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Standing Up

I want to stand up somewhere, everywhere, and declare myself. At Thanksgiving a young actress, a neighbor of the owner of the house where we were celebrating, spoke up in a Giving Thanks circle, declaring that she was overwhelmed by the recent war in the Middle East and really sad that not one of her non-Jewish friends had reached out to her, a Jew, to see how she was doing. Then another guest, older, 89 actually, who had lived through the Holocaust as a child and climbed over the mountains from France to Spain with his parents to escape the Nazis, spoke about how he never thought he would live through the same circumstances a second time in his life.

A few days later, I watched a Zoom presentation by a young Jewish artist exhibiting at Brandeis who spoke out about estrangements with several very close old friends over the Middle East situation. Also, she had suddenly been dropped from a long planned solo museum exhibition, and the only reason she could imagine for the cancelation was her outspoken views. She said that the bombardment of antisemitism surrounding the Jewish community had resulted in her inability to make new work. She was immobilized. Nonetheless, she spoke in a clear and confident voice.

Both these women were forthright, but also performers. Meaning that speaking up was woven into the fabric of their work and perhaps even their personalities. And the survivor is a regular speaker at Holocaust Museums. I am not a performer. And yet…

I want to be able to stand firm at a time of such anger and hatred. To know what I know: that we, in the western world at least, are repeating history. All the American press pundits are blowing their horns, declaring something that the rest of us common folk could have and did predict seven years ago. The newsflash is that in our politics and our behavior we are replicating 1930’s Germany, and yet most of us are continuing on with our lives like nothing is happening. And it isn’t just in the Middle East and the U.S. There’s a pervasive contagion of populism, dictatorship, hatred.

We are reliving the darkest moments of history, walking towards the worst side of human nature: Lying, deceit, corruption, scapegoating, and violence. Is this how we imagine our future? Is there anything to be done to impede the tsunami already building momentum and heading our way?

What should we, I, be doing then, I find myself asking. The whole world is on fire. Do I need to drag this old broken-down body out of cold storage and take a stand? And where would I do that? How to declare my allegiance to a better world? I just read a magazine article about the original March on Washington in 1963… Martin Luther King and all those valiant leaders doing something unprecedented. Are marches even still a thing? Are they effective in these years of online brain deadness? Who cares about hundreds of thousands marching when many times that number buy into their news through a screen? But there must be something useful to do, other than whining or cowering in fear.

I pledge myself to speak without trembling, quavering, losing my voice. As I write, I am part of an art exchange with a duo of planned exhibits in L.A. and Switzerland coming up. The large corner painting I will be showing was chosen before Oct 7th. It is called ‘In Hiding (Out)’ or ‘The War, Paris 1940.’ Suddenly the piece holds a different meaning. Two people, a couple, are standing at a railway station in Paris, hiding their faces. There are soldiers everywhere. The two figures are Jews, of course.

Will I stand up in front of my art and explain that while the piece was selected (a loaded word in the nineteen forties) before the October 7th attack, it has even more importance now as a reminder. We have been here before. With Jews throughout history all over the world, with African Americans ever since slavery in the U.S., with Asians in the U.S. during WWII and since Covid, with Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11, and with any population that is seen as the enemy at any time: Gays, transgender people, women. People hated for being themselves.

I remember that often referenced statement by the German pastor Martin Niemöller paraphrased: First they came for the Communists, then the trade unionists, then the Jews, and finally when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up and help me.

The truth is that I wouldn’t be at the end of that list, but at the beginning. It’s up to each of us, old, young, of any religion or race or gender to remember — it’s only a matter of time. They say that antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine. It signals fascism. And we all lose in that reality. If we pretend that it’s business as usual with this surge of hatred, of violence, and with the extraordinary danger of our upcoming elections, we are lost. I’m going to the metaphorical gym to get in shape for the work ahead of us. I hope that we all can build our courage muscles and our vocal cords. It’s going to take a movement. I’ll see you there.


It’s newborn baby time, and my first time as a grandmother. Truly remarkable experience being at the scene of a birth and not being the mom. I was able to watch from a little distance and be knocked out by the macro elements: this was a new human being arriving into our universe, and from the moment of birth, she — Olivia, was developing and changing. Her face shifted from smooshed grimace to serene open-eyed observation within an hour or so. She immediately nursed and made baby sounds and moved her head, tried to hold it up herself, and exhibited personality galore.

How can that be? How can someone descend the birth canal, or in this case, be pulled out through a cut in the abdomen, and look at first like some kind of messy internal organ attached by a long cord to the mother’s insides, and then within such a rapid amount of time become her own person. I guess she was already her own person in-utero, but to me this seems a miracle.

One day old.

I have always been awestruck at the ability of the human body to heal and grow and transform. Yes, children are the most dramatic changers, but even someone with a section of colon removed at an older age can regrow enough colon to be able to eliminate waste in some uniquely creative way. Or we can be lying on the bathroom floor and puking our guts out and ten minutes later we are feeling ready to go on a long run. What is this thing we call body, and how does it regenerate, develop, grow teeth and lose them, grow hair and lose it, grow and lose nails, learn language, swimming, walking, running, flirting, moping, etc. You get the idea. It’s unreal, or maybe the word is surreal.



