Jul 18 2015

Advice for the new 50 year old

The daughter of one of my cousins is in college now where she is a member of a sorority. Occasionally she will post a photo on Facebook of herself posing with a large group of her best friends. I look at these photographs and see 10 or 12 very attractive smiling  young women, all with the same color dark hair in the same longish style, all of them around the same height and weight and all wearing similar variations of tank tops and extremely short cutoff jeans. As I peruse these images, I get the very strange feeling that if I were a visitor from a far distant planet I wouldn’t feel more alien than I already do when I look at those photos. The reason for that is that I have never had that kind of experience in my entire life – to be part of a group where I was just like everyone else – looked the same, talked the same, liked the same books and films and TV shows.

From the time I was very young, I was taller than everyone else, with long, skinny arms and legs. I had green eyes and thick curly red hair when everyone else was blond or brunette. I read horse stories when other girls read stories about some cute blond heroine who goes on vacation and solves a murder mystery. (I received some of those types of books as birthday presents one year and though I managed to read them, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy more to read) I read Science Fiction when NO ONE did, except perhaps those nerdy guys in the A/V club. However, when I was in grammar school I did sort of belong to a group comprised of other girls. We hung out together on the tarmac behind the school during recess and other breaks. The group consisted of me, the tallest girl in the class; Carol, the shortest girl in the class; Margaret, the fat girl; and of course Alison and Susan, the twins. Are you starting to see a pattern here? All of us were different from the pack. None of us was was like anyone else, each different in our own unique way. And that was why I liked them. I haven’t seen them in almost 50 years but we are Facebook friends these days. I hope they don’t mind me writing about them.

So why am I reminiscing about all that right now?

Girls on the balcony

Girls on the balcony

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a tjejfest. That’s Swedish for girl’s party. Besides me there were 12 other girls (ladies? or are we supposed to be some sort of politically correct and call ourselves women now? I don’t know.)  But me and the gals met at an apartment in Stockholm whose balcony offered a magnificent view of Stockholm rooftops. Well supplied with margaritas made by Catherine, whose apartment it was, we sat all squished up together on the big outdoor sofa cushions, chatting, joking, noshing yummy quesadillas made by Cecilia and laughing a lot. It reminded me of my cousin’s daughter. Most of us were Americans. And we all had different stories about how we happened to end up somewhere other than America. As I sat there pressed shoulder to shoulder with all those other women, my third eye, that nasty bugger who hovers above me impersonally observing all I am doing and commenting on it, said to me, “Look at you, Hilarie, you’re part of this group of fantastic women. They’ve let you in and you fit!” It was a great feeling!

Raindrops put an end to our balcony sitting and we moved indoors to wine and guacamole. The evening was a bit of a reunion. Though it was here in Sweden that we all got to know each other a number of us have moved on to other places. Tonight we were gathered together  –  Jane was in from England, Sally from Malta, Amy from Florida, Yasmin was here from NYC and Christin from Massachusetts. The common denominator between us is that we all live or have lived in Sweden. We are all different; from hippy-dippy graphic designer Hilarie to super smart scientist Yasmin, to psychologist Stina and strategist Jane. Some are business women. Many are writers. All are interesting and different. In a way, its like my group from grammar school all over again but without the nerd factor.

The party’s second agenda item was to celebrate Christin’s 50th birthday! All of us, except for Cecilia who is still 50- are 50+, with me and Carol being quite a bit more than the others but the youngsters seem to like us anyway. It was suggested (notice my use of passive tense here because I can’t remember who suggested it – Yasmin perhaps?) that we go around the circle and everyone describe to Christin their idea of what it means to be over 50. To pass on advice or “Words of Wisdom” so to speak, to her. So, after eating the fabulous birthday cake that Susan made, we started. I won’t try to recap what others said but a common theme was that once you’re over 50 it’s easier to just do what you want to do without getting hung up about what others think of you.

Halfway round the circle it was my turn. (Someone, I won’t say who, gave me a scathing look and said, “It’s supposed to be positive things!) I had been giving this some thought since the topic was suggested and listened with interest to what others had to say. And in all honesty, this “aging” question is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

50! My god, that seems so young to me now. And so long ago yet it feels like just yesterday. How is life different over 50 than younger than 50? Yes, what other people think of you becomes less important to you. But its not that simple.

When I was in my 20s I spent a lot of time trying to see who I was and to figure out how to make myself into the kind of person I wanted to be. The kind of person I wanted to be was pretty much a mashup of the roll models I respected or admired. And no, they weren’t my parents! Roll models: Mrs Peel from The Avengers TV show (the original), Veruschka the model (look her up if you youngsters don’t know who she is), Marlene Dietrich because she could be sexy without taking off any clothes, Katherine Hepburn just because she was like no one else. And because a girl doesn’t have to have only female role models, Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven because when he walked down the street, he owned it – a good skill to have if you live in NYC. I’m sure I had some others I respected, admired and wanted to emulate but that’s all that come to mind at the moment.

