Our Lives, Our Selves: On Integrating Multiple Personas

Ten years ago, I departed from a different life, a different “me.”  Sometimes I am struck with a shock of dislocation and ask myself, who was that woman, that girl, living in a house in Hollywood, driving to pitch meetings, developing screenplays with my screenwriting partner who was also my husband, who I met in college – the only life I knew existed, and could exist. I was staying put. That was the path I had chosen, and for years, even towards the crumbling end, I held tightly to that plan, regardless of the inner voice, the quiet little knock of the soul that over time began to feel more like thousands of them, like an internal impending earthquake.

At the time, no new path had materialized, no “better” life or tempting option beckoned. I had no idea that ten years later, I would be remarried at 40, to the love of my life whom I had met under the most serendipitous and unexpected circumstances, and living in an apartment on the Upper West Side, working in sales in advertising. I couldn’t imagine then that I would have written a novel, even though I always sensed I had a book in me, somewhere. Maybe that story wasn’t ready to be birthed; that narrative of my comingled selves, until I broke away and made a choice to veer off onto another path, a frighteningly undefined one, to find myself standing at the intersection of my own what-if paths. My novel, which I’ve recently completed and secured the book agent of my dreams for, while it’s fiction, in a way it charts my own what-if paths. And perhaps replays some elements of my former path.

What if we could explore different paths, different selves in a lifetime? What if we had the time to try on different personas, live in different cities with different jobs and partners, and play out different outcomes; see where each one ends up, and then pick the most favorable one? I explore this in my book. My protagonist – well, she gets to, lucky her. She gets to be in other people’s shoes, and gain the wisdom only time and experience can provide. However, we, “in real life,” constrained by that thing called being a mortal human, cannot. But maybe, there is a way – maybe our souls, if we listen closely enough and make choices that are aligned with our authentic selves, get to figure it out before time runs out.forkinroad

I’m in my forties, soon to be in my mid-forties (I still round down, conveniently “forgetting”). I have friends who are also in their forties, who are struggling with making changes, struggling with identifying who it is they really are, what they really want, and what their lives could and should (oh shut up “should”) look like. Some are understandably buried in fear and paralyzed from it. They long to make radical changes but are mired in their routine, in the self they had worked hard to brand and cultivate, the self that others paint them as. To shatter that – to come out with a new self, a new identity, is terrifying, because of what we believe others will think, because the self that we externalize that is reinforced every day by our jobs, our families, our lifestyle, has defined us until that moment of crisis where we’ve ceased to know who we are.

And yet, there isn’t only one singular self that is alive within us. We have multiple interests, yearnings, conflicting beliefs, friends who we surround ourselves with whose common life stages and aspirations mirror ours, until we find ourselves with new friends, who reflect where we have arrived, or are headed to. Can’t all those selves be integrated and coexist within us, even though sometimes one is lying fallow, and surfaces depending on circumstances, and choice?

In the 1976 volume The Identities of Persons, Amelie Rorty writes: “It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person. Here the stage is set for identity crises, for wondering who one really is, behind the multifold variety of actions and roles. And the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made.”

But how? How do we manifest this, how do we exhume the self that drives our choices? Way easier said than done. And surely I’m not in the position to make actionable suggestions or lean on some cheesy maxim of “this worked for me, you should try it.” My ex-husband and I didn’t have children. When I left him, and that life, I was only 34ish (ish refers to the emotional gauntlet I went through for five more years). I had, I have, a close knit and supportive family which made the abyss I leapt into more shallow, with cozy crevices. Many people don’t have that kind of support system, and yet, some incredible women I’ve had the privilege of befriending have started over without a net. They’ve made choices to change their lives, to honor their true selves, and have come out the other side (fear, trauma, and pain included).

