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.


Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays but because of its closeness to Christmas it has taken on much larger importance in the Jewish calander.

The holiday actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It celebrates an event that took place approximately 165 years before Jesus was even born. The name Chanukah comes from the hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and that is what the holiday commemorates: the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the local Greek-Syrian rulers. Jewish forces led by Judah Maccabee (Judah the hammar) revolted against these rulers and eventually won the war against them and restored the Temple. The story goes that there was only found in the Temple enough oil for the holy lamp to be lit for one day but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. So today we light candles for 8 days to remember the miracle of the oil. And eat oily foods like latkes and fried donuts.

But the real story, the back story, was probably not so wonderful. Judea, the Jewish kingdom that Jerusalem was the capital of, was a conquered kingdom, ruled by the Greek-Syrian Selucid Empire, the local remains of what had once been Alexander the Great’s empire. During the time when the events of the story happened the lure of the hellenic culture was very strong, even in the Jewish kingdom. The hellenized, secular Jewish faction was in conflict with the Jews who were much more consevative and felt Jews should live strict Jewish lives and not follow the Greek hellenistic way. When Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid Emperor, sided with the hellenized Jewish faction, the conservative Maccabees revolted and cast out him and his forces. The whole thing was in effect a civil war, Jew against Jew, with the help of some outside forces. But the religious leaders who came after the war didn’t want to commemorate and keep remembering a civil war, Jews fighting against Jews, so they came up with the miracle of the oil in the Temple and Jews once again being able to be Jews. They felt it was better to remember the positive and put aside what was evil. So to this day, when we celebrate Chanukah we celebrate by remembering the miracle of light. A much better thing to remember as I see it. And when we light the candles on our Chanukias we always add one more candle each night. Each night we add more light!

menorahs

I now own 3 chanukiah, as the special 9-armed menorah is actually named. The largest is a silver and gilt one that my mother bought for me sometime after the birth of my son – for us to use as a family. The smallest one, on the right, is a gift given to me by my cousin Karel when I moved here to Stockholm so that I could remember my family back in New Jersey while I celebrated the holiday here in my new homeland. The third one, the middle-sized one in the front, is actually my newest yet my oldest. It is the one that my family lit thoughout my childhood and which I only brought back with me to Stockholm after the death of my mother three years ago. The two larger chanukiahs use the customary chanukah candles one buys in any judaica shop. The small one uses birthday candles.

Tonight, the first night, my son Bevin and I will light all three and Bevin will be given a small gift. The holiday is about the lighting of the candles and presents are not really relevant. The giving of gifts on each night of Chanukah is more a response to the gifts children get for Christmas. The more important thing is to light the candles.

In these dark days, when a member of the Swedish parlament says that Jews can never be considered real Swedes, when Islamists and Palestinians claim that the Jewish people have no right to be in Jerusalem, when synogogues are once again being burned, and Rabbis are attached, I am glad I can light my Chanukah lights together with my son, in freedom, in my home, in the land I live in. The candles remind me that Jews lived in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, before Christianity existed, before Islam existed. Now we live in many countries. We know how to live as Swedes and as Jews. As Americans and as Jews. Being Jewish is a plus situation. It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can be both a true citizen of the country we live in and a Jew at the same time. We know how to integrate without losing our identity. We have been doing it for over 2 thousand years. In this cross-cultural world we live in, this is something we can teach the world.


Mar 15 2013

Real life

“Well, I’m back.” That was what Sam Gamgee says at the very end of The Lord of the Rings as he returns home from his great adventure. And now I’m back too, back to my family, in my own home with all my own things around me. Back to real life. Back to being just Hilarie.

During the last week of my stay in NJ over a year ago, as I rode in the car with my husband, I told him how much the residents at Monroe Village whom I had gotten to know, said they enjoyed eating with me and would miss me, how the healthcare staff told me how great it was that I had been there for my mom, how much people from both the States and Sweden told me that they enjoyed reading my blogg. He reaches over and pats me on the head and comments that maybe he should have rented a larger car model so as to accommodate the size of my swelling head. He said it with a smile but I could hear the whooshing sound of the air leaving as my head shrank back down to normal size and I landed 0nce again on solid ground.

This made me think about the “instant celebrity” phenomenon so prevalent in our society today. Somebody sings a song on American Idol and suddenly they are SOMEBODY. Somebody that everyone is talking about, that everyone wants to meet or talk to. Everyone is saying how great they are or how wonderful they sing. I can say that I am beginning to understand how easy it is for them to begin to believe the hype and all the complements until finally they end up thinking, “Wow, aren’t I great?? I truly am SOMBODY!” And diva-ism is just one step away.

Yet still, something remarkable happened in those 4 weeks at Monroe Village. I went there to say good bye to my mother, to be with her as she lay dying – a sad, difficult, grief-filled experience. Yet I didn’t have to go through it alone. The people who had known and liked my mom took me in and gave me their friendship. The people who took care of my mother took care of me too. And I had time – time to sit and think, to use words to shape the experience of being with my mother as she lay dying into something I could understand and take with me.

And now I’m sitting here in a Wayne’s Coffee on Sveavägen, watching people and once again thinking. I was too busy at 40 being a new mom to have a mid life-crises then but now at 60+ I think I’m having a sort of 60 year’s crises instead. What is the meaning of my life? Who am I? Where am I going? I feel like I’ve become a teenager again, asking those questions – but with a lot more of life experience, with a body that is starting to show the effects of a lot of wear and tear, more tired, more cynical and more negative. And some of the questions have changed: what have I accomplished in the past 40 years, what more do I have time to do, what do I really want to do with the time I have left? And while no one really knows what the future holds, the big difference between being 18 and 61 is that there are a lot fewer years left.

