My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.  

Food Firsts

by Leah Bakst

Note: Last week I was chatting with my daughter Leah and somehow the subject of the first time we tried new foods came up. I’m not sure what brought it up, but Leah explained that she had particularly vivid memories of some of her experiences. The conversation took an interesting turn.

“If that were me, it might be a blog post,” I commented

Are you asking me to write a blog post?” She knows her mother well.

Would you?” I asked, not managing to conceal my hope.

“I’ll think about it.”

A couple of days later, during our next conversation, Leah reported, “I wrote something. I couldn’t sleep, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I thought I would make use of the time.”

While I was sorry that she had a poor night’s sleep, I was delighted with the product. I think you will be, too.


Growing up keeping kosher, there were things my family would never eat. Then there were other completely unrelated foods we’d never eat strictly due to family idiosyncrasies. As an example, my father considers green peppers spectacularly offensive and calls them ‘vile fruit.’ It’s a pretty great name, but an unconventional take on a fairly standard vegetable. Given these family proclivities, there were a number of common foods I had never tried as I approached adulthood. Maybe it was all the anticipation, maybe it was just being a bit older, but I have several particularly strong memories of some of my “food firsts.” I thought I’d share a few.

I don’t think there’s a deeper meaning or some lesson here (other than the fact that I really love food). But newness can make even the most mundane things an event. What are some memorable food firsts for you? I know my mom and I would both love to hear.

~~

The thing about a ham and cheese sandwich is that when done right it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I love that. It’s so American.

In high school I’d have them at friends’ houses. I might get offered some snack options: “We could have cereal, or chips, or we could make a sandwich…”

“Oh. Hmm. A sandwich? Yeah I guess I could go for that.” As if I hadn’t been mentally preparing my ham and cheese already.

Every time I ate one, I’d have to surreptitiously insert a finger into my mouth to dislodge the gummy amalgam that collected at the roof of my mouth. It was at once gross and wonderful.

And somehow every household had the same ingredients, as if they had all gotten some goy instructional booklet. Thinly sliced ham and white American cheese, each in their own clear plastic zip bag with that deli paper around it. In my mind, it was magic.

~~

I didn’t realize that actual regular people ate their eggs with runny yolks until college. Before then I thought “sunny side up” was just something characters ordered in the movies. I pictured Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” feigning an orgasm in the middle of a crowded diner. “That’s the kind of person who gets runny eggs,” I thought. Wild, brazen.

“Over medium” eggs were my gateway. I progressed from there. Perhaps my father – with his protective and slightly dogmatic tendencies – would not approve of my current predilection for soft-boiled eggs. (Seven minutes and forty-five seconds at a brisk boil.) But every morning I get a little thrill as I fork open my egg and the sumptuous golden yolk seeps onto the toast and greens. It’s rich on my tongue, and I’m willing to take my chances.

~~

Oysters are not only unkosher, on their face they’re incredibly unappetizing. The outside looks like a barnacle suctioned to some long-lost shipwreck; rough and knobby, cold and wet. Inside, they look mucosal.

It was a gray day on the Washington coast when I had my first. A group of us combed the shore, bedecked in colorful rain gear. I found a promising shell and bounded over to a friend to show off my bounty. As she confirmed that I had indeed found an excellent oyster, it dawned on me that I was expected to eat the thing. This wasn’t fishing; no one catches and releases an oyster!

She instructed me to insert the shucking knife near the hinge, and with a twist I revealed my mucosal snack. There was no backing down now.

I ate the oyster in one gulp. It was bright and briny. Salty and slick, but gritty with sand from a poor shuck job. It was as primal and energizing as the ocean itself.

I’m not sure I even liked that first oyster. Or my second or third for that matter, though I like them now. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I felt brave and capable and sublimely connected to our vital, living world.

~~

One note: Many of my adult food firsts are definitionally unkosher because I grew up in a kosher household. This brings up some complicated feelings, and for me, this meditation on new food experiences would be incomplete without recognizing that fact.

You never forget which foods are unkosher. Before each carnitas burrito, each cheeseburger, each cup of New England clam chowder, there’s a tiny moment when your breath catches in your chest, and you renew your decision to step away from your ancestors. At least that’s how it feels to me.

