Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Zaftig Zumba, Part the Second...

Following the first zumba class, I had planned to go to the gym the next Monday for a bodypump class with my favourite instructor.  Instead, I was home with a miserable cold.  It's mostly gone now, but I was pretty sick for a few days.  So tonight was the second zumba class, and I was feeling much better, so I figured I was up for it.

Off we went - the room where we have the class is nice - not too big, hardwood floors, decent sound for the music from the instructor's boombox.   And the instructor, Stephanie, continues to work hard to encourage our energy.

Some of the rhythms were a bit easier this week - they're becoming more familiar even now.  There are a couple of movements that are easy, even for me - one of them is kind of like a 60s go-go dance.  We're kind of marching, and scissoring our hands above our heads at a fairly brisk pace.  That one's particularly fun.  Well, heck, any that I can complete successfully are fun!

I didn't really notice the hour pass - at a previous zumba class, I was just counting time for the class to be over, because I really didn't enjoy it.  So far, I'm enjoying this one, and I will happily continue.  I may not become a zumba master (mistress?!), but barring catastrophe, I'll likely finish the class.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Zaftig Zumba

If you were to look up 'zaftig' in the dictionary, you'd find this:

zaf·tig   /ˈzɑftɪk, -tɪg/ Show Spelled[zahf-tik, -tig] Show IPAadjective Slang. 1.(of a woman) having a pleasantly plump figure.

2.full-bodied; well-proportioned.

Also, zoftig.

Origin: 1935–40; < Yiddish zaftikliterally, juicy, succulent; compare Middle High German saftec,derivative of saf(t), Old High German saf(German Saft) sap, juice

I believe I prefer the original Yiddish meaning... 'juicy, succulent...'  Yeah, that's me! 

And if you went to another dictionary, where you could actually find 'zumba,' you'd see this:

Zumba: A dance exercise where you dance for about an hour straight. Zumba incorporates all different types of dances such as salsa, marimba, belly dancing, cha-cha, and more.
Neither of these things would be particularly noteworthy to me, had I not agreed to sign up for a 6-week zumba class with my friend Susan.  I'd tried zumba before and gave up after 2 classes.  Just didn't like it.  For one thing, my sense of rhythm is... off.  I'm doubtful that I even have one, to be honest.  Plus, the instructor was clearly teaching to the people in the class who'd been there before - those of us who were new pretty much just tried to keep up.

But Susan caught me at the right time - I had been feeling a need to move (which zumba will do for you!), and I thought it would be a good idea to get into doing something physical before winter sets in and my usual desire for hibernation kicks in.  I thought that if I developed some sort of habit of movement, I might keep it up during the winter.  So when she asked, I said ok...

And tonight was the first class.

Stephanie is the instructor, a nice woman in her 30s.  It must be part of zumba instructor training that they have to smile a lot... kind of like synchronised swimmers.  It's hard to believe that anybody is having that much fun working up a sweat!  (At least, not in that environment - I mean, I have worked up sweats while wreathed in smiles, but not in a gym!)  And she was not teaching for the 3 skinny-hipped girls who are usually in the first row, all frenetic energy and hooting.  (Thank God, those women were not there tonight!)

It's not that I have anything against skinny-hipped girls, really.  It's just that zaftig girls don't tend to keep up with 'em in exercise classes.  We don't move the same way at all.  Tonight, for instance, there was a move in which we walked forward a couple of steps and then, with feet together, hopped backwards three steps.  Well, I can't do that!  I just cannot make my body make that movement.  Maybe in time, but not tonight.

And zaftig girls of a certain age (ahem)... well, we have other issues as well.  My knees haven't been the same since I fell a couple of years ago.  They still bend and all, but any kind of jouncy movement is gonna have limited application, because generally, I can't do it more than twice before it begins to hurt.

Then there's the music.  Generally speaking, I don't know the music.  It is not on the radio stations to which I listen!  Classic rock and the CBC (NPR, if you're reading from across the border) rarely play the sort of music upon which zumba classes are founded.  It's catchy enough, but when I'm trying to move to music, it helps me if I know the music, because then I'm not trying to predict the note or change in rhythm that comes next.  I already know it, and so I can concentrate on my movement.  Somehow, I don't think I'm ever gonna find a zumba class with Springsteen... or Pearl Jam... or Grieg.... though they've all turned out some very sprightly tunes!  Familiarity will help, which means going to more than one class, of course...

