Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

Letters Left Behind

Note: Every so often my thoughts are best expressed in a prose-poem – I call it that because I don’t know what else to call it. As I continue going through Aunt Clair’s stuff, this is what came to me.

Aunt Clair saved letters

Who do they belong to now that

She has passed to another dimension?

The sender? The recycling bin?

Me – her devoted niece and self-appointed family historian?

Are they private?

Can I use them in my writing?

She saved them

To what end?

Buried in a stuck drawer

Wrapped in rubber bands

Encased in baggies.

Liberated, gently unfolded

Expressions of love

From her mother who died 46 years ago,

Endearments scrawled with an unsteady hand

From her father, also long dead.

Sister, nieces and nephews

offering thanks for a thoughtful gift

updating her from college or from across the world

making amends for a misunderstanding.

Love committed to paper

Yellowing, disintegrating with my touch

Voices from long ago

Briefly heard again.

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

First Impressions

Note: I am returning to some of my earlier blog themes by exploring the beginnings of Gary and my relationship. I continue to work on a book which will examine how generational trauma (the Holocaust)shaped our respective lives and influenced the family we created together. That book is taking forever to complete and keeps getting interrupted by life, but I keep chipping away at it.

            Gary and I were home for the break between semesters of our senior year of college when I was invited to Shabbos dinner at the Baksts. I had been raised to know enough to bring something when you go to someone’s house for dinner – wine, a box of chocolates, flowers. I wondered:  what to bring? Of course, I wanted to make a good impression. Though I had met his parents once, this would be my first extended interaction. Wine was not a big thing in my family life, and I didn’t think it was for Gary’s either, and I didn’t know anything about it, so I eliminated that as an option. I thought it would be nice if I brought a homemade dessert. Mom had a recipe for cheesecake, maybe cheese-pie is more accurate, that I loved and was always a big hit. I decided to make that.

            It was not a complicated recipe. The base of the pie was Philadelphia cream cheese – how could it go wrong? I bought a pre-made graham cracker crust. I topped the cream cheese mixture with canned strawberry filling and fresh strawberries. It looked good. I was pretty sure it would taste good, too.

            I arrived at the Bakst home in Rosedale, a neighborhood strikingly similar to my own in Canarsie. Mrs. Bakst greeted me warmly. I gave her the pie, she thanked me and asked if it should be refrigerated. We agreed that it should, and she put it on a shelf in the refrigerator. We joined the rest of the family in the living room.

            I sat down next to Gary on the couch that was encased in plastic. I took note of the furnishings, so different from my parents’ living room. Aside from the plastic coverings, the style was more formal and classic. My Mom’s taste ran to the modern (for 1979); we had a red shag carpet and black and white houndstooth drapes in our living room. We chatted for a bit, Gary’s older brother and younger sister were there, too, and then we were called to the table.

            The dining room table was set with a cream-colored tablecloth. I didn’t know if the dishes were china, but they looked fancier than everyday plates. Before we sat down, Mrs. Bakst lit the candles, reciting the prayer and then covering her eyes as I had seen my Nana do years before. Mr. Bakst made the blessings over the wine and challah.  Mrs. Bakst served the first course, chicken soup. “I cook without salt,” she explained as she set the steaming bowl down before me, “because David has high blood pressure. If you want to add it, you can.” I nodded and thanked her. “I don’t think it needs it,” David said. “It’s better without all that salt.” I didn’t add any, though my tastebuds were accustomed to lots of salt. I didn’t know if my mom or dad had high blood pressure, I did know that Mom wasn’t shy about including salt to her recipes – especially chicken soup. I was impressed that Mr. and Mrs. Bakst were so disciplined about his diet. Diet and discipline weren’t connected in my family.

            Everyone took a slice of challah. I looked around the table for butter or margarine and saw none. It was dawning on me that the Baksts kept Kosher. Gary had probably mentioned that to me, but his eating habits at college didn’t strike me as all that different from my own. I didn’t have milk with meat either (though I had been known to have a cheeseburger now and again). I didn’t yet realize that there was much more to it than that. I was about to learn quite a bit more  – much to my chagrin.

            We finished dinner. I got up to help remove the dishes.  When I stood, I was horrified to see that there were two pink smudge marks on the tablecloth where my elbows had rested. I was wearing a burgundy chenille sweater. It had not occurred to me that the color would run on to Mrs. Bakst’s pristine cloth. I think my face turned the color of my shirt.  I briefly thought about whether to say something or to try to cover it with my napkin.  “Mrs. Bakst,” I stammered, “I’m so sorry, but my sweater….look.” She looked, “Don’t worry. It will come out when I wash it.” “Are you sure?” Among the many things I knew nothing about at 20 years of age was how to get stains out. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. I made a mental note to tell Gary to let me know if it didn’t come out so I could buy a replacement. Oy. I wasn’t making the impression I hoped.

