Aug 8 2018

The Writer’s Trip

This past May I had a chance to take short trip to France, to learn some more about writing.


The tip of my elbow is sticking out from under the duvet. It’s a duvet, not a påslaken. I am in France and I am freezing! I have come to the south of France for 5 days, to Provence, to a small town named Cotignec to participate in a 3 day long Writers Retreat/Workshop. It’s a small workshop, just the 8 of us, but still…
And did I mention I was in France?

When I was about 15, my mother bought me a small notebook with lined pages. It had a beautiful cover of turquoise patterned silk and a string bookmark attached to its spine. What it didn’t have, was one of those cheap locks on its open end, so it wasn’t what I would have called a girly diary. It didn’t say My Diary on it either, for which I was very thankful. My mother gave it to me, maybe as a birthday present, but maybe not. I don’t remember anymore. As she handed it to me she said, “Here. You can write down what you are thinking about in this book.” I think she gave it to me to get herself off the hook because she was the one who I always kept tossing all those thoughts at. She had gotten tired of having to listen to me.

The sound of voices downstairs wakes me. I poke my head out of my warm cave as I listen to an engine starting up and the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. Liz is on her way to buy fresh bread for breakfast. My first morning in Provence is about to start. I am staying in a large stone house, overlooking an incredible view of fields and mountains, together with 8 other people. I am here to enjoy the pleasures of real French bread and to write.

By the time I reached high school, I had decided that I was going to go to be an artist and that I would go to Art School. I didnt know yet exactly what I wanted to study. At the time, it was a toss-up between Fashion Design and Architecture. I knew it would be something that required the making of pictures. I wasn’t going to be a writer. Somewhere, I had gotten it into my head that you had to pick one or the other – words or pictures – because you couldn’t do both. That’s what I thought then. And I had long ago, already chosen pictures. I filled the notebook my mother gave me with words though – all the thoughts and ideas and opinions that took up space in my head got funneled down into those lined pages. But I made a decision, when I started putting those words on paper, that all I would do is write what I was thinking about or had an opinion about. I wasn’t going to make the words pretty or fancy or artistic or even be there for their own sake – because that is what I did with pictures. The words were just there because there was no more room in my head, so I put them on paper.

We have just landed in the airport in Nice and right away the four of us go to the small airport cafe and order something to eat and drink. I order coffee and a pain au chocolat. I need the caffeine after a night of almost no sleep and an uncomfortable three-hour flight – and the pastry…well, hey, I’m in France! Liz arrives in her rental car and we head off. The sky is grey and overcast and the air chilly as we drive through the damp French countryside.

I went to Art School – for Fashion Design – not architecture. But after a year and a half, I realized I didn’t want to design clothes for other people. So I switched to Commercial Art and came out prepared to be an Art Director or Graphic Designer or Illustrator. In the commercial art world, you had designers who worked with pictures and you had copywriters. The copywriters worked with the words. So that theory which I had back in high school turned out to be true. When working with a copywriter, I occasionally contributed to the words that were used but it was still the copywriter’s job to finish it. I continued to write my words in my lined notebooks. New ones had been bought and filled. I didn’t make up stories, like writers do. I only wrote what was True. Because I was a graphic designer, not a writer.

And so I continued – all through my career in New York City and even after I landed in Stockholm – it was always about the pictures. Occasionally, I still added words to my notebooks but less and less after I moved here. In 1991, I had my son and any thoughts of putting words on paper went out the door along with the dirty diapers.

And then the World Wide Web and the Internet happened. In the beginning of the new century, my friend Amy started up a website for English-speaking parents in Stockholm called ParentNetSweden. It was an ambitious undertaking and she needed content. She asked me if I could write some articles for her. Someone else would be doing the graphics so I said yes. I wrote about how one eats at a Swedish smörgasbord. I described what Swedish life in the countryside is like. I did a few book reviews. I wrote a review about The Lord of the Rings films and described going to Trilogy Tuesday here in Stockholm, dressed in costume. I found I had trouble keeping myself out of my texts. I wasn’t interested in statistics or facts. Instead I wrote personal pieces. I wrote pieces about how it was to move to Sweden and how I adjusted to life here. I wrote about being Jewish here. (Some of those stories ended up on this blog.) After a little over a year, the site closed down and we all moved on to other things but I had gotten a taste for putting words outside the boundries of my lined notebooks.

