I think the whole country, the entire U.S. of A., should take up meditation. I had this epiphany the other day after I finished the 20th of a 30-day class – each session is only 10 minutes – offered through an app called Calm. I realize this is an impossibility on so many levels, but I’d like to make the case.
Much of the divisions in our country are caused by people feeling aggrieved. Some folks believe they are unseen or unheard by our government or by the rich and powerful. Some are bitter because of sour relationships. Others are angry because they think many in this country have been swallowed by a cult causing us to drift (speedily swim?) toward authoritarianism. Whatever the source of the grievance, I think the practice of meditation can help because it requires that you become more neutral, you need to adopt a stance of equanimity to sit quietly for ten minutes. I don’t mean to simplify something that is quite complex. Both the problems that have led so many to feel alienated/angry and the practice of meditation are complicated. But, they are simple, too.
Sitting quietly and breathing slowly and deeply for ten minutes each day is both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. Quieting your mind, allowing emotions to flow through you but not possess you, takes practice. I am a novice, but I see the benefit of having done it for about a month (and, full disclosure, I missed some days during the month). Some people did a ‘dry January,’ I did a ‘how to meditate January.’
I was motivated to try this because during these last couple of years during the pandemic, I have found myself easily riled. I go from zero to sixty emotionally in seconds. I felt agitated much of the time. I read a headline and feel my stomach churn. I can’t say that my meditation practice has changed all of that, but there is noticeable improvement. I still get anxious at the prospect of taking Mom to the doctor, and I still feel my blood pressure start to rise when I read about Donald Trump’s latest rally, but I feel more in control. If it can do this for me, I can imagine what it would do for all the people out there who are living on the edge.
The practice allows you to acknowledge feelings that you might prefer to push down. Generally, I am pretty self-aware. I think for others who are not so blessed to be in touch with their emotions, it might be uncomfortable at first, but it would be a step in the right direction. When you don’t acknowledge what you are feeling it comes out in unexpected and unpleasant ways.
Another positive is that there are no religious aspects to meditation, unless one wanted there to be. I think it is harmonious with all faith traditions.
We are fixated with solving societal problems from the outside in – we enact new laws, fund programs, do research, require others to take action, and talk issues to death. Many of those steps, other than talking things to death, are admirable, and necessary. But, maybe, we need another approach as well. One that starts from the inside of each individual. Maybe if more people took 10 minutes a day to sit quietly and breathe deeply, there would be less hostility and better mental health. Just an idea.
I plan to extend my practice beyond ‘learn-how-to-meditate’ January.
My brother Mark, who lives near me, called the other day to tell me that he and his wife were going to visit Mom. They were planning to go there and back in one day – it is a 3.5 hour drive one way. I have been wanting to go but have been waiting for omicron to die down and the weather to cooperate. It seemed like this was fortuitous timing, and it would save me from driving alone. “Mind if I join you?” I asked. “Of course,” came the quick reply.
As I do before any visit to Mom these days, I thought about what I can bring that will make for pleasant conversation. This has gotten increasingly challenging as her circumstances have diminished. Aside from the realities of Covid which limits options, we can’t really take her out for a meal anymore. That used to be a great pleasure for her. I would be happy to manage her oxygen and walker, which make it awkward but doable, but these days she simply tires too quickly. It gets to be too much for her and the brief pleasure she derives from getting out of the apartment is surpassed by exhaustion and anxiety.
So, we look for other ways to make it enjoyable. Bringing in a meal is special. Fortunately, the food where she lives is good – no complaints there – but there is still a sameness. Mom particularly enjoys soup so bringing in wonton or a hearty chicken noodle is welcome. Since the weather was unseasonably nice, the sun was out in a cloudless sky and the air was relatively mild (considering it is January in the northeast), we ate on her patio. Mom closed her eyes, put her face in the sun and took a deep breath. In the days when Mom was hale and hearty she would have sat without a coat, not so anymore. It was chilly, and she needed a jacket, but it still felt good for all of us to get some fresh air.
As I have written in many previous blog posts, I have been sorting through papers and mementos from Mom’s house in Florida and Aunt Clair’s apartment. It is a bittersweet process, finding loving letters but also evidence of loss, like my dad’s death certificate. When I come across something humorous or poignant, I often take a picture of it and text it to whomever I think might be interested. Sometimes I text Mom photos, but it is hit or miss whether she will successfully find it on her phone. I scanned the items I most recently sorted and found some things I thought would be meaningful to her for our visit. I selected some letters from Zada, Mom’s father.
