Jun 6 2020

Bird life

Birdhouse

I was digging a hole in the garden dirt when I heard the terrified screeching. I couldn’t tell what was making the noise but it was coming from almost in front of me, from under the deck. The slatted doors leading there were open. I walked over to them and looked in.

It was dark, with thin streams of light falling on the assorted rubble strewn around. A few feet in front of me, sitting primly with her front paws close together was Coco – her soft brown mottled fur the perfect camouflage. She was watching me. She looked guilty. The gentle sound of fluttering coming from the bicycle parked to my right caused us both to turn our heads at the same time. By this time my eyes had gotten used to the dim light and I could see that a small brown bird had gotten its leg caught in the grid of the wire basket hanging from the handlebars. It was hanging upside down and occasionally tried to release itself by flapping its wings. As I stood watching, Coco walked over to the bird and gave it a gentle push with her paw. The bird started screeching and flapping its wings in her face and she backed off. I shooed Coco away and reached for the bird, gently extracting its leg from the basket. I saw that it was injured, with a superficial wound along its back down near its tail.  It flapped wildly and afraid that I might crush it, I let it fall the 8 inches to the ground. It hopped madly to a protected cubbyhole among a pile of decaying plasterboard. Coco’s eyes remained glued to the little bird. Hunched over and squatting down, I made my way over to the bird and picked it up, making sure this time I had my hand firmly around its body and wings. It screeched and then lay quiet in my hand. I worked my way out from under the deck with Coco close behind.

But what was I going to do with this little bird? It wasn’t anything special. Just a little brown bird with dark speckles along its feathers. It seemed full-grown. And it was wounded. I didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell if it could survive. I knew that I had already decided I was not going to bring it to a vet. I also knew I didn’t want Coco to kill it.

We have a small wooden birdhouse screwed on to the trunk of a pine tree on our country house property. It isn’t painted or pretty. But it has one very special attribute; it has a video camera inside it that is connected by a very long cable to the TV in our house. Every spring we watch as a pair of small birds, either blåmes or talgoxe, feather their nest inside, lay their eggs and hatch tiny baby birds. We watch as Mr and Mrs bird take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the gaping mouths that hatch. We can even hear their peeps on the TV as mom and dad feed them. We call it Bird TV and we like to keep the TV on during the day so we can watch the action as we go about our own business. But this year there was a calamity in our bird house. Mom and Dad bird had hatched 9 hungry little babies this year.  We watched as they energetically took turns bringing food to their tiny offspring. Towards the evening one of the parents would settle itself down for the night – first poking all the little bodies deep into the nest then spreading itself over the babies, and with a final flutter tuck its head under its wing to go to sleep. After about a week of daily bird life, we didn’t turn on the TV for a few days – it tends to get a bit repetitive – and just let them get on with their lives. When we finally checked in with our tenants, there seemed to be no movement in the nest. It was still too soon for any of the babies to have grown feathers and flown away. At first we thought the camera feed had crashed and froze. But we could see small bits of grass and feather down moving in the air. The camera was still live but no baby birds were. What had happened? We could just barely make out in the black and white image the shape of a few baby birds’ unmoving open mouths. Had the nest been attached by some predator? We looked out at the bird house and could see no mom and dad trying to get in. Had they died for some reason or been killed by something? There was no way for us to know.

We turned off the TV. We haven’t looked at Bird TV since.

I carried my rescued bird to the back of the house where there are trees and places she might be safer – out of reach of Coco – trying to figure out where to put her. I had decided in my mind that my little brown bird was a her. She was calm in my hand. I could feel her rapid heart beat rock her body through my gardening glove. Coco followed me – silent and slow – but not close. I couldn’t put my bird among the leftover planks of wood piled under this side of the deck – too open and easy for a cat to get at. What about in my son’s abandoned koja, his airy tree house built 4 feet off the ground? The roof was decaying but the half-walls were still sound, the floor strewn deep with undisturbed yellowed leaves from many summers past. It had a door that still closed. Coco couldn’t get in but would the bird be able to fly away when it felt a bit better? I loosened my hand. Where was Coco? I couldn’t see her nearby. My bird flapped her wings and flew 3 feet away, to land near the tumble of old metal supports left over from building our deck. They were piled on top of a half rotted wooden pallet lying close to the ground. She quickly scurried underneath. I saw Coco come out of the shadows and walk over to the pile but there was no way she could get underneath. My bird would be safe there.

