Ah yes. Finally. It’s here. Spring. How good it feels to open windows and release stale air, toss worn out scarves and random items found in the backs of drawers. Spring brings with it a rejuvenation and every year there’s no better feeling.
Last week I was on Cape Cod. I woke early to birds singing and the sun streaming through the blinds in my old bedroom. Temps hovered around 50. Outside the air was crisp, but not too cold. In the backyard shed, I removed all eight deck chairs, still stacked as neatly as I’d left them last fall. Pounding off the stale air and dirt from a long winter’s hibernation felt good, the action filled with the promise of a new season ahead. Once the chairs were back around the glass porch table, I pictured family and friends, the aroma from the grill, and the sound of laughter. As much as I have become a New Yorker, the Cape Codder in me remains strong. My license plate may beg to differ, but my car knows where her home is.
That afternoon I headed to Orleans for the first of two talks, having been invited to speak about my grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust on what was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The first was to 200 eighth graders at Nauset Middle School, the second that evening to another large crowd from the Nauset Interfaith Association. During each talk it occurred to me how fitting that the war had ended during springtime.
“Survivors were, yes, happy to be free,” I said to both audiences. “But happy may not be the right word. Maybe relieved is more accurate. Yet that relief was quickly replaced with the harsh reality that for many, they were the only one in their family to have survived. For them, the spring of 1945 was, quite literally, a rebirth, a time to start again.”
Why is it easier to focus on the negative rather than the positive? For New Yorkers, it’s par for the course, but plenty of others see the glass half-empty. Is it possible to switch our outlook? My vote is yes.
Take for example when you diet. Your first instinct is to focus on what you can’t eat. Ice Cream! Cookies! Pizza! The trick is to focus on foods you can eat. My sister Meredith and I are now trying the Whole30 Program where you cut out carbs, dairy and sugar for 30 days. It’s not a diet, but a “nutritional reset, designed to…end unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.” For 30 days I can do anything. That’s not to say it isn’t going to be hard.
On Day One all I could think about was bread. It felt like everyone on the street was eating a gigantic bagel. So I changed my focus to what I could eat. Mangos! Salmon! Almond butter/banana/flax/raisin/coconut snacks! Oh boy.
It’s like when I moved into the 90 square foot apartment. At first I thought, “I can’t sit up in bed!” “I can’t make scrambled eggs!” Then I realized I could complain or look at what I could do, such as walk outside and be in Central Park or get delicious sushi across the street. There was a learning curve, but in no time I came to love that apartment which is why I stayed almost 5 years.
It takes effort to stick to any challenge, but already the benefits are showing. Aside from trying new foods, I can feel my willpower getting stronger, which will help with my next challenge, whatever that is. Plus, I am already beginning to see the glass half full, even if that glass is filled with water and not a hot chai latte with skim milk.
I recently watched the pilot of new television show called Younger. It’s about a woman in her forties who wants to go back to work after taking time off to raise her daughter, but is unable to land a job since now she’s “old.” When a man in his twenties mistakes her for being his age and tries to pick her up in a bar, her friend has an idea: give her a makeover. As part of the “makeover” sequence to turn her into a believable 20-something, they change her hair, her clothes and even her email address from AOL to GMAIL. That’s when I laughed out loud.
Many times my younger sister (12 years younger, thank you very much!) has given me grief for still using AOL. Now before you toss me into the same category as those who still use flip phones and Blackberries, let me explain. I do have a GMail account, but only use it occasionally because it’s cumbersome and time consuming. There’s too much text everywhere and it’s hard to quickly spot the “reply” and “forward” buttons, let alone search for a past email. The nature of email itself is already a “time suck,” I don’t have more time to waste figuring out how to use it. As a professional organizer whose goal is to always save time, Gmail simply doesn’t help me with that. But AOL does. It’s neat and it’s superior in the organization of its layout.
Now the brains behind Google are way above average, but they lack good old fashioned organizing skills. If anyone out there reading this happens to be in charge of the Gmail layout, drop me an email, I would be happy to offer my services. But please, make sure to use my AOL address so it doesn’t get lost.
