Thoughts

Summer Vacation Thoughts

University of Richmond

 

It is true that I am not as smart or funny or attractive as I had hoped. It is also true that sometimes I am almost as smart and funny and attractive as I imagined. What’s more, I am both more and less delusional than I would have expected. This is based on the assumption that this is normal, even the norm. Why is so much of self-perception based on delusions? And why does one’s perception of reality tend to team up with self-criticism? You just have to wonder what’s the point of introspection when you generally end up hauling yourself over simmering coals as opposed to placing yourself on a tacky pedestal. For every moment of self-flattery, there are the non-stop, non-subtle knocks of disapproval.

But who cares!? Who the curseword cares. Not me. I am freeing myself.

It’s time to crash the clown car of critique and live within delusion. What’s the harm in thinking I’m my best expression of myself? Is it really hurting anyone, even myself, if I refuse to bow down and place some cockamamie gilded goddess of perfection and leaning as the light of my light? I think not.

It gets tiring living in a two-tiered world, where one tier encourages others in confidence and aspirations, and the other confronts the self as if it is a criminal for eating and napping, and, generally, just being a woman who needs (nay, wants) to eat and nap.

Oh, but to convince myself that my little island is the best expression of myself even as the tide of aspirations ebbs and flows. How lovely that would be. Could be. Will be?

It gets tiring thinking that who you are is not enough. But if there was someone else I could have been, I would have been her by now. Perhaps if I honestly settle into this acceptance I can be as content as I tell myself I am. Perhaps then I will let myself realize that there is no purpose of life other than to live, and that it is enough. I could do without burdening myself into thinking that the only valid life is one that is saving the world, when I find it challenging enough just to go through the mail once a week.

The calm that enables the chastisement is pretty darn fertile because it is also the foundation from which actual accomplishments arise. Maybe not the ones I envisioned when I told myself who I am and can be, but actual accomplishments which, apparently, are the ones I’m geared to make.

This calm is the place from which I will head into my eleventh year teaching. And I’m excited to meet, challenge, and encourage new students. It continually confounds me that I discount my teaching and think it only a worthwhile enterprise to solve the problems we read about in the headlines. Instead of those angel wings that people tattoo on their backs, I need to imagine butterfly wings beating, not in a vacuum, but participating in some sort of People’s Nobel Prize of Humanity wherein we all do what we can to bring out and encourage goodness. 


Contentment Is a Place

Summer balcony

It is a beautifully blue June day with sunbeams graying the black floorboards, a slight breeze cooling the afternoon heat, children’s playground calls ringing out, and me, sitting on my chair, looking out / in. During this season of travel plans and gatherings, the ease of sitting and thinking without concerns and complications feels as luxurious as a Caribbean beach. It is not that I have had enough of seeing the sights of the world, but the solitude of mind is far gentler on my couch than meandering cobblestone paths alone while passing couples and families.

There is a way, I am coming to understand, to make insularity feel like the best alternative and not the only option. I rearranged my balcony to feel less rustic hut and more vacation bungalow. A rose plant, on sale because it needs TLC, is giving that to me by adding its brilliant red blooms to my assortment of practical herbs. The rhythm of a home-based retreat enables me to find only comfort and avoid those confrontations of self that, inevitably, call forth wonderings of lackings, and I realize, suddenly, that it is strength that I have crafted. Why wander lonely when I can sit comforted?

The other day I read an article that stated that it is better for one’s long-lasting sense of self and self-preservation to be content than to seek happiness, which, I assume we all know by now, is transitory. Sounds about right, but it does take a long time of seeking the high to realize that it is too dependent on others to ever be of intrinsic value. It also takes a long time to realize what one needs to be content.

A job I enjoy, at which I’m good and want to keep improving. Vacation time long enough to focus on what I need, which has narrowed down to time spent with words. Volunteer activities that I expect to bring me fulfillment and not just a pat on the back. Friends, in emails, on the phone, down a path, on the other side of a table, with whom my life has been woven into an enveloping fellowship. Body acceptance that finally enables me to go sleeveless. Family, essentially the three women—daughters and mother—with whom there exists a spirit of independence and dependence that makes me feel just the right amount of needed.

But still (and this has taken more days of introspection since that blue June day to understand) there is an emptiness. Does being content mean accepting the present for what it is and what it is not? Getting to this calm point has involved two major relinquishments: love and vanity. No expectation to meet a man and no expectation for writerly recognition. Two hard things to accept. But life does feel easier, even if that acceptance is, at times, overlapped with loss and regret. True contentment, then, must not be guided by willful ignorance, but by forthright acknowledgement.

I wonder why it takes half a lifetime to stop crying about what will not be. The power of wanting what we learn to want. The time it takes to honestly assess one self. It is hard, isn’t it, to realize that you are not who you want to be, but are merely who you are. Change is not always possible, and even if it were, who would you be—and for whom? Half a lifetime gives you time to look around, time to realize that you could not be another, time to nod we got this to the self, time to try stilettos and revert to flats. It takes time to fill a space with what seems necessary and to empty that space of what is not necessary. It takes time to sculpt a soul.


Allergies and Analogies

Ball in tree

 

I can finally open my right eye, but little pustules keep appearing on my arms, while the weeping ones give me hope that this plant v. Laura battle will eventually end. My face feels like a mask of dry, itchy skin pressing down, suppressing the breathing of my pores, sealing me in. Time and steroids and lotions and ice packs and antihistimines are doing their work, and it has only been four days, but this feeling of being incased within myself is haunting, disturbing. There are layers of me, but this outer layer presses down and in so doing takes control. There is no escaping the discomfort of feeling so aware of my irritated skin.

 

And while I focus on battling this invasion of poison ivy, I think about racism, poisonous racism, and I wonder if hate is a person’s poisoned outer layer or is it his interior, awash with receptors to toxins that permeate the outer layer.

 

We are told that we are not born with hate, that it is something learned, then why are we so darned good at hating—as if we are born to it? Perhaps there is a gene that enables us to transition from hate-free to hate-full. What could there possibly be within the supple limbs of a child, the contours of a lock of hair, the radiance of a smile that makes hate natural? Is hate a lack of spirit? Is someone who hates a person who is afraid of anything new, different, not the norm that he was raised within? Is it not so much a taught capacity, a learning, but rather a reflection of fear, an inability to survive—to trust—anything outside the known boundaries?

 

Is hate a poison that is always within, waiting to protect the self with a shell that scratches at those who come near? Are too many of us too innately the survivalist dependent on the tribal, afraid, innately, to test the self against / to present the self to the unknowns of people who are not like me? Do they need guns and weapons and manifestos because looking into someone’s heart might profoundly reveal that there was never a reason to stand separate.

 

My face feels unfamiliar to me. The skin that I obsessively moisturize is bumpy and tingles with an itchy dryness that cannot be moisturized away. I press ice to it, numbing the irritation.

