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.