            After clearing the table, we returned to sit and continue chatting. After a bit, Mrs. Bakst offered tea and suggested serving the pie. Though, we had talked about refrigerating it earlier, we had not specifically gone over its ingredients. I realized there might be a problem. I explained to her that there was cream cheese in the mixture. Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred and decided that we had waited long enough after dinner to have it. According to the laws of Kashruth, I would later learn, you wait a certain number of hours before consuming dairy after meat. Not everyone observes the letter of the law. I felt badly that I had put them in that position. But, it was going to get worse.

            Mrs. Bakst removed the pie from the refrigerator, and I noticed her looking at it carefully. She was reading the label from the pre-made shell which was still affixed to the plastic cover of the pie. “is it okay?,” I asked.

“I am looking to see if the crust is kosher,” Paula explained.

I didn’t know that a crust could be unkosher. I had not yet learned that food products came with symbols to indicate whether they were rabbinically supervised and if it contained meat, dairy or was pareve (contained no ingredients that were meat or dairy and could be eaten with either). If the crust included animal fat it could indeed be unkosher. Given that there was no symbol on the label, it was likely that it wasn’t kosher.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. If you don’t want to have it, I understand. I can just take it home.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred again.They decided we would have it on paper plates with plastic utensils. I felt embarrassed.

            As I drove my father’s car back to our house in Canarsie, I reflected on the evening. How many things could I get wrong? The remains of the unkosher pie sat on the passenger seat. I knew it would get eaten in my house. Though I was born Jewish, there was a lot I didn’t know. And my lack of manners was on full display! Not only were my elbows on the table, but they had stained Gary’s mother’s linen tablecloth! Hopefully the smudges would come out. I hoped Mr. and Mrs. Bakst saw some of my positive attributes – I did help clear the table….

            Writing this 43 years after the fact, I am mostly amused by my ignorance. At the time I wondered if it would be a fatal flaw in the eyes of either Gary or his parents. Obviously, it wasn’t, but I had some work to do, including understanding how Gary felt about Judaism’s rituals and practices and whether I wanted to integrate them into my life.

Gary and I survived my inauspicious debut with his parents. Five months later we were graduating from SUNY-Binghamton 1980

Successfully Replenished

Thank you to all who responded to last week’s post. Many of you shared, here on the blog or on Facebook, what you do to de-stress and refill yourself. So many good ideas were offered: physical activities (for example, bicycling and yoga are two that stay with me), talking to family and friends, sleep (of course we need to be rested!), cuddling with animals, grandchildren or spouses (not necessarily in that order) and crafting were some of the many suggestions. I am grateful to have more tools to call upon, though I know some are not a good fit for me.

Some crafts would be stressful. Anything that requires patience and fine motor skills is just going to frustrate me. Sewing, knitting and the like, which I have tried, are definitely not for me. I respect those who are creative in that way. I appreciate the product, but the process would make me crazy. While painting and drawing may be done more successfully if you have excellent fine motor skills, I think they can be done without that. Watercolors appeal to me. I may be signing up for a class or looking for some Youtube videos in the near future.

The idea of talking to friends or family is interesting. I definitely benefit from venting sometimes or from processing an issue with someone I love and trust (most often that would be Gary or Merle, though I have called upon others), but sometimes talking is the last thing I want to do.

Though no one mentioned this idea in the comments, we spent time with friends this past weekend who turn to their faith. I am quite sure they are not alone in calling upon God or whatever higher power one believes in. I think many pray for guidance and find it helpful. I believe our friends, in times of stress, call upon their pastor. I have heard and read of folks who believe that through prayer or reading the bible they received guidance through a sign or a peaceful feeling coming over them. I have not had that experience. Prayer is one of those things about which I have contradictory impulses. Intellectually I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I don’t judge anyone who does, in fact I envy them their faith. On the other hand, when I am most challenged, I find myself praying. Maybe it is like that saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ When my father was dying, I must have silently asked for strength to get through it, for the wisdom to know the right things to do for him and for mercy on him so he didn’t suffer, ten times a day, at least. I can’t say doing it comforted me or refilled me, not consciously anyway. But I did it, so maybe it served some purpose. Or maybe it was a form of meditation that centered me. At the time I believed that the best way to comfort myself was to sit by the ocean for ten minutes (it was a few minutes drive from the hospital) or taking a walk in the bird sanctuary that was also nearby. Either way, I did find my way through it.

