Meditation on Laundry

This was going to be called, “Mountain of Laundry”. We just returned from a short, active family vacation, and there it is – a mountain of laundry. Sort of along the idea of Sisyphus rolling his rock to the top of the mountain, just to have it roll down, over and over again. Then, I thought, perhaps an adjustment in attitude was required.  I should follow the yoga way of being in the moment; turn the all-too-familiar activity into a “meditation in motion”. For a somewhat mundane task, like shopping, tidying or putting dinner on the table, there is a kind of value to the work. Just because it’s domestic doesn’t mean it’s not important, especially in terms of having a comfortable family life. I suspect that our relationship to laundry reveals a lot about who we are. So, here goes…

I don’t actually hate laundry, and prefer it to some of the other chores.  I had thought, naively, that laundry would be a thing of the past, a la, “The Jetsons”, somehow programmed and automated. Not so. In fact, laundry has changed little since my youth, and I wonder if it has to do with being, still, “women’s work”. That is to say, “If they can send a man to the moon….” Same basic washer/dryer pair (sturdy, low-tech Sears Kenmore); same woven plastic laundry baskets; pretty much same detergent, Tide or Arm and Hammer; and same process: out of hampers, sorting into “whites” and “coloreds”!!! A couple turns of the dial and off it goes. Then, the reverse sorting; the folding, generally on our big bed; the leaving out to be put away. (Although my sons learn to do their own before leaving for college) I think that’s pretty much exactly what I remember my Memere doing, back in the day.

But not exactly. When I lived with my aunt in CT, I remember a neighbor who had the old-fashioned wringer machine – rather nightmarish. Everyone we knew had a clothes line, and used it. Now, only for wet towels after the beach. And racks, for those sweaters gently cleaned with Woolite. There used to be “delicates” – lingerie, nylons, and my grandmother’s corset, that were washed separately in their own little bag. And, ironing – so quaint. We had special clothes for church, which had to be ironed, wrinkle-free. Fortunately, not the hats and gloves, though.

As a large family, we always had a lot of laundry, but not so many clothes. Being close in age and size, sisters shared and brothers shared. Never my own pair of underwear, and all of us fished our socks from a communal drawer. There was an interesting period where the washer and/or dryer expired from so much use, refusing to be resuscitated. My mother at that time was not able to put together enough money for a new washer and/or dryer, so it became a matter of trips to the Laundromat with rolls of quarters, a couple times a week, with, I believe, up to ten loads. Now, that was an outing.

I myself had many years without washer or dryer, living apartment-style in NYC and in other places. Plenty of hours in the Laundromat, waiting/watching, with never a romance springing up. And then, one day, in Brooklyn, I found a laundry run by a Chinese family, who would wash and fold my dirty clothes, very cheaply, very well and with a smile. I was so grateful, I wrote them into a chapter of my book, Spanish Soap Operas.

My “load” today is not so heavy, really. The boys help, certainly. The machines do what they’re supposed to very dependably. In lieu of “delicates”, I learned from a wise friend, Noriko, to rescue my bright, better-made garments from the dryer (the destroyer of all fabrics), and let them air dry in the bathroom. The routine is familiar and fairly relaxing. The only surprise is the occasional unfamiliar garment that shows up, neat, clean and washed, but belonging to someone other than us. We have a lot of company, and they leave all kinds of things behind.

And so, my meditation ends, although the laundry remains. In all, I’m grateful for the convenience, and the physical ability to do the task, the clean clothes, and the nice smell. I do it, willingly, but if that nice Chinese family were to open their little store here in Bedford, would I be glad to see them.

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Post Card from Cape Cod (Falmouth, MA)

Almost twenty years we’ve been going to Falmouth, MA, lucky enough to have a summer home there. What a beautiful place, in terms of nature –land, sea and marshes; and so many charming homes and shops, a quaint downtown. Cod fish and seagulls; Quakers and whaling ships; Wampanoags and quahogs; cranberry bogs and lighthouses. All that good stuff. Plus, time to slow down, enjoy the sunset, and have “visits” with friends and neighbors. But this year, more than other years, something is not right in paradise. This year, folks on the Cape are suffering, in crisis, in danger of losing themselves, quite literally, to drugs, alcohol, violence and injury.

