My life and times

All posts in the My life and times category

Are Hurricanes Shakespearean?

Published 16/10/2017 by damselwithadulcimer

As I type this I’m looking out of my window at a sky that is somewhat hazy. I’ve been told it is because of the sand that has been whipped up from the Sahara by Hurricane Ophelia. Shakespeare’s Ophelia merely lost her mind and drowned herself, but today’s press is confirming that the storm of the same name is the most powerful to travel this far east of the United States, and deaths are already being reported in Ireland. In the UK we are getting the very mild remnants of this tropical storm, which reminds me of my experience with Hurricane Irma when I was in Cuba last month.

Our holiday was interrupted by the arrival of Irma a couple of days after we had arrived on the island. Instead of our proposed itinerary we were told that we would be evacuated to Varadera for safety reasons, to a hotel that had been built to withstand hurricane conditions.

Before our vintage American car journey to the coast, we were able to spend two nights and one day in Havana. It most certainly was the lull before the storm and a day in which I spotted this painting of (literally) the eye of the hurricane, which struck me as a piece of ironic art.The Eye of the Hurricane September 2017 (2)

Our 1950’s Chevvie dropped us off early in the afternoon and we were advised to prepare for the imminent arrival of what had now been upgraded to a category 5 hurricane, the strongest Cuba had experienced in 85 years. Like other fickle people, Irma had changed her mind and her course and was forecast to pass directly overhead.

By nightfall the humidity had risen and the air was strangely very still. We went to bed, but woke several times during the night, disturbed by the wind and the realisation that the electricity was no longer running, with the subsequent loss of air conditioning and the sudden silence of the refrigerator that was no longer humming. The power came back intermittently, and eventually went off completely. By morning we were awoken by hotel staff bringing us food. This carried on throughout the day, except it started to become cheese and ham sandwiches and bottles of water. With no functioning fridge it was difficult to keep food fresh or drinks chilled, but we all kept calm and carried on – even those who weren’t British.

As the day wore on the winds got stronger and the glazed balcony doors began to rattle ever louder. I recalled King Lear’s speech during the storm in the play of the same name: ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!’

With no power we were rationed candles: one for the bedroom and the other for the bathroom. Some of the guests (we found out the following day) had blockaded their balcony doors (which had already been protected with criss-crossed tape) for protection. Around 5pm we were advised that Irma was getting closer and, as we would now be in her eye, we should spend the next few hours in the bathroom, which was made of solid concrete with no glass, and would therefore be a safer place.

We tried to make the best of things. I took the upholstery cushions off all available chairs and laid them out on the bathroom floor. It was so hot and humid that my other half refused to shut the door, so we couldn’t both lie on the floor. He chose the bath and I stretched out and managed to doze off, awaking some time later to the realisation that rainwater had been blowing in wherever it could, and that my cushions were soaking up the liquid like sponges. What do you do in a dark room with the wind whistling overhead and the rain battering at the windows? We played I Spy until we got bored and eventually tried to sleep some more. Finally (around midnight) the storm began to abate and we went back into our bedroom and attempted to sleep. However the floors were all wet and we were paddling in about an inch of water. At least our windows had not blown in like those of some other guests.

On the second morning we peered cautiously out of our room door to take stock and found others doing the same. We tried to mop out our rooms and were treated to tubs of ice cream and vanilla yogurt. I assume they had to use up the perishable food that could no longer be refrigerated or frozen. A little before midday the hotel staff allowed us out of our rooms and our hotel blocks and we went to investigate the damage.

The structures had all held firm, but cladding and roof tiles had been dislodged. Vegetation had been uprooted and palm trees had lost limbs. As the hurricane approached I had watched the tree outside our balcony waving its arms frantically in all different directions at the same time, like a creature possessed, and now some of those very branches were lying on the grass, exhausted.

Hurricane Irma2 September 2017 (2)

 

After Hurricane Irma September 2017 (3)

However we were safe. The hotel staff had taken good care of us, although the Minister for Tourism visited and gave instructions to close the hotel. With only one generator working out of three there was no electricity or running water and no fresh food. A little over 72 hours after our arrival we moved to another hotel for the duration of the holiday.

We were the lucky ones. Many Cubans lost their homes and their lives, Havana was under water for several days, and towns were without electricity for far longer than we had been.