Everyone is sitting around the large oval dining table in Brynn’s kitchen; Ting, Eva, Liz, me, Cassie and Joe and Matt and Ulrika with their 2 month old baby Kay. Brynn, is Liz’s friend and he has graciously allowed us to invade his big stone house in Provence just before the tourist season starts. Several fresh loaves of bread, along with a multitude of cheeses and various spreads are arranged on the table and we sit around planning the next 3 days as we eat. Sleeping places are assigned. Weather is discussed – it seems like we brought typical Swedish summer weather with us, not the warm sunny south-of-France kind of weather that we have all been expecting. The weather report says it is going to be chilly with periods of rain throughout the week. We decide to divide our days into exploring the neighborhood and writing. When the sun is out we would leave the house to explore. The writing could be done when the rain comes down.

By 4 o’clock the drizzle has stopped and the sun is trying to show its face. A group of us decide to go off and take a walk down the country road. The air is still damp from the recent rain so I make sure to put on my hat. I don’t want my hair to frizz. We walk till we come to an unpassable puddle and then turn back. The bread and cheese from earlier in the day was starting to wear off and it was time to go have dinner at a charming little restaurant in the center of town.

When Facebook came along, my friend Janet talked me into joining. For the introvert that I was, it was like a hand finding its perfect glove. I could be opinionated, witty, contemplative, and clever with all my friends and I didn’t even have to go outside my door or put on my makeup. But you had to keep it short. No long-winded pieces for Facebook. And I had no control over how anything looked – it all looked like Facebook.

So eventually, the glove started feeling a bit too tight. One size fits all was never a good fit for me. I decided to start my own blog. My husband and I already had a domain name and the WordPress blog could go there. I looked through page designs till I found a design I liked and then redid it to make it personal and truly mine. (I was still a graphic designer, remember?) I could write as many words as I wanted in my blog and keep everything I wrote in one place. I called it Just Hilarie because it’s just me. So far, I’ve published exactly 84 pieces. But I’m not very prolific. I have a number of fits and starts that never got finished and I am the world’s worst publicist so very few people ever actually read what I write. I announce on Facebook and Twitter when I have a new piece up but, you know how it is…..

During my last few years at IGBP, where I worked as their in-house graphic designer, I would spend lunch times talking about writing with my co-worker and friend, Ting. She knew she wanted to be a writer. She read some of my blog posts and told me that the kind of stuff I wrote could be called Memoir. Wow! I was a genre! Ting suggested I take the University of Iowa’s online MOOC. It was titled Storied Women and I signed up. It was my very first creative writing class and it was definitely a challenge. I watched the video classes and I loved reading what the assignments were. I even managed to do 3 of them while spending a month in New York City.

Ting told me she was regularly attending a writers workshop and suggested I join her there. She said the group leader, Cassie, was very good. And Ting was right. I found myself planning my life around these alternate Tuesdays. By then, I was officially retired, which was basically a nice way of saying I was out of a job. I had been spending a lot of time wondering about what I was going to do with my life once retirement started. Unlike for my parents, retirement had never been my end-all goal in life. The work I did as a designer was who I was. It defined me. So who was I if I didn’t make pictures anymore? Attending these writing workshops seemed to be filling a gap in my new life.

After a few months, Cassie announced that she was offering a 9-session writing course. I signed up and for the next 5 months every other Sunday, I spent my time learning about Plot and Character and Structure and Dialogue. Cassie introduced me to writing prompts, which I loved. Many of the things Cassie discussed, I had probably been aware of, because I’m a reader. But no one had ever talked about them to me as things that a writer does consciously. I felt like something was missing when the class ended. But I continued to attend her workshops, occasionally submitting pieces to be dissected and workshopped. I loved having a piece workshopped! It reminded me of being back at Pratt, in art school, and putting an illustration piece up for a critique. After a session, a small group would often go out for a beer together and just talk, about writing, and life in general. I got to feel like I was getting to know these people. They were becoming my writer friends and a new part of my life.

When Liz texted me, this past spring, inviting me to join her and a few of the regulars from our Writers Workshop at her friend Brynn’s place in France for a kind of writers retreat, my first reaction was “Oh that’s a cool idea!” And then my sometimes irrational brain kicked in and started saying “No no no…can’t go. I hate traveling!”

Liz and Ting managed to talk me down from the edge of the windowsill and promised that everything would be fine. When I heard that Cassie and her Joe were going, I booked myself on the same flight so I wouldn’t be traveling alone and my brain quieted down. So at 5 am, one very foggy May morning, this very timid traveler, met up with Ting, Cassie and Joe at Arlanda Airport, poised for a new kind of adventure.

