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Monthly Archives: May 2015

How The Writing Workshop Turned Out

I was so proud of myself. I went a million miles out of my comfort zone to set up the writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I wrote a heartfelt proposal and sent it out for people to read. I presented the proposal in person in front of 20 or 30 people, and got an extraordinarily positive reaction, and six people signed up for my theoretical workshop on the spot. I sent emails and coordinated, and negotiated, and scheduled, and got furiously to work planning my first workshop session, and five people showed up – only two from the original list. But five people was good, and people talked and wrote and stayed for an hour longer than I expected. The next time there were four people, and the time after that only two, plus me.

After three sessions, I took February off from the writing workshop – because so many people were snow birds escaping the winter in New York, and because I wanted to be a snow hermit and hide in my apartment. The anxiety I felt before each class was debilitating, even though the classes themselves were a lot of fun. I could barely move on a Wednesday after a Tuesday workshop. Three naps instead of one, and a long list of self-recriminations about things I should have said, and shouldn’t have said. I spent the extra time reading for, and planning, new lessons for the rest of the sessions. I drafted and revised and cut and pasted until the writing prompts and the writing samples came together in perfect symmetry to get to the heart of a subject within an hour and a half. I talked up the workshop at the next Engaging with Aging meeting, and to whoever asked at other events.

Me, napping.

Me, napping.

Me, trying to reach out.

Me, trying to reach out.

And when we came back from break, there were three students, then two, then just one, my mom, my loyal mom. People asked for my forgiveness for missing classes, for forgetting, and overscheduling, and having bridge at exactly that time and day. Intellectually, I knew they weren’t rejecting me, or saying anything about the quality of my work or what I had to offer. I knew that I’d done a good job, planning lessons and prompts and being supportive and gentle and only pushing a tiny bit when I knew someone was ready to go a step further. But how can you be a teacher without students?

Butterfly wants to help.

Butterfly wanted to help.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

These are good, solid, interesting people, with stories to tell and a lot of strength and survival skills and knowledge to share. And yet, the idea of waking up in the morning and choosing to go to a class where you will have to write about yourself, as if you matter, as if someone else should care what you think, no, that they can’t do.

One woman told me that what her sixteen-year-old grandson wanted for his birthday was for her to write down something about how she and grandpa got together and stayed together all those years. And I thought, wow, what a lovely and loving thing for a sixteen-year-old boy to ask for, and she thought, Oy, can’t I just give him money?

I ended the writing workshop in April, a month earlier than expected, and people kept asking me if I would start it again in the fall, maybe on a different day, at a different time, for a wider audience. I was tempted to try again, but also gun shy. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience of sitting in a big empty room, staring at the clock, hoping someone, anyone, would show up. Maybe if I could have brought Butterfly with me, to sit on my lap and calm me down while I stared up at the clock, but she sheds, which means she’s not hypoallergenic and therefore I’d be treifing up the library at the synagogue for people with dog allergies. And Cricket, the non-shedding dog, would be barking and growling, and scaring the nursery school kids into cowering under their tiny tables in the classroom next door.

A bark to scare small children

Cricket has a bark to scare small children

All hair all the time

Butterfly is all hair all the time

I went to the next Engaging with Aging meeting, after the end of the workshop, because I’d gone to all of the previous meetings. I sat and listened as the discussion wandered and flailed. They needed some way to disseminate information, to share the advice they’d gathered from each other, and from the social worker at the Jewish Community Center. But how?

I didn’t mean to speak up. Words just started coming out of my mouth. Why not write up personal stories, about how you’ve dealt with a particular aspect of aging, what you learned, what you struggled with, where you went for help, and put it in the newsletter, or on the website. Maybe telling stories in order to help someone else is going to make it easier for people to open up. Within minutes, I had volunteered to interview, edit, and encourage people to get their stories down on paper. I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve done very few interviews. How did this happen?

So, this is what I’m doing next. I am not at all comfortable out here on this cliff, but it’s an opportunity to do something new, and something satisfying, that might actually help people. Wouldn’t that be great?

Cricket thinks so.

Cricket thinks so.

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Listening for the Worm

Two days before Mother’s Day, I went to a local garden with Mom where they were having a sale on their plants. The sun was too hot for me and the plants were strangers, so I sat on a bench by the pond, in the shade, while Mom gathered up her new friends. I’d been told that a turtle did a log rolling exhibition in the middle of the pond, when he felt like it, but at that moment he was just resting on the log, getting some sun, so I watched as a duck did a systematic search of the pond, spiraling out from the center, doing surface dives with his butt up in the air and his orange feet paddling furiously. He was looking under the water for something, but I couldn’t see what. Had he lost his keys? Finally, he got tired and went to the spot where the other ducks were resting in the tall grass.

