Tuesday, July 4, 2017

IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS

My husband, daughter and I recently stayed at a B&B on Nantucket.  On our first morning, the owner asked the twelve of us at breakfast a question:  If you could have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be? 

I avoided answering because the question seemed so personal.  I didn’t know this woman and had just met the others.  No matter whom I picked, I was afraid my answer would be too revealing.  I’m sure that says something significant about me, but that’s not my point here. Nor will I address why I feel comfortable now answering this question in my blog that could, theoretically, reach more people.

My first thought, if I had answered, was to say I’d like to talk to my mother. She died when I was in my forties before my children became adults and before I’d become the person I am now. She was not easy to talk to and the number of real conversations the two of us had could be counted on the fingers of one hand with several left over. I like to think with more years of life behind me that I’d be able to talk to her now and push past her defenses and get real without her shutting me down. 

But if I had answered that morning I wouldn’t have said my mother.  Instead I’d pick a writer who I admire.  My first thought was Jane Austen because I have read all her books and love every one. But I think the times she lived in are so different than ours that we would not have the same concerns. In addition, because she never had a husband or children she never had to juggle work, children and a spouse or justify occasionally putting herself first.

On the other hand, Ann Tyler, another favorite author, is alive and does have a family. I love how she turns domestic stories into brilliant character studies.  Because I’ve read most of her books, I’m not sure I’d need to ask her any specific questions.  Instead, I’d like to hang out, have lunch, coffee or a glass of wine and chat.  That way I’d find out if she’s a lot different than I am or more like my friends and I with the extra dash of genius that produced such novels as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

I’d also pick her because she’s a woman.  It seems so many male writers have big egos, assistants and attitude.  I don’t think they would let their hair down or forget that they’re famous and part of the literati as easily as a female writer.  In sum, I don’t imagine they’d be that much fun to spend time with over a drink. 

But mostly Ann Tyler would be my choice because of an essay she wrote about having to schedule her writing time around her children’s activities.  In the essay she described how she’d put away a manuscript to go to her child’s athletic event.  As a woman and a mother, I can so relate to that.  I don’t see a male writer interrupting his afternoon of writing to catch his daughter or son’s soccer game though maybe I’m being harsh and hasty in casting aspersions.

Most significantly though I’d pick Ann Tyler because the last conversation I had with my mother was about one of Ann Tyler’s books, Breathing Lessons.  My mother thought the book was funny.  I read it later, after she died, and didn’t find it funny at all.  But I like to think that talking about it and why we had such different reactions could be a starting point for us.


I wonder how others would answer the question: who would you want to talk to, alive or dead?  Would it be an historical figure?  An ancestor, or would you also go for someone who you could relate to and learn from?  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

OWNING AND LOVING BOOKS



I’m the oldest person in my family and as such, have participated in cleaning out my grandmother’s, my parents’ and my in-laws’ houses.  When my father died, a number of years after his and my mother’s house had been emptied and sold, he left a suitcase of clothes, a small bookcase full of books and a bundle of papers neatly organized.  That’s my goal, to own just a few possessions and not be overwhelmed by stuff.  I’m not there yet, but I envision a time when I know where everything is and use everything I own.

That’s my goal, but it should not come as a surprise to fellow writers, book lovers and anyone who knows me that my biggest indulgence is books and it’s books that are overtaking my house. I drop by bookstores wherever I am and rarely leave without buying several.  I read book reviews, get recommendations about new authors from friends, and attend conferences where I listen and meet new authors.  I pick up or order those books too.  When I go to the library I come home with a stack to read.  Unfortunately, I don’t have time to read all of them, I may never, but I anticipate a time when I will and having those books and knowing they’re there to read when I’m ready brings me joy.  I recognize that not everyone feels this way, but for me books are a window into other worlds and an opportunity to meet people who I’d otherwise never know.

But I do have too many books. I live in a big farmhouse in upstate New York where every room except the dining room has several bookcases and each of them is filled to the brim.  I have a small apartment in New York City with two big bookshelves and those and my bedside tables are also overflowing.

In my quest to simplify my life and environment, I’ve started getting rid of some. It has not been easy.  It’s one thing to get rid of books that I didn’t like or duplicates, another to get rid of books that I love.  I started by telling myself that I would only keep the books that I haven’t read or if I had read, intended to read again.  It meant I gave away some of my very favorite books from college and my younger days as well as classics I knew I wouldn’t reread.  Although painful at times, I’ve managed to get rid of a lot, donating them to our local library’s annual book sale or leaving them in the lobby of my apartment building in the city. I plan to keep at it and consider every book that I own to determine what to keep and what can go.  In the course of this divesting, I’ve come face to face with the realization that there is a finite time for everything including reading books.  But it’s also meant I’ve revisited old friends and been reminded of books that I’ve loved and now can share with others.


Believe me, I still have all those bookcases overflowing, but at least now not all of them are double shelved and of course, there will always be room for new books.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Best Kept Secret: Getting Old is Okay

                        

When I was in my twenties fresh out of college, for a few months I lived with my parents who’d left suburban Long Island when their last child, my youngest brother, went off to college. 

I think it’s the first time I was conscious of their age.  I was temporarily back home and meeting new people.  I saw them through my friends’ eyes along with my own and I saw them as old.  They were fifty.

I do remember how excited they were by all the things they could do, the opportunities that were now open to them living in the city.  My father was still working, but after work he loved trying the restaurants that until now he’d only been able to read about.  My mother, who hadn’t worked since I was born, immediately got a membership at the Metropolitan Museum, started volunteering at the local Red Cross and signed up for courses at the New York Botanical Garden.  She especially took to the city like a duck to water.  It was as if she had a new lease on life and I remember being proud of her, but I was also amused because she was “old.”

