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.

My Yoga Teacher Slapped Me

The other day I went to yoga and had a strange but familiar experience. As the students were finding their spaces and rolling out their mats, and I was wiggling into my spot on a bolster to begin a few stretches, happy to have made the time to once again return to my practice, our instructor passed by me and in an joyful movement of recognition and obvious pleasure to see me again, he slapped my shoulder. That’s right, he slapped me. It felt like the “hey dude, good to see you!” slap you give your buddy at a game, in a bar or when you pass him in the hallway going to or from class. Nothing wrong with that, really, and it’s nice to be recognized after such a long hiatus from this blessed Zen space where I return in yearning to again recover some sense of balance, insight and inspiration.

But a slap?

I promise, it really was a slap. And since I am neither a dude nor a college age kid, but a middle aged mother of three, there was an intuitive misalignment in this fleeting meeting of two souls, or should I say two physical masses. Immediately I noticed that I, well, noticed, and this made me think about what it might be about me that inspired my instructor Shankara – who used to be John in his pre-yogic life – to welcome me with this friendly, but what seemed to me strangely enthusiastic love-tap. For some reason, I did not inspire him to give me a gentle hug, a “Namaste,” or a harmonious smile followed by his genuine “how are you?” with the playful twinkle his eyes always seem to radiate. Shankara is a truly unaffected and earthy guy with a wonderfully quick and self-deprecating sense of humor, and he has an extraordinary amount of positive karma and yogic inspiration and knowledge that he gracefully, almost gleefully, shares with his students. There is a reason why I have followed him from yoga space to yoga space for close to 15 years, undeniably irregularly, but nevertheless faithfully. This yogi has a following.

I remained puzzled and a bit tickled at the curiosity of the love-tap, and heard myself quietly chuckle in disbelief, until we all settled into our seated positions and at his gentle prompts started taking deep breaths with our eyes closed. As he encouraged us to inhale the intentions we would like to bring to our yoga practice with the positive feelings we wanted to be part of us, we should exhale the negative stuff we would like to get rid of. I got plenty of both, so I was breathing in and out with ease. He then told us that breath is energy, and whether we realize it or not, with our breath we give off a certain unique energy, which again translates to individual vibrations, even smells, that influence how people respond to us. And that’s when it hit me. Again. Like a love tap, a truth revealed itself in the most gentle and loving way, and it carried a slight echo from Shankara’s earlier gesture. “Hey, dude(-sse), here’s the answer to the great mystery;” the mystery of my energy.

In a mostly unintentional manner, I must give off some sort of tough, fiercely independent Viking-like warrior energy. But the reality, as I experience it, couldn’t be further from the truth: I am just a vulnerable, overly sensitive, melancholic, weeper. Really.

When I think about it, I have intellectually nebulous yet emotionally vivid sensations from my childhood about being responded to by adults in particular in ways that gave the message that I was a daring, independent and rascal-y big little girl. Since I was never dainty, shy and delicate, but rather big boned, brave and doggedly curious, I often got in trouble, because I was always lost doing something away from home. In Norwegian we’d say I had “flees in my blood,” or in Yiddish we’d say I had the shpilkes. I was not the bookworm kid who got lost in books with a flashlight under my covers in bed; who found the real world overwhelming and created my imaginary existence with the characters on the pages of the great classics. Rather, I was one who created those marvelous experiences for myself: I held my own in schoolyard fistfights, interrupted class with words and movements out of place, and when not in school, I roamed around the neighborhood and saved baby birds fallen from the nest, snooped around in back yards and alley-ways for treasures or enjoyed sweets in elderly neighbors’ homes while looking through their family albums listening to stories from their youth.

If you’ve read about “Who is the Viking Jewess,” elsewhere on my blog, you’ve seen where it went from there; I was soon to set sail and continue my independent journey of exploration. My parents, in all their love for me, raised me to be free, or as my sister reminds me, their motto was ‘freedom under responsibility.” When I left, nobody stopped me. When I came back, nobody begged me not to leave again. Although looking back I might wish that some times those who loved me demanded more of me; expected more of me; somehow needed more of me…this freedom to roam, this independence, doubtlessly gave me my energy, and surely required much inventiveness in those formative years.

This unique brand of energy, which has taken me from there to here, but which keeps me definitely suspended in-between, ever self-aware of the constant movement of the ongoing journey; this energy transforms within but never disappears.

I wondered if, when Shankara changed his name from good ol’ John, with this change of self-ascribed designation there were also changes in the energy he radiated. It seems only natural that when a person goes through changes in life, and more significantly lifestyle, and decides they are momentous enough to make one feel and think differently about one’s identity, one’s intentions, and one’s presence in the world; the name must go with the flow of it all as well, and it becomes necessarily a package deal.

So this gets my running monkey-brain thinking about the significance of names, and what the implications can be when an adult chooses to change their name. More about this in my next blog, because it’s all in the name, is it not?

And in the end the slap was really just a love-tap.