Is This the Right Time?

           I picked an interesting time to stop taking my antidepressant! About two months ago I started the process of weaning off Zoloft. Two weeks ago, I completed the process. I was on it for years – certainly more than a decade. I began to consider stopping about a year ago. I noticed that I felt ‘flat;’ I wasn’t experiencing pleasure in moments that I expected to, like being with my granddaughter or going on vacation. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those things; I did but I wasn’t fully engaged. I wanted to feel more, even sadness. I understood that Zoloft was likely protecting me from real lows, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the tradeoff anymore.

            The reason I started taking medication in the first place was not because of depression, per se. I am fortunate in that I have never experienced the debilitating effects of clinical depression. My problem was that I would ruminate – I lived in my head, and I was tired of it. I remember telling my therapist that I felt stuck. I would ruminate about unsatisfying social interactions or relationship problems. Sometimes I would get stuck on fears, even silly ones. A low point was when I was on the teacup ride at Disney with Leah and instead of enjoying it – she was – I was imagining the headlines when it crashed. Anxiety was more of an issue for me than depression.

            All these years later, when it dawned on me that I was kind of numb, I thought maybe it was time to try life without Zoloft.  Even with the craziness of Covid, which has introduced another layer of challenge for our mental health, I wanted to give it a try.

            In one sense it was a good time to consider the possibility of going off the pills. When things started getting harder managing Mom and Aunt Clair’s health care about six months ago, I returned to therapy. After a few sessions I posed the question: Could the medicine be stifling my emotions? Was the dullness I felt caused by the drug? I wondered if, by virtue of being on Zoloft for so long, my brain had rewired itself. Maybe the pathways that led me continue to re-live the same conversation a hundred times had been rerouted – not to stretch the metaphor too far. She said that the flatness I was describing was a known side effect of medication and it was possible that my brain changed such that I would be less susceptible to ruminating. We discussed the process of discontinuing the medicine and what I should be on the lookout for in terms of side effects as I went forward. I also checked in with my primary care physician since my therapist is not a psychiatrist – my primary care doc actually prescribes the medicine. Having consulted with the two of them, having a plan in place, I decided to do it.

            With all that continues to go on with my mom and aunt (not to mention the relentlessly negative news from the world at large), it might not have been the wisest time to do this experiment. I think, though, it is also important for me to feel the pain of this part of the journey. Though I am only a couple of weeks into this, instinct tells me that it was the right step to take. I may change my mind – I haven’t disposed of the remainder of my pills – I reserve the right to go back on them. But, I think this feels more natural. I should feel sad that Mom is not herself. I should get angry and frustrated at the failures of our health care system. I should feel joy when my granddaughter runs at me to hug my knees, turning her bright, beautiful face up to mine, flashing a huge smile that melts my heart. I want to feel those emotions.

            It has been a dramatic welcome back to the world of emotion. People sometimes talk about oscillating between one feeling and another. My experience is more like the hour hand of a clock sweeping across an array of them – fortunately it isn’t the minute or second hand! That would be unsustainable. Anger, confusion, frustration, love, hope, despair, powerlessness, appreciation, grateful are all part of most days.

            As expected, anger is prominent. There is a lot to be angry about, and I have a shorter fuse now. I’m not sure that is a great development. Since Gary is often the one igniting the fuse, I have checked in with him to see if I’m being unreasonable. So far, we’re managing, or should I say he is. Isn’t he lucky! Seriously, though, I am working on handling my temper. It hasn’t been a problem, but I do notice a difference.

            Another expected emotion – sadness. Each time I am faced with the fact of my mom’s new limitations, I feel it. I am still not a crier. I wish sometimes I could get that release. Oddly, I find it comforting to be sad. Being numb to what is happening isn’t living. If I don’t dwell there too much of the time, I think it is healthy.

            If the last two weekends are any indication, the joy has ramped up, too. I spent time with my children and granddaughter two weekends in a row! One of those weekends was my birthday and we managed to combine all my favorite things: family, nature and art. I was more fully present. So far, so good.

