Life Boat

A friend who is in the process of divorce recently went to an art and meditation workshop. She told me it was amazing, but I think I heard transformative. I have been one of her confidantes and, myself a survivor of that often complex and painful process of divorce, recognize the sometimes desperate measures we take in order to find help in coping, help in finding peace and hope and the strength to go on. When she sent me a picture of the piece she had created that day, it took my breath away. It is titled “My Lifeboat Carrying Me Over the Waves of Friendship”


The first thing I noticed was the small, delicate life boat, feminine with its pink and exposed interior where a heart is central and alive. The heart, with its floral image, is open and suggests a flower in full bloom whose petals quiver in their offering of an earnest yearning for appreciation and adoration; this heart can love and needs to be loved, again. Flowers are after all the delicate and colorful, often fragrant creations we offer in love and in friendship, perhaps also in grief and in encouragement. Sometimes its good to offer them to ourselves. Thank you, me. It’s ok, me. There’s hope, me. There is beauty all around, and here’s a flower to remind you while you journey through your tunnel, and guess what? The flower is within you.

It’s difficult not to notice the large, broken heart in its regal gold, torn down the middle in unforgiving jaggedness. Your representation of the severing of what was once central and perhaps on a pedestal where you did not belong any more, is harsh and honest. It’s off to the side, drifting downriver, but it’s big and bold and still holds a beckoning shimmer because it is the only way you knew, the way which is no more. It will take its time before this institution is carried off to sea, far away from the new shores you now can call your own. But be patient, I want to say, its centrality will eventually shift, and in time, even this monumental structure, the one you once treasured to be part of and to support, will lessen its hold on your ability to dream, to leap, to recreate and renew. With less pain and less guilt.

My eyes then wander upstream, where the rounded and generous heart-waves, large and tiny, colorful and subdued, line your path, ever-ready to embrace you, support you and encourage you to seek your truth. These hearts are your children, your family and your friends; they are visible to you and you can count on them along your voyage up the stream. The banks along this shifting, moving body of water – waters sometimes overwhelming to maneuver while other times calmly manageable – are lush and vibrant, green and red, because when you can or are ready to moor and steady your feet on solid ground again, that place will be there for you with love and life.

Finally, I notice the intricate and lacy golden corner, the patch that speaks of fragments and arabesques, peripheral for now, but who says it will stay there, separate, forever? Intertwined and flowing, this golden element speaks of a different truth, a place that is in your awareness, over there – still removed – but at times clear to you as the day. And perhaps beckoning you from time to time in your late night hours of courageous dreams, because there it is, waiting for you when you are ready. That place can be golden as well, and make sure to embrace it in its meandering and intricate chaos, for that too, can be a soothing place. Take your time.

The path will not be straight, we know, and the time may not sequential; there will be storms and freezing rain, but along the way, as you ride the waves in your life boat, your heart exposed and open, you can rest assured that in one way or another, we are all riding in this boat with you, for we are human together, and your pain and joy is ours.

Red: The Color of Change, Passion and Life

Update on my watch color dilemma: After much deliberation and agony carefully deciding between purple, orange or lime green (you may have read about my colorful and emotional associations in my last blog, Seeing Time in Colors: On Turning 50,  and you might think I was forced to choose between eternal emotional stress or institutionalization – both real options I must refuse) – I am glad to report that I am the proud owner of a sleek, bold RED watch. I am still in shock.

What happened? The fools sent me the WRONG one! No, actually, I must have clicked on the “wrong” button as I feverishly, finally, had made my decision, and in this fervor, my subconscious must have laughed out loud and navigated my fingertip a nano-inch to the right. Or left. No matter, red it is. And it looks and feels great!

And I have a theory as to why I am now walking around happily strutting my RED watch, steeling furtive glances in its general direction even when I know what time it is. Dang, it’s good looking. And it has no baggage of my ponderous color obsessions! That’s the theory. I know, I’m not prone to the scientific method, but it does seem beyond coincidence that in the deepest, instinctive part of my kishkes I knew it as a matter of survival and I had to choose a different color all together. Get rid of the baggage! It’s the New Year, for heaven sakes!

It stand on its own; it is bright, assertive, sexy, and packs a punch: pow-wow! Like a wallop of love that’s meant to be, of lust, of romance, of the stuff that pumps energy into life. I can live with that.

Now, when I begin to feel a little shvach or weak during the Yom Kippur fast next week, I can simply glance down on my vibrant, life-affirming watch and get the koach (strength) to make it to the end.

And then new life can begin again; a fresh start as we enter the year 5776!


