All I Needed Was a Hood

My last visit to Home Depot – one of many recent runs there during my project of converting an 1865 Maine barn into an apartment – turned into a sweet and odd reminder of my writing life. That writing life that often gets sidelined as soon as I have “more pressing” things to do, like move, get a kid off to college, build a home…But the sales person who helped me navigate the dizzying ventless hood options quickly revealed he was an avid journaler with a penchant for storytelling.

A man in his 50s, he was a far cry from the “Home Depot Guy” one might expect;  his tall and lean figure with thin, delicate gesticulating hands and animated and dainty facial expressions produced an energy loaded with charmingly feminine affect. His lips pursed just so every few seconds and his eyes would widen and roll while his eyebrows rose and fell or frowned to give more expression to his speech. He would lean in or sway back while elaborating about his own ventless hood fan home renovation story, that soon enough included references to his father’s voice chastising him from the grave about not installing it correctly.

He had me at how hearing his dead father’s voice commenting on his activities was such a meaningful part of his experience, or how his dad was still an influential and lively presence, despite having been gone for several years. I know what that feels like.

From talking about his own father’s opinions, expectations and disappointments, the conversation (which was mostly a monologue) quickly turned to his own experience of fatherhood, and how his own grown sons were so hard to reach, both physically and emotionally. So, he said, he journals in order to be able to one day leave them a document where they can, when they are ready, learn more about their dad’s inner life. The painful time leading up to the divorce (I suspected he had decided to come out in mid-life, since he made some indirect references to that effect, and this had caused a domino effect of challenges for both him and his family), the misunderstandings, the things unsaid, the things that can’t be undone…the love. The need to tell ones story.

I finally left Home Depot with an affordable yet sleek, stainless and Italian-designed hood, sure to make my cooking forays more pleasant and less stinky. That felt like a relief. But the part about that early morning Home Depot run that truly felt gratifying, was having spent a few minutes listening to Barry, my fellow storyteller, which in turn inspired me and reminded me of my inner calling, which in turn brought me back to my keyboard. Here. Now.

I live and love my life of “yang” – of movement and action – as much as I love and strive for more “yin” – stillness and meditation. The first is easy for me; it’s in my blood and having the shpilkes is simply part of who I am. That energy is often the catalyst for all the practical “stuff” I am so efficient at getting done. As a kid, I’d run around my Oslo neighborhood and either help people or got into trouble. I didn’t sit much. I didn’t read much. Sitting and writing – or just sitting – is not so obvious for me. But the storyteller in me reminds me to, is constantly tugging and nudging me in that direction, again and again. Sometimes it just takes a little listening to remember.

Home Depot

Moving On

The count down has begun to my moving day. This feels both exhilarating and overwhelming, and even a tad surreal. But I’ve always tried to be the kind of person who looks at change whether willed, natural or unexpected, as a positive and necessary thing. If there is to be life, there has to be change. I can’t say I have lived my life so far avoiding leaps into change and difference: moving from one continent to another, converting from one religion to another, going from single to married to single again; these have all been huge emotional movements above and beyond the more natural but no less grand events such as motherhood, degree-begetting and, alas, “THE change,” (the latter making every day potentially but unpredictably a hot and flashy experience, mid-summer aisde). In less than one week I’m heading north to Maine, but first the journey goes to Israel to write, do research and learn more Hebrew, a dream I’ve had since my early days as a Jewess.

I’m basically an empty nester now, all three sons having graduated from high school and moving on with their life plans, leaving me able to imagine a different dailiness than the one I have lived for the past 28 years in my safe and pretty privileged Connecticut suburb. This is where I moved as a newlywed, raised my children, and experienced an extraordinary Jewish community that I was in many small ways part of building. It’s also where I have lived through the painful process of separation and divorce, and the odd but convenient last few years of living in a condo ten doors down from the large house where I had raised my kids, and where their father still lives with our boys’ step-mom. Both the children and we parents shared the ease of this proximity, since there was no need for the adults to drive the kids to mom or dad’s house, and the kids could just stroll down the street to either home, to fetch a schoolbook or that favorite pair of jeans left behind. The oddity came with remaining so close, too close, to the place and the person I was no longer connected to in that intimate and familiar way; the nooks and crannies of the big, old house, and the movements, habits and sounds of the guy whom I had lived with since I was 19 years old.

But if there is one advantage to being an adjunct professor it is that, professionally, there are no ties, and although the adjunct may be poor as a pauper, she is free as a bird. The other day I was sitting at my kitchen counter, having written out a check for a bill needing to be mailed, and realized that the roll of colorful return address labels I ordered when I first moved into my new condo, over six years ago, is almost empty. While tugging at the now tiny roll nestled inside the clear acrylic dispenser holding the labels, I thought, what a coincidence. Or, good timing! There’s a time to nest, and a time to fly.

