A Cougel Christmas on the Prairie.

I admit it. I love Christmas. Christmas is fun. Christmas is cozy. Christmas is everything it promised to be when I was a little girl who celebrated Hannukah.

christmas-Hanukkah

Hannukah is an eight night affair. This is because when the temple in Jerusalem was seized and later reclaimed, there was only enough olive oil for the menorah to burn for one day, and yet miraculously, it burned for eight. But when you’re a kid, you’re just psyched to get presents for eight days straight. And when you’re a Jewish kid, you’re psyched to have a holiday that gifts you rather than guilts you.

My family celebrated Hannukah by lighting candles every night and eating latkes (fried potatoes) with apple sauce. I am the middle of three girls, and now that I’m older, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to buy presents three times eight times. So instead, we got one “big” present. As opposed to my best friend who was the only girl in her family, where each gift successively trumped the next. I would wait in anticipation to hear about the roller-skates she received, the sequined miniskirt, the aquarium, and if she could drive, a pink convertible would have been gift number eight instead of a new piano.

“What did you get?” She would ask me, her brown ponytail swinging like that of the pony she received the year before.

I pulled the sleeves of my purple Gap shirt down over my wrists proudly and smiled, “This!” I said. (And a pair of socks you can’t see at the moment).

As a pre-teen, I may have felt short changed, but looking back, my parents’ lesson stuck. Holidays are not about extravagant gifts, nor should they be. The emphasis is on giving; giving your time, your attention, and your love to your family and others.

So now that I am celebrating my second Christmas, which spans only one day, gift giving is just a small part of it.

Last Christmas, my husband of just three months and I flew to Kansas, where his parents now live, for my first true Christmas. And it was everything I had imagined it to be. Christmas carols and the scent of cookies and cinnamon candles warmed the space around me. The tree stood near the fireplace, green and red presents hugging its base and spreading along the carpet, beckoning me. We said grace before dinner and told stories afterwards. Hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps warmed my insides. Love for my husband, for my new family, and for God, filled me with joy. (And I did not cut and paste any of this from a Hallmark card).

On the short drive to Church on Christmas Eve, I took in the idyllic scenery; the pretty homes, the snow covered lawns and twinkly facades, the orange lights emanating from curtained windows where families were nestled together in front of fireplaces. As we walked into Church, my husband took my hand as we took our seats, his parents greeting their friends with hugs and Merry Christmas’s. I noticed that the stage was decorated with streamers and balloons, like a child’s birthday party. A jolt of confusion struck me. Why were they having a kid’s birthday party in the evening? This seemed unusual.

It didn’t occur to me until half way through the service whose birthday it was.

Yeah, Baby Jesus.

No, Hannukah doesn’t prepare you for that.

But Little House on the Prairie reruns do. Somehow, I knew the songs. Onward Christian Soldiers. Noel. Greensleeves. My piano teacher, sweet old Mr. G who used to fall asleep during my lessons, had taught me all of these songs (unbeknownst to my mother). And now here I was on an actual prairie.

This Christmas day, we’re going to the Jewish prairie: Miami Beach. My parents are there with my sister and nieces. But first, my husband and I are going to go to Christmas Eve services in Manhattan, and exchange gifts. (I just may have ended up buying him eight of them, as if to make up for my childhood Hannukah, or at the very least, sprinkle some Hannukah in there.)

We don’t have a tree, and not only because there is no room for one in our small living room. The focus is not about secular symbols, it’s about the birth of Jesus (see above). Instead, we have candles, music, a menorah that we just finished lighting, and each other. As for next year, when our living room is bigger, and perhaps our family too, we can custom make our own Little House.

Happy Christakkah to you all, and lots and lots of love.

 

 

 

The Selfish Scale: When is self-care considered selfish?

My best friend and roommate from college came to New York to visit me this weekend. She and I have stayed in touch, and been there for each other’s milestones for…uh…22 years.

I usually spend my weekends retreating from people besides my husband unless I have family visits and events. Saturdays flow out like so: wake up whenever dog (not children) decide we should, NYT and coffee on the couch, brunch, followed by what we’ve dubbed “writing time” even if it doesn’t always produce actual words. This time is really my self-nurturing allotment and includes reading, thinking, jotting down ideas, and only occassionally actually working on a book project. When I skip this time, like some people who haven’t gone to the gym or a toddler who missed his nap, I feel off, my nerves ever so slightly frayed. My weekdays are filled with external facing energy, like most people, but because my main job is in sales, that outward thrust is directed towards people – getting to know them, and many times, befriending them.

I love people. I crave connection, and like many writers, I tend to excavate to get to the bottom of what makes a person tick. “You get in there,” a friend who’d only known me for a short while once said. This is true, even though I’ve spent my whole life insisting that I am an introvert, because I’m creative and when I was younger, moody and insistent on alone time at the most random moments. But in the last decade, particularly in the last 4 years as a sales representative who arranges client dinners, parties, and bottles of alcoholic beverages, these new friends and clients would look at me in shock.

