and yet…on being older

Earlier this week I went to Brooklyn to see my friend L and M, my former supervisor at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office (MBP,where I met L too), who I haven’t seen in decades.  

Our meeting spot is a restaurant in Dumbo and I get there early to walk around the beautiful waterfront park, navigating my way around hundreds of tourists (if it’s this bad on a gray weekday I can only imagine what it’s like on a sunny weekend!) I take a few photos too; it’s hard to resist such spectacular views of bridges and cityscapes. It’s the most instagrammed spot in the country and everywhere I look people are taking the perfect picture, at once hyper-attuned and oblivious to where they actually are.

Before the waterfront park was complete, before it was such a popular destination, V went to school down there at the League Treatment Center, back when he was three and four. It was at the very beginning of our autism journey with him, and I used to attend support groups run by one of the school’s social workers. I still remember some of the people in the group, the way – as I would come to find again and again – what we had in common was far more essential than our differences. And so what on the surface was a diverse group was in other ways homogenous : we all had our lives upended by some diagnosis that had barely been in our vocabulary.

I remember walking down by the river back when you could really be alone there, and somehow although I was shell-shocked I also felt that I was in good hands.  V was so little then and the differences between him and his typical peers was pronounced yet not yet profound. So much was still in front of us, I didn’t know yet how much I would have to give up and let go of, so many dreams both for V and for myself. 

Dumbo was a quiet place to calm myself as I stood beside the East River listening to the water, not a touristy circus. There were just a few destinations, like Jacque Torres, where you could get individual truffles and hot chocolate so thick a spoon would practically stand upright in it. It was a gorgeous, barely-discovered neighborhood back then.

But time marches on and Dumbo is jumping and here I am feeling gray and shrunken, no longer the lively animated person I was back at the MBP, back when I worked alongside L and M was our boss and we were in the thick of everything going on in the city, or so it felt. I was the arts funder so I went out constantly to cultural events. L was a frequent companion, always appreciative and excited by theater and museums and other wonderful spots we had the good fortune to frequent.

It is great seeing them both and yet the gap in our experiences over the years seems vast.  M has a great job at a major museum where she has worked for a long time and both she and L keep up with a lot of our old colleagues. And who are you in touch with? M asks, and I have to tell her no one. I had so many good work friends back then and yet I’ve lost touch with all of them. I listen as M and L catch up on various people they still see and feel so out of the loop; my life feels truncated into a before and after my caregiving role. For while I continued working after V’s regression, my career was back burnered for years, and when I came up for air I found myself disconnected from my former colleagues and the many organizations I worked with. M and L kept that work front and center and the difference that has made is profound. 

On the surface, M is far superior to me in every possible way:  professionally, socially, even in her leisure activities – I do Wordle, she does Quordle (4 word puzzles at once!) If she wasn’t so damn gracious and charming it would be easy to find her annoying. 

M taught me how to write a memo: how to use bullets effectively and convey complicated information as succinctly as possible. There’s no room for James Baldwin in public office she quipped, knowing my penchant for long sentences that felt like an homage to my favorite author. I learned in the workplace to keep it short. She left a lasting imprint.

I know that M and L have had major heartaches and challenges too – none of us gets away with a consistently easy life. And yet despite being roughly the same age this last chapter has been so different for us.  L still works part time and travels and sees a large circle of friends. M looks to retire in a few years and renovate her apartment, she’ll have time for travel and seeing her extended family (originally from Liberia, they mostly live on the east coast now, much easier to visit on a regular basis.)

It’s still rare that I answer the simple question How are you? with utter honesty. After all these years I still have a lot of grief, which is hard for those who don’t have that feeling in their gut and heart to comprehend. With all the joys and gratitude in daily life, there remains a sort of aching and yearning that it’s hard to escape yet difficult to express. It’s not something that I can talk about over a delicious lunch of quinoa artichoke burger and shared cauliflower and fries and the witty banter and sharp insight of two old friends.

And yet afterwards as I walk back to the A train I try to focus on our inner connectedness rather than the differences. We all seem stronger and wiser and mellower with age. Better able to face setbacks as well as triumphs. I feel that way with all my friends. We’ve gotten older and our faces have more lines and our bodies have more problems and yet we’re more resilient and forgiving and tender. We all experience the vulnerability of aging, yet our challenges are more a source of humility than humiliation. As with my Dumbo support group all those years ago I see what binds us as stronger than our unique circumstances. And so I take that bond home with me along with some photos from an afternoon in Brooklyn with old friends.

gratitude practice

I often do a gratitude practice first thing in the morning. It’s pretty predictable: thanks for the cup of coffee, for being awake early before everyone else gets up, for quiet time to meditate and do Wordle. I’m trying to extend that practice during the day, to stop and appreciate all the little ways that life is good, to acknowledge when people are kind and to try to let the rest go.

Thursday afternoons we’ve been going to a Mexican restaurant with V and his home therapist J. We go in and sit down, and the waitress, who now knows us well enough to remember our usual order, comes by with menus and then smiling, gets a hibiscus tea in a large glass with ice, with an extra empty glass so I can split it with V. At first I thought she was reserved and a bit standoffish but I realized she was just shy and in fact is lovely. She stands patiently as V, who has practiced stating his order, asks for guacamole and chips; and the rest of us place our orders as well (we’re not as predictable). It’s been a nice weekly routine: V stays seated while we eat, which is huge progress in the last few years, as he used to get up every few minutes to move around, which was exhausting.