I feel guilty every time. But I also can’t imagine going back. If I did keep kosher, it would assuredly be for my father. (Frankly, there are worse reasons to do something.) But I don’t believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in a spirit, a soul, a metaphysical anything. I certainly don’t believe there is a moral mandate to eat or not eat certain foods based on the laws of kashruth – if there were a god, I cannot believe they would care one iota about which foods I consume.

If my family is disappointed I’m not keeping kosher, I can’t imagine my lack of belief in a higher power is any kind of salve. Is this just adding insult to injury? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that it has taken years of wrestling with what I owe my heritage and what I owe myself to arrive at a tenuous equilibrium. Perhaps time will grant me more clarity. For now, I will at least be sure to savor all of the wonderous things I am lucky enough to experience, and cherish the strong ties to my heritage I am lucky enough to have.

This picture isn’t really relevant to the story, but I like it. Leah and I looking triumphant!

Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.

Photographs and Memories

Photographs and memories –  a Jim Croce song that was popular in the mid-1970s – could be the soundtrack for this past weekend. The song’s lyrics don’t exactly fit, that song is about a lost love, but the sentiment of being left with photographs of times gone by is right on point.

Once again, I spent hours sorting through family photographs. This time from my mother’s place in Florida. Two years ago, we cleaned out my in-laws’ home to prepare to sell it. I took boxes of photographs to sort out  – I wrote about that experience here.

This past weekend, I received a new set of boxes filled with photos, memorabilia, my mother’s paintings and other decorative items. These items made up her home in Boynton Beach, a home in the process of being sold. A great deal of the work of sorting was already done by my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, who spent a week going through Mom’s stuff – making multiple trips to Goodwill, wearing out a path to the trash dumpsters across the street, shipping boxes of books and photos, and finally packing their SUV to the brim with the rest to drive north.

Even with all the donations and distribution of many items, we are still left with the question: What to do I do with all of the photographs. I find it very difficult to throw them away. I know they can be digitized and, in fact, I have done some of that. But what should we transfer? How should we organize it? If we take the time and effort to convert photos, will anyone look at them? What is the point of photos?

I like to pull out albums from time to time. I go back through a vacation remembering the sights and funny anecdotes, or on the birthday of one of my children, I’ll take out an album from when they were an infant and walk down memory lane.

Walking down memory lane has its pitfalls. In some ways it was easier to do this task with the Bakst family photos – less baggage for me. The pictures I was going through this past weekend ran the gamut from when my mom was a little girl in the 1930s to family weddings through the decades to our more recent trip to Israel.

I find myself looking at the pictures as if they will provide answers. Who was Nana (my maternal grandmother)? She has been gone fifty years. She was such a central figure in my childhood and in my understanding of family. I see pictures of her with Zada, my grandfather, and try to intuit their relationship. It is fruitless. The pictures don’t bring her back. If I linger too long, I just get sad.

I came across photos of our time in Illinois where we spent three summers while my dad went to school at the university to get his master’s in economics. We were great friends with another family, the Emrichs from Delaware. I see our smiling faces, there were seven of us kids, as we sit in the grass at the side of the community pool that we went to every day – weather permitting. I can hear Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 playing over the loudspeakers as we splashed each other. I look at myself and wonder: why did I think I was so fat and ugly – even then, at 7 years old? Now I see a cute little girl. I’ve wasted so much time dwelling in that negative place.

Us standing in front of graduate student housing at the University of Illinois. Our cousins came to visit. I am front left.

So many people in the pictures are gone. Finding images of my dad holding his grandchildren as newborns, when they are now in their thirties, some even approaching 40!, knowing he has been gone for 16 years brings warm memories and the ache of missing him.

It reminds me how much he reveled in being a grandfather. He had six that he doted on.

The realization that Gary and I are on the precipice of being the oldest generation is mind-blowing. There are so few elders left and those that are still with us face serious health threats. I am grateful that they are here. The shape and nature of our family has changed and continues to evolve. It is the cycle of life, and I cannot control it, try as I might.

I think it is time to put the photos aside and look forward. It is fine to take a trip down memory lane, but I can’t live there. I need to focus on my family as it is today. I want to shed the negative self-image and create a healthier one; one that I can walk in more comfortably for the rest of my life. That is a more fruitful assignment. Good luck to me.  

