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.