I did discover one interesting thing.  A number of the routines we did had movements which could almost be described as burlesque - you know, that upward thrust of a hip... or the rolling movement of your lower body, arms above your head... the occasional pelvic tilt.  You know the moves.  Well, those I can do.  Go figure.  I have a theory on that, too (but if you're a minor, you probably should stop reading now).  And my theory is that I learned those movements in a horizontal position.  My body knows, remembers, and appreciates those movements.  (Who knows... I might get to feel the same way about those other movements that almost - but not quite - trip me up!)

Still, though, I wonder if I shouldn't have found an Irish dance class.  Yes, it's faster, I know.  But Irish dance requires you to keep your upper body still.  I think I could do that.  I can move my lower body.  I can move my upper body.  But something very peculiar happens when I try to coordinate movement of upper and lower body.  It's almost as if I forget that I even have a moveable upper body!

But... I went to the class.  I sprinted around in the class.  And I will go back to the class... for a few reasons.  First, I made a commitment to my friend.  Second, I think I'm gonna like the instructor.  Third, I'm friggin' stubborn - I can't truly believe that I can't do this (snicker!).  Fourth, I know that I can do anything, anything, on a time-limited basis.  I've already got one out of 6 classes complete!

And next week... well, next week, I'm back at my Monday evening gym class.  We'll see how committed I sound to this whole 'movement' thing next Wednesday night!

You will not be seeing this on Youtube.  ;)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prayer for a Lost Boy

Last night, I spent some time on the phone with a dear and sweet friend, a woman I first met in grad school. It wasn't a conversation I ever expected to have with her (or really, with anybody), and with her permission, and an aching heart of my own, I'm sharing some of her story.

You see, the reason we were on the phone is that she knows I can type insanely fast, and she needed someone who could do that so that she could tell me the prayers and the homily (sermon) she's going to deliver at a memorial service for her 13-year-old nephew on Sunday evening. That's sad enough - that a 13-year-old boy should die. But this boy - his name is Jonathan - died because of a game. A GAME.

It's called the "choking game." And there are all kinds of videos available that talk about the consequences of playing this game. Jonathan's parents discovered some time ago that he'd learned about this game, and as you might expect, they read him the riot act and explained why it was not a game at all. If you're not familiar with it, another name for it is 'suffocation roulette.'

His parents removed anything they could from their home that might entice him to try this game again, but that wasn't enough. Jonathan played the choking game last week. His mother found him, too late, and this week, his parents are burying their beautiful boy.

She spoke, full of pain and courage, and I typed.  And in part, her homily says, "It is not so bad when death comes naturally and at the end of a long and full life, but when it comes at the age of 13, when a little boy’s story is scarcely halfway through, and brings what could have been a good and bright light to a sudden blowing-out, when it takes away a mother and father’s promises and hopes for their beloved son, bringing all their dreams to an abrupt, painful, and tragic end, when brothers and sisters realize that tomorrow holds no play, no laughter, no joy, the day a person dies, we begin to tell that person’s story.... It’s been laid out before us, with its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its successes and its failures. It’s like a book, not yet closed, and yet it’s finished. Suddenly, it’s been thrown open now for all to read, a story that his mother and father have chosen to share with all of you, a story of many parents who tell our children, ‘Stay away from this. Don’t go here. Don’t do that.” Not because they’re being restrictive, but because they’re being careful for you, for all of you. Words of caution are sometimes heard by our children as words of prohibition. We just hunger for you to be safe. You may not listen to us hundreds of times, and you’ll be just fine, but it’s that one time, that tragic time, that brings us here today."

We might think, we whose children have grown up, that we're beyond such worries now.  But we're not.  Not because our grown-up children might think to try such a game, but because we all know someone who falls into the age group that seems to find the siren call of the choking game so very irresistible.  Oh, we might not know that person well... but we know him.  Or her.  The day after Jonathan died, a 14-year-old girl from the same area tried the same thing - she's in hospital now, and I have no idea of her condition.  But as a parent, I can imagine her parents' condition... they are probably wondering what they could have done to prevent this.  And they probably had absolutely no idea that their daughter was even trying this game.

