Jun 2 2017


The PhobiaI think most of us have some kind of phobia of one sort of another. Trying to understand someone else’s phobia if you don’t share it is often difficult to do. I have friends who are extremely bothered by spiders, for instance. It’s a real phobia that they have and they would probably be the first to admit their fear of spiders is a bit irrational. Now, while I can’t say that spiders are something I particularly like, I don’t really get all that worked up about them. As long as they aren’t involved in some fast moves aimed at my direction that is. If they are just sitting on the wall or in the middle of their webs, minding their own spider-business, that’s OK with me. I draw the line at them living inside with me, though. Being the murderous kind of person I am, if I find them sharing my home I can quite easily just swat them to death. But if it’s not too difficult, I can kindly show them the door, without much squirming or screaming on my part. Maybe I’ll be making one of those faces you make when touching something icky, while I do the removing.

No, spiders are not my phobia. Mice either (unless they are involved in that moving-rapidly-towards-me action). No, my big phobia is the telephone. I don’t mean the telephone itself, I don’t mind telephones or even the actual part involving conversation on a telephone. But having to pick up the phone and make the call – that’s the really difficult part for me.

When I still lived in New York City, back in the olden days of the 1970s that were pre-digital, and the newest, coolest gadget one could own was an answering machine, I was a freelancer. That meant that I didn’t need to get up early every day, get showered and dressed and go out the door to travel to work at the same job every morning. I worked from home. But in order to rustle up new work, as a freelancer, I had to make telephone calls. And that’s where my telephone phobia kicked in. I would have to call art directors at ad agencies or publishing houses to see if I could wrangle an appointment to come in to show them my portfolio. And it was so hard for me to do! I had to develop methods to get around my fear of picking up the phone and making that call. Sometimes I would call my mother. She spent her days sitting at her desk in an office so she was pretty much always available. Calling my mother was outside the bounds of my fear phobia so it was easy. We would talk for a few minutes about pretty much nothing important and as soon as I hung up, I would make my other call, without giving my phobic brain time to kick in. I think part of my phobia was founded on my fear that I would not remember what I wanted to say and that I would just end up babbling stupidly into the handset. So my other tactic was to write down on paper my entire spiel – often starting with “Hi, my name is Hilarie Cutler and I’m an illustrator”. I don’t know why I had to write that down. Was I afraid I would forget my name? Anyway that’s what I would do. I would write down everything I was planning on saying. Even thinking up in advance, answers to what they might possibly ask me. Then I would sit in front of my phone, with the name and phone number of who I was planning on calling in front of me on the paper with what I was going to say, for however long it took me to actually pick up the phone and dial the number. Sometimes I would sit there for an hour or more working up the courage, or whatever it was that I lacked, to make that call. The odd thing was that once they answered the phone and I had to actually talk, there was rarely a problem. The phobia was over. I rarely have a problem talking. And the whole process of going out to the interview with my portfolio case in hand was not a problem either. I actually liked that part: going outside my place, taking the subway downtown, walking into the posh offices, going up to the receptionist and telling her who I was to meet and having the meeting, was all rather fun. It was that first step of picking up the phone that was the problem. It even applied to calling friends – so hard to just pick up the phone and dial their number.

By the time I left New York in 1987 to move to Stockholm, I thought I had pretty much licked my picking-up-the-phone-phobia. I could do it.

At least that’s what I thought.

And then I found myself in a completely new country with a new language. A language which it took me a while to learn to speak (not being one of those linguistically talented types who pick up a new language in weeks) Here in Stockholm, most people who I would need to call actually spoke very good English so the not-speaking-Swedish part shouldn’t really have been a problem. Nope. The real problem was that the phone phobia thing was back, in all its glory. And I had to start all over again, from the beginning. But that was almost 30 years ago and I managed to find ways to deal with the phone. It rarely involved calling my mother. She was a very expensive phone call away. It frequently involved getting my Swedish husband to make the call for me. I am now able to make those phone calls, in whatever language is required, when I have to. It still does take me a while to work up the “courage” to pick up the phone but I don’t have to write down the phone number on a piece of paper anymore. It’s usually programmed into my smart phone these days. And I don’t have to write down what I want to say anymore (though I sometimes discuss with my Swede just how to say in correct Swedish what I want to say).

