Feb 5 2021

Take the first step

As some of my readers might know, I sit on the board of a small Jewish organization here in Stockholm. Within the auspices of the larger official Jewish Community we offer as an alternative to the other religious services here, a Reform/Progressive service. During Corona times we do our services via the Zoom app. Since the beginning of autumn we have been doing regular Friday evening services, called Kabbalat Shabbat services. For our services, we use the relatively new prayer book that one of our board members Eva Ekselius compiled, translated, wrote, and designed. I helped with the production of the book by creating it in InDesign from Eva’s design.

This past Friday, January 29, 2021, I had the honor of giving the short sermon that our one hour service usually includes. A sermon usually should relate in some way to the portion of the Torah that was read the same week on Saturday morning. Since this blog is the place where I put most of my short written pieces, I figured I would include this speech here too. 

This week’s parashat  tells the story of how after leading our ancestors out of Egyptian slavery, Moses finds their way blocked by a great sea. In the Torah version, Moses obeys God’s command to “lift up his hands and the sea will part” – thus leaving dry land for the Israelites to walk across, on their way to finding freedom.

Now, that’s the Torah ’s version of events, the one we read aloud at our Passover seder tables. A spectacular miracle, to be sure, but something totally passive; missing the element of human purpose.

A different story is offered by the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud. Here, in this version, the Israelites gathered at the water’s edge, Moses lifted his hands as God commanded… and nothing happened. The sea remained still.

Can you imagine the fear of the people at that moment? They were expecting another miracle by Moses to save them – and they get nothing bubkes.

Then, out of the crowd, walked a solitary figure:

The Talmud continues: Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, stepped into the water. Everyone looks at him, thinking him mad. The water remains. He walks forward, one step at a time up to his knees, his waist, his chest. The second the water came up just over his nose, the second when he is fully submerged, at that moment and not a second before, the sea split. And our ancestors can take their first steps to a new life.

This Talmudic version resonates with me. I feel it is both my own story and the story of my people. It is about being brave enough to start over again and begin a new life without knowing for sure that everything will work out. It’s about having faith in one’s own abilities and not just relying on God to take care of things for us.

This week we commemorated the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Together, the story of the Israelites slavery in Egypt and the Holocaust are the two most important events in the history of the Jewish people. But, I don’t think these two events should only be remembered for slavery and inhumanity. Instead they should be remembered because after each of these catastrophes, the Jewish people picked themselves up and bravely started a new life.

Like Nachshon taking his first step into the water, the survivors of the camps, who came to this country, had to gather up their bravery and take a first step and a second step and keep taking those steps towards their new lives. Nachshon and his children and grandchildren had to leave behind the memory of their slavery. The holocaust survivors have had to leave behind the memories of unspeakable horror so they could create a future for their children and grandchildren.

I too left behind a life when I moved here 30 years ago. It wasn’t a life of slavery. It wasn’t a life filled with horror. My life in New York City was a life I was happy with, filled with family and friends and work I enjoyed. Unlike Nachshon, It took me six years to work up the bravery to make that first step to move here.  His first step took but a few moments, but perhaps he had been working up to that first step his entire life and when the moment came, he was ready. And after 30 plus years here in Stockholm I can say that my first step was worth it.

This week was also the week we celebrated tu Bishvat , technically the Jewish New Year for trees. And as hard as it is to believe, when looking outside our windows, at all the snow, it also celebrates the beginning of spring. And like this week’s parashat, it’s another story of beginning new life.

So this week begins with remembering darkness. It continues by celebrating the return of light. And throughout , we can contemplate the story of Moses and the crossing of the great sea. Our futures are determined by being brave enough to take that first step.

Shabbat Shalom.

 


Jan 9 2021

Empty Nester

This summer like every summer, we had a bird family move into the small, wooden, video-monitored birdhouse on our property. Small birds, like the Swedish talgoxe or the blåmes seem to like raising their families there. The video camera mounted inside this tiny home is connected by a long cable which hangs along various tree branches as it makes its way past our porch door to our wall mounted flat-screen TV and for about 5 weeks we can watch our little feathered family lay and hatch their eggs and raise their babies. We keep the TV turned on and its like having a moving Harry Potter-style black and white painting hanging on our living room wall.