 

The battle of good and evil.

 

The clash between love and hate.

 

This interminable space that separates fear from acceptance.

 

Summer. Another season.

 

Last night there was a pounding storm. Now there is oppressive sun and heat. And still my skin. And still to contemplate hate.

 

It must be deep inside: the sand that an oyster uses to create a pearl must be for us a switch that turns the self into a representation, a weapon. Could it be that in the interior of self we are so far removed from any degree of intelligence that we are only that ancient instinct for survival and all that does not mirror us is a danger? Is that a place where rationality dissolves and we seep back into the past beyond memory?

 

Perhaps hate, racial hate, hate of the other, anti-Semitism, actually shows that we humans have progressed from the dawn of pre-time because there are those among us who don’t differentiate and label and shun and pummel. Maybe the only thing positive about a murderous racial rampage is that the murderers and their apologists are over there, in the thicket of instincts, but there are those of us who cry in pain and sorrow and deep regret that we could not reach into that shell of hate to help them see that other is another word for neighbor. 


Not Regretting Regrets

Orchid blooming

An orchid that I received post-bloom a year ago and which, obviously, I have somehow cared for well-enough to rebloom. What a sense of accomplishment.

 

Apparently we are not supposed to live with regrets, as I became aware yesterday while loop listening to “No Day But Today” with its insistence that I “Forget regret—or life is yours to miss.” But how do you tell your personal documentary that events and people need to be eternally spliced? How do you stop a mind’s meanderings while driving down a straight road early on a Sunday morning? Which brings me to an important tangent: What is with songs nowadays that are barely disguised self-help lessons? I don’t want a song to tell me what to do; I just want to hear a few uplifting love stories that might bring on a memory, balanced with those that reveal the ugly churn of love into empathetic pain. Is that too much to ask for? Can songwriters keep the suggestions of their therapists to themselves and stick to harmonizing about love.

 

Has it always been like this? I don’t think so. I remember listening to the ache of love missing, present, and past, not this guidebook. And it’s wrong. Who wants to hear a 20-year-old spouting words of wisdom? If I wanted the words, I wouldn’t have taken a break from NPR. The same applies to older singers: I don’t want to know what you think of the world we live in; again, taking a break from that to listen to you.

 

Going back to that line that’s bothering me: “Forget regret—or life is yours to miss.” That is a horrible suggestion; or, perhaps, it is a horrible suggestion to a middle-aged woman who needs to find her way amidst regrets for things done and not done, ‘cause it can’t be undone. And certainly steer clear of telling me that only by making decisions and choices is life lived, because it’s happening whether or not you make choices, wise or otherwise. Let’s be honest: there will always be something to regret for there are more choices than paths to be taken. Life cannot be missed, even for the fatalist on a sailboat. Besides, this implies that we only have regrets if we don’t act, but what about regretting actions taken, which, certainly, is a treasure trove for a woman with age spots, skin tags, and a mind that recently blanked on “pool table” and “fidget”?

 

Regret. It seems to be my new home territory, and, definitely, an uptick from where it used to reside at self-pity. I say, regret is in the same category as envy, hard to live there, but even harder not to stop by for the occasional visit. Why regret regret? Live with it because it seems that there is no alternative to backward looking, and doesn’t it, really, help you better understand and accept where you are, regretfully or not?

 

Note: I’m back, I think. I’ve been busy with school, but more so I’ve been residing in my little hole where I am certain that only published authors, especially novelists, have valid things to say. But you know what, they don’t. I have worked at convincing myself that I am like a poet or songwriter (of yore, not these singing therapists) who focuses on one topic and makes it into a world and that is okay since we all need to be reading accounts from lots of worlds to inform our own mini-micro-world. 


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 Skin

First flowers 2015

 

The first thing I saw the other morning when I opened my eyes to the new day was the skin on my right arm. It was not a kind good morning! to the day for I discerned the beginnings of crepe-y old lady skin. And I should know since I was just down in Southern Florida. I’m not horrified that my skin resembles a snake’s right before sloughing just because it signifies a stark “this is what you have to look forward to” moment; no, it’s that, well, yes, maybe that is the problem. My immediate reaction was to lather body lotion on my arms as if the from-now-on application will make up for years of walking around with unprotected and unlubricated arms in the Israeli sun, and an obsession for putting on hand cream, never acknowledging that there is suppleness to protect beyond the wrist. Oh, what have I done?

 

My formerly non-disruptive skin perturbs me more than the grays because there is no easy box fix-it. This skin is as much a sign of my progression as that which a shirt takes from proud first-time wear to the indignity of the donation pile: no amount of tending to can turn back years on a back.

 

It didn’t seem to me that people down Florida-way particularly minded their slack skin; otherwise, how to explain all of the open exposure? Maybe when you realize that you’re falling apart, you don’t protest reality, you do what you can to slow it down, and then move along to the next activity. Shuffleboard anyone?

 

It’s not that I regret my aging skin; it’s that I regret not having appreciated the beauty of the ordinariness of skin when it was right there in front of my eyes at wake-up time for many, many, many years. And now, now it’s gone and in its place is this blotchy pre-crepe skin.

 

Is this an example of wisdom? Is this me coming to a realization that without time I never would have come to? What’s the benefit? Why does it have to be accompanied by skin tags and why, oh why, can’t we truly benefit from someone else’s experience? 

 


VIRGINIA TO FLORIDA AND BACK

Nature Reserve Florida 2015

 

In what turned out to be a break between snow and ice storms in Northern Virginia, I visited my mother in Southern Florida. As a gesture to hope, I packed my sandals and capris—and I got to wear them the entire time! No Uggs that weekend.

 

We did the women-in-the-family trifecta: eating lots in and more out, light sightseeing, and intense clothing and shoe shopping. My mother started the tradition with me, and I proudly continue it with my daughters. Who am I to reject a tradition that involves pastrami, pad thai, bagels, the beach, and new sandals?

 

While there, essentially to check on my 81-year-old mother, she sent an email to older daughter with “Mom” in the subject line. Older daughter, as another tradition would have it, immediately worried that something had happened to me. But no, my mother was emailing her to say nice things about me. Her momentary anxiety, while not fun for her, made me feel appreciated. I know, I should feel that already, and I do, but sometimes tangibles make the intangible tangible. For my mother, (I hope) it was that visit; for me, it was older daughter’s concern and younger daughter’s texts as I journeyed back to the tundra-on-the-Potomac; for them, it should be the souvenir tee shirts that I purchased and planned to buy even before booking my flight.

 

A tangible that became even more tangible was how alone I am when I’m not reinforcing tradition at DSW. Having to roll my suitcase with me each time I went to the bathroom and as I walked up and down the concourse to exercise away my too early airport arrival, while other women simply nodded to their husbands and tapped their suitcase was, to my travel-tense mind, an indictment against me. The regrets from the dissolution of my marriage and the what-ifs that swirl around have a party whenever I’m at the airport; they overwhelm my otherwise sane acknowledgement that the past cannot be re-lived and to live with the result without a never-ending trial. There’s something about being confronted with couples and families going about their family business when I am traveling alone, even if it is to family, that slurs my convictions.

