Women

Retired Women Don’t Like Clothes

Lake Worth Parrots
Lake Worth Beach Parrots

It turns out that retired women don’t like clothes. Okay, maybe not clothes altogether. I don’t think that they’re turning clothing-optional, but the process of having to dress to head outside and, you know, interact with people who have things to do and places to be is not something that they look forward to doing. Apparently, years of interactions and dressing for those interactions, has sapped us of our desire to do it one more time. Stay-at-home-retirees! That’s a thing.

It's also a thing to be surprised by the person we used to be. Who is that woman who ran meetings and talked to people all day long? Could she possibly be the woman who lives in her Boomer sweats, tries to sneak out to the stores when no one else will be there, and who cringes at the thought of chit chat?

The idea of the older recluse is not far from our minds—in an envious way.

We did not retire to waste more time on mindless activities and conversations. If that’s what you’re offering, then there’s no getting dressed for you!

Tied with not wanting to get dressed in outside clothes in general is not wanting to get dressed at a specific time for a specific event. If us older people aren’t in the work force, it’s because we have no desire to set an alarm clock for anything other than zooming with friends or family. If we need to set aside even a couple of hours a week consistently to do something, well, that’s another hurdle that we’d rather not overcome.

The ability to roll over in the morning when you see that it’s gray or rainy or snowy or sunny and not feel guilty about it is pure joy. It’s not the same as pressing the snooze button. No, it’s the freedom of knowing that no button can dislodge me.

A lifetime of busy schedules and commitments has led to this, a generation of women who would rather retreat than plan, or attend, another event.

We have become as flighty as our teenage selves, or even our own kids. Sure, we sign up for volunteering and we’re committed to making the world a better place (or is a less horrible place?). Unless, of course, there is that urge to just stay home, with no places to be and people to see, no one expecting anything from us.

It’s lovely to know that you’re in charge of your time—and your wardrobe. You can finally just suit yourself.


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.


Fate or Meeting a Long-Lost Friend in the Holocaust Museum

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View from the grounds of Yad Vashem (author's pic)

I met my ex-husband waiting for a bus at Haifa’s central station. I was by myself because the person I went into Haifa with wanted to stay and shop, while I wanted to get back to the kibbutz where I was living to start getting ready to fly to England in two days. We briefly chatted while waiting for the bus to Tiberias, then, once the bus came and I sat down, he slowly walked down the aisle and sat next to me. We talked, somehow; I had enough Hebrew and he had enough English to hold a conversation. He visited me the next day and we exchanged addresses. Over the next six months we corresponded and when I made aliya (moved to Israel), we met again, beginning our very romantic romance that didn’t end romantically.

Shortly after my family and I moved to Virginia, knowing no one, I took my daughters to a children’s festival. I was alone with them since my husband, who wouldn’t have wanted to go there and would have suggested something else, had briefly returned to Israel to deal with his green card. After sitting down, I looked behind me to see how full the auditorium was, and, there, a few rows behind us was a friend who I had lost touch with when I went away to college. Our friendship was a foundation upon which my life in Virginia depended.

The latest fateful encounter was a few days ago in Jerusalem. Some people have religious revelations there; I had a supremely human one.

In the midst of the emotional experience that is Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, I saw a friend from New York who I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I was watching a short video on the experiences of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, a special interest since I’m translating and condensing survivors’ stories from there for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I watched, I noticed a woman to my left who was also watching the movie. She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her. I stepped back as if to turn away. Then I thought that I can’t walk away just because I couldn’t remember her name.

I turned to her and said, “I know you. I’m Laura.” She looked at me with eyes full of the sadness that weighs on you in that museum. Then they widened into excitement, and said, “I’m G.” And in that moment, we remembered each other. We hugged with all the emotion that bears down on you there, but also from the deep well of disappointment that had been our lives when we had last been in touch, each dealing with our turbulent divorces from our husbands.

How to explain how unexpected this encounter was? Neither of us lives in Jerusalem, or even Israel for that matter. Both of us on vacation, in a large, busy museum with our minds engrossed. It is not a people-watching place. An unexplainable meeting. Fate.