And art, how does it relate to this phenomenal reality? It observes, notes, writes, tells stories, and finally makes beauty out of any specific portion of this process, thus immortalizing the magic. I’m a fan of the body, of making art about the body, about aging, about change, about history and the repetitive nature of life and death. My granddaughter’s birth is the first paragraph, or maybe the first page, of the story of her life and integration with other lives, and with the earth, and our cosmos. She is a perfect specimen, a model of all that she represents. She is art. Every whimper and smile and sneeze and hiccup and the shape of her mouth and her eyes and her hands and her toes… all of it is beauty. It’s an honor to witness the grandeur and universal miracle of new life.



Residue — what remains. A distillation down, down, and further down to the essential, in this case the takeaway from a recent five-week journey to Europe ending with one week in New England.

The situation: a post covid isolation return to visit family, improve French skills, and perform a Mitzvah — a Hebrew term for doing a good deed. I was recreating a historic trek over the Pyrénées Mountains from France to Spain to escape the Nazis during WWII, the walk taken by several of my family members, all deceased except for the son, eight years old at the time of the hike but now eighty-eight. He wanted to return. So we went. Symbolic and meaningful.

But what I want to focus on here is what remains after six weeks of planes, trains, metros, and automobiles. All those decisions and plans and meals and visits to museums and walled cities and monuments and beaches and hikes and swims and and and… What is noteworthy?

Two experiences stand out. Visiting family is the first, significant for the feeling of pleasure. Pleasure in the first greeting after now years of not actually seeing someone in the flesh. Yes, seen on Zoom or Skype. But not seen to touch.

I meet up with my niece and her two kids and her mom, my sister-in-law, as they descend a train in Leipzig, Germany. Nora, my niece, a favorite because she is the most like me in this family, she is walking towards me as I stand up from my vantage point at a Starbucks in the station, and I find myself bubbling with energy. I begin to skip towards them, waving my arms and making silly faces at the younger child, Arthur, in the stroller. We come closer to each other, and I run towards the group jumping up and down like a nutcase, kissing and hugging and laughing.

I am happy to be with them, happier than I can ever imagine being on Zoom. Why am I so happy, I ask myself? It isn’t reducible. Maybe it’s that the physicalness of squeezing Nora’s arm, kissing her cheek, threading her long dirty blond hair behind her ear, gives me joy. The three days together with Nora and her sister and their mother and the husbands and children is heavenly.

I go see my three first cousins in Dordogne, and again the first glimpse, the first hug, the laughter is honey. We haven’t been together for four years, our usual reunion ventures curtailed due to the virus. Michèle cooks and cooks, steak and duck and tarts and potatoes and pâté and bread. We are stuffed like geese and when done, we waddle back to our everyday lives full… ça suffit, replenished with bonhomie.

The third family event is nuanced, less pure elation, more memory and poignance. I’ve hired a Catalonian guide to lead us to the trail he thinks our family used in 1942 to cross the Pyrénées. He creates a commemorative adventure retracing the history of our, my, people. The War and all that went with that. He guides us up to a ‘Liberation’ pass, and seeing the border between the Holocaust and freedom eighty years after the genocide is momentous.

I fly to New England from Barcelona bursting with satisfaction. And in Massachusetts the fall foliage meets me in full voice. The reds and oranges and yellows crowding my already chock-full larder of happiness.

And that is the second arena of residue, first is love, then nature. A second layer of meaning. Can one describe the feeling of arriving at a peak in the Alps, in the Pyrénées, in the white or green mountains of New England? There are no words.

It matters, this. The looking back. The recognition of bliss.

But wait, there is a third section of residue, this one only understood late, a month into the return. To travel, I realize is to reside in this moment and the next. I am this hour, this day. I do not dwell in the future and past. Which train, I ask? Which restaurant? What’s the weather today? Which jacket? Which shoes? It is only in the homecoming that the reality explodes like a water balloon in my face. It is in travel that I let go of demand, of drive, of ambition and disappointment, of evaluation and judgment.

Perhaps it’s due to the love I feel towards my kin. Maybe it’s the day after day glow of the physical splendor of our natural world, or is it that the computer with its shrill call has been left at home? Whatever explains it, I accept the residue in all its awesomeness. It is an irreplaceable gift.


It’s a Time

It’s a time, as they say. A moment of bombardment — parade shootings, school shootings, store shootings, immigrants baked to death in trucks, the Supreme Court pulling back on all gains made to save our planet, January 6th hearings informing us yet again that our previous president was a lunatic. And recently, Roe vs. Wade collapses.

Lying is in. Corruption is cool. Rome is burning. I sit with four writing friends at a café in the L.A. sunshine and we trip over each other with associations, analogies. The two Persian women remind us about the relevance of the current climate in the U.S. to the historical revolution and up to the minute reality of life in Iran.  “Write about it! You have insight that will be invaluable,” says our Anglo-Saxon member.