Can you see the turtle out there on the log?

Can you see the turtle out there on the log?

That’s when I noticed a lone robin coming towards me. He was hopping, and looking around, and pausing, and pecking for seeds. I sat still on the wooden bench and watched him as he stepped closer and closer to me. He stared in my direction for a long moment, and then hopped and pecked, and came even closer. Is it possible to make eye contact with a bird? He seemed about to say Hello, when someone approached from the other side of the pond, and he startled and ran for the trees.

When I got home I noticed that there were quite a lot of birds standing on the grass in our yard, just staring into space. Most often they were robins, with their red breasts puffed up and beaks in the air. Mom said that the robins were listening to the underground noises that would tell them where to dig for worms, but I thought it looked like they were doing their daily meditation exercises, breathing in the smells of spring and exhaling the toxic cold of the winter.

Is he listening?

Is he listening or meditating?

The way they leaned and tilted and turned their heads and stretched, it looked like they were doing a form of bird yoga. Mountain pose and Triangle pose were recognizable, but the most impressive pose was when they tilted forward with their weight cantilevered precariously over their tiny legs.

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Bird Yoga

It always seemed to be one bird alone, with a wide expanse of lawn to search, instead of two birds, or a group, working together. Maybe listening for the worm is a lot like writing, you need to be alone to concentrate.

“I’m not a bird!”

Butterfly does her own version of listening for the worm, or listening for the birds who are listening for the worms. She will run and gallop and stop short to listen, with her nose in the air, and her ears turned to the sound. She captures bird song, and the growling of low planes, and the sound of wind ruffling the leaves, until she feels all filled up. Cricket doesn’t do this. Cricket fills herself up by sniffing every blade of grass. Twice.

Butterfly, listening for the birds.

Butterfly, listening for the birds.

Cricket sniffing, again.

Cricket sniffing, again.

I’ve tried to convince the robins in the backyard that I am not a danger to them. I’ve told them the story of the robin at the pond who wanted to be my friend, but they are still circumspect, even though I am no danger to their food supply. I don’t eat worms, first of all, and I don’t have the patience to stand in one spot and wait for food to come. I prefer the short walk to the kitchen myself. But they insist on fluttering away when I get too close. Maybe if I just sit on the front step, and wait, one brave bird will consider looking my way.

The Cuckoo Clock

 

When I was little, my brother and I slept over at Grandpa and Grandma’s house in Chappaqua. We stayed in the guestroom, with the two twin beds at perpendicular angles, and while we were there we were almost like friends. My brother is two years older than me and, at home, I was a bother and a nuisance, but at Grandpa’s house we were a team. He needed me as much as I needed him, because we were in a strange place and didn’t know what to do, though, of course, he still didn’t want to actually talk to me.

There was some vague sense that our presence was a problem for Grandma, and that we really shouldn’t be seen, or heard. There were glass figurines by the front door – which no one ever used – and I was not allowed to play with them, though there are pictures of me trying to touch them as a toddler. They had no children’s books that I remember, or toys. Grandma had tambourines and maracas and two strange little keyboard/recorder hybrids on top of the piano, and we were allowed to play with those, I think, but not for too long, and not if we gave her a headache.

"What?"

“What?”

My grandparents’ house was built into a hill, so that on one side of the house, the first floor you saw was the main floor of the house – well lit, sunny, and facing a green lawn – and on the other side of the house, the first floor you saw was the garage, and basement, and laundry room – dark and mildewed, and with a rickety stairway up to the main floor. We always entered the house through the laundry room and walked up the rickety stairway into the light.

Me in the living room, looking for the light.

Me in the living room, looking for the light.

When we first arrived, we sat awkwardly in the big chairs at the dining room table and ate butter cookies from a blue tin, and listened to the chimes of the grandfather clock. I don’t remember Grandma talking to us much, except to say no, and don’t do that. She liked for us to sit quietly on the floor and look through old family photo albums with strangers in them who she never identified. For entertainment, we’d crack open nuts from the nut bowl, and that’s how I found out that I loved hazelnuts, and hated brazil nuts, and found walnuts incredibly frustrating to work with.

