Stories

‘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.

Another Monday in Quarantine

It is Monday again – I know that much. Time is hard to get a handle on, especially these days when each day varies so little from the one before.

For the first time in 14 weeks I don’t have a new blog post ready. I was on a roll! It isn’t surprising that I hit a road block.

A few things got in the way. Though for most of the weeks of this quarantine I have found some inspiration to write, this past week was tougher. I think the cumulative disappointment of celebrations being canceled and vacations postponed, and the general ennui, without an end in sight, was draining. I was feeling unmotivated and tired.

In response to that I decided to change things up a bit. I decided to work on submitting pieces for publication. I put energy into finding magazines accepting submissions and figuring out what essays or poems I have that might be appropriate. I’m not sure why it is important to me to get published, but I have to acknowledge that I want it. Maybe it is just the validation, or maybe it is the idea of reaching a wider audience, but whatever it is, I feel like I need to try. Trying involves doing some research, either writing something new or editing one of my previous blog posts. I wrote about the idea of submitting work two and a half years ago, here, and now I want to try again. Given my limited energy/motivation, that effort took away from producing new work.

Sometimes the blog feels like enough and I wonder why I want more. My numbers aren’t huge, especially when you consider how many views things can get on the Internet. Most of my posts get at least 100 reads in a given week – and that means it is being read by more than just my family and friends! Some have gotten considerably more hits, especially over time. Some of my pieces have been viewed by over 400 readers which is a lot on the one hand, but a paltry amount in the context of the larger blogosphere. But how much is enough? Isn’t that the question we all face in some form or another?

WordPress tells you what country readers are from so I can see that posts have been read on virtually every continent in the world.  I get positive feedback from my readers. too – thank you! My family has been generous in their response and tolerant of my digging around in our shared history. It has engaged us in some interesting conversations. I value that very much.

But, still, there is a voice inside that says I should reach for more. I am listening to that voice for the time being and working on submitting essays for publication. I’ll let you know what happens, but I need to be prepared for rejection. The very first writing workshop I took, almost five years ago, gave me some perspective on this. The poet who led us said that if you got one in ten published, consider yourself successful. I haven’t reached ten submissions yet, but I’m closing in. I am preparing myself mentally to go far beyond that.

As far as the blog goes, I have been working on some new essays. And, I have a few ideas that need cultivating –  so stay tuned and thanks for your patience. I hope this week brings renewed energy to all of us.

 

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?

Winds of Unrest

I hate this relentless wind. When did it become so consistently gusty here in Albany, New York? I thought Chicago was the windy city. Is this a global warming byproduct? Is it my imagination that it is windier? Am I overreacting because the coronavirus quarantine has made me crazy?

I find it unsettling – I hear the howling. I see branches waving wildly. Yesterday, April 21st, after the rain/sleet/snow showers passed, the sun came out, but the wind remained. I needed to get out of the house, so I took a walk. I kept my eyes open for flying debris. I was worried that a garbage can, it was collection day in our neighborhood, would take flight. I wanted to make sure I was ready to take evasive action! I walked quickly, scanning both sides of the street. Garbage cans slid around, a couple tipped over, but none became airborne. I did my walk and made it home without incident. Phew.

I do remember another time I was disturbed by the wind and we weren’t even under a quarantine, so maybe I just have a thing about unpredictable weather. We were vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We had a tradition of going there during the April school break. We met another family and shared a house for ten consecutive years. One year we splurged and rented a beachfront home. It was huge with three floors. The bottom floor had a play room and a bedroom, the middle floor had a master suite and two more bedrooms, and the top floor had the kitchen, a great room with a fireplace, and another master. It was a fabulous home. Unfortunately, it was a stormy week with heavy gray skies and driving rain. The wind screamed through the chimney. I couldn’t relax, especially at night. I was thankful we were in the suite on the second floor – at least the wind’s moaning wasn’t as loud there. In the years that followed we continued to vacation on the Outer Banks, but in a house a few blocks off the beach.