Please, please, talk about this.  Please know, and tell people that you know, that there is a very dangerous game out there, that our children ARE playing that game, and that we need to find the words to talk to them about it before it's too late. It's important for our children to understand that even if they don't play this game themselves, if they know someone who DOES, they HAVE TO TELL SOMEONE. We have to make it safe for them to tell someone.

And please take a few minutes when you've read this to say a prayer for Jonathan and for his family.  Jonathan's friends will be at his memorial service, and at his funeral, together with their own parents. They will mourn, together with Jonathan's family, a life that ended much too soon. The death of one more child from this game, even ONE SINGLE CHILD, is a death too many. We must make ourselves aware of the things that frighten us, and find the words to talk about them.Tonight, my words are inchoate prayers, because honestly, I really don't have words that make any sense of this for me, and I cannot even begin to imagine how his parents feel. I know how my friend feels - I hear the pain in her voice but can do nothing for her except to tell you about this.Please pray for Jonathan. Pray for his parents and siblings, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even his own nieces and nephews, who will never know this uncle of theirs who loved science and drumming.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kol Nidre in New York

I was visiting New York City in the latter part of the High Holidays from my home in Nova Scotia and found myself there for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. I contacted several synagogues, and did a little internet research to see whether I could find one in which I might feel at home for these holiest days of our year and was delighted to receive a kind message advising that I would be most welcome to share Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur with a Manhattan congregation.

On Friday evening, Kol Nidre, I took the subway from my hotel to the hall where services were being held, the synagogue itself being rather small for High Holiday attendance. I was warmly welcomed by two women from the congregation and felt quite at home.  The Chazzan’s chanting was utterly sublime, a great gift to any congregation. Her great prayerfulness and passion added much to the words.

I was pleased to see what seemed a substantial number of people attending, including young families, whose Judaism was obviously important enough to them to make the effort to share Kol Nidre with even small children.  The rabbi's sermon was about our desire to be well-remembered, which resonated particularly with me, as the very subject had been much on my mind in recent weeks.  He was a good speaker, and I found myself often in agreement with what he said.

During the sermon, though, a small boy in the congregation became a little fussy, as small boys sometimes do. His mother took him outside, soothed him, and came back in some minutes later. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t tremendously content, and at a particular point in the sermon (timed almost exactly to the moment when the rabbi spoke about what made people remember us), he was fussy again. The congregation, for the most part, seemed amused by this, and in sympathy with the parents. I didn’t notice that anybody was bothered – except for the rabbi.

Even from where I sat, I could see the looks he’d been darting at this young family (parents and 2 small sons). Apparently, the little boy’s fuss was an affront to the rabbi, and he left the pulpit to walk across the stage, and waggled his fingers at the family as if they were unwelcome guests at a party. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if…?” he said. There was no reply. Then, after an incredulous moment, the young mother said, disbelieving, “Are you… asking us to leave?” “Well,” said the rabbi. “I think we’d all be more comfortable if you took the children out.”

The hall was still. The young couple, mortified, humiliated, and certainly hurt by this stunningly inappropriate behaviour from a rabbi (of all people) on Kol Nidre (of all days) gathered their children and left. I sat in my seat, shocked. The rabbi returned to the pulpit and simply picked up his sermon where he’d left off. That was enough to shake me out of my inaction. I got up and left.

When I went outside the hall, the couple were there with their sons, both visibly upset. I approached them and said that although this wasn’t my synagogue – I was a visitor, after all – I felt that someone should apologise for their ill-treatment, and on this most holy day, of all days. I told them – truthfully – that this would not have happened in my synagogue. Children sometimes make noise. We all know this. In fact, I'm generally tremendously bothered by disruptive children in a synagogue, yet even I was not in the least annoyed by these children.

Far from feeling like the welcoming place I had expected, the rabbi’s action suddenly made it feel as if I had entered an exclusive enclave, meant for only a certain few, of a certain type. And clearly, not my type – because in that rabbi’s shoes, I would have applauded the efforts of this young family to inculcate some love of Judaism in their children, to teach them how very important it is for all Jews to come on these days. Everybody has a need to atone, and every Jew ought to be welcome at any synagogue to express prayers of atonement. That any rabbi would make this couple feel so unwelcome was wrong – I wonder if his own expressions on Yom Kippur addressed the events of Kol Nidre.

