dissatisfaction? Will I always whine?

 

Or is it that I will continue to find purpose and joy in plundering my emotional landscape and I need to face up to that. Is this my truth as much as an embossed business card. Am I to be wary and wavering, not because it is a step toward something, but because this is as much me as my morning coffee (freshly ground, French press, hot milk, in the mug my daughters bought one Mother's Day). Am I to stop complaining about being a tortoise, and instead laugh at the absurdity of thinking I should be other; as if, at 53, I really think there's a better way to be doing this than how I'm doing it.