More Than Treading Water

200258039If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you might remember a piece or two about my being a lap-swimmer. My swimming “career” did not have an easy start: “Woof woof,” my fellow summer-campers would tease as they were mastering freestyle and I was still doing the doggy-paddle. So the spring I was 9, anticipating another humiliating year at camp, I walked to the JCC on Raritan Avenue, back when kids could walk places alone, ambled up to the front desk, unfolded a 5-dollar bill and boldly asked if someone could give me private swim lessons for a few weeks. I didn’t want to ask my parents because I’d already talked them into piano lessons and budget-conscious even then was sensitive to asking for more financial favors. As it turned out, I got free lessons for two months: an hour after school every Tuesday and Thursday from one of the lifeguards, who’d been my camp counselor and took pity on me.

My swimming life had begun: first competing and then swimming for exercise. I prided myself as I passed more and more milestone birthdays that I could still swim a lap in under a minute, that I often swam faster than women 10 then 20 years younger could. Eventually, though, Nature enforced a reduced speed limit and that mile started taking longer and longer until last winter, when my life as a “lapper” came to a screeching halt. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.)

In the slow motion of my fall down our front steps on a black-ice morning, I saw my legs come up to eye level and my hand go to grab the handrail. And I did grab it, while also tearing my rotater cuff. The injury wasn’t bad enough to warrant surgery; injections were suggested, but I couldn’t reconcile how a shot could help a tear. Instead, I would wait for it to heal and choose new activities. I tried Zumba®, which I loved until I came down wrong and not only felt but heard my knee pop, injuring my lateral meniscus, which did heal after several weeks. And while it was healing, I attempted the elliptical trainer, but was bored out of my mind. Chlorine runs through my veins; I wanted back in the pool.

But my shoulder still hurt.

During all those back-and-forth years, I’d been watching them from beneath the surface: the women – and a few men – wearing light-blue flotation belts, bobbing around on their marionette legs in an aqua aerobics class. I told myself, That will never be me. I will always be a swimmer. But now I was crying uncle. My ego said, Are you kidding? But my body, craving the water, won.

Still the competitor, I joined an advanced class in the fall and chose to do the workout without a belt. But with a limited range of motion in my arm, while the rest of the class was doing upper-body strengthening with hand-weights, I treaded.

Well, it was more than just treading; I started deep-water jogging. It felt so good that I started showing up at the pool on non-class days and asking lap-swimmers, many of whom knew me, if I could hang out in the deep end and “do my thing,” working up from 20 to 45 then 60 minutes, huffing and puffing away, keeping my chin above the surface – with two or three 30-second rests and a sip from my water bottle left within reach on the deck. Ladies in the locker room, recognizing me now as “the pool jogger,” asked if they could join me. So today, the Y generously allows us a lane of our own from 10 to 11 am every Friday.

Fact: I am not as young as I used to be. Fact: Before my injury, I could not swim as fast I used to. Fact: I may never be able to swim a distance doing freestyle again. But here are my new facts of life: I am in better shape than I might be otherwise; I am still active, even though this is not my activity of choice. Best of all, I am still in the pool. That 9-year-old worked hard to become a swimmer, and this sunny-side-of-60-year-old honors her.

I know with certainty there will come a time when I can no longer do this. When that day comes, I’ll snap on the light-blue flotation belt and the lap swimmers can watch, from their sub-surface vantage point, my little marionette legs dancing away. And after that, maybe water yoga.

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Scream Therapy

I love my husband. I promised him, always, that before I voiced any complaints, I would start by saying, “I love you,” slowly and meaningfully. And then (usually with a smile), “Do you think you could get the socks into the hamper instead of near it?” Or “Remember, hot water cuts grease.” And here’s one for the approaching winter season: “Didn’t the chimney guy say to keep the woodstove on “start” for only a minute or so? Leaving it on too long will break the bricks.” BTW: We need to replace all the bricks on the floor of the stove this year.

So you can see that I have a thing about how the house is kept. That’s the backstory to one particular, recent night.