It turns out that she was showing Israel to her second husband and the next week they would visit her daughter (who had been a childhood friend of older daughter’s) who now lives in Tel Aviv. They visited the museum the previous day, but hadn’t finished, so they came back and started where they had gotten up to when the museum closed. I thought that I wouldn’t get in since they said that there were no entry tickets.

Once in, though, if either of us had gone at a different pace or turned to look at something else, there would not have been that moment of recognition.

We hugged and cried, loudly. (I wonder what the people who saw us thought had brought us to that emotional state at that spot.)

We talked for a few minutes, it was hard to stop, but there was still so much more of the museum to experience. We arranged to meet later that day at her hotel, which was a few minutes from mine. As I continued, my thoughts were full of excitement and surprise at our meeting, reconnecting.

Fate? Something brought us together. Made those other chance encounters happen too. Not many over a lifetime, but they had been significant, had brought so much to my life. Those people at those moments. Me at those moments.

What is it that we want from friendships, relationships? To feel heard and be asked to listen. To be encouraged and give support.

I was in Jerusalem for three days and it was fascinating. But I was not moved. I did not experience a connection to God, or the force that is.

I reconnected with a friend.

It makes me wonder if friendships are part of the essence that is. Part of the fiber that connects all living things. The people, who may be briefly in our lives or present for much of it, bring us deeper into ourselves. They accompany us as we—timidly, irreverently, thoughtfully, naively, trustingly—trod our path. Perhaps what connects us—that otherworldly thread—is that we each need something outside of the self to help us fully become ourselves, to experience and appreciate our lives and who we are, in all that is.


Marriage and Divorce Anniversary: Reflections on Being Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dementia at the Doctor’s Office

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Wakodahatchee Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Not his real name.  


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




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

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Low tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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High tide in Coos Bay, Oregon

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

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

I have not been great at keeping friendships going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Deciding that I Matter: Which Helps to Motivate Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Yellow Box of ‘Your Turn to Talk’

Beach walk

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

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

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

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

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


Pickleball Anyone?

Pickleball
My new pickleball paddle and ball

When I was about 14, I flew on a plane for the first time with a cousin to visit our grandparents in Miami Beach. This was so long ago that if you said “Miami Beach” at that time people knew you were going to the land of shuffle board, shuffled walking, and blue hair, which then meant dyed gray hair not peacock blue as an expression of your personality. There was a lot about that trip that still stands out to me, notably that you can get a sun burn behind your knees making it very painful to sit for hours in a plane, but what one of the elderly twin brothers I met told me still resonates.

“I always thought that when I retire, I would have time to read the books I never had time to read when I was working.” Ten years into his retirement and he still hadn’t made a dent in his reading list. Turns out that if you’re an active, busy person when you’re working, you’ll still be an active, busy person when you retire. Instead of working for the paycheck, he was doing a lot of volunteering.

Which brings me to a recent pickleball game. I got an introduction to the sport when I visited my younger daughter, who plays the game with her boyfriend whenever they can. She even got an athletic (dare I call it tennis?) skirt as a sign of her dedication. I had a free introductory lesson on the roof of a hotel in Las Vegas with my older daughter who told me after the lesson that she doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination for ball sports—who knew? I think she just doesn’t like group sports because when we were at the golf range the ‘expert’ next to us was giving her pointers and encouragement. It could also have been the fact that she was 26 at the time, but still.

I liked the idea that the serve is underhanded because the overhand serve in tennis was always my downfall. Also, the last time I played tennis was almost ten years ago and I hurt my shoulder in yet another attempt to successfully serve the gosh darn ball.

So, I took a class for intermediate beginners the other day. There were four women in the class, the one male instructor, and, for some reason, another older man hanging around. Maybe he is a pickleball pro or instructor in the making? Anyway, once again I found serving a challenge, but one that with practice I am sure I will succeed at. Unlike in tennis when you get two chances to serve, in pickleball it’s one and done and on to the next person, so there’s still serve-pressure.

The lesson went well, I felt that it could be a good sport to add to my retired repertoire because, while my daily swim is great, I’m not meeting people that way, especially if I purposely time my swim for when the pool is empty.

