Time Flies

Has a week gone by already? Geez, hard to believe. It must be apparent that I don’t have a blog post ready – I’m winging it this morning. I have had lots of ideas for posts, but haven’t had the time to develop any of them. My time has been taken up, as is often the case, with the drudgery of life, with some added work commitments, my mom’s health issues and associated planning added in to the mix.

I do want to mention one thing, before asking you to bear with me and tune in again next week. Gary and I went to see Lewis Black at the Troy Music Hall Saturday night. If you aren’t familiar with his humor, he is known for his rants. He did a bit about how we are living in a time where people believe that if they think something that is enough to make it true. He took it to an absurd extreme – it involved him feeding kittens with his own breast milk –  I laughed so hard I nearly peed myself (thankfully I didn’t). It was cleansing to laugh at the craziness of the world we live in. Especially since the crazy is reaching epic levels. But, I won’t go there on this sunny Monday morning. Plus I have too much to get done – aforementioned work assignment, get my car’s oil changed, finish laundry, pack for some travel, pay bills…..you get the idea. Hard to know what to do first!

I hope during the coming week I will have time to get some real writing done. It may be a challenge, but I am hopeful. Please stay tuned.

Wishing us all a reprieve from the crazy…..

Flexible or Adrift?

The room is dark, but I hear Gary rolling out of bed. I open my eyes to see him slowly standing, unplugging his phone, and walking stiffly to the bathroom. “Is it time to get up already?” I ask. I squint at the clock, which reads 6:04 a.m. “Yup, but you don’t have to,” he reminds me. “I know,” I say as I turn over and settle back under the blankets, “it just seems too early. Sorry….” I don’t finish the thought.

Gary will go off to work, I will drift back to sleep. I am lucky. Most mornings I don’t have to be up at a specific time. My schedule is my own, except when it isn’t. I find it to be an odd existence. I retired three and a half years ago and I still don’t have a routine. I have a love/hate relationship with this reality.

My life is made up of:

Home-making – I take care of (almost) all the things that go into supporting Gary and my life together. Maintenance of the house, our two cars, paying the bills, shopping, gift-buying, planning travel, preparing meals, laundry, etc. Full disclosure:  I admit that we have a cleaning person come every other week and we do order food in pretty frequently (but I do cook at least 3 times a week). I take care of our cats. It surprises me how much time this all takes. In fairness to Gary, he takes care of outdoor things, and, importantly, makes the coffee every morning.

Consulting – I facilitate school board workshops for NYSSBA and sometimes I do policy projects for them (which involves reviewing and writing policies for school districts). This work is inconsistent. I can have a number of assignments in a row, particularly in the summer and fall, and then there can be dry periods. It is unpredictable. When I conduct a workshop, it involves several hours of preparation and discussions with the district, and then travel (usually a couple of hours), and the session itself is no less than 3.5 hours. The policy projects are more time consuming, usually taking the equivalent of a week of full time work.

Babysitting – Sometimes I am asked to watch our granddaughter, which is no hardship! I love spending time with that cutie pie, who is now almost 8 months old. Sometimes the request has come at the last minute, other times it is planned well in advance. I want to be flexible so that I can be there when they need me. Occasionally I help out with my cousin’s child who is now three years old.

Writing/Reading/Researching – I try to spend time writing most days, but this is the first thing to get pushed aside when other things get in the way. I participate in three writing groups which each meet once a month. I also spend time doing research on the things I write about in my blog. I’ve spent a lot of time researching Brooklyn in the 1960s and ‘70s, public education and the Holocaust. I can get lost in the rabbit hole of research. I’m also a devoted reader, both for pleasure and in order to develop my writing.

Visiting/overseeing my mother’s health care – My mom now lives in an independent senior community in New Jersey. I don’t visit as often as I’d like (or as often as she would like). Sometimes this involves only making phone calls and reviewing lab results. Other times I accompany her on doctor’s visits. I make it a priority to go to appointments that aren’t strictly routine.