“When are you coming back?” he asked. I laughed, the laundry from my trip still in the hamper.
Life is getting harder for Papa. Nearing 94, his body is wearing down while his daily pill count is going up, resembling a bag of Skittles. His mind is still sharp, though the edges have softened. Like many elderly, his days are the same, mirror images of the one before. One burden of growing older is feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to, so it’s no surprise many elderly take anti-depressants.
During this last visit, on a whim I placed a piece of white paper and black marker in front of Papa. Then I put a glass vase filled with roses on the table. “Draw this,” I told him.
“What do I know from drawing?” he said. The only thing my grandfather ever drew was a list of which customers at his grocery store owed him money.
“Just try,” I said. He lifted the marker; his arthritic knuckles gripping it gently. Then he rested his head in his left hand and drew. I wasn’t expecting Picasso. I wasn’t expecting anything more than what the exercise might give him. Papa finally put down the marker. It wasn’t Picasso. It was better. Because for those few minutes he forgot about the aches and pains, about his time coming to an end and the horrible memories still struggling for space inside his head.
“Excellent!” I told him, and stuck it to the fridge. The next day he drew a white porcelain figurine of a rooster. Before I left I told him to keep drawing. And he has. Daily pictures and videos are sent to me of the artist in residence. Although Papa draws with his head heavy in his hand, while he creates he forgets about everything else. He now has a new focus.
Having a project can often help us get through whatever struggles we may face, no matter if we’re 19 or 93.
My grandfather has been feeding me since I was a baby. There are pictures of him spoon-feeding me oatmeal, though most of the oatmeal is on my face.
At age eight, on visits to Papa in Brooklyn, I began working at his grocery store and lunch breaks were the highlight. Standing behind the enormous deli counter, Papa made me a (“Don’t tell Nana!”) ham sandwich. Delish.
As I grew older, during visits to Papa and Nana, meals were a major focus. At some point, when Nana wasn’t looking, Papa snuck food from his plate onto mine, claiming he was full. I, being the good granddaughter, ate it. In the last few years Papa’s appetite has diminished even more. At 93, every basic human function brings discomfort, swallowing among them.
During this week’s visit down in Florida, on my first morning, when the aid walked out of the kitchen, Papa’s hand darted out. Suddenly there was half a hard-boiled egg on my plate. First of all, who knew his reflexes could still move that fast? Second, as per my usual routine, I ate it. When the aid returned and saw his empty plate she said, “Good job Murray.” Papa and I shared a knowing smile.
But as the days passed, I learned it was dangerous for Papa’s health if he didn’t get enough protein. The aid and my uncle Mark (often sounding like they’re scolding a stubborn boy who won’t clear his plate) are forceful, because as a diabetic Papa needs the nutrition.
On my last morning, the same situation presented itself. The aid left the kitchen and out shot Papa’s arm. Yes, I want to make my grandfather’s life easier, but eating his food would only make things harder. I put the food back on his plate. “You need the protein,” I said. The look he gave me tore through my heart. After 40 years I had turned on him.
There’s something ironic when a Holocaust survivor refuses to eat. Often when an elderly person doesn’t want to eat, it means they don’t want to live. But as a survivor Papa doesn’t know how not to survive. Every day, through aches and pains, he’s still surviving. It’s all he knows. When I put the egg back on his plate, he sighed in defeat. He had no choice. He ate it.
With the extreme cold, doing errands in the city on foot requires more than just a To Do list; it requires that list to be numbered in the right order so it saves you from getting frostbite. This made a friend of mine ask, “When did you get to be so well-organized?” I thought it over for all of one second.
I was eleven. That’s when I got a paper route. Taking it over from an older boy, he warned me I had big shoes to fill, “Cause you know, you’re a girl.” But I had a bike, a metal rack on the back, and determination.
After school and weekend mornings, I plunked a stack of Cape Cod Times newspapers into my bike rack and pedaled off, following the route the boy had shown me. After a few weeks I wondered if there was a more efficient course, since I wanted to watch General Hospital at my friend Leslie’s house.