By the time I reached 30, I had pretty much made myself into who I wanted to be. The 20 years between 30 and 50 were pretty damn good. I came to Stockholm the first time. I met Håkan. I had 7 fun years working as a freelance graphic designer in the A/V business in NYC. I got married at 38, had my kid at 40. Spent 10 years fixing up a run down country property and learned to like country life and my green rubber boots. And all the while doing good, creative, satisfying work.

And then I hit 50! Yes. Yes. I know, positive things! But it’s difficult. Just after I hit 50 a major recession hit us here in Sweden. Many of the clients my husband and I had, dried up and died. Money became tight. Life became difficult. While in my 30s I felt in control of my life. In my 40s I felt in control of someone else’s life. In my 50s I started to feel like I had very little control over anything. And for a recovering control freak like myself thats a really bad feeling. But that was all over 10 years ago now. I can’t say life got a lot better after everything fell apart but many of those things that happened after I turned 50 were circumstantial not metaphysical. And that’s the important difference!

So here are some of the things I learned since I turned 50.

1. I can’t control everything. Partially because I’m now just too tired and partially because you just can’t. So stop trying. OK, Ok, you can try a little.

2. You can’t change other people. So stop trying to do that too. It will only make you unhappy. And you know the second part of that “advice”, when they tell you that you can only change yourself? Well that’s a lie! You can’t really change yourself either. You might think you are but you’re not. I spent all my 20s creating the Hilarie that I wanted to be. And for the most part, I became that person but underneath it all I was still the original Hilarie – insecure, self-conscious, afraid of change. You’re stuck with you no matter what so you better start liking yourself. But after 50, you’re more willing to say, “Oh, what the fuck! This is me!”

3. And that brings us to the thing that many sitting around the circle mentioned. Being less influenced by what other people think about you. I personally don’t think this should be something that only applies to “older” people. From the time I was 16 years old and 6 feet tall, I worried what other people saw when they looked at me. I spent years controlling, as much as possible, that image that others saw. I don’t so much any more. Its just too much damn work. I even dare to go out without any makeup on these days (but mainly only in my own immediate neighborhood) The only thing that really matters is what you yourself think! When I graduated art school I took my portfolio around to everyone I could think of for advice on how I should present my work. Everybody gave me different advice. I realized then that the only opinion that really mattered was my own. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice, but the buck has to stop in your own backyard. And nobody knows your backyard as well as you do.

4. Here’s something else not specifically for 50+ers but for anyone. Figure out how to laugh. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So here I sit 14 years past 50 and you know what I feel like? I feel like I did when I was 14 years old, all over again. When I was 14, my body was changing in ways I couldn’t imagine, with new bumps developing in different places. I spent a lot of time wondering what life would be like after I leave my family, what was I going to work with, where was I going to live, how would I support myself, who would be my new friends or family, etc etc etc.

And here I now stand, on the brink of retirement, again about to start a new life. Just like when I was 14! Once again my body is rearranging itself. (not always in equally positive ways as it did the last time) I wonder what I will be doing after I stop “working”. How will I stay creative? Where will I live when a large apartment will no longer be needed. I wonder what life will be like when my family – my son –  leaves home. And I readily admit I am scared shitless. Back then I had the possibility of 80 years ahead of me. Now I have most of my life behind me and if I’m lucky barely 30 more to go. (and probably not 30 fully healthy ones) But if I allow myself to calm down a bit I also have to admit a touch of excitement. Because I know I won’t be doing it alone. I’m a member of a group.


Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

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

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

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

menorahs

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

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

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


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?


Jul 8 2013

Summertime

The view from the beach

I took a walk this morning – down the road to the postboxes to pick up our morning newspaper. It was a pleasant, sunny 18 degrees C but the very brisk north wind made if feel cooler. On my way back to the house I took a short detour down to the lake. It was still early so there was no one there – I had the whole beach to myself. I waded out into the water, to just above my knees and stood there watching the fish swimming around my feet. 

I like standing there in the chilly water. It makes my arthritic joints feel better. Small wind-driven wavelets lapped about my knees and I listened to the tree leaves rustling in the breeze, in waves of sound, punctuated by the cries of the various bird species that live here in our neck of the woods. This is summer. This is what vacation means to me. I stayed there for quite awhile.

Sometimes as we drive to the store from our house, we pass joggers. There they are, running along our country road with their ears stuffed with earplugs attached to their smart phones. I have no idea what they are listening to. Aside from being mildly dangerous – they can’t hear cars coming from behind them – I can not understand why they would choose to cut themselves off from the all the sounds of Nature around them. I can’t imagine how anything coming over the wire could possibly beat that.

I was never much of a nature-lover back in my previous life, back in New York City. And even when I first moved to Stockholm, I preferred the city to the country. But now I can sit back, on my deck, listening to the birds and the sounds the trees make in the breeze and just feel good. I like looking at the green color of the trees as they are silhouetted against the bright blue Swedish sky and think what a beautiful color combination that is. Whoever designed that combination should be very proud of themselves. Professor Buckley, the color teacher at Pratt, certainly would think so.