I had a presentation to which I arrived late because I got stuck in construction traffic that crawled its way to a light. Twenty-five minutes and I was finally first at the intersection. Turn, turn, c’mon… And then the evil flashing railroad signals started blinking and the petulant gates came down in front of me. It was, of course, a freight train, with car after car after car rolling by for almost 11 minutes. (Not ten; not 12. I watched the clock.) Add that to it being a cloudy day when Penelope, my GPS, decided to take some personal time on my return trip via an alternate route I’d punched in to avoid the construction and tracks. When I finally got home, two and a half hours later, I found my husband had settled into a movie night, leaving crusty plates and sticky pots all over the dining room and kitchen, while in the background ran the soundtrack of an unidentified film and two mewling cats that hadn’t been fed.

I am acutely aware of how my body wears frustration.

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It starts in my jaw joints and back of neck, which, I guess, is why I often get tension headaches. Next, I bite and/or wet my lips, which is first followed by pinching my now- bitten or -wet lips between my left forefinger and thumb, and then by a deep exhale. And for the finale, I…tell people that I love them and what I want, which is probably healthy, but what I really want to do is give them, as my mother used to say, “a what-to and where-for,” a/k/a “a verbal thrashing.”

This is why I am drawn to what will happen on October 12, at 1200 hours GMT to celebrate International Moment of Frustration Scream Day. This is when everyone around the world is encouraged to go outdoors and scream for about 30 seconds.

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Yep, get it all out. Let it loose. Now, I have pretty good lung capacity, so I could probably do a single; however, I’m certain a stream of screams is okay too. Having said that, 1200 GMT is 8am EDT. So careful of any noise ordinances that may exist in your town. Better yet, invite your neighbors to join. This day is, after all, for everyone.

Life by the Book

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The sky was a little gray when I set out on my very first by-myself walk to the center of town. There would be streets to cross, and I’d practiced long how to look both ways. My memory insists this was the summer before I turned 8, and in those days, in a small town, 8 was plenty old enough to make this maiden “voyage”. My destination was the new bookstore, and I wanted to read “Charlotte’s Web.” How grown up I felt, handing the clerk the $5 bill Mom had given me, and getting change. This was, obviously, a long time ago.

It was only a few minutes into my return trip that the darkening clouds lived up to their threat. Lightning fractured the sky and thunder rumbled. I slipped the book under my shirt and ran, jumping over rivulets and puddles, and rounding the last corner to see Mom on the top porch step, waiting.

But instead of going inside to dry off, I plopped into one of our wicker chairs, pulling my knees to my chest, and broke open the spine of my brand-new book against my bent legs. I remember the first scene, with Papa getting the ax because he needed to take care of the runt born the night before. I remember the sound of the rain pelting the porch roof, and the belief that little Wilbur would be protected.

When I’m not working as an educator here at A Woman’s Place (AWP), I publish nonfiction. But for pleasure, I read fiction only. Because pretty much always, fiction ends happily. And if you were to check out my profile on the online book club Goodreads, you will see I prefer books about women (probably because I am one), but specifically about women who, despite odds or obstacles, come to live a flourishing life.

Here, in the AWP Education and Training department, we are all avid readers, so I polled my coworkers, Christina Baer, Christine Ferrante, and Liesbeth Bisschops, about their favorite strong-women books. Together, we’ve compiled, in no particular order, this list of our favorite female-centric fiction (or nearly fiction) titles from the last decade: “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain; “Fortune’s Rock,” by Anita Shreve; “Ahab’s Wife – or, the Star Gazer,” by Sena Jeter Naslund; “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini; “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” by Lisa See; “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant; “The Tea Rose,” by Jennifer Donnelly; “Room,” by Emma Donoghue; “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins; “The Time In Between,” by Maria Dueñas; and “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. (Did you catch the two “Wife” and “Secret” titles? Mmmmm.)

When I think about my own history of loving books, it begins on a rainy day on a porch in a safe and loving home. According to our Mission Statement, A Woman’s Place envisions a society where all individuals are safe in their relationships and can flourish. Safe physically and emotionally. Sadly, there are too many women, men, children who are not flourishing because they are not safe. We always make sure to acknowledge callers to our hotline as being strong, courageous in taking that first step in taking back their lives. And what keeps us doing what we’re doing is holding onto the belief they will come to be protected, hoping that in real life, their stories end happily.