But for how long? To live or to die? Like the nestlings in our bird house, I would never know what happened.


Apr 5 2020

Corona times

We are living in strange times now. Corona times.
For many weeks the Corona virus has been traveling – on a world tour – starting in China, spreading through Asia, running around Europe, and jumping the fish pond over to America. And yes…it’s here in Stockholm too.

We are not yet under lockdown like Italy and Spain. But most of my younger, still-working friends have been ordered by their employers to work from home, my son included. Universities and all high schools have been closed & are trying to do online teaching instead. I have no idea how that’s working but I saw a funny video on YouTube about that. Schools for children who are too young to stay at home alone are still open but if their parents are home, often the kids are kept home too, regardless. The thinking about keeping schools open for younger kids is that the government wants the parents who work in the healthcare field & have young kids who need minding, to be able to continue going to work.

All the activities I had written in my calendar, such as writing workshops, board meetings, plans to meet friends and any other miscellaneous events have been cancelled. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment that had been booked over 6 weeks ago because who wants to go to a place all the sick people go to? All activities in the Jewish community are cancelled except burials, food delivery to old people and some Saturday morning services. All the big Seders are cancelled. My annual J.A.P.S. Seder, gathering my Jewish/American/Swedish gang, is also cancelled due to the fear of passing the virus from hand to mouth along with the chicken soup. I went to Bajit, the big new Jewish Center, on Friday to buy matzah. The place was empty and only 1 person at a time allowed in the shop. Me & the other 2 people on line all waited our turn far from each other. Hand sanitizer was everywhere to use while we waited.

And speaking of hand sanitizer, I can’t find it to buy in any of the stores. And Håkan has looked on-line. Nadda, nothing to buy there either. I can understand that. In these plague days it works better than lamb’s blood. But toilet paper? What’s the big deal about hoarding toilet paper? I can not understand that at all – it’s not a plague of diarrhea.
Dare I say it??? People are idiots.

But key words these days are definitely “social distancing” and “self-quarantine”. Or in other words STAY AT HOME!

But I do get out. My friend Barbara, working from home and living on Kungsholmen, walked over to Reimers last week and we took a long walk together on Långholmen. We foot-bumped first, keeping safety in mind. There were other people also out walking but everyone kept their distances. We stopped at the Långholmen värdshus in need of fika. We had the whole place to ourselves and enjoyed coffee and a bulla. There was lots of hand sanitizer there too.

I still go to my local grocery. I see people from my neighborhood there – but everyone keeps their distance – this is Sweden after all. Nobody hugs or talks to each other anyway, a simple nod is enough if you meet someone you recognize. Even in normal times, people sit as far away from you as a park bench allows. This is not Italy, France or Spain. Swedes are not huggy types, they are good at aloneness and don’t need much encouragement to isolate.

And it seems neither do we – Håkan, Bevin and I. My little family hardly notices the new societal rules operating now. All three of us are introverts and staying cooped up in our home doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – that’s how we usually live. I am mainly the only one who goes out now and its just to the grocery store. Occasionally I will walk the 20 minutes to Hornstull and go to the large Hemköp grocery there or maybe the drugstore. Once I also went to Clas Ohlson because we needed good glue. Hemköp has started special early morning hours for seniors but the way I figure it, I’m retired, I no longer have to (or want to) get up super early in the morning. Especially not to do grocery shopping! I try to go later in the morning or early afternoon when its not too busy and we customers can keep a decent distance from each other.