But lately, something else is going on. It’s been over a year now since I stopped working my staff job as designer at IGBP. I am for all intents and purposes, officially retired. I don’t have to get up to go to a job anymore. I don’t even have to get up and make phone calls to rustle up work any more either. I basically don’t have to get up. And there lies the problem. Three days ago I didn’t get up. I stayed in bed all day. Never got dressed. Never even brushed my teeth. I know some of you might say, “Well, good for you! It’s nice to just relax once in a while.” But relaxing was not what I was doing. I spent most of the time with my eyes aimed at my smart phone, reading Twitter, Facebook and occasionally the Outlander sub-Reddit. Checked my email but it was mainly junk to be deleted. Tried reading my Kindle for a bit. I kept dozing off. Till I finally decided to take a nap and then all I did was lie there unable to fall asleep.  I wasn’t relaxing. I was playing dead. I told myself that tomorrow would be a better day. That tomorrow I would be able to engage again. But I wasn’t really sure I believed me.

I think I was having problems picking up the phone. To get up out of bed, to get dressed, to brush your teeth, you have to believe that it’s worth doing. I think my belief was wavering. I was having a lot of problems answering the big question, WHY? What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose? Why are we here? Why bother? My mother used to tell me, “Hilarie, you just think too much.” And she was probably right. Most people just get up and go about doing the stuff they do in their lives, without needing to ask why.

The day after my lying-in-bed-all-day-day I got up. I got dressed. I brushed my teeth. I went out. My cat needed me. My son needed me. My husband needed me. The people and organizations I’m involved with needed me.

So I guess its just a matter of picking up that phone and making that call, one day at a time.

Apr 15 2017

Passover minyan 2017

As I sit here writing this post, the 5th day of Passover is almost over. My supply of matzah is already half eaten, though there is still more than enough left to do a matzah brei tomorow. This year, as usual, I attended 2 Seders.  The first one was a Swedish one – Progressiv Judendom i Stockholm’s Seder. I’ve been on the board of PJS for over 10 years and as a board member, I help out with all the activities we have done through the years. This year we did an especially good Seder. Eva Ekselius, with the help of Marianne Prager and Mats Frisk, led us through the Haggadah and even added other interesting tidbits of information. Marianne’s singing and Mats’ guitar playing were wonderful and helped to make it a fun evening in spite of the fact that I was in the middle of having a horrible cold. I can only hope I didn’t infect everyone I talked to that evening. Oh, and the food was good too!

And then, a few days later on Good Friday, I led my J.A.P.S.* Seder as I have been doing for almost the past 20 years. These people are my minyan, my family, that I feel like I gave birth to here in my adopted homeland. The Jewish People have a long history of moving from one country to another (not always as voluntarily as my choice was) and building from scratch, a full Jewish life in the new place. It wasn’t until I moved to the land of the blue-eyed blond that I discovered just how much the Jewish life I left behind in New York City meant to me. And how much I needed it. I knew I would miss friends and family but I didn’t know I would miss Jewishness. So I set out to rebuild it for myself and for my son. And 20 years down the line I feel I have succeeded.

The kids

The kids

At this point, we are 7 families with children (can we still call them children if most of them are not even teenagers any longer?) and a few who come on their own. This year the group was smaller than usual because a number of us were traveling to other places. But still we filled my Co-op’s party house with 20 people.

Before we start the seder proper, I always welcome my minyan with a little speech and even though I was sick and stressed and just plain tired and thought I would just skip the talk, I couldn’t let it go. As usual I had to say a few words. These are the words I said:

Welcome everyone
I won’t bore you with a long speech. I have a cold and don’t feel really up to long speeches.

We are a rather small group this year. A lot of our young people are not able to be with us. Many of our children are now old enough to have their own agendas, not just what their parents want them to do. This absence of our youngsters, made me think of the reason we are commanded to celebrate the Passover – to teach our children. To tell them the story of the Exodus, to remind them that once we, as Jews, were slaves and now we are free.

