Not for Sissies

So the last six months in particular, I have had a few odd breakouts of ailments including two bouts of bacterial infection in my sinuses. Don’t worry, this won’t be a list of what’s wrong with me; I am fundamentally pretty healthy.

I am not used to getting sick and I am not used to be knocked out and fatigued when I am sick. I am an energetic, active person and this is alien to me. Yes, I know, it has only been a week, but really.

Nobody really tells you or describes to you the specific and detailed changes that happen to you as your body ages. Maybe that is for the best. Maybe if we knew in advance, we would live in terror or perhaps take the easy way out. I don’t know.

It starts in such a subtle way, little things you don’t really notice at first. Then the changes start to cumulate. Some bother me more than others. It bothers me that my skin is no longer smooth and beautiful; my arms and legs look as my grandmother’s did. My neck which is long and was beautiful is now pouchy and inescapably old. All the sun damage from long ago is visible. Arthritis has snuck in a bit to various parts of my body. It doesn’t hold me back but it does mean I don’t spring out of bed in the morning, I stretch and give myself a minute.

On my bad days, I completely understand people’s compulsion to “correct” surgically the signs of aging; the things they don’t like about themselves. I sometimes think there are just a few small things…

The funny thing is, I loved my Grandmother more than almost anyone and her skin being crinkly didn’t bother me one little bit. And when I look at my face on a good day, at the lines on it, I think I have earned them -laughing and crying. When I am able to be kind to myself I think I have used this body hard and long and by some miracle it serves me still and mostly pretty well.

I'm glad I didn't know that growing old was not for sissies. I am also glad to know that I am not a sissy. I am working at aging as gracefully as I possibly can because I am keenly aware that it is so much more wonderful than theā€¦ Click To Tweet

I’m glad I didn’t know that growing old was not for sissies. I am also glad to know that I am not a I’m glad I didn’t know that growing old was not for sissies. I am also glad to know that I am not a sissy. I am working at aging as gracefully as I possibly can because I am keenly aware that it is so much more wonderful than the alternative. I am not done yet. sissy. I am working at aging as gracefully as I possibly can because I am keenly aware that it is so much more wonderful than the alternative. I am not done yet.

Listen to the River

“Mama, Mama many worlds I’ve known since I first left home.” I was, as I often do, listening to the Grateful Dead in my car. And hearing those words sent me reeling through my past. I have heard these words a thousand times but for some reason, they had particular resonance this day.

"Mama, Mama many worlds I've known since I first left home." I was, as I often do, listening to the Grateful Dead in my car. Click To Tweet

And I have had one amazing long strange trip, to quote another song; and many worlds. It is hard to write about memory and about past life without lingering at the regrets. They are easier to stop on than the joys but with an effort, I remind myself to stop on those too.

I left home for college at the age of sixteen, it was 1969 and peace, love and protest were in the air. Along with weed, pills and mushrooms. I lived on a barely finished campus on Long Island but mostly with an artist and his entourage. His portrait of me at that age still hangs in my bedroom, a lovely reminder of the good.

I left college before I turned eighteen and traveled the country working, singing, hitchhiking, going to Dead and Jefferson Airplane concerts. From the age of sixteen until who knows when I had the wonderful fortune to see so many of my icons and my heroes, in concert in mostly small venues. Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Pete Seeger, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Etta James and so many more. The music has always been the thing for me. I feel most myself in music and closest to G-d in music.

I have lived and worked and sung in California, Arizona, Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico. I may have forgotten a few. And I take many memories from them all, music, food, local idiom. I have sung jazz, gospel, country, country rock, folk and now Americana (that’s what they call old hippie folk/rock these days) and traditional and original Jewish liturgical music. What a road.

I have had multiple careers. I have never been a moneymaker but I have been able to support my family. And I have had the great joy of doing both good in the world and the things I love. Of course, there were a few jobs along the way that weren’t so interesting.

I have been harassed and abused. I have been loved and amused. I have loved and I have been disappointed. I am a mother, the greatest joy of my life; and that came from doing good. I am in an entirely new and alien phase of life so there will be more to talk about.

There is so much to tell but these are my thoughts for today. Many worlds I have indeed known, and there are more to travel through.

BEING THERE

My shoes are grey with the ashes of the dead

it rains as we leave Auschwitz-Birkenau

A reflection of how I feel.

The hems of my trousers are splattered

with the mud of the bones, a sacrilege to wash.

The old folks always said don’t buy a Mercedes

now I feel why.

Every step is to walk not only over a grave, but

to walk the last meters that numberless thousands walked;

to view the last view they saw before they became ashes.

These roads are filled with the spirits of the unnumbered,

unnamed, uncounted, unknown.

Oh! Those Germans were meticulous record keepers

except in their haste to rid the world they neglected to count

and record…

more than we will ever know, rushed to the gas chamber

At the moment of arriving if they still lived.

The pollen falls like ashes as we stand

in the crematorium at Dachau

breaking my heart in ways for which I have no words.

Standing in these places of unimaginable horror

I can only touch the walls with the palm of my hand

and whisper”we remember” “we will not forget”.

I feel your spirits.

We can only remember, honor, teach;

somehow know what cannot be known.

My brain is full of history,

my eyes cannot hold any more horror.

With reverence and tears I spoke the Kaddish

in these holiest of places

and remembered…all the genocide, not just of these

but of our human history…ongoing still.

What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom

Magnificent Beasts

Elephants are amazing. But you knew that. I travelled to Thailand blissfully unaware of what, exactly, I was in for. After a night in Bangkok we loaded up and flew to the wonderful city of Chiangmai. And after a night in Chiangmai we loaded into four by fours and headed into the hills.

Using their trained keyword "bun bun" to have them raise their trunks – those elephants love bananas. Click To Tweet

We lined up outside the fence around the enclosure and the elephants came to us, obviously anticipating what they knew came next. Huge bunches of small local bananas were placed on the ground and we were shown how to give them to the elephants. And we proceeded to do just that, using their trained key word “bun bun” to have them raise their trunks. Those elephants love bananas.

We arrived at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary #9 and loaded our stuff into a bunkhouse that would be our home for the next four days. Those were some hard bunks, just a mat and a throw. But that is of no matter. We were given a little orientation and went to meet the elephants.

For the next days we would come to know the elephant’s habits, their families, their names. We would bathe with them, in water and in mud, we would help to do vet checks on them and learn about their health, we would walk with them in the jungle as they walked free. We were told about the history of the elephants in Thailand, their uses and abuses, and of all the efforts the project was making to rescue them, to make their lives healthy, happy and safe.

For the next days we would come to know the elephants' habits, their families, their names. Click To Tweet

We also learned about the lives of the mahout, the “handlers” that literally live and work with the elephants on a daily basis, and the efforts being made to improve their wages and living conditions. We worked to build dams in a small river, creating larger pools for the elephants to cool in during the hot dry season when the water was low.

I loved being close to them but I also found them very intimidating. ! When we were in the jungle with them, the guides told us it was their time, not ours and to just let them do what they wanted, to walk or not and where to walk. It was wonderful that there was so much respect for the needs of the animals and that the people came second, put their needs second. There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals and doing something to help. It is hard to articulate why this felt so good and so important, but it did; something to learn from.

There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals… Click To Tweet

Some in our group were totally fearless and walked amid them as casually as can be imagined. As much as I loved being with them, watching them, learning about them, I’m sorry to say that wasn’t me.