In spring almost two years ago, my son bought his own apartment here in Stockholm. He and I had spent the fall and winter months looking at apartment listings and every Sunday we made our way to 3 different showings. He put offers on a few of the apartments but he knew his top limit of how much he could afford to spend and while he came close a few times, someone else always offered more. Until the last one, when his offer was accepted. I helped him to paint all the rooms. We spent a day at IKEA looking at and testing out furniture possibilities which he then ordered online and had delivered directly to his second floor apartment. We spent another week putting the furniture pieces together. By then, it was finally summer and his dad and I moved out to our summer house. Our son was busy at work in the city and just continued to live in our apartment. Time passed as it usually does – all too quickly. Fall and then winter and once again spring. In the meantime, his fully furnished apartment sat there, collecting dust while my son continued to live in the only home he has known, our apartment. People who knew he had bought an apartment would ask me how he liked living in his new place and I had to keep answering, “He hasn’t moved out yet.”

It became a running joke every time I met a friend… ‘Has he moved yet?’ they would ask. We just laughed.

But last summer, in the middle of July our boy moved into his new place…with our help. He took 2 weeks vacation, spending the first few days of it with us at the summer house helping us with stuff that was easier for a young flexible person to do. Then we all drove back to town. While I made dinner, Bevin took apart all his computer equipment and packed everything in a big moving box. All his clothes were stuffed into 2 suitcases. In the morning he wrapped his 3 computer screens carefully in soft towels and we loaded everything else into our car and drove away to his place. The new apartment isn’t far – on a neighboring island here in the city. You can practically see his building from the small Stockholm island which we live on. By 4 pm it was done – everything he needed had been transferred from the car, loaded into his elevator and placed in his new home. We got some takeout from a restaurant around the corner and had dinner at his dining table. When the food was finished and the table cleaned up, my husband and I said good-bye and left. The next day we drove back out to our summer house and resumed life just the two of us.

“So how do you feel now that he’s moved out?”

This is the question my friends have been asking ever since last July.
“Are you suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome?

I’m not sure.

The past two years our son has not spent much time out at our summer house so it felt normal for him to not be there with us after his move. But summer is long over, it’s winter now and we are living once again in the apartment in town. The last time we were here, Bevin lived here too. But even though he was living at home, he really wasn’t. He went to work all day, came home, had dinner with us and then went off into his room and basically ignored us the rest of the evening. But still…I was always aware of his presence.

But now he has moved out. He doesn’t come in to the kitchen to eat dinner with us anymore. His bedroom light is no longer on at 3 am on a Saturday night and I don’t hear him talking online to his friends any more. He is not here to download a TV show for me and he can’t help me fix something that isn’t working on my computer.
But when I get out of the shower I don’t have to remember to put on my bathrobe. If my hubby and I have a loud disagreement about something I don’t have to worry that I am contributing to my son’s future trip to the shrink. And when we make up again I don’t have to worry if we are making too much noise. I don’t have to make so much food for dinner and if we want we can eat dinner in front of the TV. My husband and I knew each other for 10 years before we had our son. We had a life together as a couple. We survived parenthood and are a couple once again. It feels like we are going back to being what we were before…just moving slower with more aches and pains than we did 30 years ago.

Last summer, my husband set up a GoPro camera to watch the entrance to our birdhouse. The camera in the birdhouse kept tabs on what went on inside. Six eggs were laid-five hatched. Three of the 5 hatchlings never made it to the feathered stage. We could watch the last two remaining babies developing real wing feathers. Often, while waiting for mom and pop to bring them food, they would compete for space to stand up and practice flapping their wings like crazy. They were looking more and more like their parents and seemed eager to try to see what was outside their door. My husband wanted to capture their first steps away from home. He set up the camera just in time to catch them as they took their first flight.

