Jan 16 2018

Death and life

The North Chapel

The North Chapel

I went to a funeral on Friday; for a woman who was exactly the same age as I am. I have to admit that I didn’t really know her very well. We circulated amongst the same circle of American friends here in Stockholm. While I had socialized with her IRL a number of times, it was mainly through the modern world of social media that I got to know her. She was a writer, among other things, and it was through her blog that I knew her best – that was where she kept us updated on the progress of her illness that eventually got the upper hand.

It was a very nice funeral. It wasn’t the first I had attended here in Sweden so I sort of knew the ropes; I think it was my 7th actually. Is that odd to keep count of, the number of funerals one has occasion to attend? The weather was better than one might expect in Stockholm, in January – it wasn’t snowing at least or even raining but just a cold gray cheerless kind of day that we have had more than enough of this past winter. She got a pretty good turnout, in spite of the weather and it being just an ordinary Friday. I saw a lot of the Americans I know here, the people she knew too, as we all stood outside waiting to go into the chapel. Some of them I had seen recently, others – it had been a while, most of them I meet on Facebook. You search through the crowd finding the familiar faces, you go over to them, you hug, ask them how they are – an unnecessary question actually. You could tell by their faces how they were. And a funeral was not really the appropriate place to catch up on things. 

The service was calm, lovely and felt meaningful, personal. Her husband and two daughters gave emotional heartbreaking eulogies. Other friends of hers went up and talked about her. Two recorded songs were played towards the end of the service. By that Hawaiian singer. The notes of his ukulele floated up and filled the small chapel with images of sand and beach and warm sunny days. The second song was “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorite songs since I was a small child. It wasn’t Judy Garland but maybe almost better.

After the service we all went back outside and waited for the hearse with the casket to begin a slow advance towards the gravesite with everyone following behind. That was new for me. It felt very ceremonial, to walk behind the hearse – a sombre procession on a cold gray day. At the gravesite, family members carried the casket to the grave and it was lowered in. A rectangular hole, six feet deep with a pale casket at the bottom. I know I’ve seen graves in movies or in photos but this was the first time I stood next to an open grave in real life. “It’s so deep.” was all I could think. And so final. I tossed my pink rose onto the casket lying there at the bottom. And said good-bye.

When I started writing this piece, I had only planned on putting a few words up on Facebook – to say I had been to a funeral and it had gotten me thinking about the whole getting older thing. And then I would link to a post I had written about aging. But the words grew more and more about the funeral and so ended up here instead.

I don’t think, when I was younger, that funerals disturbed me all that much. I was young. Illness and death were far away. Sad. But far away. As I age and as my Baby Boomer generation ages, death is less far away. But the people who I have known, cared about, loved, who have died, don’t seem dead to me. They are still alive – in my head. But I just can no longer call them. My smart phone seems to have lost their number. And even if I could call them, they wouldn’t answer me. But I am not going to spend my time thinking about death. It’s not really interesting to me. I’d rather think about the journey  – the process of aging. Who am I at 66 years old, the same age as my friend whose journey is over? What am I becoming? How am I different from my 25 year old self. Or am I still the same?

 Here’s a link to that older post I was going to link to on Facebook. It’s called I’m still a lot like I was and its actually about life not death.


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.


Apr 26 2016

Passover 2016

This year was a very busy one for me Passover-wise. I organized or celebrated or participated in almost 4 Seders this past weekend. The planning process started many weeks ago for two of them. While not an actual Seder, the weekend started off on Friday evening with dinner at the home of the chair of the Progressive Judaism i Stockholm association. Together with other board members, I had a chance to sit down to a wonderful dinner and a lively conversation with Rabbi Eli Reich who would lead the PJS Seder that I would attend on Saturday evening. Later that night, at 12.30 am, I sat down with my cousins in New Jersey at their Seder via SKYPE. And finally on Sunday was my own J.A.P.S.* Seder which I have been leading since the late 1990s. 

I had the following words to say before we started this year’s Seder.

Passover seder 2016

Passover seder 2016

 

Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying that I am very glad to see all of us gathered here together again to celebrate Passover.

Two days ago, on Friday night, I was able to take part in the Seder that my cousins held in New Jersey. At midnight, my laptop sat on my kitchen counter while I prepared the matzah balls which we will all share later this evening. A similar laptop sat at the dining table in my cousin’s house in the US. Through the miracle of modern tech, I was able to say hello to my uncle & aunt and all their children and grandchildren. And they were able to see me sitting here in Stockholm as I listened to them saying the prayers and eating their matzah.  