You? An introvert? No way.

They’d be right, except that recently, I’ve found myself trying to reclaim that introverted self – or at the very least, honor her needs. What this looks like on the outside is less of me on the outside. Fewer parties, less small talk and more deep talk and connection with what my therapist calls the four people in my inner circle (and you know who you are). Reciprocal conversation that flows naturally and nourishes the heart and soul, rather than a “catch up” conversation which to me is akin to reporting; digging into an old balloon of information that’s already been satisfyingly popped. But this comes with a price, a sense of being punched when those who are not in that inner circle say, “Where have you been?” or in one particular (and humorous) moment, “Where have you been, asshole?”

Whenever I experience such friction, or find myself taking inventory and analyzing my relationships too much (or if you’re Jewish, find yourself feeling guilty all the time), I get angry with myself for allowing it to distract me, but I also know that there must be some opportunity – a lesson – in this turmoil, or at the very least, it’s a growing pains’ groan.

Reconnecting with a friend who knew you when you were young and unfettered, when you were your true-you before adulthood and marriage and before the shackles of expectations appear is like jumping into a cold plunge pool of the soul. As my girlfriend and I huddled together in our pajamas to resume the conversation we began the night before, I was transported back to our dorm room 22 years ago (only difference was an air mattress in a NYC living room). We discussed and analyzed everything — our jobs, our marriages, and our friendships and how we serve them, and came to the realization that our type of friendship is rare. The last time I saw her was at my wedding 14 months ago, which means that I saw her and hugged her, but didn’t really talk to her. And we haven’t spoken on the phone for more than a few brief minutes almost six months ago. She told me her mother, upon hearing this, asked if everything between us was okay? She found this infrequent contact to be an indication of a waning bond, but my friend told her – and I agreed – that it is quite the opposite.

“We are there for each other for the important stuff, and we both know that. It doesn’t matter if one of us hasn’t called or forgot a birthday.” (Although Facebook has saved me from fumbling the latter).

best-friends-md

Not to mention the old adage that as we change, our friendships and their dynamics change. They have to, if there is growth to be had and priorities to be realigned. As a single divorcee, I was always available for any outing, craving like minded women friends with the same agenda as me, and the added motivation that perhaps I might meet someone at a bar (which is ironically how I met my husband). Looking back, there is no longer a spotlight on those friendships, but rather its searchlight has since cast over a different group, and then finally, has come to rest here, at home.

For the dudes that might be reading this, I know you’re scratching your heads (if not rolling your eyes), wondering how it’s possible that us women can spend so much time not only talking, but worrying about our friendships. To that I’d say, we can’t help it, because that’s how we are built — to crave the understanding and unconditional support that friendship provides, and like most fulfilling relationships, that comes with an emotional tax. (And besides, be grateful. It takes some of the pressure off you).

So, extrovert or introvert? Does extroversion equate to friendliness and inclusion of others, and introversion to its absence? And can’t we be both?

Another girlfriend who I confide in daily helped answer this question, as I struggled with this dichotomy and how my actions affect those I care about: “Self love and self care is difficult when we are taught that we must put others first, and requires a complete relearning to accept that it’s okay not to, and that in fact, we must.” (Yeah, this one’s in my inner circle for a reason, can’t you tell?).

She reminded me of the airplane analogy: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your child.” Because we can’t take care of anyone else when we ourselves are not thriving.

Finding that balance is difficult, and requires routine maintenance…

…and perhaps an occasional loving reminder from a friend.

 

Moving upwards.

I currently live in a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsiron – an intersection between Chelsea and Flatiron – with no distinct personality of its own. It’s a nice apartment, but I chose it when I was single; a divorcee for whom having a home of her own, let alone the purchase of a Manhattan apartment, is worn like a proud but frayed survivor’s badge. The apartment was also a practical choice; an investment in my future, which at the time, was a large blank screen. At the apartment’s closing, which I attended alone surrounded by suited brokers and was handed the key, I had no idea that in just two years time, I would remarry and promptly (and happily) outgrow it.

Our homes are indicators of our state of mind, and moving forces us to not only look ahead to where we are going, but to look back on where we’ve been. After my ex-husband and I separated eight years ago and I moved out of the house we had shared, I moved seven more times, each apartment encapsulating a time in my life like a chapter in a book, with its own distinct story (more here). In my final months in LA, I lived in three corporate apartments, their generic and sterile furnishings mirroring my rootless existence and blank identity. My first apartment in New York City was a sublet in an Upper West Side walk-up, which belonged to a dude friend, furnished with oversized dude furniture and a beer bottle collection. Then, it was Sullivan Street in Soho, where I got to decorate from scratch, each item a reflection of my own taste, rather than the expensive and hasty by-product of a wedding registry. I even painted my room pink to declare my womanhood, and left the kitchenette unused, bacheloritte style. Then, I upgraded to University Place, where the adjacent NYU dorm represented my twenty something mentality, as I dated and partied, cramming in the twenties I felt I had never had when I was married. Then it was time to settle down and get a “real” apartment, or prove to everyone – including myself – that I was a grown up. Looking back, part of me resisted this label, because to me this move didn’t mean that I had moved on; that I had healed. To me, it signified a kind of resignation of perpetual singlehood.