As many of you know (and I’ve written about it:  Is Your Work Who You Are?), integrating our various personas, or the new sides of ourselves that emerge, takes constant work to reconcile. In my outward, daily life, I wear the hat of a businesswoman, a sales person who can sell ice to eskimos, an extrovert who can socialize with a bar stool if she has to. It’s been difficult to integrate that persona with my reclusive writer self, the spacy needs alone time me; a path I doggedly pursue as a storyteller and novelist, that runs along side my professional one. Sometimes the paths dovetail nicely, but most of the time, they diverge so drastically that one of them disappears. When that happens, I’m struck with a debilitating anxiety – a which “self” am I quandary. Sometimes one of the paths strays so far from my vantage point that it is as if it’s gone forever and I can’t get it back.

Until I do. With the inherent cycle of time, of doing, of living. Both selves coexist. Both selves are part of who I am. Perhaps they can’t be integrated fully at the same time, at the same moment, but I’ve zigzagged enough times to know that eventually, both are true. Both are me.

There are still moments when my old self appears, when that girl I was resurfaces to say hello, and rather than feeling intruded upon, and pushing her away, I say hello back. She appears when friends from my past, or old contacts from Hollywood, my film life, my film self, get in touch, or take interest in my novel or my new trajectory, that brings that former self into view. Perhaps that experience, that path, has been quietly running along side me now too, waiting for the right opportunity to merge back, for when I’m ready to see and embrace her. She doesn’t feel scorned, because I don’t scorn her. I don’t regret her existence.

It took ten years for me to welcome her back, ten years for me to see that she too has matured, and is welcome into my new life, my new self, my now self. If I let her.

 

Instead of Labor on Labor Day, I Got Something Else

A week ago, Labor Day weekend beckoned happily. Four days off with no work intrusions, where I could focus on a new writing project; a TV show that I am developing ala Cougel. I needed to make a dent in the TV pilot script – a format that is different than book writing, as it’s not internal but rather visual, and I’m rusty. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written anything in that format. The rules are very specific, the page count intentional, the writing sparing. My goal was to get started.

But as the famous maxim goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” My beloved cousin, who is like a brother to my two sisters and me (we grew up together in NJ) was getting married that weekend. To the love of his life, the two of them having journeyed long and far, from rock bottom and back up, their paths crossing and mis-crossing until it was their time – to have arrived at this significant moment. He proposed to her on the roof of my former apartment building, overlooking Manhattan’s skyline at sunset. The tears started then.

When a family member of mine gets married, this means two things:
1) A plane load of Israelis; Aunts and uncles, and more cousins. My father has three brothers and their children are also like siblings to me. We spent every summer together in Israel since I was a toddler, playing soccer in dusty yards, climbing trees (I always had to be the first one to the top), drinking coffee (in Israel it’s not growth stunting), and pigging out on humus and pita at midnight. The kind of bonding stuff one does before cell phones got in the way.
2) Lots of meals before and after the wedding, which includes hugging, hair touching and sniffing, shoulder squeezing, and eating.

My cousin got married on a Thursday night. To which some people remarked, “Who gets married on a Thursday?”

Since it was before the holiday weekend, this didn’t seem unusual to me – it seemed smart. But I realized the rationale behind it was that my cousin and his fiancé are observant Jews. So Friday and Saturday are out. And Sunday is for rest (or in my case, occasionally Church).

The wedding was in a word – magical. Transcendent. There is a palpable energy when two souls who are meant-to-be come together, and you can feel it in the air like a blanket of electricity. The Jewish rituals and customs, which I haven’t witnessed or participated in in years, were elevated and substantiated as my cousin stood under the chuppah with his eyes closed in reverence, absorbing the magnitude of the moment. My older sister’s husband who is a Rabbi had the honor of marrying them.

The women sat on one side, and the men – including my husband who sat beside my father and my uncle and brother in law – on the other. As I strained to watch the ceremony (and document it…I’m the neurotic self appointed videographer of every event), I leaned across my two sisters laps, tears in all of our eyes, and I could feel an otherness watching us from above (or maybe it was my dad sneaking pics of his three girls from the other side).