Bevin, a programmer at Ericsson, has been working from home now for the past 3 weeks and his longest walk is from the kitchen to his bedroom. He spends his evenings and late into the night socializing online with his pals around the world. No worries about catching anything that way except maybe a computer virus.

Håkan spends most of his time sitting in front of his computer screen, commenting on Facebook or watching TV programs there. He is busy devising all kinds of plans for growing sweet corn out at our country house this summer, ordering necessary things online. For weeks now, he has been bugging me about completely moving ourselves out to the countryside, trying to justify the move by saying that we are supposed to self-quarantine. He is so happy to finally have society on his side. But I am resisting. It’s still too early for me and too cold to turn the water on yet. But we have been out there a couple of times already just for day trips to plant potatoes and to get his corn seeds started in his new mini-greenhouse. Easter weekend will be our first overnight stay.

So this Stay at Home directive hasn’t changed much for us personally. My apartment is not a bit cleaner! I haven’t painted new colors on the walls of any room. My freezer is still mainly filled with ice instead of enough food to last months. And my kitchen cupboards are still cluttered, as are my closets. If I am not laying about on the sofa to read, then I am laying on the bed. And I only have enough toilet paper and paper towels to last for the next week. I spend a lot of time looking at Facebook but that is just a distraction from what I should be getting done on my computer. And just for you dog lovers who have been spreading nasty rumors around social media about cats, our cats are exceedingly happy that we are all home. Coco wants to always keep Bevin company by sitting on his keyboard, so during his working hours he has to close his door. She lies patiently outside, waiting for him to open it.

But as I said we are all introverts here – we need others to plan activities that can entice us out of our homes. And I admit, looking at my empty Google Calendar is a bit depressing. Though, secretly, I am happy not to need to put on makeup or get dressed in clothes I haven’t worn for the past 4 days. Putting on my Extrovert Coat in preparation to leave my home and venture out there in the wider world takes energy. So I have started calling people instead of just texting. I have been using Skype to talk to friends and family in the US. And I have participated in two Zoom meetings! I think a lot of self-isolated folks must be doing that now – there is not a web camera to be found, either in stores locally or even online!

So us introverted folks are coping OK but what about all my extroverted friends out there? You know who you are…all those of you who have kept inviting me to do things with you out there in the world even though 60% of the time I say I can’t (because I don’t want to leave my cozy shell) and yet thankfully you keep asking. Life now is probably harder for you guys. So while this is going on, give me a call and let’s talk…either by phone or Zoom or Skype. Drag me out for a walk in nature too – I promise to keep my distance.  I hope you all are also doing OK and I promise to say yes next time you invite me to eat dinner with you, or even just fika, after this is all over.

I know that a lot of people out there are feeling anxiety or fear due to this pandemic sweeping the world. I don’t really know what to say that could make them feel better. But my go-to advice that I like to keep in mind, is taken from one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I like what Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, when Arthur finds out that the Earth is about to be demolished to make room for a hyper-space bypass.

“Don’t panic,” he says, “and always know where your towel is.”

Stay healthy everyone.


Feb 1 2020

Moving on – with a little help

Bevin standing at the entrance to his new home.

It’s been just over eight years now since I put my mother to rest. While I don’t spend a lot of time actively missing her, rarely does a day go by without a thought drifting towards her. I speak obliquely of her when I meet my friends. After all, I too am a mother – with a 28 year old son who still lives at home – and many of my friends are mothers. We often speak together as mothers of our children. 

The topic of my son living at home often comes up when I meet with a friend who I haven’t seen in a while.

“How does he like living in his new place?” is often the question I get asked. This is because its been 9 months since my son got the keys to his own apartment.

I laugh, raising my eyebrows as I do so and shrug, “Well…he hasn’t moved in yet.” 

“What!?!”, they exclaim, laughing. 