I won’t be able to order new address labels yet, since I’m going to live a bit of a vagabond life for a while, but shedding the ties associated with regular suburban living will also mean fewer of those kinds of bills to pay. Away goes the mortgage, the condo fees, the massive property taxes, the utility bills, the JCC membership…Uprooting, even when it doesn’t happen often, is never easy, but it can feel both liberating and destabilizing.

Leaving the place called home, however, has never meant severing the ties to the heart. Although I left Oslo, Norway, 32 years ago this month, my friendships from growing up there remain among my most dear ones. And now, after 28 years in my second hometown, it is not with glee or carefreeness that I up and go. As much as I feel the change that lies ahead is a necessary and a good one for my growth as an individual, a significant piece of my heart will always linger here, among the special relationships and places I have been so lucky to know and love.

Change

 

 

 

On Mother’s Day: My Role Model

I’m about to give up. I pedal away although it feels like I’m about to explode, and my face pounds like a stuffed, broiling tomato; my heart pulses in my fingertips, in my hair follicles. From behind thumping techno music (or is it throw back disco music? I am too otherworldly to tell the difference) the spinning instructor encourages us to envision the hill up ahead, and what’s waiting for us there. On the wall behind her fit, muscular, bouncy body, in the dark, five big, bold words spell out, “What do YOU spin for?”

That day I thought, “I spin for my uncle – who was in hospice – to be comfortable and feel loved.” I envisioned, on the top of the hill, my dad and uncle, embracing, urging me on, celebrating love and togetherness, each holding a cool, summery, gin & tonic. My three boys were there as well, waving Norwegian flags (my imaginary hill was a snow capped mountain in Norway) and then, strangely, so were a diverse crowd of secular and religious Israelis and Palestinians, cheering me up the hill, smiling, jumping up and down, kaffiyehs and prayer shawls flapping, showing me hope and dreams.

But the main reason I don’t give up, that I don’t slump over the handlebars slippery from my sweat, that I don’t yelp “fuck it!” and glide off the stationary bike in resignation and disappointed self loathing, is because of my mom. Through, behind, before and after all the imaginary and encouraging visions I spin up in my head, is the not at all imaginary power of the inspiration of my mother: “Don’t quit, your mamma would never quit!” I think, again, and again, and again. It’s my mantra that keeps me going. And so, I find the last iotas of energy from somewhere deep within me I didn’t even realize existed, and pedal my way up to the top of the hill, to the crest, only to hear myself emit a loud and relieved moan, while sitting down on the hard and uncomfortable bike seat, my butt bones sore, enjoying the minute and half of recovery time. Before the next incline.

Because, as we know, in life, there is always another incline. But there’s one way to get past it, and that’s by tackling it, and in the end, there is always relief.

My mother, a solution-oriented, energetic and positive woman, has a gift of making the best of even the most dire, seemingly unsurmountable situations. She is an emotional survivor. I have my thoughts as to what it has been, especially in her early life, that made her develop this survival mechanism, but these are moments and years she doesn’t speak much of. The war and occupation in her girlhood; the separation and divorce of her parents around the same time; her father’s physical, emotional and financial demise and sudden death, perhaps suicide; her being the one to discover his body…

But maybe more than all the courage and willpower, the optimism and energy, it is the ability, no, the importance, of taking good care of oneself as a woman, as an individual, and as a mother and as a lover, that she has shown me. This means not always being self-sacrificing, this means not always putting ones owns needs last, this means taking the time, making the time, finding the time, to do good not just for others, but also for oneself.

I often wonder, what it might be that I will have bestowed to my three sons, knowingly or unknowingly, and that they may one day summon from the deepest recesses of their consciousness, when they need it? It may be different for men. It may not. In fact, I think my mother has shown me that it shouldn’t be any different for us. For the women and the mothers.

One day, I may have daughters in laws, or granddaughters…I hope they will know my mother, and I will make sure to carry on her motherly legacy to try to be the kind of role model I was blessed to have.

Mother's Day

Mamma Moments: 1970’s

It’s amazing how much you can see from peeking through a keyhole. As a child, I once watched most of Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s The Sting perched on a small stool on the other side of our closed living room door, leaning in with one eye pressed against the tiny decorative brass opening, occasionally bumping my forehead, covered with blond bangs, against the door handle just millimeters above. The small noises coming from me settling in behind the door for my movie night delight, would reveal to my mother – my mamma – that I was not where I was supposed to be on a weeknight at 9pm: in bed and sleeping.