The dancing – the crazy sweaty manic dancing – came after. Chairs were thrust in the air, and sometimes people too. There was lots of horah-ing. I watched my husband, yarmulka on his head as he swirled around with his arms around my cousins, his face beaming (this was before he spontaneously dove to the floor in his suit and did “the worm,” or in his case “the python”). When he and I got married almost two years ago (say what?), the Israeli fleet was there too, but this time we were able to bond and mesh with them.

That Saturday, my husband and I hosted the entire chamoolah (Yiddish for ‘glob of love’) in our new home. The door kept opening to reveal more cousins, and their children, and aunts and uncles. I managed to prepare food (by prepare I mean make tuna from a can and bagels and lox my mother brought) that was enough for 28 people. My relatives spread out on the floor, on the various couches, and my uncles and their wives were clustered in corners in deep conversation. One of my uncles fell into a peaceful sleep on the chaise lounge, his wife draped over him. They stayed until 4:30 (an Israeli style “Sabbath lunch”), and then my husband and I went with another cousin and his girlfriend for a walk to Riverside Park, where we had cocktails overlooking the Hudson River. Afterwards, we let our dog off her leash on a grassy hill, to see what her old bones could do, and she did not disappoint; she zoomed and bopped around like a puppy.

And then on Labor Day, I met my sister and her daughter who just turned 13 – and her four friends in matching white jeans, leather Vans, and braces – for a birthday lunch in Soho. In the evening, the newlyweds came over for a toast, my cousin holding a ram’s horn (shofar) that riveted my dog, until my husband blew it effortlessly as if he had been a Rabbi in another life (or a Viking).

It occurred to me that I hadn’t written a word of my new project all weekend as I had planned. And I didn’t think twice about it (okay, maybe I did a little).

But I realized, to have the opportunity to host my beloved chamoolah – to have this rare opportunity to be with my family, many of who I haven’t seen in over two years, and to celebrate life and love, is more meaningful than writing anything.

Except maybe in a blog post.

When a Good Jewish Girl celebrates Eastover

Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover, steeped in tradition, song, and food, has always been the most fun. Our regular kitchen was closed for the week, and we had a special ‘Kosher for Passover’ kitchen in our basement where we would convene around a long table with extended family and friends, surrounded by seventies furniture that hadn’t survived the upstairs renovation – a sectional leather couch, a massive television set, and a treadmill. I was allowed to drink wine and my sisters and I would sing the songs by heart while our cousins performed a who-could-eat-more-horseradish-before-burning-your-face-off competition.

We would go around the table and read a Hebrew passage from the Haggadah in the order in which we sat. Except when we arrived at the section about the four sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. Even though it wasn’t my turn, my mother would slap her hand down on the table and call out my name to read: “Oritte! The wicked one!”images

It probably should have upset me to be called the wicked one (the bitch?) but instead it filled me with some perverse pride. Yes, I was the middle child, tomboyish and stubborn, but mostly, to me it set me apart. It meant that I was unique in my mother’s eyes. Besides, I was too young to be wise, too much of an over-thinker to be simple, and too curious to not ask a million questions, so perhaps I was just wicked by default.

And so I would read aloud in Hebrew: “What does the wicked son say? What does this drudgery mean to you? To you and not to him. Since he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism.”

I never thought about the meaning of that passage and its applicability for me until this year, when I celebrated Passover with my family on Friday night at my sister’s home, led by her husband who is a Rabbi, and then celebrated Easter at Church with my Christian husband on Sunday. I’d attended Easter services with him before, and Christmas too.

When I happened to speak to my mother on the phone Sunday morning, she asked me, “What are you doing today?”

Three years ago, when my goyfriend and I were just becoming serious and my mother had asked that question on Easter morning, I didn’t tell her the truth. Why upset her unnecessarily? Why cause conflict or try to explain my position, when I couldn’t explain it to myself? I didn’t really understand the meaning of Easter; I was going to support my husband and honor his faith, just like he honored mine.