 

At this point, after years of mulling and rolling, I don’t know what I could have done differently; though the flipside of my could is his equally logical could, but going there is too painful, and full of real and imagined guilt.

 

My mother loves to psychoanalyze my ex, but I can’t. I think she does this to support me, but I have no need or desire to rehash his wrongs and find the source of his flaws. We did that for years when I would call her from my car seeking her solace and support, crying after he cursed me and insulted me to the girls once again. Maybe she misses when I needed her? But as much as a marriage and a divorce can transform from something living to something inanimate (a block in the shape of time and experience), this has reached that stage. I only wish him well. Besides, with distance I find it easier to find fault with myself, because isn’t it that fun, and I know that that’s a trap.

 

So the past can, in the same instant, be both the past and the present. What’s key is to keep it contained there, and not allow it to seep into the future, and that requires that I still the theorizing and the fault-finding. I was the me of then, and now I am a different me.

 

Sometimes you see yourself and you wonder how it is that you haven’t changed in all these years, and then at other times you wonder when you had that growth spurt.  

 


MY SOCIAL LIFE

20150217_072358

 

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. 

 


KEEPING WARM

20150218_120811

 

I had to escape my cold house. When I turn the heater to higher than 58, it turns on the auxiliary heater and since I fear a system stoppage or breakdown, I leave it there, at least until the outside temperature rises above freezing, which may be some time this weekend. My hardwood floors are lovely; but even with two pairs of socks on, my feet are cold. So I, the anti-shoe-in-the-house person, has begun wearing younger daughter's Uggs in the house. Yet even with flannel pajama bottoms, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, and a sweatshirt, I need to huddle. Hence the escape to a neighborhood coffee shop. After I discovered the wifi code, I saw the thermostat, which is lovingly set to 76. I have pulled up my sleeves for the first time in days.

 

I am not complaining about getting another snow day, which sets me now into day five of a scheduled three-day weekend, but it is darn cold out there and my neighborhood streets are icy. I even took a slide onto the snow when I walked Poops earlier. Those Uggs, it seems, are better as slippers than for walking out and about in the snow.

 

It is warm and lovely here, with all of the parents and their young children. A father who should not have such young daughters, but they are adorable; one with pigtails set on top of her head. A mother safely holding her baby's pacifier in her mouth for a moment of comfort. Another mother picking out a game to play with her daughter, while her son maintains focus on his game and huge chocolate chip cookie. It's nice to see kids outside of the confines of the high school pressure cooker, and see them in their young explorations with a protective parent nearby. The other adults are all absorbed in their computers.

 

But a change has occurred. Pigtail girl didn't listen to her father, and her sister, who was charged with keeping her from showing her toys to the rest of us, was unsuccessful, so they have gone. Game boy didn't help his mother when she dropped the game they were playing; &But my sister isn't doing her part.& To which the mother aggravatingly told him that she was just asking him to help. He was then instructed to get his jacket on. The illusion of peace between parents and  young children is gone, as is my moment of thinking that it could be fun to teach little kids.

 

There is now a group of four seniors eating lunch where the game players had been. They are loud enough to easily eavesdrop, but I really don't want to hear about people with scabies and the possible causes. I fear I will be pushed back out into the cold.

 

It has been nice, this warm break. It's good sometimes observe. Funnily, it has made me feel more of a participant than usual. At home, in my classroom, at school, my normal environments, I am so focused on what I need to do that I forget that I do not need to be in control, that being in the flow of life is a very warm place.


Talking to Myself

What concerns me is not that I speak to myself in a normal conversational tone when I'm home alone, but that I have begun to find it normal, even appropriate. I mean, isn't it nicer to hear your own voice spoken out loud rather than in that slightly creepy endless internal whisper? It's not that entire dinner conversations occur, and I certainly do not create acquiantances with whom I converse and to whom I serve a meal, but I do tend to discuss my wardrobe and food choices out loud. Yes, I may say, I'll wear the white shirt. Or, chop the onion. Nothing to indicate a degradation of mental ability, more like certifying that my voice works and my hearing hears. Telltale signs of living alone, but is it wrong to assert that you are your own company, in a special way? We often discount ourselves and look too importantly on those around us, so, if anything, I am doing myself a service.

 

After discovering that the joys of living alone have become the simple extravagance of walking around naked in the morning to make coffee before getting dressed and not worrying about someone else's dietary desires, there comes the aloneness, the solitude, the quiet. While it's easier than living in pain with an abusive spouse, it is not easy to continually face only your own company, Saturday morning after Saturday morning. I both envy myself and envy others in a very delicate balance that still enables me to accept and approve the choices I have made along the way to this moment.

 

Using my own voice, while a lovely symbol for actually using my own voice, seems to have also enabled me to shed some of the norms of living with others that I no longer need to adhere to. I can be selfish. I can create my own rules. Or I can wonder if I am creating norms that help me to feel strong within myself or whether I am actually weakening myself by feeling my aloneness so acutely. Perhaps I am at a transition point and that is what is causing this discomfort, for I am resisting reaching the next stage because I never expected to be living there: alone and far removed from daydreaming about someone into the minutes and hours and years ahead.

 

I joke about having a bed and breakfast when I retire, perhaps because I can't imagine this aloneness to be so unending, but I can, increasingly, intuit (against hope but towards reality) that the bed part of my future will not be a shared space.

Talking to myself out loud is a bold way to begin to declare acceptance and figure out how to make it suitable, how to give myself what I need. And that voice, a voice, my voice, to break the silence of one person going between the kitchen and the bathroom in an endless loop seems to serve that purpose well.


WHY DON'T I READ NOVELS?

Winter bloom

I’ve stopped reading novels. That may be a bit dramatic considering the fact that about two months ago I read the first three books in a quadrilogy and am anxiously awaiting number four to come out sometime this summer (the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, whoever she really is). But the basic truth stands: I’m barely reading novels. My childhood was composed of reading novels in between doing the other stuff. I always had a novel with me; it was the built-in companion for an introvert who didn’t want to sit at home all the time. In college I changed from majoring in Political Science to English Literature because in one we read theories that put me to sleep and in the other we read about people who captivated me. I needed to be drawn in to other possibilities. I tried going for a masters in literature, but after realizing that it was not to luxuriate in the details of countless classics, but to delve into literary analysis, with barely a hello to the worlds we were killing with critique, I dropped that to return to the couch of casual reading.

 

And I’m not the only woman of my certain age who seems to be transitioning from fiction to non. The books we read in my book club are steadily shifting from mainly novels, when we started around seven years ago, to today’s emerging emphasis on non-fiction. Even the fiction that we read is generally of the international variety, so it encompasses a “learning about the world” non-fictionish aspect.