And then I explain. Or try to. But I really don’t have an explanation. The conversation moves on, revolving around how all of us just couldn’t wait to move out of our parents’ homes and most of us did so with or without our parents’ help somewhere around the age of 20 or even younger. 

This conversation about my son and his inability to leave home on his own is one of the things that brings my mother to mind. I couldn’t wait to leave the home that she and my dad had created for me. I was 18 when I left. I wasn’t one of those bold and daring types, determined to head off for adventures on a round-the-world trip. My parents drove me to college, an hour and a half drive away from my New Jersey home in their second-hand blue chevy loaded with clothes and other stuff that I was taking with me. I was headed to the safety of a dormitory room on the inner city campus of a Brooklyn art school. I was going to study fashion design.

They stopped the car at the entrance of the building on Willoughby Avenue. My dad unloaded the suitcases and boxes from the trunk on to the curb and then went to find a parking spot further off. I was wearing my coolest un-New Jersey clothes; The pants were dark olive green, made from some weirdly textured drapery fabric I had found in my local fabric store, they were extremly wide bell bottoms and rode low on my skinny almost non-existent hips, flared straight out all the way to the floor. Instead of a front zipper they laced up. The pants were paired with a dark brown “poor boy” top, skinny ribbed knit with short sleeves and a round neck. As Mom and I stood there waiting for Daddy to return I looked around, watching the other students as they walked in or out of the building. Some of them were like me, with their parents, looking around. Others walked more purposefully, self-assured, confident – knowing where they were going. I couldn’t wait to be like them.

We gathered up my stuff and went inside, stopping to wait for the elevator to arrive so we could take it up to the 8th floor. I was going to live in a building with an elevator! Two of my roommates were already there – faces to go with the names that the school computer had paired me up with. I picked one of the two beds in the second room and we dumped my stuff on it. My mother took a quick look around the apartment as I introduced myself to the others. “We better get going,” she said, “We don’t want to get stuck in rush hour traffic.”

I walked them out to the car. My mother turned to me, “Your roommates seem nice,” she said as she searched in her purse for something. She handed me an envelope. “You’ll be just fine, Hilarie. Here’s some money to get you started. On Monday, go to the local bank and open a bank account with it.” As she turned to take the door handle, she said, “Now, I don’t want to see you coming home more than two weekends in a month. Or we’ll change the lock on the door.” She patted me on the shoulder as she smiled. “I’ll talk to you during the week. Call me at the office. Come on Milty, let’s get going.” Then she got in the car and they drove off. 

My mother helped me to fill out all the college application forms. My mother was the one with whom I discussed what to include in my portfolio and write in my essay. My mother drove me to Brooklyn for the college interview. Afterwards, we got lost in Bed-Sty and I wonder now what she must have thought about the horrible slum neighborhood we wandered around in until she found the way back towards New Jersey. Did she worry about where she was about to send me off to live? Later that summer, we talked long into the evening, discussing the names of the girls I was going to share the dorm apartment with. The week before leaving my mother helped me pack. 

When I think back about leaving home, it makes me feel strong and determined to remember that I did it all on my own. But sometimes a nagging thought arises and I wonder if I could have done it without all the help my mother gave me. 

My son will not be moving into a college dormitory with ready-made roommates to share the space with. He will be moving into his own apartment that I helped him paint. It is already filled with IKEA furniture that he picked out and we assembled together. All that is missing are his clothes, his large collection of computer equipment and himself. If he needs a little help from his mother to make that passage then I will be there to help him. Just as my mother helped me. 

Me and my mother on the day of my college graduation.


Dec 22 2019

The Chanukah lights

Now, I am going to say something that if someone else said it or I saw it written that someone else said it, I would think to myself, “Boy that is so corny.” But I am going to say it anyway. “My heart is filled with love.”