About six months later, I rekindled my relationship with my now-husband and he moved in with me, and between his 6’7” frame and that of my large dog who resembles a small pony, it became evident we would soon outgrow the place. And after one year of marriage, as we begin to plan a family, we’ve started talking about moving to that place that all wannabe parents (and wannabe writers) talk about….

Brooklyn.

But I have a good excuse – my husband’s new office is located there. That seemed to trump, even eliminate, the possibility of us moving to New Jersey where my parents, sisters, and their families live. As much as I would love to be near them when I have my own children, I think my husband’s work proximity matters most.

When I woke up yesterday morning (open house today!) the air crackled with the anticipation of a new beginning. I dressed in new jeans, and a comfy but chic cardigan sweater, deliberately leaving the soho booties in the closet, in my attempt to look stylish but effortless ala Brooklyn chic. I noticed my husband put on a cashmere sweater I had bought for him, as if he too was feeling the flutter of excitement.

We had three open houses to hit in Ft. Greene and Clinton Hill, but first we stopped for brunch on the popular strip of restaurants on Myrtle Avenue. A cozy bistro caught my eye, and as we entered and found two seats at the bar, I realized they were the same two seats I had occupied three years ago, when meeting a friend who lived in the area (and who had also serendipitously worked in my former building on University Place, which I write about HERE.) It had been a rainy day, and we had both been single, lamenting our dating lives on breaks from a discussion of my new manuscript, about the six different “what-if” lives a woman lives, had she made different decisions. At the time, I myself had been positioned in the locus of that what-if intersection, wondering which life I was going to embark on. And now, here I was, sitting beside my new husband, three years later, in the same spot, but with an entirely new life, a new story, a new direction – one of six, or perhaps one of infinity, that I had chosen. Or rather, that I had been blessed with.moving pic

I looked at my husband and a rush of emotion engulfed me. Here I was, over a decade later from when I had home hunted in Los Angeles with my ex-husband, when I had tried to stuff my fears and doubts into a paragon of happiness, thinking it would fix things, and fix me. But as I looked back on that girl who left that life, and the string of lives she subsequently inhabited, or tried on, I didn’t feel self-pity. I didn’t feel grief.

But the tears started forming anyway. “Are you ok?” my husband asked me.

I put my hand on his cheek, then his back, and leaned in to inhale his scent, like an emotional reality check, and realized that I had been caught up in the motions of planning our day and researching neighborhoods, that I almost missed the meaning. I had been given another try, another chance at another life – one that I could never have envisioned for myself but which had become my definition of happiness. Of the multitude of paths that had once stretched before me, somehow I had gone down the right one, animating and illuminating the big screen of my future with light.

 

 

A Writer's Retreat into Beauty

About two months ago, a writer named Dani Shapiro who I admire and whose spiritual memoir, Devotion, inspired me to write mine, posted on Twitter that she was going to be teaching a writing seminar based on her latest book, Still Writing, at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. I had never heard of Kripalu, but apparently it’s famous. That is, if you do Yoga. The last time I tried Yoga was ten years ago at the Crunch Gym in West Hollywood, because it was fashionable to do so, where I pulled a muscle in my pinkie toe (I didn’t know toes had muscles, but apparently this one gave me an excuse to bail).

On impulse, or perhaps instinct, I signed up for the retreat on the spot. I hadn’t done this kind of retreat before because it had never appealed to me. Back when I was a mopey, single divorcee, my solo trips had consisted of a brief jaunts to exotic places where I could hangout or write, without any kind of structure or program where I had to interact with other people. But this time, something was different. Perhaps it was because I had just initiated a change in lifestyle: healthy eating, no drinking, and an opportunity to maaaybe try Yoga again. My husband, who cherishes his solitude and encourages my need to cultivate my own, was supportive of my weekend adventure.  writing

I packed three identical workout pants, yanked from that neglected shelf in my closet, and a bunch of leggings as backup. And in an even more atypical move, I left my makeup and my blow dryer at home.

It was a pleasant train ride along the Hudson. As we got closer to Massachusetts, I noticed tufts of snow dotting the rolling hills and lacing the bare trees.