More Hard Questions

Note: It has been another challenging week for me. Aside from my mother’s continuing health issues, I am troubled by the violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. I do not subscribe to the narratives offered by the far left or far right in explaining what is going on there. I believe all the participants share responsibility for the violence and that they all need to change to come to peace. In view of these events, I thought it was a good time to revisit a book review I wrote a couple of years ago. The book, Salt Houses, was insightful and provocative and was written from a Palestinian perspective. Even if you haven’t read the book, I hope you find my discussion of it enlightening and thought provoking. It is clear that we, across the globe, all of us, need to find better ways to address trauma that has been passed down through the generations. We see the impact of failing to do so everywhere we look.

https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/12/24/hard-questions/

Karma

To say it has been a stressful week is an understatement. But in keeping with my effort to reframe things, I’ll start with what I am grateful for:

  1. I can replace my destroyed laptop without enduring financial hardship. I know that many are not in that position. It would simply not fit in the budget. Laptops are expensive, but Gary and I can absorb the cost.
  2. Thanks to my daughter, my laptop was backed up to an external hard drive. A couple of months ago, Leah encouraged me to create a more professional office set up by helping me purchase and then connect the hard drive. I can’t begin to imagine how crazed I’d be if my writing had been lost.
  3. My husband didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow in judgment when I told him where I found the mutilated laptop. He didn’t add to my frustration, anger or disappointment. In fact, he was kind (not a surprise to anyone who knows him).

So where did I find the crushed piece of technology? In the middle of the righthand lane of Route 155, not far from where we exited the Albany International Airport an hour earlier. How did it get there? A reasonable question.

We were loading the car with our luggage upon our return from Florida when I put the laptop on the roof of the car. I got distracted by the various things I was arranging and left my precious laptop where I had only intended to rest it briefly. We pulled out of the parking spot, made several turns to emerge from the garage, went through the ticket booth, exited the airport and turned left on to Route 155, a four-lane divided highway. The laptop, in its purple polystyrene case, tenaciously hung on the roof through all of that – hoping I would notice its absence before the laws of physics became too powerful to resist. I didn’t notice. We picked up speed and drove home.

When we pulled into the driveway and unloaded the car, I immediately realized something important was missing. I thoroughly searched the trunk, as well as the front and back seats. I had a feeling I might have left it on the roof as I replayed my actions in my mind, but I wasn’t sure. Sadly, this was not the first time I had left something on the roof of the car. A large cup of Starbucks mocha splattered the back and side windows from one such oversight. In another case, which cost a lot more money than the mocha (though that coffee was expensive), I left my cell phone up top, only to have it smashed to smithereens by an oncoming truck. I seem to be leaving larger and larger items on the roof of the car. What could be possibly be next?

Though I had my suspicions as to the fate of my laptop, I returned to the airport to see if it was in the lost and found. Maybe it slid off in the garage and a good Samaritan turned it in? I retraced my steps, surveyed the parking garage, reported the loss to the airline and then got back in my car to go home in defeat. I exited the airport again and was driving in the right lane when I saw it sitting on the roadway. I maneuvered the car so it wouldn’t run over it and looked for a safe place to stop. There was no shoulder so I made a u-turn and parked in the cellphone lot. I waited for a break in the traffic and dashed across the highway. The case looked strangely swollen, not a good sign. I picked it up – saw black tire marks, heard and felt the crunch of broken glass as I lifted it. I didn’t even try to open the zipper – there was no point. I stood in the grass by the side of the road, silently cursing my idiocy. I waited again for a pause in the traffic and ran back across the road. I sat in the car contemplating what to do next. No solution presented itself. I drove home.

Though it felt like a Sunday, it was, in fact, Monday. When I came in and told Gary I found it and it was irretrievably broken, he asked, “Should we go to the Apple store?”

I realized that it probably was open, but….

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I can’t deal with it right now.”

I just needed to regroup.

Trips to Florida seem cursed. Though I have no one to blame but myself, I think it is karma. The Sunshine State is getting back at me for not appreciating it. Our visits to Florida, especially over the last 15 years, have almost always involved looking in on our aging parents who faced one health crisis after another. Though we wanted to visit them, and we would try to make time to catch some rays and enjoy the ocean breeze, I associate Florida with aging and as Zada, my maternal grandfather, said many years ago, “Getting old is not for sissies.” I am coming to understand the truth of his words more and more with each passing day.