Our first morning in Provence was going to be rain-free so we decide to go exploring. Like the day we arrived, it was damp and chilly out so I put on multiply layers of my summer clothes, not forgetting my knit hat to protect my hair from the humidity. The sun was at least threatening to peek out between the scattered cloud cover. We headed off for a walk in the forest alongside a river. I’m not much of a hiker and among this bunch I have to admit I’m the old lady but I was determined to keep up. There were several sections along the path that I needed the help of our male companions to make it up the steep places. I figure it’s always nice to let men feel they are needed sometimes. We ended up at a beautiful waterfall tumbling from far above our heads into a still pond that made it worth the struggle to get there. After returning the way we came, with me getting help again from the boys, we wandered around the outskirts of the town, exploring small paths and finding hidden gardens. We took a breather at a very French cafe and I got to taste extremely strong espresso. We wandered to the center of town and stopped for lunch at a small Brasserie. We sat down to eat, at the tables outside, but after about 5 minutes, we looked at each other and unanimously decided it was too cold and we went inside for our lunch. We weren’t in Sweden after all, and we didn’t have to pretend we liked sitting outside in the cold just because it was summer.

We drove back to the house and gathered around the big table for our writing workshop – the real reason (or excuse?) for being here. Cassie lead us on an exploration of the use of Defamiliarization – how to use the familiar and the strange in writing to make your writing unique and original. She discussed how to make memoir speak to a reader. And then we did writing prompts! I wrote my very first piece of Science Fiction from one of these prompts! It was very short and not really very original but it took place on a space ship instead of planet Earth. And it wasn’t about me for a change!

After almost 3 hours of inspiration we were ready for more food. So around 5 pm, we hopped in the cars for a trip to Super Marché, a big supermarket, to buy food for dinner. It was great fun to wander through a French supermarket seeing what they sold. With bags and bags of food we headed back. Joe had volunteered to make pasta with a sunflower seed pesto. Also on the table was a huge salad platter, filled with bright red tomato wedges, slices of crisp yellow sweet peppers, red-tipped lettuce, juicy green-edged cucumber chunks and crunchy pieces of French bread left over from the day before and fried in olive oil and salt. The French bread crutons were good enough to eat by themselves. After supper, we huddled around the fireplace, struggling to get it lit in spite of the scarcity of dry wood, because we were all still so cold. My husband sent me a screen capture of a map showing temperatures around Europe with Sweden having temps in the 20s (Celsius) and southern France being down in the low teens. It’s not often Swedes can boast about warm weather and he was enjoying himself.

Tuesday morning was Market Day in Cotingac and the sun was predicted to show its face, so after a breakfast of freshly bought French breads we headed to town. We spent the morning wandering amongst the stalls and offerings. I bought 2 thick slices of French nougat to bring home to Stockholm. We ate fresh made crepes off a food truck for lunch. Mine was with ham and cheese and an egg – all the flavors dissolving together in my mouth. And then we were back at the house for an afternoon of writing. By this time the sunshine had warmed things up a bit so we dared to sit around the patio table on the terrace, with a view of fields and forests and mountains spread out before us under a bright blue sky studded with compact clouds. We started off with a writing prompt to get us thinking about Character – how to make our characters physically believable in their world. We practiced writing about Space (not the kind in Sci-fi) but up and down, in and out, the space a character takes up as they move around. Cassie led us on a discussion about Staging and Tableau – who is in the frame that you are writing about. And she discussed Stakes – something I am very poor at writing. You have to write characters who want something very much, she explains, something that they are in danger of losing. This is a way to create tension and makes your story interesting enough for the reader to continue to read it. I still have a lot of work to do on this. I am much too kind to my characters, unfortunately. Maybe because my character is usually me??

As the sun started to fade behind the mountains, it was time to make dinner. We ate eggplant parmesan and couscous with roasted mixed veggies. Again, it was a group effort but I tried to stay out of the kitchen. You know what they say about too many cooks. And as usual, there were lovely French wines to drink with the meal. The rest of the evening was spent around the living room fireplace – the firestarters finally figured out how to get it going and wood had been brought in to dry in advance. It was still cold outside and the glow of the burning wood was very welcome even if it didn’t really add much heat. We spent the time talking – getting to know each other on a more intimate level. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this kind of thing – talking with people who are relatively unknown – discussing life and who we are instead of talking about work or raising our children. It reminded me of being back in college or in the mid 70s when my friend Fern would invite me out to her summer share in Fire Island and we would hang out with the other house sharers. I like that. I like being one in a group of many – to be included in the conversation – to listen to what others have to say about their lives. I definitely don’t get to do that too often these days.

