Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


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.


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.


Nov 27 2014

Giving thanks

Today is Thanksgiving. At least in the United States it is. And it is one of my very most favorite holidays.

When I moved to Stockholm over 27 years ago, I made a vow that I would celebrate Thanksgiving here every year, with a big turkey and all the fixings. I couldn’t do it on the normal Thursday it was celebrated because that was an ordinary working day for those of us living here in Sweden so I did it on Saturday. For my very first Swedish thanksgiving, I had to special order a turkey. Large turkeys on the American Thanksgiving scale were extremely rare here. I went to Östermalms Saluhall, a pricy, old fashioned food hall. There they had a shop that sold all sorts of fresh fowl. When I placed my order with the clerk he asked me how large I wanted my large turkey to be. He suggested an 11 kilo bird and I could come and pick it up the next week. Now you have to understand that at this time I had only lived in Sweden for less than a year and my grasp of the metric system was a bit hazy and 11 kilos sounded like a small, reasonable size. After all, I was used to my mom’s 24 to 26 lb turkeys from my past. Well, imagine my surprise a week later when I went to collect my bird. 11 kilos is about equal to 24 lbs! I barely managed to lug it home on the subway. It barely fit in my small apartment stove – the pan sat on the bottom of the oven and the stuffed bird had less than half an inch of clearance all around it. But it all worked out. We invited 2 other Swedish/American couples to share our Thanksgiving with us and we had leftovers to keep us happy for a long time.

Since that first time, I have made a bird every year but one. Some years I only roasted the bird and then Håkan and I drove it and ourselves to someone else’s apartment or house which was bigger than our little 1-bedroom place. After we enlarged our apartment 15 years ago, I have only had to move the turkey from the oven to the kitchen counter. Every year we invite the two families we have known since Bevin was little and who have kids he counts as friends. And each year we add a couple of others to fill out our table.

The one year I missed was the year Bevin was born. He came along in November and we were so stressed with our newborn we had no time or energy to think about dealing with a turkey that was bigger than our new little darling.

And today is Thanksgiving once again. I haven’t ordered a turkey this year. I told our friends there would be no invitation to sit around our table with us this weekend. Like that November day 23 years ago, I’m not up to doing a big shindig. Tomorrow, Friday, Håkan is coming home, after almost 2 months of being in hospital and rehab. So our little family is going to take it easy this weekend. Maybe I’ll just buy a large fresh turkey breast and some sweet potatoes and make some gravy – just for the three of us – for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Because this year, at this time, I am really very thankful.


Apr 12 2014

Pictures of life

In a golden, Godiva chocolate box, I have a collection of loose photographs. There is no order to them. Godiva photoboxThey encompass many years, most of them from before I moved to Sweden, and are collected from many places. Inside can be found some baby pictures that I took from my parent’s photo albums. There are a number of photo ID cards, some from Pratt Institute where I was a student, some from the Metropoliten Museum where I worked after graduation. There are some old driver’s licences – yes, I did once have one. Some pictures were taken in photo machines – one strip dating back to 1970 and another with me, my very young son and my husband crammed into the frame. There are also a bunch of old Polaroids from the 70s, with their white borders loosening in places.

I’ve had this box since I worked on a slide show for a production company in New York City back in the 1980’s. The production time-period included Valentine’s Day and we who were working there were working our asses off with long, stressful days and very late nights. The owners of the company came around on V-day and handed out to each of us, a large box of Godiva Chocolate – to keep our spirits up, I guess. Every night, I would go home very late, carefully choose one piece of chocolate from the box, eat it and fall into bed for a few hours of sleep – till I had to go back to work the next morning. It was a beautiful box, covered in embossed gold paper, and I didn’t want to just throw it away after all the chocolate was gone. In those days, I almost never took photographs. I’ve rarely owned a camera actually, and never a really good one. I had a Polaroid camera for awhile and one of those cameras that used a special film cartridge. It actually didn’t matter much what sort of camera I owned, I was a terrible photographer anyway. Because of this, I never had a lot of photographs lying around but I did have a few. I decided that the new golden box was the perfect place to put my meager collection. So that was where I put the polaroids that I took as reference material for illustrations and the few things from college and the baby pics. The box is now pretty filled up and I rarely put new stuff in there. Occasionally, however, I open it and look through the images that are there.