Our Bosnian younger pal talks about the Pride march in Sarajevo, and the Facebook outrage and counter attacks. “I wrote my own feelings,” she admits proudly. I said this and that one said that…

I pipe up… “Yes, we are each living this moment from the vantage point of our particular history. For me, it’s the 1930’s in Germany. First the low-key event of Hitler becoming Chancellor and the slow and then accelerating movement toward genocide.”

What are we called upon to do? Really. I read Mary Pipher’s guest column in the New York Times describing her thoughts on How to Build a Good Day When full of Despair. She integrates our culture’s current love affair with Buddhist philosophy… ground in the present, listen to the birds, watch the sun, feel the breeze… into a life of activism — Do what we can, don’t become disaffected.

But again, what are we called upon to do? Is it enough to be telling the story of my own history as a lesson? Will anyone care? Old news, fake news. The Holocaust as an example of the human potential to do evil is denied or even worse — forgotten.

Evil is in. And I paint. And I write. If I knew this was 1933 in Germany, would I rise up? Would I run for the hills? I am in the midst of hiring a guide to retrace the steps of a family member whose parents fled across the Pyrenées from France during the War to bring him at age 8 to an Eleanor Roosevelt Save the Children boat leaving Barcelona for the U.S. He left alone; no parents allowed. He survived. Now we will try to recreate his route from his vague memories. We will smell the wildflowers, stay at the refuges, imagine the fear. We will try to know. To remember.

Is that enough? There is a pressure in the U.S. at this moment to act. To not be intimidated. To hold steady in the mounting tides of revolting amoral and immoral reality. I should and could do more. Is there a pardon based on age? On wanting what Mary Pipher wants — a moment of respite for a life lived under the specter of, ‘you never know?’ Have I paid my dues simply by looking over my shoulder all these years? Do I need and owe one more take a deep breath and push forward? I am considering my choices. Many of us are. Hopefully enough of us will take a step, mindfulness in hand, but with action toward a better future as a goal.

Mary Oliver writes in her poem Invitation, “it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.” We are alive — each morning we wake to the breathtaking beauty of our earth, our love, our caring for each other. But also our grief about the brokenness of this moment.

It’s the young… yes, you, the young, who must lead the way. Find the beauty and connection my generation was privileged to be offered. We want some of what we had for you. And we hope you will also inherit some of our outrageous confidence that our actions mattered, that we could change our world, that we had no other choice. I am willing to be led. I will follow your lead. We are a force when joined. I still do believe.


The Meditation Retreat

I recently attended a ten day silent meditation retreat in Shelburne Falls, MA. This was my fourth ten day there, but I’ve been at shorter ones in Shelburne and several long ones at Insight Meditation Society at various locations in the U.S. What I’m saying is that I’m no novice, no virgin, no innocent. The Shelburne Vipassana Meditation Center is reputed to be the ‘boot camp’ of retreats. Meaning, not for the faint of heart. I can attest to that.

My very first time, maybe 1980 something or 1990, can’t remember the exact year, I learned a piece of information that would benefit me the rest of my life — a metaphor of sorts. As instructed, I sat without moving for an hour at a time over and over and noted every excruciating pain that I was convinced would result in lifelong dire consequences — my legs in the lotus position falling asleep, say, and my worrying that I was doing serious damage, or my back screaming in unbearable agony. I waited, didn’t budge, stalwartly sat on, until one, two, ten minutes later the feeling, each feeling, lifted of its own accord. The legs came back to life, my back simply stopped aching. A miracle. Miracle of miracles, as Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof.

And the metaphor? You got it — when in pain just wait. Sit and wait. Don’t change position to avoid it or stop it. Just notice and be patient and it will pass. There will be new sensations, but they too will pass away. Both the pain and, alas, the pleasure arise and pass away.

It is a gift to experience the truth of this in the body. And later to watch the same truth evidence in the mind. Wow! Feel abandoned? Wait a while. Feel hurt by a friend? Just hang in and do nothing. No more calling a lover or pal in a panic. No more grabbing a glass of wine, a cigarette and that sad, sad Leonard Cohen album. Now I just settle in for the ride and work at remaining ‘equanimous.’ Okay.

But this retreat, thirty some years later, offers a different sort of revelation. Everything is the same in some respects — the teacher’s voice coming out of speakers, his explanations and directions identical to all the other times, but I am different. I’m so much older now, to bastardize the Dylan lyric, and, it turns out, I hear the whole thing, the lessons, with new ears.

The day is spent sitting in a meditation hall with 80 others, eyes closed, not moving, a room so silent that the proverbial pin can be heard dropping on the floor. The silence is broken only for instruction on audiotape at the beginning and end of each hour. The technique is taught in a specific sequence: the first three days one focuses on the feeling of breath in the nostrils and on the upper lip, then the following seven days one learns Vipassana, the awareness of sensations throughout the body. We, the students, eagerly anticipate the short breaks to go to the bathroom, or outside for a walk, or to a meal — there are only two vegetarian servings allowed before noontime for ‘old students.’