After finishing our lunch on the patio, we returned to her living room. Mom settled into her recliner and the rest of us sat down around her. We took out the letters from Zada.
Though Zada didn’t have the opportunity to finish high school, he was a self-educated, well-read man who wrote beautifully. Mark read this one aloud to Mom:
I am writing one letter to my dear ‘aynklach’ (note: grandchildren in Yiddish). Because whatever I have to say, I must say to all of you. I cannot single out one. But first let me tell you what your letters mean to me. Regardless of your grammatical errors and your misspelling, the words you write are full of love and wisdom. My pride knows no bounds. You are concerned that I have a good summer, that I do not work too hard. That Terry is making proper meals, and that I should not be lonesome. How can I be lonesome when I have your letters to remind me how precious you are? So I count the days when your vacation will be over, and I will be seeing you in the flesh again. To be able to watch television with Steve (especially the programs he likes), also to hear the pearls of wisdom emanating from Mark’s mouth. And to be rewarded by my little sunshine although I hear she is not so little anymore.
Look boys, I cannot go into detail about the sporting events we are all interested in, that is why I had the Post sent to you, and when you get back (hale and hearty) we will have long discussions of all the things that have transpired while you were away.
I am also very pleased with the progress you are making with your swimming and Steve, if I am ever to see you dive, and do it well, my pleasure will be complete. Mark, my hand does not hurt, and I have plenty of writing time, but words, once my stock in trade, are wanting to commend such a good boy as you. So I keep thinking of beautiful things to say. My heart is so full of love that mere words would blemish my feelings. Linda, stay as sweet as you are always, never lose your vivaciousness, speak up at all times so I may see the sparkle in your eyes and the loveliness of you.
God bless my grandchildren. May you be happy always. Zada
Mom listened, a smile on her face, marveling at how well he expressed himself. We talked about the context of the letter, remembering our summers in Illinois (the first of three spent there) while Zada was home in Canarsie. We weren’t on vacation exactly; Dad was attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to get his masters in economics. Mom remembers those days fondly. I brought a photo from that summer, which elicited Mom’s pleasure at how slim she looked in her bathing suit (see above).
Then Mark read the next letter, dated ten years later. This letter, written on her birthday just after the wedding of his oldest grandchild, my brother Steven, begins: From the president of the Feige Brody fan club.
Nov. 16, 1977
The purpose of this letter is to expound on the theory that it is far better to be44 years young, than to be 44 years old.
You proved to me without a shadow of a doubt, how you deported yourself at Cindy’s and Steven’s wedding: In my eyes and probably everyone else’s you were the fairest and youngest of all.
Stay young Feige, your husband will adore you, your children will respect you, and I will always love you.
Love and Best of Days,
As Mark read the letter to Mom, she smiled broadly and listened attentively. “That’s my father,” she said with satisfaction. I think it is fair to say that Mom did as he suggested. She stayed young, at least until her 88th year when time is finally catching up with her. Her husband, my father, certainly adored her until he took his last breath, and her children respect her. Zada was prophetic.
As we said our good-byes, we reminded Mom that she is 88 years young.
Once again, the Covid pandemic is on my mind. Aside from wearying of the limitations it has placed on my life, it feels like the virus is closing in on me. It feels unavoidable. It has hit close to home as family members and friends have been diagnosed in recent weeks. While omicron seems to be less deadly than prior variants and results in less serious illness, it is still no joke. And, until we are over the peak and on the other side, we don’t really know its impact.
People continue to make different choices in how they cope with the pandemic. Some reasonable folks have concluded that, while wearing masks in public spaces, they are resuming activities and living their lives. My husband is not comfortable with that approach, perhaps as a physician who is in the office seeing patients every day, he thinks the risk is too high until we clearly pass the peak of this surge. He goes to work masked and goggled, washing and sterilizing his hands relentlessly, but then declines most social activities. He would like me to make the same choice. For the most part I have, refraining from most things except I continue to play tennis once every other week. Since I am not working and we are now in the depth of winter, my life is quite limited. It leaves too much time to think, too much time to worry.
In the midst of my angst, I read some helpful words in the form of a poem that came across my Facebook feed:
I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; it already did, and I survived.
I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.
I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.
I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.
Author: Mary Anne Perrone
The above lines are part of a longer piece, but these were words I needed to read right now. I’m not so sure about that last phrase – I don’t dance in a holy circle (I’m not sure I even understand what she means by that), but the idea that I don’t need recognition to find value in what I create is a thought I need to be reminded of. The belief that I am enough is something I continue to work on.