I also have a newer collection of photos taken after I moved to Sweden. My husband is a good photographer so we have lots of pictures. A large portion of them fill about 4 small IKEA photo boxes which sit on the shelves of a bookcase. The storage boxes contain neatly organized envelopes, the kind you used to get from photo stores after they developed your film. On each envelope is written the date and a brief description of the photos. Most of the envelopes contain double photos – that’s what we always ordered – so we could send pictures to my family back in the States. I guess I didn’t send a lot of photos because most of the envelopes still have their doubles. Or else I just sent the ones I looked good in. Occasionally, when we would have guests, the envelopes would come out and we would bore our friends with 30 or 40 pictures of us doing things.

In the late 90s, photos became digital and I stopped collecting envelopes of paper prints and collected them on my computer instead – in well organized folders. These days I don’t have to drag out envelopes of photographs to show to people, I show them on Facebook instead – and only a few of the best.

Facebook recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by offering to make a 1- minute video compilation of your Facebook posts. Many of my Faceys (my Facebook friends) did it but I was hesitant. There was something about it that bothered me. Was it because I didn’t want a machine to remind me of who I was?  Occaisionally, I find myself looking through my Facebook Photo Albums, reminding myself of the images I have posted there. I’ve even gone back and taken a look at posts I have written through the years. I had this idea that I might collect them and list them all in one long blog post –  as a way of seeing what I have been thinking about over the past 7 years since I have been a member of Facebook. But, like so many other things, I never got around to doing that. Now, however, here was FB offering to do it for me – collected into just one minute. Part of me was curious but part of me thought it was creepy. Well, curiosity got the better of me and I finally did it. I would send you the link so you could see my life too but it only works if you are logged in as me.

A few weeks ago, I listened online to a short radio program (www.thetakeaway.org/story/facebook-best-place-archive-our-memories) about the type of effect Facebook and its personal collections of photographs and texts might might be having on people in the long run. One of the ideas that was brought up was how, instead of showing our real lives, on Facebook, we only show the sort of life we want to project outwardly. It only shows the good side, our best self – that it is a scripted narrative. More recently, there has been a trend away from posting exactly what’s on your mind and instead posting something that illustrates how good your life is. The question asked during the discussion, was,
“Ten years down the line, will people look back and think that this “artificial” life  is what their life was actually like? Is this the only thing that will frame their past and how will it effect the way they remember their past?”

My response to this question is, so what? What is the big deal – how is this different than before? Our memories of our past have always been framed by what we keep and what we show. Whether its the boxes of junk left over from every move we made, still sitting in the garage; or the photo albums collecting all the photographs taken through the years; or the journal writings we made or the letters we sent to or received from others, telling bits of news of our lives. Some people have more and some people have less of these tangibile reminders of the life we have lived. A friend of mine who was the youngest of 5 kids says that by the time she came along her parents had gotten tired of taking photos and there are very few of her but masses of her oldest siblings. Some people wrote journal entries every day and others barely managed to send out a Christmas card once a year. I remember what my dog Skippy looked like from the photo I have of her and me when I was 5 years old. I have other memories of her but they are fleshed out by that photo. The same goes for many other past events that I remember. Sometimes the memory has become vague and faded but the photograph proves it was real and actually happened. The black and white photographs which my mother so very carefully arranged, with captions, in her photo albums with their black paper pages and white photo corners were a selection of the best images of her and her friends that she could collect.  And that is how I know her past. Facebook isn’t really different from this. The medium is different but the purpose is actually exactly the same as it was 70 years ago. The only thing to really worry over is whether the medium we use today will have the same possibility to last as long and be looked at as long as those old albums with their paper photographs. I can look at my mother’s photographs without needing the correct operating system, the right hardware or a particular App or Program. All I need to do is carefully pick up the slightly falling-apart scrapebook and gently turn the pages.

I sometimes wonder if the youngsters of today will be able to reminisce and enjoy looking through the images which they today capture in their smart phones with the same pleasure that I feel when I rummage through the contents of my Godiva Chocolate box. When they are 62 years old – will their images even still exist to be looked at? Will they still have something real to look back at to help them remember who they were? Will they still have something as sweet?