Monday, November 19, 2012

Unhappiness is in me, my friend Emily is ill

I've been reading "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle and though I read parts of it before, once again, when I am ready, I get the lessons I need to learn.  Pema Chodron's book "The Wisdom of No Escape" sat on my shelf for years before I was ready to read it. 

This morning I read this paragraph:  "Don't seek happiness.  If you seek it, you won't find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness.  Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it.  Unhappiness covers up your natural state of well-being and inner peace, the source of true happiness."

This past week I have been at the hospital with a dear friend, Emily.  I have written about spending time with her and her husband, Len, in the country for years.  She is truly one of the most generous and supportive friends I've ever known.  Emily is in the ICU at Mt. Sinai Hospital and they don't know what is wrong with her.  She's on a breathing tube and for a few days we thought she had no chance, but yesterday, she seemed to be a bit better.  The outpouring of concern has been amazing.  I don't know if Emily knows how deeply she is loved by so many people all over the world. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Permission to Speak - HUFF POST

A few weeks ago I went to two memorial services within two days of each other. One was for a remarkable man, my friend Lisa's dad, Michael Dontzen, who lived to 89 and accomplished more in his lifetime than just about anyone I've ever met. He was a New York State Supreme Court judge, an aide to Mayor John Lindsay, a lawyer, a brilliant man with so much passion for justice, that on his deathbed, just a short time before he passed away, he married a gay couple. This was his last "professional" duty and he was determined to accomplish that despite the fact that he could barely speak.

The second memorial was heartbreaking. It was for a woman named Chris Twomey. She was an artist and a mother of three. Her art and motherhood were intertwined and she was passionate about both. She had breast cancer, which spread throughout her body and after a long, heroic struggle, she finally died, at age 58.

There weren't many people who were as determined to live as Chris. She loved life, she loved making art and she maintained a sense of humor throughout the years of treatments and tremendous pain.

I met Chris at Friends In Deed, a pragmatic, spiritual counseling center in Soho, New York. I have written about it before. FID saved my life when my life was completely falling apart. One of the gifts of Friends was that it put me right smack into a community that understood suffering, so that I was able to feel less alone.

In her eulogy for Chris, the founder of Friends In Deed, Cy O'Neal, spoke about Chris's courage. I just happened to be near the front desk the day that Chris first arrived at FID, announcing "I have breast cancer" as if she were saying "I just arrived from Paris." I sat in big groups with Chris for well over a year, and as Cy said, "She always raised her hand, early in the meeting. She shared whatever was going on with her, which generally included the work she was doing and some difficult aspect of her treatment. She always had a strong spirit and a rich sense of humor and after she spoke, it seemed that she gave everyone else permission to tell whatever they were going through."

Like a lot of people, weathering the storm of Hurricane Sandy meant keeping close to our battery-operated radios. (Actually, I had a crank radio too, the kind you wind up if you don't have batteries, but it just made me cranky. If I had to only use that, my arm would have fallen off by day two, and my only news would be spastic, like "flood waters reaching... evacuated and you should seek....") People were calling in all day with the stories of what was happening, good and bad, giving each other comfort and advice. The radio gave us permission to speak and a means to reach out to one another when we would have been going it alone otherwise.
During those five days of sitting in candlelight and mostly silence, I began to think about community. My neighbors in our building in Soho supported each other emotionally -- one neighbor, Martin, was staying uptown with his girlfriend, but each day he came back to the building and dropped off bags of food for his neighbors, fresh fruit, bagels, peanut butter, The New York Times. On Halloween, our next door neighbor, Louise, came over and gave us Tarot card readings by candlelight.

My upstairs neighbor, Barbara, was sitting shiva (a week long mourning period) for her dad, who passed away a few days before the Hurricane. The first few days there were dozens of people who came to pay their respects, but once the hurricane hit, it was harder for family and friends to get there, so my loftmate, Abigail, and I tried to come up as much as we could.

And then, on one of my uptown bike trips, when I had Internet access, I saw a posting on Facebook written by someone who had been helping out in Rockaway Beach. They were delivering blankets and supplies, cleaning out basements, doing all the heavy lifting that needed to be done. But I read this: "People need emotional support. They are suffering."

And I thought about the woman in Staten Island who lost both her young sons, because a neighbor wouldn't let her into his home, he was too afraid to open his door. I hope that she will give herself permission to speak of her profound loss, when the time is right, and with a caring group of people with her.