At J’s suggestion we’re going to switch it up and start going somewhere else where V can order something that will require use of fork and knife. It’s been good though, to go out and feel even a little bit relaxed. The combination of V being a little less hyperactive and being somewhere we are known makes such a difference.
So gracias Benji’s Taqueria.

On Friday we went to sensory friendly Shabbos services that we haven’t attended since pre-pandemic days. (I still have trouble wrapping my head around how long the lapse was.) Again, there are people who know V, where he was a familiar presence. He paces around much of the time while singing along to the mostly musical service. Our fellow congregants haven’t seen him in a few years yet they still know and “get” him. And I felt so welcome; no one glares or makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s good for me because I see people I know and as T points out (he really wasn’t in the mood to go out but humors me) I am so desperate for socializing. It’s true, it’s hard with V to maintain much of a social life so I take any opportunity I can get, like a once monthly service. Gratitude to Beth Shalom, their kind members and their amazing cantor. 

Saturdays we go to Shoprite (Yes, our lives are really exciting : ) where we have become familiar to much of the staff, although not necessarily to the customers, many of whom are impatient as we help V to put items into bags and to push the cart and help unload it.  The store has a lot of special needs baggers so the cashiers at least are familiar with people like V. Again we are with J, which always makes things go smoother. Gratitude to J and the staff of Shoprite.

Saturday afternoon we go for our familiar walk in Verona Park. It’s a beautiful autumn day and the leaves are finally changing and V is beaming, walking briskly and loudly vocalizing as he goes. Three women walk towards us and looking right at V one of them says “Yes, what a wonderful day! We should all be singing!” and they all join in and I’m so taken aback because usually when V is vocalizing people either stare or ignore us. It feels so good to have someone acknowledge him in a positive way. Gratitude to Verona Park and to the three gracious ladies who make me feel less alone. 

Sunday Torah Circle just started up again at Lifetown/Friendship Circle, something V has been doing for many years. People know him there and it’s a friendly environment.  He participates in all the activities: cooking, drumming circle, STEM, musical davening. I’m so appreciative of the programs they provide in their spacious welcoming center, that he is engaged and happy while we have a break for a few hours. In my ideal world every day would be this good. Gratitude to Friendship Circle and all that they do for young people like V.

The fact is I still feel socially isolated much of the time, yet having these places where V is recognized and seen makes such a difference. At their best people want to connect. They don’t need to know someone’s diagnosis or the details of their challenges to know that judgment is easy but compassion and kindness goes a lot further. And as I’ve seen over and over, one person really can make a difference, as we all have that amazing power to help others to feel more connected, to be a friendly face to those of us still struggling to navigate this world.  And for that I am grateful. 

baking therapy

Although I have fond memories of baking chocolate chip cookies with my mom: my favorite part was putting the just-shelled walnuts through the chopper – yes, we did it all by hand! – I’ve always been more of a cook than a baker. Becoming a vegetarian at age 15 made me more aware and inquisitive of food than most of my peers and spurred a lifelong passion for cooking for myself and others. I even worked as a private chef and caterer in my 20s. I had some memorable gigs that showed a lot of chutzpah for a self-taught cook. (Something I had in spades when I was younger.)

Alas life can throw us for a loop and mine has led to a certain level of burnout that’s included among a list of things I formerly did and enjoyed a diminishment of cooking interest; that is, I still have the appetite for and enjoyment of a great home cooked meal but the thought of all that slicing and chopping and other work, let alone the clean up – well, I’m just not up for it much of the time. I do what I must but don’t feel the energy to be all inventive and energized to create a small feast, something I used to do regularly. 

Meanwhile I bake a bit more for two reasons: after going gluten-free a few years ago at my doctor’s suggestion, I wanted versions of snacks like oatmeal cookies or banana bread but better and cheaper than what’s available at a store.

Second, V started baking at home with a home therapist who helped out some weekday afternoons. He had been in the Marines and taught V good habits like cleaning up as you go, as well as how to crack an egg and mis en place. V also did some baking in the past with B, who’s a very kind and patient big brother. And on occasion I would try to get him to help out with my baking projects. So it’s something V has done well at, which helps build confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Important stuff.

This week I baked for Fabulous Friday, the breakfast I’m helping to coordinate for V’s school faculty, all 200+ of them. I decided on my scones since they are a staff favorite and made them seasonal with dried cranberries instead of currants. I have been making this recipe since receiving the Vegetarian Epicure as a gift when I was 16. So for 46 years! It’s been my go to for authentic scones. (my aunt and uncle lived in Oxford when I was little and schooled me on all things English from a young age: ) I’ve made these so often that I know how to make them just right, when the dough is that perfect elasticity: not sticky nor dry. It’s a satisfying activity, requiring complete concentration yet at the same time relaxing.

I also made a gluten free version of cookies from a NYT recipe, with banana and oatmeal. I used coconut oil instead of butter so they’re vegan too. And I threw in some tart dried cherries. They taste as delicious as any other cookie but can be eaten by staff on special diets.