 

This reading realization has me wondering why I’m transitioning at this time in my life. Part of me thinks it must be tied to why I can barely listen to music on the radio any more. Need I say “topic”? I have absolutely no patience to listen to people who can’t breathe without love. I mean really. Get a life. Get a job where you can’t mope. Get on with things. Nor do I care to read about the tribulations of finding true love and a great career while wearing, what is it that they are wearing over their thongs? Nor do I want to read about (must I say it?) marriage and/or divorce and/or man-woman relationships. Is it because I’ve spent/wasted too much life-time thinking about those things that I can’t expend more time in my supposedly relaxing moments to think about them anymore? Or is it because I’m a teeny bit bitter and don’t want to expend my jealousy quotient on a fake character created by another frustrated woman who sets up her alter ego to live happily ever after? Whatever the reason, neither my interests nor my life are in those books. Is it also okay to complain about conversations that aren’t realistic? Maybe I just don’t want to read variations on a life, but rather I want to learn specific things about life. There’s so much to learn about that the vagaries of he did/said she did/said is past my patience level.

 

Is this my descent into being a crotchety woman or just one of those women “who knows her mind”?

 

An alternative explanation is that since I spend so much of my life with my students and being aware that I am part of the story that they are creating of their lives, in my time away from class (and all that it involves in and outside of school), I need to fully step away from a deep personal involvement which is required when reading a novel. This is also why, I am sure, I have neither the ability nor desire to become absorbed in a TV drama or sitcom, and prefer the non-attachment of home and cooking shows.

 

Another possible explanation or part of the whole is that now that I have a good sense of life in its basic configuration (the stuff of those songs and novels that I can no longer listen to or read) when I read I want to learn things that are beyond the realm of what I can grasp through my own filter. What I need is a kind of midlife university where I can fill in the gaping gaps of things I feel I should know more about than simply knowing that they happened, and learn about the things I should have been aware of. In short, I don’t want to skate along on the wonderful plane of pretense.

 

Life-long learner, indeed.

 

As I sit here thinking about the books I have read, I remember that I used to have an affinity for biographies: life and history. Maybe this change of focus from fiction to non reflects a realization that not only do I want to enter the imaginations of people through the stories they create, but that I want to learn about their worlds through the stories they have lived. Perhaps when we can start looking back on our own lives, we can appreciate the longer view and detailed examination non-fiction requires, and not focus on the moments that accompany ours. 


PARENTHOOD IS A STRANGE THING

Winter Warmth

Parenthood is a strange thing. Stranger even than marriage (surely the person who came up with that idea didn’t understand human caprices) since all parenting ties are undeclared, and are either supportive or subversive, subliminal or coerced. What’s a mother to do when you aim for independence and then have to live with what you have sown so successfully?

 

We parents who find that our nests have emptied are like trees in winter, all naked and exposed, pitching in the wind back and forward, just not standing in the bareness of now. What the heck are we? Are we trees or are we twigs? Are we parents or people of the world who didn’t need those kids before they came and surely can survive without them cluttering up our lives with all their desperations and dreams? Those who race to redo their children’s bedrooms might not understand what’s going on in my mind and life, but I bet they get it. Yes, I think they face it by pretending that they’re facing it, but they’re really ignoring it. That’s why the formerly postered bedrooms in their homes become bare so quickly, the pain of emptiness is too hard to face.

 

It’s odd to say, but it kind of feels like having an ex’s presence around all of the time. You know what I mean: you can’t forget them because they were an important part of your life, but you darn well know that you need to move on. You can remember Saturdays that used to be a frenzy of practices and games and friends and parties and shopping, but that’s all gone. It’s suddenly all about you when it never was when they were around. Like I said, like having an ex around.

 

The divide from life in 1991, birth of older daughter, to 2013, younger daughter off to college, is massive. Then I was married, living in Israel, working in high tech and now I’m divorced, living in Virginia, and teaching from books. It’s like I need to move back into a house I moved out of 23 years ago which I only glimpsed when driving quickly past. Or maybe it’s like I’m my own unknown third child; you know, the quiet kid who no one seems to pay attention to, but now that the other kids are gone, I have been discovered. Yes. Maybe that’s the key, to treat myself like a treat, as I did with my daughters, and not as an intruder.

 

And if that is to be the case, then I should learn to look on myself with anticipation and pride, and not with the always-ready disappointment and futility that it’s just me, and, yes, table for ONE. 


The Pendulum of Care

Sunset

In the week that my younger daughter was here for winter break, I focused on cooking the foods she likes, buying the clothes she needed/wanted, and watching the TV programs we could snarkily comment on together. I also put myself on reserve company duty for when she was in between hanging out with friends, which means that I didn’t get together with my friends (of course, she did have my car). In that week I made myself available for as much daughter-time as possible with my eye on her end-of-the-week flight back to Colorado, which is exactly what I did when I visited her sister in California for a week at Thanksgiving.

There’s no getting around the ache of no longer having one of your children, or all of your children, living under your roof. That is, once you celebrate your way through the first glorious months when you no longer have to deal with A-ttitude and aversion to your voice, your cooking, and your breathing (although younger daughter still has issues with my chewing).

My glorification of cooking seems absurd until I realize that it is a testament to my still being needed—or wanting to be needed. The soups, the latkes, the applesauce, the jelly donuts, the scones, the cake, the quiche, the chili: all made on the stove of Mommy Love. When do I get a chance to show my love other than in awkward “I Love You” text messages? At the same time, there’s no denying the feeling of relief when she left and I stopped being an on-duty mother again. It was exhausting: that constant need to prove my love by actions. It’s like a switch is flipped when I’m around one of my daughters and I revert to being the chief provider of physical, mental, and emotional sustenance.

When my mother comes to visit me, I find that we’re at a delicate phase in our mother-daughter relationship. It’s not that we’re dealing with any infirmities; it’s that she’s in her early 80s and ever so slightly my mommy switch is turning on when she comes, rather than full-force daughter switch. At a certain point you begin to realize that as much as it’s been great to be treated as a precious child, you need to look after your mother as you would a daughter. (Though I sincerely hope I get to skip the diaper phase.) Of course, her not being able to carry a pizza up a flight of stairs was a great indicator that the time is a comin’.

A friend took care of her parents who were both in diapers, while a friend of my mother’s took care of her dying daughter. Another friend commented on his inability to care for his father with his slowly seeping dementia. A colleague joked with her son that for every one of his ballgames she attends, he owes her a diaper change.

My daughters are independent. My mother is independent. I am independent. Within all of that independence is the pendulum of care.

Will I rise to the occasion if need be? It’s natural to mother children. What is it to mother a parent? My mother nursed both my grandmother and my father when they were dying from cancer. Will I be such a good daughter? It seems supremely selfish to demand that of a child. It also seems supremely selfish not to answer the call, as subtle as it may be.