A shuttle picked me up at the train station for the one-hour ride to Kripalu. In it, I was pleased to meet three women, one of whom blogs for The Jewish Week, and another Jewish writer who is also part of a Facebook writing group I belong to called “Binders Full of Women Writers,” or in this case, a shuttle full of Jewish ones. We immediately began chatting about our stories, our lives, our writing, until at one point I turned to the driver who I was sitting beside, after noticing he had a slight accent, and proudly asked him, “Are you Israeli?” to which he replied in Hebrew, “Yes, and I’m sitting here listening to your ‘shtooyot’!” which means, “silly conversation or petty shit.” If it sounds rude, it wasn’t – at least not in Hebrew.

It was dark at Kripalu when we arrived, but I could already tell the campus was beautiful; secluded and vast and surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. Retreaters were filing into the reception area with their duffels, knit hats, and socks shoved into Ugg slippers or Birkenstocks. The place was rustic and smelled like pine and vegan food, a scent that surfaced a memory from when I was fifteen and my best friend and I decided to raid her stepfather’s health food store for snacks with enticing names like “Rice Dream” and “Carob Chew.” I had never tried these kinds of snacks before (my family was non-Yoga and non-health food; we were more of a treadmill and shnitzel type clan), and decided after one bite, that I did not need to try it again. Like, ever.

As we checked in, my shuttle mates informed me that they were going to be lodging in the “dorm.”

“You mean like college?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Binder replied. “Except with bunk beds.”

You can imagine my relief that in a rare moment of wise planning, I had actually booked my own room. I’m not only too old for shares, but I’m a light sleeper, and if I don’t sleep well, you don’t want to go near me. But besides, I knew that if I didn’t have the mental space and solitude to curl in to, that I wouldn’t be fully benefitting from the writing sessions, and I certainly wouldn’t be awake enough to get up for Yoga at 6am on a Saturday.

I slept well, and woke at 6am. Just in time for Yoga! But, I didn’t go to Yoga. I told myself that there were grounds to explore and healthy foods to eat. And social media to cram in before I exited my room into the “no electronics allowed” zone. I could try Yoga that afternoon, and the next morning too.

I went to the cafeteria in search of coffee and scoured the beverage options. Filtered water, a cabinet of teas, hot water, spiced tea, soymilk, apple-something tea, but no coffee. I signed up for the no alcohol thing, but no caffeine when trapped on a campus with no Starbucks in sight was not cool. I looked around and noticed that despite the clattering of trays and scraping of chairs on linoleum, it was unusually quiet. I walked to the entrance and asked a smiley employee, “Is there any coffee here?”

She whispered something in response, but I couldn’t hear her, so I asked the question again, louder.

“Downstairs…” she whispered again, but it sounded more like a hiss. “In the café.” And then she put her finger over her mouth in the “sssh” position and pointed to the rather large sign on the door that yelled “SILENT BREAKFAST.”

“How could you be placid and silent without coffee?” was what I wanted to ask her, but I did not.

When I walked into the large room where Dani’s session was beginning, I immediately felt at home. I even remembered to take off my shoes and leave them in the cubby upon entering, and had a big water bottle as a Yoga prop. There were small folding chairs lined up in a semi circle, and Dani sat Indian style on an elevated platform with candles and yogi things behind her. She began the session with a brief meditation, asking us to get in a comfortable position, close our eyes, and pay attention to our breath. I wondered if this could qualify as my Yoga sampling for the weekend.

My mind began to wander immediately. Shit, did I turn off my phone? Why didn’t I leave it in my room like I was told to do upon check in? It’s ok. It’s too early for anyone to call, or expect me to be awake – even Mom. Is there anyone here I might like or click with? Or is the whole point not to? Maybe I’m supposed to sit in solitude, silent breakfast spreading into silent bedtime. Shit, my phone is so going to ring….

The next thing Dani said snapped me back to the present: “Now imagine a person in your life who is kind… your beloved…“ and my husband’s smiling face rushed in, looming large in my mind’s eye (and he’s 6’7” large already). I was pleased to see him (and it would have been weird had it been anyone else, although Mom paid a visit the next time).

“And say these words silently to yourself,” she continued. “May you be safe, may you be strong, may you be happy, may you live with ease…” I found myself surprisingly in the moment, a warmth spreading up through my chest and outward into the room, stretching towards my husband who was a hundred miles away in New York. It felt like prayer, something I was pleased to discover had become familiar and cozy.

When the meditation portion of the program had concluded, I turned and met eyes with the woman sitting next to me, her leathery skin and sandy hair gave her the appearance of a carefree hippie from California, but behind her glasses, her brown eyes were packed with layers of pain. It didn’t take long for her to tell me the reason. Her husband of 37 years, her beloved, had died two years ago. She had come to this retreat because she was still sifting through her grief by searching for the story line – perhaps a lifeline to a new life. At some point during that session Dani said something, about the “accumulation of losses,” and how this “burden is a blessing,” and this woman and I found ourselves looking at one another again, our hands suddenly grasped, both of us tearing up, as my heart ricocheted from the force of her grief. While at the same time, somewhere on the periphery of my consciousness, I realized that perhaps I had also hooked into the moment where the accumulation of my own losses had materialized into a blessing.

