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.


Feb 25 2018

Minyan

My minyan - from a while back
My minyan – a while back


Minyan is the Hebrew word for a quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. The most common activity requiring a minyan is public prayer.

According to the Orthodox view a Minyan requires 10 Jewish men to be official. The Reform movement says it only needs to be 10 Jewish adults, either male or female.  I’m on the side of the Reform movement and I feel I can be flexible as to the number 10.

Rosh Hashanah was just around the corner. This is the Jewish holiday celebrating the arrival of the Jewish New Year. It comes around just as the leaves start to change color every fall but it’s not always on the same day in the ordinary calendar so it can be hard to keep track of, if you are not actually looking for it. Together with Yom Kippur, it is one of the most important of the Jewish holidays. It’s usually celebrated with other Jews by going to synagogue, to pray together. When I was a kid, I would be dragged along by my parents to the relatively new Reform synagogue they were members of. In my early twenties, I would sometimes come home to visit my folks for Rosh Hashanah and spend the day with them in synagogue. After services, when we got home in the afternoon, we would eat dinner together. I never belonged to a congregation when I lived in New York – didn’t seem to feel the need for it then – I had my family to be with.

The notion of family has always been important to me. In my twenties, I might not have wanted to admit that to myself. At that point in my life, it was friends that seemed to matter more. And… it wasn’t like I came from a family that was all warm and encouraging and accepting, building self-confidence and creating harmony, kind and loving. No, my family was none of that, though occasionally, some of those things peeked out when the coast was clear.  We weren’t a very big family, just my parents and me and my brother and my mom’s brother and his wife and their kids and of course, Bertha, my maternal Grandmother. My family was a typical Jewish family, loud and noisy and opinionated and not too accomplished when it came to diplomatic skillsets. As my mother used to say about her mother, “Bertha always thought it was better to give a knock than a praise.” Maybe that was good though. It made you strong – able to take it. It certainly didn’t build self-confidence though. But you did learn to talk back and speak up….eventually. That was, after all, your only defense. So, family gatherings were often loud argumentative affairs with people talking all at once, no one listening, no one given the time to finish a sentence and often someone’s feelings getting hurt and ending up crying in the bathroom. Those were the good gatherings. Sometimes, you just remained at the table, cowering, hoping no one noticed you. And no one ever said “I’m sorry.”

But in spite of all this I still wanted to join our family get togethers, especially the big ones, Passover and Thanksgiving. Those holidays were celebrated either in my parent’s home or my uncle and aunt’s home. On smaller holidays such as Mother’s Day, we would all meet up in New York City at Radio City Music Hall and see a show. Then we would drive down to Chinatown for dinner. When we were out in public we were more civilized; though I do remember an interesting argument between my grandmother and her son, my uncle, about how to use chopsticks. I remember sitting there, as others talked about what to order – always a lengthy process – watching the two of them; just waiting for the irritation to build up into an explosion. I really wanted to be sitting at a different table with other diners during that meal.

After us kids started to move out, live on our own, there were less and less gatherings. We still met for Passover and Thanksgiving though. I always took the bus from New York City home to New Jersey, to my folks or to my uncle and aunt’s. But then, I moved to Stockholm and that was a lot longer than any bus ride could take me.

For the first few years I would return once a year – to join my family for Passover in the spring or Thanksgiving in the fall. They would catch me up on what they had been doing and I would tell tales of life in the foreign land called Sweden. In 1988 my cousin Karel hosted the family Passover gathering for the first time, in her small New York City apartment. She showed great bravery in doing that. Our grandmother, Bertha, insisted Karel could not host the Passover Seder because she was still unmarried. And Bertha insisted she would not come to it. Karel ultimately managed to squeeze a lot of people into that space. We weren’t a very jolly bunch that year due to the fact that Grandma Bertha had died just three days prior to the event. The funeral had been the day before. So, we sat there, reading our Haggadahs and eating our chicken soup and matzah balls, feeling the lack of our Matriarch who had made us feel Jewish with her Yiddish accent. Luckily for us, my cousin had a two hour long video tape of an “interview” she had done with Grandma just six months earlier. We all sat and watched it while we drank our coffee and ate our flour-free desserts. “Why are you so late? What kind of jalopy are you driving?” were the first words out of Grandma’s mouth when Karel walked in the door of her apartment. No hello. No how are you. No I’m glad to see you. In the following two hours, Bertha managed to say something uncomplimentary about every single person in that room. We all felt much better after that. Someone summed up the movie by saying, “Yep, that was Grandma.”