Up to a couple of months ago I would instinctively cut short my thoughts about my mother’s aging with the magic words: senior living facility. But my father’s mother aged frighteningly fast in one. And the stories you hear. And my mother’s response when she hears those words is reminiscent of what hearing the word “Ebola” does nowadays.

Perhaps because I have a good relationship with my mother I have begun contemplating a future when she would live with me: a concept I would have mocked months ago. Is the change because now that I have no one to care for all of the time, I can discern that I derive more meaning than I was aware of from this little grouping, this family. Or is it that I’m not as selfish as I always thought I am.

When I first became a mother 23 years ago, I was shocked to discover that I have patience. It was a quality I had never associated with myself. But there it was when I nursed for hours on end, intermittently cleaning up vomited mother's milk, staring at the wonder of a perfect creation for whom I was ultimately responsible. And while at times I have lost my patience, that deep-seated patience whose source is love and connection has become an integral part of my understanding of myself. How can I direct it one way, to a way that is comfortable, suitable to me? While I hope not to be confronted with this as an actuality, the possibility must be confronted. A baby step. 


In Defense of Being Defensive

Traffic calming

At the hint of criticism directed toward anyone I care about, I turn into a mommy lion with hot pink aviator glasses. It’s not that I ignore faults; it’s that everything has an explainable flip side. It all depends on seeing things from my perspective. Perhaps people think I’m delusional, but that’s okay, I have to live with the games my mind plays.

Surprisingly, this defensive stance has, to some degree, extended to my ex-husband. Even at his most heinous, when I needed to talk about what he had done so that I could hear people tell me how horrible he was, and how strong and right I am, there was always a soupçon of the wife supporting her husband, or, more accurately, a woman supporting the woman who fell in love with the wrong man, or, more accurately, the man who turned out not to be the man with whom she had fallen in love.

I am ashamed that I am divorced, not because of a stigma attached to divorce, since I see the divorce itself as positive: I got out of a bad situation as opposed to staying in it because I had a ring on it. No, I’m ashamed because it is a cudgel to my self-esteem. I made a monstrous mistake in judging my ex-husband, and in judging my ability to judge a person. Though I am positive that the man I met in 1982 was not the man I divorced in 2007 (and the man he has become since then), it is still a burden to bear. But the man behind the bear, the original man, that is who I defend. (Or is it the woman who fell in love with that man?)

Perhaps my defense of him comes from a sorrow as deep as love, one whose origin is emotional rather than logical. Logic: I am sorry that he did not remain the man I thought he was. Emotional: I am sorry that he did not become the man he thought he was. If he had gone on with his life, to a new job and a new wife, rather than an unknown mental state and an impoverished state at that, there would have been no psychic need for me to transfer hate and fear to pity and blame. Is this survivor’s guilt? Does it show that I am healthy or unhealthy?

It would be nice to relegate the past to the past, but it is not a set place or time, it infiltrates. There is no pure present. Is this what it means to be middle-aged? This is when you realize that you are unable to cut yourself off from the past because it is your fiber, but you can critique it so that, ultimately, you transform it. Analysis as transformation. Failed relationships are leavened by the air of time and thought.

Perceptions and emotions come back in ways that enable us to accept who we were within past relationships, not to define us, but to refine ourselves. The past is not set, it is discovery. And that defensiveness is not a wall but a permeable barrier between selves, enabling me to live with who I was and who I am, and to accept both—all.

 

 


Alone Is a Plateau

Poops Dec 2014

Poops

It’s not as if I walk around naked all the time (though I could since the cemetery across the way is full of lonely people and its neighboring church seems to advocate extremely part-time practice) nor do I only have empties (of potato chip bags, that is) in the garbage, but not worrying about how someone else views my habits or needing to mesh mine with someone else’s has become my definition of contentment. Sure, I miss the opportunity to flesh out the anxieties of the day with someone and I miss seeing someone light up when I come home, but my mother, who lives in Florida, can usually listen for a few minutes before going back to herself, and Poops exuberantly welcomes me home, every single time I walk through the door. So I have backup.

 

It’s been about a year and a half since younger daughter went to college, which began my living alone stage that initially felt far more lonely than lovely. Before that there was home with mother, father, brother; then there were roommates in various configurations; and then there was husband and daughters; then, five and a half years ago (two years after the divorce) the house finally sold and older daughter went to college, so there was younger daughter on her custody schedule; then daughter and boyfriend; then daughter full-time since another great romantic story didn’t work out and boyfriend left, and my ex disappeared; and now there’s me. Well, me and Poops. It took a while to overcome the feeling that I should be tending to someone, that I am a failure for having failed at all my important relationships (when you’re down, your daughters going far far away to college reflects on you negatively), and to finally settle down into me and not being apologetic or ashamed of that. What is a “should” home configuration anyway?

 

At work my days are spent tending to others. I calculated that each work day I interact with at least 100 people, where some pay attention to every single thing I say, and others only notice the oh-no’s that slip when you talk for a living. That’s a lot of watching my mind-mouth interaction. And what I read in my spare time is generally about how abysmal our world is and has been, or about the people who try to make sense of that abysmal world record, or about the people who try to make it less abysmal, so I’ve got a weight on me that never leaves.

 

What does it mean to be alone? It doesn’t mean lonely because I don’t feel isolated (except on Saturday nights when I’m in bed by nine and fully awake at midnight, and maybe, too, on Sunday mornings when I would love to eat breakfast at a diner but even I will not expose myself that much because what could possibly say lonely more than eating breakfast alone while all around you are couples and families?). It does mean that I have the opportunity to live in the undulating rhythm of my mind and needs. It means that I can care about what I care about. But it also means that I have no one to blame for not accomplishing what I thought I should accomplish. There is no blame-game safety net. That isn’t such a bad thing because it also means that I force myself to whittle down into realistic goals, both lofty and nappy (as in napping).

 

To be alone is not to be without people because that is a decision to be made on an on-going basis, but it does mean that I need to be satisfied with myself since I cannot fill my mind with the la-la-la-la of other people’s doings and thinkings. No meals to anticipate other people wanting. No soothing of disjointed egos and moods. No driving to be done. No coordinating and planning and scheduling. It is to live in the moment gauging only what I need, and that is liberating and unnerving because there is still a part of me that finds fulfillment in being a carpet to walk upon.

 

Alone. It means to recognize another aspect of my identity. I am a woman, mother, writer, teacher: I am Jewish, a New Yorker, Virginian, American, Israeli; I am alone.

 

It has taken a while, but I feel strength in that designation. It is a sign of being a cope-er.

 

Alone is a plateau. One that stretches in an undulating path of self-directed wanderings.