Summer brings all kinds of folks to Falmouth, and not surprisingly, an uptick in crime, injury and accidents. The ER can be pretty busy from fish hooks in thumbs to accidents on the bike trail to tick bites and allergic reactions. And this year, heroin and opiate overdoses, sometimes fatal. In one week, five drug overdoses were reported in the Police log: two were revived with Narcan on the spot, two hospitalized, and one dead at home. There was an obituary for the 19 year old who died, with a picture, listing friends, family, hobbies. Looked like a nice middle-class white kid — with issues, no doubt. Two OD’s were in cars, one parked at Walmart; one at Christmas Tree Shops. Where we shop.

This week, my husband left Stop N Shop at four in the afternoon with his cart full. A group of people were staring at man hanging onto a light post; no one knew what to do. Another day, another man sat down in the street, unable to stir himself. Another was walking along the sidewalk, shirtless, missing a shoe, incoherent, without direction. There are flyers up around town about a man who has gone missing, middle-aged, with perhaps some mental issues. Like a dog or a cat. “Have you seen this man?” Along with the drug use, there have been a lot of cases of theft and break-ins, not a few in our part of town, uncomfortably close to our idyllic little corner of the Cape. On my solitary walk around the bog, I came across two men, meeting briefly and then parting; I kept my distance, feeling fairly certain it was a drug deal.

Besides the summer visitors, Falmouth has a sturdy year round population of people from all walks of life, including the Woods Hole scientists, the artisans, old Yankees, lively Irish, and the descendents of Portuguese and Cape Verde sailing and farm immigrants. It’s a changeable life, and yet, sometimes remote and even boring in the off-season, providing few jobs more than building, landscaping or services. The allure of drugs is widespread, but some areas seem more vulnerable, no matter how beautiful. Perhaps it’s the contrast of the wealthy who come and go to those who are stuck and struggling.

I’ve been aware of recreational drugs for most of my life, on some level. But this, what I’m seeing in Falmouth, is different. They are falling fast, these casualties of the drug war, bringing the battleground to us. My mother has said, “No one chooses to grow up to be a drunk or a drug addict; something has happened along the way.” It’s one thing to waste time, money, health, over time. But another to lose yourself completely, to lose your life, just like that. I wonder how these Cape Cod folk are any less victims than the Central American children being brought across the border, moved by terrible forces to places they never wanted to be due to their weakness and someone else’s greed.

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Touching

Portland, ME – Soakology, a place of retreat and massage. I went with some friends a while back, as a kind of joint birthday present. It’s not everyone’s idea of a gift – some folks don’t like their feet to be touched, or, to have a body massage in state of near nakedness. Me, I’m not one of them – I’m a big fan of massage, and so are my sons.  As we soaked and relaxed, one of my single women friends mentioned that something she missed in a close relationship was touch. In our society, with the unspoken rules of personal space, touch is a “touchy” subject, the when and why and how. I’m certain it has to do with so many folks’ infatuation with their pets, the permissible touching, petting, cuddling and stroking. Human touch, at its best, is art and medicine. At its worst, soul-destroying.

My family background was not especially warm and physical. However, as one of six children close in age, we were thrown together in bedrooms, church pews, and the back of the car – “squeezed in”. Really, I think it was college and California that opened the door for me to the pleasure and the power of touch. Acting in scenes, we had the reason and opportunity to touch, embrace, slap or kiss others, even relative strangers. Off stage, theater types tended to be fairly open and expressive, shall we say. Giving and receiving massages, often in a line. Hot tubs under the stars, often naked. Which, I learned, did not imply that sex was to follow, necessarily. And I learned there the language of touch, how to communicate what was acceptable to me, and what was not.