It is now Wednesday afternoon. I had my appointment at the Apple Store. In the age of Covid you can’t just show up and shop. I bought a new MacBook Pro, successfully loaded my files from the external hard drive and I am back in business. Though our wallet took a big hit, I am lucky. The laptop is replaceable. People are not.

Three morals from this story: (1) back up any important files to an external hard drive, (2) don’t rest things on the roof of your car (especially if you are prone to distraction like I am), and (3) remember what is important.

Eccentricities

Nadal arranging his water bottles. Photo grabbed from https://www.tennislifemag.com/rafas-rituals-so-much-to-do-before-he-can-play/

Gary was watching tennis on television the other day. Rafael Nadal was playing. Aside from the fact that he is one of the best tennis players of all time, Nadal is interesting because he offers a host of ritualistic behaviors that are far beyond any other athlete I am aware of. All people have quirks and athletes typically have superstitions. Some pitchers won’t step on a baseline when leaving the mound to return to the dugout. Others have pregame routines that they try not to vary. Rafa is in a class by himself. From how he arranges his water bottles to the predictability of his sequence before he serves, he clearly has quirks. Gary noted when Nadal’s game was over and it was time to change sides, Nadal walked toward the net and made a sharp right turn to go to his chair – not your ordinary approach. These behaviors could be amusing little eccentricities. Or they could represent a disorder that interferes with his life. I hope it is the former or something in between that doesn’t create problems for him.

It is kind of funny that Gary was commenting on Nadal’s routines given that he is a creature of habit himself. I guess we all are to varying degrees. Gary’s habits are harmless and amusing (to me). His process for cleaning his glasses is a whole production – if he tells me he needs to clean them before we leave the house, I know I have plenty of time to sit down and read the newspaper. Not surprisingly, his glasses are far cleaner than mine. Once in a while I will ask him to give my lenses his special treatment. I am amazed at the difference – he clearly knows what he is doing.

I walk with a friend who used to need to circle the stop sign instead of just reversing course when we got to the end of the block. Snow could be piled up knee deep on the side of the road, but the walk didn’t feel right to her if she hadn’t done that. I remember when she decided she didn’t need to do that anymore. Humans are so interesting.

These rituals must give us some comfort, some control, or we wouldn’t do them. I have routines, too, though I can’t say I see them as quite so specific or engrained. I get up in the morning and do things in the same order – I think – go to the bathroom (TMI?), wash hands, brush teeth, take meds, make the bed, get dressed, head downstairs. I continue the process by taking my little hotplate out and plugging it in (a gift from Dan and Beth because they know I like my coffee to stay hot), pour my coffee, prepare my breakfast, open my computer and start with the New York Times Spelling Bee, then move on to the crossword puzzle and end with the mini puzzle. Next up, I clean the kitchen – most nights I have left the dinner dishes to be done in the morning. Then I start my day – up to my office to write, read and research. I’m okay, though, if my routine has to change – if I have an appointment, or if Gary hasn’t made the coffee that morning or whatever comes up. The routine gives some structure and a beginning to my day, but I am not married to it. It doesn’t cause me anxiety to do it differently.

Are there people who specifically choose not to have a routine? I imagine that there must be though I don’t think I know many. I wonder what that would feel like. From what I hear from friends, most are pretty devoted to their schedules.

I was taking my brother home from the hospital after his hip replacement surgery a couple of years ago. The nurse was going over the discharge instructions. Mark asked about climbing the stairs to his bedroom. They asked how many steps it would be. “15,” he replied with certainty (I could be remembering the wrong number, but the number isn’t the point). I looked at him, “You know the number of steps off the top of your head?” He looked at me quizzically. “Of course.” Later when we were in the car, I asked him about that. He responded, “Don’t you count the steps when you go upstairs in your house?”  “No, I have no idea how many it is.” Apparently, Mark counts things – and not just the typical things that we all count (like reps in the gym). My brother has his oddities, too.

You never know what might be going on in another person’s head. Well, maybe that isn’t entirely true. I know the thoughts in mine are quite different from my brother. I might be replaying my last conversation with my son or composing my next blog post while Mark might be constructing his all-time Yankee batting order, putting his love of numbers to good, productive use, or he might be thinking about how he might next tease me. Either of those thought processes are totally alien to me.

To the extent that we find our partner’s, family members’ and friends’ little quirks and eccentricities charming, amusing or at least not annoying, it works. When it drives us crazy or when it gets in the way of their functioning, then it is another story.