After the class I exchanged numbers with two of the women: one could play during the day and the other after work. The day-player said that she had reserved a court for the next day and that if she finds a fourth player, we could have a game. I should have been wary when she said “game,” as opposed to practice or casual interaction on the court.

The pickleball court was reserved for 90 minutes. It turned out that the day we were to play was the hottest day in a long time and we started at noon. Not an excuse, just a setting of the scene and my mental state as the game progressed.

When the other women each talked about how much tennis they used to play, I got even more anxious. Then, two of the women talked about wanting to practice and improve, so that they could compete. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. During our play, there were intense, as in it really matters, discussions of the rules, of which there seem to be many in pickleball, but, I assume, that is true for many sports, though I never really cared about them because aren’t we here to have fun and who cares if we win or lose the point? I can get competitive, but I don’t like it. Maybe I fear failing, so I give in without pushing myself. And maybe I don’t like comparing myself to others, which seems to be at the heart of competition. Sure, you’re competing against yourself, but that is just part of what playing a game entails.

I’ll admit that we played three games (a game is 11 points in pickleball) and the team I was on lost all three games thanks in large part to my failed serves and no one caring that we’re new at this and let her try again. These women might have said that they wanted the practice, but they also wanted to get back into the spirit of winning.

A problem with pickleball, as I see it, is that you’re supposed to come to the net and play the game there, focusing on your dinking, which is dropping the ball over the net in the kitchen (no volley) area. (Yes, the terminology does indicate a lightness to the game that belies the seriousness with which it is played.) This means that the ball will often be aimed right at you. It seems a particularly aggressive game for one named for a fermented vegetable.

The next day, I had lunch with my mother and some of her friends for our new, monthly lunch. One woman, whose husband recently retired, said that she looked for a card game for him. She said that she thought she found a group for him until the person she spoke to mentioned that the kitty would get up to $50. She realized that it wasn’t for her husband, who was used to playing for pennies. When she said that, I realized that I don’t need to give up on playing this new-for-me game, but that I need to find the right people with whom to play.

I already committed to playing with those women next week. They said that it went well among us, but I think they’ll only say that as long as they still consider themselves at the warming up stage. I’ll try to keep an open mind and focus on improving my game, and see how it goes. Hopefully, the instructor will get back to me to tell me that he has a spot in a lesson before then.


Back to My Coffee Shop

Lake Worth beach
Back to the beach too

I haven’t been to “my” coffee shop for more than a month. I was looking forward to being back here, doing some writing, observing the other customers, and having a cup of coffee and a vegan baked good. (I have been mainly vegan since the beginning of the pandemic.) Since I started coming here in June, there were the same four vegan choices, and since I don’t do chocolate chips for breakfast, there were three: lemon poppyseed muffins, cinnamon rolls, and banana nut bread. All fine, though I preferred the banana nut bread by far. I knew that this was a bonanza, but I figured that it was their thing to have vegan choices, which was definitely a draw. Why not wish for a fall change even if I haven’t felt the arrival of fall here in Florida? It was to be, but not in a good way.

The four guys who always sat at one of the tables outside weren’t there. I came later than usual (I slept until 8), but they had seemed to always be outside. They were a part of this place and my experience of it. They were a greeting committee—and I appreciated that. I missed not seeing them.

Inside, the two baristas were new and neither was wearing a mask. The selection of baked goods had changed, but not for the better. The only vegan option is now banana bread muffin—with chocolate chips. No thanks. So, I jumped the vegan ship and tried the blueberry thyme scone. Why is thyme in a scone? Let’s just say that I’m not a fan and the changes have not been an improvement.

At my mother’s apartment, the changes that she made while I was gone were to reassert her design sensibility. Any traces of my things that I had put out, she returned to my little corner. I get it. When I was in my daughters’ homes, I didn’t think of making any changes or adjustments. I settled in to how they had organized their spaces. It seems that I had overstepped my guest status here. And that’s okay. It seems that I am now at the next step of downsizing: recognizing that the space I take up can be narrowed down to the space that my physical self stands within: I don’t need to see myself reflected on the walls and furniture and knickknacks around me.