There was dust everywhere, hanging on the rays of sunshine coming through the windows. And there was a hidden attic, with stairs that had to be pulled down from the ceiling, and there was a laundry chute in the wall that sent the dirty clothes down a slide to the laundry room. We were not allowed to try the ride for ourselves; we asked.

Grandpa took me and my brother food shopping at the local Grand Union, after snacks, and educated us about the wonders of “Red Dot Specials,” and out-of-date bread, and slightly bruised fruit. He’d spent a lifetime teaching Consumer Education and he wanted to share it all with us. He’s probably the reason I’ve always loved supermarkets; he made them seem like magical places, full of everything we could ever need.

Grandpa

Grandpa

He drove us there in his white Mercedes convertible, so that we could feel what it was like to drive with the top down, but I think he also took us out to give Grandma a break from having children in her house.

When we came back, we put the groceries away and then went down to the garage. The house sat on a big piece of property, mostly taken up by a pond. Grandpa had rowboat and life vests and oars hung up in the garage, as if it were a boat house, which it sort of was, and he’d take the row boat out on the pond as often as possible. I’m not really sure what he did out there, because I refused to get in the boat. The water in the pond was an opaque green and I was certain that there were evil creatures skittering around in there. I expected the Loch Ness monster to jump up and roar at any moment. I was even afraid to walk across the little wooden bridge to sit on the bench by the water to wait for Grandpa and my brother to come back, because I expected eels to fly up and grab my legs. I preferred to stand in the driveway, or over by the little stream, where the monsters couldn’t get me.

Late at night, they took us out for ice cream (maybe at eight PM, but it felt like midnight to me) and we ate ice cream sundaes, and brought home candy necklaces, and candy dots, and red licorice strings, and my brother even shared some of his with me, because I ate faster than he did, and because he was better at saving some for later.

At night, though, the house was too quiet. They didn’t have a dog anymore. I would hear about Rufus, the small, shaggy dog my grandmother used to dote on, but by the time I was born there was no sign of a dog in their house, no toe nails clicking on the hardwood floors.

Rufus

Rufus

But, there was the cuckoo clock in the guest room. It was so loud! Every hour, it seemed, the little bird would pop out of the front door of the clock and make noise, and it felt like the whole clock was giggling and shaking. I could hear the tick tick of the cuckoo clock all night. It was wonderful! I looked forward to visits from that cuckoo, like a long lost friend, checking to make sure I was alright. I always wanted to bring the cuckoo clock home with me, but everyone said no.

A Cuckoo Clock (not mine).

A Cuckoo Clock (not mine).

When the dogs wake me up now, at way-too-early in the morning, they remind me of that cuckoo clock. They have the same persistence as the cuckoo, the same cacophony of noise, and the same visible shaking from making all of that noise, as if any second their pieces are going to pop out from excitement. Their little tails wag like metronomes and remind me of the pendulum swinging side to side at the bottom of the clock. And I feel that same sense of relief I felt when the cuckoo came to visit. I’m not alone! Someone else is here, and talking to me. Hello!

"Who us?"

“Who us?”

Why Don’t Dogs Have Gynecologists?

“What’s she talking about?”

 

I’m supposed to go for a mammogram this month. I went for my baseline last year, and the doctor wants me to go every year now, despite recommendations to the contrary out in the world. I almost fell down halfway through the test last year as they pressed each breast into the squeeze machine three times. How can this be the state of the art? Is someone under the impression that breasts can’t feel pain?

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to push myself to go to the appointment, and my doctor will be mad at me for not doing it, and I will inevitably develop breast cancer and die and it will be my fault because I didn’t want to faint in the radiology office.

Like this.

Like this.

I’ve never heard of a gynecologist for dogs, though you never know what’s out there, somewhere. My dogs haven’t had to get mammograms. I can’t even imagine how that would work. Cricket thinks that having the goop removed from her eyes is the worst humiliation; can you imagine trying to squeeze some sensitive part of her anatomy until it is flat?

“What?”

I wish I could be more like Cricket, and feel like I have the right to refuse these humiliating tests, or at least to bite the person who tries to perform them on me. I feel like women need to rise up.

“Fight!!!!!!”

The thing is, veterinarians go into veterinary medicine almost always because they love animals and have compassion for them. Whereas doctors for humans often go into medicine because of the steady income, the prestige, or an interest in science. And gynecology? I don’t think too many kids grow up dreaming of becoming gynecologists.