At Soakology, I asked the woman massaging my feet what had led her to that profession. Strong hands, she said, and a kind of gift that was pointed out to her by someone in alternative healing, an acupuncturist. Besides the retreat massage, the young woman had another vocation, pediatric therapeutic massage. It was for helping young people to heal after injury, but primarily it was to help children of abuse or neglect re-learn how touch others and be touched. For them, touch was a weapon, a source of pain and domination, although, even at its most destructive, it was about human contact. Therapy was permission-based, and proceeded slowly, with games and exercises. Touch rehab.

Touch is communication at the most basic level, and, the masseuse told me, babies without live, physical contact will die after 7 days, even if otherwise fed and sheltered. What she said brought to mind a movie, Lars and the Real Girl. In the movie, Lars is unable to make physical contact with others because of an early trauma – his mother’s death in giving him birth and his father’s subsequent withdrawal. The older brother does not know how to help, but Lars, intuitively, comes up with a solution – an anatomically correct blow-up doll that he deems his girlfriend. I won’t give away the conclusion, just that I was moved to tears, not really knowing why, realizing later, it was the profound loss of touch and its fearful connotation that hurt Lars, not lack of love.

My husband has learned that a sure form of comfort and happiness to me is a foot rub. My sons have been the recipients of many a foot, back and shoulder rub from me, so it is not foreign or “loaded” to them, but a gesture of love and care, which hopefully they will share with others. My son’s pre-school teacher told me this story: one day, she had gotten bad news of some kind while still in the classroom, and had taken a seat to compose herself. The children could see she was upset. My son went up to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. Did she want a back rub, he asked. That might make her feel better.

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Folks and Spokes – or, Hold the Spandex

Too late now – the invasion has begun. The bicycle folks are out in numbers, in our little town, and it looks like they’re here to stay. Almost every day, mostly all day, there are bicyclists on the road, clad in their black and neon spandex outfits, hydration at the ready, sunglasses, and – helmets, I’m happy to say. Like it or not, car drivers and pedestrians are having to share the roads and crosswalks with the folks on bikes. Most times, we adjust, but sometimes it’s not so pretty and can be downright scary. Twenty years ago when we moved here, it was not so. Now, they are part of the landscape: bright, quick, darting insects, in whizzing motion, on the periphery of my vision.

I enjoy riding a bike myself on occasion, on quiet roads or cleared trails. More or less I enjoy the scenery, taking my time, fresh air, small hills and few gears. Not so much for the bike folks, I think. The bikes themselves are highly engineered pieces of sporting equipment, not mere transportation. Expensive. And tricky to repair, requiring knowledge and expertise. The bikers themselves are by and large a fast, fit group, no dawdlers among them, and in it for speed and distance, I suspect, not recreation. No doubt there is merit in it, and benefit: stress relief, exercise, endorphins, perhaps and maybe a kind of meditation in motion. But, the hazards! My frequent reaction is to wonder, “Don’t they fear for their lives on these narrow shoulders?” or “Don’t the gas fumes bother them?” or, “Why do they want to scale that big hill on a bike, anyway?” Even more perplexing, to me, is the “spinning” craze, of indoor cycling that gets nowhere and sees nothing, but has its true adherents, I know. Maybe, like the more extreme sports, it’s the adrenaline rush and the escape from everyday problems. Yet, that hasn’t been, for me, the experience of biking.

I logged a lot of miles as a kid on a bike on rural roads in Connecticut, and I know that my husband was attached to his bike like another leg, that got him where he wanted to go. It was freedom, for us. No helmets, of course. There were the occasional accidents, although none fatal. My cousin Bobby had a spectacular “wipeout” at the bottom of Newgate Hill. We must have been ten; I was first on the scene to observe the damage to boy and bike, a bloody mess. I rode like holy hell to get help from the adults. Only, it was a minor cut after all. Apparently, the forehead bleeds a lot. My husband bought a piece of land on the Cape (with his mother), from a settlement after being hit by a car on his bike, around 12 years old. Also broken leg, missing weeks of school, and tutor at home. Our associations with bikes were not very glamorous or associated with anything like achievement. A means to adventure, yes, but not an end in itself.