It was fun spending the whole morning baking: 4 dozen scones and 3 dozen cookies. Just to go into a zone and whisk and blend and knead and shape and keep putting things into our little oven and once everything cooled down getting it all into containers. T drove me down to school on Thursday where the staff happily stored them for Friday’s event. It’s a really gratifying way to show gratitude and love. I’m hoping to get back to cooking as the weather cools and it becomes soup season. For now a day of baking hit the spot.

respite for a celebration

Respite: providing or being temporary care in relief of a primary caregiver

I’ve had a “save the date” on the side of the refrigerator (we have a weirdly unmagnetic surface in front so nothing stays attached there) for months. While we’ve been looking forward to my nephew’s wedding, a big burden was finding a place for V to go because there’s no way he’d do well between the four plus hour drive to NH and back and the weekend activities let alone the wedding ceremony itself. Fortunately he was able to stay at the same respite group home where he stayed in August.

The wedding was wonderful as was the whole weekend. From a pizza dinner on Friday to most of the day and evening on Saturday at the camp on a lake where the ceremony took place, every activity and event was carefully lovingly planned, with a combination of fun and heartfelt meaning. The newlyweds did an amazing job of planning it all, and my new niece seems as well organized and efficient as the Chabadniks of Friendship Circle, which is saying a lot. 

It was so wonderful to have all that time with the wedding party. I got to see some of my sister’s friends and my brother-in-law’s family and a couple of cousins all of whom I hadn’t seen in ages, and I could focus on it all because V wasn’t there. I don’t mean that in any harsh way but simply in the most practical terms it all worked out because V was in a home with someone else caring for him. And as long as the trip was each way from NJ to New Hampshire, T and B split the driving so it wasn’t too bad. It was really fun being just the three of us or part of the time the two of us (B and I, T and I, and some time with B & T when I was by myself).

I did worry about how V was doing, especially as the weather forecast back home was not great and I knew he’d be spending most of the weekend inside. What would they do all day? And yet, what could I do about it? Nothing, just hope that he was okay and be reassured by the answer to T’s daily call: He’s fine. And hearing that was enough for me to put myself at peace, for the most part. Don’t worry about the details. Be present, which was being in New Hampshire on a brisk early fall weekend where we could let things unravel at their own pace, like getting up extra early to have time to myself and later going to a diner for breakfast after a 20 minute wait. When was the last time I’ve waited for anything? We can’t do that with V, everything revolves around a lack of lines or hectic environments or anything that would make things difficult, that might set off his anxiety, and in turn mine.

But here in this long day to ourselves we could start it with a wait, hanging out with other friendly people as the time went by and then we got into a cozy booth -it was a real old school diner, something I have always appreciated – and the coffee was piping hot poured into nice solid mugs with Lenny’s Diner written on them, a warm welcome from the cold morning.  From there we went back to the hotel for a while, and gathered our outfits for the evening: I was so focused on packing for V and having the right amount of outerwear for wide ranging temperatures I’d need that I spent next to no time on my own outfit, which resulted in a light summer dress with a black jacket and heavy tights that didn’t match with the dress at all, but as I was all too aware, no one really noticed or cared. And I’d soon join the other celebrants in gazing at a bride so beautiful there would be no attention on a poorly dressed salt and pepper aunt.  (The gifts of growing old : ) It didn’t matter…

Every single person I met all weekend was friendly and the younger generation was especially fun-loving, with many fellow nature and music lovers, followers of some of the same bands. At the camp there was an afternoon full of activities: a music jam, a beer swap and crafts for those so inclined (I will forever more appreciate friendship bracelets now that I see how much effort goes into making one. ) Then the ceremony was so perfect – each read something they had written and each was so honest and funny and adoring, it was a real joy to participate. There were a lot of personal touches I appreciated: the newlyweds asked that all devices be turned off so that everyone could be fully present for the ceremony; they stood under a gorgeous chuppah handmade by the bride’s dad (not Jewish, just very generous) out of birch branches and the groom’s dad’s (my brother-in-law) tallit [prayer shawl] was draped over the top – and when they stood there facing each other as corny as it sounds their love and excitment was palpable.

(I walked down before the ceremony and snapped the photo above.)

The party in the dining hall was really great – lots of delicious healthy food, and desserts all homemade by the multitasker par excellence bride.  There was a terrific live band that played a good mix of tunes, and they included a version of Hava Nagila  – a traditional song and dance at festive Jewish events – as the bride and groom were raised overhead on chairs and everyone danced around them. And this event was certainly festive!  By 9ish however I was utterly exhausted – that old person stuff kicking in again – and T & I bid adieux to the hundred plus guests still partying into the night.

We got an early start on Sunday and so arrived home a few hours before we were expected for V’s pick up, but T wanted to get him and be done with driving for the day and come home and unwind. So we called the house and told them to expect us in a half hour, and off we went to get V after having several days on our own. And just as we left him, he seemed fine. Not in any way I could sense unhappy or uncomfortable. Rather he seemed at ease. There were nice people around him in a nice roomy house, but still I wondered and worried about what in fact he did all that time that he was away. Do they try to engage him when he is in his own world; like us do they instinctively know when he needs to be alone and when he can tolerate or even welcome others into his world?  What were his days like?  What might his days look like in a new home without us? I’m ready for the next stage yet there are so many questions I still have, so many concerns that go with having a child who will need so many supports.

These respites provide us with much needed breaks and also prepare us for the future, when V’s time away will be permanent, when he will live in a group home without us, hopefully happily ever after. For now, I’m grateful to have had the joyful weekend and to look to the time ahead with a bit more peace of mind.