(Oh, and if you wonder, it was orange that lost it to red.)

Seeing Time in Colors: On Turning 50

There it is, I’m turning 50 in a few days. That’s a lot of years to have lived a mostly blessed life, and, although a recent FB test I’d like to curse claims I will only live to 65 – or was it 67?– I plan and hope to be just about half way through my life’s journey. Perhaps it’s myself I should blame for having been suckered into taking the stupid “How Old Will You Get?” quiz and not the quiz itself. Hmm.

When I turned 40, I celebrated with a huge birthday bash: a sit-down dinner for 40 marvelous girlfriends, a super-long beautifully decorated table set up in our cleared-out living room for the occasion. The evening was not just grand, but meaningful as well. In addition to a constant flow of the then newly popular pink libation known as Cosmopolitan, bar tendered and generously poured by my at the time husband and his at the time best friend – the only males present aside from my 3 sons – it was the flowing of all the abundant words of inspiration, friendship and gratitude that left me in awe. The combination of extreme happiness, multiple Cosmos and beautiful speeches and toasts is about as good a time as anyone can have.

Much has changed since then. I am no longer married to that fun and larger-than-life husband, I no longer live in that gracious ginormous home where guests and parties made so much sense; my boys are mostly all grown up, and life has been marked by – enriched by – what Dante names traviamento, moments of getting lost. Friendships have waxed and waned, money has come and gone (mostly gone “whooozz”), and I am at the brink of a new dawn, a new leg of the journey. The empty nester. The midlife re-configuration. Being in love. The appropriation of the 50+ right to say “Frankly, I don’t give a damn” more often, and to stop feeling guilty about…so much. So much.

“What would you like for your 50th birthday gift?” my mom and sister asked me a while back. Old habits made me think about objects. Gorgeous bohemian tchotchkes that would beautify me or my home that they could send me in the mail. However, new habits made me think about an experience and time. With them. So, we are meeting up in Iceland for a long week-end – a sort of half-way point between Norway and the U.S East Coast, to relish in each other “while we have us” as my dad used to say.

Despite all of my existentially profound talk of more lofty goals and ethics than the lowly accumulation of earthly goods, the fact is that my watch is broken, and I could use a new one. My boyfriend has generously offered to bestow me with one, and the model I covet, yes covet, is a pricey, sleek steel Scandinavian design with a colorful face. The problem is, I can’t decide on what color. I can easily imagine each vibrant, inspirational shade look fabulous on my wrist, but alas, I can’t have them all and will have to choose one. Woe is me.

The good news is I have managed to narrow it down to three: Purple – the hue of a perfect, voluptious eggplant, or aubergine, one of my favorite foods and colors; orange – the tint of the brightest, happiest and most productive day; lime green – the hue of a cool spring morning, crisp, fresh and full of hope. The bad news is, each color brings with it all sorts of associations. I used to joke with my ex, the accountant, that he saw the world exclusively in a relationship of numbers and percentages, whereas I understood it through a lens of intense color awareness, symphonies or cacophonies alike.

With purple comes the memory of the loving home where I raised my boys and lived as a married woman, where I had sought to bohemian-ize the stately foyer and main stairway walls by painting them in a luscious Benjamin Moore purple – was it “exotic purple” or “purplicious”? – a color that was painted over by my ex’s new partner – and so, do I want to carry with me, like a shackle on my wrist, a reminder of what could no longer be, of loss and change and inevitability?

With orange I see the inspiration of creativity and the feeling I have when I must write the next word, and the next and the next until they pour out of me like molten lava to form another idea and paragraph that give my life energy and purpose. But with this commitment to letting go also comes the danger of too much, of exploding emotions and a more rapid heartbeat. Of loosing control. Do I want the visual, ticking reminder of how I feel too often inside, when my emotions get the better of me, like licking, greedy flames consuming my ability to be rational and calm?

With lime green, that delightful and tranquil stop on the color palette that beckons me to rest for a while, to stop worrying and allow myself to be carried along without so much effort; as if I had checked in to a sanatorium somewhere in the Swiss Alps, where a nurse wearing a crisp and white uniform addresses me in compassionate whispers with a strange but soothing accent, bringing me my medicine and tea on a tray while I sit in a teak chaise long on the sprawling lawn, overlooking the orchard and the blue mountains in the distance. Nodding off, letting a pain-free life pass by. Do I want to cast furtive glances at the time that remains, the time that has passed, the time of the present, feeling the detached coolness of this inviting hue of hospital-ity?