When I left the service on Friday night, I headed back for the subway, where I cried all the way back to West 40th Street.  I got to the hotel room I was sharing with friends, and when I began to tell them what had happened, I got upset all over again.  I'm still upset.  And I'm angry.  I feel powerless, because there's so little I could do on that night, and there is so little I can do now (I have written to the Board of Directors of the synagogue and to the rabbi as well, though I don't know if  either of them will grace me with a response.)

And on Saturday, Yom Kippur, my prayers were private, because I just couldn't go back there.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tefillin or not tefillin... that is the question...


Tefillin, or not tefillin, that (with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare), is the question. That it should even be a question for me surprises me, but there it is, and it won’t go away. So I do what I usually do with something that’s puzzling or disconcerting me in some way. I puzzle on it some more, toss it around in my mind, question it, and even challenge it. I try to approach these things with some sort of logic, and so my first step is to just find out about tefillin. Here’s what I know.

Tefillin are a set of small leather boxes, with leather straps so that one of them can be wrapped around your arm (most often the left, because that is for most people their weaker arm), and the other can be wrapped around your head. They contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, to remind us to observe God's commandments, and are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Tefillin are sometimes called phylacteries, a word derived from the ancient Greek phylakterion, which means a safeguard. It seems possible that the Greeks misunderstood tefillin to be some sort of amulet or charm, which they are not. Rather, they represent for observant Jews a physical connection to God. The Hebrew word tefillin is related to the word tefilah (prayer) and the Greek term was not used in Jewish circles.

Like most things to do with prayer, men are obligated to wear tefillin (we call it 'laying tefillin' or 'wrapping tefillin') from the time of their Bar Mitzvah, but women are not. There are some who argue that the lack of obligation incumbent on women in this mitzvah is actually a prohibition, and that women should not wear them. However, there are women who do take on the obligation and who lay tefillin regularly. Early Jewish Halacha (law) allowed women to take on the obligation of wearing tefillin, but this custom was generally discouraged, and eventually this discouragement became active exclusion, especially amongst Ashkenazi Jews.

Modern Orthodox Judaism holds that it is permissible for women to wear tefillin, though it is generally discouraged. Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism allow women to wear tefillin, and in fact, many in Conservative Judaism encourage the practice.

The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, with the strap wrapped around the arm, hand, and fingers; the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead, where your hairline would begin, with the strap going around the head and over the shoulders. The Torah commands that tefillin should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.  Tefillin are wrapped in a particular pattern, and one cannot just put them on without being taught to do so correctly.

Bobbi & Greg learning how to wrap tefillin

The obligation of tefillin is Biblically ordained and is mentioned four times in Torah: twice when recalling the Exodus from Egypt - "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth - that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt." (Exodus 13:9); and "And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand, and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt." (Exodus 13:16)

And it's mentioned twice in the Shema passages: "Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead" (Deuteronomy 6:8) and "Therefore, impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead..." (Deuteronomy 11:18)

The Shema, in case you're wondering, is one of the most important prayers in all of Jewish tradition - "Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad," is its beginning. That means "Hear Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One." The entire prayer is much longer, but it talks about the unity of the one God, and how Jews, as the people of the Covenant, are obligated to remember God and God's blessings upon us and care of us.

The idea, of course, is that we are meant to be engrossed in Torah – in thinking about it, living our lives according to its mitzvot, learning from it, sharing it with our children. And while the original scribes may have understood these verses to be more metaphorical in nature, the rabbis determined that the best way to be mindful constantly of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and our obligations to that covenant would be this tangible, physical reminder.

I think that I can be engrossed in Torah without taking on another mitzvah – or to be more precise, I have thought this to be the case. After all, I’ve taken on mitzvot quite happily that I didn’t imagine would ever be important to me. I keep kosher… I wear a tallis… if I miss synagogue, it’s because I’m sick, or I’m not in town (and if I’m not in town, but am in a place where there’s a synagogue, then I am there!)… I observe and celebrate the holidays and mark them all as special. So do I need tefillin? Do I even want them? I don’t know yet … but they are very much on my mind.