Days of Awe

Awe: an emotion combining veneration and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.  

L’shana tova.  

That means “for a good year” and you don’t have to be Jewish to take in that blessing and to see these first days of autumn as the perfect opportunity to celebrate a new season, a new year, to reflect on the past and express our dreams and hopes for the year ahead.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a 10 day period called The Days of Awe, a period of introspection and repentance that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

On Monday I walked to a little creek in a nearby park and threw bits of bread into the water for Tashlich, which literally translates to “casting off.” During this ceremony, Jews symbolically cast off the sins of the previous year by tossing bread crumbs into flowing water. During this ritual, people think of things they’ve done wrong in the past year and then “throw them away,” promising for improvement in the coming year.

I generally don’t think in terms of sins, but rather of where there is room for improvement, how I can be a better version of myself. The main thing I aim to throw away this year is worry and anxiety, as I spend so much time fearing the future when there is nothing I can do to change much of what happens.

People we love will get sick. Loved ones will die. So many difficult events can occur. Our circumstances can change on a dime.  There is no denying hardship and heartache that are part of life: we all will experience serious setbacks or illness at some point, eventually we all will die. Yet to dread and fear the unknown, that’s no way to live.  

I am going to try to greet each day with more courage and trust, and openness to both the good and the difficult. I am going to work on eliminating or at least minimizing the phrase “What if…” followed by the worst case scenario. I do this a lot with V, especially when we have any plans out of the ordinary. Like going to my brother and sister-in-law’s for Rosh Hashanah dinner on Sunday. What if he can’t handle the ride, if he is disruptive, if he has an accident or makes a huge mess or whatever memories I can dredge up from other visits. My family are exemplars of hospitality and won’t judge yet still I worried all week. The fact is he does fine, remarkably well for the most part, although he digs into the challah before dinner and doesn’t sleep when we get home.  As I expected, when I let the worry dissipate, it was a lovely evening. We dipped apples into honey to ask for a sweet new year, we broke bread (well, V already broke it…) and had a wonderful meal together. We spent time with those we love. Fear and worry – mentally preparing for the worst – does not change the outcome. All it does is tie me in knots that keep me from staying present.

I also think about other ways I can improve.  One simple change is to give back more.  Generosity doesn’t have to be monetary – although gifts are certainly nice and well appreciated – it can be time, attention, clear and honest communication, love and understanding. It can be cooking for someone who isn’t feeling well  or campaigning for a candidate or being a good listener to a friend in need.

I somehow got talked into taking over an initiative at V’s school where parents contribute funds or food to a monthly breakfast for the staff. In the past I would bake – often with V’s help (along with a behavior therapist usually), tripling a favorite recipe like apple cake or pumpkin bread or my scones. It was a nice way to give back, it took a few hours, was enjoyable, the house smelled great and then the hardworking staff got to enjoy what I made.  There are so few ways I feel that I can be helpful right now so it felt good to contribute.

Well, the kids of the parents behind this lovely tradition just graduated last year and they needed someone to be in charge and somehow I let myself be talked into it. Why? It will involve time and coordination and probably a few headaches. Because I am not good at saying no? On some level this is true. I have gotten better but I admit that it’s hard for me to say no to anyone. I admire those who do this with ease.

Yet in part I think why not give more of my time and energy to this breakfast? Let it take up a couple of half days a month for something that will be enjoyed and appreciated by deserving staff. (It will entail enisting T as my driver as we go for a shop and pick up food and drop it off and for this help I am grateful.)

The other positive outcome is that it will put me in touch with others’ generosity, those who are Venmoing me and those who have offered to send some food in, other people I don’t even know who I am reminded are part of the same community. 

How else can I give back? How can I be a better partner, parent, friend, sister, daughter? Instead of lamenting what I cannot give right now why not focus on what I can? To be generous with my attention and affection. To offer to help out in small ways that I can. It might not seem like it but I see this blog as a way of sharing some of myself, of trying to connect.

I also want to stop comparing and despairing. It’s all too easy – an automatic reflex in my case – to compare my circumstances to others, who seem to have it easier. Yet everyone has rough patches and and suffering. Friction and disagreement with people we care about. Unbearable loss. Full plates. We all have such different circumstances that it’s pointless to compare and yet I do. When I pull back from this bad habit I realize that I have so much to be grateful for, so many opportunities to appreciate the things that make life worth living.

What if we lived like we were always in the midst of days of awe?  If we stopped and appreciated the littlest things: the sound of rain, the feel of sunlight, a few nice words from someone, whether a stranger or friend.  The fact that we wake up each morning to a new day. 

What if we saw everything as sacred? Every breath and meal and step forward and conversation…it’s something to aspire to in the year ahead.  

And so I look back and then forward and reflect, vowing to improve as best I can.  

Shana Tova.

planning mode

Getting used to a full house after my time alone. V is back in school full time and there’s a lot to do in planning his future. I’m also on the board of directors for an organization affiliated with his school that has started a day program and is planning for residential services as well, although that part is a lot of work and will take a while. I’ve been doing lots of research to prepare for a document I’m supposed to write and there’s a lot of complex details involved in starting a group home.  It’s been a struggle to focus on this as well as V’s immediate needs.  I often feel that I don’t use my time well enough.