The years passed and my son came along. I discovered there was a Jewish Center here in Stockholm and when my kid was a year old I started taking him there to a mother/toddler sing-a-long group once a week. I could speak Swedish by then, though fluent was not a word I would use to describe my skill. I learned to sing baby songs in Swedish. I had no idea they were also in English – well, maybe I recognized the Swedish version of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The older my kid got, the more I started to feel the need for family – Jewish family – on my side of the ocean. And I needed it in English – because Moses said “Let my people go”. He didn’t say “Släpp mitt folk”. So in 1997 when my son was almost 6 years old, I put an ad in the American Woman’s Club magazine saying I was looking for other American Jewish mothers to join me to celebrate Jewish holidays with our small kids. The 6 or 7 women who responded were women who I had met occasionally during the past few years at one thing or another. We always said we should get together but we never did.

Finally that fall, on a dreary grey day, we all met and celebrated Rosh Hashanah together. We started with Tashlich, the ceremony where we “cast our sins into the depths of the sea”. Together with our kids, we walked down to a nearby lake and threw our bread crumbs, symbolizing our sins, into the water. Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out from behind the clouds and shined down on us. I couldn’t have ordered better special effects. I figured God was giving us his approval. Back in my friend’s house, we lit candles and said prayers over challah and apples dipped in honey and sweet red wine, in both English and Hebrew (I had to do some research for that). Then we ate chicken soup, and brisket and chicken with honeyed almonds and sweet noodle kugel and teiglach. All made from Jewish recipes we had to look up because most of us had never bothered to ask our bubbies how to make these dishes. It didn’t matter. They were all wonderful.

That was 20 years ago and we have been meeting to celebrate the New Year and other holidays ever since. My baby boy is now a tall thin, 26 year old computer programmer with a full time job and I am retired. I named my group Jewish American Parents in Stockholm or J.A.P.S. for short. Through the years, we have joined together to read the Haggadah at Passover Seders. We baked tons of hamantaschen for Purim. We shared an amazing variety of latkes at Chanukah. We tasted cheese blintzes with hallonsylt at Shavuot. And at every holiday, I gathered our kids around me and watched as they pulled out objects relating to that particular holiday from the Holiday Bag; a Lego horse, a wooden apple half, a small portrait of a woman with a crown, a mini menorah, a draidle. I explained to them what each object they were holding stood for and what its significance to that particular holiday was and why we were even celebrating that holiday. (I have to thank Rabbi Google for all the help. I couldn’t have done it without you)

We have also joined together for Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and school graduation parties. We have consoled each other over dead or dying parents and have rejoiced with each other for birthdays and anniversaries. And we have eaten many, many more helpings of brisket at our cyclical celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. I had found my family. I had created a minyan – on this side of the airplane flight.

This past fall, the leaves were starting to turn color and it was Rosh Hashanah season once again. A few weeks earlier, Janet, one of my J.A.P.S. since the very beginning, texted me to ask what we were doing for Rosh Hashanah this year.  She was the only one who asked. I realized I didn’t really have an answer for her. It wasn’t like I didn’t remember that it was coming up. It was sitting there in front of me like a giant sign on a highway in Kansas. But I just wasn’t feeling very Rosh Hashanah-ish.