The first lines of this piece speak to the major challenge posed by the pandemic – the fear that the other shoe will drop. What am I worried about? The health of the ones I love. I want to know that family members who have Covid or another a health scare are okay, that they will recover quickly and suffer no ill effect. Unfortunately, I can’t know that.
Worry can always be around the corner. If I allow it, it can rule my life. I find comfort in those lines above – the shoe has dropped – at times. It is true that the worst has not happened – I am still here, as are Gary and my children, thankfully – but bad things have occurred, and I have survived. I have managed.
The other day I had a long conversation with a friend who is battling colon cancer. Her husband took the diagnosis hard, understandably. It is scary, though her prognosis is good. Her husband was depressed and after a time she confronted him, saying that she needed him to stop being so down, she needed a more positive attitude. He confessed that he was terrified of losing her. She reminded him that she is here now. When something scary and unknown hangs over you it is hard to be in the present.
Though I am not faced with the same situation as my friend, I related to the challenge they faced. The meditation app I started using a few weeks ago offered helpful insight into the scenario where you might imagine the worst. During one of the exercises, the guide pointed out that thoughts are not reality – thinking something doesn’t make it so. Worrying about future health complications has little to do with the reality of the here and now. It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of ‘what if,’ but it leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. We can’t put our head in the sand, we need to plan when we have real information about what the future holds, but we can’t live in anticipation of the worst. It is a choice we can make. I can control my thoughts. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t come easy to me, but it is empowering to realize that I can redirect my mental energy.
I don’t think I used to have to work so hard to quell the worry. I didn’t worry so much before. Why am I now?
Maybe being inundated with bad news – people losing their homes to fire, people dying of Covid, a friend losing her husband to pancreatic cancer – has made it harder to cope. Bad things were always happening and will always happen. I think social media heightens the sense of disaster all around us. Did they always report when a retired third string quarterback for an obscure NFL team died? My Twitter and Facebook feed is filled with those stories. When someone as famous as Betty White died in the past, of course it made the news. But now it is hard to know what to do with all this information, especially all the losses. How can we process these deaths (whether related to Covid or not)? It is hard not to be overwhelmed.
Some periods of time seem more perilous than others. This is one of those times. I want to put the people I love in a bubble. But I can’t, nor would they want to live there. I need instead to focus on the joys, the beauty and the love today.
As I continue to go through Aunt Clair’s collection of papers, I find interesting items. Among them a xerox copy of a letter written by Grandma to her oldest daughter, Diane (who was called Dinya by the family). I was initially puzzled that a xeroxed letter, not addressed to her, was included in Aunt Clair’s collection. After reading it I understood why Aunt Diane would have shared it and Clair kept it.
The first page of the letter, with the date, is missing so I don’t know exactly when it was written but based on the subject (and reference to their wedding anniversary) it appears to be early in my grandparents’ retirement to Florida, either the winter of 1970 or 1971:
In the almost 43 years of our marriage this is the first time Daddy went with me for clothes. He’s a panic. He wants me to buy everything I try on. Dinya, I think he is really seeing me for the first time in many years. Daddy could be walking with me, suddenly he stops and tells me I look good, is enough to drive me crazy. Daddy is completely relaxed and thank ‘God,’ he feels good. Remember the wise words from your mudder. Nothing like a love affair at 65 and 67. When we walk into a store and I try a dress on and walk over to Daddy to ask if he likes it etc etc, he tells me it is very nice, shakes his head up and down and tells me I look very good. When I walk back to the dressing room with the saleswoman, she asks if I’m ‘going with him,’ if I’m going to marry him. She thinks he’s my Romeo and I’m taking him shopping. Dinya, I fall apart. Dinya, you, Paul and children have a very Healthy Happy New Year. We miss you all very much. Heaps of love from Daddy and me.
How adorable is that? It gives me hope as a spring chicken of 62 and married for only 38 years that romance can be alive and well in the years ahead. I am quite fortunate in that, even with the natural ebb and flow of relationships, the love has never gone out of my marriage. It is nice to know that the flame can burn brightly again.
I also appreciate Grandma’s word choices. She writes, “He’s a panic.” I can hear her saying that – she used that a lot as I recall, and it shows up in any number of the letters in Aunt Clair’s collection. It meant the person, or their behavior, made her laugh. I don’t think we use the word panic that way anymore, do we? She also refers to herself as ‘your mudder,’ spelling it as she would say it. But it wasn’t that she had an accent and thought it was spelled that way, she was perfectly capable of saying and spelling mother properly, she was being humorous. The letters are filled with her amusing touches.