In another chapter of my history with bikes, I arrived in Gloucester, England for a homestay during a semester abroad, and was promptly given “my bike”. That was it; no family car. Wherever I needed to go in town, hop the bike (buses or trains for longer rides). The trick there was figuring out where I was going. Fortunately, I had a self-appointed guide, the family’s 12 year old daughter, Moira, who took me everywhere. The biggest adjustment, of course, was the left-lane car traffic, and for bikes, too. And, the experience of being among so many other bikers on the old city streets. Yet, we managed without much fuss, and I’m here to write about it today. In visiting Europe in more recent years, there is still a “bike culture”, men and women, young and old, casual or business, priests and nuns. But not much spandex, that I could see. And how many would have said they were riding for exercise, I’m not too sure. Don’t think so, though. My son made great use of the bike-share program in Paris, and it seemed to work very well, but the bikes themselves were kind of bland, gray, workhouse models, maybe less likely to be coveted and stolen.

My old purple bicycle has gone out to pasture. I’d like a new bike; that is, I’d like to be able to go bike riding. But where? I’m still old-school when it comes to bikes: safety, comfort, and enjoying the scenery. Hold the spandex, please.

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The Lost World of My Youth

One of the series I’ve been following lately is “Call the Midwife”, one of those wonderful, well-crafted British productions that recreate another time – in this case, the late 1950’s.  The story takes place in Poplar, a poor section of London, and the main characters are mid-wife nurses and nuns — somewhat dated roles, by definition. As much as I enjoy the program, the social conditions, and the conditions of day to day life, as depicted in the series, have shocked me on occasion.  And shocked me into realizing that these were the years when I was born and brought up.  How distant and far away they seem, even primitive. Like a different world, almost. 

 One of the episodes takes place in 1958 – the year of my birth, only 13 years after the end of WWII.  For the characters in the show, not many years have passed since the Blitz, and all the trauma of war, including the families who lost husbands and fathers, and old soldiers who fade away with little reward for their service There is an epidemic of TB in the area, and one of the nuns is sent away to the sanatorium to recover. “Pregnant out of wedlock” is cause for firing of a single woman from the typing pool.  A married woman with 8 children tries unsuccessfully to abort herself, and then almost dies of a botched illegal abortion. The elderly and mentally ill must cope as best they can, and with the help of the fragile networks of relationships that support them.  Women at risk of abuse have almost no recourse; nor are the nuns and midwives able to offer much help.

 Yet, in 1958, there are signs of hope and progress. TV is a novelty, and a motor scooter is a thrill to the women who ply their trade mostly by bicycle.  A couple of the more adventurous don pants, after Princess Margaret has been spotted wearing them.  For me, in rural Connecticut, it wasn’t until a few years later, in the early sixties, that we girls wore pants to school, instead of skirts and tights, on winter days.  The big excitement for the nuns and nurse midwives in Poplar is the advent of “air and gas” to relax women in labor, and the arrival of the X-ray machine to detect TB before it spreads.  They are just beginning to instruct on the use of prophylactics (rubbers), although birth control of any kind is not covered by national health. These particular women, the nuns and nurse mid-wives, are in charge of themselves, and seen as true caretakers and authorities by the assisting doctor and by the hundreds of residents who use their services.  

 Mainly, I think to myself – what a revolution; what a relief to live in these present days. All the greater opportunities and conveniences that we enjoy, although not necessarily such greater protections.  Creature that I am, with the degree of independence I experienced as a young woman, I could not go back to that time.  However, I can see that some things have been lost, and greatest, perhaps, is the degree of connection and interdependence, the greater intimacy of lives shared.  The narrator of the story, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, celebrates the joys and victories, the respect and acknowledgement that she and the others receive, as well of course, the tragedies they witness – with such a clear sense of need and purpose at the most sacred and vulnerable times. 