This past weekend, spent with friends from medical school, was replenishing. Though their life experience is so different from Gary and mine, and their faith is so strong and central to their lives in stark contrast to ours, we have lots of common ground. We were in Cooperstown, New York which is a lovely, charming town and home to the baseball hall of fame. It also has a large lake, named Glimmerglass for a reason. A museum (not an art museum, but a museum nonetheless) and nature – two of my favorite things. Plus laughter, friendship and good food. Now back to real life, a bit tired, but refreshed.

Some scenes from our visit:

To whoever planted that field of sunflowers – thank you! We came upon it as we drove out of Cooperstown on our way to the AirBnB and we had to pull over to take it in.

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.

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.

Healing

Healing is on my mind. I thought Joe Biden struck the right tone in his speech Saturday night. He appealed to Americans to stop looking at each other as the enemy if we belong to a different political party. Easier said than done, though.

Is healing a bridge too far?

I am fortunate in that I don’t have a lot of experience in needing to heal relationships. I have never been estranged from my parents or brothers, or aunts, uncles or cousins. At least not that I am aware. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been ebbs and flows, or hurt feelings here and there, but never a breach in the relationship. The one significant friendship that was broken happened when I was in elementary school. I learned a lot from that experience. I think about it today because though it was a personal relationship, I think it bears on the challenge that faces our country.

I wrote about this incident previously on this blog (here). I was playing with my good friend in the alley between our houses when other kids from the block showed up and started taunting her. Rather than defend her or take her into my house to escape, I joined in. I’m still horrified by having done that, but I can’t deny it. I felt terrible and after some time passed, I apologized to her. She accepted my apology and we went back to being friends and remain so to do this day – more than 50 years later. I can’t speak from her perspective, but I have thought about why we were able to overcome my betrayal.

I did offer a genuine apology. I knew I was wrong, and I think I owned that. Whether she truly accepted my apology immediately, or whether she decided to give me second chance to see if she could trust me, I can’t say. Either way, her willingness to do that was huge. Many people would not be able to move on from that hurt. I don’t know if over the years I have disappointed her, but I do know that she has remained in my heart even when we don’t see each other for long periods of time (she lives on Long Island, while I am in upstate New York). When we do speak or get together, we pick up right where we left off.

What does this have to do with our country? I’m doubtful that the conditions that allowed us to repair our relationship are in place, despite Joe Biden’s appeal to our better angels. Will anyone take responsibility for the wrongs they have done? I’m not painting myself as a hero, but there is risk in apologizing. I needed to accept that I had done wrong, and I needed to take the chance that she would reject me and we both had to give each other time to rebuild the trust. Is either political party up to the task?

Democrats have participated in gerrymandering and their rhetoric has been extreme at times. Democratic candidates have been guilty of putting the desire for power over good policy choices. I think the Clintons, in particular, were guilty of that. Will they own it? Will any prominent Democrat acknowledge their responsibility?

From where I sit, though, I believe the Republicans have more to apologize for. In allowing Trump to behave as he has, in turning a blind eye to his (and his family’s) corruption, in not rejecting his hate speech, they have a lot to answer for. And, actually, going back to Newt Gingrich, who ushered in (I believe) this culture of scorched earth politics, is any Republican willing to disavow that approach. Will anyone apologize to Merrick Garland, or more importantly, the American people?

It seems to me that Biden was suggesting that we put all of this behind us and start anew – rather than reckoning with the damage. For healing to happen, though, I don’t believe you can just sweep it all under the rug. Maybe, in truth, he isn’t suggesting that we heal, but rather just move on.

I think healing would be far healthier, if we can do it. We have never faced our divisions or confronted the wrongs – we still haven’t reckoned with the Civil War for crying out loud. It is a huge undertaking but if we don’t do it, will we inevitably face another one?

The path forward requires that those who have done wrong to publicly acknowledge it. And by wrong, I am not talking about policy mistakes. We can debate immigration or economic policy (though putting children in cages is more than just a policy mistake). I am referring to processes – the systematic hoarding of power, the disrespect shown to adversaries, the corrupting influence of money and the spreading of lies. The fact that these things have been done has to be admitted.

If Democrats and Republicans take that first step of taking responsibility, then they will have to take another difficult step. They will have to give each other another chance.

I’m not sure anyone is ready to take either of those steps. It won’t be enough if it is only Joe Biden who does. We need more Democrats and we need a lot of Republicans to step up. With Trump at the helm, and still denying defeat, it seems unlikely. I have no expectation that Trump himself is capable of taking responsibility, but if those Republicans who remain in leadership positions don’t do it, I don’t know how we make progress.