Today, April 22nd, the wind continues to howl. We have several dead trees on our property. Last fall I arranged to have them removed but the person who was going to do it injured his ankle. I didn’t find a replacement, so we postponed the project. None of the trees are that close to the house, but they could damage the pool and fence. Unrelated to the recent weather, I started contacting contractors to do the work – I think it is something that can be done despite the nonessential business shutdown. I met with two contractors today in the middle of the windstorm (we maintained appropriate social distancing). We walked to the area where the work needs to be done, all the while I was listening for the sound of wood cracking, anticipating that a tree could fall. Apparently both contractors shared my concern; they looked around quickly and suggested we go around to the front to talk, there are no trees there. I readily agreed. They didn’t want to be in the shadow of those dead trees any more than I did. I’m saddened by the loss of life, even if it is tree-life. It’s painful but necessary to cut them down. Until they are removed, I have to hope that the wind doesn’t do damage.

There are other healthy trees on our property. We have a giant white pine inside the fence in our backyard (see photos below). It is very much alive. The trunk splits into three parts and each part has many branches. When I look up it seems like it touches the sky. In summers past I have spent time floating in our pool admiring its green, soft needles brushing the bright blue sky. That is the tree that, if it came down in the wrong direction, could do major harm to our house. I love that tree. In this crazy wind, I fear it. I don’t think it is at risk of falling, it looks vibrant and healthy, but you never know. Right now, I have plenty of time to imagine the worst. I watch it suspiciously, looking for hints it might betray us.

Views of our giant white pine on this gray rainy day (4/27)

That appears to be my mood right now; unsettled, uneasy as the air outside. Everything is moving, clouds scudding, spring flowers bowing to the stiff breeze, bushes swaying, the wind chime ringing insistently. Everything is shifting, outside of my control, while I sit at my kitchen counter waiting for calm.

P.S. After several days of wind, it finally subsided. With it my sense of unease lessened too. I was able to get out and take my walks without worrying about flying objects. Even though the post above doesn’t reflect my mood today, I thought it was worth sharing as a glimpse of the ups and downs of this quarantine period. Anxiety, when it comes, seems to be heightened. From what I read and see on social media, I may not be alone in experiencing that. As the coronavirus crisis subsides, hopefully our collective anxiety will too.

What Have I Learned?

NOTE: I want to give a shout out to my brother Steven. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday, Steve! I know your options for celebrating are limited given the pandemic, but I hope it helps to know that we Baksts are celebrating you! Enjoy your day. Now back to the blog….

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, as I frequently do during this time of quarantine. I came across an interesting tweet. Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise and founder of FiveThirtyEight, asked the following poll question: “Okay, which of the following is closest to the mark for you?”

  1. I thought I was an extrovert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m even more of an extrovert than I thought.
  2. I thought I was an extrovert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  3. I thought I was an introvert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  4. I thought I was an introvert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an extrovert than I thought.*

*Results are below

One thing about this strange time we are in, many of us have an opportunity to reflect on this kind of question. This one resonated with me. I wasn’t sure how I would answer it.

I considered whether I am an introvert or extrovert. I recall taking a survey once where I was characterized as an introvert, but with some extrovert qualities. I think that sounds about right. I am certainly introspective, as my blog entries probably make clear. But that isn’t the whole story.

If a person observed me at a meeting at work, they might think I am an extrovert. I was never shy about expressing my opinions to management– sometimes to my detriment. On the other hand, depending on the occasion, if you watched me at a social event, you might see someone struggling to connect. And, before that social event, you would see someone dreading the prospect of making small talk and having to be ‘on.’ But, you wouldn’t actually see that, would you? You wouldn’t see what was going on internally. You might look over and see me laughing and think “she looks pretty comfortable.” I’ve been told I have a hearty laugh and that may lead you to conclude I’m an extrovert. That isn’t how it feels to me, though.