Wednesday morning was going to be sunny. So, everyone decided to drive off to explore another town a bit further away. I told them I wanted to stay at the house. I wondered if they would be upset if I didn’t go with them. Would they be worried about me because I didn’t want to join the group? I reassured them I was fine, just a bit tired. And it seemed ok. I admit to not being the best traveler. I have very little interest in exploring strange new worlds, new places in real life – reading Sci-Fi fullfills those needs for me. As much as I was loving being around everyone, this introvert (who knows how to pretend to be an extrovert) needed to spend time alone after so much socializing. Unlike a true extrovert who gets energized by being around other people, the energy needed by me, to be social, gets drained and needs to be replaced by spending time alone to recover. So I stayed at the house. I sat out on the flag-stoned veranda in the sun and stared out at the horizon of bluish mountains and dark green fields, watching the clouds move across the powder blue sky. I looked through my notes and read my Kindle. Brynn, the owner of the house was also there, puttering around with his new lawnmower or painting chairs, getting ready for the summer rental guests. When he took a break we sat at the table and talked for a bit. He was a Jewish guy, around my age, from Stockholm who had had an American mother, so we had a lot we could talk about.

When everyone else returned from their adventures, I was once again able to rejoin the group and we had our last writing workshop. Cassie talked about the differences between Story and Plot. We listened to a very character-driven short story called Emergency written by Denis Johnson and discussed how each scene works. And once again more writing prompts. As during each previous session, Cassie gave us the chance to read aloud what we had written and we workshopped each small piece. I always find these discussions of the work so enlightening. It is real, practical help – not just abstract theory.

The evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice cooked by Brynn. And more wine and conversation round the fireplace till it was time for bed.

Thursday morning and it was time to travel home to warm, sunny Stockholm. How many times can I say that? We took a train back to Nice and then a bus to the airport. We were very late and really had to high-tail it though all the security and gates. But we made it on the plane. All that running and stress reminded me why I hate traveling. I’m never flying anywhere again. Yeah, right…

Summer is almost over now and I’m sitting at the dining table out at my own country house in Stavsnäs. The door to the deck is open and the lace curtain that hangs there stirs a bit in the warm breeze. Next to me on the windowsill lies a small flat wooden stick – the kind you put in gardens so you remember what you planted and are waiting to see grow. Cassie gave this to me after I finished her creative writing class. One end is pointed and the other end has a green ribbon attached. Printed on one side of the stick are the words Write & Write & Write & Write & Edit. On the other side is my name, printed in the same kind of block letters, and above it is the word Writer. Maybe I am after all.


Mar 25 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.

 

 

 


Dec 2 2017

Naming cats

In these days of darkness, when the hours of light are still lessening and humanity seems to be heading towards its own metaphysical darkness, two little sparks of light have entered my life. They have only been with us for a short time and from the beginning, before they arrived, I was very hesitant to give my approval. The thought of having to think about and take care of even one more living creature with needs, just seemed too much for me. But I was overruled. My boys wanted cats.

It’s taken the past week to decide on names for our new family members. Names are important. Names have power to shape the world, to create, to give form to an idea. And at the very least, to shape the living creature that belongs to the name. When I was 11 I hated my name. I so longed to be named Mary, or Susan or Barbara or Carol – names that were popular in the classrooms of my childhood. Who was named Hilarie? No one I knew at least. My mother used to console me by telling me that when I grew up, if I still didn’t like Hilarie, then I could use my middle name Ruth instead. I found that very comforting back then. It lasted me until I arrived at art school and had finally grown into Hilarie. But I sometimes wonder who I would be if I had been named one of those popular names of the 1950s – a name that when the teacher called it at least 2 or 3 girls in the class looked up. When the teacher called Hilarie, it was only me. And I think that has shaped me greatly. I have always felt unique, unusual, different from the rest, for lots of reasons, my name being just one among them.

So, since their arrival, the battle over the names to give our two new family members, our 12-week old kittens, a brother and sister pair, has raged on – spreading itself past our family and out over social media. Food names seemed to be topping the list, often based on color. The male kittie is your perfect “cute cat” shape with a round head and very dark eyes. He’s a very pale creamy yellow with faint tiger stripes on the lower part of his legs. The female was the one who caught Håkan’s attention when he first saw photos of them on his friend’s Facebook page. She reminded him of one of our first cats, Tingeling. She’s painted in mottled shades of dark browns on a rather skinny body with touches of tan in places. She has dark eyes in a dark face which has a splash of lighter tan across one side and she seems more nervous and hyper than her brother who is the epitome of cool, calm and collected. Except of course when he is attacking someone’s feet.