While I am very relieved that Biden and Harris won, and I want to be hopeful, the challenge before us is daunting.

‘Love the One You’re With’??

Recently I watched a four-episode series on Netflix called Unorthodox. It told the story of a young woman who left (escaped might be a better word) her Hasidic family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin. Aside from being a compelling story, I found one scene particularly poignant and it resonated with me. It wasn’t my experience, but I could certainly relate to an aspect of it.

In a flashback scene, in preparation for her wedding, Esty is counseled about marital relations. All of the information is totally new to her. The woman guiding her explains how intercourse works. Esty looks at the woman in disbelief, saying that she had only one hole. She was sent into the bathroom with a hand mirror to examine herself. I was not nearly so ignorant, between my mother, books and school, I knew the facts, but I didn’t really know my body. It never occurred to me to look.

I was eleven years old when I got my period for the first time; younger than most of my peers. It didn’t terrify me; I knew what to expect. My mother had informed me, and I had read about the changes that were coming to my body. Despite that preparation, I still wasn’t ready to deal with it.

I understood that by beginning to menstruate I could become pregnant and have a baby. That idea seemed so crazy. I wasn’t even a teenager myself yet. I knew the basic biology of how that could happen, but it still seemed inconceivable, not to mention unappealing. At that age I knew I was interested in boys but not in a sexual way. I knew based on the fact that all of my crushes on stars, for me more likely to be athletes than actors or musicians, were male. I hoped that eventually there would be a boy that was interested in me, but that was the subject of fantasy, not real life and had nothing to do with sex. It seemed incongruous to have a body physically ready for something so momentous but to be so emotionally and mentally immature. I wondered why we were designed that way.

The message I received about sex from my parents was straight forward: wait until you’re married. Sex wasn’t presented as something dirty or shameful, but it was understood to be part of an intimate, committed relationship – which to my mom and dad meant being married. Not much else was said about it. My mother, to this day, describes herself as a prude. I can’t say whether she is or was, I can say that it was not something treated lightly by Mom or Dad. Off-color jokes were not part of our humor. I remember being surprised years later when I sat at my fiancé’s family’s dining room table and his brother made a ‘dirty’ joke. His parents, even his mother, laughed heartily. I wondered if my mother would have gotten the punchline.

While I was receiving my parents’ message about the seriousness and responsibility of having sex, society at large was changing. The moral code my parents offered was challenged by what I was seeing – love-ins, Woodstock, the women’s movement suggested that there were other ways to look at sex. It was confusing.

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Woodstock 1969

I became good friends with a girl in high school who had a different perspective about sex. I remember us having a conversation when we were in college about whether it was more intimate to have sex with someone or to reveal your fears or insecurities to that person. We looked at it differently. I remember saying to her that sleeping with a guy was the ultimate act of intimacy to me. She didn’t feel that way. She could be more casual about sex than she could about being vulnerable about her feelings.

Though I didn’t believe that sex should only happen in the context of marriage or only for procreating, I also didn’t think it should be treated as lightly as our other urges, like eating or drinking. I did internalize the values that my parents communicated:  that it should be part of a loving, committed relationship, it just didn’t need to be officially sanctioned by law or ceremony. I thought about my friend’s perspective, and the freer standards of the 1960s, but it didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t be casual in that way.

I think my parents were good role models. Maybe I would have benefitted from more humor about it, a more relaxed attitude. But I can’t complain. I got a solid foundation. Dad showed respect for women. I never saw him ogle one when we were out and about. He never flirted with a waitress at a restaurant. I didn’t know men did that until I was an adult. To my knowledge he didn’t view porn, the idea of him doing that was preposterous to me. He didn’t subscribe to Playboy; I never saw him in possession of that kind of magazine. I knew those magazines existed – I knew of guys who were devoted ‘readers,’ but Dad was devoted to my mother, as far as I knew.  I respected that about him and wanted that in my own relationship. I was fortunate to find someone who shared those values and we offered those values to our children.

I still think about the idea of ‘love the one you’re with.’ Not with any sense of regret at having chosen the path I did, but wondering what is the healthiest way to view sex? Likely there is not one answer for everyone. Is it the same for men and women, heterosexuals and LGBTQ? Should it be? Are we free and honest enough to talk about it? Maybe the difficulties arise when the individuals involved are on a different page but don’t communicate their feelings. And, maybe that happens more often than we want to admit. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

Reconsidering Hugging and Kissing

NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!

It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.

It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.

The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.

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Roger and me

When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is no surprise. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face turn bright red. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?

As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?

And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?

How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?