In the words of my sister after I arrived home ‘Why on earth did you go to Cuba during hurricane season?’

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YYY

Published 01/10/2017 by damselwithadulcimer

Why YYY? The above heading may baffle you, so I’ll try to enlighten you.

As a Jew we have just celebrated(?) the most solemn and serious festival in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, during which we spend 25 hours (from sunset the previous night until sunset the next day) fasting and repenting our sins. The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, and festivals always commence at sunset on the day before the actual date. Worship begins with the Kol Nidrei service, which coincided this year with the start of the Sabbath on Friday night, and then resumes the following morning (in our case at 10.30) to continue throughout the day until sunset, when the end of the festival is announced by the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn.

Shofar

Twenty-five hours without food is not as arduous as it may seem as you are focused on the prayer book, the liturgy and the songs. The hardest part is going without fluids, but the drop in blood sugar can make you feel a little as if your brain has turned to a mush as the day wears on.

My second ‘Y’ is for Yizkor, the Hebrew word for remembrance. One of the constituent parts of the afternoon service on Yom Kippur is the Yizkor service, when we remember those we have loved, both friends and family members, who are no longer with us. As a child my mother used to insist I left the sanctuary for that portion of the prayers as I still had my parents. It can be an upsetting time as we are encouraged to meditate on, and say prayers for, those who are no longer with us in bodily form.

My final ‘Y’ is Yahrzeit, which is literally the Yiddish word for season. We commemorate the anniversaries of the deaths of our loved ones by lighting a special candle, a Yahrzeit candle or a memorial light, on the anniversary of their deaths according to the Hebrew calendar. My mother died on the day before Yom Kippur, so her Yahrzeit will always fall on the Hebrew date of 9 Tishri, although the English date was 3 October. We light the candle at sunset of the evening before, but as we also light another candle in memory of everybody we are remembering, I light another one the following evening at the start of the Yom Kippur festival.

Yahrzeit candle

All three are now over for me for another twelve months, or thereabouts, but I always approach this time of year with trepidation and unease as there are too many burdens and sad memories to be overcome.

As the inscription on my mother’s tombstone reads: ‘To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die’. To sum up, we may feel grief when we remember our loved ones who have now departed, but they still remain with us.A

 

I CHANGED MY LIFE IN THREE DAYS

Published 13/01/2017 by damselwithadulcimer

When I updated my Facebook status and shouted out to my friends that I had spent the most amazing weekend of my life and had been re-born, I had one or two sarcastic responses asking if I had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have not turned my back on my Jewish faith, but I was finally able to believe in my heart what my head had always known.

You’ve probably lost me by now, so I’ll start from the beginning. All my life I have lacked confidence and criticised myself when others weren’t doing it for me. I remember being given a pep talk more than 40 years ago, when I was crying with a broken heart (given to me by an immature man who treated me like a doormat, and who got a third party to phone me and dump me: the 1970s equivalent of finishing a relationship by text). I was advised then that nobody would really love me until I learned to love myself. I’ve had a shedload of talking therapies and have made changes over the years, but was never able to make the major shift until last weekend.

My yoga teacher had often talked of the Landmark Forum, an organisation that had helped her to turn her life around, and when she invited me to her house for more information I went along, somewhat reluctantly, after trying to talk myself out of going. What made the major impact on me was when I was told that I would be able to free myself from the past that I had spent my whole life dragging with me, and that was always facing me in the future. It took a while for me to process the idea that my past was permanently in my future, but once I understood the idea I was on my way, and signed up for a course a couple of months hence. Even then I was still placing obstacles in the way as the course was due to take place over my 65th birthday weekend and I was a little apprehensive of the intensity of the commitment (9am to 10pm each day, plus homework).

 

Last Friday morning I made sure I was at the London venue by 8.40 in the morning, collected my name badge, and found myself a seat among 180 others who, like me, were schlepping their life’s baggage with them and were hoping to free themselves from their past constraints and beliefs.

You’ll have to forgive me for omitting some of the detail, but it was such a powerful weekend. My brain is still processing some of the events and ideas, but I know they continue to work on me, both asleep and awake.