This time, I answered her without hesitation: “It’s Easter,” I said. “We are probably going to Church.”

“What?” she said, not hearing me.

And then I said it again, this time removing the apologetic word “probably” intended to spare her (but really, me) of discomfort. “It’s Easter,” I repeated. “We are going to Church.”

A brief almost imperceptible pause followed by, “Okay, have a good day.”

Progress is an interesting thing and reveals itself in unexpected moments such as this one. It made me think of how, back when I announced to my mother that my goyfriend and I were discussing a future together, that our relationship was healthy and we communicated about everything, she said: “If you talk about everything, have you talked about him converting?

We’ve come a long way in a short time. My parents have embraced my choices and love my husband, but mostly, they love me and want me to be happy.  And slowly, I am learning about and embracing the meaning of Christianity, my husband’s faith. If I really want to understand what makes my husband tick; how he thinks, sees the world, and how he loves (including how he loves me), I need to understand the root of Christianity. If I really want to know my husband, I better get to know this guy named Jesus. And it helps that Jesus was a Jew. The night he was crucified, he was hanging out at a feast surrounded by other Jews and eating matzah, just like we were doing in my family’s basement. the-last-supper-godefroy

But in doing so, by learning about Jesus and the Christian meaning of Passover, by getting more comfortable with it all, was I cementing my persona as the wicked child? Was I excluding myself from the community by doing so, by denying a basic principle of Judaism?

Except it didn’t feel wicked – it felt good. And three nights later, my husband invited me to a Passover banquet organized by some Christians he knew from Church. My heart leapt with excitement and identification. A Christian Seder, hosted by a woman with a Hebrew name, hosted by my people! It sounded welcoming, a place where both my husband and I could honor each of our own faiths, but at the same time – together. I was fascinated.

The banquet took place at the Yale Club, in a large ballroom that must have held countless Jewish weddings, I thought to myself, as my husband and I sat down at our table. It was adorned with the familiar Seder plate and goblets for wine (which to my dismay were later used for Manishevitz grape juice). An older grey haired man – a Rabbi – got up on the podium. He was dressed in a kitel, a white robe worn by traditional Jews during sacred events, like my Rabbi brother in-law wore when he married my sister, and on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. He resembled most of the Orthodox Jewish men I grew up with.

“I am a Jew raised modern orthodox,” the Rabbi said as he welcomed us. “And I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

The Rabbi was a Messianic Jew, I realized with a start. I was at a Messianic Seder. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 7.06.17 PMIn my ignorance and superficial recollection, Messianic Jews were bohemian types, “Jews for Jesus” holding signs in public squares. But this, the warmth in the room, the welcoming smiles, the young professionals sitting across from me and the elderly couples at the other tables were nothing of the sort. The blessings and chants were identical to those I sang at home.

When we arrived at the “time to eat” section of the Seder, I began talking to two women sitting beside me, both Christians in their thirties, one of whom worked in advertising like I did. She asked me how my husband and I met.

“I was on my way to Brooklyn for a Hannukah party…to meet Jewish guys,” I said. “But I had to make a pit stop at a bar for a friend’s work party, where he happened to be. I never made it to the Hannuka party,” I smiled. Come to think of it, seems like whenever I am Jewish holiday bound, God offers up an alternate route.

“You’re Jewish?” she asked. “That’s so great. It’s so great that you’re open.”

“Open? What do you mean?” I asked.

“That you’re here,” she said.

I laughed, pleasantly surprised. Being here – partaking in a Christian themed ritual had become so natural for me that it didn’t even occur to me that it might be unusual. It wasn’t something I was making an effort to do. I wasn’t trying to be open. It had become something I just did. That I wanted to do.

We began talking about dating in NYC (an endlessly amusing and frustrating topic, as I’ve blogged about ad nauseam). They were both single, hoping to meet a Christian. Another woman at our table spoke of a recent break up to a Jewish man whom she almost married.