Every year I invite my J.A.P.S. to my place for Rosh Hashanah. I live right near water so that makes the bread crumb thing easy. People bring tons of food with them. We go down to the canal in front of my building and throw our sins out to the ducks who greedily eat them up. Then we trek back up to my apartment to say our now memorized blessings over the wine and candles and challah and apples. We eat and schmooze; until the food is done and it’s time to go home. But this year, I didn’t send out any emails asking who can come. I didn’t tell people what time it would start or what food they should bring. My apartment was a mess and I had no desire to clean it for company. I just didn’t feel like doing any of the organizing that I always did to make sure our get-togethers got together.

Throughout all the years we have been meeting, it’s always been me who organizes each event. Regardless of what day the holiday falls on I decide for us to meet on a weekend. That usually helps to assure attendance. First, I send out SAVE THE DATE emails. Then I send out emails asking who can come. A few years ago I started sending the emails directly to the kids who have their own email addresses. They are now old enough to decide for themselves. Often I don’t just ask. I coax and cajole and wheedle them into joining us. I feel it’s important to get as many as possible to come. I organize the symbolic food we need to celebrate the holiday and the food we just eat and I suggest who should bring what, based on understanding of each individual’s cooking skills. The Holiday Bag no longer appears – the teens started to revolt – so I stopped with that. And to be honest, I now have trouble remembering all that information I once taught them, so it’s easier not to bother. So… mostly… now we just gather together with all our food, say the blessings and then we eat. (and schmooze of course. It wouldn’t be Jewish if there wasn’t a lot of talking) I know everyone has a great time and enjoys being with each other in spite of my bully tactics. And it’s usually only at Passover that I get so over-stressed that I start yelling at people. Eventually some brave soul dares to take me by the arm and bring me over to a quiet corner to sit and calm down. But this Rosh Hashanah I was already really tired and I hadn’t even started. I didn’t have the energy to herd cats.

I don’t think any of my J.A.P.S. are particularly Jewish in the sense of religious. They are like me – a pretty secular bunch. But over the years, many of them have said to me how glad they have been that we meet, that I organized these holiday events, that I taught their kids some Jewish knowledge. They appreciate and thank me for what I did for them! I try to respond modestly.  But the truth is I didn’t do it for them at all.

I did it for me! I did it because I wanted a family here. I wanted a small community of English speaking Jews like myself to raise my child in, to be Jewish with. Hilary Clinton wrote “It takes a village” and I built myself a village. I finally understood the meaning of the concept of a minyan. It had nothing really to do with men – and the number 10 is simply an approximate tipping point for being able to build a community. The J.A.P.S. became my Minyan, comprised of Jews and Goys and our children, who I hope learned to feel Jewish because of what I did. I never bothered to count the number of Jewish heads.

But now what? My child is grown. He is as Jewish as I can make him. The members of my Minyan have also become my friends. So I ask myself, “Do I still need a Minyan and how big does it have to be?” Maybe the real question is, “Does my Minyan need me?”

Back in the states, my parents are gone. My Uncle and Aunt are over 80 and not up to having big family events at their home. Some of my cousins have taken over the task of family gatherings, at least for Passover and Thanksgiving. Not being there, I don’t know more than what Facebook tells me as to what other sorts of family shindigs get organized.

At this point in my life I can do pretty much anything I want. So what is it I want? Probably what I always wanted – to be wanted, to feel needed and to feel part of a community.

So instead of the usual big gathering we were just a few. I made a big batch of honeyed chicken and rice. Janet came over with a bag of salad. Her boys came too. Risa came by because she called at the right time. She brought brownies. And Evelin, another of our youngsters dropped by at the last minute. We blessed apples and honey. We ate Challah that Håkan baked. We sat and ate wherever there was room in my messy living room. And as I sat there with the others,  I decided that my Minyan was just the right size.

 


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 15 2017

Passover minyan 2017

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

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

The kids

The kids

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

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

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

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

The oldies

The oldies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag sameach.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Photos are all courtesy of Danielle Shevin


Oct 18 2016

A Little Bit Extreme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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