Watching the adult American film like this, with the excitement of perhaps being discovered – knowing I was being disobedient and naughty – was an exhilarating experience, and I never had a clue then that my mother actually knew all along I was there. That she let me sit there and be entrepreneurial and content about my feat; that she would smile to herself. She later told me that when she felt it was really time for me to hit the sack, she’d make some noise and slowly move toward the door so that it would give me time to run back into my room, undiscovered. Then she would leave the door open automatically preventing any further clandestine movie-going by the underaged.

In Norway, when I grew up in the 70s, we had one government run TV channel and Monday night was “adult” movie night. That’s when both classic and contemporary American films would be screened at 9pm, just one film, once a week. These were the days before the DVD machine, gazillion TV channels – even in Norway – and Netflix binge-watching and live streaming. The anticipated Monday night movie was an institution, just as Little House on the Prairie on Sundays or the Muppet Show on Fridays. Cigarette in hand, and perhaps also a drink or a cup of coffee, my mom would close the doors between my bedroom and the kitchen, and also between the kitchen and the living room so as to provide an extra buffer between the music and voices escaping from the screen during Monday night movies. But she told me later that she could hear my breath and the sound of my rigging up the stool on my side of the door, and then my little body fidgeting on the seat. I remember the small tear in the corer of the baby blue vinyl seat cover, and the smell of my mother’s cigarettes. I remember feeling happy. Even if I only had gotten to watch part of the movie – probably a very small part – it still felt like an accomplishment. I recall falling asleep content to the remote and muffled sounds of the action on the TV, with vivid images in my mind.

The ability to let her young daughters find their own way with enough freedom to give a sense of autonomy, has always been one of my mom’s strengths, and it was an empowering way to grow up. I thought I could do everything.

Sting

 

 

 

 

To Be Curious in Books

My boys keep a stack of books in the bathroom next to the toilet, and I think they even read them occasionally. Like, if the battery on their iPhones are dead. Turns out most of these tomes are from my late father’s library, and bear titles like The Collected What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. 

Open a book up, and you will likely find a palimpseste – a layer – of inscriptions: first the ones I made to my dad – my dad who lived and died in Norway – when I originally gifted him the book in hand on any of my many visits, and then, after he died, my second inscription dedicating it to one of my sons, usually the one who would like the given topic. Each dédicace was written in profound sincerity; my words desperately trying to convey the yearnings seeking to link ideas and a certain mindfulness between him and them, with me suspended somewhere in-between, acting as a conduit of a metaphysical gene pool I imagined no ocean between them could weaken. This was on your grandfather’s mind. Bring it into yours.

When my dad died, my sister and I spend a mere day going through his limited belongings. Clean clothes, save the jeans he had last worn before he left us – now hanging lonely on the chair next to his bed – were neatly folded in a spartan wire drawer system in the hallway of his minuscule apartment. Old newspapers were in the basket by the door, and he had done the dishes in his efficiency kitchen that night, when my sister had shared her last meal with him. While we were cleaning the rental apartment the day I arrived, listening to music and scrubbing and sorting and crying in a rhythm I seem to recall as feeling real, honest, and necessary, she told me he had mostly just sipped a beer to keep her company while she ate. It had been a sweet evening, even though he admitted he didn’t feel great. He had told me so for a while; it was as if he was preparing me each time I called him from my home in the U.S. But he always tried to switch the topic to how I was doing. “And the boys, all is well?””All is well.”

I kneeled on his bedroom floor and scrubbed away the blood stain from where he had fallen, the spot where my sister had found him just a day or two before. It was my last cellular contact with him. I wanted to scrape it and touch it with my fingers. Smell it. But I didn’t. I just kept wetting the floor rag, rapidly rubbing and desperately hoping the now deep dull red, almost brown color, would disappear before my sister came into the room…until it eventually faded away and his DNA dissolved in the murky waters of the utilitarian blue plastic pail beside me.

Most of his things went to the Salvation Army or in the trash, except a few personal belongings which I felt the most attached to, probably a symptom of me having lived away for so long. My youngest son got his jeans and my middle son his hat. I have his bread knife and some precious framed photos of him and my kids I had given him over the years, and I kept the old cigar box we found, full of old love letters from his girlfriend when he was in the army in the 1950s; a treasure trove of sweet beckonings from his first love. I also brought many of his books back to the States; books I had carried one by one over the last twenty years whenever I came to visit, knowing one of the few things that brought him pleasure aside from his two daughters, our kids, and his close friends, was the printed word, a good scotch or a cold beer.

My favorite is an average size book, light in weight for a hardcover, whose book jacket is missing, and whose red spine is loose and cracking in the seams where it joins the once cream colored parchment-like cover, tattered and discolored from my father’s handling it over years. His finger marks seem visible, a slight grayish hue perhaps from the oils in the skin of his fingers; a dark spot in the top right corner that could be coffee, or food, or perhaps spit. Who knows? Now these textured signs of a life spent in the company of a book he enjoyed offer a strange sense of connection between him and us. I imagine the book is discolored from being leafed through late at night or early in the morning, my father lying on his right side in his twin bed, book under the reading light, with a pair of cheap readers pressed against the bridge of his nose leaving a deep, red imprint. Times when its pages provided some comforting, humanizing companionship against insomnia, an impending hangover or the loneliness of the next day.