The fact is that while V is at school I do have free time yet I rarely have the energy to do as much as I set out to do.  When people ask if I work or if I am retired I say yes and no, although it’s not like a regular job.  Devoted caregiver comes without pay or visibility, it’s a long-term thankless gig, one I share with millions of others, and I know I am luckier than many of them. T is a great partner and helper and I have people who care about me, even if there’s nothing they can do to help with the day to day tasks that enervate me.  It is a consuming job.

V is scheduled to go back to the respite group home in a couple of weeks so that we can go to my nephew’s wedding. It’s good to have a place for him to go as the long drive, the various weekend activities and especially the wedding itself would be overwhelming for him, and would limit our relaxation and enjoyment of the weekend.  It’s nice to have a joyful occasion to look forward to, and to have a safe secure place for V to be.

Planning for the future, whether two weeks from now or decades to come, there’s a mixture of hope and disappointment, grief and gratitude. Wanting him to get used to the group home setting through these short stays so that he will be acclimated to a new environment, one without us.  The empty nest seems beyond reach right now but it is going to happen eventually.  When is the question. And where and what and how, all to be determined.  

Other people I know with empty nests have had a combination of sadness and celebration, missing their grown kids yet enjoying the newfound freedom.  Friends who live alone likewise cherish their autonomy while admitting that loneliness is still part of the mix.  And I know people like us who don’t have that empty nest and don’t know when it will happen.  

The same questions always swirl around and come to the surface: How do we assure that V gets the supports he needs? That he has a full life in which he continues to learn and grow? How do we make sure that he isn’t stuck inside in a house doing nothing? How do we accept what we cannot change? A big issue is that staff, the direct service professionals who will be with him throughout his day and night for the rest of his life, that these people are not well paid and there’s nothing we can do about that unless we start our own home which as I’ve found out is a labor-intensive, arduous project. And while we can give staff gift certificates as bonuses we can’t do anything about the low hourly pay rate at existing group homes. We can support and vote for measures to raise the minimum wage, but beyond that not a lot we can do, and that’s frustrating. People who do this hard work caring for our loved ones deserve a decent salary! It’s a win: win – they’d feel more invested in their jobs and be rewarded for that. A livable wage benefits both the professionals and those they care for.

While I am ready for this next stage, it is still hard to let go, to let go of the dreams long dimmed.

For 21 years we’ve tried, we’ve tried everything. Well, that isn’t true because there are so many treatments and therapies and medications and supplements and special diets, there isn’t enough time or money to do everything… but we have tried a lot. And V remains an individual with severe disabilities, nothing has changed that. We’ve learned to accept that the progress we were promised over and over again was not to be, that improvements were modest and incremental and he remains, as his official documents now attest, someone who needs lots of supports for just about everything. 

And so there’s a lot of anxiety about finding a permanent home, a place where V can live and thrive. And so my time and energy get filled with hoping and praying as well as actually getting things done.  Doing the best I can to stay positive and get some daily tasks accomplished, to plan and dream and still stay grounded in the here and now.  

a week off

I’m free. For the first time in 17 years I’ve had  the house to myself for a week. Wheee! Wild times at 152 High Street. Not. But I’m still grateful to have this time to myself. 

T went to Seattle to visit B and family, and V is in a respite group home for the first time ever. A lot of big changes. It took some research to find a place that V could go for a week, and miraculously it seems to be working out, with a few hiccups: his first night he was up til 5 am and slept past noon, but he seems to have acclimated and gotten back on a schedule. The fact is I can’t be on my own with V at this stage of our lives, and we found a way to make it happen. We hope this is the first step in a future where V can live happily in a group home. And as much as I am the one eager for this to happen sooner than later, the fact is that I’ve been incredibly nervous as to how he would do. The official document that states all his challenges and enabled him to get the funding he will need in the future, doesn’t begin to explain who he is as a person, or what he needs from others (mostly love and understanding, with a strong measure of guidance to navigate his path.) Challenges for sure, yet he is also a charming, intelligent and interesting young man.  Hopefully the staff at the home is seeing him that way.

What to do with this glorious week? Well, I didn’t want to be too far from home in case of an emergency, which means not going up to visit my BFF in Maine or down to Philly to see my Dad. But it doesn’t preclude me going to the city, which is what I did with my first full day on my own. I got together with J, an old friend who I lost touch with after leaving Brooklyn, where she still lives. She worked hard to track me down, eventually running into L, another Brooklyn friend who I had stayed in touch with, and who gave her my contact info. We’ve texted a bit in the months since and I finally had free time for a visit.

I hadn’t seen her in 17 years! And yet it was like old times, we picked up immediately, walking around the city for hours, eventually finding a place to eat that fit our various dietary restrictions – foods that we can no longer have due to various health issues. (Yes, getting old is lots of fun : ) There are so many people that I lost touch with over the years, most after we moved and it was just too overwhelming dealing with V and everything else to keep up, and one by one friends disappeared from my life. And while I’ve made some good friends here I don’t have the social life I did in the city. Too much isolation in the world of caregiving. So it was a delight to reconnect, making me realize it’s never too late to regain old friends.