 Most of the time, I’m thrilled and awed by how certain fundamental things have changed, and how quickly – technology, health care, women’s rights. TV and movies on demand and Iphones are what we longed for, and they are here. Yet, I feel a certain comfort in the remaining big yellow school busses, pop-up toasters, and the inches and feet of my youth. Because 1958 – the year of my birth – is now the distant past – another time – history.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s a time of change for our sons, graduating high school and college, and a change for us as well.  Increasingly, I hear the refrain from friends, “Are you going to stay in town?  Or, where are you thinking of moving to?”  As my husband says, he realizes that shortly we can move just about anywhere, now that we are through with the school system. But, where else is better than here?

I have a friend who is quite clear in her plans: part of the time in France (with her French speaking husband), and a “pied a terre” in some great city, i.e. New York, Boston or Philadelphia.  Other friends have bounced around ideas, like, for instance, “further south”, but without specific destinations in mind.  Or, the idea of being a “snow bird” is a reality for quite a few older folks that we know, part time here in the north, part time in the south. For a few giddy moments, I dreamed of Costa Rica – where many American expats live. A truly beautiful country with a warm, temperate climate, and a fairly stable political and social climate.  And a little English. I’m quite taken with the idea learning Spanish, a second language later in life. But my husband, not so much so. In fact, he’s still recovering from the trauma of high school Spanish.

 Certain facts anchor us to this area, for at least a while longer. First that my husband is not likely to retire too early from his profession(s), lawyer and accountant – going by the history of his parents and relatives, who worked until ripe old age.  And that means staying with his clients, to some extent. Yes, some work can be done remotely – say at the Cape, 1 ½ hours away. But not everything, and not too far away. The other is my husband’s mother, now 87, who lives in town with us, still independent, with us as her chief support system.  Her health and friends networks are here, and she would not be happy to uproot to an entirely new place. And we would want to continue our close relationship as long as it goes – which could be quite a bit longer, going by family history.

 And then, the financial equation:  not a larger house; not a more expensive house; perhaps a smaller house closer to the more expensive city (net equal).  Or, what many around us have done, a smaller place in a less expensive area (southern New Hampshire, farther out in the burbs) to create a little nest egg, but essentially be more inconvenient to all the things we value: church; theater and culture; good restaurants, etc.  We did at one time consider moving home base to the Cape – where we have a vacation home. Still a possibility, but not sure of the tradeoffs.

 Maybe we’ll wait it out until after my husband’s mother has passed and see where our boys end up.  Always a possibility, especially, if that might make life easier for them, regarding us.  But maybe not. And someplace completely new to get used to.  And missing the things about New England I find that I truly love and value, including perhaps, the diversity and more liberal outlook. 

 Still, after this past long winter, I finally admitted to myself – I will need a respite from this. Not just the physical effort of dealing with lots of snow and ice. But the cold, especially in my bones.  I could give up some of my daily walks in exchange for Zumba and other aerobic exercise, but I missed terribly the fresh air in my lungs.  And my constant cold hands and cold feet were debilitating at times.

 So, what then?  I guess as yet, it remains to be seen. But I can definitely see a getaway of some kind in the coldest part of the year where I can walk outside without all the layers, just sneakers on my feet and a sunhat on my head.

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The Great Hunger

In Gaelic, it’s An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, what we sometimes call the Potato Famine in 19th century Ireland.  A hunger so huge it changed the course of history, killing off a million, and causing another 1-2 million to leave in a matter of short years. The proximate cause was the potato blight, a natural disaster. But some now call the famine a genocide, direct or indirect, due to the fact that Ireland continued to export other food stuffs, to the profit of landowners, while the peasants went without. I know at least one of my ancestors, a gr-gr grandmother, Mary Erwin, is a documented survivor of the Irish famine. To the best of my research efforts, she came as a teen with two siblings, destined to be servants in Vermont. She lived to marry and have children, and I wonder if she ever shared with them the memories of a place where the people she knew and loved died slowly around her from lack of food.