My arm in tefillin...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For Leah, Who is One Today

On your birth day, snow was falling in early morning dark
Today, it’s raining

On your birth day, we who already loved you
Finally got to meet you

On your birth day, there were other birth days, too
Your Eema, your Abba, and so many whose hearts are filled with you

On your birth day, you were impossibly tiny in hands
That felt clumsy just holding you

Today, you show signs of the little girl
Who soon will be running around the house

On your birth day, you knew Eema’s and Abba’s voices
Today, you beam and chatter to everyone you love

On your birthday, you became your Eema’s world
Today, we see that the world really is yours,
And we’re discovering it anew right along with you

On your birth day, we kissed you and cuddled you
Today, you seek us out to offer your own sweet kisses

On your birth day, our lives changed forever
Today, we cannot imagine life without you

Happy, happy birthday, beautiful Leah!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Do Not Go Gentle...

Dylan Thomas wrote

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                               (“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” 1951)

He wrote the verses for his father, a former military man who was growing weak and frail with old age, a condition familiar to many who have cared for aging parents – and one that will become uncomfortably familiar to many of us as our own years accumulate. Thomas meant to exhort his father to fight against the ravages of age, to try to become strong and vital once more; like many of us, it hurt and probably frightened him to see the father who’d been physically powerful and a commanding presence become someone who was now going blind and unable to care well for himself. The failing health of a parent is not only a distressing event for adult children – because, really, we’re never completely ready to be without our parents, no matter how much we understand that this is the way life works; it is also a sometimes unwanted reminder of our own frailty and finite worth.

Today, I found an article in The Washington Post ( describing the last two decades of a pair of sisters - Clarice "Classie" Morant was 104 years old, and her younger sister, Rozzie Laney, was 92. Both women had been widowed for decades, and neither of them had had any children. For the past 20 years, the article explained, Classie, the older sister, had been caring for Rozzie, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. She had made a promise to her sister that she would never leave her, would always take care of her, and she kept that promise, up to the day that Rozzie died quietly, in her own bed, on New Year’s Eve 2008.

The sisters had nieces and nephews, who helped them to stay in their own home and out of a long-term care facility, by bringing them to appointments as they were required, by checking in every day by phone, and by visiting regularly. The physical part of Rozzie’s day-to-day care was handled by a caregiver (who herself was near retirement age), and although Rozzie could no longer communicate in any intelligible way, Classie spent hours talking to her and just loving her. Except for the presence of a caregiver, and her sister’s bed in a downstairs sunroom converted to that purpose, the women lived together as many people do – quiet lives, domestically-centred, and relatively content.

The article was accompanied by two photo essays, both of which are beautiful ( and Reading the article, looking at the photographs that accompanied it, listening to the audio tracks with the photo essays, I found myself wondering what my old age would be like. It’s not inconceivable, for instance, that I should live to a ripe old age – it’s not that longevity runs in my family. In fact, it does not. But neither are we prone to dying young. There have been people in my family who died much too young (an uncle on my father’s side, an aunt on my mother’s); but equally, there have been people who lived well into old age (an aunt on my father’s side who died at 92). I do come from a family of dubious genetic inheritance (heart disease, primarily, is of concern, as is hypertension), but I mitigate my risk factors: I don’t smoke, I drink in great moderation, I exercise (though not as much as I should), and I try to make healthy food choices. I have a spiritual and intellectual life that serve to keep soul and mind alert and that I believe will ultimately serve me well in my dotage, though that’s not the reason I engage these things. I engage them simply because I enjoy them – that scientists, behaviourists, and the medical community identify these two things as fundamental to a healthy old age is simply the proverbial icing on the cake.

As I get older, though, I wonder more about what my old age will bring. Will I be healthy? Will I, like my parents, wind up unable to care for myself and dependent upon others to do even the most basic of tasks for me? I already know that I would hate that – not so much because of the idea of being a burden on anybody, to be honest; but like my mother, the loss of dignity involved when someone else (anyone else) has to help you to get dressed, or to bathe, or to go to the toilet, is terrifying to me. As well, I, like many people, tend to be a bit of a control freak about my own life, and my person. I like being autonomous. I like making my own decisions about what to wear, where to go, what to watch on TV, what music to listen to, when to go to bed… when to roll over in bed, for goodness’ sake! What will my life be like if I am no longer that person?