Then I met up with L, who I have stayed in touch with but haven’t seen since the pandemic, at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park, which was an annual occurrence for me when I lived in the city. It’s a wonderful event, which has grown in its 30 years to include concerts in several parks over four days and this was the last performance of the year. Thousands of people gathered on seats, and spread out in the park to hear great music. While we were sitting and listening I saw another old Brooklyn friend – he and his wife were our best friends in our old apartment building, someone else we stayed in touch with for a while (they were at B’s bar mitzvah) but eventually lost contact. Proximity counts for a lot. It was great to see him and in a way not surprising as he keeps up with the best music the city has to offer. 

There were two jazz ensembles led by women, which was refreshing to see in the generally male dominated jazz world. But the  highlight this year was seeing Archie Shepp, at 85 still playing the saxophone and singing, with a stellar jazz trio. The respect for him was palpable – it was like the jazz world equivalent of seeing Serena Williams at the US Open: lots of love and awe in the audience, and it was a fantastic way to end the day. 

Then I raced up to catch my train, taking an Uber home from the station in a Tesla. I can’t stand Elon Musk but he makes a hell of a car. I deserved that ride: I had walked 18,000 steps in the course of the day! I miss that sort of city day with hours of walking, great art, good friends. 

The rest of the week has been pleasurable if less eventful, getting back on my recently tuned up bike to go to the library and do a few errands, having a few down days when I wrote and read and cooked and took it easy. There were times of loneliness for sure, yet I have really savored this time alone. I’ve also been enjoying the yard, which is hard to find time for since V still refuses to set foot in it, one of the many unsolved mysteries in a curious life.

I met up with my cousin downtown, sitting outside at a coffee shop; we hadn’t gotten together in a while and it was wonderful to see her and catch up. I had a glass of wine with my next door neighbor, sitting on her lovely porch on a late afternoon after the heat of early in the week had subsided. Little get togethers that were to me a big deal as they just don’t happen as much as I wish they did.

Then I had a second city day, going to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) where I met up with a friend who got us free passes. We saw the Matisse exhibit and wandered through the museum. It was another day with lots of city walking, great art and friendship.

There were little things I appreciated: having toiletries out, asI usually have to hide items like shampoo and toothpaste; not having the cabinets and refrigerator locked up; making vegetables I’d gotten at the Farmers Market, without the smells and greasy pans from the carnivores I live with the rest of the time. It’s the little things that wear me down, and also so easily lift me up.

Today I biked to the train to the pool to have my last outdoor swim of the season. I’m still getting back in bike shape so I didn’t swim too hard or long but it was a ritual goodbye to summer I didn’t want to miss. The pool was nearly empty and it felt so good to be in the water one last time.

I just made a key lime pie to take to tomorrow’s block party some neighbors organized. I signed up to help set up beforehand because why not? How often do I have free time to help others out? To do what I want when I want? To go somewhere and not feel rushed to get back home? 

I know that all of this will end by Sunday morning, when T comes home from a good trip away – he’s on the red eye – and then we go to pick up V. I hope that he is okay, that he was well-cared for and didn’t feel that we had abandoned him. There are such complex feelings I have about him: so much love and concern for his well being and yet all too aware of the toll that care takes on me. Having this week made me realize just how much of my energy goes into meeting his needs, both in the moment and in planning his future, and how restorative it was to be on my own and to spend time with people I like. I will let the peace and quiet linger for just a little longer…and then get on with life and whatever it brings.

If you’ve read through to the end thanks for staying with this longer than usual post – just a lot I wanted to celebrate while I could. I hope the end of summer brings you some peace and joy in even the most fleeting moments.

perilous times

In a week with a lot of bad news the story that most horrified me was the stabbing of the writer Salman Rushdie. In a bitter irony, someone rushed the stage and attacked him just prior to a lecture where he was to speak about freedom of expression in the United States. 

Rushdie had been living under the threat of an assassination attempt since 1989, about six months after the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The book fictionalized parts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad with depictions that offended some Muslims, who believed it to be blasphemous. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomein issued an edict, known as a fatwa, which ordered Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie.

I remember well when the fatwa was issued, how barbaric and heinous I thought it was. How I learned that Rushdie had to move every few days for years, how the stress and uprootedness destroyed his marriage and while he remained protected by the English government — he lived in London at the time, where he’s a longtime citizen – he had no semblance of a normal life. How lucky we were to live with freedom of speech and some basic sense of civility where something like that would never happen, or so I thought….

Rushdie eventually moved to New York and started living a public life again, without constant security or scrutiny. Some years ago T and I had the pleasure of going to a reading of his at the 92nd Street Y and at the book signing afterwards I was struck by how gracious he was. 

The attack was premeditated and targeted.  It may sound like a stretch to blame Trump for this, but I think he has emboldened people like the attacker to act on their basest instincts.  As he said in one of his most famous and infamous lines, during a 2016 campaign stop in Iowa: 

‘“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump said, mimicking firing a gun with his fingers. “It’s, like, incredible. “‘

That set the tone for the next four years, culminating in the January 6th attack on the Capital. And there’s no end in sight. Election administrators are quitting after death threats. Since the Mar-a-Lago search there have been a spate of threats to FBI offices. Murders have spiked nearly 40% since 2019 and violent crimes, including shootings and other assaults, have increased overall. Senseless ceaseless violence. It’s hard to catch a break.

Rushdie survived thankfully but he has some severe injuries, including possibly losing an eye, damage to his liver, and severed nerves in his arm.   His son, who was all of 9 when the fatwa was issued and is now a man in his early 40’s, reported that he remained in critical condition.