We often give lip service to the idea of "it takes a village" but in reality, we so rarely do come together to support each other. One of the reasons 12 Step programs are so effective is because they have learned the power of community. For most of history, family was our community, but now families are spread all over the place. Often people worked in organizations for their entire careers and felt a part of something. That is the exception now, it's rare that anyone stays longer than a few years with any job -- in fact, the "Millennials" don't even expect to stay past three years.
In the aftermath of so much devastation and what has been a divisive election -- and what will surely be many more hurricanes and tornadoes and devastation -- maybe we can try to solve both the physical challenges of dealing with floods and the emotional challenges of how to create a real sense of community so that we truly can "get by with a little help from our friends."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The play is the thing

...that is terrifying me.  It really seems to be happening.  It's called "Scrambled Eggs" - and it's about a woman's journey from childhood, dating, marriage, kid, career, hot flashes, you name it. 

So for anyone who's ever dreamt of getting your work out into the world and having a play or being on Huffington Post, or doing public speaking (which is what I am working on next) -- it's scary.  IT REALLY IS.

But I just have to take it a day at a time and have faith that it will be fine. 

Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, I had meetings with studio executives in huge, fancy offices on studio lots and they were effusive about my writing, "You're like a female Barry Levinson, or Woody..."  And that terrified me.  I didn't want that kind of pressure, so I bailed.  I got married and moved back to NYC and had a baby and quietly did my writing and didn't try all that hard.  I tried, but being a woman, and being out of LA makes it very difficult.

I wouldn't change a thing, it is all perfect.

I went through hell for a few years, it was one of the most intense and elevated periods of my life - divorce, death (my mother's) and now I can write about it all and watch the play get produced next spring and hopefully inspire other women (and men) to not give up on their dreams.  It may not happen in the time you imagine it will, or the way that you imagine, but it can still happen.

Last month, one of my Huff Post blogs landed on the mainpage of AOL.  I even heard from my divorce attorney!  I heard from people I haven't heard from in years.  This is such an adventure and as scary as it feels sometimes, it is exciting and fun - kind of like a roller coaster.  Oh, wait, I hate roller coasters. 

You can follow this journey, I will post updates and info along the way. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tracks of My Tears - Latest Huff Post

Cry baby... It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to... Big girls don't cry... Tears of a clown... Don't cry for me Argentina.... Crying over you...

There are so many songs about crying and tears. Country western music has broken hearts by the pickup truck-full. From the laid-flat classic, "I've got tears in my ears from lying on my back in my bed while I cry over you," to the GPS-specific, "Billy broke my heart at Walgreens and I cried all the way to Sears," nothing beats country music for getting it all out there.

But I'm no country western gal. I'm a fairly tough New Yorker -- tears were never high on my profile. Not since my father would send me to my room -- "I can't talk to you when you're crying. Come back when you've stopped" -- and I learned to put a plug in it. My friend Karen told me her mother admonished with the ever popular: "Stop crying or I'll really give you something to cry about." The message was loud and clear: no whimpering.

Even PMS couldn't bring me to tears. I was suicidal, homicidal, many -cidals, but I never cried. On rare occasions, like watching a sad movie or listening to a sad song, they might leak down my cheeks, but not for long. I'd convinced myself I'd never be a weepy person.

If there was a crisis, it was Robin to the rescue, Robin in charge. No tears -- no time, too much to do -- just the facts, decisions, action.

We all know people who fall apart if they lose their favorite pen -- those are the drama queens and kings, who seem to always be in tears about something. Then there are others who are barely affected by the death of a parent. Let's put these groups aside and focus on the rest of us -- the majority of us who, while not emotionally dead, prefer to keep emotions in check, particularly when it comes to sadness.

I lost a lot a few years ago: my marriage, my job, my mother, my daughter moved 3,000 miles away, I had to move, and then I lost my beloved dog, Lola. I've written about it. I was sitting alone in my apartment, minus everyone -- and I started to cry.

Then I couldn't stop. The floodgates opened. And I didn't care.

For many years, on those rare occasions when I cried, I'd get a headache. But when the grief is so intense, the tears wash over and seem to take out all the toxins and pain; at least that's my non-scientific analysis. I felt lighter. No one loves the sound of a baby crying, but once they're done crying, they look so peaceful, so relieved -- or maybe that's the parents that are relieved, but it does seem to be a part of the natural order of things.

So often in caregiving/grief groups I've attended (where my crying looked more like bawling), I've heard many people share, "I don't want to cry" or "I'm afraid to cry." I've also heard, "I don't feel like crying," which is perfectly appropriate, but my experience with crying has led me to love it. When I was younger, if someone cried in my presence I felt awkward. Now I sit with them and just try to be there in the privilege of that moment.

I spent years in therapy NOT crying, talking about antidepressants and wanting whatever new one I'd heard of. "Don't you think I should try Wellbutrin? What about Celexa? That sounds good." My therapist would say, "Okay, if you want to. But I don't think you really need to." Eventually I tried an antidepressant for a year or so, and it helped, but I gained weight, and I couldn't feel much of anything, and I had no sex drive, so I went off the medication and continued to search for a newer, better drug.