There is a great tendency on the part of many to treat the elderly – particularly the disabled elderly – as if they’ve also suddenly lost their ability to think and to speak for themselves. I remember well being very angry when out shopping with my mother in the last year of her life, when she had to use a wheelchair because she could no longer walk following a stroke, because clerks in department stores would address me, when she was clearly the person making the purchase. I was always polite to them (my mother raised me well!) but always pointed out that it was, in fact, the woman in the wheelchair who had the disposable income and was making the purchase, and that they should address her. And when we left the store, purchase in hand, I invariably railed about it to my mother, because I was so insulted for her. I knew how much she felt she had lost with the stroke, and it angered me that suddenly she had also apparently become invisible.

My mother eventually wound up in a long-term care facility herself. She was very angry about it and felt more than a little betrayed by her children, who had “put” her there. We were ourselves guilt-struck about the decision to make this arrangement for her, but honestly, there was no other way. There were 3 of her 5 adult children living here, all of whom had outside employment and could not be at home with her during the day. Two of us had partners who also worked outside the home, and as for me, I was a single parent, working full-time and also in grad school. We cobbled together care as well as we could, employing caregivers to come in to be with her initially for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening (wake-up and bedtime, essentially). We would be with her for as many intervening hours as we could, and we tried to make sure that weekends were spent more with family than with caregivers (though we did, in effect, become her caregivers as well).

Our mother’s physical care needs grew ever-greater, though, as her condition deteriorated, and the cost of caregivers, who were now needed almost 24/7, became prohibitive. Even had we been able to afford the many thousands of dollars each month which it would have cost to keep her in her little apartment, at this stage, it wasn’t the best choice because her medical needs were growing more pronounced as well. Simply, she had to be within easier reach of medical attention. She lived in the long-term care facility (I hate ‘nursing home’) for just about a full year before she died. Although she had been sick for several years, and we knew that she would not miraculously get better, her death, though ultimately peaceful, still felt sudden.

And so now, at what we might diplomatically term the midpoint of my life, I find myself wondering what the end of it might look like. I have a wonderful daughter who says, to my protest, that she will never ‘put you in a nursing home.’ While I appreciate the sentiment, my daughter is 22 as I write this, and the last thing on earth that I want is for her to become my caregiver by the time she hits 40, and given genetics, it’s not inconceivable. I’ve told her for years (most especially those years during which we lived out my mother’s last years) that when I become unable to care for myself, the only reasonable choice to be made is not whether a long-term care facility, but rather, which one. I don’t want my daughter bathing me, or diapering me, and I know from experience what it feels like to be the daughter who does it. It breaks two hearts.

And yes, I know that she would do that for me as I did it for my mother – with great care and greater love, protecting as much of my tattered dignity as she could. She would do for me, as I did for my mother, and care for me tenderly, remembering the hundred things that my hands had done for her as if they were on autopilot.

That’s only one aspect of old age, though, and that’s not even the frightening one. If it happens, then it happens, and while I will do as much as I can to take care of myself in a way to reduce my risk factors, doing that is no guarantor of success. The thing that frightens me is being old and alone, in a little apartment, seeing few people, and being poor. It’s difficult to make a retirement plan when more than half your working life is spent as a single parent, generally with not enough money for living, much less for saving. I’ll have a pension, I hope – unless the Canada Pension Plan goes bankrupt by the time I need it. But there is what they call superannuation from my workplace which, cobbled together to CPP, should allow me at least to live. The question of how well I will live is an interesting one. I make jokes about being able to afford only the no-name cat food (not for a cat, either), but they’re tinged with a wee bit of anxiety, because what if that is what my reality will be in my old age? I don’t anticipate a retirement full of travel, or a subscription to the symphony; I worry that it’s going to be a subsistence existence. Should I retire from the federal government at the end of my working life, then I will at least have retiree medical benefits, which will be a help should I need greater than average care.

What I do know is that if I am well enough to keep out of a long-term care facility, it is almost certain that I will not live with any of my sisters, or with my brother. It’s not that I don’t love them, or that they don’t love me; rather, it’s that they have their lives, and I have mine. We don’t actually take care of each other now, so why would I expect that to change when I’m 75 or 80? What if the shoe were on the other foot – would I care for an elderly brother or sister to keep them out of a long-term care facility? Well, yes, I believe I would – on the other hand, my siblings also have spouses, so it’s unlikely that they will need me, even if I am the healthy one of the lot of us (that in itself might also be questionable, but I am the youngest!).