Now I’m older than they were then, but I don’t feel “old.” If I’m old, and by most definitions, I am, I’ve discovered that it’s not a bad place to be.  From the time I was a child until I went away to college, I didn’t feel like I had control of anything, let alone my future. It wasn’t much better after that.

For as long as I can remember there were people to worry about, standards to measure up to, and of course, the competitions.  I never figured out the rules to those competitions until it was too late, so I wasn’t very good at them, but I worried anyway.

For some reason, those competitions don’t matter so much anymore.  Maybe I’ve been around so long that I can see a lot of them are silly and have finally figured out that comparisons don’t usually make any sense.  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that I’m finally at the age where I don’t worry so much about what other people think and I don’t spend a lot of time comparing myself to others. 

There will always be people that are better looking, have more and by certain standards, are more successful.  But I’ve pretty much stopped judging myself by others.  I know I’m very lucky and have the life that I want to lead.

Of course bad luck or tragedy could be around the corner.  Most of us have experienced that first hand: a loved one who dies without warning, a serious illness that changes everything, or a personal disappointment.  No one is immune.  But even so, being older is the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my own skin.  Looking back I think that’s exactly where my parents were when they moved into the city.  My mother, particularly, was the happiest I ever saw her, but both my parents were excited and alive—even though they were “old.”  I think the same could be said about my husband and me and that makes us very lucky.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

UNIVERSAL ATONEMENT

My husband and I were down in the Virgin Islands on vacation last week where we took a sunset cruise.  As we looked off into the horizon and watched the sunset a conversation started with ‘what do you do.’

One of the two women I was talking to explained that she was an ex-Catholic studying to be a Methodist minister.  This led to a discussion of Lent and how we were going to observe it.  To my surprise, as a nominal Catholic, the third woman in our group, a Jew, fully participated in the conversation.  The future minister mentioned Pope Francis and his recent comment about sacrifice and what was really important about Lent.  We three ultimately agreed that some form of giving was a better way to observe Lent than giving up something we love, even if the giving up was difficult.  I’m still struggling with how, based on that philosophy, what I should do, but that’s another story.

I wouldn’t think this conversation or my thoughts on it would be right for a blog, except that like politics these days, it’s a subject that seems to be on everyone’s minds.  In my art class here in New York City, we’re a group of nine, ranging in age from thirty-seven to seventy, who are Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants and agnostics, but Lent and how we observe it, or what we were going to “give up” was the conversation at my last class.  Everyone had an opinion, Pope Francis’s recent statement was mentioned, and it seemed that whether we intended to observe it or not, we all had thought about it.

I’m not sure what this seemingly universal recognition of this Christian season means.  It doesn’t happen at Christmas, where the holiday and all its trimmings are observed from afar by everyone but Christians, even if with nostalgia and pleasure.  True, there are Jews that have Christmas trees, but at least from my observation, those who do have trees are in the minority. Instead, there is an emphasis on Christmas being a Christian holiday, not a universal one. 


Could it be that in these tumultuous and stressful times that just as we find comfort in the existence of a holy man like Pope Francis who renews our hope that there is good in this world, we also find comfort in how we’re alike, not different.  No matter what our religion or belief system, I think we recognize that we all good-hearted and thoughtful people. When times are uncertain, I think we see a need to find universal truths and be prepared to sacrifice or atone with the hope that we’ll participate in making the world a better place. Or am I complicating it?  Is it simply that as a people we have far more in common with each other than we realize?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Aging in Today's Society

When I was at the gym last week in Manhattan, I overheard a personal trainer refer to his client, a distinguished looking man most likely over 70, as Buddy. I was horrified.

It reminded me of when I’d visit my father in Arizona and take him out to lunch.  It was in his last years while he still was living independently. He had been a successful Wall Street lawyer, always in command, always distinguished.  Now he was in his mid-80’s and not so distinguished and no longer with the trappings that came with his status as a successful lawyer.  Even when I struggled to help him manage the trip from the car, navigate the curb, then the walk to the restaurant entrance and then to the table, I still saw him as dignified and someone to respect.  He still had his wits about him and still had his wonderful sense of humor. He still was my father.

And then someone, the hostess or the waiter would speak to him in the same patronizing tone as that personal trainer and I’d cringe and want to lash out and correct.  Whether these people knew it or not, they are and were treating these older adults like infants or half-wits.

It also happened in the nursing home where my father spent his last months.  The highlight of that stay—in a home with an excellent reputation—was the visit from the woman who brought in the therapy dog once a week.  She spoke to the residents as adults and was respectful.  Otherwise, my father and the other residents were treated like nursery school children.   Even the tone of voice of the nurses and aids in the nursing home was that special tone that inept preschool teachers save for their most recalcitrant students.

Most of us, at least in the progressive and inclusive area where I live, make an effort to be sensitive about gender differences, sexual orientation, race and religion, but when it comes to age, so many people are tone deaf.  I considered sending an email to my gym telling them what I overheard and how offensive I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure if I was being sensitive on behalf of my father and my memories of him or myself since although I’m not as old as that man or my father, I’m no longer young.

One might say disrespect to the elderly is the least of our society’s problems in these days of turmoil. The case against ageism may not be as compelling as the one against racism or other minorities.  In fact, as boomers, we seniors are climbing into the majority. On the other hand, most of us won’t escape getting old and a society more sensitive to the reality of the elderly would, no matter what our other minority statuses, be a more tolerable and kinder place to live and age.