My Gallery of Joy:

            I do notice some increase in anxiety. Stray thoughts about unlikely accidents (like my teacup ride) creep in, but they aren’t taking up residence. They aren’t getting in my way. At least not yet. I am hoping they won’t.

            Some may wonder why I am sharing all of this. It does feel a little weird to put this out there. But I want to ‘walk the walk’; I believe we need to destigmatize mental health issues and how can we do that if we don’t bring it out into the open? Maybe we’ll get to the point where it becomes a nonissue, then I’ll stop. We aren’t there yet. This is part of my journey, and I am choosing to share it. Hopefully it will help others who may be experiencing some of the same challenges. And, if not, maybe it illuminates what it feels like for those who have not been down this road.

Note: If any reader is considering stopping medication, please do so under the direction of a doctor and/or therapist. There can be serious side effects, especially if it is done abruptly, that need to be monitored.

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

Neat or Messy?

Note: I am changing the names in this essay to protect the innocent! I don’t want to embarrass anyone or tell tales out of school, but I am sure that many can relate to the topic.

“Would you drop clothing on the floor – you know, let’s say you’re tired or whatever and want to get to bed?” Samantha asked.

“No, I don’t do that. It’s simple enough to put it in the hamper or hang it up,” I answered.

She nodded.

She followed up, “Can you go to sleep with a dish in the sink?” I had to smile. “Uh, yeah! No problem,” I said. She rolled her eyes. Clearly, my cousin could not imagine it.

My cousin, and her adorable, precocious and kind 6-year-old son, came to visit from New Jersey. In honor of their making the long drive, local family gathered in my backyard, and we had a small pool party. Somehow the topic of how we kept our houses came up. A range of philosophy and practice was represented among the five households present. Some among us struggle to keep things organized, others are fastidious. Samantha needs things to be just so, she told two stories that illustrated her point.

She and her son arrived at a friend’s house to babysit and upon entering the living room, strewn with toys, her son blurted out, “We need to clean this room up!” Samantha was embarrassed. And proud, too; he had clearly absorbed her lessons. After you finished playing with a toy, you put it away before taking out another. Though many moms try to get their kids to abide by that rule, most are not as successful as Samantha. They proceeded to help clean up the room, much to the genuine delight of her friend.

Samantha’s other example involved the time she invited some of her friends over for a housewarming. Her walk-in closet was arranged by color. Her friends thought it would be funny if they took a white blouse and put it among the blue, mixing up some of the carefully arrayed items. Samantha laughed about it, then she put everything back where it belonged.

I explained to Samantha where I fell on the continuum of neat to messy.  “I would say I’m in the middle – I am certainly no neat freak. But I can’t abide chaos in my house either.”

In some households this issue can be a bone of contention. When I was in college, my roommate, Merle, kept things neat as a pin. I was messier back then. I wanted to believe that saying that a ‘messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.’ We both compromised. I tried to do better, she took a deep breath and lowered her expectations (as least as far as my side of the room went).

This was not so much of a thing between Gary and me. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. At least I think that is the case. The truth is that for all the time we have lived together he has been immersed in his career – first medical school, then training, then treating patients. I have been responsible for ‘keeping house.’ One of Gary’s great qualities is that he knows better than to criticize when he isn’t in a position (or maybe he isn’t willing) to do it better.  I don’t recall us ever having an argument over the state of the house. Now that we are empty nesters, our house is considerably neater. Children make the battle against mess infinitely more challenging.

One nephew of mine, Jonathan, married a very discerning woman who wanted a well-organized, clean, and orderly home. In the home of Jonathan’s youth neatness was not emphasized. He simply didn’t have the skills. He was a willing learner, though. Jonathan made the transition and is fully capable of maintaining their lovely home. I was not privy, nor do I need to know, what went into that process. It may have had its ups and downs, but they have arrived at a meeting of the minds.