So I drew a map of the route and numbered the homes in the order I thought quickest. By delivering to all the homes on the right side of the street first and then those on the left on the way back (instead of running back and forth across the street as the “genius” before me had done) shaved off minutes.
Mind you, this was in the days before newspapers were tossed onto driveways. I actually had to place the newspaper inside the screen door. So I took note of any houses that had tricky doors, steps, ferocious dogs, etc. to calculate extra time. And when all 30 homes had their newspapers, I’d pedal off like a bat out of hell to Leslie’s in hopes of getting there before Luke and Laura shared their first kiss.
A year later I handed the paper route over to a friend, along with my bike rack and, by this time, the crumpled map. I was in Middle School and had moved on to more important undertakings like basketball and softball. I was also done with Luke and Laura. Looking back, I appreciate the efficiency I mastered, a skill I still use daily, and not just with errands. But more than that, I appreciate the rapid pedaling, as those leg muscles have held up just as long as the lessons.
Shadow or no shadow, I’ve got my eye on the prize: Spring. March 20, the first day according to my trusted At-A-Glance calendar. Whether there are still piles of snow on street corners or I’m still sporting a fleece-lined hat and mittens, somehow, just the mere thought of flowers soon abloomin’ sends a warmth right through me.
We are now four weeks past the New Year. How are your resolutions going? Still hitting the gym? Still forgoing a second helping at dinner? Still writing away on that novel? I hear ya. It’s not easy. Especially when the temperature is plummeting, snow is falling and all you’d really like to do is put on comfy sweats, read a good book (okay, watch The Americans) and snack. Like I said, I hear ya.
That’s why I’m not so concerned when New Year’s Resolutions have a way of slipping through my fingers. I joke and call winter “Fat Season.” Not really because of any extra pounds, but because it’s hard to get motivated to do anything when your toes are numb.
Which is why I love Groundhog Day. Aside from watching grown men in top hats tempt fate (and a bit off finger) by looking to a rodent to predict the weather, it’s a reminder that we’re almost there. Just six more weeks. And six is only one more than all the fingers on one hand. Somehow knowing that spring is around the corner perks me up, because for me, spring is not just a noun it’s a verb. Hearing that spring is coming actually puts a spring in my step. It encourages me to hit the gym in preparation for outdoor 30-mile bicycle rides. It pushes me to make plans with friends after weeks of winter hibernation, and it reinvigorates me to keep chugging along writing a new book. I bet Mother Nature feels the same way. Maybe she spends a week or two in Florida around the holidays, but now begins her busy season. Moving her production crew underground, she must prepare to get those leaves on the trees and flowers out of the ground on time.
But alas, it is still winter and we still have six more weeks of it. So until then, bundle up and smile because you know what? It’s almost spring.
The line was long, endless. I stood, overheating in multiple layers, nudging my basket ahead with my foot, inching closer to the cashiers. A slight frenzy was in the air (okay, maybe not so slight) just minutes after Trader Joe’s opened its doors at 8 a.m.
It was Monday morning, a.k.a. Blizzard Blitzkrieg. The masses were out in force, determined to stock up for fear of being stuck at home hungry for… a day. Meteorologists had predicted this to be “historic,” but New Yorkers should know better. Snow is cleaned up as fast as confetti after New Year’s Eve in Times Square. So why were we all there?
I went for the experience. I had planned ahead, bought my quinoa and almond milk the day before. (After totaling my car in a 1995 snowstorm, I’ve become a weather junkie). I didn’t need the extra bottles of seltzer or the unsalted roasted sesame seeds, I would have fared fine without them. As did my fellow shoppers whose baskets were filled with ingredients for kale smoothies, as if one day off our daily routine would set us back.
But isn’t that the beauty of a snow day? To get out of our routines? To stay in pajamas, shuffling around in our slippers, reading in comfy chairs and binging on a few episodes of [fill in the blank] from the couch?