It’s hard, grueling work, repetitive, unsurprising, mind numbing. But in the evening, after dinner, there’s a discourse by the teacher, the old, now dead, Burmese/Indian founder of Vipassana, S. N. Goenka. The discourse is a talk on video that explains the theory, or maybe it’s the philosophy, of the Buddhists, or specifically this teacher’s interpretation. And these evening discourses turn out to offer, on this particular retreat, the food for which I am hungry.

Goenka uses the ancient language of Pali to describe the three elements of meditation, and speaks of the movement towards enlightenment, whatever that truly is. But I understand the three elements — Sila, morality, Samadhi, concentration, and Paññā, wisdom. I am soothed by the emphasis on morality, a balm at this time of rampant corruption and dishonesty in our political, social, and even personal worlds. And I appreciate that the underpinning for reaching wisdom is experiential rather than intellectual. As we meditate we learn the truth and the art of living.

I am taken with the idea of impermanence. Like the water flowing in a river, change is a given in life. As we sit in the meditation hall, the teacher, repeats, Anicca, Anicca, meaning change, changing. It is a reassurance and a sorrow. When we are suffering, the promise of change is a godsend… my leg falls asleep but it will come back awake no matter what I do. When we are happy, the promise of change is a loss. Nothing stays the same. Craving the pleasure, feeling aversion for the pain, does nothing to change reality as it is. A blessing and a curse.

The bottom line, the goal, I am taught, is equanimity. Only by acceptance of things as they are can I live a life of peace. So easy to say, so difficult to practice. Am I sanguine when my knee is killing me but I hold it in position for an hour? Am I okay with the monumental suffering of the poor, the sick, the abandoned? What about the shocking inequity so glaring in L.A., my new home? I understand that even with injustice one needs to start from inner equanimity to be of use, that rage and fury do not lead to constructive action. But the road is not an easy one, neither facing the universal suffering surrounding me at this moment, nor the personal challenges that arise in each of our lives.

I sit and listen, then sit and experience. Then I sit some more. I finish the hour by offering Metta, good will, compassion, caring to others, but I wonder if this can in any way be enough. Then I sit again, and know it is simply what I am doing at this very instant, and that is the truth. I can only be here, now, here, now. In pain. In pleasure. In reality. As it is.

The Internal Becomes External, Or… Emotion Transmutes Into ART

I’ve been painting images for a graphic book. I don’t know if it’s a graphic novel truly — that label evokes something like comics or cartoons, as they call it in France. But whatever this compilation of imagery might be named, it’s made up of eighty or so paintings. Some are oils on paper, one or two are on canvas, and many are acrylics on paper.

What I want to pay attention to here is that I find certain images stand out as most compelling. Overall, the paintings depict characters and scenes. They are light in subject matter or heavy, bright colors or black and white. A few are very quiet and only have minimal action; many are busy and loud.

But what calls to me is intensity. Intensity of feeling, of color, of stroke, of line, of story. There’s one image called The Empty Bed where a woman sits curled on a chair, head on knees, next to a bed covered with crumpled covers and a lonely pack of cigarettes. Someone has left town.

Or there’s the one I just completed called Abandoned where another woman lies curled in the fetal position on a bed as a man gallops out the open doorway.

Not all intense images are of domestic psychological drama. There’s the one of two Jews hiding at the Paris train station at the start of WWII —

or the one of a grown daughter catching her frail mother as she starts to fall.

It’s not as though the more forceful paintings are inherently more skillful or esthetically pleasing than the rest. No, it’s that they manage to reveal visually what has been up until that moment simply an internal state.

How does that come about? There is something we feel, it can be a matter of emotion or memory or idea, which then calls for a possible visual conceptualization. Like take the intimation of abandonment — maybe it starts with a kind of discomfort in the chest or stomach or even the head… a buzz or tightness or alert signal, perhaps familiar, harkening back to early loss or experience. Then let’s say the person sensing the discomfort wants to translate that perception into a tangible, material, expression. It could be written about, or spoken about. But in this case, the person, I, want to describe it visually.

And here’s the magic part. I ask myself, What does this experience look like? And just like that, a scene pops into my head. Oh, I think. There is a woman lying on a bed and someone is leaving her behind. Now where did that come from? Is it happening in that moment to me? Usually not. Did it once occur? Did I read it in a book? Did I see it in a painting? Maybe. But maybe not. Sometimes it seems to just emerge as I sketch, sort of like how writers describe a character starting to tell the writer the story rather than the other way around. For me I might start with — Here’s a beach. There is a palm tree and a sky and sand. Then I might just go ahead and paint that. The next morning while I’m meditating I realize there wants to be a woman and her old mother standing on the beach, and the younger woman is pointing at the beauty, and the old woman starts to transform into a bird flying in the sky.

Okay, I say. That’s cool. And while I’m adding the two women and start on the woman becoming a bird, I think Chagall. Did I see this image in a Chagall painting when I went to that museum on the Côte d’Azur six years ago while at that artist colony, La Napoule? I look up Chagall, and sure enough he has everyone flying around in the sky.