When I was in graduate school, I became close friends with a fellow student, Sally. She once commented, “You’re so bubbly,” or something to that effect. I had never thought that was an adjective that would be used to describe me. Sally was quite reserved. When we finished school, coincidentally we took jobs in the same office. We would attend meetings and I marveled at how she kept a perfect poker face. I could not tell what she was thinking. I’m not sure if it was a cultural thing, her personality, a concerted effort on her part or a combination of all of that, but she did not readily show her emotions. I did, I can’t help myself. I’m either nodding along with what the speaker is saying or shaking my head in disagreement. From Sally’s vantage point, I may have been bubbly, but that also may have been relative to her own nature.

Some of what I struggle with in answering Nate Silver’s poll question is the difference between how others might perceive me versus how I see myself.

Another part of the problem in answering the question is defining what it means to be an introvert or extrovert. One way to think of it is to ask whether you prefer solitary pursuits or group activities. I would fall into neither category – my preference would be to do something with one or two people – does that constitute a group? I enjoy alone time, but I need social connection, too. I prefer that to happen in small gatherings, though.

Another way to look at the definition is whether you are a person energized by spending time with people or if that leaves you exhausted. I definitely need solitude to recharge. Again, I can enjoy a party, but only up to a point. Then I want to gracefully exit and be quiet. I am rarely the last to leave, even if it is my own house! I might escape for a walk or go up to my room for a few moments of peace. I am definitely not energized when it is over.

When this shut down first started, I admit feeling relieved. In the beginning it wasn’t dramatically different from my regular life. Since retiring five years ago, I spend a lot of my time reading and writing. One thing I have often struggled with is competing impulses. On the one hand, I like my solitude; on the other, I have a fear of missing out. I wanted to be part of the social whirl, to be part of the in crowd. But, then I didn’t, it exhausted me. When this enforced social distancing began, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wonder when this is over if I will go back to fighting with myself, or if I will have reached peace.

So, what has this quarantine experience taught me about whether I am introvert or extrovert? My answer is not found in the choices Nate Silver offered. Instead, I would submit the following: I thought I was an introvert, and I am. But, I need social connection more than I was willing to admit and I need changes of scenery. For the time being I am satisfied by the social connection provided by technology. Visiting via FaceTime or another of the video platforms works pretty well for me. It doesn’t, however, fulfill my desire to hug my children and grandchild.

My craving for a change in scenery has been a revelation. This may not be exactly relevant to where on the continuum of introversion to extroversion I fall, but it is an understanding I’ve reached since spending so much time in my house. I love my house, but enough already! Even more than seeing people, I crave a day trip to somewhere, anywhere! And not just a ride in the car, or a drive to take a hike along a waterway. I want to go to another town, try a new restaurant, go to a museum or movie, wander the streets of New York or Boston. I took those possibilities for granted before – the freedom to get in the car or hop on Amtrak to go somewhere. The only thing I miss more than that freedom is hanging out with my children and granddaughter.

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The view out my kitchen window. I know I am lucky to have something so lovely, but I still need a change of scenery!

*Here are the results of Nate Silver’s unscientific poll:

Extrovert, extrovert    10.3%

Extrovert, introvert     12.7%

Introvert, introvert     51.1%

Introvert, extrovert     26%

Just under 40% have learned something different about themselves. It is interesting that such a large percentage said they were introverts. This is not a randomized sample. It may reflect that people who follow Silver’s twitter feed are more likely to be nerds (guilty! Sort of). But the results also suggest that a number of folks (26%) are figuring out that they have more of a need to be with people than they previously thought. Maybe that’s a good thing.

How would you have answered the poll question?  Have you had any surprises about yourself as a result of spending so much time home?

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I miss New York City! Hoping we can go back soon!

I Am Angry

I am angry. I need to say it.