In another way, it feels odd to read this. These are my grandparents! And she is writing to her daughter! There is nothing off color or even too personal in it, it’s lovely, but still not what one expects in communication between a mother and daughter – especially of that generation. But, maybe I’m wrong and if I could survey letters of that era I would find intimacies shared. I wonder if I wrote something along those lines to my daughter how she would react.
More interesting to me is that it was my impression that though they cared for each other, I didn’t perceive much of a spark between Grandma and Grandpa. After all, they slept in separate twin beds like Lucy and Desi on television. Most of what I heard and saw of their interactions revolved around their respective health. Grandma regulated Grandpa’s diet rigidly and often spoke on his behalf. I thought he was the quintessential henpecked Jewish husband. Maybe he was.
Grandpa, with his gentlemanly, reserved ways, was considerate in a formal way, but I don’t recall romantic gestures. It was a different time, though. Emotions were more closely held. I certainly didn’t know them in their youth. Plus, they had been through so much.
Young adulthood, which for Grandma and Grandpa was during the early 1930s when the country was suffering, is a time of striving – to find your place, to establish yourself. Grandpa had the spirit of an entrepreneur. He came to America to seek his fortune; he was willing to take risks. He came by himself, leaving his parents, sister and extended family in Poland in 1921. He was 17. Grandma, American-born, was much more cautious by nature. The Great Depression heightened her fears. This difference caused friction. Aunt Clair told me that Grandpa felt stifled by Grandma. Then in 1945 Grandpa learned that what remained of his family had been killed by the Nazis. I can only imagine what that did to his spirit. It is a lot of strain for a marriage. Growing up in the stress, trauma, and sadness colored the childhoods of Diane, Dad and Clair and shaped their perception of their parents.
Both Grandma and Grandpa worked hard; they put in long hours at the stores they owned. Over the years they had a dry goods store, a luncheonette and then a laundromat. Some of their businesses were more successful than others. Their financial situation was a mystery, even to my father. They moved to a nicer apartment on Prospect Park West when Dad was in high school and it didn’t include a bedroom for him, though there was one for his sisters. Was that about money? Though they said they would contribute to his wedding, they gave less than they committed to, leaving Mom and Dad to use their gift money to cover the difference.
I knew Dad harbored many resentments about the way he was treated by his parents. He was determined to do it differently with his own children and he did. Recently my mother told me that when Grandma was dying, she and Dad talked it out. Tears were shed and apologies were made. I’m glad to know that, though I wish I knew it years ago when Dad was still alive.
Marriages go through phases, it seems, and children absorb the ripple effects. The beginning can be tough as the couple figures out if they are on the same page in how they approach life. Children can strengthen the bond but also create other tensions. Throw in a natural disaster (like the New England Hurricane of 1938 that upended Nana and Zada’s life) or economic calamities (like the Depression) or violence (the Holocaust) and a marriage may be stretched to the breaking point. If the marriage survives all that retirement can come as a balm, or a couple may find themselves strangers to each other.
Grandpa was able to relax and enjoy himself in his retirement. Not all men are able to do that. I know my father-in-law struggled with the transition, perhaps because retirement wasn’t on his terms. But it was likely more than that. Many men are defined by their work, their identities are wrapped up in their profession, and the loss of that can unmoor them. I imagine women can have that issue too, but I think it is less common for a woman to be so invested in their career that she can’t adjust when it is over. Having hobbies and other interests helps too.
Most of the letters Aunt Clair saved were written by Grandma when they first became snowbirds (1970-75), after their retirement. The letters reveal that the last five years of Grandma’s life were very happy ones. Though it was abruptly cut short by cancer, she took great pleasure in those final years, even more so because she enjoyed the renewed attentions of her husband. I’m glad Aunt Clair saved those letters so I could know that.
Note: The following essay explores a theme that can be a third rail: Christmas in America. My intent is not to impugn the holiday. I hope friends, family and readers who celebrated this past Christmas had a wonderful, meaningful holiday. I understand and respect its importance. I have a perspective, as an outsider, that some may not have considered. I offer my thoughts in that context. I welcome constructive criticism, other insights and reactions. Please feel free to comment.