This coffee shop has lost its luster for me. But perhaps here, too, the problem is not with the place, but that I had thought of it as mine to some degree, when I am just a guest.

On my trip I did a lot of dog walking. First, the walks were lakeside and forested in Central Oregon. Then, they were around a small park in Las Vegas, with a view of the mountains in the distance. The time outside was mentally expansive and soothing, even with handling poop bags for two dogs at a time. Perhaps I have adjusted to finding my comfort, my space, outside. Perhaps I don’t need an inside space to reflect me, needing, instead, paths to traverse and vistas to breathe in.

I had jokingly thought that when it is time to settle down and buy a home, I should buy land and put a tiny house on it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps it was more of an insight than a joke.  


Around the Bonfire with Work Campers

Rainy morning
Rainy morning

For the past few nights, I sat around the bonfire (the Forest Service has permitted them again in this area after two days of soaking rain) with some of my daughter’s colleagues and, now that they’re back, YEAH, my daughter and her boyfriend. Some of her colleagues live in their RVs, while those who will winter here have moved from their RVs into employee cabins, like the one I’m in now. This is a completely different world from what I’m used to with neighborhoods of apartment buildings, townhouses, and private homes. I like the difference: seeing that differences exist, that possibilities expand with and beyond those differences.

I don’t envision myself living in an RV in the future, but I do like the idea of not always being tied to a specific place. Without realizing it, though, I’ve done the first step in that direction, with no longer having my own home and living with my mother, and now travelling to visit my daughters. In one place I have my own bedroom and in the other two I have a couch in the living room. At first it was uncomfortable, disorienting, not having an entire home to myself, but I realize now that I’m getting used to a whittled down space of my own. What I need to figure out is what I need from my own space. Though, I think the issue is less about the amount of space than the quality: a space where I can be completely alone.

But back to the RVers and their need of space. Some of their RVs are huge and some are relatively small. It seems that the decision of RV size is both monetary and personal; they are each figuring out how much space they need to feel comfortable, for living and hauling, to feel that it is home. From what they have said, it seems that each time they switch to a different RV, they are getting closer to realizing how much space and stuff, they need. There seems to be the continual search for their Goldilocks-sized RV.

Getting the right size does seem to be a preoccupation until reaching the correct balance in RV size and vehicle hauling strength. People in RVs are not indifferent to having a home, they may be more involved with it than people in permanent homes.

The people who work here are called work campers (or workampers) and they range in age and experience, where one woman is 21 and in a silent, observational stage of life, and another is in her 80s and talks about her adventures growing up in the rural Northwest. They spend a season (summer or winter) or more at one site (usually some sort of lodging or camping site) and then move on to another site. The work is generally in housekeeping, maintenance, and/or at an on-site store or restaurant. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the jobs are gendered with the women in housekeeping and the men in maintenance.

As the retired people among the group explained to me, work campers used to be all retired people, but now there are people of all ages and family situations doing it, which is making it harder to get jobs. Some of the retired people I spoke to here are doing it for the adventure, while others are doing it for the adventure and to make a living.

Being a teacher, routine had been such a big part of life. You have your set schedule of classes, group of students, calendar of days on and off, classroom (of course, there was that one year of teaching from home…), group of colleagues. Within each day there was certainly variety, but it was within generally set variables, and most of us even taught the same things year after year. So, it’s fascinating for me to see lives being lived outside of a box.

The jobs themselves are all similar from one site to another (they are not the draw), but what does vary are the people you work with, and, the key, the change of place, the often dramatic change of scenery. It makes me wonder what impact change of place can make on a person. For my entire 16-year teaching career (not counting after-school Hebrew classes before that), I taught at the same school. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t played safe and tried teaching at another school or even schools? One reason that I stayed there is that I didn’t trust myself and my skills as a teacher to go to a different school. Among the advantages of staying at the same school meant that I developed strong friendships with some colleagues, but maybe I would have made more friends by not being in just one school. And I might have realized that I’m a better teacher than I thought, or I would have pushed myself to improve.