My son no longer lives with us but he doesn’t live that far away. We text with him on WhatsApp and sometimes even talk on the phone. Sometimes he sends us pictures of what he made for dinner and he likes seeing the photos of the cats that we send him. He wants a cat of his own soon. He is always willing to come over if I offer him a home-cooked meal and leftovers to bring back to his apartment. He taught me how to download my own movies. And when he comes for dinner he is always willing to get out the ladder to change light bulbs and even to help me with computer issues.

I don’t feel like I am an empty-nester but rather that the number of nests my family lives in has increased and all of them are filled with love.

I do admit though that sometimes late at night, when I pass his old room, I expect to see the light on and am a tiny bit surprised to see it dark. 


Jan 1 2021

Just dropped in to see what condition my condition is in

Its a new year.

I sent out a nice graphic with pictures of the family doing stuff during this past pandemic year.  A short catch-up letter went along with it to people who live far away from my life here. It was generally positive because that’s what catch-up letters are supposed to be, right? I put the picture up on Facebook too. But how am I actually?

I’ve been thinking I might be depressed…but in a weird kind of way because I am not actually unhappy. I know that deep down I’m a lazy bugger. I have never been one of those people who always have to keep busy doing “projects” all the time. But now I can’t seem to do anything! I finally got out of bed today around noon! The main thing that gets me out of bed is because I have to pee. That’s a terrible reason – important – but terrible. There are so many coulda-woulda-shouldas on my to-do list that never get done. Actually, I don’t even bother putting them on the to-do list. They just float around in my head. The to-do list is for things that need to get done or there will be dire consequences, like the tax people will be after me or there will be nothing in the house to eat – so I do those things but always at the last minute. Its like getting out of bed because of urination issues.

I don’t sleep well. When I finally fall asleep I wake up two hours later and then can’t fall back to sleep so I just lie there looking at boring stuff on my phone. By the time I fall back to sleep its almost morning and then I don’t get out of bed till noon. I no longer have to go to work and I no longer have any kid at home to take care of. So time means nothing. And this pandemic encourages me to just stay in the house all the time which I must admit is my favorite place to be…sort of.

Even back in the 70s and 80s, in New York, it was hard to budge me out of my apartment. Friends would call me up and ask if I wanted to go out to do something with them and I always had some sort of reason why I couldn’t. Back then the only social media we had was the telephone (attached to a wire in a wall) and maybe the answering machine. People who knew me really well, knew that a phone call wouldn’t work and that they would have to come physically knocking on my door and drag me out, accepting no excuses. Nowadays we have sms texts, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype and this year, Zoom to keep us in touch. I can feel connected without ever having to leave my house. I even joined a New Year’s Eve dance party last night via Zoom – for half an hour at least. I’m not much for dancing. But I have to admit that I like being able to go to a party without actually having to get all dressed up and go there.

So how am I? Am I just waiting for the days to get longer and brighter? Am I just waiting for this pandemic to end? Am I just waiting to be able to meet friends once again in real life? Is virtual life getting me down? And after this pandemic ends will I miss being able to be social without leaving my house?

I don’t know. But this song keeps running through my head and I keep wondering what condition my condition is in. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, I think my mind is in “a brown paper bag” and I am watching myself “crawlin’ out as I was a-crawlin’ in

But the days are getting longer. The dark will disappear. And… as I said…its a new year!

Happy new year everyone.

PS:
Heres a link to Kenny Rogers and The First Edition singing “Just Dropped In
Also I just want to say the 70s were great. I love the aviators, the white go go boots, mini skirts, the music and I truly believe beards go best with long hair.


Dec 26 2020

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving had always been one of my favorite family holidays. There would be lots of food; everyone talked at once; someone would argue with someone; someone would leave the table in tears. This was accepted as normal and might be repeated each year. I missed those family gatherings. So when I moved to Sweden, I decided that I would roast a turkey and try to celebrate Thanksgiving even though my original family lived far away. The idea of giving thanks was less important to me than the idea of family gathering together.