“We were together for two years…we were so in love,” she said. She had started the process of studying with a Rabbi, considering conversion. But in the end, they couldn’t surmount their differences. More specifically, she said his parents could not.

This filled me sadness, and I looked at my husband, our eyes meeting in a shared moment of gratitude that he and I had been blessed enough to allow our faiths and shared belief in God to unite us, rather than divide us. That we had found a way to integrate our faiths, converging on this very holiday of Passover, be it the Jewish version or the Christian one. And that our families, rather than inserting a stumbling block in our path, had found a way to embrace it too.

The Seder concluded with the traditional chant, “Next year in Jerusalem!” which commemorates our exodus from slavery and into freedom, into the land of Israel.

I thought about the freedom that I had been afforded, to commemorate the rituals of my religion freely, and my husband’s too.

And I recalled how last year at this time, my husband and I were actually in Jerusalem, touring the Old City’s Jewish and Christian quarters. Celebrating Passover in the Holy Land – both mine and his.

To Everything, A Season

I’m on a plane again. Last week, I flew to Chicago and then Indianapolis in 48 hours, where it was 1 and 8 degrees respectively. Today, I’m en route to LA, where it’s 60 degrees and rainy.

600FebSnow I’m a weather snob. The cold makes me mad; impatient, unmotivated, but worse, it makes me desperate for time to pass. This is not a healthy state of mind for a person who strives to live in the present and who resists the passage of time (aka aging). It creates an acute feeling of dissonance similar to time travel, as if I’m experiencing one kind of phase, going through the motions, but imagining myself in another.

So during winters in NYC, I’m not myself. I haven’t been myself lately, but I think most people haven’t. February seems to be the designated time for purging, as if the universe has lagged in its stock taking duties after the New Year and is only now getting around to it. People I know are either celebrating rebirths or mourning losses.

Last weekend, my husband and I planned a short trip to Chicago, where his brother was being bestowed the great honor of becoming ordained to be a deacon. I had never been to an ordination before, and I was looking forward to witnessing this kind of Rite of Passage (and also relishing the opportunity to blog about it and how it might contrast with my other brother in law becoming a Rabbi). We decided to spend Saturday night in downtown Chicago for Valentines Day and Sunday at the service with family. But I ended up attending a different type of service altogether.

The day before we were due to depart, I learned that my roommate from college and one of my closest friends had lost her mother to cancer. I had known her mother well, having spent Jewish holidays with them in their home in Indianapolis, a four-hour drive from St. Louis where we went to school. Only a few months ago in December, when my friend visited with me in NYC, she had mentioned how happy her mother was that the two of us were still close, despite the distance and different life stages. I remembered how eight years ago, when I separated from my ex-husband and moved back to NYC to start my life over, she flew out to stay with me in the temporary sublet I was renting, breast-pumps in tow after having left her newborn at home with her husband for the weekend.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I told her: “I’m coming to the funeral. I’ll see you on Sunday.”

I thought about my own amazing mother, whose 70th birthday we had just celebrated, and my two loving sisters who flank me on either side in age and fortitude. My friend didn’t have any sisters, and now she didn’t have a mother. I booked a flight from Chicago to Indianapolis for the day and was going to miss the ordination, but my husband and his family understood and supported my decision.

It was freezing in Chicago when my flight took off early Sunday morning. It was freezing in Indiana when my cab pulled up to my friend’s parents’ house at the end of the cul-de-sac, which twenty-two years later, I instantly recognized. I wasn’t certain whether my presence there would be a comfort or an oddity, and I didn’t want to get there too early. I actually had lunch at the airport – at the terminal I had arrived at – to kill some time so that I could give her family space. But when I walked through the door and saw her father, and then her, and we embraced, I knew I had done the right thing. Her children were in various stages of preparation – their first funeral – and her youngest now eight years old clung to her tearfully and pelted her with existential questions about life and death. I watched as my friend – now a mother – comforted her own daughter, as I remembered the countless times her own mother had done so for her. The family photographs on the wall brought me back to our youth, to our college days. To a time when I had just started dating my ex-husband. To a time when I was young and carefree and where loss was a word with no essence, no agency – a thing that happened to older people. To a time where our future and the gains and losses it would bestow were unknown and abstract.