Bittersweet

I know I have used the word bittersweet quite often on the blog. Lately it just seems to fit. This past week was no exception. It featured wide swings – from the deep satisfaction of connecting in person (!!!) with long-time friends (who were fully vaccinated) to extreme anxiety about Mom’s health and back to marveling at the wonder of a toddler. It has been a roller coaster ride.

I accompanied Mom for pre-op testing a week ago in New Jersey. It went smoothly, though, it is increasingly evident that any exertion takes a great deal out of her. I wish we had a better understanding of what is happening. I feel like there should be an answer – and with that some kind of fix so that her quality of life is improved. We continue to search but so far, we have not come up with anything. This has been going on since last August!

On Friday I brought her in for a procedure that was meant to enlighten us – at least with regard to the condition of her heart. In a strange way I hoped that the doctor would find something wrongthat he could address. He didn’t. Her heart is good – which should have been excellent news, and it does bring some comfort. The search continues for an explanation for her extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.

In between Monday’s testing and Friday’s procedure, I visited with family and friends who live in the New York City area. My son came into the city for the first time in over a year for work. He visited with me before his scheduled meeting. I gave him a bagel with cream cheese. He took a bite and exclaimed, “Jesus, that is so good!” He lives in Connecticut and gets bagels, but there are bagels and there are bagels. New York City may be struggling, but you can still get fabulous bagels on the Upper West Side.

Though things are far from normal, some activities are returning in new ways. A Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue set up some tables on the sidewalk enclosed in individual plastic bubbles. The pod was open on one side.  Steven, our friendship began when I was 14 or 47 short years ago, and I were enjoying our lunch when it started to drizzle, then the sky opened up. The waiter pulled down the plastic sheeting and zipped us in. We were protected from the elements and continued eating our delicious meal. When the rain stopped, the panel was unzipped and we emerged into breezy sunshine, a blue sky to the north but more ominous clouds moving in from the south. It was one of those fast-changing weather days. Spring is in full swing in NYC.

I consumed quite a bit of Asian food during my time in the city – all of it outstanding. Isn’t it great to share a meal with people you love? Another afternoon I met Aunt Clair at a Japanese restaurant. Despite her own serious health challenges, we were able to talk about family history and current events while digging into our bento boxes. I learned more about my Dad and clarified some things, some of which will likely make its way into a future blog post.

Late that afternoon I fought traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway to meet another childhood friend – I know Deborah since I was four years old. Anyone who has lived in the New York area has to know the Cross Bronx is infamous – it can be 3 a.m. and traffic can be at a standstill. But Waze, the navigation app that scans for the best route, told me repeatedly, “You are still on the fastest route,” as I sat incredulously staring at the unmoving tractor trailer in front of me. The good news was that I was listening to NPR when the verdict was read in the Chauvin trial. What a relief – on so many levels! In addition to finally providing some accountability and a measure of justice, I hate to think what would have happened if a different verdict had been rendered.

I met Deborah for dinner in Port Washington on Long Island. Deborah lives in another part of the Island but suggested a spot that was more convenient for me to travel to. Another excellent Asian restaurant. I realized that I was only minutes from where my cousins grew up. After the meal, since the days are now so much longer, there was still some daylight. I plugged their old address into the GPS. It was only a five minute ride. The terrain was familiar and foreign at the same time. The lovely homes, tree-lined, curving streets and lush lawns were as I remembered. The house itself was quite different. The wood rail fence and bushes that lined the property were gone. The siding was a different color. But it brought back many memories of our visits. So much has changed. My aunt and uncle passed away – as have so many other family members. My cousins live in Massachusetts and Florida respectively. I took a picture and texted it to them. They commented on the changes they noticed. More evidence of the bittersweet nature of life.

Mom needed to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. I drove out to New Jersey Thursday night and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, they live about 15 minutes from Mom. Somehow when you know you are getting up at 5:00 a.m. it is impossible to get restful sleep. I woke up multiple times to check the clock, relieved to find that I still had more time. But at 4:30 I gave up. Mom was ready when I arrived at 6:00. We saw the sun rise as we drove east to the hospital.

The procedure took less time than expected and I was thankful that she had made it through it, even though I wished there was something they could have fixed that would improve her situation. Given that she is 87 and experiencing shortness of breath, I was acutely aware of the risks of the procedure. At least she had come through it.