One of my nieces grew up in a very orderly home. Neatness did not come naturally to Elizabeth. She gave up trying. She found a partner who is fastidious. They are in the process of working that out. Elizabeth has upped her game considerably, but they are still negotiating what is reasonable. They were laughing about it poolside as we all compared notes.

Another nephew, Jonah, who grew up in the same house as Jonathan, and was similarly challenged in the cleaning and organizing department, married a lovely woman, Margaret, who is also stationed on the messy side of the continuum. Margaret rebelled against the demands of her mother who kept the family home very neat. Margaret prefers to put her energies into fun activities. Add babies to the mix and you have a ‘situation.’ Jonah’s father jokingly offered to pay Samantha to organize their house. Samantha’s eyes lit up. The challenge appealed to her – she loves to create order out of chaos. “Let me run back to my house and get my label maker! I’ll be right back!” Samantha laughed. She lives four hours away. That will have to wait for another day.

When my mother-in-law, Paula, who kept a dust-free home, visited back in the days when my children were young, was very diplomatic about how I did things. She never criticized me and never appeared to judge me. In fact, I remember one visit where I apologized for the disarray, and she told me not to worry. “You are spending time with your children, that is more important.” How kind was that?

I do recall another visit when Paula relayed the wisdom of her mother. “My mother told me, ‘before you go to sleep, clean the kitchen, do the dishes. This way when you get up in the morning, you start fresh.’ It feels good.” I told her I appreciated that, and I would try, but I wasn’t sure it would work for me.

These days after dinner is my time to hang out with Gary. Whether I am using that as an excuse or not, I don’t know, but the dishes are still there in the morning. If I have trouble sleeping, it has nothing to do with the dishes in the sink. Cleaning the kitchen has become part of my morning routine

I think for some keeping your surroundings orderly is one way to stave off the anxiety of the chaos in the world. Maybe it isn’t that complicated and some just find it more peaceful to live in uncluttered spaces. How do you navigate it? Is it a source of friction in your household?

My sink this morning. I slept fine!

The Return of the Baksts

In October of 1989, when Daniel was 7 months old and Leah was almost 2 ½ , Gary and I took our first trip to the Outer Banks. Prior to that I had never even heard of it. I didn’t know it was a narrow barrier island that mirrored the coast of North Carolina – one of the earliest sites of colonial settlement and infamous as the resting spot for many shipwrecks. That trip was the beginning of a tradition.

It was thirty years ago when we rented a beach house with friends from medical school who also had two children. They were coming from the D.C. suburbs (I wrote a post about our experience with them – here). Since our children were young, we were not beholden to school schedules yet, we took advantage of that flexibility and went in the early fall. Late September and early October are wonderful times to be on the Outer Banks. The water is warm, but the days are not as brutally hot and humid as is typical in the height of the summer. The only downside is the threat of hurricanes is greater in the autumn.

In 1989, as I did before any trip, I went to AAA to get a triptik and guidebooks to help plan our route. We loaded up our Camry wagon, which did not have air conditioning, and made the trek. After that first year, we took that drive at least a dozen times over the coming years. We continued to meet our friends and, because we liked it so much, we went with family and other friends, too. We watched the narrow barrier island develop. The first few trips we saw wild horses roaming the sand dunes and munching on the wild grasses that abutted the properties. By the mid 1990s some horses were penned in next to the Corolla Lighthouse, the rest roamed the northern part of the island that remained undeveloped. With each trip we saw the wild areas become covered with huge beach homes and shopping areas.

A combination of school schedules, the kids’ other activities, a desire to use limited vacation time in other ways led to the end of our trips to the Outer Banks. I think our last time there was in 2001.

Fast forward two decades and our son went with his family to spend a week in Kitty Hawk (which people may know from the Wright Brothers, but might not realize is part of the Outer Banks). In 2019 they went with family and friends and enjoyed themselves immensely.  Gary and I frequently talked about going back, wanting to see how it has changed and to revisit great memories, but other places and opportunities kept taking priority. Until this year.