As the session dispersed for the day, Dani left us with a final thought: a reminder of why meditation (in whatever form) helps silence the chatter, the clutter, and makes room for the awareness and discovery of beauty in the every day… in the ordinary.

“It isn’t easy to witness what is actually happening,” she writes in her book. “…The eggs, the cows. But my days are made up of these moments. And if I dismiss the ordinary, waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen, I may just miss my life.”

As the retreat came to an end and I began to gather my things, I noticed the orderly stack of exercise clothes I had optimistically unpacked. I had never put them on, and it dawned on me that I didn’t need to.

Because I hadn’t come here for Yoga. I had come here to notice the ordinary moments, and to feel them in my bones. The silence, the snow on the mountains, a widow’s downturned eyes, and the sounds of strangers – now friends – breathing in the space around me.

 

 

E-Guilt: Jewish Moms on Facebook

I woke up the other morning to a Facebook notification announcing that my Mother is now on Facebook. E GUILT

I realize that this is not big news. Most of us Gen X-ers (ew) have embraced the fact that our parents have joined the E-parade, if only to keep up with our speedy lives and to feel like they’re in touch, rather than having to nudge us with a long voicemail message, group texts that include a random aunt, or blank ones  with a mysterious letter “H.”

My mother was on Facebook briefly, about three years ago, before her account got hacked, rendering her profile forever frozen in time. So now Ema (Mom, in Hebrew) actually has two Facebook profiles, which is kind of amazing, even if she doesn’t know how she did it.

When she was on Facebook the first time, the Good Jewish (Divorced) Girl in me didn’t like it. Before posting a picture (nine out of ten were at a bar) I’d have to go home, send the files to my laptop, and crop out the martini in my hand, resulting in an array of posts where I look suspiciously joyous, a bright spark in my eyes and a becoming flush in my cheeks, the evidence amputated. If you’re thinking, “Why should an adult woman care what her mother thinks?” it means you’re not Jewish (or Catholic). Guilt does not need to be delivered in person to have its intended effect.

[For those of you who are just meeting Ema for the first time, there is proof of Mom as “The Alcohol Police” in this post, where you can also see the Jewish Mother’s breathalyzer test in full effect].

I knew Mom just wanted to “keep in touch” but to me it was synonymous with “keeping tabs.” There is an ironic generational reversal here that is worth mentioning. Mom’s today who are my peers; my friends, sisters, and the thousands of “Mommy Bloggers” who are savvy digital pros unlike our Mom’s were, are “keeping tabs” on their own children’s online activities with apps called Mama Bear which advertise “worry-free parenting.” If only there had been a “worry-free partying” app for single divorcees back when I was one.

But this time when Mom joined Facebook, her loving face made me smile and I friended her happily, even though I was the eighteenth person she invited in, trailing behind cousins as far away as Israel and my two sisters (the neglected middle child syndrome never goes away). And when Mom emailed me shortly after with a question: “U were tagged in u picture ?” it didn’t bother me that I did not know what picture she was referring to. And when Facebook asked me to help my mother find her friends, I knew she’d be fine on her own. After all, she’d managed to create two profiles.

I’m glad to see my Mom on Facebook, not because I’ve suddenly grown up and grown out of the Jewish guilt garb, but because I have nothing to hide. I don’t drink that much anymore (I promise, Ema!) and when I do, it doesn’t matter. Somehow, being married, happy, and settled is like a magical guilt slayer. Also, Mom has read my entire blog from its inception (when she didn’t know what a Cougar  – or a blog- was), up until my most recent post about going to Church. If she’s okay with that, I’m okay with her commenting on my wall in Momlish.

But Instagram and Twitter? I might need to find an Ema-Bear app for that.

Cougel Goes to Church.

The first time I went to Church, it felt strange. It felt strange because it didn’t feel as strange (or guilt inducing) as I thought it would (or should) for a Good Jewish Girl like me who was raised observant and had only attended synagogues. In the forty years since I’ve been on this planet, akin to a Jew who wandered through the desert for forty years, perhaps I was beginning to shed my former perspective and develop a new one.

I wanted to go. I wanted to not only support my then Christian goyfriend, who I knew I was going to marry, but because I was curious. I wanted to see if what I had heard about Church growing up, or had seen on “Little House on the Prairie,” was authentic to the experience, and a tiny part of me was also curious how I would react hearing the name “Jesus Christ” invoked more times in an hour than in my entire life.

The first time, I might have heard my mother’s voice gasping (she’s okay with it now. Thanks, Ema!) and maybe the intimidating reprimands of a Rabbi or two. I marveled at the pretty pamphlets that contained that day’s service, replete with sheet music for a sing-along and scripture excerpts for the sermon, which were then tossed in the trash upon exit – distinctively different than the unchanging, repetitive Hebrew prayers in my synagogue’s prayer book which were holy, and if dropped on the floor accidentally (as I had done many times as a child), had to be quickly picked up and kissed with penitent reverence.