And there I was, twenty-two years later, in the midst of contemplating motherhood, at the beginnings of a new phase in my life – a rebirth – and the word “loss” struck me with force, and then the word “love” did too (Valentines Day not withstanding).  Now, I was older and wiser, with the associated wear and tear, and grateful for my beloved husband who was standing beside his brother in church while I was at a funeral service in synagogue. It occurred to me that loss and rebirth were happening simultaneously, and that you can’t fully fathom one without having experienced the other.

And here I am now, flying to sunny Los Angeles, where I once lived, the clashing of times, seasons and stages making me wish that it was no longer February, while also being grateful for being right here, in this moment, and all the possibility that comes with it.

 

Enough Fun!

When I was a pre-teen, like most kids, I wanted to have fun. This meant movies, sleepovers, or parties at friend’s houses. But I had to get permission from my mother first, who was always pretty cool about it unless it was too many consecutive nights in a row. As follows (in Heblish):

“Mom, can Ilana sleep over tonight?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“She slept over last night.”

“But I want her to. Why not?” Waah!

“Because. Enough fun.”

The word for “Enough” in Hebrew is “Maspeek,” so “Maspeek Fun!” became the ingrained maxim, along with, “Tell me, how much fun can a person have?”

Lots, it turns out.

So with my fun having been moderated, mostly during high school, where a strict religious education enforced the rules of “being good” I made sure to make up for it when I grew up. And by grew-up, I don’t mean matured. It’s more like I grew-down. When I separated from my ex-husband at 34 years old and moved back to New York, I had fun with a vengeance.

I was single and free in New York City, unmoored by a relationship for the first time in my adult life (I had been with my ex since college). I woke up and went to sleep when I felt like it, blow dried my hair at full volume without worrying about waking anyone up, traveled, shopped, dated, ate and drank as I pleased without having to check in with anyone. I was living the twenties I had lost, at maximum volume; tasting and trying on the experiences I had missed out on, a kind of Twenties bootcamp. Some people might call this having fun, a blast. I liked to call it “cultivating independence.”

But like my mother wisely warned, fun has its shelf life. I work in sales, and when I started that job almost five years ago, sales was tantamount to going out, wining and dining – with the emphasis on wine. The earnings I brought in for my company, and into my own pocket, were directly linked to how many people I got to know (drank with) in the advertising industry. And it worked. I not only made a lot of connections and helped boost my company’s earnings, I also made some life long friends in the process. But as most urbanites know, especially you New Yorkers, this “process” revolves around drinking, not mountain climbing. “Meet for a drink?” is a question more common than, “How you doin?” in this city, but especially in my industry. And the parties flowing with free alcohol are a constant, and considered “part of the job.” Drinking became synonymous with fun, without my noticing its effect.

wine-toast

Until recently.

As a recently married woman in her early 40’s with the desire to have a family, it’s time, maybe even overdue, to break some habits – and that includes the drinking one. I’m not going to sit here, a fragrant mug of tea in hand, and say that it’s been easy. It’s hard, it’s inconvenient, but mostly, it’s not what you’d call fun. It’s not fun to meet a friend at a wine bar for a club soda with lime (the added flair of lime is pointless, by the way). It’s not fun to meet for a tea after work. It’s not fun to hold court with clients at a hip Soho bistro and drink a virgin-mojito where instead of a buzz you leave with mint leaves stuck in your teeth.