I went to my first gynecologist when I was in my late twenties. I had been putting it off to avoid the inevitable panic attack and having to talk to a stranger about my sexual abuse history. I told the doctor my story as quickly as possible, and she seemed sympathetic for a minute, but then she told me to get on with my life. She said that my health would be better once I had babies, because that’s what the female body is meant to do. And then she complained that my body made the internal exam “difficult.”

“Grr.”

The next gynecologist seemed more down to earth. She listened to my spiel about sexual abuse, and promised to be careful with me, and asked questions. True to her word, she did her best to avoid hurting me during the internal exam itself, but as soon as I sat up, in my cloth gown, on the edge of the metal table, I started crying uncontrollably, and she said, “Are you sad that the exam is over?”

She meant to be funny, but her cluelessness for how that would sound to a sexual abuse survivor was bizarre. I don’t understand why female gynecologists are not more sensitive to this, given that the conservative estimate is that 1 out of 4 women were sexually abused before the age of 18. But, even if I had no abuse history, it would be normal for a woman on a table, being poked internally with a piece of metal, to be uncomfortable and self-conscious. And yet the doctors seem impatient with this.

My current gynecologist is pretty matter of fact. At the first exam, after a discussion, fully clothed, in her office, and changing into paper clothes and having to shimmy down the table, she tried the regular speculum and then said no, let me go get the one we use for the nuns.

She works in a large office, next door to a plastic surgeon, and around the corner from a cancer treatment center. It’s not comforting. It’s like a one stop shop for women: get birth control, have a baby, get cancer, get your breasts redone, get cancer again, go into remission, and then celebrate living a long life by getting a facelift.

I go to the gynecologist because I have to go, but I dread it all year. I’m not saying I’d rather be a female dog, but sometimes I wish I felt free to act like one.

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Cricket’s Commandments

 

Cricket has something to say.

Cricket has something to say.

Cricket has a long list of rules for how we must behave in her house.

  • I am the big dog and no other dog shall come before me.
  • Thou shalt not wash my poopy butt.

    "Never."

    “Not ever.”

  • Stealing my eye goop is a killable offense.
  • Thou shalt not read a book when I want scratchies.
  • Thou shalt not douse my neck with Frontline.
  • Butterfly shall never have more treats than me.

    "No?"

    “Never?”

  • Butterfly shall not sit on the couch, or on a lap, unless she is getting her blood tested, which leads to treats for me.
  • If Butterfly gets scratchies or treats, I must get more scratchies and more treats.
  • Butterfly can never leave the house without me, because she might get treats I do not get.
  • No one shall walk up and down the stairs in my building, or open and close doors, or God forbid, bring the mail!

But Cricket has just as many rules for her own behavior as for ours.

  • If there is a leaf, I must catch it.

    "Mine!"

    “Mine!”

  • If there is a squirrel, I must chase it.
  • If there is a weed, I must grab it with my teeth and tear it from the ground.

    "Grr argh."

    “Grr argh.”

  • At bed time, I must crawl under Mommy’s bed and leave a paw out to be noticed.

    "You can't see me, can you?"

    “You can’t see me, can you?”

  • When Butterfly gets her blood tested, I must stand in the corner, between the two couches, and stare across the room at the bag of chicken treats.
  • If at all possible, I must poop in the planting boxes.
  • After a bath, I must run like a crazy dog and dry my butt on Mommy’s bed.
  • When I am angry, I must pick up a tug toy and taunt Mommy with it.

    "You can't have it!"

    “You can’t have it!”

  • When I am grumpy, I must hide under the couch.
  • When I am lonely, I must climb on a person for warmth, and ignore any protests.
  • If no one wakes up at two AM to take me outside, I am free to poop on Grandma’s green quilting mat in the living room, or under the dining room table.

Cricket’s number one rule, though, is: Cricket must never be left alone. She insists on this and treats us like criminals when we dare to leave her behind in the apartment. She’s not destructive. She never chews a pair of shoes or destroys a box of toys while we’re gone, she just mopes. She gives very impressive grumpy face. It’s like when a parent doesn’t punish a child for bad behavior but just looks at them and says, “I am very disappointed in you.”

"I am very disappointed in you."

“I am very disappointed in you.”

Cricket has quite a few more rules in mind, but has had a harder time insisting on them. No one listens, for example, when she says that she should get a whole roasted chicken for breakfast, or a chocolate bar for dessert. And she has yet to convince either of her people to let her go out and play in traffic. Harrumph.