In spite of the fact that large turkeys have not always been that easy to get a hold of in this country and when you finally find one, it’s extremely expensive, I intended to invite friends who have become like family, to our place to share a bird and all the fixings with me. Since everyone here worked on Thanksgiving day, we would gather on Saturday instead of Thursday.  The first few years it was only Håkan and me eating the small turkey I might manage to find. As I settled in to life in Stockholm and our circle of friends expanded, the number of invited guests grew.

My first large turkey weighed 11 kilos (24 lbs). I had to order it in advance from a shop that specialized in eatable fowl of all sorts. The man behind the counter asked me how large I wanted my big bird to be and when he saw the uncertain expression on my face he suggested 11 kilos. My unfamiliarity with the metric system meant that I was unable to judge how big 11 kilos was. The number 11 was smaller than the number 25 which was around the size in pounds that my mother’s turkeys often were so I said yes. When I went back the next week to pick up my turkey, I discovered just how heavy an 11 kilo bird was as I schelepped it back home with me on the subway. It barely fit in my ancient oven. Four invited guests, two of whom were also American, shared that bird with me and my husband. We had leftovers for 6 months.

Despite that rather shaky beginning, I roasted a turkey each year. Sometimes in the early years when our apartment was small, my husband and I might drive a large, roasted, warm and well wrapped turkey to a friend’s house to share at their more spacious dining table with a large group of our mutual friends.

As our apartment grew larger, so too has the number of people whom we have room for. Our open-plan living room fits two tables and 15 chairs. I would order an 8 kilo bird at the Stockholm store that specializes in turkey products. When they stopped offering such large turkeys I ordered them from a farmer who raised a small flock of free range turkeys. He even delivered them directly to my door! I always ordered one around 8 kilos. One year he appeared at my door very apologetic, saying that that year the birds had grown rather large and was it OK if the bird he was delivering was just under 9 kilos. By that time I had a new oven and 9 kilos fit just fine.

Only twice have I missed my annual ritual.

I served no turkey in 1991. Our son was born in November that year and with one thing and another, as new parents, making a turkey and having guests took a back seat. I have no memory of what we ate that year. There was no big dinner party in 2014 either because that was the year that my husband got sick. After spending 2 months in hospital, Håkan was allowed home for the weekend at the end of November and Bevin, Håkan and I were finally together to eat the boneless turkey thighs I made at the last minute. With sweet potatoes and gravy and much thankfulness.

And now this year there is the Covid 19 pandemic. All our friends are staying safe at home so there will be no large gathering at our place to eat turkey with us. But turkey must be eaten. I bought a frozen 5 and a half kilo turkey when my husband and I spent some time at our country house and put it in the freezer there. On Wednesday, we packed up the car with all our laundry, left-over food, 2 cats in their cages and ourselves and drove back to town. As I loaded the apartment fridge with the left-overs I realized we forgot the turkey! We drove back out to get it two days later but this meant it was never going to defrost in time for Thanksgiving Saturday. No matter. It wasn’t like I had invited a crowd of friends over and now needed to rearrange plans with a lot of people. This year our only guest was our son, who had moved out to his own apartment 6 months earlier… and he was flexible.

So on a Tuesday evening, the week after the official Thanksgiving day, the three of us sat down to a table loaded with turkey, stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, gravy, corn, salad, cranberry sauce, and a pecan pie for dessert. As I finished putting everything on the table and stood at the refrigerator to take out a bottle of Julmust, I stopped for a moment and looked over at the well laden table and my two boys loading their plates and gave thanks that my little family could all be together, healthy, safe, and able to share this meal with each other.

PS…I make a great Pecan Pie, served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

 


Jun 6 2020

Bird life

Birdhouse

I was digging a hole in the garden dirt when I heard the terrified screeching. I couldn’t tell what was making the noise but it was coming from almost in front of me, from under the deck. The slatted doors leading there were open. I walked over to them and looked in.