For those of us in cities, life gets back to normal fairly quickly after a storm, as though the calm during it never happened. Which is ironic as the calm is what we usually crave. Mornings to sleep in, quiet days to reflect. Yet when we get those moments, like we did yesterday, did we enjoy them or after a few hours, were we itching to return to the daily grind?
Sure I was disappointed the Blizzard of 2015 wasn’t as remarkable as predicted, but the buzz was exciting. Ever since Hurricane Sandy no one wants to be caught stuck in the dark without snacks. So we overindulge. We buy fish nuggets and Ecuadorian dark chocolate because we get swept up in the flurry. (Forget that we’ve never purchased them before). Yet the craziest thing of all is that with the Super Bowl just days away, the entire scene will most likely be replayed all over again.
Last weekend I attended the surprise birthday party of a childhood friend. Eighteen women around a large table in a private back room of a downtown restaurant, the noise level high, the atmosphere charged. The only one I knew at the dinner was the guest of honor; the 16 others a blur of blowouts and lipsticked smiles.
As we waited for the birthday girl’s arrival, I chatted with others, exchanging answers to “How do you know Eden?” Many went to college with her, the rest fellow Soccer Moms. I was the only from way, way back. Like third grade.
My Nana Banana used to save things, her kitchen stocked with items dating back to something she received as a wedding present. I loved those old-fashioned garlic presses and juice extractors, the silver tarnished, the style obviously pre-Bed Bath and Beyond. Our family joked about Nana’s affinity for holding onto things forever. Unlike Nana Banana, I am not a saver of stuff. But I am of other things.
Eden and I became friends 37 years ago. Although our lives have taken different paths and we rarely see each other, communicating once or so a year via email or text, there remains a bond, a shared collection of adolescent memories that shaped who we have become and, at least for me, brings comfort in my daily life. A happy childhood is the foundation for a happy adulthood.
During the party, everyone took turns telling their unique story of when they met Eden and their favorite shared memory. For anyone having to reach back almost 4 decades, they might have trouble coming up with one memory. For me, I had trouble choosing one. Those memories, of which there are many, feel like yesterday. Maybe that’s why I feel like a kid at heart. The “kid” hasn’t left. I hope she never does.
“I need a push,” Maryann told me. “To help get rid of clothes and other stuff because I have to move in three weeks.”
Usually, people have time to prepare before a move, but Maryann had to vacate her one-bedroom apartment (where she’s lived – according to the dust balls unearthed in the back of her closets – for decades) and go into a studio.
There are plenty of reasons to downsize, but often we’re not motivated to do it. For Maryann, that motivator was an eviction notice. Suddenly, items she never thought she’d part with went “Buh-Bye” without a second glance. Having no choice can sometimes make the choice easier.
Going through clothes, Maryann deemed items “keep” or “donate.” Those she wasn’t sure of she tried on.
“Why did I buy this in such a small size?” she said, attempting to button a blazer she hadn’t worn in years. I didn’t add that perhaps she’d gained a pound or two since the purchase.
When moving, many people want to sell some of their belongings and Maryann was no exception. While some things are worth the time and energy involved in the process, some are not. For instance, she had a tall halogen lamp lilting dangerously to one side.
“No one’s going to buy a broken lamp that they can buy new at Bed Bath & Beyond for the same price,” I told her, before hauling the lamp to the garbage room. We think our stuff is worth something and at one point it was, but often is no longer. That’s why it’s important before a purchase to make sure you’re really going to use it. Like Maryann’s stereo system from the 1980s.
“But it cost a lot of money,” she said. There was music on in the room at the time. It sounded nice.
“Is that music coming from the stereo?” I asked.
“Oh no, that’s the TV,” Maryann said. “I haven’t used the stereo in years.”
Maybe you’re not planning to move next month or next year, but look around your home. Are there items you don’t use? Don’t need? Why wait until you’re forced to move to get rid of stuff that’s only collecting dust? Also, by doing it now gives you time to go through items, reflect on them and then give to those who want or sell without being desperate to do so.