Many of us shared situations and events from our lives, even though it was often painful to do so. It wasn’t unusual to find ourselves welling up as we listened to the stories of others; even our forum leader was teary from time to time. Meeting up whilst queuing for the ladies’ loos at the breaks we regretted not having brought make up with us to repair our non-waterproof maquillage.

We learned how we had been living, about the little voices in our heads that we were always listening to and which were talking to us. We were on a quest to look good (or not to look bad), but the voices resulted in negative resignation or cynicism. We came to understand how we defined our lives by past events that we have interpreted wrongly, and how we readily applied labels (both to ourselves and to others) and then tried to live up to them. After reaching an awareness of these behaviours, we understood that we have been living inauthentically.

An assignment we were given was to accept that our parents, whatever our relationships with them, had managed to get their job done. Most of us have issues with the roles played by our mums and dads, but the realisation that they have done their best, and a phone call to them to remind them that we love them, produced some touching results. More than one middle class Englishman reported that assurances of love had not been commonplace in their families and that some parents were worried and questioned whether their offspring were suicidal when their children affirmed their love.

The second day of the course was probably the hardest. We were asked to close our eyes and face up to our biggest fear. This was a huge opening, especially for those who had bottled so much up for so many years. The sounds of others crying, sobbing and screaming out in pain like wounded animals was both powerful and emotional. Eventually our feelings of despair were turned around by urging to imagine the world’s biggest cosmic joke, converting the tears to laughter.

By the third day, after which many of us had already had various breakthroughs, we reached the hardest point of all. However, it eventually dawned on each one of us, although not all at the same time, that we had spent our lives responding to stimuli in a machine-like way. The past was now in the past and it was time to start again with a clean slate. Life is for living in the now and in the language of the Landmark Forum we were on the verge of ‘a New Realm of Possibility’.

It’s difficult to convey how transformed we all felt on that Sunday evening, but there was so much optimism in the room that it was palpable. We had shared our fears, emotions and histories and emerged transformed as new people. The overriding feeling everybody seems to take away from having done the Landmark Forum is the desire to encourage every person they talk to sign up and make their own personal transformation. In addition, there is the experience of having shared so much, and of wanting everybody else to make the final breakthrough as a new person. Whether from England, or other countries of the world, we each shared in everybody else’s joy and happiness, left our reserve and inhibitions behind, and wanted to do no more than to hug one another. It was a three-day journey like no other.

It was a three-day journey like no other, and people have remarked that I seem lighter and different. I now wake up with a feeling of anticipation for the new day, and I have stopped criticising myself.

 

 

Religion? Belief? Spirituality?

Published 11/10/2016 by damselwithadulcimer

I’m writing this a few hours before the start of the most solemn day in the Jewish religion: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. It is the last of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. These are days of introspection and repentance, a time when Jews the world over look back over the past year, examine their wrongdoings and look forward to the coming twelve months with every intention of being a better person. Depending on the level of orthodox or liberal belief, we are taught that these ten days encompass the period when the Book of Life is opened and those who will live or die in the coming year are inscribed on its pages. Yom Kippur commences at sunset on the previous evening and ends at sunset 25 hours later. During these hours we don’t eat or drink, and we spend the day in prayer.

This time of year also has a particular poignancy for me. My mother died two years ago on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before the Day of Atonement that begins with the evening Kol Nidrei service). One of the Yom Kippur afternoon services, known as Yizkor, takes place and provides an opportunity to remember those who are no longer with us. As my mother left this world the day before the Day of Atonement, and as this date is commemorated according to the Hebrew calendar, it means that I light a Yahrzeit (literally time of the year) candle in her memory. This is lit at sunset the evening before and burns for 24 hours. Although mum died on 3 October, the anniversary always falls on 9 Tishri (the day before Yom Kippur) in the Hebrew calendar

This morning I left home under a perfect blue sky with a glorious sun shining over my head. It was chilly, in keeping with an October morning, but it felt to me as if the candle I had left burning at home had been superseded by the sun reaching out to shine on me. In fact, I became quite emotional as I convinced myself of this, and consoled myself with the belief that my mother’s soul was reaching out to me.