The oldies

The oldies

By commanding us to tell our children, the entire process of Passover becomes a generational event. To tell our children, we need to also have the mothers and fathers at the Passover table – mothers and fathers who once were themselves children, listening to the story their parents told.

My grandparents, immigrants from Poland before the second world war, were the first people whose Seder I remember being at. They didn’t do much story telling – mainly because they really didn’t know much about it themselves. But it always somehow felt very authentic to my child’s mind though my mother told me that my grandfather basically just said Kiddush and then we ate. But he said it with a strong Yiddish accent so I guess it just felt more real. After my grandfather died when I was ten, my mother and my aunt took over hosting the Seder – alternating years between them. By then, our families had graduated to using the free Maxwell House Haggadahs that many American Jewish families in the 1950s and 60s grew up with. Each year we would take turns going around the table reading portions from the color-coded and illustrated texts. It was a sort of Haggadah for Dummies. It told you with detailed instructions what you were supposed to do and when. We sat there and endured the boringness of the ritual, once again just waiting for the food without really understanding what the words meant.

It wasn’t till I was no longer a child and, on the outside at least, finally a grown-up, that I was invited to a Seder led by someone who actually knew what the whole thing was about. It was then that I realized that it didn’t have to be that meaningless mumble that it had always been my whole life. Since then, I have tried to lead a Seder that had meaning. I don’t know if I always succeeded but I tried. It has to be about more than just waiting for the food to show up.

Passover is truly about generations of parents passing on this story to their children and then they to their own children and so on and so on. My greatest hope (well maybe not my greatest hope but at least as it applies to Jewishness and Passover) is that my passing on of the Seder story to our next generation will continue into the future as it has for several thousand years past.

In addition to the absence of some of our children, when I look around this group I remember some who have celebrated with us who are no longer able to be here. Last year Marina’s mother, Rachel was here with us. Before that Danielle’s mom, Lydia celebrated with us and even further back my own mother, Evelyn. Now they are no longer able to share in our Seder or pass on what they know to their daughters who are still here.

So I want to start this year’s Seder by asking Danielle and Marina to join  me in lighting the candles, in memory of our mothers, as we once again start the yearly telling of the story of the Exodus  – of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Chag sameach.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Photos are all courtesy of Danielle Shevin

Oct 18 2016

A Little Bit Extreme

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me “Eat your vegetables!”

When I was growing up, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and the Lord’s Prayer.
When I was growing up, we would watch with awe as NASA scientists built rockets that could send human beings to the moon.
When I was growing up, I learned about the Christian Crusades rampaging across Europe on their way to the Holy Land, while most of Islamic Spain and Portugal flourished in a golden age of science, medicine, trade, poetry and culture.
When I was growing up, people were marching for civil rights, for women’s rights, for equality for all people.

My mother’s idea of a correct dinner plate was one composed of 3 parts: there was a protein item such as beef, chicken or pork, there was some sort of starchy item such as rice or potatoes or macaroni, and there was some sort of veggie such as broccoli or asparagus or corn. We never had that all-American staple of the 1960s, the peas and carrots mix (with little pea-sized cubes of carrots) because I was allergic to the peas. My mom often served slightly unusual veggies like artichokes to keep me and my brother interested in them. But regardless of what type of veggie there was on my plate there were always the 2 other items there too. But today it’s not enough to eat veggies with every meal. You are encouraged to be extreme and you have to eat nothing but the veggies. You have to be Vegan and nothing that ever breathed oxygen should pass your lips.