The Heart of an Irrelevant Lady

Palm Springs, November 2014

Palm Springs, Thanksgiving 2014

While the country roils from murderous racism and white impunity, and around the world anti-Semitism becomes de rigueur for the open-hearted and those who would cut out those open hearts from the core of their own murderous racism, and as increasingly thicker catalogs for clothes and make-up arrive for younger daughter, I’m spending my time in high-chat mode. Since no one’s calling my friends and me to solve the problems of the world, we might as well contemplate the meaning of our little lives.

 

One friend wonders what will fulfill her now that her sons are heading off to college and she’s heading into far too many years at the same organization; another friend grasps out and in for tools to make her and her fiancé’s relationship a success rather than a contentious prequel to divorce two; another friend has begun to resemble Don Quixote as she battles to be recognized beyond the gates of nepotism; while another is within the gates, but battling the whiny wall of bureaucracy and the entitled student.

 

Amidst that cacophony there are the illnesses that have crept in. There is the friend, the woman who less than a year ago I envied for her large, lovely home; successful, devoted husband; adoring sons still at home; international travel with family and friends; a retirement full of purpose; who has been laid very, very low by cancer. There is the woman who told me that her husband, the successful engineer, now spends his time at home unable to make a cup of coffee, with a Keurig, because of early on-set Alzheimer’s. And there is the student whose depression has created a hollow-seeming child.

 

Oh, woe woe woe.

 

But woe is not me in the sense that I suffer within my situational pain, rather woe is within my chain of connection, and that is an essential link in the chain of self, especially since I have uncovered that within my singleness there is the almost teenage connection to friends, but I am in a post-boy phase and so can focus on what is being told without demanding to be heard.

 

Is there always a cycle of pain, where we each have our turn at the wheel while others wait patiently for their turn?

 

It’s a sad thing to know that the prick is always felt by someone.

 

I am not an “it’s for a reason” or an “it will make you stronger” person. There is no flip side, rather there is the undulating movement of lives that rise and fall. There is no repose, there is the appreciation of what was, what is, what will be, never knowing what is better or best, just going through the cycle of self because that is the story to be lived.

 

Amidst the essential pain within each small life, the violent tragedies that stun and subdue appear so purposeless, so petty. How can hate be of more value than a morning kiss? Why does one person’s mind get to conquer another’s body? Why does the arrogance that quells get the upper hand on the respect that fosters?

 

Questions that have no answer in history, which, I guess, is the answer.

 

Pebbles of compassion.

 

Who I am and who I am and who I am needs to push past the never-ending truth of a world built on greed and power, and simply commit to its own spiral that threads together concern for and encouragement of friends, and that spark of dignity that drills beneath the layers of resentment and commits to believing in the undergirding of humanity wherein my circle is limitless and where my powerlessness is a power. The power of living a life pretending that it is more than mine, that it is part of an “ours” that can change the trajectory of imposed tragedies. A real life of pretend, where the illusion is that no one is irrelevant, and the message is that despair is solitary while empathy is communal.

 

Sitting around the table talking our little talks will not quell the seeping hatred, but it will quiet the fear that I huddle alone in my horror and dismay, and that is no insignificant feat. Within that comfort is the power to resist passivity and to propel my pebble of self into the ocean, creating the barest of ripples, which, at the most basic level, is a barrier. As a barrier protects, it also pushes against. These friendships are a force on the tiniest of scales and the most impactful. There is nothing small about talk that protects and emboldens.  


On Being Jewish in Virginia on November 16, 2014

Since May and the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium it seems that everything I’ve read has been about antisemitism somewhere, everywhere, in the world. Except here, but I won’t be surprised if it arrives. Well, that’s not quite true since it did arrive a few years ago in the form of a swastika drawn onto a desk in my classroom as well as the memorable phrase, “F- this Jew.” So, no, I won’t be surprised when it arrives. I will be horrified and dismayed, again.

 

There was also the shocking tableau in school a few years ago of an Asian girl calling her Asian friend a Jew because she bent down to pick up a coin that was on the ground. Why not pick it up?

 

And then there was the one-date guy whose memorable comment about Jews needing to atone for killing Jesus was definitely a here-now comment. Come to think of it, just a couple of weeks ago a friend of a friend, upon hearing about the relationship-ending comment, said, “Well, they did.” Yes, here. Yet, when I told that to younger daughter, she said that a friend’s sister who went to a Catholic high school in this area was taught that it’s not true. So here and not here.

 

But, honestly, reading about antisemitism was so much “nicer” when it was just in my historical reading, and not my newspaper reading.

 

It makes you—me—wonder, what’s wrong with the world that it needs to hate people who didn’t take your guy as their guy? Do we really all have to accept the same truths? And even their guys don’t have the same guys and truths, so, really, what’s a person to do? What have we Jews done except survive (minus those who, horrifically, didn’t survive) the laws and restrictions that were placed in front of us? Could someone please give us the most well-deserved medal for putting up with the tantrums of tyrants and not coming out with hatred on our breath, but still, unbelievably, committed to improving the world (tikkun olam). Still hoping, impressively, that the world would become a moral and ethical place, putting to an end the constant spark-less spark to stab and shoot and run over Jews, and then blame the Jews themselves because they exist(ed).

 

Ugh.

 

It’s so hard to think about this rationally, when there are people who accept as acceptable blank hatred or institutional hatred or taught hatred or systemic hatred. That hatred creates spaces where Jews are not allowed to breathe, never mind utter a sacred word.

 

What is it that perpetuates insanity?

 

Did Adam and Eve leave Eden so that the theory of perpetual hatred could be tested? Could we just say that yes, hate is as ingrained in the human soul as the need for approval, and move on to discover, let’s say, the healing power of a compassionate smile?

 

Or maybe we really do need to put all young men on a few islands, with no social media devices, preventing their wise elders from teaching them to the test of hate, and then we all could continue on our merry way to save the earth from our much too big footsteps.

 

A gloom has seeped into me, relentless in its hold, pushing me to consider what I can do to push back. At the same time, I still need to live life as if my job and my maintenance of self and home are all that matters.

 

That was a few days ago.

 

The last couple of days gave me a moment’s reprieve from the closed circle of hate and despair.

 

A student I had a few years ago came by to tell me how well he’s doing in his current English class, and to thank me for having taught him. That student is Palestinian.

 

And a Muslim student who is from the same area of New York that I am from, and who is covered except for her face, smiled with appreciation when I spoke a few words in Hebrew at the prompting of some of her classmates.

 

That is the cycle as it should be.

 

The eternal shame of humanity is that we are only human when we break bread with one another, for when we are in a group we come into the mass that becomes the mob, and within that momentum we lose the remembrance of ever having a heart that beat for a friend’s pain or our own. That mob mentality can take hold of us even when we are staring out the window in solitude. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe venomous hate supersedes all other emotions in its pull on the heart and mind. Maybe the irrationality of the seemingly ever-present antisemitism is in my trying to understand it as if it is a research question to be answered and, once answered, shelved. But it is not.