The Movement That Was Home-Made

Home during my freshman year in college, my mother called to me from the guest bathroom I was using. “What?” I said, as I rounded the corner and saw her holding my plastic dial-a-day pill dispenser.

“You’re on birth control?” What followed was not what I would have expected. Instead of Who is he? Why haven’t we met him? Are you in love? she laid her palm against my cheek, and said: “Carla, while I love you and your brothers, I would have been just as happy had I not had children. Don’t get pregnant.”

I was marginally hurt – but not shocked. My mother had been accelerated through high school to help fill the needs of the workforce while the men were fighting in Europe or the South Pacific. Instead, she married her boyfriend and gave birth to my brother Keith. Unforeseen was that Keith’s father would not go off to war because of the illness he succumbed to rather quickly. At the age of 21, married now to a returning soldier, Mom became Mom to my brother Sam. And eight years later, I came along.

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I look at faded photos of my mother standing with us outside our Veterans Administration home. And it looks just like the photos of other post-war moms I saw while watching “Women Who Make America,” on PBS last week. Moms who may or may not have had higher educations, but who still felt that raising the seemingly obligatory three children was not fulfilling enough. Moms who read “The Feminine Mystique,” who lauded Shirley Chisolm over meatloaf dinners, who bought copies of “Our Body, Ourselves.” Mom borrowed mine. Mmmm. I wonder if she ever did the hand-held mirror “exploration.” And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. ☺

Anyway, about a year after Mom found my birth-control pills, she started going to township meetings, won a council seat several times before becoming the first woman mayor of our rather large industrial municipality, and sat on a New Jersey state planning commission. At 84, she still consults on local politics and waits in line at weekly meetings to say something prickly to the administration she does not support.

While it may not have been the most eloquent way to voice her personal frustration and fear that I would not achieve my goals, I knew what Mom meant about not having children, having experienced the limitations of her generation. She got a late start, but she got started. And while other moms may have kept on keeping on with the times, as was socially accepted and expected, each was still a member of that sisterhood of unrest that launched the Movement. So to celebrate International Woman’s Day, which honors the advancement of women around the world (more at http://internationalwomensday.com), let’s first honor the women at home, the Moms Who Made America.

The Tao of Meow

To turn a repeated phrase from the Old Testament, “And these are the generations of”…my cats: Ming I, Taffy, Ming II, Zoe and Maxine Von Kitty, Mama, Chuck, Bud and Lou, Sam and Dave Silverman, Harry, and Eve and Calpurnia. Some of them ran the house on their own, others – and you can tell by the placement of my commas, in pairs. “What is it about cats? my dog friends would press. “They don’t really do anything but eat and sleep.”

I was always a cat ONLY girl, until I rescued Jack, a rather troubled Maltese, who came to live with me and my former husband during the Sam and Dave years. I watched the cats first hiss and scurry away from Jack before moving on to regard him from shelves on high. We doted on Jack, ‘cause, frankly, he was gosh-darn cute. He knew all his toys by name and would retrieve them on command. We oohed and ahhed and clapped. We made our friends suffer through his little performances, after which he always received a treat. All the while, the cats looked on, wearing an expression that seemed to say, Really, little dog… Where’s your dignity?

Sam and Dave have long since crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Today, Jack, who’s 14, lives with his daddy, who texts me snapshots – the most recent of Jack in his little blue Hanukkah sweater. I digress. Anyway, my now-husband and I share our home with the “fur girls,” Eve and Calpurnia, cats who will come when we call if they aren’t otherwise engaged, like napping or nibbling. While most dog people will toss this lackadaisy up to selfishness or, worse, simplemindedness, I maintain that cats hold themselves to a higher moral standard. If it doesn’t feel right or isn’t part of their nature, they won’t do it. They are true to their true cat selves. They have…integrity. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of integrity is adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility. Cats are models for living because they choose not to compromise their core kitty values for an ooh or an ahh.