I was watching a holiday version of House Hunters recently. The idea was that a family wanted to find their dream home in time to be settled in it for Christmas and have time to decorate for the season. The family was shown homes by a real estate agent who looked like Santa Claus (yes, really). Okay, I figured, let’s see what this is. I love these types of shows – whether it is Lakefront Bargain Hunt, or House Hunters International, I find it entertaining and mildly informational seeing a range of housing options across the globe. This variation seemed interesting enough.
Though I do not celebrate Christmas, I enjoy the light displays very much. As we begin the dark descent into winter, the lights are a bright, cheerful spot. Growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn) we would take a ride around the neighborhood to see which houses had the best lights. The funeral home, Guarino’s, did a particularly spectacular job. I could enjoy the efforts of my neighbors but did not feel deprived that we as Jews didn’t decorate our home.
I settled in to watch and early on felt surprisingly uncomfortable. My hesitation with this episode of House Hunters: Home for the Holidays was that the family featured was Indian (from India originally) and they were Hindus. First, to be clear, I have no issue with the show featuring non-white, non-Christian families! One of the things I appreciate about the House Hunters franchise is that they present a fairly diverse group of individuals – families, couples or singletons of every color and orientation. It may not be perfectly representative, but there is a cross section of humanity on the show. I have been watching it since the Bush (Dubya) administration and they incorporated diversity early on.
The thing that troubled me – and I could have missed something that would have explained it – was the premise that this family needed to have a fabulous Christmas display, though it didn’t seem like they celebrated the holiday. The show began with an explanation of the Hindu holiday of Diwali – a festival of lights. They were going to incorporate the colors of Diwali into their Christmas decorations. Mind you, at least as best as I can tell, Diwali does not fall at the same time of the year as Christmas so I’m not sure there is a natural fit, but maybe there is. The family explained to the Santa-look-a-like realtor about their holiday, and he was delighted to learn about it. That’s great, if only they left it there. Maybe the house hunt could have centered on how well it met their needs in celebrating Diwali, or other Hindu festivals.
But, then they went on this journey to find the perfect home for their new Christmas display. It didn’t sit right, though I readily acknowledge every family’s right to celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want (assuming they aren’t hurting others in the process).
I had a friend in graduate school whose family (her parents) immigrated from China to escape Communism. Her parents were not raised with religion. When they got to this country they converted to, I think that is the right word, or maybe they simply became Catholic. They raised their children in the church accordingly. They did this of their own free will. I didn’t ask why her parents chose Catholicism, or why they chose religion at all. The beauty of our country is that they could make that choice. They celebrated Christmas. They did not shed their Chinese customs either – in food and family traditions they maintained their identity. I’m sure there were difficulties adapting to American life, but they seemed to be forging a path that integrated different elements into a whole that worked for them. So, the idea of coming to America and embracing Christianity is not what I am questioning.
I was not convinced this was the case for the family featured on House Hunters: Home for the Holidays. If this family got joy from adding Christmas to their family traditions, good for them. Something about the way it was presented didn’t come across that way. It felt like a competition to outdo others with their Christmas lights. It seemed to have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the holiday.
I would love to hear from readers who are of other faiths, or those without any faith tradition, who have navigated this. Did your family adopt Christmas? If so, how does it feel for you? I know many people who intermarried (Jews and Christians are common pairings in my family) – which is also a journey that requires compromise and negotiation. But, I am not really focused on that here. This t.v. show was not highlighting a ‘mixed’ family. There may be parallels but it is a little different.
I find Christmas in America to be very confusing – and I was born here (third generation as my grandmothers were born here) and have never lived anywhere else. On the one hand, people seem to want Christmas to be everywhere – on t.v., on the radio, in the mall, even in public schools. They want it to be an American holiday. But then they complain that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. If Christ is at the heart of it, then it should be for believers. Not everyone is a believer, though. Perhaps many in this country are happy to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. But then why the attachment to “Merry Christmas?” If it is secular, why is it so important that everyone observe it? You can’t have it both ways.
I can imagine that for some the holiday is about family traditions which is a powerful attachment. Putting up a tree, decorating the home, exchanging gifts, gathering with those you love are all beautiful traditions. I respect that, but it still does not explain why it should be expected of others who don’t share the faith or the family history.
I wondered if the family on this show felt pressured to adopt Christmas as a holiday. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists and other non-Christian people should not have to participate in Christmas. If they choose to, for whatever reasons (though hopefully not to keep up with the Joneses), that’s their right. And, they don’t owe me an explanation for their participation. I just hope it comes from a healthy, expansive place and not from feeling looked down upon, or judged as less than by other Americans. And, Americans should not start from the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas.