Jan 16 2018

Death and life

The North Chapel

The North Chapel

I went to a funeral on Friday; for a woman who was exactly the same age as I am. I have to admit that I didn’t really know her very well. We circulated amongst the same circle of American friends here in Stockholm. While I had socialized with her IRL a number of times, it was mainly through the modern world of social media that I got to know her. She was a writer, among other things, and it was through her blog that I knew her best – that was where she kept us updated on the progress of her illness that eventually got the upper hand.

It was a very nice funeral. It wasn’t the first I had attended here in Sweden so I sort of knew the ropes; I think it was my 7th actually. Is that odd to keep count of, the number of funerals one has occasion to attend? The weather was better than one might expect in Stockholm, in January – it wasn’t snowing at least or even raining but just a cold gray cheerless kind of day that we have had more than enough of this past winter. She got a pretty good turnout, in spite of the weather and it being just an ordinary Friday. I saw a lot of the Americans I know here, the people she knew too, as we all stood outside waiting to go into the chapel. Some of them I had seen recently, others – it had been a while, most of them I meet on Facebook. You search through the crowd finding the familiar faces, you go over to them, you hug, ask them how they are – an unnecessary question actually. You could tell by their faces how they were. And a funeral was not really the appropriate place to catch up on things. 

The service was calm, lovely and felt meaningful, personal. Her husband and two daughters gave emotional heartbreaking eulogies. Other friends of hers went up and talked about her. Two recorded songs were played towards the end of the service. By that Hawaiian singer. The notes of his ukulele floated up and filled the small chapel with images of sand and beach and warm sunny days. The second song was “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorite songs since I was a small child. It wasn’t Judy Garland but maybe almost better.

After the service we all went back outside and waited for the hearse with the casket to begin a slow advance towards the gravesite with everyone following behind. That was new for me. It felt very ceremonial, to walk behind the hearse – a sombre procession on a cold gray day. At the gravesite, family members carried the casket to the grave and it was lowered in. A rectangular hole, six feet deep with a pale casket at the bottom. I know I’ve seen graves in movies or in photos but this was the first time I stood next to an open grave in real life. “It’s so deep.” was all I could think. And so final. I tossed my pink rose onto the casket lying there at the bottom. And said good-bye.

When I started writing this piece, I had only planned on putting a few words up on Facebook – to say I had been to a funeral and it had gotten me thinking about the whole getting older thing. And then I would link to a post I had written about aging. But the words grew more and more about the funeral and so ended up here instead.

I don’t think, when I was younger, that funerals disturbed me all that much. I was young. Illness and death were far away. Sad. But far away. As I age and as my Baby Boomer generation ages, death is less far away. But the people who I have known, cared about, loved, who have died, don’t seem dead to me. They are still alive – in my head. But I just can no longer call them. My smart phone seems to have lost their number. And even if I could call them, they wouldn’t answer me. But I am not going to spend my time thinking about death. It’s not really interesting to me. I’d rather think about the journey  – the process of aging. Who am I at 66 years old, the same age as my friend whose journey is over? What am I becoming? How am I different from my 25 year old self. Or am I still the same?

 Here’s a link to that older post I was going to link to on Facebook. It’s called I’m still a lot like I was and its actually about life not death.

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 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.

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.

Aug 17 2015

Obsession (part 1)

Obsession /əbˈsɛʃən/
According to Webster’s dictionary, obsession is a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal.

As anyone who has had contact with me the last 8 or 9 months can tell you, I have become a person with a bit of a one-track mind. I have become obsessed. I cannot have any sort of conversation with anyone without referring, at least once, to the object of my obsession. I usually consider myself a person with a relatively wide range of interests and not having a particularly addictive personality but there you have it – I am obsessed, addicted really. I actually haven’t felt this way since way back in the late 90s when I would spend hours late at night reading all the web forums about Peter Jackson’s production of The Lord of the Rings.

I blame my friend Roz – its all her fault.
Sometime last year, 2014, she tells me during one of our many SKYPE conversations that she had discovered a really good TV series and if I got the chance I should watch it. She kept talking about it every time we talked so finally just to get her off my case, I asked my son to find it for me. Finally one evening I sat down on the sofa and watched the first episode. As soon as it ended, I immediately watched the second episode and the third. I would have also watched the fourth but it was getting very late and I had to get up the next day to go to work. But by then, I was hooked.