The work itself had been the focus for my entire career, from when I was a technical writer to when I was a creative writing teacher. I wonder if I can do the switch, as the workampers have done, and focus on what I want to get out of life for myself and not just what I can give and produce. Can I value myself as a person enough to stop assessing my worth? Can I put myself in different situations to see who I am as a person, to grow into other aspects of self? How does space protect me and how much does it prevent me from finding out?

For information on work camping, the Cook Works site is a good place to start since it gives lots of information about jobs across the country.


Isolation Is Not So Alone

Dusk
Dusk

 

It is now Tuesday morning. Since last Wednesday afternoon, I have been living in a cabin in a rustic lake-side resort in a national forest in Oregon. This is where younger daughter and her boyfriend live and work. I’m here dog sitting while they’re on a two-week vacation in Hawaii with his parents. There are guests and other employees around, but I’m not here to engage, I’m here to completely disengage. I now see the impossibility of that.

Since I retired in June, I have been living with my mother in her one-bedroom apartment in Florida. That was quite the change after having been an empty nester for eight years in my own two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia after younger daughter went off to college and, like her older sister, only came back for the occasional visit. The transition seemed easy for my mother; after all, I did go to help her out and make her feel less alone after having been a widow for over ten years. I have found it challenging. I haven’t lived with a parent since I was 17—I’ve been the parent for 30 years!—so being watched over by my 87-year-old mother was jarring. Living with anyone after being alone for so long was going to be difficult for me; I didn’t think that I would ever live with anyone again. Which means that I really did look forward to this retreat in the woods.

A mental and physical retreat. A writer’s retreat.

I was going to focus on learning to be okay with myself as a retired person, not feeling that I should be filling my time with activities and interactions, and some kind of work. I was going to settle into my own rhythm, with four daily dog walks mixed in. Walks in a forest and along a lake surely fit into any type of retreat. What’s more, I had decided that I would use this time to see if I was a writer, where the only way to pass the test would be to work on a book and, in my brazenly optimistic moments, write a draft!

I did start the book. And start. And start. And start. Never pleased with the previous day’s direction, each morning I would start again.

Then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and with them the time to think. My religious practice is certainly not strict, but for a while now I haven’t worked on Shabbat (Saturday) and important holidays. The day of rest: a day when I don’t write or work. I also try not to shop, wanting to have a day when I am satisfied with myself and the current contents of my life. A day when I don’t critique myself and, when I was teaching, I didn’t critique my students either by grading their papers. It is a day when I don’t write, which inherently involves criticism. A day when I don’t think about the productive thing I should be doing. This has helped me perceive myself as a person, not just as a producer of something of “value” outside of myself. There is value sitting in the moment, as I have learned, not just on Shabbat.

My retreat was supposed to be a time to see how stripped down I could get into myself. No people around to interact with and no distractions. Just get my essential story inked on the page.

But this cabin is not minimalistic and, it seems, neither am I. There are meals to think about and being almost an hour to the nearest supermarket makes that a more thoughtful task than usual. There are my mother’s constant update emails and calls (even if the connection is so bad that we only hear half of what the other person says). There are emails and calls from friends and my daughters that mark my days—and are the only things on my calendar. These have made me realize that I am not a person who fully lives within herself—needs to retreat in, as I thought I did. Rather, this retreat has made me realize that solitude is a chapter, not an entire book. My life is enriched with connections, they don’t detract from contemplation-time. After each conversation or email, I realized that there were more things to think about. These are added dimensions—the interweaving of lives through shared stories, perceptions, concerns—not detractors.

I had the entire pandemic to realize this, but it has really come home here in the woods where the solitude that I thought I craved in its totality is neither what I need or want.

If I value others for their presence, their essence, then I, too, am valued for those same aspects of self. I don’t have to produce something to be valued as a person—to value myself as a person. But these friends do have expectations of me, born of my own expressions over time and their perceptions. They expect me to fulfill my desires for myself, even if those desires change. They will not let me cede my passions and skills.

Perhaps they are helping me see that I flourish in the space between expecting too much from myself and not enough. That to flourish means that I need not be alone and solitary, isolated. That to flourish means that I know that there are people who believe in me, as a person and a creator.