Recently, I volunteered a few hours for a Pay It Forward event to pack meals for people today who know hunger as a daily and life-threatening experience.  The event was sponsored by Bedford Rotarians, in partnership with an organization called, Stop Hunger Now to send food to Haiti.  From the Bedford Citizen, “the Rotary Club of Bedford accomplished its goal of packing 120,000 meals at a mammoth event held at Middlesex Community College on Saturday, April 26. Working in three shifts, Rotary members, families, scout troops, church youth groups and business people donned food service gloves and hairnets to measure and fill the six-serving packets.”

I’m sometimes leery of “do good” events for folks in far away lands that help mostly the do-ers, it seems. I prefer to help locally, and/or I’d rather give money directly to an aid organization that I think does a good job. But I had a few hours, I know how desperate the situation remains in Haiti, and one of the coordinators was a friend, Peter Colgan, so I felt pretty certain it would be well-run. It was a terrific event, set up so that participants could clearly understand the goal and purpose, following a stream-lined process to achieve maximum speed and effectiveness – with a good dose of fun and challenge. My team of five, in hairnets, unknown to each other, filled packets with rice, soy protein, dehydrated veggies, and vitamins, to be weighed, sealed and boxed to go.  Three hours on our feet, no breaks, no time for conversation, but lots of high energy music, and a gong to let us know when we’d achieved our milestones.  It wasn’t until later that I found out the inspiration for this event: “Bedford Rotarian Ralph Hammond visited Haiti several years ago and wondered why school children didn’t return after lunch. He discovered that because there was no school lunch program, afternoon classes were suspended because the children were too hungry and restless to learn.”  

We know so little of real hunger in this day in this place.  I can barely even remember the hunger of my youth, between meals, when we weren’t allowed to snack, and how fierce it could be. I married into an Armenian family with a strong food culture, and the pantry is always full, and abundant food is part of every special occasion. But, that too, is a culture shaped by memory of hunger. At the turn of the century, there was a saying, “Starving Armenians”, and one of the earliest fundraising organizations was formed for the purpose of meeting this hunger. Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

I can’t help thinking that yes, Haiti’s hunger is a result of a natural disaster, an earthquake. But is it also true that, in a world of superabundance for some, not to share that food is a kind of genocide?  Or, not to try?  Or, not to care?  Sometimes I think there is a hunger not only for food, but for doing or being something good, meaningful, purposeful, beautiful, in the lives of others. Isn’t that the Great Hunger of the spirit? 

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Boston, Coming on Strong

After almost thirty years, grudgingly, I’ve become a fan of the city of Boston. Granted, most of my experiences are based on being a suburbanite with brief forays into the city for temporary jobs and a few noisy and memorable field trips with kids. I never got used to driving in the city, often got lost, and soon realized that many of Boston’s treasures are hidden away, not immediately accessible. My early impressions: suits without smiles; too many students with not a lot of consideration for others; tourists with cameras; mediocre food; and more packaged shows than original theater. A New Englander by birth, I was not charmed. 

I arrived in Boston in 1987 after living three years in New York City, and it never really stood a chance. In Boston, there was nothing like the theater and arts scene of NYC, uninspired shopping and sidewalks that rolled up after 11 pm. The subway ran limited hours, and then it was a chancy taxi ride home.  Downtown Crossing was on its last legs (and only now getting revitalized), the city streets were difficult to navigate, bad signage. And the people! Quick, impatient, not very fashionable. Like many city dwellers, unsmiling, and more than a bit unfriendly – at times territorial, bristly, and rude. 