Working out/jogging/biking – I try to maintain some level of physical activity. Three or four days a week, depending on the weather, I go to the Jewish Community Center to use the treadmill or if it isn’t brutally cold or raining/sleeting/snowing, I walk or jog at the nearby SUNY campus or take a ride on my bike.

Other stuff – Occasionally I play tennis or have lunch with a friend. Sometimes there are other family things that need attention. Gary and I aren’t hugely active socially, but we do make plans with friends and family and I make those arrangements. I’ve also been known to go out to protest or march in support of Planned Parenthood or other causes near and dear to my heart.

Looking at this list, it seems simple enough, and not terribly demanding. As long as everyone is healthy, it isn’t stressful. But, it doesn’t lend itself to creating a structure for my day. Some days I love that – the freedom of it, that I don’t have to report to anyone. Other days, though, I feel lost, adrift.  I wonder: is this enough? Am I being productive?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. I spent some time reading a speech he gave in 1965 at Oberlin College’s commencement. [I vicariously take pride in crediting Oberlin as the site of the speech because our daughter went there.] It was so inspiring! I also finished John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra. They lived big lives, momentous lives. I’m not comparing the two, just pointing out that each, in their own way, tried to accomplish so much. They participated in large movements working for change. Not everyone leads such a big life. I wonder, though, if I have done enough. Have I tried hard enough to make a difference?

As I think about it, maybe these are two separate issues. Am I doing enough? vs. Do I need more structure in my life? But they feel related. When I’m feeling lost or stuck, I can’t sort out the source.

How would I go about adding more structure? If I take on more responsibilities, let’s say a commitment to volunteer certain hours each week, then I lose the flexibility I wanted when I retired. I want to be available to help my kids, family or friends when they need it. I want to be a writer, which doesn’t require structure (unless you’re getting paid for it, which I am not, though there is always hope!). Of course, I could create my own structure. But that requires a discipline I don’t seem to have. Argghhh!

As far as the question, am I doing enough? I struggle with that. When I was a child I imagined a bigger life. My dreams, and I’ve written about this before, were to be Barbara Walters (at the time a prominent broadcast journalist) or someone who solves world problems. I was even voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in high school which gave credence to those dreams. Things haven’t played out that way, though, I have more success than I could have hoped for. I’ve been married to the same great guy for over 35 years. I am blessed with healthy, happy children. I have a wonderful extended family and good friends. We have a standard of living that I didn’t think was a possibility. I think my work has contributed positively. But have I done enough? Can I make peace with the size of my life? Anyone else out there think about that? Or, maybe it’s hubris on my part.

I can go round and round on this, so I’ll just stop now. If you have any insights or suggestions, feel free to share! Meanwhile, I’ll keep muddling through.

fullsizeoutput_c51
One of the places I like to go when I feel adrift – Central Park.

A Look Back at 2018

This is my 52nd blog post of the year. I took a look back at 2018. It is New Year’s Eve day, a good time to reflect. Since, unlike our president, I want to be accurate, I will be honest and report that among those 52 posts there were 5 ‘placeholder’ entries, where I didn’t write a full piece. There were also 3 guest essays; thank you, Gary and Laura.

Reviewing the blog posts reminded me of the journey of the year. I wrote 13 pieces that traced the story of my in-law’s, Paula and David, survival through the Holocaust. The visits with them, the viewing of their Shoah testimonies the research that informed those pieces were enriching, challenging and, ultimately, life-affirming. There may be more to tell. I continue to research and think about their experiences and what they mean to me and my family. I will continue to share on the blog as it develops.

I shared personal concerns – about mental health, relationships and politics. Hopefully readers were moved or enlightened or entertained – maybe even all three (if that isn’t too ambitious)!

I posted photos of some of my travels. I am so fortunate to have been able to see some magnificent places, whether it was the Amalfi Coast or Central Park or my own backyard. Here are some photos I haven’t previously shared, of Boston, NYC, Central Park, and Five Rivers (an area not far from my house).