Because of his round, pale yellow head I wanted to name him Chickpea – not a very masculine name perhaps but cute. Håkan wasn’t too fond of it though. Janet Suslick suggested Garbanzo instead, a slightly more masculine sounding alternative. I wanted to name the girl Splotch because of the splotch of color on her face. Håkan didn’t like that at all. He claimed he had trouble saying it. He prefered Coco but I kept thinking of Coco Channel or coconuts and wasn’t happy. So the search was on.

Ebony and Ivory was a Håkan suggestion but he kept pronouncing it Ivie and emergency rooms kept coming to my mind, so no. I jokingly suggested Seven and Eight because they were the seventh and eighth cats I have owned in my life (and as a life-long Star Trek fan it made me think of Seven of Nine). Håkan started coming up with more This and That names but I wanted each to have their own name so I shot down Jack and Jill, Salt and Pepper, Punch and Judy, even Him and Her. Danielle Shevin started suggesting camera/photography related names so Nikon and Leica or Canon and Leica, and Agfa and Kodak were put forward.

Then I suggested Custard for the male instead of Chickpea – he looked like a vanilla custard – and the list of food names flooded in:
Linda Rosen suggested Hummos and Olive. Christin Walth suggested Root Beer as homage to Pepsi our late demised cat. Roz Davis said Ginger Ale to go along with the Root Beer. Maria Lindgren suggested Curry and Cinnamon. Nicole de Jong liked Custard and came up with Licorice for the dark one.

There were also suggestions of real names (of a sort) coming in:
Rich Bertrand suggested Frick and Frack. Emma Ockert said she named her cat Uma but had wanted Linus if it had been a boy so she thought we should use that. Cecillia Haglund had the audacity to suggest Trump and Kim Jon Un but I said I didn’t want to gag each time I called their names. Gunilla Langetz suggested Lisa and Sluggo which is the Swedish equivalent of the American cartoon strip characters Nancy and Sluggo. Lisa Tallroth suggested Smike and Suzie. Bo G Erikson suggested Fred and Ginger but since the ginger cat was the male that would have been confusing. Karel Littman suggested Wheatie and Wink but I wasn’t sure who would be Wheatie and who would be Wink. Danielle Shevin also came in with French names, Minette och Minou. Anne-Lise Christoffersen Schjetne suggested Kattastrofe and Sebastian. Kay Johannes suggested Patch instead of Splotch.

Finally we were worn down. Håkan was willing to go with Custard for the male and I was willing to call our dark brown girl Coco but spelled Cocoa like chocolate, instead of coconuts. Hopefully we have chosen correctly and they will grow into these names like I grew into mine until eventually we won’t even be able to imagine calling them anything else.

Cocoa and Custard

Cocoa and Custard

Its been almost 30 years since the last time we had baby kitties. These two will keep us on our toes. We can no longer leave our clothes laying about or they will be covered with cat fur. Pill bottles (or anything small enough to be moved by lightweight balls of fur) can’t be left out on the table or we find them lying on the floor. We have to shower with the bathroom door partly open so Custard or Cocoa can come in and use the facilities if they want. To wake up early in the morning and have a tiny cat climbing on my head tangled in my mass of hair is, in a weird way, comforting. I love watching them play cat hockey as they battle for the plastic milk cap across the living room playing field. Their tiny bodys are so filled with warmth and energy that they give me hope for our world and bring joy into our home.

I am glad I said yes.


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


Feb 9 2016

Still Obsessed

I just started my second reading of An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon’s seventh novel in her Outlander series. I’ve gotten as far as the Prologue.

The body is amazingly plastic. The spirit, even more so. But there are some things you don’t come back from. Say ye so, a nighean? True, the body’s easily maimed, and the spirit can be crippled – yet there’s that in a man that is never destroyed.

And barely as the last word was read, my eyes started to fill with tears and I realized I was crying.

How? Why? Am I that much of a sentimental sap? I never thought so before. I have been reading and re-reading these books (and watching the TV series by Starz) since discovering first the show and then the books in the beginning of 2015, after my friend told me about them a few months earlier. And I can’t seem to stop. I can’t seem to be able to leave the world that Gabaldon has built and come back fully to my own. What is it about Jamie and Claire’s love affair and adventures and marriage and life that makes me want to be there with them instead of in my own life?