The Pledge of Allegiance had no mention of God when first written, but it did by the time I was in school.  The Lord’s Prayer, a specifically Christian prayer was not a part of my Jewish experience. Nevertheless, to me, as I recited it every morning with my Christian classmates, the prayer was just words, without any strong significant meaning. The words certainly didn’t interfere with my identity as a Jew. I got my identity from my home and family. The Founding Fathers had as one of their very fundamental principles, the idea of the separation of Church and State. They were educated men, these inventors of our country. They knew about the horrors that State-sponsored religion had visited on Europe in the past (mainly by the Christian Church) and they wisely wanted to avoid this. So if we really wanted to do as the founders wanted, there would be no prayers at all in the public schools. But today the Pledge and the Prayer have become a battleground between those who don’t want them in the public schools and those who insist they should be there. Prayer in school, mainly Christian prayers, seem to have become a rallying point between those who fanatically believe that America is a Christian country and everyone should be a Christian or at least participate in Christian prayer and those who believe that a Christian prayer in a school is an infringement on their own personal non-Christian rights. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else who have an alternative belief should be forced to endure it. Once again, a plate with a variety of flavors, is being rejected by the extremists.

In the days when we watched men travel to the moon, scientists were respected. Real science was taught in school. Darwin’s ideas about evolution had long been proven as fact. Exploring all areas of the world for more knowledge about life was considered important. We believed that life could be made better for everybody though science. But today Science is considered suspect. Scientists too. Scientific knowledge is rejected in favor of unfounded belief.  Evolution? A bunch of hooey! Climate Change? Just bunk! Moon landings?  A big conspiracy. Vaccines? Don’t do it because they cause autism. Rape? Not a big deal because you can’t get pregnant from it since the body rejects rape pregnancies. I am just waiting for the flat earth people to start demanding that to be taught in schools.

These days the Dark Ages are long over. The Pope no longer exhorts his followers on organized rampages across Europe in the name of God. But instead, a fundamentalist version of Islam is on a holy war against the non-believers, intent on wiping out all who believe otherwise. Extremism at its finest. It doesn’t really matter who’s God is in charge when the extremists insist on deciding who is right and who is wrong.  Everyone is sure to suffer.

The days of standing up for inclusion; for fighting for equal rights for women, for people of color, for the handicapped, for all minorities seem to be long over. Instead we have a presidential candidate who makes fun of the disabled, is vulgar and rude about women, who threatens to jail his opponent if he is elected. His followers at his rallies shout things like “Kill her.” or “Trump that bitch!” or “Build a wall — kill them all.” They threaten violence towards anyone in their midst who voices a dissenting opinion.The hatred for The Other has replaced the idea of equality for all which once ruled this land.

The world is definitely not like it used to be when I was growing up. And I’m not really sure about the reason for why this is. But now we are living in an age of extremism and I have to say that I am getting extremely fed up with it.

Oct 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.

Jun 21 2016

I’m still a lot like I was

Then and now.

Then and now.

Lately, the refrain from the Neil Young song Old Man has been circulating around in my head. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.”

A recent edition of the Kultur section in Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm’s morning newspaper) had an interesting article by Slavenka Drakuli, a Croation novelist who lives here in Stockholm, about how women’s aging is perceived and especially how women are writing about their own aging. It was a translated and shortened version of the longer English article by her at Eurozine.com. The original article can be found here.

Drakulic writes, “Only after my mother’s death at eighty-six, when I stopped being a child, did I start to think about my own aging.”

The words, when I stopped being a child caught my attention. While I must admit that I have been thinking about aging long before my mother died four years ago at age 85, it feels very true to me that only after she died did I feel like I was suddenly no longer a child – being forced to see that I was an adult, like it or not. Like Drakulic, I am now 60+ and what it means to be growing older, how to do it and what the physical changes that occur are,  especially after experiencing my own mother’s illness and death, are topics I find myself often thinking of. I found her article very interesting and definitely worth taking the time to read in its original English.

My generation, the baby boomers, thought we were always going to be young – never growing old. But surprise surprise, like so many things we once thought, it turns out to not be true. The slogan, almost a battle cry really, “Never trust anybody over 30!” permeated the air at my college when I was 19 or so. To not be 30 anymore, or for that matter even 40 is almost like a surprise to me. And things will not be getting any better. The internet is filled with consolatory comments like 50 is the new 40 – designed to make us feel like we aren’t really aging. And perhaps it’s not the aging itself that is the problem. The important thing is that we don’t look like we are getting older. That is the lesson we are taught when 50 year old actresses work so hard to look like they are 30. And Jane Fonda at 75+ looks (with a bit of help) like 50+. We are made to feel like that should apply to all of us. But for most of us it is not really a reality.