As I think about it, I am angry on a number of levels. First and foremost, I am furious at our president. Though I recognize that he is not responsible for the virus, he is exactly the wrong person to be leading us through this crisis. Let me count the ways:

  1. He is impulsive. Not a good quality in a crisis.
  2. He is unwilling to follow the experts or the data or the science. When asked what metrics he would use to decide when to open the economy, he pointed to his temple – his head!!! “It’s all in here,” he said. I can only shake mine.
  3. He is vindictive. He doles out aid and supplies to his political allies, or those who pay him compliments. I give Andrew Cuomo credit for being able to play that game – at least to some extent. It must be infuriating to deal with someone so juvenile and thin-skinned.
  4. He is a terrible role-model in every sense – from not following the CDC’s advice in his behavior and actions, to his shameless lying. I listened to his first major press conference where he announced that there would be a nationwide website we could consult to find out where to get tested; and that testing sites would be set up in parking lots of Wal-Mart and Target. All of that sounded good – and presidential. I was pleasantly surprised. Sadly, it was all lies; or if not outright lies, he was willfully misleading us.
  5. He never acknowledges when he is wrong or apologizes for lying or saying hurtful, insulting things.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I am angry that 43% of Americans still seem to approve of his performance.

I am angry that he will likely not be held accountable for any of this. His unwillingness to acknowledge the potential for pandemic months ago cost thousands of lives. I know others share responsibility, but he is the president! And, despite all of this, he could still be re-elected!

I am angry that he and his administration have rewritten the role of the federal government  – and the Republican party has stood by and watched (or tacitly supported it). The federal government is there to take on problems that extend beyond states’ borders. We can argue about when that comes into play, and we can differ on any number of policies. But, how is this virus different than an attack from a foreign enemy? A pandemic is a threat to our national security and safety. How can it be left to individual states to manage? The virus does not recognize state borders. It also pits states against each other. What is the point of being the United States of America if this is how we are going to operate?

I am angry because I feel powerless. I know the strategies one should employ when feeling powerless, but they are inadequate right now. And, given that I am hunkered down in my house, there are limitations.

I am angry because I have few useful skills for this situation. I don’t know how to sew so I can’t make masks. I don’t have the patience for sewing, knitting or crocheting, and I don’t own a sewing machine, so watching YouTube videos isn’t an option. I don’t have a factory that I can repurpose. I have no health care training. I wonder: what can I contribute? I am trying to be a good citizen by staying home.

I am also angry at myself because I realize that I have been selfish. Though I have been in mourning since Trump was elected, I have largely gone about my life, allowing the injustices that have been perpetrated (the separation of families at the border, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the treatment of immigrants generally, the increased threats to our environment, etc.) to pile up, but then roll off me. Maybe it was a matter of self-preservation, letting things go that you feel you can’t change. But now, with CoVid-19, even I can’t escape it. My privilege doesn’t protect me. It makes life easier – my quarantine is way more comfortable than most – but my life has been upended and I worry about family and friends being safe, healthy and able to withstand the economic impact of this calamity. Only now is my anger stirred to this level. How selfish is that?

It’s a lot of anger to be carrying around. I know the drill – do the things I can. Do good deeds for others. Focus on constructive actions – take care of my health, eat well, exercise. Stay connected to the people I love. Look to the helpers for inspiration, and there are many. There are many people stepping up to do good things (I love John Krasinski’s videos), courageous things (going to work at the risk of getting ill is courageous). All of that helps to quell the anger, until it boils up again and I need to vent. Thanks for listening.

Revelations

One of the things I have done during this period of quarantine is watch a variety of videos: music, movies, t.v. shows. Some are homemade that pop up on my Facebook or Twitter feed; others have been made available by professional artists or companies. All of them provide a welcome diversion. I received a link to one such performance from my daughter Leah. She knows I am a fan of the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe and they released Revelations, which was filmed at Lincoln Center in 2015, so that it could be viewed for free. [Note: The link she provided is no longer active. Apparently, Alvin Ailey has created a free All Access streaming service that rotates programming. Here is the link. Hopefully they will offer Revelations again. Their other works are well worth viewing, too.]