Those who knew the attacker described him as a troubled recluse. Like many of those responsible for recent mass shootings, he was a young male loner, someone who spent his time online and in his head weaving violent fantasies that he eventually acted on.

I still remember so clearly the bright blue morning of Sept 11, 2001, how I sat in a doctor’s waiting room with a beautiful view of the river one moment, the next, a front row seat to a plane exploding into a building. I physically recoiled and turned away when I heard a nurse say to me, “LOOK. This is life, you have to look.”

I think of that whenever I want to look away. And so with the onslaught of threats, with all the horrors of the world, I look. I follow the news closely. I also take lots of breaks. There’s too much good TV and great books not to have complete escapes. And sometimes too I dream it away, imagining a place with justice for all, where the innocent are safe and the guilty are punished. My fantasies involve Trump in an orange jumpsuit in a prison somewhere. I know that’s highly unlikely, but a girl can dream…

Asbury Park

We went to the beach with V for the first time this summer. It took a while to get there this season given that it’s already well into August. But V usually has sessions with his behavior technician J on Saturday and Sunday morning, and he’s had camp on weekdays, and I like to leave early in the morning to avoid traffic. So while J is in Haiti visiting his family and the weather forecast was for an oppressive 95 it seemed like the right day to give it a try.

I wake up at 630, drink coffee and meditate/pray that it will go well. V hasn’t gone to the ocean in a while and we worry about how he will do. V is very fickle – he’ll love doing something, like being in the water, for a few years, and then change his mind, so we didn’t know what to expect. I want him to go and do typical summer things but the fact is I’m going as much for myself. The Jersey shore is my happy place and I miss it, and I admit I’m filled with envy at everyone else I know going to the beach, although I wish I didn’t have that feeling so much. The truth is it hasn’t been a very happy summer; It’s been tolerable but I long for joy in this season when so many get away to beaches or mountains, for day trips or weeks off, and given that we don’t have family vacation a day will do.

With anything new or that we haven’t done in a while I worry: how will he do? I have V’s lifetime to remind me of meltdowns or refusal to participate in an activity or of not being cooperative, so while I work hard to have a good attitude I know from experience that shit can happen and worry is my unskillful way of being prepared for the worst. I named this blog Grace and Dirt because I longed for one and had too much of the other and I wanted to explore that interplay between the two. I have to admit that cultivating grace is still a challenge. No time more than in August, when I’m hot and weary.

Fortunately, everything goes relatively smoothly: we’re early enough on the road that there aren’t any traffic jams; we get and pay for parking, and buy our beach passes, although V refuses to put on his wristband. I tell the guy checking the gate that he has autism and won’t wear it so I’ll wear two and he says that’s fine. I wonder what people think of that explanation. What does that mean to someone unfamiliar with those on the spectrum? How can he possibly understand all the sensory issues and idiosyncrasies and how forcing the issue – V became visibly upset when I tried to put the tag around his wrist – can quickly wreck a good mood?

At 9:30 the beach is already crowded. V takes off his shoes but leaves his socks on and races down to the ocean, and I go running after him. Okay, he still likes the water. That’s great to see.
He doesn’t want to submerge himself completely but he jumps up and down and squeals with delight at the gentle waves on his legs and acts the same as he did years ago. He’s 21 but acts so much younger; but that’s the beauty of the beach: no one is judging or staring as often happens when we are out in public. It’s the least judgemental environment I know and so I am grateful and delighted. We’re just like everyone else in this big diverse world at the edge of the water. And there are so many different types of people, it’s not all wholesome families smiling in adorable bathing suits. There is a girl with one leg having just as much fun as her peers. There are women with so many tattoos it’s hard to see any skin. There are people who are buff and thin and overweight and all sizes in between. There’s no one wearing their underwear like in Brighton Beach – mostly older Russian people – I always liked seeing that. No matter how different you feel the shore takes that away. We’re all just people out enjoying the day, facing a sultry weekend the smartest way we can.

For a few hours we play in the water which is great, but then the other concern protrudes. What if he doesn’t want to leave? T and I say to each other. We have too many bad memories of having to forcibly pull him away when it’s time to go and that just won’t work now that he is grown.  Fortunately he runs back to our towels and says the magic words. French fries. Food is usually how we lure him away so we quickly pack our bags and go up to the boardwalk until we find Pucker, my favorite spot for fresh lemonade and the best fries – Belgian frites really – on the boardwalk. V happily devours them, there’s enough for all of us and the lemonade is refreshing. 

Then we get back in the car and leave before the afternoon rush. 

I feel elated on the way home. Success. We got to the beach. I’m no longer landlocked and a bit forlorn at being stuck home all the time, or taking the same walk over and over.  As always with the shore it’s as much work to prepare and then clean up afterwards: showers, and a bath for V and a load of laundry and snacks and no longer cold water to unload from the bags. I am a good packer after all these years.

It’s only 2 pm when we get home. Maybe we should have stayed longer but it didn’t seem worth the anxiety of waiting to see how he would do leaving or how bad the traffic would be. I find my old feelings slipping back in, back home when we are no longer anonymous beachcombers enjoying our day out.  By 3 pm, all cleaned up V is restless already. T offers to take him out for a walk around the lake – I’m feeling burnt out from all our walks in 90 degree weather. I’m grateful. I come upstairs to write, to try to untangle all my feelings, how I can plummet so quickly.