She was admitted to the hospital because of a complication with her heart rhythm. I went to see her in her room. Her color was actually better than it had been. She was in good spirits. Assuming that she was stable, I planned to return home that afternoon. Months earlier the weekend of April 24th was chosen by our children to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Since Covid made going to a Met game an uncomfortable proposition, the kids came up with the idea of recreating the experience in our backyard. They would come to Albany and we would all watch the game together on Saturday afternoon.

Fortunately, Mom was stable, so after staying with her for a couple of hours, I drove home. The celebratory plans were a surprise to Gary. He didn’t know the kids were coming. I arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon. Leah and Ben followed about 20 minutes later. Gary worked a bit later than usual, proving that he had no idea about the surprise. He saw Leah’s car in the driveway and was delighted. He came in all smiles. It only got better from there.

A couple of hours later, there was a knock at the door. Our almost 3 year old granddaughter stood smiling on the porch (don’t worry she wasn’t alone, her mother and father accompanied her). I reached out my arms and she lifted hers. I brought her into the family room where Gary was on the phone with a patient. His jaw dropped. I heard him say, “Okay, gotta go. Good night, Mr. Smith.” Fortunately, he had communicated the necessary medical information so though he ended the conversation abruptly, he was in fact done. He stood up and took her from me. So began the weekend.

Though we had a great time with the kids, my mom alternately sounded horrible on the phone (struggling to breathe and speak), then a bit better, then like herself, then horrible again. I was worried. I thought about whether I should go back down to the hospital, but what could I accomplish? The kids had gone to great effort. They set up a screen against the house so we could watch the Met game. They brought crackerjacks, peanuts, beer and sandwiches. They decorated with Met paraphernalia. The weather even cooperated, sadly, the Mets didn’t. They lost 7-1. We all agreed that was as it should be in a way, we’ve been to many losses at Shea and Citifield. Happily, we watched the game (indoors) the night before when Jacob DeGrom pitched a masterpiece.  

Our own version of the 7th inning stretch

Sunday morning, I blew bubbles with our granddaughter in our backyard. It delighted both of us. Something about watching the delicate orbs, rainbows shimmering on their surface, illuminated by the sun as they drifted into nothingness seemed appropriate. The fleeting nature of it, of everything, struck me. At the same time, her squeals of laughter as she chased them reminded me of the whimsy of life. I need to go with it, accept the bittersweet, as hard as that is.

Remembering Ray

by Barbara Spilken

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is written by my aunt, Barbara Spilken. It is about my grandmother, Nana. I have written many blog posts about her. Thank you, Barbara, for sharing your tribute to her. The photos come from the Spilken family collection.

I woke up in tears this morning. April 18, 2021 marks 50 years since my mother-in-law’s death. Not many people are fortunate enough to find inspiration to last that many years from anyone much less their mother-in-law. Most in-law relationships, if we are to believe Hollywood, are strained at best. I was blessed with a different reality.

Though I only knew Ray (Rachel Spilken) for three years before her untimely death, she shaped how I live my life and the values I strive to uphold. I was 18 years old when I first met her.

Ray was the sun to family and friends that orbited her. She welcomed people to her home, regardless of their station in life or if they had a disability or lived on the margins of society. My family of origin did not offer such a generous and loving atmosphere. I drank in this alternative and vowed to try to live her values.

Whether I have accomplished that is for others to say. I believe Ray’s legacy is going strong in our family. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are caring human beings, loving their families, involved in philanthropy, each trying to make the world a better place in their own way.

Everyday I wake up to see Ray’s large, beautiful mahogany dining room table in my house. It is a reminder to gather those we love, to share our burdens and our celebrations, to break bread as often as we can  –  to stay connected to each other.

I was welcomed by my husband, Terry, into his world. His mother extended to me every kindness and taught me these values. I hope I have done and continue to do them honor.

Terry and Ray in 1969

This year in which we have sustained many losses has inevitably led me to think about the meaning of life, I am comforted by my reflections on Ray. Her legacy of love and care continues to ripple through the generations that have followed. What more can one hope for?

At my wedding – January 10, 1971

Privacy

Privacy settings on Facebook

A snippet of conversation overheard:

“I can’t think of anything worse than finding a picture posted of me on the Internet without my permission,” he said.