Claire and Jamie

It’s all about how he looks at her.

The 16 episode show is called Outlander and is produced by an American TV channel called STARZ. It’s producer/showrunner is Ron D. Moore, the man responsible for the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction TV series that I had seen and really liked. Outlander is based on a book of the same name by Diana Gabaldon which was written in 1991 and has since been followed by 7 more books. Gabaldon is now in the process of writing the ninth book in the series. A second TV season is already in production, based on the second book in the series.

By now, I have watched each of the 16 episodes at least 3 or more times. I’ve just finished reading the 8th book and am in the process of re-reading Dragonfly in Amber, the second book, in preparation for the upcoming second season. I even watch all the interviews with cast and crew that I can find on Youtube. I read all the twitter posts relating to the TV show. I’m even a member of the Outlander-Sweden Facebook group. I know, weird right?

Quick Synopsis
The story begins in the mid 1940s just after the end of the Second World War. 27-year old Claire Randall has been a combat army nurse during the war and is now reunited with her husband Frank as they travel to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon. She goes up to a hill with a circle of standing stones, puts her hands on the tall center stone and the next thing she knows, she is waking up in the mid 1740s – 1743 to be exact. OK, there you go – there’s the Sci-fi/fantasy angle coming into play. But after that first bit of time traveling, that’s pretty much it. After wandering around, dazed and confused, Claire is soon rescued or taken prisoner (depending on how you look at it) by members of the Mackenzie clan and taken to their main fortress, Castle Leoch. The rest of the story tells of how she tries to get back to her own time and how she slowly falls in love with the other main character, Jamie Fraser, a tall, articulate highlander wearing a kilt.

First off, the TV production is incredibly well made with very high production standards. Amazing sets. As a former Fashion Design student at Pratt Institute, one of the biggest pet peeves I have when watching historical dramas is that the clothing is so wrong – The big skirts don’t have any petticoats, there are no corsets in corset style dresses, the clothes all look brand new, there is too much “modern” design in it, etc etc. No problem in Outlander. The clothes the actors wear – from the main leads to even the smallest extras – all looked lived in. They have weight and bulk to them, substance. The shirts the men wear look like they have been worn for weeks and weeks and have been slept in too. You can almost smell them just by looking at them! Much of the show is filmed on location in Scotland and the scenery is beautiful and real. No CGI needed here! Real castles, real mountains, real shacks. People get dirty, for real! OK, sooo? There are other TV series that have good production values, maybe not many but they exist.

Secondly, they didn’t reinvent the story to fit conventional TV plots. They dared to film where Gabaldon takes her characters, even to the darkest corners. Though the scripts and the action change a bit from their source material, the dialog is taken almost directly from Gabaldon’s book. And while I don’t feel she always writes the best descriptive passages, she writes great dialog! Especially between her two main characters, Claire Randell and Jamie Fraser. Her characters feel real with intense inner lives not just superficial reactions. They are alive!

Then, thirdly, there’s the actors. No big famous names here, bringing all their previous personas with them.  The two main leads, Claire and Jamie are played by two relatively unknown actors, both in their mid-30s. Caitriona Balfe from Ireland plays Claire and Scottish Sam Heughan plays Jamie.  They inhabit their characters. They bring Gabaldon’s written characters off the page and give them body and form. Beautifully.

But why am I so hooked?
My reading choices almost always consist of hard science fiction, or sometimes fantasy, which this really isn’t. I don’t read romance novels and in all honesty, I probably would never have picked up these books if it hadn’t been for the TV series. And the Outlander series of books seems like the classic historical romance type of novel. A type of book which, excluding Jane Austen novels, I stopped reading when I was about 16 or so. Some of my favorite movies have been Wuthering Heights (only the original film version), Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zivago but I didn’t make it a habit to read the book versions. Gone with the Wind with its Civil War background follows the journey of Scarlett O’Hara as she matures from a spoiled 16-year old to a mature woman who finally realizes who she has loved all along. The Russian Revolution plays out as Zivago, forced by war out of his ordinary life, finds and ultimately suffers the loss of the great love of his life, Lara, but leaves behind The Lara Poems that immortalizes their love. While Wuthering Heights only has the wild Yorkshire moors as its background it also is about a great love that haunts Heathcliff for 40 years until he dies and can be reunited with his beloved Cathy. What Outlander has in common with those three movies is that it is a great love story that takes place over time and space against a large historical background with much longing and suffering. So it fits right in there with my favorite canon. But why have I been watching it over and over again and even reading and loving the books? For it to be having such a powerful effect on me it must be working on many different levels.