Watching the piece brought back memories. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in the early 1970s. It was a powerful experience

Aunt Clair, who I wrote about here, invited me to join her to see Alvin Ailey at City Center. I was excited. I was a fan of dance as an art form. During my teen years Mom and her sister (Aunt Simma) had a subscription to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). They took their daughters, me and my cousin Laurie, to three or four performances each season. The four of us would meet for lunch beforehand and then go watch the ballet. I loved those afternoons. Although I could not imagine myself as a dancer, I was moved by the athleticism, grace and strength displayed. Sometimes the music was even more beautiful than the choreography. Taken together, the music and dance were breathtaking. Some might find classical ballet boring, but it was rare for me to think the piece dragged. Most often I was captivated by the expressiveness of the human form – sometimes it told a story, but sometimes it was just raw emotion.

Alvin Ailey would be a different experience on several levels. We were going at night; not to a matinee. That meant being into the city after dark, which brought a different energy. Plus, it was the holiday season so Manhattan would be more lit up than usual. I didn’t know what to expect from the dance itself, but I did know that Alvin Ailey was not the classic approach offered by NYCB.

It also meant getting dressed for an evening at the theater and going into ‘the city.’ Though I lived in Brooklyn, which is in fact part of New York City, we didn’t think of it as the city. When we went to Manhattan, we said “We’re going to the city.”  I  also would be spending time with my Dad’s sister, my adventurous, independent and always interesting Aunt Clair.

Though I did not ordinarily focus on my wardrobe, this was an exception. For one thing, I was feeling a bit better about my body. For a brief time during high school, after having some success at Weight Watchers and staying quite active (I played basketball on my high school team), I was in reasonably good shape. Mom and I bought some clothes that I felt good in.

I chose my high-waisted, plaid, bell-bottom slacks. They were red and black with a thread of yellow, quite stylish at the time. I put on a black turtleneck sweater. I had to decide whether to tuck the top in or wear it out. I modeled for my mom and she suggested I go upstairs and ask Uncle Terry what he thought. Maybe Dad wasn’t home at the time. I was nervous as I climbed the stairs. Uncle Terry gave me a thumbs up for either way. If I tucked it in, I felt like it emphasized my chest. I wore the sweater out. Though I felt more comfortable in my body, I wasn’t ready to make that statement.

It was winter and holiday lights made the theater district even more festive than usual. I don’t recall how I got to the city – if Aunt Clair picked me up or if my Dad drove me in. I know I would not have taken the subway by myself. At that time, taking the LL in the evening alone was simply not an option – too dangerous.  Either way, Aunt Clair and I arrived at the theater and found our seats along with several thousand others. The theater was packed. Our seats were in the center in the lower balcony – perfect to see the whole stage, the dancers’ full bodies and the patterns they formed.

We saw three pieces: Blues Suite, Cry and, the finale, Revelations. I was enthralled by each one in turn. The program took us through the range of human emotion, from despair to joy, from anger to triumph. The audience was totally immersed in the ride. Revelations uses spirituals as its spine and the theater felt like what I imagine to be a revival meeting in a black church. Being a white, Jewish person, I had no point of reference for this, but I loved it. The heart of the dance was universal, showing us the human spirit in all its dimensions, but calling upon the specific experience of African-Americans. When the performance concluded, the audience, which represented a cross-section of New Yorkers, kept clapping, stomping and singing – even when the lights came up. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted to break the joyous spell. Eventually, after many minutes, people started to make their way toward the exits. Aunt Clair and I were exhilarated.

I have returned to see Alvin Ailey many times since. Though not all performances elicited the excitement of that first one, I have always been moved and grateful for the opportunity to see so much talent. I come away amazed at what the human form can communicate. Once we get through this period of social distancing, I can’t imagine a more perfect choice of performances to see than Revelations. If you have an opportunity to see it live, take it.

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And, thank you, Aunt Clair for opening my eyes to what dance and theater could be.