When the Pastor announced the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I watched in wonder as the congregants – including my husband – filed out from their rows and walked to the front of the room where a table with silver trays awaited, lined with bread and tiny glasses of wine. I was tempted to have a shot of wine for breakfast, but the pamphlet guidelines for Receiving the Lord’s Supper read that this “is the family meal for Christians… we invite all baptized Christians who are members of a congregation that proclaims the gospel…to join us.”

No wine for me. The pamphlet kindly gave me an out: “If you are not a Christian … we encourage you to spend this time in prayer.” As I sat and waited for this portion of the program to conclude, I looked around at the crowded room and wondered whether I was the only Jew in attendance (dark curly Jew-fro not withstanding). It appeared that way. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care either way? I was preoccupied and concerned over how my boyfriend’s faith and mine would intermingle once we were married and had a family, and what it “meant” for me as a Jew to be going to Church, a topic I explore in depth in my memoir.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve found a traditional egalitarian synagogue on the Upper West Side that I love, and I light Sabbath candles on Friday night. My husband happily joins me. Occasionally, I even buy a Challah.

And concurrently, I go to Church with my husband about once or twice a month, depending on our schedules, and depending on our need to connect with one another, and God – the two frequently indistinguishable. We either go to the Upper West Side service or ride Citibikes together to the downtown congregation, and walk in holding hands, the music emanating from the stage welcoming us. I look forward to the sermons, which remind me of my Chumash and Talmud classes, where hidden meaning behind the scriptures and stories are revealed, like poetry demystified. I get excited when the Pastor references the Old Testament, or a passage that I recognize, and imbues it with a new perspective – not only a Christian one but also relatable and applicable to my daily life – that I hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes I even take notes, mixed in with elaborate doodles (like I did in Chumash and Talmud classes) and bring the pamphlets home with me. photo 3

So looking back, it’s clear that I no longer go to Church out of curiosity, but because I enjoy it. Yesterday, after an intense week of emotional challenges as well as blessings (stay tuned for next week’s blog about that), when my husband asked what I wanted to do this weekend I surprised myself by answering: “Let’s go to Church. There is a lot I want to thank God for, and pray for.”

But the true and perhaps more subtle reasons did not become apparent until I stood in Church today, listening to my husband singing the hymn, his deep melodic voice unselfconscious and full of love. My heart filled with tenderness, and then I looked around at the other congregants, couples with their arms entwined, singing joyously, a mother and her toddler leaning into one another, her finger guiding him across the sheet music, their mouths moving in unison.

When it was time for the Lord’s Supper and everyone stood up to receive it, I sat down like I always do, but it didn’t cross my mind to think about what that looked like to anyone. Instead, I closed my eyes and spent the time in prayer. A little Hebrew might have snuck in there too.

 

When he met The Fockersteins

I thought I’d reprise a post from the early days… when my now husband and then goyfriend and I first began dating and he came home with me to New Jersey to meet The Fockersteins. It’s nice to look back and see how much I’ve changed (and that my parents have not.).

MEET THE FOCKERSTEINS

 

 

Gone Girl, Found: What qualifies a woman as "crazy"?

My husband and I saw the movie GONE GIRL a few days ago. I read the book when it first came out and enjoyed it, so with David Fincher at the helm, I assumed I would like it.

“Like” is the wrong word to describe the experience. Horrifying and unnerving are more apropos (and perhaps, the point). And not because of the Hollywood plot constructs or gratuitous gore designed to do so. The movie was unnerving because through its depiction of the perfect “It” girl (“Amazing Amy”) gone berzerk, it temporarily puts a crack in the lens of what crazy looks like. It causes men to look at women, be it their girlfriends, wives, sisters or mothers, and wonder, no matter how subconsciously, “Could that brand of crazy be lurking in her?”  images

Seven years ago, on the heels of a devastating divorce, I discovered that I had some meshugah lurking in me. It crept up on me slowly. One morning, while vacationing in a big old house in Martha’s Vineyard with a few newly single girlfriends (a sequel called “Gone Girls”?), I awoke early to make coffee and as I stood at the kitchen sink looking out over the Dickensian landscape of gray rolling hills, I pictured myself standing on that hill, my long black skirt billowing savagely in the wind, and I thought to myself: That woman (me) looks mad. What if her husband came home at that moment and saw her there, and realizes, by the subtle way she dips her head or moves her arm, that she is mad, and that he is afraid of her? Would he be right, or is it only his perspective?

I thought of writing a novella about a husband and wife’s alternating points of view of the wife’s descent into madness, which explores the meaning of “crazy” and the moment it springs into being. But then… well… I had some more crazy exploits to tend to, so I forgot. And then “Gone Girl,” the book came out. And here we are.