My broken watch is beside me on the counter. It’s strong steel rim and band, unproblematic white face with several fine hairline cracks, arms that aren’t quite in synch with passing time anymore. They seem to lag, to be heavy, to be lacking some energy despite the battery that works just fine. Like its owner, age is having its effects on some of the mechanics, but it still shines at me with a seeming timeless willingness to keep trying. To keep going. To keep doing its job. I think I’ll take it back again to the jeweler and ask her to take another look.

Rejections: It’s All About Perspective

I recently received a rejection letter from the established Down East, The Magazine of Maine. I wasn’t too shocked; I know they have a pretty particular eye for what fits their image. It might be possible that an essay with too much Jewish content made them a tad uncomfortable, at least on behalf of their imagined readership. The essay ­–  Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake – tells a story of my chance encounter off the beaten path in Maine with these happy campers.

I’m a big Maine fan and I also I have a strong Jewish identity that is reflected in much of my writing. Although there aren’t many Jews in Maine, relatively speaking, my idea was to give folks in general a little peek at how everybody can have a grand old time frolicking in Maine.

No matter how well we may understand rejections we are faced with, initially it is a pretty sucky feeling. With some luck, slowly and over time, a blessed concept called perspective seeps in to our consciousness. For me, this is akin to survival. That’s when things starts to feel all right again, despite how down I may have been initially. With some perspective gained, it becomes imaginable to see new possibilities and sometimes even more rewarding trajectories take shape, from different angles.

Let me explain how perspective matters:

Down East, you say? But I say Up North, every time I migrate to my second home in Mid-Cost Maine. “Up, up and away!” from the bustle of my life here, Down South in Connecticut, which is really Up Country to our cousins who live in Hell, um, I mean New York City. Which of course is pure Heaven when you have money, time and a suite booked at the Plaza.

Then there’s this: Did you know another name for North Africa is Maghreb, Arabic for “where the sun sets” also known as the West. What we in the “West” or North (Europe) call North Africa, Africans or people who live to the East of Africa, call “the Land where the sun sets; The West.”

Is it a wonder we sometimes don’t have the full perspective, or have to work a little at acquiring it?

Meanwhile, rejections become more manageable when they are occasionally interspersed with acceptances. Whether it was the uber-Jewish content of my short essay on the religious Jews jumping in the Maine lake that made the editors tell me that it wasn’t a good fit (“fun read, but not right for us at this time”) I can only guess, but the other day I got a letter from a publisher who wants to publish my book Out of North Africa, on Jewish women writers. These guys are all about Jewish writing and especially Jewish women’s writing that is not from the familiar West.

So right about now I’m feeling pretty excited about my particular perspective having found a home from which to be launched – Up, Up and Away!


Oh, and so here it is:

Forthcoming from Gaon Books, Spring 2106: Out of North Africa: Sephardic Women’s Voices 

Alimony My Ass!

I resent the word “alimony.” Today, and for a few more years, my main income is from this “arrangement,” part of the settlement after my 23 yearlong marriage ended. Thanks to this payout over time, I am able to maintain a relatively comfortable standard of living while raising three almost adult sons and seeing them through college. It also allows me to teach as an adjunct at the nearby college and university, keeping me close to home, something I would not be able to “afford” had I not already had the bread for the butter (working as an adjunct ­– even with a Ph.D. – pays peanuts and offers zero benefits), as well as dedicate time to develop as a writer. However, I don’t think of this primary income as “alimony” or some generous handout from the ex-husband, but rather as my honestly and hard earned dividend from over two decades of solid investments.

The term alimony comes from the Latin word alimona and means “nourishment or sustenance,” and historically has had as its purpose the continued nourishment of the divorced wife, presumed to be lacking the ability to support herself. Women were, after all, the property of their husbands. Today, alimony is commonly granted the spouse that has the lesser income, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, “alimony” has the resonance of “alms,” synonyms of which are gift, handout, charity, and largesse. Hearing the word, it suggests the receiving spouse is getting some a kind bighearted offering from the ex. Sometimes, this is how I’m made to feel about it, when I hear the traditional vocabulary and gender-role ideas surrounding the complex topic of all that.

But it was when one of our teenage boys recently said to me “Pappa works hard; he supports all of us,” that I felt compelled to make a statement. If nothing else, for my boys: the next generation. Yes, their dad owns a business and that is hard work, no question about it. But a comment like that doesn’t fall easy on a writer and teacher’s ears, or heart, as if the work I do now, not to mention did while married and also running the household, is a walk in the park. Is not hard. A quarter century dedicated to creating and keeping a home, developing a business together and raising a family was the most challenging work of my life. I invested dearly in this enterprise, and I loved it. It was gratifying and exhausting. (I was raised as a latch–key kid with a career mom, so staying home with the kids while they were young felt like a privilege to me.) Pursuing an advanced degree when the kids got to middle school felt almost self-indulgent – I “worked” in the library all day –and I got to exist in my head for 8 hours a day, sometimes more, away from the chaos, unpredictability and physical labor of running our family and home. Of course, with mom gone all day, too, forces had to be hired to mind the gap.