 

Perhaps the real shame is that elders abuse their young by teaching hatred so intensely as to stultify generations.

 

Perhaps the shame is that it’s so easy to manipulate people to hate.

 

Perhaps it is thinking that there is a purpose beyond breaking bread.

 

A conundrum.

 

Why are we born with hearts that constantly need to be filled with something?

 

Why do we want to look in the mirror as we walk down the street?

 

As I sit here hour upon hour, with thoughts that feel at times like the prayer of the non-practioner, I go in and out of hot flashes. One moment my sweatshirt is zipped up and the next the heat rises, uncontrolled and intense, and I unzip, and then just as suddenly it leaves, and I zip up again. It is a crazy way to be. I know how I should feel, but that doesn’t mean anything when the hot flash takes over.

 

Is that what it feels like to hate: to have your innards taken over, to lose control of yourself to something beyond yourself? Is there something tempting in the totality of loss and gain in that process that enables people to prefer the heat of self-denial to the preservation of self?

 

At some point in the next few years my hot flashes will end, and I will (hopefully) regain control of my thermostat. What can I say of hate? Let it burn up like the crumbs at the bottom of an oven: the cinder all that is left to represent the harm of hate, and the uselessness of preserving it as if it has a value other than to darken and embitter.  


Am I Here? Is This There?

October Still Life

October Still Life

 

I’ve decided to shuck hope from expectation and desire from need: whittling down to reality without the silliness of the giddiness of anticipation. Diminish so as to smile from understanding rather than from the falseness of thinking tomorrow won’t be today re-lived.

 

There are many ways to be, but there are few ways to acknowledge wisdom: you rail against and continually cry from pain until you are prepared to live within its shadow, for wisdom is nothing if not the grayness of accumulated/condensed communal tidings to which one, searingly (in the way that one gasps at the dullness of a once sought-after indulgence), succumbs. There have been too many yesterdays that are today and will be tomorrow to attempt to live beyond the border of what is.

 

The pattern of days is a wave that carries out and in, ending where it began, but continually aerated and absorbed by existence. The same, always and never. Within each cycle of breath there is movement and there is cessation, there is this.

 

Standing in the wave, being the wave, invites fragility if you anticipate a divergence in the pattern. There will be none. It is, and what is cannot be what has not been. So simple. So solid.

 

Absorbing this reality is a freedom more than a deadening. Why hope within the ever-expanding disappointment that no day will differ from another when you can watch the sun rise and set on its puppet show trajectory. The same trajectory that has brought me here, to this moment in October when I acknowledge that to be this woman is not against any tide, but the tide itself. I have been afloat, continually, on my rightful wave, but only now do I realize how it comforts. I have defied nothing. I have always been here, within my coiled cycle.

 

The pattering of Poops’ nails against the black hardwood floor keeps me in the now as would a meditation session in the middle of a desert. We are now. He in his search for crumbs to eat, and me as I suppress my search for crumbs, those to eat and those that lead to a meandering contemplation, so I can stay nowed.

 

It is easier than I thought it would be to live this gray day. To let the living of it be the purpose. Has it always been this simple to live a day, a life, a moment?

 

Cars drive past on the wet road. From my fixed point in my apartment, they are a blur of movement and purpose, yet they do not disturb this stillness. The quietness that I have attempted to suppress, a cycle within the cycle of my life, wishing it were alien, is, finally, admittedly, that which defines me. How grateful can a person be to settle into her current with eyes closed and hands open.

 

There are people I love. There are things I care about. I thought that they defined me, but as I pare down into myself, I realize that there is a core from which I emanate, that is me, purely. I do not need to prove that I exist by doing, I am.

 

There is the sound of violins and the gentle chill of a wet autumn afternoon. There are the things I read today, in the gossip column and in the history column, and the word games I am in the midst of playing. There is the drenched yellow chrysanthemum on the balcony. There are the texts that I receive and send. There is the twice reheated coffee I just finished. This is who I am. 

 


Thanks, Grandma

Butterfly

You know how sometimes the difference between anticipating something and the reality of that thing can be so wide that it’s hard to reconcile yourself to the fact that they refer to the same thing. Well, that’s what happened to me when I listened to the interview tapes two of my cousins made with our grandparents (my paternal, their maternal). It’s possible that my reaction to the statement that turned the experience tearful in a bitter way instead of a poignant way (though there was that too) proves that what my grandmother said about me is true, but it’s possible that it proves it is not always wise to say what you think, especially to a tape recorder, and that wisdom and insight do not always reside in our elders who can be as petty as the rest of us non-octogenarians.

 

So there I was, listening to my grandmother’s tales of living in and then leaving Zitomir (Jitomar), Ukraine, Russia, and her arrival in the States in 1922 when she was ten-years old after a three-year journey. The story that stands out from the tape is that she, her siblings, and her mother (her father and one sister had already come to the States) had to hide for a couple of weeks to escape a pogrom (in about 1918). When they returned, what hadn’t been taken from their home had been destroyed. When she went to a friend’s house, she saw some of their furniture, and naively thanked her friend for saving them. Only to have her friend say that they’re keeping everything and that she will not be friends with a Jew anymore and to get out of her house.

 

My grandfather, who left Grodno, (Belarus), Russia , at around four-years old told stories of growing up mostly on a farm in upstate New York (who knew I have dairy maid in my genes) and that my grandparents owned a candy store (that I can imagine) in Brooklyn, when they were first married.

 

Then there was plenty of time to reminisce about spouses and grandchildren. There was the requisite statement by my grandmother that she was committed to caring about the spouses her three children picked, and then, oy, onto the grandchildren. There was the grandson with sensitive skin, the hellion grandson, the two quiet granddaughters, the granddaughter who was interviewing them was upset that she was not remembered (couldn’t the woman make something up), there was the nice granddaughter, and then there was Laura. With nary a moment’s hesitation she stated, “She was selfish and spoiled, her mother thought she was the best.” Now I am aware that this statement refers to a visit that a quiet granddaughter and I made when we were twelve to visit them in Miami Beach. I also became aware, many years hence, that there were grownup issues before and after this visit. But for me there was just the vaguely aware reality of my grandparents clandestinely buying things for my cousin and not for me. I don’t remember doing or saying anything that indicated that I was aware of being treated differently, except I do vaguely remember my cousin getting a jeans jacket like mine. So kill me for not liking that. Then my grandmother went on to say how difficult that trip was. Was that really my selfish, spoiled fault?

 

That trip was about forty years ago, the interview took place almost twenty years after that, and my grandmother has been dead for nine years. I’m going to assume, just because I like to torture myself, that her impression of me never changed. Since I always thought of myself as an obedient, quiet girl (even my teen rebellion was a retreat into books, bedroom, and lone walks), I find her long-held assessment disturbing.