The questions that plagued me at the time were maddening in their own right. Had my own sense of “crazy” been lurking all along, waiting for a trauma to unleash it? Or, was it just a temporary side effect of that trauma? And how do we even define “crazy”? Is it subjective, depending on circumstances and perspective? Or is it diagnosed only by visible, tangible behaviors? Can we feel crazy but not act or necessarily be crazy?

I don’t know, nor am I equipped or educated enough on the topic to attempt to answer any of those questions. But for me,  it was defined by a feeling that was strange and disorienting – of being lost and off balance; in emotional survival mode, intent on protecting my raw wounds from infection by enveloping them in a prickly shell. I would act impulsively or speak inappropriately, and it was this specific lack of control – which I only recognized after the fact  – that concerned me. (Plus a few instances of being “that” person at the bar, sobbing in public for no apparent reason, and going to a public restroom to pee without noticing the urinals until my exit.)

Filled with shame, I retreated into myself. It wasn’t that I feared going Crazy Amy on anyone. I just didn’t want to be around people who might detect this about me. I wanted to hide until it passed. I was hoping that this was a phase, and not the “real me.”

And eventually, in time, it did pass. As I healed, I emerged from that murky place and left that “me” behind. I got my shit sorted and met the man I am now married to, who is kind, patient, and as sane as they come. Those qualities bring out the stable, rational, and self aware qualities in me and my sense of self and grasp on life feel peacefully balanced. Most of the time anyway.

When GONE GIRL was over and my husband and I walked out of the dark theater, I turned to him and blurted, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t marry a crazy person?”

My question didn’t require an answer, because it wasn’t really a question. I was only seeking validation for what I already knew. That the crazy girl is gone, and the real one’s been found.

 

 

 

 

Cougel comes full circle: And then what?

In this new season of Cougel, I promised to fill you in on where I’ve been, and I can’t do that without telling you where I’ve arrived.

I didn’t realize this when I started the blog, but the origin of the word “Kugel” bears mentioning now . According to Wikipedia, “the name of the dish comes from the German Kugel meaning ‘sphere, globe, ball.’”   rice-kugel-400x300

The connotations are obvious: circular, interconnected. The process of learning one lesson over and over,  disjointed experiences suddenly connecting with a revelatory click, before we can move on to the next.

When I started this blog in 2010, I was 1) in the throes of a tumultuous divorce 2) acclimating to being single for the first time in my adult life and, 3) excavating my true self and discovering my voice as a writer…amongst other things.

The theme that wrapped all of this together was my struggle, and skepticism (thinly veiled fear), to find true love. Did I have too much baggage as a divorcee in her late thirties? (Yes). Would I find love in the NYC dating scene – on J-Date, Match, or Ok Stupid? (Hell no). Thankfully, there was no Tinder back then, the dating version of Russian Roulette in flip book form, which would have led me down an even more hypothetical path of perceived options than the typical single New Yorker. And Christian Mingle wasn’t an option, although somehow, I sniffed out all of the goys who snuck onto J-Date anyway, like so: http://thecougelchronicles.com/dating/j-cougar/

Even back then, before I met my goyfriend and now Christian husband, I was trying reeaaally hard to go J.

Many of these dates were quite comical in retrospect, and provided me with fodder to blog.  (Here’s one on sub-texting.   And Dating in NYC.)  I was careful not to reveal too many personal details about these dudes, because I was sensitive to their feelings and privacy (I swear). But moreover, I was wary of what my future partner who I hadn’t met yet might think if he stumbled upon my personal but public historical account of crazy. Was I preemptively sabotaging the thing I claimed to want most? Would my future partner learn too much about me too soon, and would it deter him? Would it uneven the playing field, by giving him the edge and robbing us of the critical getting to know you period, which should be slow, deliberate, and earned?

When I did meet him, I didn’t know it. A Christian cub nine years my junior was a no-no for a Good Jewish Divorced Girl. A Goy with no Jewy neuroses or shtick who laughed out loud when I told him about this blog. On the surface, he was so not “my type” that I didn’t even think to hide it from him. He was so not the kind of guy I was trying to meet, that I didn’t even think about over-thinking it. Talking to him, being with him, from the very first moment, seemed to zap the crazy Cougel right out of me.

In retrospect, this blog was a good litmus test perhaps. He got it, he got me, and as things started to get serious, I ceased blogging.

I decided that I wanted to honor his privacy, and ours, and shift my focus inward, towards the intimate space that enveloped him and I, rather than blasting that focus on a blog megaphone out to the world.

“Our life, my past, my divorce, but mostly, our marriage, it’s a private thing!” I declared, three years late to the private party. And so right after we got married, on the first day of our honeymoon, I decided to write a divorce memoir.

Yeah.