“I don’t actually remember if he asked before he posted,” she replied. She didn’t sound perturbed by it. “He may have asked, I don’t remember…..I mean, I don’t like when someone does that either but….whatever.” She shrugged.

He shook his head disapprovingly.

The exchange got me ruminating about my own actions. I surmised that she was surprised to find a photo or video posted of herself online, and to him the idea of that happening, of personal stuff being out in the world that he didn’t put there, is an anathema. He wants his privacy. He doesn’t want anonymous people knowing or seeing his business.

Clearly, I don’t share that feeling. This blog offers plenty of evidence of that. I know better than to post a picture of a person without getting the okay beforehand, but I been known to make mistakes. Overhearing that conversation, I could imagine the young man saying to me, “You’re nuts for putting all that stuff out there!”

I know the exchange had nothing to do with me, but it hit a sore spot. I feel some measure of self-consciousness about what I do.

I don’t share everything. I draw boundaries.  I make choices about memories or experiences I want to write about. I also want to be careful that I am sharing my story, not someone else’s. Most of the time when I write something that involves another person in a significant way, especially if it can be seen negatively, I show it to them first. I have edited pieces in response and sometimes I censor myself. I have invited folks to share their perspective on the blog, too.

I want to share my experiences. It is a way of feeling less alone. When a reader responds that they identify with what I have shared, it is validating. And, even more importantly, writing about painful feelings, takes away of some of their power. Things that live in my mind as embarrassing or irritating are made less so when I put the feeling in words and set them free.

Why do I feel the need to justify that I do this? There must be a part of me that questions it, wonders if it reflects weakness or a failure to properly value my own privacy.

This question of privacy, though, goes well beyond social media etiquette. For instance, people make different choices in regard to sharing information about their health (I’m not referring to what is shared on Facebook, I mean even in everyday conversation). Some are an open book and might share more than you ever wanted to know. At the other extreme, some don’t want to be asked how they are feeling. As we get older, health becomes more and more of a focus. It can be hard to avoid discussing it. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I want to be open with my husband and my children. If it is something that can be inherited, like high blood pressure or diabetes, then I think I owe it to them to share the information. If it is something that is affecting the quality of my life or my mood, it seems only fair to clue them in. I’m not big on putting on a happy face – at least not for those closest to me. I also tend to think secrets have a way of blowing up.

There shouldn’t be shame attached to illness either– it shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness or a personal failing. We’ve lived too long with people hiding mental illness or addictions, in particular. Some illnesses carry judgment – if you are a smoker and get lung cancer, or if you are obese and are diagnosed with Type II diabetes, you can feel like you deserve it and/or that others deem it as a just punishment. None of that is helpful. If it were simple, no one would smoke or be obese.

By the same token, I understand not wanting to feel like your condition is tattooed on your forehead. We don’t want to be defined by an illness. It is a matter of personal choice if you want these things widely known. There is no right way to be about this. We need to respect each other’s wishes. What makes it complicated is if we assume that others share our standards.

For me, the health issue is particularly vexing. My husband is a doctor. I have been with him from the beginning of his training and while I am not confused about the fact that I did not earn a medical degree, I think it is fair to say I have more knowledge than your average citizen. If someone speaks to Gary as a patient, he doesn’t share it with me. If it involves our children, he will. Our kids understand that (if they didn’t, now they do). I find, for whatever reason, some people do confide in me about these things; others don’t. It can be surprising who falls into each category.

I will admit to having pretty strong problem-solving skills. When my dad was sick, it made me feel better if I came up with something that helped him to be more comfortable. When Dad was getting chemo, he and Mom were staying in an extended-stay hotel. Dad was spending a lot of time in bed, aside from being tired, the chairs in the sitting area in their suite weren’t that comfortable. I found a place that rented furniture and we had a reclining chair delivered for the duration of his stay. It was a win-win. I still feel good about that. If Mom hadn’t shared her concern about Dad being in bed so much, I couldn’t have helped find a solution.

Combine the familiarity with medical issues with a propensity to want to fix things, or help people, and I can probably overstep. Or maybe I don’t. Geez, my brain is a confusing place to live.

I started this essay by recounting an overheard conversation that led me to question myself. Now, having written about it, processed my thoughts, and putting it on the blog, it isn’t eating at me anymore. I won’t go so far as to say I am at peace, but I am not ruminating. I’ll call that a victory.