By the way, integrity is one of the core values that guide the work my colleagues and I do at A Woman’s Place and is the real topic of this blog. I googled the word and found a Goodreads collection of quotes about living in this state of honesty and authenticity. Click on http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/integrity for some laughs and lots of human models for living. And be sure not to rush through them or you’ll miss the gem from Eckhart Tolle in his groundbreaking “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment”: I have lived with several Zen masters–all of them cats.

cats and fire

Sustainable Giving, A Woman’s Place blog, 12/9/12

Every year, around this time, Grandma Jeanette and Grandpa Izzy would park their Lincoln Continental in our driveway, and climb the steps of our house with a big bag, which they parked in the corner of our living room. My parents, brothers and I would light the first Hanukkah candles and sing the blessings. We’d eat latkes (fried potato pancakes), and after we finished our meal with sufganiot (fried jelly-filled donuts), Grandma and Grandpa would reach into the bag and start handing out small packages wrapped in white tissue paper tied up with blue ribbon. One gift each. Because our grandparents made the hour trip on the first night only, my parents parceled out the presents – one gift each – each night the rest of the week. But as we tore off the sheer wrapping, we were counting the days till that other holiday. Because across the room was our blinking 6 ½-foot-tall fir, dressed in all kinds of ornaments and bordering on ungapatchka – that’s Yiddish for over-decorating.

I am the daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. As is tradition, I was raised Jewish, but just as Dad shared in our observances, we always had a tree, under which, on Christmas morning, were piles of big boxes wearing gloss and glimmer.

While I would be lying to say I don’t enjoy receiving really big presents, I’ve come to realize that the most sustainable gifts of my life have been opened over the course of time: falling more deeply in love, watching children grow up. And we can give simple, small “tissue-paper” gifts, whether it’s donating clothes and food, answering a hotline, giving a much-needed hug. These gifts cost as much as you want to spend in time and energy. The weekend before this writing, my family spent a day in Far Rockaway, cleaning out homes and serving dinner. One day. A few trays of pasta. Not a big deal. Add that to the 20 others with us, and the 20 who’d come in the days before…and in the days after….

If you’re reading this, you’re already committed to AWP and likely familiar with our Equality Value that states in order for us to have a balanced society, we must work together. However, if you’re thinking about expanding your collaborative efforts, check out http://www.volunteermatch.org to find other short- or long-term volunteering opportunities in your community that call to you. Big presents may make us jump for joy, but it’s the small gifts that bring joy to the world.

A Thousand Words

By now, we Facebookers are all immigrants, having arrived (willingly or not) in the “New World” of the Timeline, a chronological record of our postings. I applaud the format because ironically as we zoom along the Information Superhighway, we are losing information when it comes to personal histories. Gone are the days of coffee-table photo albums. Most of us upload images to our hard drives then go our merry ways. This column is not about Facebook; it is about immigrants and legacy-keeping.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were knee-deep in his family memorabilia as we prepared an homage to his brother, who left us after a long illness. I was stunned at how each generation had organized records, and dated and identified pictures. His family has been in Bucks so long, there are streets named for them; whereas 70 years ago, the guy with the goofy mustache obliterated my family lines as well as any records that ever existed. Packing photos, let alone labeling them, was not a priority for those who’d made the crossing with little more than sack of clothes and a passport.

My Grandma Jeanette is the little one on the left.

Before my father died, he’d scribbled a few town names that had something to do with his Hungarian roots. This was my starting gun to a full family investigation, and next we videotaped our aged maternal grandmother, Jeanette, speaking about her Austrian background. I was in documentarian heaven – until my mother, upon reviewing the tape, shook her head about a hundred times, saying, “That’s not right.” Even armed with some facts from both sides, family names changed, as did the spellings of European towns, shifting from one country to another over decades of wartimes. I gave up hopes of a productive online search before even starting.

But now, fueled by my husband’s encyclopedic family past, within hours of my genealogic “media blitz,” I was communicating with a man who in addition to our shared ancestral surname, had a WAY amazing common connection to Emperor Franz Joseph, and possessed a photo portrait, from that era, of a well-medaled soldier taken at the same studio as a picture of a decorated soldier I found among my grandmother’s things. We haven’t emailed the images yet, both of us holding on to the romantic notion that in this fractured puzzle of our heritage, we two small pieces fit.

Who in the world is this?

So as you’re electronically storing your history for posterity – perhaps on a specialized software program – consider “Planet of the Apes” a cautionary tale. Walking on the beach someday in the distant future, a descendant of yours may come upon a Mac jutting out of the sand. Write it down, print it out– and pass it down.