And now it is time for walk two of the day. The dogs are restless, as am I. It is time to get back to the freshness of mountain air and to moving my body that is tired from sitting on this wooden bench facing my laptop. It is time to move and observe, alone. An aspect of my day, myself, my needs. An aspect that I can share later, in some way.

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Back to Blogging: Writing, Thinking, Sharing

Forest walk
Forest walk

When I started this blog in 2008, I had just finished going through a contentious divorce from a verbally and emotionally abusive man, but I was still living with him—and the abuse—in the same house with our two daughters. (Note the date and the correlation to the tanked economy and real estate market—it would take another year to sell the house and finally feel divorced.) I can remember writing posts as he was banging on the door of the guest bedroom, yelling at me, my daughters angry at me for not quieting him. It was scary and intimidating. I would huddle over my laptop, feeling less alone in the writing and the posting, even with tears dripping down my face. The writing enabled me to focus on thinking and analyzing me, him, our daughters, the situation; it kept me detached enough to not crumble continually—only some moments, every day. Friends would tell me that they would read the blog to see how I was doing. Readers would comment, letting me know that I was not alone. I would feel strengthened by the connection that writing and sharing made—it was the most secular and heartfelt of prayers.

It took years to get through that experience with my dignity and a shred of humor intact.

At some point, my posts transitioned from internal pain to observing that the world outside of me does, indeed, still exist. It was fun to write and see where my thoughts went, rather than being held within the grip of needing to write as a cathartic experience. I started to write with less pain and more joy. I could write about the comedy of online dating (it may be funny after a failed date, but it was rarely funny during one) and the frustrations of teaching. I shed my main identity as an abused woman, as a divorced woman, and was able to write about life. Yes, the deep meaning of it all, well, as deep as I go. I came to see myself as an essayist, and that did bring me some satisfaction.

While I have always been anonymous on the blog, it is hard to strip all connections, especially if you link to it on other apps in order for people to find it and read what I have to say. Over time, a few students and parents found the blog. Parents complained to administration. I’m not quite sure what there was to complain about; after all, at the first “sighting” of the blog, I deleted the post about having divorce sex. Funny, parents complaining about an English teacher writing. Well, not so funny when you realize that they expect you to be fully committed to their children, more than them it felt like sometimes. I can say that now that I'm retired! And some students, well, they seemed to think that they had one up on me by letting me know that they found it. It’s not as if I was hiding my thoughts in a drawer, but it was uncomfortable.

In the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, a parent spoke to my assistant principal who let me know that it would be wise to hide the blog from the public. For the first time a student commented on the blog, rather than just looking around silently and making a comment to me. This time I felt violated. So, I took the blog offline, until right before I retired in June. In that time, though, I also stopped writing. I wrote a few poems at the beginning of the pandemic, but I just wasn’t sure of myself as a writer, what I wanted to express and if I wanted to express myself in words.

I focused on retiring after 16 years of teaching and wondering what I would do after. I’m only 60 (wow, using “only” with that number), so I'm not retiring from the world, just a job that got increasingly difficult and unsatisfying, and at the minimum age to get a partial pension. There are things that I enjoy doing (especially baking and cooking in concert with eating), and while I might do something with that (I do make excellent veggie spreads!), I have felt a bit lost without writing. It really is true for me that I don’t explore my thoughts without writing. And now that I don’t have classes to teach, and students and colleagues to talk to, it seems that my mind is fluttering about. It needs to land occasionally.

At first, I thought I would write a book. But whenever I start writing a book, I don’t get anything done. (I will add in my defense that I have written a few books in the past, but the process was always an unsatisfying battle.) Each day I would rewrite what I wrote the day before, filling my “notes” document, but not my Chapter 1 document. When it comes to writing these shorter posts, personal essays, I get right to it. One sitting, one post. My body and mind sync with that. Why fight who I am and what I do best? Doesn’t being 60 and retired mean that I need to be honest with myself about my abilities, and my strengths and weaknesses. My truths! So, here I am, back here.

This blog has been home to me for longer than any physical home since I went off to college at 17. I still feel that I am a rebellious woman expressing my thoughts. I hope you will join me in this continuation of my/our journey and subscribe (Yeah! I figured out how to do that now that the app I used before is no longer supported), and even comment. I look forward to continue meeting here into the future.