This is why I try to edit myself because I wish it would just start and end like this:

I want to go to the beach and to do something different with V. I prepare and pack and everything goes as planned. It’s fun. Success! The end. But the thing is, there is no end.  I appreciate the small victories and then have to face what comes next.  

I just finished watching the Bear, which has been a big summer hit (it’s on Hulu and I recommend it.) It’s about a fine dining chef who comes back to run his family’s sandwich shop in Chicago. It’s about going home, and it’s about working in restaurants. It’s also about anxiety. Unpaid bills and broken equipment and bad plumbing and missing ingredients and stress between co-workers – all called Chef – and grief. It’s got a lot of dark humor because how else would you get through all of that? There’s something oddly comforting about it, that shit happens and you deal with it.  The acting and writing is generally stellar and so well depicts knots in your stomach stress.  It’s very specific to and accurate about restaurant work but that level of anxiety is something a lot of people can relate to. I know I can.  It helps that it has food close-ups and a lead that is easy on the eyes. It helps that each episode is only about a half hour and then the anxiety is over. Until the next episode. 

And so with life.  There’s stress with doing anything different and yet the possibility for joy is there.  It’s worth trying new things.  We’ll probably stick to our familiar walks around the lake this weekend, but that’s okay too. There’s something to be said for the predictable routine, free of stress of the unknown and the need for hypervigilance. Still I’m pleased and relieved that we finally made it the beach on a hot summer’s day.

by foot: on not driving

Due to some really shitty town management two of the three public pools in our town – the affordable option for the middle class residents who still exist in this increasingly affluent community where I live – are closed for the entire summer, leaving one pool at the exact opposite end of town from my neighborhood. (The pool where I’ve been swimming laps for 15 years is right up the street.) That means taking the train a few stops uptown is the only option given that I can’t bike up the steep incline to the upper end of town. Why not just take the 20 minute drive up there? If I was driving yes that would make the most sense. But I’m not.

There, I said it. I’ve stopped driving. Please don’t judge, it was a long road to get here, filled with aggressive careless drivers who populate this state more than anyplace I’ve been, and I’ve been to Rome and Rio, I know from crazy driving. I never particularly liked driving, and in the stage of my life where I had young children in the car whose safety was my sole responsibility, all the less so. And driving a severely autistic kid who would occasionally have meltdowns en route could make a routine trip feel unbearable.

When we first moved here after twenty years of carless city living – I drove in upstate NY where I shared a country house for five years, but that was easy – I had great trepidations. I took a few lessons just to refresh myself. You drive fine, the instructor said dismissively after the first lesson, you just need confidence. He was right. I knew that I drove fine: I was careful and attentive and always safe, it was the other drivers who made me nervous. I was always worried about the other guy, who saw turn signals as optional and stop signs as a mere suggestion.

Early on I described our neighborhood as Brooklyn without the subway. But I didn’t realize what a major loss that would be. The subway, at any hour, in any neighborhood, there I felt at ease. Someone else was driving and all I had to do was know where i was going and how to interact with other people,  I’d rather be traveling from Harlem to Brooklyn at two am on New Year’s Eve than try to get out of the CVS parking lot on a weekday afternoon. I’ve witnessed three crashes in that single little lot! 

A few years into my driving life, after leaving the pediatrician I had someone tear through a red light and total our car, No one was hurt thankfully but it was still a terrifying experience. Still I drove because I had to, from school, to day camps, to the store, taking B to baseball practices and games and to friend’s houses. I was a seemingly typical suburban mom but with a high state of anxiety as soon as I hit the road. I was spared any further run-ins for some time, although I continued to witness crashes, including a few right outside our window, as cars sped through a stop sign in our residential neighborhood.

The last straw was two years ago when I was stuck in an intersection with three other cars all waiting for someone to make a left turn when a car smashed into me. When the police came the other woman actually said that I was speeding past her when I wasn’t even moving. He listened to both of us and then issued each of us reckless driving tickets! After more than a dozen years of suffering the most reckless drivers on earth I get issued that ticket? I challenged it and had to go into municipal court where I was told the citation would be expunged from my record if I’d just pay a $300 fee. The court was filled with residents in similar circumstances. I left that courthouse fed up.

Enough, I’m not driving anymore. I have a bike. I have feet. T actually likes driving and does all the family outings anyway. He takes me somewhere if needed or I use Uber occasionally but I try to walk as much as I can and once I fix my flat tire and get my bike tuned up I’ll have that option. And I like walking, which is good because for all its assets my neighborhood has low walkability, meaning nothing is a short walk away. So going to a store or the bank or the library or the train into the city each takes about a half hour each way, which means I’m in good shape.  And I’m way less stressed not being behind a steering wheel. 

I wish I liked driving, it’s so American to be out on the open road. I’m in awe of people who find it a pleasure rather than a terrible burden to have to be in the driver’s seat. I suppose they’re a majority.And there are all these cool cars now. My dream vehicle is an electric Volvo…as long as someone else is driving.

If there were an emergency and I had to drive I could. I know how, like riding a bike you don’t forget. I’ve been researching places to move where you can easily get by without a car. They do exist and I think I’d be better suited in a small city than a big town. For now I’m walking as much as I can, and taking the train to the pool.