This was merely the culmination of events that began a few weeks ago when I found a clothes hanger (that used to belong to my mum) hanging on the outside of my wardrobe. I have no recollection of putting it there. Then my daughter (who is very intuitive) told me that she was receiving messages from mum to be passed on to me. Finally, a few days ago I was aware of an aroma that immediately took me back to my grandmother’s (my mum’s mother) home. It wasn’t a food smell. In fact, I can’t describe or recreate it but I knew that I had last smelled it at Grandma Jenny’s, and she died when I was 16. By the way my eldest child was born exactly 10 years to the day after my grandma died.

Make of it what you will, I can only relate what I have known and experienced.

Has the World Always Been this Nasty?

Published 22/06/2016 by damselwithadulcimer

A young politician is murdered, probably because of her political views, and a husband is left to bring up their two young children without their mother. Fifty Americans are murdered in a nightclub just because they are gay and have possibly offended a radicalised Muslim. The gloves are removed in the UK referendum debate: truths are distorted, lies are peddled and foreigners are blamed for the country’s woes in thinly disguised xenophobic and racist slurs. Back across the pond Donald Trump demonises Muslims and declares (if he becomes President) that he will get his southern Mexican neighbours to build a wall to keep them out of the United States. Locally in Harrow my bus was on a diversion, much to the rage of a man who let rip with a stream of swear words, used both as nouns and adjectives (believe me his vocabulary was very restricted) and threatened to drag the bus driver off by his beard.

Why are we being so cruel and mean to each other?

As a baby boomer growing up in 1950s Britain I was given a certain set of values, albeit slightly Victorian. However, they have remained with me to this day. I try to have and to show respect for other people and retain an awareness that others share this planet with me. This is not about halo polishing, but I volunteer with others less fortunate than me, and I feel better for it. This world has given to me for more than 60 years and I want to return some of that goodness when and where possible. I hope that others may do the same for me as I get older and may need their support and friendship.

Why show anger? It’s a negative emotion and only succeeds in breeding more ill feeling and certainly doesn’t make you feel good unless you deal with it swiftly and move on. Nothing diffuses rage better than smiling at the person exhibiting the gloom and cynicism of that feeling. Try it next time somebody turns their fury on you.

As a Jew I’m constantly aware of the concept of Tikkun Olam – literally ‘repairing the world.’ We are urged to make our planet a better place by performing acts of loving kindness, becoming involved in charitable works and having a strong sense of social justice. You don’t have to be Jewish to have a similar attitude to the world: you can help anybody, anywhere and donate as little or as much time and energy as you can spare. Until you try you have no idea how much people appreciate even the smallest acts of kindness. Making them feel better is infectious and makes you feel good about yourself. I know that warm, fuzzy glow is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true. Try it yourself and see.

This afternoon an email dropped into my inbox. It came from Hope Not Hate, a movement that was originally set up to combat racial hatred and divisions. The founder, Nick Lowles, is urging us to carry forward the legacy of Jo Cox, who was murdered last week and who I referred to above. In the aftermath of her death family, friends, colleagues, constituents and strangers have all come together to grieve for her loss, but also to emphasise her goodness and desire to make a difference. She was that rare breed of politician who wanted to help others and not to feather her own nest. Hope Not Hate is asking us all to Love Like Jo. I can’t think of a better sentiment, especially on the eve of a cruelly divisive referendum campaign. Tomorrow we will cast our votes and decide whether or not to continue as members of the European Community. Before the polls open we can all pledge to Love Like Jo.

Love Like Jo

Image courtesy of Hope Not Hate

We never forget our loved ones

Published 16/06/2016 by damselwithadulcimer

If you’ve followed my earlier posts you will be aware of how my sister and I cared for our mother as she gradually declined and succumbed to COPD and vascular dementia. The lady who had insisted for years that she wanted to be cremated, had a change of heart in her final months and decided that she wanted a traditional Jewish burial when her time came to join her ancestors.

As Jews we followed the demands of a funeral as soon as possible after death. We sat Shiva, (the Jewish practice of mourning the passing of a close relative in a family home, whilst friends and family visit to pay their condolences, and a Rabbi attends to lead prayers in the evening), although only for one night and not the customary seven.