 By contrast, the Big Apple of the 1980’s was electric: a time of excitement and turmoil. Everything larger than life: Times Square and the World Trade Towers. Crowds, yes; crime; homelessness. A vital theater and arts scene, and plenty of upscale shops (and shop windows).  Not only a 24 hour subway, but a city of 10,000 restaurants (at the time), and many of them open all night. And Central Park – what a treasure — during the day. So many wonderful public spaces, free or next to nothing: plazas, parks and benches, subways and ferry rides.  The miracle of it all, in my mind, was that it worked so well, for all its people and its problems – a sense that we couldn’t all be out for ourselves, or no one would get anywhere and nothing would get done. An unspoken agreement to cooperate; a kind of democracy of the streets.

 Gradually, over the years, the cities changed – or I changed – or both. On my visits to NYC, I traveled well-remembered streets and neighborhoods, some now transformed – razed and gentrified. Not so much of the street people and the hawkers. Lots of tourists with cell phone cameras. Tamer, perhaps, less dangerous or exciting. The city reclaimed, to some extent, by the winners of Wall Street, the more well-to-do. Boston, on the other hand, somehow perked up, in ways I never expected. The pocket ethnic neighborhoods have spread and bled into each other. And the restaurants – a true revolution. In the early 1990’s, I taught English Comp to a class of Culinary Arts students at Newbury college, who assured me that Boston was about to become a great restaurant town. I doubted it. Turns out, they were right.  The Museum of Fine Arts has a tremendous new wing; important, major works are performed at the larger theaters, and a host of new plays and companies are popping up everywhere. 

 I haven’t missed the commonality in making these two major cities perhaps more livable, rewarding and humane – that they have survived attacks from without. Few of us in this country will outlive the memories of 9/11. We mourned the losses of a great city and shared in the slow, determined recovery. After Boston’s Marathon bombing, I had a better idea of what the city is made of, and it was not “each for him or herself”. I saw that in time of emergency, many, many folks did what they could to help, from attending the injured to cooperating with the request to “shelter-in-place” from police in pursuit of the perpetrators. The city I visit now has a different feel somehow. People ask if you’re lost. They might share a joke on an elevator.  Sometimes on the subway, they smile.

 I wore an I Love New York tee shirt to shreds, long after I’d left the city. I may just be ready to put on one that says Boston Strong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Memories…the Dusty Corners of My Mind

From time to time, I’ve considered writing a memoir, since this is the age of memoir and I’ve had a pretty adventurous life:  a girl on her own, lots of ups and downs, coming of age in the 70’s and 80s, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, the advent of technology age, all that. I’ve got material: love affair with a Vietnam vet; cross-country bus ride with $24 in my pocket; frisked for drugs on the Mexican border. I’ve seen the big canvas: the California scene, the Big Apple in the 1980’s, a step back in time on the Eastern Shore, MD. Oh, right, I’ve written about those already, in my novels, and that is probably where they’re going to stay.  There’s really no danger that this memoir will be written, primarily because I have such a bad memory.  There are significant periods of time in my younger years that I can not recall much detail, not actually drug or alcohol-related.  Even now, when I write, I’m not entirely sure if a scene is entirely fiction or something that might have actually happened.

I know I’m not the only one with recall problems. In my current stage, there is the menopausal “fog” of forgetfulness. Many of my older friends keep busy doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, studying foreign languages to keep minds sharp. I have a friend who lost her house in a fire, and since then has not been able to rely on her memory as she used to. I believe my memory issues have to do with a kind of “automatic” pilot I functioned on for many years just to keep myself afloat. Being in the moment and concerned with survival, I didn’t have the opportunity to closely observe and analyze things, and so they passed like flotsam on a river, gone forever. Fortunately, there are two people who are living, breathing memory banks for certain times of life: my sister, close companion of my youth; and my husband, who can quote what I said 30 years ago when we first met as undergrads.  They are my zip drives, thumb sticks, memory devices that I can plug-in and retrieve things that are otherwise inaccessible.  Thank God for that.