My friend Andrea and I have talked about this, and we each agree that we can picture ourselves as little old ladies, living together in a small house, and taking care of each other in the way that friends do. Our children would come to visit us, and perhaps we would go to visit them as well, but our lives, we imagine, could be bound to one another through choice and not necessity. We each agree that barring the possibility of by that time having established a long-term romantic relationship with some as yet unknown man, the only way to have more than a subsistence existence when we are old is to live with someone else. Andrea and I have a lot in common and enjoy doing many of the same things, so in theory this could work… but I’m not really going to know until the time comes. Perhaps right now, it’s just a bit of a comfort to have this possibility as an option – though I’m not sure whether or not it’s truly realistic.

Robert Browning wrote

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"
                                                   ("Rabbi Ben Ezra," 1864)

And so my question, then, is… what of those who have nobody with whom to grow old? Do they become invisible as they eke out a meagre existence, marking time until they die? And without some sort of financial security, how is anything else possible?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rocking on a snowy evening

 I came home from work early today, because the first real storm of winter was brewing. It was very cold, and windy, and the snow – though not yet heavy – was blowing. So firstly, I recognize what a privilege it is to be able to come home when the weather looks threatening. There are a lot of people who would have to stay right where they were until their usual close of business, and I did not.

Then, there’s the fact that I got a ride home. Actually, the ride home is the reason I could leave early, because my friend Maggie stopped by in her car to see if I could leave. I had already decided that I wouldn’t walk home this afternoon, anyhow, because the weather was pretty miserable; but now, I didn’t need to worry about the bus, either.

In the car, Leah was asleep in her snowsuit, having had a pretty full day, what with playgroup at the synagogue and running around with Eema. When we got home, I got her out of her snowsuit (which my own daughter had worn what seems like centuries before) and brought her upstairs with a bottle, so that we could have a cuddle and she would have a chance to get back to sleep.

As I sat there rocking her, listening to her singing her sweet little song, I felt an amazing sense of connection – not just to this beautiful baby girl and to her mother, but to my days of young motherhood, when I rocked my own baby to sleep. Leah would occasionally squirm upright, discarding the bottle in favour of some kisses, which was just fine by me.

We sat there rocking and snuggling, nuzzled into each other, listening to the wind blowing outside, Leah taking all this as no less than her due – as indeed, she should; and me, for my part, sitting there realizing that this connection was to much more than my own life. My connection seemed to extend to every mother and every baby, and I found myself thinking sadly about babies I’d seen in newspaper articles recently whose mothers could not care for them, about babies who were hungry, and mothers who were hopeless.

As I rocked, Leah safely nestled in my arms not quite asleep, my heart filled with the bliss that comes from just hanging out with a small soul when there is not a single other thing in the world you needed to do or would rather do; but at the same time, I ached for those other mothers – the mothers who were not ready to be mothers and made other choices for their babies. The mothers who were not ready to be mothers and who did not know it, parenting without the resources or even interest that their children deserved. The mothers of Haiti, many of whom became mothers through violent rape or coerced sex. One of these mothers, interviewed by a journalist a few days ago, spoke of hating the man who had raped her and discovering, much against her will, that she had come to love her tiny son, the son for whom she was unable to provide even the basic necessities of life.

Mirlande Lewis, Port-au-Prince,
with her 3-week old son, the
product of a gang rape.
(Deborah Baic, Globe & Mail)

I thought about mothers whose children were half-grown, but who had in one way or another become disconnected from them. Mothers whose children I met a very long time ago, when I worked at a long-term shelter for homeless youth. I didn’t know those mothers, but I remember that some of their children spoke of being disposable – they considered themselves throwaways, and sometimes, sadly, they were correct.

I thought about children who were out in today’s miserable weather and hoped that they would be out only long enough to get home safely to where it was warm. I hoped that they had somewhere warm to go, and that they would be with people who loved them.

I realized that my connection to Leah was more than a connection to a single little girl I have grown to love. My connection was to every mother and every baby, back to the very first mother and baby, and I realized that more than anything, women are sisters, even when we don’t know one another. We share experiences, even when share nothing else, not language nor place nor living situation. Loving Leah was (and is) about more than just loving Leah. It is about love itself, and right now, the power having gone out in the storm, the living room lit by just a few candles and the light of my laptop, the temperature in here cooler than I wish it would be, I am surrounded by love. With all my heart, I wish that all children in the world were as loved as those I have loved.