The point I want to make is this. Something seems to happen in life where suddenly a strong, deep and amorphous experience is transformed into something concrete and material and external. It becomes art. To me that seems unbelievable. I heard an artist tell the story of attending a concert and then deciding to create paintings for each movement of the composition she heard. She later went to meet the composer and brought her paintings. There were eight of them for the eight movements. Before she said anything, the composer pointed out which painting was a visual expression of each movement. He saw his work translated into visual symbolism and immediately recognized it.

Could that happen with non-intense communications? I don’t know. Am I simply pulled to intensity because of my cultural heritage, my personal history, my biology, my gender? Whatever the underlying reason, what I am taken by is the thrill of the process. Emotion leads to a desire to express visually, which leads to a kind of dream state, which leads to an image coming to mind. The image is put on paper or into music, or into a dance or a story and the artist says, Yes! That is exactly it. And she puts down her paintbrush and goes and pours herself a gin Martini. As Georgia O’Keefe is supposed to have said, Any day when I work is a good day. Maybe I would say, any day when it works is a good day.


What can I tell you?

1.  I read a quote in a book by Mira Kalman, “The realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day.” The Principles of Uncertainty, pg 46.

That is the story of my (me, Lydia’s) life since childhood. No pandemic needed.

2.  My boyfriend and I are sitting on the couch discussing an email I am in the midst of writing to my real estate agent and then one to my lawyer about selling the house I’ve owned for over forty years. The realtor is an active Catholic currently at a wake for her father-in-law, the other a Jewish Buddhist friendly with the Dali Lama. I look over at Jim, seated as close as possible without crossing over into and under my skin. I stroke his cheek and pick off a piece of something caught in his stubble, grooming. He notices and comments that there is food in my teeth, and I smile wide and ask whether it’s cream cheese from my delicious bagel, and he says it’s something red, and I am happy. It’s watermelon.

A memory of sweetness.

3.  It is a time of great conflict and worry. Mira Kalman writes, “Our history is tragedy and heartache — to the marrow.” The Principles of Uncertainty, page 56. Such is the story of the Jews. I know it in my marrow. I hear the update on Covid 19 and I think plague. I hear the cars of looters screeching around the corner and the yells of hopped up teens as they load the trunks with big unwieldy boxes and race away. I think Kristallnacht. There is no solution other than wholesale revolution, I say. My parents were both Communists. Vivian Gornick’s book of interviews of old Reds has been republished recently. Does she know something important? Is she singing my song? I’m too old to join the Revolution, but I may have to send a donation of some kind.

I am happy to contribute.

4.  The other night I listened to a discussion of the current state of affairs by David Frum, a conservative, and Peter Beinart, a progressive. They spoke well and long about the political crisis in the U.S., about the young and old voters, and what will we do now, this November, this critical time in our country’s history. I thought Hitler in 1933 as he took power and was enabled to act without parliamentary consent and without constitutional limitations. My foster father Mendel warned me over and over that it could happen again. I am no fool.

Here we are.

5.  It wasn’t Kristallnacht really. I was in L.A. and there were no Nazis, or at least they were not the ones looting the stores of Santa Monica. It was only kids, angry and hyped, getting their own. And yet, what is this time about, I ask. Is it the rise of Fascism, or perhaps simply a readjustment of an imbalanced world? The numbers have changed. White rich men are no longer the majority. Is this the justifiable fall of Rome, death of the dinosaurs? Are we passing the baton? And who is we exactly?

Where does an old middle class Jewish female fall — am I a good guy, or a bad guy? White or of color, rich or poor, victim or perp?

6.  I am due to die soon. Maybe not next week from the virus, but perhaps in a year or ten or whatever. Why am I still around anyway? Is there something I am meant to do besides eat and shit and sleep? Why are we all here, eating and shitting and sleeping and getting up and doing it again? I am looking for a reason to continue.

Sometimes I watch the ocean out my window and imagine being a fish or, better yet, a pelican diving for dinner. The sun bears down on the water creating a reflection so brilliant that I am dazed, my pelican eyes blinded for a moment, and then I understand. It is just that — the sun and its reflection, the sheer brilliance that blinds us to the answer, and maybe to the very question itself.

There is just this.

111 Years

This life. This life as it is this moment. This life as it edges closer to the end of this life.

I have been moving through this time more rapidly than I would prefer but with a clear awareness of the abundance I am offered. Perhaps offered is too personifying a word, since it implies an other doing the offering. Let’s just say I have come upon a period of tremendous gratitude of late.

For what, you ask. Ah. It is hard to respond without sounding trite or reductive. Perhaps it is simply the waking to an absence of what must have come before — a feeling of worry, what the day might bring, what responsibilities I might mishandle, what surprises might come my way.

I’ve never been good with surprise, the unguarded perimeter suddenly permeated by a stone, a shard of glass, an arrow, a missile, a wayward planet. Whoa, steady now. What sort of missive is this that has blasted through the skin of my existence and lodged deeply within my inner reaches, to be digested and integrated into the whole of me?