Granted, the last 4 years have been difficult ones, filled with sorrow, disappointments, illness and changes.

In 2011 my mother got sick and at the very end of that year I spent the last month of her life by her bedside in New Jersey watching as she slowly passed away. You can read about that month I spent with her under Saying Goodbye to Mom. On a cold January day my family and I said our final goodbyes at a wonderful funeral (if one can call a funeral wonderful) and a joy-filled Chinese lunch (her favorite sort of food) with friends and family. And then I returned to my home and my life in Stockholm. Once back here I managed with great help from her Finance Guy, Dave, to settle all her bills, tie-up loose ends, and pull together what needed to be done to file her estate income tax forms. Done! Chapter settled and closed! Or so I thought.

Then 2 years later, I received a letter saying I was being sued for unpaid property taxes! It seemed that the person who had been renting the property that I had inherited from my mom had not been paying said taxes as he should have been and now I was required to pay a huge sum of money in back taxes and interest. I almost had a heart attack. As luck would have it, I actually had a lawyer who could help me and even just enough money to save my property. The stress from dealing with all that finally ended up causing me to decide to start taking anti-anxiety meds. It has taken the last 2 years to finally work out the situation. I don’t believe in writing gratitude lists but I am very grateful for my lawyer Gary. He saved my sanity. What I have left of it at least.

Then just after finding out I was being sued, I heard that my job as a graphic designer, that I enjoyed and liked working at was soon going to end. IGBP was going to be closing down at the end of December 2015 and as I write this I am now officially out of a job. And looking for a new one. I think…..

And as a last straw, in October of 2014, my husband got sick. He developed an aneurysm that started to bleed right at the top of his spinal cord where all those little nerves are gathered. He spent 2 months in hospital, needed brain surgery and almost died. He is home now and still himself but the bleeding affected certain nerves leaving him dealing, for the past year and a half, with a number of physical disabilities and has  affected the way we see and live our life together – how we go forward. Oh, and did I mention those added anxiety and stress levels???

Sooo, as I said above, the past 4 years have been pretty crappy and I find myself often not really wanting to crawl out of bed.

But when I do, I find myself still standing and even still able to make a joke. But I am almost afraid to open my email – who knows what disaster awaits me there. I don’t feel very much like socializing since I am boring even myself with my negativity about life and my lack of enthusiasm. I don’t want to keep spreading it around my friends or I won’t have any left, friends that is. Facebook and Twitter are my main social outlets – I don’t have to get dressed or put on my face for that! Or even leave my bed!

I need to concentrate on finding a new job but I don’t seem to be able to muster much enthusiasm for that task either. Being a graphic designer is how I have earned my living most of my life and actually is the only work skill I really have. But, I don’t know – images are just all starting to look very grey. Words are what fill my head now. But getting the energy to sit myself down at the computer to write – that is so hard too. Its as though my computer has become my enemy and I can’t dare to face it. All my shoulda, woulda, couldas get saved to the very last minute before I can bring myself to attend to them. And I find myself getting very sloppy by the time I actually get to them. And its the sloppiness that bothers me. The not caring. The lack of … whatever it is I am lacking. Perhaps its just the will-to-do that’s missing.

So I lose myself in Diana’s world. Its not the same as when I read over and over again Peter and Wendy (the original book about Peter Pan) as a child or lost myself in The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. Its not just escapism.

Its like that prologue I quoted at the top of the page, that started me crying: I think I reacted to it because I too am looking for that part of me that is still not destroyed. The me that is still left. Her words are filled with that sort of thing that seems to be speaking to me directly.

Her story of Jamie and Claire’s life, of how they are as a married pair – I wish I had that as an idea of a life together. I almost wish I had read her books when I was young, in my 20s. My parent’s married life, the only example I had, was not really happy and I admit to avoiding pairing up for a very long time because of their example. In reading how Jamie and Claire are with each other, it gives me a different model to follow in my own marriage. I almost wish I had learned those things 30 years ago.

So I continue my Outlander obsession. Reading and rereading over and over again. Each time finding small bits and pieces that leave me weeping, with sadness or joy but still engulfed in tears, sharing their lives. Waiting for mine to recover and figure out what my next stage will contain. I sometimes wish I had Jamie’s resilience to disaster and hardship but maybe I have more than I think I have. I’m just waiting for it to bounce back so I can discover who I am again.