So let’s face it. That’s really where I’ve been since I stopped blogging in the good ole service of privacy. I’ve been pouring the details of my entire life into a tell-all instead. That my husband, only eight months into our new marriage, had to read and ingest. All the vivid and sometimes sordid details of my past, particularly during the Cougel years which I had gone to great lengths to leave out of the blog, are now “out there” (or will be soon).

Couldn’t I just write fiction, you wonder? My husband probably secretly (or not so secretly) wishes that too, but then I wouldn’t be me. And he wouldn’t be him, as evidenced by what he texted me while he was reading the memoir: “This is the most beautiful and genuine thing I’ve ever read. And it’s like a kick in the balls every five paragraphs.”

That’s fair. Hopefully my future blog posts will skip more than five.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cougel's back (with a whole new flavor)

What better time is there to restart my blog – and share the changes in my life – than the Jewish New Year? Aka the high holy days, the days of awe?

shofar-rosh-hashanah

A lot’s happened in the years since I blogged regularly as a single, Jewish Cougar. Serendipitous timing and a confluence of events that have built upon one another and brought me here, to this moment on the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and Reflection. And so, I reflect back (with some awe).

I used to attribute the notable events in my life to random chance or coincidence, but not anymore. Based on how things have unfolded in the last year, I believe that a force way bigger than me is pulling the strings – or at the very least, giving me a nudge, a slap, and sometimes even a smile. But you tell me.

Let’s start with the month of September as a retrospective marker. My husband and I celebrated our one-year anniversary, twice: on a weekend trip to the Mexican Riviera at the same resort we went to on our honeymoon, and the following weekend, on our “real” anniversary, we watched the footage from our wedding which we had not yet seen, cuddled adorably on the couch while sipping champagne. As my new husband rested his cheek on my shoulder, I was overcome with a wave of emotion and gratitude, one of an endless series that you’d think I’d get used to by now.

When I say “new” husband, to those of you who are just catching up on Cougel, my husband is not only new because we’ve only been married a year, and only known each other for three, but also because I have been married before – for fourteen years – my ex-husband sometimes referred to as my “old” husband. So even though I’m 42, everything feels new and fresh, the gratitude wave that overtakes me sharply cold and reinvigorating, and surprising each time.

The month of September also marks a turning point in my writing life. Several months ago, I finished the first draft of a memoir. I haven’t been that public about it yet, because well, it’s a divorce memoir, which I started writing exactly one year ago – on my honeymoon. The timing might seem absurd in its irony, but that only serves to reinforce my point; events that seem incongruent in their timing are almost always – at least to me – the opposite. And then I learned that I couldn’t submit my completed memoir to agents and publishers because they don’t read it like they would fiction. I needed to write a proposal, a business plan that sells me and my book in less than fifty pages, and to build my “platform” (which includes tweeting and yes, lots of blogging).

So I begrudgingly and agonizingly wrote the damn thing. I loathe outlines. It zaps the creative juice out of writing by removing the thrill of discovery. When I finished my clunky first draft – on the Friday before my anniversary – I sent it to an editor I had hired who could help make it submission ready. She told me she would get back to me in 2-3 weeks. But she didn’t. She got back to me in two days – on the morning of my anniversary. She told me that she meant to only take a peek at it, but ended up “devouring the whole thing in one sitting, laughing throughout.” She told me I had something saleable and funny and full of heart (and other compliments but my shameless self-promotion stops there).

In this same week, my husband had gotten a call for a final interview at a job that he had been striving towards for months, and things were looking promising.

In this same week, we also put the final brick on top of the family planning foundation we have been building in the last year. Each individual brick had been daunting and frightening in it’s size and heft, but looking back, had been put into place at just the right time – as if God knew what we needed better than we did – bringing us to this moment where one year into our marriage, we are finally ready to turn our make-a-family plan into a reality.

Which leads me to Rosh Hashana morning. For years, I’ve always gone to New Jersey to be with my parents on the holidays and attend their synagogue, but this year, I wanted to start planting seeds here in New York City and find a Jewish community for my husband and myself. Not to mention that since I’ve been frequently going to Church with him, I needed to balance out the faith-scale (and report back to Mom that her daughter had a found a place to be with her people).

A friend recommended a conservative synagogue on the upper west side, and I took my husband there, not knowing what to expect. When we arrived, my husband went to the bathroom and I peered into the massive stain-glassed sanctuary, where the Rabbi had just begun to speak. “Today’s Torah portion,” he said. “Is about childbirth and fertility.” [Cue emo-wave number 5,850).

The message was immediately clear. It was as if God was giving me a little squeeze, reassuring me that I am on the right path, and to keep going, and keep building.

So as I keep building, I’m going to keep blogging, as… (fade up on the theme music)…the Cougel Returns, or: “What happens after a divorced Jewish Cougar marries a Christian?”

Stay tuned til’ next Sunday evening. (And don’t worry, Mom’s back too, with a new and improved addition of Momlish.)