The Book of General Ignorance is said to challenge “what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more; a witty… compendium of how little we actually know about anything.” And that, in the end, was his message: a sense of wonder about how little we actually know about anything. If my boys should carry on any legacy from their Norwegian grandfather, even if it’s while they’re sittin’ on the can, it should be to keep an open, imaginative mind and remember that everything is relative. And this, he would say, is most easily achieved by keeping a good book within arm’s reach.

My Students Will See Horror

France is home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel, with approximately 4-6 million Muslims and a rapidly dwindling 5-600,000 Jews. This spring I am teaching a course called “Jews and Muslims in France” (a light topic…) at a small private college in New England.

As I am preparing the course schedule – what books to read and films to see and in what order – I worry about keeping a balanced syllabus. I hesitate; perhaps it’s not necessary to show the film about the grisly gang kidnapping and murder of 23 year old Jewish Parisian Ilan Halimi in 2006? One NY Times film critic called it full of melodrama. That means things like “sensational,” “exaggerated,” and “appealing to emotions.” Who wants to use that as a teaching tool? Teachers are supposed to be objective and cool-headed.

For a moment after I read the review, I thought, maybe this film is just too much and not really relevant. Too “Jewish,” too victimizing, and too focused on the gang of a sick, twisted and motley crew from the Paris projects known as the Barbarians who committed the heinous crime.

It matters to me that students will read and watch varied stories about how immigration to France by North Africa’s Jews and Muslims since the 1960s has not been a walk in the park for either group. How, sometimes, they have co-existed quite well in various neighborhoods within schools, shops, restaurants and cafes, and other times, it has been tense, complicated and as we know too well, violent. This waxing and waning has been deeply affected by a complex set of catalysts: among them the baggage from the colonial era and of the arduous process of decolonization; by social inequality in France, and of course by events in the Middle East as they radiate out into the world and are adopted as personal battles by disenfranchised Muslim youth as well as by French Jews in their support of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Preparing to preview the French film 24 Days based on the tragic Halimi affair, I again thought about the voice of the reviewer and how it annoyed me with negative comments about “screaming women and worried looking men” and her questioning about why we don’t learn more about Ilan’s father’s estrangement from the family, as if this is critical information in understanding the profundity of the human drama portrayed: loosing a child. And then there’s this: “Even Ilan’s mother (Zabou Breitman), whose viewpoint we are sharing and who directly addresses the camera, emerges as little more than a tireless advocate for exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Imagine that. Little more, melodrama and screaming women.

Everything that happened to Ilan Halimi happened to him because he was Jewish. He was targeted as a Jew, not as a Frenchman, nor as white, or European. A Jew. Thank goodness for Ruth Halimi’s courage and fortitude to have written the book and taken on the burden of “exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Had the French Police and justice system not delayed and resisted recognizing this evident fact, perhaps Illan might have still been alive.

But then I watched the film, and I made up my mind. Every time a woman screamed (Ilan’s mother, sister or girlfriend) I screamed with them. It felt as though my guts thickened my throat. Yes, indeed the film was a dramatization of a real life event, but if the character who played Ilan’s mother had stood in the Paris streets and screamed her guts out while pulling her hair out and clawing at her face, or been lying in bed in the fetal position whimpering while drugged up on valium, I would think it a more accurate depiction of how a mother could and should have the right to react in a situation like this.

Melodrama is defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”

Can you imagine exaggerating when portraying a mother who knows her son is being tortured for 24 days and then finds out he is killed. Eventually exhuming his body from the Parisian cemetery to bury him in Israel in order for him to rest peacefully, preventing the criminals from spitting on his grave when they are released from jail. Alive and free to be with their families, with their mothers. I can’t imagine how to exaggerate portraying this experience.

Although the Barbarians were a motley crew from diverse backgrounds, the leader, Youssouf Fofana, was a Muslim from the Ivory Coast, who made the more than 600 terrorizing phone calls to the Halimi family during the ordeal, and played Quranic verses into the phone. This is also part of a reality.

So, my students will see the horror of a most despicable anti-Semitic crime. But they will also read stories and see films depicting Jews and Muslims coexisting, co-operating, helping each other and even romantically involved. These are all scenarios part of the complex reality between Jews and Muslims in France since the 1960s, and as an educator I hope to open minds and encourage discussions on this timely and often difficult topic.

Jewish_and_Muslim Mourners

 

 

 

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”

IMG_7982

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!

L’chaim!

(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