With Covid waning, we were looking for a family vacation that we could all be comfortable with and would fit everyone’s schedules. Going back to the Outer Banks was a great option. I found a home that would suit us, walking distance to the beach and with access to a swimming pool.

Our trip down was different than it was 20 years ago. It was just the two of us – our kids and their spouses and our grandchild were travelling from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.

No longer using a Triptik, GPS adjusted our route depending on traffic. We took some back roads through Delaware to avoid congested main roads. I have always enjoyed road trips, especially when we get to see towns and neighborhoods off the beaten path. This trip fit the bill.

One thing we noticed as we drove down the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was the increased number of restaurants, stores and churches that catered to Spanish-speakers. We saw many iglesias and tacquerias. The demographics of the area must have changed. Much of the route was still sparsely developed, but there were more shopping centers (seeing all the chain stores and eateries, Gary commented “America has come to the Eastern Shore.”). Previously we saw more bait shops. There were still many places to buy a gun.

As we neared the bridge to the Outer Banks, traffic increased. We slowly made our way across the Wright Memorial Bridge which spans the Currituck/Albemarle Sound. It was early Sunday afternoon as we crawled north on Route 12 toward Duck, where our rental home was located. We passed development after development. When we last visited there were areas where there was just brush and live oaks. We saw bicyclists and runners along the road. Though it was clear that it was very densely populated in season, the homes, landscaping and shopping areas are tastefully done. There aren’t any big box stores (other than where you first cross onto the island), none of the buildings are higher than two stories, there aren’t any amusement parks or McDonalds (or the like). One could argue that it makes the area too exclusive and expensive, but there is no denying that it is lovely.

Throughout the drive, I was hit by waves of nostalgia. I miss the time when our children were young. I loved taking care of them, being involved in their everyday lives, taking them to see new places, and sharing adventures. Time marches on and I am blessed they are still a regular part of our lives, and they were willing to take this vacation with us, but as we drove along the familiar (but new in some ways) route, I had pangs of missing that earlier time. Thinking about our friends who we shared that time with, whose lives were shattered by the loss of one of their children, added another dimension of poignancy.

I am happy to report our week together was fabulous.

The weather was unbelievable – it was hot, and sometimes humid, but perfect for the beach and pool. We prepared great meals, enjoyed wine and each other’s company. We created new memories. As we were getting packed up to leave on Sunday, our granddaughter looked at me and said, “I want to stay here forever!” Me too, little one. Sigh.

It Takes a Village

It is painful to watch. Aunt Clair pushes her walker down the carpeted hallway, ever so slowly. After ten or fifteen steps she pauses to catch her breath. I had not realized that the hallway was so long. Seeing my mother and Aunt Clair move through the world, my perspective on all kinds of things has changed.

The hallway from the elevator to my apartment is not really that long, not for a healthy individual. I have taken my health for granted, but my eyes have been opened. I can stand up quickly from a couch or chair without a second thought. Getting up off the floor is a bit more challenging. I can stand at the stove and cook dinner without needing to take a break. I can go to the supermarket, carry my bags into the house and unpack them – all without stopping to rest. I can take a shower without considering whether I am strong or steady enough to do it safely. My mother and Aunt Clair can’t do any of those things.

I have never been particularly grateful for my body. I usually eye it critically. But, seeing what can happen as you age, I am re-evaluating. While I have achy joints, they all work well. Kein ayin hara (Yiddish for ‘no evil eye,’ or ‘I don’t want to jinx myself’), I can play tennis, go for a hike, ride a bicycle. People my age and younger are not able to do some of those things. I have taken to thanking my legs and arms for functioning so well.