Could we use the term “severance package” perhaps? I was, after all, C.E.O of The Lichtenstein Family Household, a rather large organization consisting of a wife (me), a husband, three children, two dogs, a ginormous house, two cars and an above average sized yard. The third floor of our house was originally built for “the help,” back in the day when someone living in this size house would typically have a cook, a nanny, a gardener, a couple of servants, and a driver. When we would ring the antiquated buzzers still wired on the walls of our home, nobody showed up. I was it. That was our family joke.

So, as much as I appreciate having my financial freedom as a result of the return of my investment, I look forward to times when the majority of my livelihood is no longer attached to a word whose stigma may be all in my head, but most likely is the result of the complex history of marriage and divorce laws, stubborn (and lazy) traditions of residual nomenclature, and the revolutionary changes in women’s roles in our modern society. As I have begun forging a professional and vocational path (writer, teacher and AirBnB host) that can sustain me when the dividend payouts come to end, I also find that I still have to remind myself that I have gotten to where I am not because I’m lucky or unlucky, but because I have worked hard, won some, lost some, and tried to embrace change.

I say let’s come up with a new term for alimony that makes the recipient feel less like a charity case and more like a free agent paying her/his bills with returns from wise and hard earned investment. Marriage is the biggest venture if there ever was one, and the lucky ones get to feel the satisfaction by having it last a lifetime; those of us with a long marriage behind us and who had to “cash in the chips” should feel gratified that the mission yielded unique results (life-experience, your children, assets – think “dividends” in the largest sense of the term) hard earned anywhere else.

The Stories We Tell

I believe we can’t survive without telling stories. Stories sustain us! Think about it: historically, homo sapiens have defined, known and perpetuated their families, clans, tribes and eventually nations through story telling. Let me repeat: people’s survival has traditionally depended on story telling. Stories not only feed our internal lives, but help give meaning to our external lives. And they connect us.

But no other time in human history have families and friends lived in more physically disconnected ways than we do today. We are scattered, and even when we live in the same town, Sue is over here in her little kitchen and her mom, sister or friend is over there, in her little (or huge) kitchen. We don’t meet over the fire anymore. The men don’t go hunting together anymore. They don’t even go to the market together. We pass each other in parking lots, send a tweet or a chat, Skype if we’re lucky. I’m on WhatsApp with my family and friends trying to tell them my story and the story of my sons’ lives…

The industrial and technological revolutions, prosperity and progress – all things we welcome and enjoy – are among the phenomena that have allowed us to build (sometimes grand but usually smaller) forts for ourselves, inside which we exist, generally, in isolation.

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories,” Laurie Anderson has said. I can’t tell you how much time I spend around my campfire, but it’s cold and grey with only a dim light, and it doesn’t smell smokey and awesome. I do, however, feel connected when I share my stories around that campfire, although it’s a sad replacement for peeling veggies next to my loved ones sharing stories, or learning to pluck chickens or knead dough next to someone who will share insights into lives lived and memorable incidents near and far, while feathers fly or flour rises above our heads in clouds.

We may wonder less why we have what has been called a “memoir craze,” and why we are raising a generation of what Hamilton calls “robotic insta-memoirists”? I for one certainly get it.

I recently overheard a man of a certain age complain about how even in cookbooks today, there are multi-paragraph personal stories attached to or intermingled with the recipe-lists and how-to descriptions. He waxed nostalgic over “the way cookbooks used to be in the old days. Straightforward.” That’s when I had to chime in and add my humble insight as to why I think we – as a culture – are basking in this seemingly self-absorbent genre of telling stories where we desperately seek to implicate ourselves into some meaning that extends beyond the walls of our fort. In isolation our existence looses its meaning.

The Zulu philosophy Ubuntu comes to mind here, and it teaches this concept: I am because of you.

There is a growing market for personal essays, which can be seen, in effect, as attempts at letting the other know about you. We find personal essays in literary magazines, newspapers, popular magazines, trade and professional journals, thematic anthologies with writings by selected authors and book-length collections by individual authors. Often, publishers of fiction will ask their authors to publish a personal story or essay in order to boost the sales of the novel. Imagine that. Because readers care about the story of the real person behind the imagined story. Who is this creator, this imaginative being? Tell me something about you.