Welcome!  

Laura


Kugel in the Oven

IMG_20190922_093137085

 

A potato zucchini kugel bakes in the oven.

Grandma used to make them for us,

children and grandchildren,

in her tiny kitchen in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

She made foods from her childhood in Zhitomir,

from before she came to America, back when, I was to learn,

her mother cooked and the Russian soldiers ate.

Protected, perhaps, until 1922, when she, her mother, and her siblings

could join their father in America.

 

This kugel is not for my daughters and their partners;

nor is it for my mother, and my brother and his family.

It is for me, for me to share with

my group of Jewish and Muslim women

who gather monthly to learn from each other,

to know the other as a friend.

 

The Jewish women are, like me,

second and third generation American.

Of the Muslim women, some came already

mothers. Now they make the foods from back

there to show love here.

 

It is not hard to comprehend

this cycle of love and survival,

and the foods that bring memories

that help us survive past and create present.

The us around the table is different,

but not the fact that hearts open

when we become stories ‘round the table.


First Loss as Hospice Volunteer

Peonies

M, my first hospice patient, who I started visiting in June 2018, passed away in October. Expected, but still difficult. I was grateful to have been a part of her life and the lives of those who loved her and cared for her, so I have not wavered in my commitment to continue as a hospice volunteer.

She had prepared me to see her death as the natural progression of her life through her gradual decline to the point where death was, clearly, the next step. Still, to lose someone, even someone I just met knowing that death is the expectation, strains the heart.

When I first visited M, she sat in her wheel chair and I sat on an armchair next to her. I read to her. No, I tried to read to her. I was so pleased at the idea of going beyond the Memory Bag, which I got at hospice volunteer training, thinking that this could be my way to connect with her. Clearly, I was anxious about how my visit would go. I came with a feeling of expectant satisfaction to sit there and share with her a book that my daughter gave to me. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that she wasn’t interested in hearing the story, in sitting passively, in trying to listen to my voice speaking words, phrases, sentences, that, I would quickly learn, had lost their value to her. She wanted to hold the book, to look at the pages, the words, the images. She read aloud a few words, then looked at the small drawings, pointing to them, trying to say something about them. My response was to name things. Starfish. Dolphin. Seashell. It’s a book, so I thought words were the keys. But she had Alzheimer’s, so I couldn’t know what she was connecting to, trying to share with me. I did sense that nodding and agreeing with what I thought she was saying wasn’t a bad way to go.  

At that moment I realized that I was not there to do something or provide something, I was there to be: to be with her, as she needed me to be, as I tried to intuit. This insight helped me, and I hope her and future people I visit, understand that at our core we are people connecting to each other through our hearts. This was a relationship where there were no parameters to meet, it was simply two people sitting side by side.

It was for me to follow her lead. To me the book had contained a story to tell, while to her it was, honestly, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, it was something that I could share with her and that’s the idea, isn’t it? She was going to experience it her way, not the way I had intended, but my giving up control to her was key, both to appreciate her and to appreciate my role. Her determination, something I would learn more about at her memorial service, was obvious from that first visit. A personality, as changed as it may be from dementia, still contains the essence of that person.

The last time I visited her she slept in her bed the hour-and-a-half of my visit. I sat on a chair next to her and read the last two chapters of the book I brought on my first visit: Grayson, the story of a woman who helps a baby whale and his mother reunite in the waters off Seal Beach, California. This time, reading it soothed me and kept me from focusing on how she had changed. She had gotten so thin, just a skeleton. She didn’t look at me with her charming smile that was as much eyes as mouth; she lay there, mouth open, unmoving, I even checked a few times to see that her blanket rose and fell. I kept focused on the words and the story, because they soothed me and I hoped they did her, somewhere in her sleep.

The reading was a joyful recollection of being witness to the effervescence of dolphins swimming and playing together, and then experiencing the moving reunion of a mother whale and her child. It was stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, in its appreciation and celebration of life. While I wasn’t able to engage M at this moment, I was able to present myself to her, one last time, with words and a tone that, I hope, reflected the love that she had shared with the people in her life—and got back from them—us.