We also carried out the practice of erecting a headstone over our mum’s grave, but not until at least nine or ten months had passed. This is so the ground has a chance to settle. We gave the tombstone a great deal of thought, finally deciding on a colour that we thought mum would have liked, and choosing one that was not too high as she herself never grew beyond 4 feet eleven inches. In addition we took a great deal of care over the wording on, and the design of, the memorial monument. Apart from the traditional Hebrew lettering, we chose the epithet, in English, ‘To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die’. This has rung true more and more over the last year or so.

Mum is often in my thoughts and it’s hard to stop myself short when something happens and I would love to pick up the phone and tell her about it. She used to say the same thing to me in respect of her own mother.

My cousin recently reminded me that it was 45 years since her father, my uncle and mum’s brother, died. Returning to the Jewish religion, we mark the annual anniversary of the passing of loved ones, but we commemorate the date according to the Hebrew calendar. This is known in Yiddish as the Yahrzeit, literally the season. When the date comes round we light a memorial candle on the evening before the actual day (Jewish days begin at sunset the previous evening) and this candle burns for 24 hours. My uncle’s candle has now finished burning. I also asked the Rabbi to read out his name during the Shabbat service on Saturday morning, which is done on the closest Saturday to the Yahrzeit.

My awareness has now been brought to the death of my own father 34 years ago, the date of which will be commemorated at the end of this month. Once again his name will be read out before we recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead that is chanted both at funerals and Saturday morning and festival services, as well as on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), that most sacred of the High Holy Days, a time spent repenting and fasting. Included in the service is a portion known as Yizkor (a Hebrew word meaning ‘remember’). When I was a child my mother used to send me out of the Sanctuary for this section of the prayers as my  parents were still alive. Now that they are no longer with me, I remain, remember them, and grieve for what I have lost.

My own Liberal Jewish congregation also offers an alternative ‘spiritual and meditative experience’ to the Yizkor prayers on Yom Kippur. This is a much more intimate and inclusive occasion, and one which brought back the memories of mum’s death with deep poignancy when I took part last year for the first time since she had left us. Perhaps I should also mention that the Hebrew date of mum’s passing was on Kol Nidrei, the evening that commences before Yom Kippur, but which signals that the Day of Atonement has begun. So not only do I remember my mother at that holiest time of the Jewish calendar, I can never forget that was when she died too.

Therefore Judaism provides reminders of those who have passed, but who remain forever in our hearts.

To blog or not to blog

Published 08/06/2016 by damselwithadulcimer

For months I’ve been acutely aware that I’ve neglected my blog. Why pay for a domain name and not post? Life seems to be so busy with family, volunteering and continuing to work part-time. Not to mention the prevarication brought on by just sitting at your laptop, reading emails and posts, responding to them and then uploading items that you think will interest others. What on earth happened to all the leisure time we were promised for the 21st century? Or perhaps it’s more a case of employing better time management skills.

Six months ago – I can’t believe we’re almost halfway through 2016 – I realised that I’d allowed myself to fall into some kind of semi-hibernation. Mum had been gone for well over eighteen months, and it seemed to be taking a long time to adapt to a life that didn’t involve worrying about, and caring for, her; a period spent constantly on tenterhooks, wondering when the next phone call would alert me of another fall, or an urgent summoning of the paramedics.

So, since the beginning of this year I have made attempts to get out more into the world, or more precisely to go to London, on my doorstep. Of course I’ve kept up with friends (well, to a certain extent) and continued with my volunteering, almost as if I need to care for others as I no longer have mum. But I’ve also made a point of visiting more galleries and exhibitions, especially when I realised that I was paying annually for my Arts Pass card, but never using it and therefore not saving myself the money that I could. I’ve got partially involved with a theatre going group, so am able to see plays about once a month, and now actually have others to chat to during the intervals. But I’ve also managed to get myself back into reading: my first and forever love. If I’d never acquired a passion for reading I would never have improved my own writing skills.

Currently I’m working my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. With only about 100 pages to go before I finish the final book, The Story of the Lost Child, I’m in an ambivalent state. I can’t wait to get to the conclusion, but will also feel bereft to have reached the end of a saga, spanning some five decades, that examines the friendship of two young girls as they grow and mature into older women, as well as painting a broad sweep of Neapolitan life with its background of politics and social change.

So the evolving Sandra is now going out to meet one of her daughter’s for a bite to eat, and will then be attending a thank you party for one of her volunteering groups. I promise to come back very, very soon.