I think our group of Jewish Americans here in Stockholm have been gathering, most of us at least, to celebrate this holiday since about 1998. Back then our children were all little kids and now as I look around, a good many of those kids are looking pretty grown up these days. When I used to make my list of who were coming to a J.A.P.S. gathering I usually grouped people by family and the emails went out to the grownups. But now our younger family members are starting to have their own position on my list. Many of you have had your own emails for quite awhile already. You, Carly coming with Peter, you have your own space on that list, as do Nadine with Mattias. As one gets to the point of volunteering your own contribution of what to bring to our holiday gatherings, you get your own place on the list. And that is as it should be.

For all the years I attended Passover Seders when I still lived in New York, I don’t think I ever brought anything more involved than a bouquet of flowers to either my mother or my aunt’s house. My Mother and my Aunt took care of all the food. My Grandmother while she was alive contributed the chopped liver.

The holiday of Passover is a time for looking backward, as we remind ourselves of the days when we were slaves in Egypt; a time for looking at the present and being grateful that we can live our lives as free human beings; and a time for looking forward when we end the service with the thought of next year in Jerusalem.

Probably the idea of looking back is why, as Passover draws closer, I often find myself thinking of past Seders which I have been part of with my family and my cousins.  Most of my family members were loud, noisy and opinionated and seriously lacking in any diplomatic skills. Traits which I have also inherited, for both good and bad. No one was able to finish a sentence before someone else butted in and every statement was met with a rebuttal. My father and my aunt, who both married into the family learned to keep pretty quiet. Each family gathering contained at least one argument about something and rarely did we get through a whole meal without someone leaving the table crying. We just accepted that as normal and saw no problem with it. I don’t know what the outsiders I occasionally brought with me must have thought of us. But regardless of all that, I still find myself remembering those Seders fondly because of the memory of family that they bring back. And that was something I missed, here in Sweden, family.

This group of people, all of you sitting here tonight are here because I gathered all of you together! I didn’t do it for any of you or to satisfy your needs. I did it totally selfishly – I did it for myself. Because I wanted a family that I could feel comfortable sharing Passover with. I had no way of knowing if the people I met almost 20 years ago would still be here with me, sitting in front of me, today. But here you are.

Starting in June I will officially be retired, a pensionär as we say here in Swedish. I have no idea how this happened. How did I get so old? I admit that it was not something I was looking forward to. But here I am. Standing on the brink of a new chapter of life.

The words at the end of the Seder about “next year in Jerusalem” are often believed by the orthodox to express the hope that in the future the Jews will return to Israel and rebuild the temple. I don’t take it so literally. I believe that it is a metaphor used to express the belief and the hope that we Jews will have a next year. And another. And another. That we will have a future.

And I for one can say, that as I enter this new chapter of my life, this uncharted future, I am so glad that I can start this journey with this family that sits before me.

So now let us start our Seder, and retell the story of our past, be grateful for our present and look forward to our future.

 

*J.A.P.S. – Jewish American Parents in Stockholm


Mar 5 2016

PTSD

Its been over two months now since I last went to work at my job as graphic designer at IGBP. In December, I had a great time during my week in San Francisco with my now former co-workers. In January I met up with a few of them again when I went to my former work place to hand in my elevator key and assorted final documents. We sat around and had fika together. We talked about getting together again later in the month – maybe for drinks or even dinner.

At every workplace, there are always going to be people who find new jobs or whatever and leave. And that is normal. Sometimes one stays in touch, sometimes they are never to be seen again except maybe unexpectedly on a street corner. Many of my oldest and closest friends are people I’ve taken with me on my life journey from a place of work. And the thing is, you never know in advance who, from the job, that will be. Some workmates fade away and some stick around.  But the closing of IGBP was a bit different. Yes, a few souls saw the writing on the wall and left before we closed but it didn’t feel like they really left. They still felt like part of us anyway. But when a place closes down, scattering everyone, all at the same time, that feels different. Its almost too abrupt to really take in. So I sit here wondering what happened to my life. Because the place one works is a very large part of one’s life.

This morning a former co-worker called me. She reminded me that I had never answered her email from more than a month ago. How was I, she wanted to know. Yes, how am I, in my current stage of unemployment? I don’t really know.

I do the things I have to do. I dealt with försäkringskassan regarding my sprained ankle and cracked elbow when I first got home from California. I signed up with Arbetsförmedlingen so they would know I was unemployed and with my A-kassan so that I would get unemployment benefits while looking for a new job. I had a meeting with my adviser from Trygghetsrådet to once more discuss my updating of my CV. I worked to finish my updated Graphic portfolio and put it up online. And I made appointments with my physical therapist to get my injured limbs back in working order. All of this took time and lots of paperwork, phone calls and the odd meeting now and again. Getting myself to do it was like pulling teeth but since I had to do it, I did it. And in between doing them I did very little else.