Tons of articles about this series have already been written and what many of them say is that this is a show about a strong female lead and told from her point of view. That it is Claire’s story. The female gaze they are calling it. That it is also a story of a marriage. That it has lots of great sex. And lots of violent and horrible scenes. That it is unafraid. That the sex and violence is not gratuitous. It has been described as “as good as, if not better” than Game of Thrones.

As I said, from the first episode, I was hooked. Resourceful, self-confident ex-army nurse Claire Randell was thrown into 1743 Scotland and forced to figure out how to survive there: a place with different customs, different language, different food, housing, weather. Just plain different. And I could relate. I found myself in a similar situation 34 years ago. I got there by airplane not a standing stone but Stockholm Sweden was a whole lot different from the New York City I was coming from. It had a different language, a different culture, a different way of doing things and a tall handsome man to take care of me when I didn’t know how to get somewhere or understand something. The first apartment I lived in didn’t even have hot running water in it. How’s that for different? I watched Claire in that first episode and I saw myself.  I loved the fact that, like me with Swedish, she couldn’t understand what the Scots were saying when speaking Gaelic. Been there.  I had to keep watching to see how she managed.

And she managed. She wouldn’t let anyone intimidate her. She stated her mind, gave as good as she got, fought back and wouldn’t give up. I liked that about her. She was a new addition to my panoply of strong female characters that I had gathered over the years; Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Diana Riggs’ Emma Peel in the Avengers, Ripley from Alien, Sarah Connor from Terminator, Starbuck from the re-imaged Battlestar Galactica – just to name a few. And now Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser. She was someone who I was willing to follow along in her story. So on to the next episode. And the next. And each time over again.

But its not just Claire that catches my interest. There’s James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser too. And without him, Claire is only half herself. Yes, he is very attractive, that Jamie. Sam Heughan is perfect in the role. In no other photos pre-Outlander is he as fantastic as he is as Jamie Fraser. Because quite simply its not just about what he looks like. There are a lot of good looking guys out there in TV land. Its more about how he looks at you – in this case at Claire. But as I already said I relate to Claire so I can pretend he is looking at me too. He sees her. He listens and hears her. From the very first moment they meet, he recognizes her, in some mysterious way. I have my theories about that but I’ll write about that later.

Many of the reviews and fan posts say that this is a story about Claire. But I disagree. It isn’t about Claire. Claire is the one who tells the story (most of the time) but the story is about Jamie. From the time we meet her until the latest book, Claire is pretty much who she is to start with. She learns more, she becomes a doctor, she ages but she is still herself. From the moment we first meet her she knows what she is meant to do with her life and the 2 men who both love her, recognize and respect that about her. The real story is how, Jamie, this young man without responsibilities that she meets in an alien place grows and matures to become the man he was destined to be – a true leader of men. The kind of man that is able and willing to take responsibility for the people within his sphere of influence. A type of man we see very little of these days. Which makes him all the more unique and admirable and exciting to watch. OK, and he is also nice to look at.

I have always liked stories that take place over a long period of time, watching how things or people change. Most novels or movies or stories are just a short cutout piece of a longer tale. Cinderella ends with “and they lived happily ever after”. But what kind of life does she really have with her prince? We never get to find out. Gone with the Wind ends with Scarlett promising herself that she will get Rhett back but that’s where it ends and we don’t get to see if she does. But Gabaldon doesn’t want to just give us a short piece out of the lives of Jamie and Claire: They meet, fall in love, he rescues her, she rescues him, they go to France, they come back to Scotland, they experience a terrible war and then they are forced to part probably forever. Sad ending but great love story. In the normal case of such stories we would never know what else happens. But Gabaldon is still writing the story. As of book 8 they are in their 50s or 60s, still in love, still having adventures, still together. I can’t wait till book 9 comes out in a few years. In the meantime I have season 1 to watch over and over again. And season 2 to look forward to.