No, I don’t take kindly to surprise or shock or news flashes. I like a kind of predictable trajectory. So now in my later years when I wake each day to the sound of the undulating ebb and flow of ocean tides outside my window, I assume that this day, each day, will offer a sort of spaciousness to fill with the endeavors that have always given me pleasure, but at this juncture have outlived the other necessary activities of one’s adult years — work, children, house, social duties. Yes, there are still troubles to be struggled over, marches to attend, votes to cast, a sense of responsibility for a future for all of our children. And yet, nevertheless, I have the privilege to approach each day with the wonder of… will I write, or paint, or conceptualize? Will I plan outings with friends, or cook that chicken roasted with potatoes, onions, broccoli, and zucchini, or will I go for a long walk along the ocean, turning off as I hit the breakwater and continue to the canals? Will I swim in the pool, pushing through my intervals feeling the pressure acutely in the center of my chest — is it heart or lung, and then remember once again how miraculous to be in the body at this time in my own history.

I am drawn to a certain kind of feeling as I live my hours and days in the remaining segment of my time on this earth as a sentient human being. My older son calls that feeling ‘moments of great wellbeing,’ although when I described the experience to a friend recently, she named it, ‘moments of euphoria.’ Whatever the label, it is distinguished by a rush of both physical and emotional energy, a desire to skip or shout or simply exclaim that this is excellent. ‘This’ could be a quick peek at the sun hitting the sidewalk in just such a way, or lying down on the bed to watch through the window as the late afternoon daylight breaks into the reds and oranges of sunset over the water. Or stepping back while painting in order to make a decision and truly seeing the whole image. The feeling can crop up at any odd juncture — sitting down into a chair with a hot cup of tea brewing in front of me and an old dear friend across the table beginning a story about something important in her life, or… well, you get the point. I suppose everyone has those times. And I have no idea why they occur when they do or even why they happen at all.

But no matter the source, I am blessed with regular doses of that specific feeling, and even have come to understand that this life I have been offered is stocked full to the brim with opportunities to dip into it. Like fishing at a salmon run, or sunbathing at a California beach — the odds are skewed towards yes.

What I’m really saying here is that something quite astonishing has occurred. I had a period of what might be called challenge in my childhood. And somewhere along the road — was there a signpost even intimating that the terrain was diverging from one landscape to another — but at some point, my life went from the dark to the light. It had been years of storm clouds, and then I crossed over to the land of plenty.

And here I am.

I have been moved in this time — the Ericksonian phase of giving back — I have been compelled to spread, broadcast the news, to the young, to the weary, to those who are struggling. It’s the Buddhist mantra — all paths have pleasure and pain. I am the living proof. It is not possible for anyone to be exempt from this overarching truth. This too shall pass; it all will move along. But in the moments we are handed when there is bounty, I say, let’s rejoice. I am here to give thanks.

The counterbalance and most likely associated preoccupation in my day-to-day life is with death. Not a new orientation, but plentifully available nonetheless. Is it the grounding in a lifelong awareness of an endpoint that allows for great bliss, or do those particular moments of pleasurable highs add up to another equation? If allowed such incandescent times, will I use up my quota, and isn’t it just about now, or then, or when that the grim reaper will say, Okay, my dear, let’s leave a little bit of the goodies for the others. The starving in poor nations, or even in our own, say. The children with cancer. The women gang raped by villagers. The 176 passengers on that plane that got caught in the crossfire of political idiocy.

I read yesterday about a woman in the U.S. who had lived to 111 years old. What, ho? I say. Unfathomable. What might change if I had another four decades or so to go? Yes. I say, yes.

It is only now, so late in an already extensive life, that I am digging around in my family history, researching first my mother’s long life of heroics and now, at long last, my father’s time of narcissistic but talented existence, and yes, those two qualities often do coincide. I am locating translators to interpret his writing, finding people who reference him as a symbol of this or that trend in communist or Jewish history. My past as a trite example of gender relations through the ages — the long suffering mother, the renowned father who abandons his family, in this case more than one.

I would like to go the distance, if only to pass on to my children the knowledge of their very own ancestry, to bolster my newfound sense of pride in my story, really all the stories that came out of the War and now are spoken rather than buried away. I say yes, yet again. Let it be so.

Clearly there is wisdom that comes with age. We recognize and preach, it’s not over til it’s over, don’t lose hope. Life is long, there is great solace in the last third of the run. If I were to pick one mantra from this time it would be, you never know.

I never knew about euphoria when young. Or even wellbeing. I knew fear and anxiety. I knew the defensive manic state that raises the voice, energizes the body, leads to wild laughter and risk. Like a table of drunks at a bar — aren’t we all as happy as children? But no, this feeling I’m talking about isn’t a reaction to anything other than the breath in, then out, to the wind on the cheek, to the wave rolling forward and then back, to the moon and then yet again the sun the next morning.

Give me 111. That’s all I ask. Or 106. I’m not greedy. Honestly, I’ll take whatever I’m offered. And then lay my head down to sleep.