Tonight was the first night of Chanukah. The last Chanukah to be celebrated in this decade. My group of J.A.P.S.* gathered together this afternoon at the apartment of my friend Marina and her family. Between 3 and 4 pm people arrived carrying pans of latkes, cheese pancakes, sugar-coated stars of fried dough, fruit salads, cookies and cake. The homemade donuts were already there awaiting our arrival. People filled the kitchen, organizing the reheating of the latkes. Others were centered around the large oval table in the living room, arranging a multitude of hanukkiahs, the nine-armed candelabra used at Chanukah, with a bit of aluminum foil placed under each one to catch the drips from the colored candles. I spread boxes of matches between the silvery candlesticks and placed the Holiday Bag on the coffee table, ready to be filled with small presents as each new group of people came in.

Once everyone had arrived, we dimmed the room lights and gathered around the large table to light the shames candle which was then used to light the remaining other candle, symbolizing the first night of Chanukah.

Together we said the prayer over the candles.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.”
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light”

As we waited for the colored lights to burn down, I went over to the coffee table and picked up the Holiday Bag. One at a time I took out a small gift and calling out the name written on the package, handed our young people their presents. Young people I must call them for they are no longer the small children they were when I first met so many of them long ago.

With most of the candles now burned down to ash, we moved them all to the center of the table as people gathered around a counter top filled with trays of different kinds of Latkes and choices of apple sauce, sour cream and lingonsylt to eat them with and cheese pancakes sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and fruit salads and all the rest of the delicious and oily treats everyone had brought. We filled our plates and went to find a place to sit and gorge and talk to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. The apartment was large enough so that groups could form: the young people sat together around the coffee table and eventually started playing a board game my son had brought. The oldsters divided up into several groups and I circulated between them dropping in to the various conversations, all of them interesting. Finding something to talk about with these long time friends has never been a problem.

And then the first of two remarkable things happened. As my friend Barbara was making her way around, about to leave, she stopped and said she had something to say to the whole group. Now, because of my inability to remember conversations verbatim, I am just going to paraphrase what she said. She started off by telling us that she wanted to express her gratitude for this group, that we exist. That because of this group she has been able to stay in touch with her sense of Jewishness and the group has helped to contribute to her children’s sense of being Jewish too and she was very grateful for that. Then she turned to me, who was standing beside her, and said she wanted to thank me for forming this group and organizing all the gatherings and keeping it going and she wanted me to know how much she appreciated all my work and effort. She said a bit more in that line and then everyone clapped. Now I have to admit that I don’t mind making myself the center of attention but…when someone else makes me the center… hmmm…that’s different. I also have to admit that my first reaction to her words was to feel embarrassed. But then, slowly, as Barbara continued talking, this warm glow started to come over me and I found myself feeling so happy and yes…I will even use this very cliché word, joyful. And all I could say then was thank you.

On the way home with my son, as we sat on the bus together, I asked him if he had heard what Barbara had said about me. He responds by saying, “Oh, you mean when we all had to clap?”
“Yes”
“Yeah, I sort of heard what she said. But don’t let it go to your head.”

Later that evening, after Bevin and I had come home and decanted all our stuff, Håkan asks Bevin if he had a good time at the Chanukah party. He answers, “Yes. And by the way, I have Chanukah presents for both of you.”

As Bevin goes into his room, Håkan and I look at each other, practically in shock! Our son has bought Chanukah presents for us??!! He comes out and hands a beautifully wrapped present to each of us.

“When did you do this?” I ask him.

“Last Tuesday, when you went out with your friends. That’s why I wanted to know if you were going out that evening.”

I stare in shock at the present in my hands and then at him. I undo the wrapping and there is a book entitled Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life by Marshall B Rosenberg. Håkan got a game for his Nintendo Switch.

“Pappa can read the book after you do.” Bevin says to me, with a big smile on his face.

So two remarkable things happened today: the people who I have been shepherding for the past 22 years said thank you and my son bought me a Chanukah present.

Truly the lights on the menorah are shining so very brightly on me tonight and I am filled with love.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

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?