But what I’ve discovered in all this is the importance of “the big picture” over the small immediate one. Drinking is fun when you’re doing it, but the after effects are not. The after effects of having not had wine the night before are: 1) A good night’s sleep.  2) An increase in morning productivity.  3) More cozy evening time with my husband.  4) Cooking for myself and my husband (reheating leftovers my sister or mother gave me counts).  5) Excellent TV binge watching (omg, “The Fall” is brilliant).  6) Maintaining all of my virtual and telephone relationships.  7) Less anxiety over small problems, and more confidence when facing the big ones. 8) No psychosomatic fears that every ache and kvetch signals the onset of a terminal illness, and 9) An uptick in sales. I was worried that reducing my external facing time with clients, a proven pre-cursor to financial success, would hamper my productivity and output, but to my pleasant surprise, it’s the opposite. Maybe all the fun-seeds I planted in my first few years are continuing to sprout, maybe the universe is assuring me that it’s ok, or maybe it was never about the extreme socializing at all.

But it’s not really about drinking, or having fun, but rather what those behaviors can sometimes be a manifestation of. Escape. Escape from feeling; escape from paying attention to the twists of discomfort in your gut where something feels off. Escaping from the fear of having to confront life’s obstacles and challenges naked, without the mask for protection, like we did when we were kids. When we were kids on the first day of school, our teachers or parents shooed us into the playground: “Go play! Go make friends!” We were shy, perhaps we were scared, but we did it. And then later when we discovered alcohol, pot, or what have you, we realized, “Oh, this is so much easier!” Mostly, those masks enable us to escape the scariest realization of all, the looming inevitability of growing up.

So in a way, I’ve had some growing pains. I’m graduating, finally, to the necessary next step. Of preparing myself to be a mother. Of nesting and making a home that is warm, stable, and safe for my husband and me. Preparing not just our home in a physical sense by looking for a larger apartment, but preparing ourselves – emotionally and mentally.

And you know what? I’m having a blast.

awkward-age

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Year in Memoir.

Like many of you, I’ve been reflecting on the past year and trying to identify the meaningful happenings that define it, but the checklist is eluding me. The pervasive lists out there and essays with titles like “Top Ten Best of 2014 “ or “Five Things to be Grateful for” tempted me to put together my own list, but the process of doing so somehow diminished it.

Can we really reduce our gratitude – our lessons and discoveries – into a tangible check list, or is our growth and revelations, the momentum and proof of our accomplishments, way more nebulous than that?

In the last twelve months, I reveled in my first year of marriage and newly-wedness. My husband suddenly contracted a rare life threatening illness only four months after our wedding, putting him in the hospital for eight frightening days, thrusting us decades forward into the intimate “in sickness and in health stage” of marriage. I found myself turning towards God, and excavating a strong faith like a precious diamond I had buried. I graduated into year four of a job of shifting shapes and responsibilities and embraced it. My eleven year old dog, my furry child who I’ve raised since she was ten weeks old, is thriving despite her white lumpy self. And my parents and sisters and I are closer than ever, maturity gracing us with an appreciation that we lacked (or at least I did) when we were younger (and brattier).

I began – and completed – the first draft of a memoir, a daunting undertaking, beneath the weight of which I almost buckled, but in retrospect is inextricably woven into the ever changing and expanding fabric of who I am and who I’ve become.

And finally, as the last twelve months have passed, time has passed too, and so of course, me – and my ovaries – have gotten older. As I sit here writing this, for a moment I hesitated dropping the F bomb (fertility) into this public forum (“Is there nothing sacred?!” the tiny but loud voice in my head admonishes), but if I didn’t mention my desire to have children (the topic of an essay I had published five years ago), then I wouldn’t be owning my biggest accomplishment of the last year: Truthfulness. Authenticity. Writing about the thing that we shy away from, the thing that scares us to look at in the face and take it apart, piece by piece. It’s not about narcissism or self-absorption. If you’re a memoirist, a blogger, or a writer of non-fiction, you recognize this as a compulsion to seek out the tiny embers in the fog, to illuminate the truth nuggets in the chaos. To connect the dots between the seen and unseen, between the past and present, and perhaps in doing so, you connect with others too. As Dani Shapiro writes in her inspirational memoir, Still Writing, while referencing Jayne Anne Philips’ essay on writing, whether you’re writing war reportage or memoir, “We have taken in way more than we know, more than we understand, and we write in order to find out: What’s true? What happened? How can it be? And what can be done?” She goes on to describe the struggle to capture authenticity, and how “a writer who is afraid of her own subject – whatever it may be – is a frozen creature, trapped in the inessential. Diminished.”