 

When I told two colleagues what my grandmother said, one of them proclaimed that I must be like her sister who is very un-self-aware. As a person who considers herself very self-aware (as, I hope, is evident in this blog), I found her comment unsettling and slightly offensive. When I told this story to a good friend, her immediate reaction was that I am neither selfish nor spoiled; the horrified look on her face will forever endear her to me.

 

Those comments pushed me to wonder about the possibility, not of knowing ourselves, but of knowing other people. We live parallel to most of the people in our lives, rarely intersecting enough to acknowledge them as more than accessories to our own lives. How often are we able to separate our filter-of-self enough to recognize the person standing opposite us? Both my grandmother’s and my colleague’s comments reflect more on the blinders within than my actions. How often are we able to see others for who they are rather than not being us?

 

If I think of my marriage (which would have reached its 29th anniversary this past week if things hadn’t fallen apart) I realize that initially we were opposites attracting, but at some point, how I saw him and how he saw me was not out of respect for thoughts and personality, but a recoiling from them because they were from the other side of a gap that could no longer be bridged by attraction. Hence, no anniversary.

 

Is that why most of our friends are like us (at least in my experience)? Not because like seeks like, but because like is only able to drop the filter-of-self to peer into another when it trusts that it will be honored in the interaction. Is this internal distance why people are always coming up against each other?

 

What would have happened if my grandmother had spoken to me, at that time or even years later, about the visit and her impression of me, and if she gave me a chance to express and defend myself? Would my memory of her now be overlaid with this hurt?

 

One of the key concepts in conflict resolution and mediation is that each side must tell her story and that the other side must repeat it back, indicating that it has been understood and not just heard. Is that why stories are so powerful, because they give us a chance to leave our gated community and peer into someone else’s compound? Stories are how we practice not being me long enough to realize that other possibilities are not wrong, they simply are variations.

 

For rich and ever enriching lives, it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves, and those whose lives intersect with ours, as well as those whose lives run parallel to ours, to try to be as naïve and trusting as a twelve-year old. We need to try to remember what it was like before judgments were made on who we are and how we are. We need to peer around the corner, trusting that we stand on solid ground even if the wind is doing strange things over here.  


The Elegance of Falling

Red Hook Brooklyn

Red Hook, Brooklyn. A gritty/dangerous to gritty/semi-gentrified neighborhood. (IKEA to the left)

It turns out that I broke my shoulder going to the bathroom. A friend said that I need a better story, but I’m sticking to it. As I told him, it’s in the banality of life that I find what to write about; thus, this fall fits right in.

I landed so hard on my left shoulder that, as the doctor put it, “There’s a break where the ice cream part of the shoulder meets the cone part.” A less metaphorical friend said, “It’s the socket.” I need to be in a sling for a few weeks, with limited use of my left arm. Luckily, I’m ambidextrous and my writing these days is done with a keyboard and not with a pen tensely held in my left hand. Luckily, too, I use my right hand to write on the board, so systems are somewhat ready for school days. The orthopedist told that my threshold for pain is high, which, ridiculously, feels like an accomplishment. It is not bad, as things go.

I’m using this down time effectively, in a balanced way. On the negative side: making myself feel bad about my lack of summer accomplishments and how my weight has stabilized at too high a number (according to the scale at the doctor’s office and pants shopping) even after drastically cutting down (home-based) carbs. On the positive side: reading. You would think that a writer and English teacher would let herself relax into reading, terming it an accomplishment and a worthy activity, but I don’t; the exception being if the book brings to life a dark moment in history. I’m on a roll with novels about children during World War II. So that works. Now that the end of summer is fast approaching, I’m letting in a little yearning to read about yearning before it’s too late. (When I was in New York, my sister-in-law showed me the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey and breathlessly explained the story, thinking that it would entice me. It didn’t.)

I’m also balancing the inner reflection part of summer by watching Robin Williams clips and reading about Gaza, Israel, anti-Semitism, Yezidis, Iraq, Syria, Michael Brown, Ferguson, Ebola, and thinking about the deaths of my three acquaintances. My, how this summer has just breezed along! Are summers always so intense, so tragic? As Shakespeare put it:

The day is hot, the [Capulets] are abroad.

And if we meet we shall not 'scape a brawl,

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

(Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, scene 1, lines 2-4)

Why is it so hard to overcome evil, sweat or not?

For years I have been reading about anti-Semitism, striving to understand it. But how do you comprehend incessant, violent hatred even if it masquerades as something intellectual or religious or economic or racial? It seems to me that it persists as proof that evil exists and will always need to be fought and defeated. It is not for one generation to create a golden brick road for all of us to prance upon; no, each generation needs to determine if theirs is a generation that will skip along caring or at least tolerating each other, or will their generation tug at that war of good and evil, or will theirs let the evil spill and spread like oil on water.

At a certain point the unendingness of anti-Semitism and oppression and attempts at genocide, of one group being so offended by the existence of another group that it seeks its destruction, is too hard to process. But there is no alternative. If anything, this summer has taught me that we all live with so much pain that perhaps it is this personal-power that can contend with the dehumanizing group-power of hate. From pain surely comes hate, but so, too, may it be the source of empathy, of seeing that we are tied to others by more commonalities than we were aware.

This summer I fell and broke a bone. I don’t devalue my pain compared to other people’s (well, not too much); it does give me a point of partnership. But did I really need it? What does it take to be a good person in a world that constantly veers toward evil? In a car you can adjust the alignment. If only it were so simple.

During a class at the Holocaust Museum a few years ago I learned the concept of the four types of people: victim, perpetrator, rescuer, and bystander. The bystander has been vilified as letting the evil of the world roll on and on. But I wonder if the bystander should be so negatively interpreted. Do I, a seemingly passive person, not act to propel the positive forces of my understanding of life? Do I not live, in my teeny footsteps, as if I am part of a wave that strives for whirled peas (world peace)?

I remember reading that some Holocaust survivors said that they thought their mental rebellions counted as just that, rebellion. I also read about inmates in labor camps de-bombing the bombs they were supposed to be making for Nazi Germany. I wonder if the force of internal resistance is more than we think, and if believing in it, we end up doing more active resistance and insistence. Aren’t we more motivated to push ourselves, to be ourselves, when we aren’t cowering in self-doubt? Isn’t it better to be underwhelmed and, thus, capable, than overwhelmed and non-propelled?

Years ago my daughters laughed at me for being the bag lady when I went to the supermarket. Now I save 5 cents with each bag I bring. I used to have to search for Fair Trade coffee, now it’s available in Costco.

The anguish felt when witnessing pain is the core strength within humanity that has any chance at defeating, even momentarily, the ever-burgeoning cancer of hate. It is not to feel that my pain is not serious enough, my input is not worthy enough, my giving is not valuable enough; it is to live knowing that my compassion is to be trusted as a guide propelling me from pain, into pain, to attempt to banish pain.