The Nomad

“You are a vagabond,” a friend says.
“A ‘nomad’ sounds better,” I reply.

I have been moving from place to place for two years, a contrast to the four or so previous decades when I remained put – in New England, a locale known for its generations of hunkered down, resolute inhabitants.

It isn’t as though I planned an abrupt change of mode, style, way to live a life. A rebellion one might call it, in that particular culture. It just happened.

All fruits arise from flowers, but not all flowers bear fruit. Have the last two years of movement been the precious fruit of my labor the forty years beforehand?

I sit with six friends in the living room of the house in which I spawned and then raised my two children, and we, my friends and I, all of a certain age, old enough to reflect on sown seeds and tilled fields, we speak of, ‘Where to from here?’ We are alluding to the imminence of death but also the period remaining as life.

We are sixty something, seventy something, eighty something year olds, and the question arises from my having challenged someone’s assumption of the predictable.

“I want to make a dinner, when you’re back home, to talk about what you have been doing,” my friend Claudia wrote to me in California a few months earlier. “I am provoked by your going off to Paris for a year and now Los Angeles. It makes me think about intention and whether I should take heed.”

I thought I understood what she meant, although it hadn’t occurred to me that my contemporaries would have their own projections in response to my decision to fly the coop, leave the nest, close down shop. I had retired from my longterm job as psychotherapist, applied to every artist residency I could find, and, as if the Jewish expression, ‘From your lips to God’s ears,’ was in fact the case… Paris accepted me. Six months away, and then another six added on as a bonus later.

It wasn’t easy to manage, I can attest to that — arranging a whole life into neat piles stowed away in the attic and the basement — but I had no regrets. I had been waiting eons for just such a moment, and it had plopped itself smack dab into the center of my life, just like that. Whatever smack dab means…

It was a dramatic juggernaut of a sea change. No more therapist, no more mom, no more New England homeowner. Identities scrapped like so much scree on a hillside, and new ones acquired.

“I am an artist and a writer,” I said to the other residents at my new artist community. Gone the formal calling card of Lydia, Psychotherapist, replaced by a new graphic image of sculptured forests and Lydia, Artist/Writer proudly declared.

I lived small, I lived large — a tiny studio, but in the City of Light. I spoke French badly with the accent of the detested foreigner, but I reclaimed a family history that reminded me this was home.

After years of bearing witness to individual suffering, tissues plentiful, a bottomless pitcher of empathy, I marched out into the French arrondissements, an urban wilderness chronicling eras, epochs of societal accomplishment and also disgrace. I absorbed culture like food after a fast. But I also inhaled tales of war, plaques marking deaths mounted on every second or third edifice, schools acknowledging, on their stone facades, the collaboration of the French in the killing of Jewish children in the War. I bore no responsibility. My family names were listed on the walls of the innocent.

I was sad about the past.
I was happy in the present.

The six women sit on my living room couch and chairs and sip tea. Claudia, the instigator of the get together explains her reaction to my decision to be away, to go toward, to be intentional.

“I live with endless lists of things to do,” she starts. “I cannot finish what I have set out to accomplish in a day, a week, so I do not think I will die. I will just keep crossing things off the list, and it will carry me on and on. Endlessly.” We nod, the others. We understand. “But when Lydia stopped all that and took a year, it gave me pause. Should I too consider a change or at least make certain that I am being conscious?”

I considered. Was that what I had done? Been conscious?

Movement is integral to the fabric of my personal and social story. The Jews, the diaspora, no homeland. Each period a new temporary refuge. The Poles will let us be here for a while. What about Morocco, Spain, the Ottomans, the Romans? Yes, we have been welcomed and then sent away.

And my parents’ ins and outs from Poland to Paris to Spain to the U.S., plus the four cross-country shifts of family domicile that gave birth to my description of self as bicoastal. Does that suggest a vagabond or a nomad, a survivor or an intrepid adventurer? Should I feel pride or shame? And would that in itself be a Jewish question, rather than evidence of a personal anomaly?

“I am happiest in my home,” another friend pipes up. “I can travel to see my kids, my grandkids, but the truth is, I have no desire to make changes in my routine. It works for me.”

I hear and cannot imagine. Where is the curiosity, the sense of adventure, the push to grow? Are we slowing down already? My heart is heavy.

And yet. This friend has had cancer. Her husband had his own malignancy. They know something I can’t even imagine. Plus they contribute significantly to the welfare of the community and volunteer up the wazoo. Why wouldn’t it be enough to do good work and to be settled in a stable home with loved ones at this time of life?

I slow my breathing. Different realities. Different histories. Some of these women may have grown up in situ – one home, one set of parents, one expectation. Create a life and cherish it. Who needs a bucket list when just being alive is the prize?

The group of women disentangles itself into this particular story thread and that. We are not at all the same. One woman has created a new career in the last few years and that feels rejuvenating. Another runs what sounds like an estate with a complicated business of airbnb rentals and writing workshops. She worries about ever feeling free to toss the whole enterprise and leave her longterm clients in the lurch. They adore her property as a sacred place of respite. How can we turn our backs on those who depend on us?