“This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone,” notes Daniel Mendelsohn in “But Enough About Me” (The New Yorker, January 2010). I have a friend who survived Auschwitz and she is now in her 90s. You can’t get through to her on the phone, because she spends much of her day eagerly telling her story to family and friends who live near and far. I am sure she has repeated it many times to the same people, and they ask to hear about it again. She is passing on her family saga, in all its tragedy of destruction and glory of survival.

In his essay “The Problem With the Problem With the Memoir” (The Rumpus 2013), Stephen Elliot notes that critics of memoir and the personal essay claim that most people’s lives are not that interesting: “In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that,” Elliot says, “Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting.”

So the sharing mechanisms of the personal narrative are evolving in all their imaginable – and available to us – permutations. Phone, email, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, Tweet, and not to mention Facebook. Anything to share our story, even in tiny snippets and fragments.

Does a “status update” really tell a story? What does it mean when Annie is “feeling anxious” or John is “feeling happy.” Do I really care, and does it matter? Well, if it’s about your friend and you have an imagination, it very well might. To you. Since you are because of the other.

Around the dinner table last week, in Maine, I sat across from an Indian woman who told me, “We used to sit around and tell stories. That’s what we did. I’d go to my aunt’s house or my grandma’s and all they did was to tell stories.” I send my aunt links to my writings, and she sends me long-form emails about her going ons. We do our best. And occasionally we get together in Norway at her summer house around lots of candles and the midnight sun, and there, to the glow and warmth of what I like to imagine is our existential campfire, we sustain if only for a night, a deeper sense of what being a family and being alive means to us.

The Fiddler on My Roof, or My Crush on Tevye

This day being Father’s Day and all, it got me thinking about some of the father figures I’ve had in my life aside from the beloved biological one. Aside from him, most of them have been Jewish, and it started with Tevye the Dairyman from the 1971 movie adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s story, first published in 1894. Not only did I have a crush on Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the original movie, but I was deeply, completely and fatefully swept away by the desire to belong to that. I wanted to live under the same roof as his Jewish family, feel the Jewish identity the way he did, and dream the Jewish dreams that he did. I wanted Goldie, Tevye’s spirited wife, to light shabbos candles with me.

Sure, I could do without the bloody Russian pogroms, the poverty, the muddy country roads and lack of sanitation. But how about that strong, unwavering feeling of identity, wrapped up in a warm, passionate fatherly type who despite his simple and often difficult life, stuck to it; that’s what I wanted! That’s what spoke to my guts. Watching the movie again and again from the VHS tape on my second-hand TV-set, oblivious to my neighbors while cranking up the volume as Tevye belted out “Tradition!” I sang, danced and wept in the same rhythms as my crush; Judaism as impersonated by Tevye.


To me, it was obvious he wasn’t just addressing the camera in all those close-up scenes where he inquires philosophically about life, purpose, and the various dilemmas the Jews faced in a rapidly changing world. He spoke to me. He was telling me a story that he said could also be mine. Come in, he seemed to say, I can’t promise it will be easy but I can promise there will be love, commitment, continuity and TRADITION!  

And I went in under his roof. In fact, I lept. I can still hear his deep, warm voice and want to bury myself in his arms when the going gets tough. Farm stench and all. Out of curiosity, I googled Topol the other day to see how the man had evolved from the 1970’s, and found that the now 80 year old still made my heart flutter with fond memories.


When I got married in 1988, as a brand spanking new-Jew, I had chosen, yes chosen, a violinist from the University of Hartford Music School to play “Sunrise, Sunset” as my oddly obliging yarmulke-wearing Norwegian father escorted me down the isle of the synagogue. Probably a bit overwhelmed by all the “ethnic” and religious details surrounding him, this otherwise agnostic and conservative man who had taught me all about relativity, clutched my arm tightly while whispering “you can always convert back if you don’t like it.”

Little did he know, once a Jew, always a Jew.

Of course, despite my early crush on Tevye, when it comes to men, it is my dad who played the greatest role in enabling me to imagine a future and a life as “other,” far away from him and my mom, singing different songs and celebrating different holidays. He is the one who gave me the wings to fly.

Although I have become accustomed to state my Jewish name Naomi bat Avraham ve-Sarah, Naomi, the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, there is no doubt about my parentage; for I’d say once a daughter, always a daughter. The fatherly figure of Tevye exuding commitment, warmth and love was likely just a Jewish representation of what I already knew: that first crush we girls experience with our dads, and which I got to experience again in some way once I embarked on a new journey as a Jewess.