Bearing witness to Mom and Aunt Clair’s experience has made me aware of many things I had not given much thought to previously. The cycle of life is on full display. We start as babies, dependent on others to meet our needs. Many end up back in that position. We don’t want to believe that about ourselves. After living independently for decades, taking care of ourselves, making choices about what we eat, when we eat, when we sleep, where we go, that slowly slips away. The fact that it generally happens slowly, may ease the transition. We adjust to the new realities, we lower our expectations. We draw the circle of our life smaller and smaller. We may make peace with encroaching age and the limitations it brings, but at some point it is demoralizing. I don’t know which is worse – watching someone you love go through it or experiencing it yourself. (I know the answer to that, but it is heartbreaking to observe.)

We may become physically or mentally (or both) incapable of the activities of daily living. We need help.

Who provides that help? In some cultures, the expectation is that family steps up and in. Multigenerational homes are the norm. That may work, up to a point. Sometimes the needs go beyond what can be provided. American culture does not have that expectation of families, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of it. We value rugged individualism too much and the vulnerable among us pay the price. I don’t know what happens in other countries, particularly those that have the long life span that we enjoy. I should do some research. Insight from readers would be much appreciated – please feel free to comment.

In America, if one is financially able, one can pay for assistance. But even if you have means, and insurance, it isn’t simple. Accessing insurance, researching options online, finding reputable agencies or individuals, getting doctors to write the necessary prescriptions, filling out the paperwork or electronic forms to get reimbursement – is challenging and requires persistence and some skill with technology. You would almost think that the system has been set up to discourage claims or deny payment (sarcasm alert!). It shouldn’t be that complicated! Most of our elders are not equipped to take all of that on. So even if you have money, you still need support.

Not all of us have those financial resources. For whatever reason, not earning enough, not planning ahead or suffering an unexpected financial loss (caused by bad health, an economic downturn, a natural disaster or bad luck), one can reach their seventh or eighth decade without much in the bank. Are government programs sufficient to meet the need? I think it is fair to say they don’t. Some services are available, but there are gaping holes. What are we, as a society, willing to pay to provide for our elders? What level of service, what is the quality of life we want to guarantee?

As we live longer and longer, many outlast spouses and friends. Not everyone has children. This is the situation that Aunt Clair faces. She has been single her entire adult life and she didn’t have a child. She is a very stubborn woman which has been a blessing and curse. She fought pancreatic cancer six years ago, surviving treatment – more than surviving. She bicycled to and from chemo….in Manhattan! From her apartment in Greenwich Village to Sloan Kettering, at Third Avenue and 53rd Street, she pedaled each way. Sadly, the cancer returned six months ago. She has resumed treatment. Other unrelated health problems have emerged. For a person so independent, who continues to be mentally sharp, the new limitations are a rude surprise, nearly impossible to accept.

Aunt Clair has experienced both the kindness of strangers and the invisibility that comes with being an elderly woman. New York City has a reputation for being a cold place to live, and it can be, but Clair has stories that show another side. One time recently she had an appointment with a doctor she had not seen before and had difficulty finding the office. Turned out she was on the wrong street. After exhausting herself going up and down the block, a younger woman stopped to help. She stayed with her until they sorted it out and found a cab – Clair was in no condition to walk the two blocks. I am grateful to know that there are good Samaritans out there. I know my mom has benefitted from help when she has needed it, too.

What is my role, as a niece and daughter? Clair has other nieces and nephews, each with a full life and responsibilities, their own challenges. Only one lives in Manhattan, albeit not close to Clair’s apartment, the rest of us are scattered around the Northeast. Mom has two other children, a brother and several nieces who have generously stepped in – and yet, there are still needs. It truly takes a village. Personally, I have no idea how to balance it.

When I returned home from New York City, having visited Mom and helped Aunt Clair a bit for a couple of days, I needed to recharge my batteries. I am fortunate to have a loving, supportive partner in Gary. Together we went for a long walk in the woods. My spirit is improved, but I still have no answers.

Visiting Mom early in the pandemic – before she needed oxygen full time
Me and Aunt Clair four years ago when she was cancer free

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!

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.  

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