 It wasn’t always so. As a student I had a terrific memory for some things, almost photogenic in some regards. In French and Spanish, I could pick up vocabulary easily on one or two passes. In literature, I could recall passages and even specific sentences. And yet, I had trouble retaining lines in a play, mostly, I think, because of anxiety that came from drawing up words from the back of my mind while the front of my mind was in coping mode, on the lookout for problems.  My younger son claims this absent-mindedness has a genetic component, and perhaps it does. As does my sons’ aptitude for foreign language. No doubt memory has a biological basis; but more and more I see that it’s shaped, too, by experience and emotion.

 The one part of memory I claim some pride in is what people tell me about themselves. It’s like having cabinets with files large and small, and I rarely throw things out.  These files are also cross-referenced with other people and events.  A fair amount of work, I assure you. And yet, I can retain that information because it’s important to me, clearly.  And that I got from my grandmother, who kept track of all the comings and goings of her large family, down to who liked vanilla and who liked chocolate.  So, it seems there is a truth to selective memory, what is kept and what is allowed to go.

The modern day is a challenge to all of our memories. It’s a busy life with a lot to remember, and a lot slips through the cracks, even with our best efforts. I have to make a list for anything over three items at the store. I’ve taken to announcing that I have x number of questions/issues at the doctors office or on the phone – alerting others that I may well forget something. But, if I have one consolation, it is that I’m already at home with a certain degree of absent-mindedness, and have learned to work around it. And, in some ways, it’s nice to let the more trivial things sift away, leaving behind mainly what I most care about.

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(Anti-semitism) In Our Little Town

This is my letter printed in last week’s newspaper.  There was a public forum and a lot of information came to light, as well as ideas of how to respond to these anti-semitic incidents. The media has picked up the story, giving a lot of coverage in the print and on TV news. Some folks in town are upset with the attention, thinking it’s an unfair view of a basically very tolerant and diverse town. They feel, too, that the perpetrator’s aim in putting up anti-semitic graffiti is a ploy for attention, and a way to make the town look bad.  All true, and yet, I feel there is something more to the issue that needs to be looked at and discussed.  Why Jews?  Why now?  And why incidents in the elementary schools, where the children cannot have real knowledge of the issues? It’s painful, but it’s good, to face any kind of racism or bias publicly. So much gets swept under the carpet and continues, while people suffer in silence.

March 12, 2014

Bedford Minuteman

Last week, along with all parents of students in the Bedford schools, I received an email about anti-Semitic incidents in the schools. Super. Jon Sills described the incidents and what the schools have been doing to address them. He appealed to parents and others to speak out about changing hurtful, intolerant behaviors. He suggested that the problems are not simply school-based, but arise from a culture or attitude within the town that allows these things to happen. I agree. More has to be done, not just by Jewish residents, but by non-Jews as well. As nice a town as we like to think Bedford is, ugly things do happen and we have to face them.

A couple years ago, in Bedford, I saw rude and Jewish-targeted graffiti at a Jewish friend’s residence. Initially, I considered calling the police or taking pictures of what I saw to post to Facebook, asking, “What is this about?” I had to do something. There are Jewish families with young children who live in the area, and I was appalled to think what they might feel seeing this. As I came to understand, it was a high school prank, involving kids whose families I know. I did address what happened, quietly. The graffiti was erased; no one else ever knew. I was seeking to educate, not punish.

But, I see now, my actions did nothing to prevent other anti-Semitic behaviors in town. Now, picture this: children at the playground play a game called, “Jail the Jews”, one of the incidents Jon Sill described in his letter. A middle-schooler strolls by and takes out his phone to shoot a video for his friends: “Check this out.” The video goes viral on YouTube. And then you see it. There’s your young neighbor, worried and confused, up against the fence. There’s your other young neighbor, loud and forceful, rounding up those to be jailed. Not that cute, is it?

Like most problems, this one won’t go away on its own. It needs to be defined, explored and discussed – town-wide. To my Jewish friends, I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this, yet again. To their children, “I’m going to do what I can to make things better.”

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