In prior years I have written more about growing up in Canarsie, though I did write some essays this year that explored that territory.  In three entries I wrote about the trials and tribulations of navigating friendships while growing up.

I started the journey of this blog in May of 2016. Time flies. It is unbelievable to me that I have been doing this for 2 and 1/2 years! That’s a lot of words! And, I’m still finding my way. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing with this. Maybe 2019 will be the year that I have my ‘aha!’ moment and I will know where I am going with this project. Maybe I will find out that I have known all along – it is what it is. A series of essays:  memoir, family history, exploration of relationships, travelogue, political commentary, observations and, once in a while, a poem. Maybe that will feel like enough, but I’m not there yet. I am still searching. I hope you, my friends, family and all readers are enjoying it so far. And, if you are, please consider sharing it with others you think would be interested. I so appreciate those of you who have done that by sharing links on your social media platforms. I also welcome your comments, they enrich the blog and add to the conversation. Keep them coming!

As we close out 2018, I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, filled with meaningful connections, love and laughter with friends and family, learning, and, most of all, peace. Thank you for taking the journey with me.

Forgiveness, Not Revenge

Last Monday I came out of the doctor’s office and checked my cell phone and found that I missed a call from my brother, Mark. I got in my car, made sure the Bluetooth was connected, and called him back.

“Hey, I see I missed a call from you. How are you doing?”

“I’m on the Thruway heading to the city.”

We exchanged some pleasantries, and then I asked,

“So, what’s up? Any reason for the call?”

“Well….has Gary seen your blog?” he asked with trepidation.

I chuckled, “Ahh, yes, he was well aware, you don’t have to worry. I wouldn’t blindside him.”

[For those who haven’t read last week’s blog, it recounted a story from many years ago that didn’t reflect too well on Gary.]

“Okay, I’m glad to hear that. I was wondering if you had lost your mind.”

I told Mark that I well may have (lost my mind), but I posted the story with Gary’s full knowledge and support (I’m sure he didn’t love it, but he had no objection). Mark commented on what a special guy Gary is, I agreed, and we said our good-byes.

Though Mark may have been the only one who directly called me to ask if I forewarned Gary, I know others questioned my judgment. Generally, it is considered bad form to air dirty laundry in public. I usually don’t. First, I have little to complain about and second, I don’t like the idea of criticizing my husband to others.

Before embarking on this blogging journey, Gary and I had a number of conversations about the stories I might share and the implications of revealing experiences that might be painful. I spoke to my children, as well. In preparation, I read memoirs and books on writing memoirs. An unavoidable issue is how to present stories that may reflect poorly on a particular person, especially a living person. There are a number of strategies. Sometimes it may be reasonable to change the name, especially when the person isn’t a major character. I have done that in a few instances. I have also used only the first name and if it was someone from my childhood, that person may recognize themselves (if they happen to read the piece), but most people won’t be able to identify the individual.

Sometimes, though, it can’t be covered up and then there is a choice to be made. There are different opinions about how to handle this. Some authors believe you need to be ruthless in writing your truth. I don’t subscribe to that approach. I try to write my truth, but I liked what another author wrote (and if I had access to my notes, which are home and I am in Boston, I would give credit) which suggested writing toward forgiveness, not revenge.

I am fortunate in that I have no need for revenge, my stories don’t involve me being victimized in some terrible way. I am not bitter about my life. Though I would have characterized my childhood as unhappy (I am reconsidering that characterization as I explore it), I am seeking to understand it, not blame anyone for it. My stories are about ordinary struggles, for belonging, acceptance, identity. My life has not included the great dramas of abuse or addiction, or of overcoming odds to achieve greatness (the usual stuff of memoir). But, I think there is merit to telling ordinary stories. I hope that some of the struggles resonate with people.