I live in a city – the kind with subways and buses and sidewalks. Not the type of city where one drives everywhere – encased in a bubble – protected from contact with other people. In my daily life in that city, I see all sorts of people, many of them my age or older. I find myself watching them, almost greedily, looking to see signs of aging on them. To see what it looks like. To see how they walk, how they sit, do they look confused, tired, in pain. So that I know what to expect – what my future is. Because to be getting older is the only direction I’m going. Unless of course, I don’t.

I also look at all the younger people that are riding the buses and subway cars with me: so full of hope and optimism. And that’s where the Neil Young song comes in. Because I look at them with their young bodies and long futures ahead of them and think to myself, “I used to be a lot like you are.”

While Young’s song is sung to an old man,  I think it applies equally well to us aging women today. Drakuli says that when she was looking for articles or stories by women about aging she found very little written. Most of what she found was self-help information about how to look better. Women weren’t talking about aging. But when she changed her search parameters to include Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss, there she found what she was looking for. Because women weren’t, at first glance, discussing aging by the way it affected their physical bodies.  They were coming at the topic by first describing the experience of memory loss, of losing one’s sense of self. Describing their mothers or aunts or sisters or themselves. And in the descriptions of the progressive loss of the sense of who we are, also comes the descriptions of what is happening to our aging bodies. When I was 19, to me, an old lady was someone with short permanented, curled hair and wearing a proper wool suit; good jacket to the hip and a just below-the-knee length skirt. Unless of course they lived in Florida and then they had bluish, curled hair and wore polyester. But now members of my generation have become the old ones and the signature outfit of my fellow baby boomer ladies is more likely to be a pair of blue jeans and a denim shirt worn with natural color hair, sometimes still down past the shoulder.

There were a whole lot of us baby boomers born during the years after the second world war between 1946 and 1964. According to what Wikipedia says of us, we tended to think of ourselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before. Because of our numbers we were everywhere and influenced everything. But we are no longer young and hip and oh so cool any more. But as I wander through my adopted city of Stockholm I see us everywhere still. Alongside of all those hipsters who have invaded Södermalm and now even my neighborhood of Hornstull, are all these aging baby boomers, often still well-dressed while pulling their shopping carts into the Hemköp grocery store, waiting on line for the next available druggist at the Apotek to fill their ever growing list of prescription meds that keep them going. They wander though H&M looking for a new top or pair of pants. And they come in all shapes and sizes, the boomers that is, not just the pants. They may not always walk as fast and steady as they once did but they still push their way through the crowd. The lines on their faces show they have lived a life. Their hair colors may have faded but they are still very much visible.  And these baby boomers are still my demographic. They belong to my age box as they did even when I was 19.

In just about a week I will be turning 65.  I consider myself, so far, still fairly well preserved. I’m still 6 feet tall so still get noticed wherever I go whether I want to be or not. My hair is still curly though no longer its original auburn. I admit I am no longer as thin as I once was and the dressing room mirrors in H&M are a rather unpleasant reality check. My knees hurt more and more, not just when going up and down stairs. My joints creak, my feet hurt and I no longer run to catch that bus. But I still remember what to do with that key even though sometimes I can’t remember where I put them. And most importantly, I am not invisible! I was in the make-up section of a department store recently. I asked the very young sales clerk (she must have been all of 20) where they kept or even if they had black kohl eyeliner. She found something for me that had black on one end and white liner on the other. Then she started to explain what the white pencil was for. There is lots of talk these days of Mansplaining but I realized that I was getting Youngsplained! I looked at her and said, “I’ve been putting on makeup way before you were born. I know what this is and I know what to do with it!” I said it with a smile. I hope I didn’t intimidate her too much. But its always nice to be reminded that I am still what I once was.

Here is Neil Young singing Old Man when he was a young man.

Here is Neil Young singing Old Man when he had become one himself.