It was dark, with thin streams of light falling on the assorted rubble strewn around. A few feet in front of me, sitting primly with her front paws close together was Coco – her soft brown mottled fur the perfect camouflage. She was watching me. She looked guilty. The gentle sound of fluttering coming from the bicycle parked to my right caused us both to turn our heads at the same time. By this time my eyes had gotten used to the dim light and I could see that a small brown bird had gotten its leg caught in the grid of the wire basket hanging from the handlebars. It was hanging upside down and occasionally tried to release itself by flapping its wings. As I stood watching, Coco walked over to the bird and gave it a gentle push with her paw. The bird started screeching and flapping its wings in her face and she backed off. I shooed Coco away and reached for the bird, gently extracting its leg from the basket. I saw that it was injured, with a superficial wound along its back down near its tail.  It flapped wildly and afraid that I might crush it, I let it fall the 8 inches to the ground. It hopped madly to a protected cubbyhole among a pile of decaying plasterboard. Coco’s eyes remained glued to the little bird. Hunched over and squatting down, I made my way over to the bird and picked it up, making sure this time I had my hand firmly around its body and wings. It screeched and then lay quiet in my hand. I worked my way out from under the deck with Coco close behind.

But what was I going to do with this little bird? It wasn’t anything special. Just a little brown bird with dark speckles along its feathers. It seemed full-grown. And it was wounded. I didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell if it could survive. I knew that I had already decided I was not going to bring it to a vet. I also knew I didn’t want Coco to kill it.

We have a small wooden birdhouse screwed on to the trunk of a pine tree on our country house property. It isn’t painted or pretty. But it has one very special attribute; it has a video camera inside it that is connected by a very long cable to the TV in our house. Every spring we watch as a pair of small birds, either blåmes or talgoxe, feather their nest inside, lay their eggs and hatch tiny baby birds. We watch as Mr and Mrs bird take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the gaping mouths that hatch. We can even hear their peeps on the TV as mom and dad feed them. We call it Bird TV and we like to keep the TV on during the day so we can watch the action as we go about our own business. But this year there was a calamity in our bird house. Mom and Dad bird had hatched 9 hungry little babies this year.  We watched as they energetically took turns bringing food to their tiny offspring. Towards the evening one of the parents would settle itself down for the night – first poking all the little bodies deep into the nest then spreading itself over the babies, and with a final flutter tuck its head under its wing to go to sleep. After about a week of daily bird life, we didn’t turn on the TV for a few days – it tends to get a bit repetitive – and just let them get on with their lives. When we finally checked in with our tenants, there seemed to be no movement in the nest. It was still too soon for any of the babies to have grown feathers and flown away. At first we thought the camera feed had crashed and froze. But we could see small bits of grass and feather down moving in the air. The camera was still live but no baby birds were. What had happened? We could just barely make out in the black and white image the shape of a few baby birds’ unmoving open mouths. Had the nest been attached by some predator? We looked out at the bird house and could see no mom and dad trying to get in. Had they died for some reason or been killed by something? There was no way for us to know.

We turned off the TV. We haven’t looked at Bird TV since.

I carried my rescued bird to the back of the house where there are trees and places she might be safer – out of reach of Coco – trying to figure out where to put her. I had decided in my mind that my little brown bird was a her. She was calm in my hand. I could feel her rapid heart beat rock her body through my gardening glove. Coco followed me – silent and slow – but not close. I couldn’t put my bird among the leftover planks of wood piled under this side of the deck – too open and easy for a cat to get at. What about in my son’s abandoned koja, his airy tree house built 4 feet off the ground? The roof was decaying but the half-walls were still sound, the floor strewn deep with undisturbed yellowed leaves from many summers past. It had a door that still closed. Coco couldn’t get in but would the bird be able to fly away when it felt a bit better? I loosened my hand. Where was Coco? I couldn’t see her nearby. My bird flapped her wings and flew 3 feet away, to land near the tumble of old metal supports left over from building our deck. They were piled on top of a half rotted wooden pallet lying close to the ground. She quickly scurried underneath. I saw Coco come out of the shadows and walk over to the pile but there was no way she could get underneath. My bird would be safe there.

But for how long? To live or to die? Like the nestlings in our bird house, I would never know what happened.