I speak to the group of leaving my forever therapy practice and saying goodbye. The ache of endings. And the subsequent discovery of new facets of my persona. Is a letting go simply an opening to possibility, and, if that is so, why do we all resist so strongly? Attachment vs. opportunity, security vs. adventure, old vs. new.

I do not imagine that my choice suits any other person than me. If others do try it on and reject it, all the better. It means that we all are considering, turning each new idea this way and that. There is no precedent for a whole generation with so many people living into their nineties, some to a hundred or more. There have always been outliers, but now we are privileged or burdened, depending on one’s point of view, with the expectation of long life.

The women in my living room drink their tea and listen to each other. We come to no conclusions. We will follow our various journeys through the years that are left to each of us, wandering the disparate paths that we choose or fall into, and we will simply require of ourselves to be awake. Is this how we want to be living? Are we aware of the breadth of choice? As long as we can consider with eyes open and nod yes, we are doing okay with, in Mary Oliver’s words, the one wild and precious life we are each given.

Old Dog, New Tricks

I’m thinking about the insistence in creative writing on showing vs. telling. A workshop leader mentions that we are all storytellers… it is a natural human style, to tell what happened. She believes however, that scenes transform a tale into a closer experience, more alive. I imagine she is right. What do I know… or better put, I don’t trust that I know much. I tend to write episodically and with fewer ‘scenes’ than one might hope for. While I receive lots of feedback along the lines of, ‘beautifully written,’ I am not convinced that I couldn’t improve my game. Learn some stuff…

A scene: a writing workshop in a classroom at a local college. The participants include twelve, perhaps one or two more, writers of many skill levels. Each Tuesday we enter the large sterile space, drag some chairs, with arms that become little desks, into a semi-circle, and wait for our leader. She is often a few minutes late, not late enough to matter, but a perhaps unintended consequence of her arriving when the rest of the group is already seated is that her entrance results in a noticeably abrupt move from chatty-chatty to attention and silence. She doesn’t demand that, but there is something.

The leader is younger than I, but she is what could be called an old soul. She has wisdom — perhaps derived from her Indian heritage, but I would guess it was more likely a fortuitous genetic destiny already in place as a child. At any rate, the leader, Monona, collects everyone’s four pages of writing, and then selects one writer and has her or him read their pages to the group. We comment, in a predetermined order, and finally Monona expresses her response to the work.

Monona encourages the traditionally popular way of writing… prevalent at this particular juncture in history perhaps in response to the widespread revved up need for stimulation and action and the reluctance to take time with any aspect of modern life. Maybe it is a consequence of the Internet, or living in urban rather than rural communities, or simply the ubiquitous planes, trains, and automobiles, but whatever causes it, we don’t plop ourselves down on a sun porch with a thick book and leisurely inhale the pages including a long preface, introduction, and unimaginably slow beginning.

Start in the middle, the writer is now told… in medias res. Don’t take the time for an introduction to a tale, no one has the patience. Above all, put the reader into a scene, even better, create many. Lots of dialogue. Backstory only if relevant and urgent for the reader to know. Otherwise, chuck it.

Don’t tell us, show us, the writers in the class intone. Help us see the scene, don’t tell us when you can show us. As each writer offers that particular critique of their contemporaries in the group, I listen and wonder. Do I agree with this? It’s obvious from this blog that I naturally enjoy telling, describing, talking around a topic. What will happen if I stray down the modern path of sceneing?

I sit in my little student desk contraption and listen carefully. Mostly I listen to Monona. There is something here for me to learn. “Start the story when the neighbors stop speaking to you. Don’t make us wait. That’s the moment of conflict.”

She’s correct. But then again. I am attached to my old ways, worry that I will sound like everyone else. The MFA approach to writing — I remember an article in Poets and Writers Magazine years ago that described a particular style MFA graduates all seemed to have. And yes, it was similar to what Monona is suggesting.

But when she comments on another writer’s work in the group, I hear that she has something useful to offer. “This is a story about perseverance,” she tells one writer who has written about losing his hearing and then learning there might be a remedy. And I see that she is absolutely right. Seen from this angle, it’s a story with universal application. I too never give up. I can relate to this man’s tale. I wouldn’t have phrased the theme in the way she did, but as soon as she speaks, I realize it’s true.

At my turn, I read my pages, the story of a meandering relationship with a neighbor. And as I speak, I notice the particular places where a scene might replace a description. I envision going home after the workshop and rewriting and trying on a slightly more immediate style. Just to experiment with this piece, and see how it feels. No commitments yet. Simply a perhaps. Why not?

I am an old dog at this point, but I can still see intelligence when I am placed in front of it. I will engage with a new trick, or set of tricks here. It is a gift to open up to new and different, even if I’ve heard this particular instruction a hundred times before and ignored it, imagining that somehow it didn’t apply to me. I put my pen down on my notebook on the little desk, and cock my head to hear more. A little like meditating. Being present for this moment and then the next one. There is always more to discover. Even after so many years of a life.