So now I find myself with the next 1/4 section of my life staring me right in the face. I go towards it as a relatively new orphan, with my only child standing on the cusp of moving out on his own – to be independent of his parents, with the prospect of unfamiliar coupleness once again, with retirement from my “working” life just around the corner.

So I look at myself and ask , who am I? Am I just like everyone else? Or am I someone special in some exceptional way?  What sort of “SOMEBODY” am I in this real life?


Jul 8 2012

The fuschia coat

Hi Mom, Did you see me? I was wearing that bright fuschia jacket. You remember –  the lightweight down one which you used to wear as a winter coat. I never had a chance to ask you if I could take it back with me to Sweden. You had already left by then, but I figured that you wouldn’t mind my taking it. Its more like a jacket on me and it’s been perfect for the chilly Spring and early Summer days we’ve been having here in Stockholm. I never had a chance to say it, but thanks Mom.

I think about you a lot since those days back in December. Every time I’ve worn that jacket I’ve said a silent Hi Mom. But, mostly,  in the evenings, when dinner is done and I haven’t quite decided what to do next, I think of you. I remember how every evening, for the past 4 or 5 years, I would think “Okay, I have to call my mother now”. I admit that it wasn’t always a pleasant thought – it was more like a chore – something I felt I had to do. I always called you, because it was more difficult for you to be able to call me here in Sweden. Since you got sick and had to leave your beloved house in Homestead and moved into Monroe Village, the kind of conversations we would have weren’t really about much of anything anymore – just superficial chatter, both of us trying to be cheerful.  Before I would start up Skype I sat for a bit to try to think of cheerful things I could tell you about my life here in Stockholm.

Back when I was still young and living in New York, I called you quite frequently – just to chat or to ask you your opinion, or how to do something or just quite simply as a sounding board for some of my own thoughts. But I wasn’t able to have those kinds of discussions with you much anymore. Mainly I called just to make sure you were still answering the telephone.  I also was trying to edit what I talked to you about. I tried to only tell you good things – to cheer you up – so you wouldn’t worry about me. Successes Bevin was having in school, what I was working on at work, the funny things our cat had done and what I was making for dinner. If potatoes were involved in the dinner, I always made sure to tell you. You liked hearing about us eating potatoes. I know you tried not to ask but you always wanted to know if I would be coming to visit and when. I know it saddened you when I had to say that I wouldn’t be able to come visit until later. Sometimes I would hear the regret in your voice that you were no longer able to come to see us anymore but I would say, that’s OK we would come to visit you. Later.

If I wanted to discuss something from the past it seemed like you couldn’t remember what I was referring to or maybe it was just that you  didn’t want to remember that long ago. Your days had become a routine of indignities and infirmities and I think you were trying to protect me from hearing about them – to keep me from worrying. And you were always trying to be positive and cheerful too. You would never tell me if you had fallen or hurt yourself. I often found that out much later. I was so glad when you met Marty. The world changed then for you. You had something to look forward to each day and to brighten your life. And when it got really tough the last year, he was always there to be with you. I am so grateful for that. You weren’t so alone.

Its summer now, I’m on vacation and we are at our summer place. A few days ago I was wearing a short-sleeved, navy blue cotton cardigan over my tank top. That was also yours – found in your closet, never worn. I wear it now – its perfect for Swedish summer and I’ll wear the fuschia coat in the winter. That way a part of you is with me all year round.


Oct 7 2011

A good man

October 15 is the yahrtzeit or anniversary of my father’s death. He died in 1997. My mother called me here in Sweden a few days before, to tell me that the doctors had said there was nothing more they could do for him and she had decided to unhook him from the machines he was attached to. My husband booked me on a flight to the States the next day. Mom picked me up at Newark airport and we drove directly to the hospital. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting there next to my dad, holding his hand. I don’t know if he knew if I was there or not, but I like to think he had been waiting till I came. That night, sometime around midnight or so, the hospital called to say my dad, Milton Cutler, had peacefully passed away.

me and my dad

me and my dad

While my mom kept herself busy making funeral arrangements, I sat down at her computer and wrote a eulogy for my father. I thought those words had been lost long ago on some old hard disk. Recently, while I was helping my mom move, I found a printed copy of the eulogy and brought it home with me to Stockholm. Now on the anniversary of his death 14 years ago I want to give that eulogy once again. Here it is.

My father was not the kind of man who created a stir when he entered a room. He was a little man, almost petite, and spoke softly. He wasn’t the kind of person who could tell riveting stories or captivate an audience. But I remember when I was little, he used to read to me before I went to sleep. He didn’t read to me ordinary run-of-the-mill bedtime stories. He read me Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Aku Aku, the book about the statues on Easter Island. He liked those kind of stories and that was what he found interesting to read to me. For my tenth birthday I received a subscription to National Geographic from him and long after I moved away from home, the issues kept coming every month to the house, with my name on them, but not really for me.

He also loved Science Fiction and that love I’ve inherited. I read my first Sci Fi book when I was 11 – The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, it was Daddy’s book. After that I read every Sci Fi book Daddy had till I started to buy my own.

He was a quiet man who rarely voiced his own opinions or demanded to have things his way. I think he came from a generation for whom the expression “self-fulfillment” would cause a feeling of discomfort and the idea of “doing your own thing” was an alien concept. For him, it was more important, to do the right thing. He didn’t drink, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t chase after women. His life wasn’t easy but he stuck with it. He worked hard and tried to give the people he loved in his life as much as he was able to. And when his time came, there wasn’t much time left to do the things he had wanted to do.

My father was one of those small, inconsequential men that the world out there doesn’t take much notice of. But he was a good man and in this day and age, just simply being a good man is something worthy of our respect, deserving of our praise and should be cherished in our memories.