Self improvement

Learning and Living Jewish Wisdom: Moving forward on My Life Journey

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Discovering paths near my new home in Oregon

Today is Day 236 that the Israeli hostages are in captivity.

Bring them home!

Life is beautiful, banal, and cruel. We have all experienced moments of each since they broadly cover the human condition. It’s the balance that makes life unfair.

This weekend, I watched the interview with four mothers of the five young Israeli women in the recently-aired video as they were kidnapped and brutalized by H-m-s. Another opportunity for more cracks to the heart because of casual evil, and an overwhelming sense of injustice and helplessness. Empathy for these women and their daughters is too hard to experience because how can I, a mother of daughters who are safe, who are living their undisturbed lives, even purport to comprehend what these mothers—and their daughters—are going through? But they are in me, which feels like a duty I have committed to.

A few hours later, my daughter and her boyfriend came over for dinner. It was early evening on a beautiful spring day in Oregon. We sat in the backyard around a big table, enjoying the food that I cooked over two days, eating and talking about our week, planning for the next week. During pauses we watched the occasional hummingbird feed on the flowering bushes in the back of the garden. Later, I realized that this was the first time that I had anyone over for a meal since before Covid. The last time was brunch with my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group. (SOSS is an organization for Jewish and Muslim women to meet as friends, learn from each other, and work toward acceptance and understanding.) I still have hope in connections made around plates of food, though right now that feels like a band-aid when heart surgery is needed.

With all the videos I’ve watched, and articles I’ve read, and essays I’ve written about antisemitism, Jew hatred, and anti-Zionism over the years, after October 7th I decided that I need to do more—to be more. Learning and awareness are important, but I need to figure out how to stop feeling like an observer.

Almost eight months after that apocalyptic event, I’m acting in a new way: focusing less on me as an isolated individual, and more on me within a Jewish journey. In this space, I plan on sharing some of the lessons and ideas that I learn that resonate with me. To learn from a tradition, a people, a religion that has survived and thrived, in often intolerable conditions, is to honor those who came before, and to learn from the richest, soul-touching, thought-provoking ideas that can inspire me to be a light—to keep me focused on what is essential to continually work on myself to, as I recently read and am absorbing, “show that I am deserving of the Divine Presence.” This seems to be the worthwhile goal.

Trust the Divine Presence and do good; dwell in the land, and be nourished by faith. (Psalm 37:3)

 


Four Stages of Retirement

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Seeing far and fog on a walk in the woods


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daughtering My Mother

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A walk in Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A walk in Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Use of Regrets; Or, Appreciating Conversations with Friends

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Stormy waters at Ocean Reef Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt. Charleston, Nevada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blooming cactus on Mr. Charleston

Retirement Hobby: Pottery with Purpose

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Were they supposed to be bowls?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No Bucket List for Me: But Still Places to Be

20230317_163816(1)Street about 20 minutes from home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alligator in park about 20 minutes from home

The Ways I Define Myself

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


Still Being Asked “What Do You Do?”

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The “What do you do?” questions have not stopped being asked. And I’ve decided that it’s a good thing.

Last week I went to an event to meet other Jewish women who are members or potential members of an organization that helps women and girls. It was a glad-I-went event, where I met interesting, enthusiastic women and I’m excited to see where this will lead, regarding the organization’s work and my involvement. Besides the regular committee work, I also volunteered to help with their communications, after meeting with the director who bemoaned the poor grammar skills of people applying for content writing jobs.

I’ve gotten used to mainly meeting retired people who ask, “Where are you from?” so that when I was asked repeatedly, “What do you do?” I realized that I need to come up with a better answer. Saying that “I’m a retired teacher,” was met with confusion. It’s not just that I retired relatively young, it’s that people assume that being retired means that I don’t do anything, except lunch with the ladies and maintain my health (which are not bad in the big scheme of things). It seems wrong to them that I have opted out. Assumptions about retirement, and what people should do, abound even here in Retirementland (southern Florida).

Beyond the retirement part, I also realize that I don’t want to identify myself as a teacher. I enjoyed being a teacher and, in many ways, it saved me when I was going through my divorce and needed a job. It enabled me to have purpose, as well as financial and job security. Moreover, I’m a better person after having taught because it forced me to become more outgoing, compassionate, and thoughtful. So, I’m definitely thankful to teaching.

Continuing on the idea developed in previous blog posts that what I do for a living doesn’t define me, I realize that I need to come up with a better answer. Teaching was my last job. It was never a life goal; it was unintentional and, thankfully, it worked out for me. Ultimately, it was a way to make a living. (Imagine if you didn’t need the money from your job. Would you still do it? I probably would have lasted a few years as a teacher, but not as long as I did.) But even if it had been my only career and I fully identified as a teacher, shouldn’t I imagine myself in another way—not job-as-identity—as I embark on this next phase(s?) of life? Isn’t that what retirement should mean?

Knock on wood, I live for another few decades, decades that would represent a significant portion of my life. They will probably be the most intentional years that I live. The major milestones are in my past: to go to college, to have a career, to get married, to buy a house, to raise wonderful children. Those accomplishments required that I focus outside of myself, while now I can focus on what I need, so that when I go to bed at night, I don’t berate myself for wasting another day. I’m hoping that my time going forward is a true expression of self. So far, besides when I’m wasting my time, I’ve been reading and writing, interacting with the people who are important to me, using my skills to help others, and learning new things (a lifelong learner, another definition of a teacher!). So, what does that make me? “I do what I need to do to feel good about myself by sharing my thoughts, and trying to make the world safer and more equitable.” Wordy. “I’m focused on self-expression and community betterment.” Pretentious. “I write and volunteer.” Devoid of meaning: what do those words mean in this context? Clearly, I’m still working on this, and that’s ok. I’m in no rush. Sometimes I really am using my time fully.


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




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. 


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.   

 


The Yellow Box of ‘Your Turn to Talk’

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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.