Friday Night Dinners

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Friday night dinners used to represent home and family time. Of course, that was when I had to share one bathroom; now, I have two to myself. Growing up in Queens, on Fridays the table would generally be set for a holiday (which works since Shabbat is the most important holiday) and we would light the candles, say the blessings on the wine and challah, then enjoy a meal with courses. Once a month we would go to synagogue where chubby me always looked forward to the oneg, the tea, coffee, and cookies (Italian sandwich!), after services rather than the sermon by the droning old-school rabbi. Priorities were clear!

In Israel, my father-in-law would recite the blessings at break-neck pace so that they sounded like one multi-hyphenated word, and then onto those celebratory courses again. The highlight was always my mother-in-law’s cooking; who knew that gefilte fish could be made fresh and tasty from a carp that had previously been swimming in a tank at the supermarket, and not just to emerge lifeless and tasteless from a jar? Afterwards, we would meet friends or walk on the promenade along the Mediterranean enjoying the end of a semi-relaxing day of getting all shopping and organizing done since most things are closed on Saturday. (In Israel, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.)

Now, post-family at home, it’s either frozen pizza and TV or out with friends. Both have their benefits. Not that I don’t profoundly miss those dinners of yore, but I have come to accept the evolution of Shabbat dinner. What is essential is that it is still a sanctuary created in the space between the pressures of work and the preoccupation with getting things done on the weekend. I might not observe Shabbat from sundown Friday to stars out on Saturday eve by eschewing technology, but I do appreciate the necessity of a break from the day-to-day active and re-active, to the reflective.

Last Friday I had dinner at a local restaurant with a group of friends that I met through volunteering with a political organization. This week a friend and I went to services, which included an interfaith community choir and then dinner where we spoke with some members of the choir. Next week I will have dinner and then go to the opera with my mother and younger daughter in Florida. Quite the range of ways to honor and respect the Shabbat and myself. Thinking about these Friday night dinners makes me realize that community is family. This open policy feels liberating since it acknowledges that adherence to labels limits one’s interactions. It’s the weekly version of Friendsgiving.

As a social introvert, this weekly engagement satisfies both my need to interact with grown-ups and my need to not overdo the whole being with people thing that can be so draining. Once in a while or once a week, a celebratory evening, a break-feast, and then home alone. It might not be sacred, but it feels sanctified. Setting aside time to acknowledge the present, the passage of time, the separation of the working self from the self’s self, might not follow any dictates, but it certainly does adhere to the underlining meaning and importance.

 


From Eating Out to Taking Out

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The progression from needing to be around other people at mealtimes to accepting being alone represents an arc to wellness that incorporates, dare I say it, happiness. Suddenly I realize that the need to sit in a booth consuming fries and diet Coke while staring at a book has become a remembrance, no longer a salvation.

In the five years it took from separating, to divorcing, to selling the marital home, to moving on my own with shared custody of younger daughter while older daughter escaped to college, I would weekly escape to a favorite diner for a Sunday meal. It was an escape valve from the hothouse atmosphere at home. Those moments of disconnection and quiet amid the sounds of other people’s mundane conversations were as sweet as the smells of syrup and bacon. It’s funny the things that save a person. It is a balance of things, though, for how can I separate the range of interactions to an essential one; it is a distillation of experience that is now my past.

Now, more than nine years after moving on my own and discovering that, indeed, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, but only because there were mini-lights along the way, I think about how I rarely eat out alone. When I do, it’s usually for the eating, not the necessity of escape, of company, of saving self.

When I am with friends at restaurants it is as interaction, not as preservation. We look back, we look forward, we are not mired in present. We mull the present, but it does not weigh us down. Is it acceptance? One friend just turned fifty, another sixty. Are our lives less dramatic or are we realists with more time behind than ahead, aware of less time to squander, consolidated better into self? Have we accepted the positions we have reached, the families we have or have not created, the men we do or do not love, the people we have become?

Now, I do not need to escape the silence that I come home to since it is not the alternative to something else, it is what I have created, what I need, who I am.