I slept a lot, often not rising till noon. I stared at the face of my smart phone, obsessively looking at Facebook and Twitter. I re-read Outlander novels while lying on my bed and played the various episodes on the TV while I made dinner in the evening. I didn’t need to look at the TV – I knew each episode by heart so listening was good enough. I went to the grocery store to buy food. Occaisionally I would actually go out and meet some friend but mainly I stayed home. Hiding in my cave. Like the good crabby Cancerian that I was. Life had just gotten too big for me. Too overwhelming. Too confusing. So I am just hunkering down and working on ignoring it as much as possible. Until it figures itself out.


Jul 18 2015

Advice for the new 50 year old

The daughter of one of my cousins is in college now where she is a member of a sorority. Occasionally she will post a photo on Facebook of herself posing with a large group of her best friends. I look at these photographs and see 10 or 12 very attractive smiling  young women, all with the same color dark hair in the same longish style, all of them around the same height and weight and all wearing similar variations of tank tops and extremely short cutoff jeans. As I peruse these images, I get the very strange feeling that if I were a visitor from a far distant planet I wouldn’t feel more alien than I already do when I look at those photos. The reason for that is that I have never had that kind of experience in my entire life – to be part of a group where I was just like everyone else – looked the same, talked the same, liked the same books and films and TV shows.

From the time I was very young, I was taller than everyone else, with long, skinny arms and legs. I had green eyes and thick curly red hair when everyone else was blond or brunette. I read horse stories when other girls read stories about some cute blond heroine who goes on vacation and solves a murder mystery. (I received some of those types of books as birthday presents one year and though I managed to read them, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy more to read) I read Science Fiction when NO ONE did, except perhaps those nerdy guys in the A/V club. However, when I was in grammar school I did sort of belong to a group comprised of other girls. We hung out together on the tarmac behind the school during recess and other breaks. The group consisted of me, the tallest girl in the class; Carol, the shortest girl in the class; Margaret, the fat girl; and of course Alison and Susan, the twins. Are you starting to see a pattern here? All of us were different from the pack. None of us was was like anyone else, each different in our own unique way. And that was why I liked them. I haven’t seen them in almost 50 years but we are Facebook friends these days. I hope they don’t mind me writing about them.

So why am I reminiscing about all that right now?

Girls on the balcony

Girls on the balcony

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a tjejfest. That’s Swedish for girl’s party. Besides me there were 12 other girls (ladies? or are we supposed to be some sort of politically correct and call ourselves women now? I don’t know.)  But me and the gals met at an apartment in Stockholm whose balcony offered a magnificent view of Stockholm rooftops. Well supplied with margaritas made by Catherine, whose apartment it was, we sat all squished up together on the big outdoor sofa cushions, chatting, joking, noshing yummy quesadillas made by Cecilia and laughing a lot. It reminded me of my cousin’s daughter. Most of us were Americans. And we all had different stories about how we happened to end up somewhere other than America. As I sat there pressed shoulder to shoulder with all those other women, my third eye, that nasty bugger who hovers above me impersonally observing all I am doing and commenting on it, said to me, “Look at you, Hilarie, you’re part of this group of fantastic women. They’ve let you in and you fit!” It was a great feeling!

Raindrops put an end to our balcony sitting and we moved indoors to wine and guacamole. The evening was a bit of a reunion. Though it was here in Sweden that we all got to know each other a number of us have moved on to other places. Tonight we were gathered together  –  Jane was in from England, Sally from Malta, Amy from Florida, Yasmin was here from NYC and Christin from Massachusetts. The common denominator between us is that we all live or have lived in Sweden. We are all different; from hippy-dippy graphic designer Hilarie to super smart scientist Yasmin, to psychologist Stina and strategist Jane. Some are business women. Many are writers. All are interesting and different. In a way, its like my group from grammar school all over again but without the nerd factor.

The party’s second agenda item was to celebrate Christin’s 50th birthday! All of us, except for Cecilia who is still 50- are 50+, with me and Carol being quite a bit more than the others but the youngsters seem to like us anyway. It was suggested (notice my use of passive tense here because I can’t remember who suggested it – Yasmin perhaps?) that we go around the circle and everyone describe to Christin their idea of what it means to be over 50. To pass on advice or “Words of Wisdom” so to speak, to her. So, after eating the fabulous birthday cake that Susan made, we started. I won’t try to recap what others said but a common theme was that once you’re over 50 it’s easier to just do what you want to do without getting hung up about what others think of you.