So if I had to encapsulate the last year, I’d call it “My Year in Memoir.” The year in which I learned to honor my past, to honor the darkness as much as the light, to examine it and hone it, to literally put it out there fearlessly (most of the time…okay, some of the time. Okay fine, it’s scary as hell). This was the year in which I recognized, and pushed through, the discomfort that comes with owning my imperfections rather than running from them, and the growing pains that come with it.

I didn’t take or resolve to take any visible external risks. I didn’t make a new year’s resolution to jump out of an airplane or party like it’s 1999. The risk perhaps, is an emotional one. The emotional risks we take are disguised from view, as are their rewards.

I resolve to do more of that in 2015. As Brené Brown says: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Wishing you a year full of health, gratitude, and honesty.

 

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.

 

 

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.)

The Cougel Returns. Married. (Married? Married!)

You might wonder what I’m doing back here, blogging again. Last we left off in the summer of 2012, I was riding on the back of a motorcycle with my soon to be husband, in Kansas, where I was meeting my future Christian-laws.  
Since then, some momentous stuff has transpired which has technically unqualified me as a Jewish Cougar.
1- I got married.
Which means, no more dating stories. My life finally got more private, and the urge or desire to write about my life ceased, especially since it was no longer “my” life to write about – it was “ours.”
2- I married a Christian.
Which ended my search for a Jewish guy, thereby terminating the “Will Cougel Marry a Jew? (like Mom wants her to)” subplot.
3- I (finally) got over my divorce.
My divorcee status, which at the time proved to be a bottomless well of material, was finally behind me.
But mostly, I had moved on from Cougar status because I had found some hope. And with that, a bit of peace.  
So you could say that all of the above zap the intrigue and suspense inherent in the trials and tribulations of a thirty (or forty!) something divorcee (probably the reason why “Sex and The City” ended when Carrie finally married Big).  Once the ‘character’ you’re reading about arrives at her goal – whether she knew that to be her goal or not – the story is over.
But, maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Maybe the story – the new story – lies in the shift. In the transition from one stage in life to the next, and the perspective shift that comes with it.  Maybe I can now look back on dating, divorced, Cougel, as she navigated her way through NYC’s dating mine field, like other women who went through it or are dealing with those challenges, and shine a spot light on the shadowy parts. 

It only recently occurred to me that “Or,” the root of my Hebrew name, means “light.” Maybe it’s time to put it to use.

The Cougel got...what?

Holy year and how long?


Yes, it’s been a year and a half since I last blogged. And a year and a half since things got serious with Mr. Big II (aka my very tall ex-boyfriend, for those of you who need a refresher). My last entry was about our visiting his parents in Kansas, last June. A year before we got engaged.

Engaged in June. Married in September. (Quick! And not for the reason you think, she says, sipping her mimosa).

The Cougel got married. Who woulda thought?

The Cougel married a man nine years younger than her, so technically she still qualifies as a Cougar, but that’s all it is. A number. A technicality. Because it doesn’t feel like that at all. Most of the time, he demonstrates the maturity and wisdom of a man years older than I. He stimulates my mind, my heart, and has put me on the road to restoring my faith – in love, in myself, and in God. 

Because of him, the Kugel in Cougel got a little sweeter (with more cheese).

So stay tuned for subsequent erratic posts, and eventually, the memoir. As The Cougel Continues….