As I think of stories I want to share, I think about whether there is something to be gained in the telling – for myself and for readers – is there something to learn? Or is it entertaining enough? At one of the first writing workshops I took the teacher pointed out that just because you remember something doesn’t mean it is worth including. I try to keep that in mind.

Another author, writing about memoir, pointed out that someone will always be unhappy with your story. One person may be disappointed in how they were portrayed. Another may be disappointed that they weren’t included enough or at all. So, I know I can’t write to please any particular person.

The people who are most likely to be cast in an unflattering light are my parents and my husband. They are and/or were the ones with the most power to hurt me. I am lucky that my mother (my Dad passed away in 2005) and Gary are tremendously supportive of these efforts even in the face of criticism. Gary tells me to write what I need to write. Mom mostly wants to apologize for any mistakes she may have made. I believe they both know that I can only write what I do because I love and trust them.

If you read last week’s blog and wondered what I was thinking – now you know. I thought there was a lesson to be learned and I had enough confidence in Gary, and in our relationship that it could withstand the public telling. Gary and I are still speaking – so far, so good. It looks like my confidence was well placed.

IMG_0075

A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.

OM9PsGAORzmc7n99EBb6yA

I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.

 

 

A Visit to the Fenimore

I went to see an exhibit, Andrew Wyeth at 100: A Family Remembrance, at the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown earlier this fall. I am a huge fan of Wyeth’s work. I find myself mesmerized by Wyeth’s ability to evoke so much beauty in the most mundane scenes (see below).

I came away from the exhibit with some thoughts about writing. As with many artist exhibitions, studies were included along with the final canvas. There were sketches and paintings that led up to the final work. He also painted the same people and places many times over, capturing small changes in light and shadow. So, I wonder: Can the same apply to writing? Can I write the same experience several times over – picking up different details, emphasizing a different theme? Do we have only one crack at the story? I know there are books and movies where a story is told from different characters’ perspectives, but I am getting at something else. For example, I think I could write my memories of the day of Nana’s death again (maybe more than a few times) and write it differently. But, would it be interesting to readers? Would it just be an exercise for myself?

Obviously, writers return to their muse, or may be inspired to create multiple pieces based on a single experience of heartbreak. But, I’m thinking of trying something different – a more literal translation of what a painter does – what Monet did with his haystacks.

This is a half-baked thought, I will continue to turn it over to see if there is something there for me, to spark some creativity.

There were other exhibits at the Fenimore that I enjoyed. One artist, whose name I did not write down, evoked the interiors of religious shrines by using shards of color that looked like glass. The holy sites became abstractions of color, famous pagodas, mosques and churches were rendered in this way. I wondered if the artist was getting at some essential commonality – at least that it was I took from it.

Another thing I like about going to the Fenimore is that whenever I have visited, there have been different paintings by local artists of local scenery. It is easy to see why folks would be moved to paint the scenery. It is idyllic. Each time I have visited the museum I have walked down the path that leads from the building to Otsego Lake, called ‘glimmerglass’ for a reason. The water reflects the blue sky and lush hills perfectly.  (No, I have not been paid by the museum to write this!).

I left the Fenimore that afternoon struck by how much talent there is in this world – so much creativity – it boggles the mind. It is both intimidating and inspiring.

Another Week Passes in a Flash

Unfortunately I do not have a new blog post ready. It has been a busy week. I took a NYSSBA assignment that brought me to Attica (not the prison), the school district. And, I have two more assignments coming up in short order. I have also been working on a piece to submit to a writing contest that is Brooklyn-themed.

So, it was Monday before I knew it!

If any of you have thoughts about which of my Brooklyn-based blog posts really resonated or you thought was a particularly strong piece, please let me know! I am planning to use some of the prior blog posts as the basis for the piece (which can be 2500 words).

Oh, and one more thing, I did find out that the submission that I wrote about previously was rejected by a literary magazine. I’m oh-for-three. Discouraged, but not defeated.

I’ll be back next week with a new story.