Halfway round the circle it was my turn. (Someone, I won’t say who, gave me a scathing look and said, “It’s supposed to be positive things!) I had been giving this some thought since the topic was suggested and listened with interest to what others had to say. And in all honesty, this “aging” question is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

50! My god, that seems so young to me now. And so long ago yet it feels like just yesterday. How is life different over 50 than younger than 50? Yes, what other people think of you becomes less important to you. But its not that simple.

When I was in my 20s I spent a lot of time trying to see who I was and to figure out how to make myself into the kind of person I wanted to be. The kind of person I wanted to be was pretty much a mashup of the roll models I respected or admired. And no, they weren’t my parents! Roll models: Mrs Peel from The Avengers TV show (the original), Veruschka the model (look her up if you youngsters don’t know who she is), Marlene Dietrich because she could be sexy without taking off any clothes, Katherine Hepburn just because she was like no one else. And because a girl doesn’t have to have only female role models, Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven because when he walked down the street, he owned it – a good skill to have if you live in NYC. I’m sure I had some others I respected, admired and wanted to emulate but that’s all that come to mind at the moment.

By the time I reached 30, I had pretty much made myself into who I wanted to be. The 20 years between 30 and 50 were pretty damn good. I came to Stockholm the first time. I met Håkan. I had 7 fun years working as a freelance graphic designer in the A/V business in NYC. I got married at 38, had my kid at 40. Spent 10 years fixing up a run down country property and learned to like country life and my green rubber boots. And all the while doing good, creative, satisfying work.

And then I hit 50! Yes. Yes. I know, positive things! But it’s difficult. Just after I hit 50 a major recession hit us here in Sweden. Many of the clients my husband and I had, dried up and died. Money became tight. Life became difficult. While in my 30s I felt in control of my life. In my 40s I felt in control of someone else’s life. In my 50s I started to feel like I had very little control over anything. And for a recovering control freak like myself thats a really bad feeling. But that was all over 10 years ago now. I can’t say life got a lot better after everything fell apart but many of those things that happened after I turned 50 were circumstantial not metaphysical. And that’s the important difference!

So here are some of the things I learned since I turned 50.

1. I can’t control everything. Partially because I’m now just too tired and partially because you just can’t. So stop trying. OK, Ok, you can try a little.

2. You can’t change other people. So stop trying to do that too. It will only make you unhappy. And you know the second part of that “advice”, when they tell you that you can only change yourself? Well that’s a lie! You can’t really change yourself either. You might think you are but you’re not. I spent all my 20s creating the Hilarie that I wanted to be. And for the most part, I became that person but underneath it all I was still the original Hilarie – insecure, self-conscious, afraid of change. You’re stuck with you no matter what so you better start liking yourself. But after 50, you’re more willing to say, “Oh, what the fuck! This is me!”

3. And that brings us to the thing that many sitting around the circle mentioned. Being less influenced by what other people think about you. I personally don’t think this should be something that only applies to “older” people. From the time I was 16 years old and 6 feet tall, I worried what other people saw when they looked at me. I spent years controlling, as much as possible, that image that others saw. I don’t so much any more. Its just too much damn work. I even dare to go out without any makeup on these days (but mainly only in my own immediate neighborhood) The only thing that really matters is what you yourself think! When I graduated art school I took my portfolio around to everyone I could think of for advice on how I should present my work. Everybody gave me different advice. I realized then that the only opinion that really mattered was my own. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice, but the buck has to stop in your own backyard. And nobody knows your backyard as well as you do.

4. Here’s something else not specifically for 50+ers but for anyone. Figure out how to laugh. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So here I sit 14 years past 50 and you know what I feel like? I feel like I did when I was 14 years old, all over again. When I was 14, my body was changing in ways I couldn’t imagine, with new bumps developing in different places. I spent a lot of time wondering what life would be like after I leave my family, what was I going to work with, where was I going to live, how would I support myself, who would be my new friends or family, etc etc etc.

And here I now stand, on the brink of retirement, again about to start a new life. Just like when I was 14! Once again my body is rearranging itself. (not always in equally positive ways as it did the last time) I wonder what I will be doing after I stop “working”. How will I stay creative? Where will I live when a large apartment will no longer be needed. I wonder what life will be like when my family – my son –  leaves home. And I readily admit I am scared shitless. Back then I had the possibility of 80 years ahead of me. Now I have most of my life behind me and if I’m lucky barely 30 more to go. (and probably not 30 fully healthy ones) But if I allow myself to calm down a bit I also have to admit a touch of excitement. Because I know I won’t be doing it alone. I’m a member of a group.