I don't think I ever used more than a few tissues in many, many years in my therapist's office.

And then, my life fell apart and I used all the tissues. I sobbed through entire deluges, while my lovely therapist, Mike, nodded and smiled. "This is great, Robin, this is really good."

"This is probably going to turn out to be one of the best periods of your life."

Are you crazy? I'm drowning! I can't stop!

Eventually the river flowed to a stream. Slowly the tears trickled to a stop.

And in their place came:


And most of all: empathy... compassion... for everyone in the world who is suffering. Everyone. I want to go to the Congo and stop the fighting and the rape. I want to go to the Middle East and get people to talk about their anger and their sorrow. I want people to wail their pain and share it and not worry about how they look. I want people to listen to each other instead of screaming and fighting.
In other cultures people weep together -- they believe in the power of a good cry. Why aren't more of us angry about the state of this country and the world? I don't know. I think maybe we're all trying not to feel.

Tears on my pillow... tears in heaven.
Cry me a river. Let it wash me clean.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy


Day 1: Sunday, October 29. 2012, SoHo, New York

There’s an edginess all over the city, as people prepare for the storm.  We had plenty of food in the house, but I stopped by Met Foods in NoLita to pick up a few more things and the line was so long, I decided to forget about it.  I live with a loftmate, Abigail, and she has her car out, so I imagined that she would pick up whatever extras we needed.

Wrong.  She went to Trader Joe’s and the line was so long it met the line for Whole Foods which is a block away in Union Square.

But we have buckets with extra water and they’re in the tub.  We have food.  We have a gas stove that can be lit with a match.  We have plenty of flashlights and my best purchase was headlamps.  I think we’ll be fine. 

Day 2: Monday, October 29, 2012

A waiting game. We stayed home most of the day, put on some music and exercised.  I took a short walk around the neighborhood, the wind was picking up, but no rain most of the day.  Spoke to a few friends on the phone, most of them downtown.  I know a few people in evacuation zones, but I couldn’t reach them.  Most of the day I was on Facebook and Twitter, reading and writing updates.  A post I wrote called “Tracks of My Tears” went up on Huff Post, about the healing power of tears.

Monday night we went upstairs to pay a call on my friend Barbara, who is sitting shiva for her father who passed away last Thursday.  Her mom is with her too, but she is suffering from some dementia, so it’s a bit challenging.  We sat with them in the kitchen and listened to the wind, which was extremely loud and scary.  We couldn’t tell how much it was raining, but I came downstairs and called my daughter in Brooklyn and as we spoke, we got disconnected after what Zoe thought was lightening that lit up the sky.  She found out later it was the Con Ed transformers blowing up.  By around eight pm we lost electricity, but somehow we still had our internet connection.  I was able to keep up on Twitter and Facebook and finally went to bed to read.  It seemed as if most of the wind had died down from the intensity of a few hours before and we knew that the tide had breached the sea wall – but we thought Con Ed had just turned off the electricity as a precaution at that point. 

Day 3: Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I woke up, turned on my iPhone and saw many Facebook comments.  I posted “I am going to make a cup of coffee and try to find out the extent of the damage.  “It’s bad,”  a friend in Brooklyn wrote. One friend from Spain mentioned the explosions of the transformers at the Con Ed plant, and I got a few emails from the previous night and then all internet connection disappeared.  There was a brief window at 7 am that was shut fifteen minutes later.

Lucy is my 16 year-old beagle, and she can’t climb stairs and it’s impossible to carry her up and down the four flights, so we put out towels for her in the loft and within one minute, I slipped on a towel and fell flat on my back.  I landed on my tailbone and my first thought was, “Oh, no, I’m going to be paralyzed and there will be no hospital to take me to and no ambulance will come.”  Fortunately, that only lasted about a minute and a half, but it hurt and I’ve been living on Advil. 

Our land line is part of our cable/internet so we had no way to communicate and even the fantastic Crosby Street Hotel across the street, which has a generator for their main floor, was struggling. They had no phone lines and all their guests were being transferred to uptown hotels.  We knew that uptown, most of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were fine – just parts of Manhattan south of 39th, from river to river, most of Staten Island, large areas of New Jersey and 90 percent of Long Island were without power.  I couldn’t even reach my daughter to tell her we were okay. The streets were empty (imagine the streets in SoHo without any shoppers?) and very few cars.  Abigail and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and saw lots of tree branches down and one small market had a huge line outside.  People were escorted around the store, one at a time.  Most seemed to be waiting for coffee. 

In the afternoon our neighbors returned home from uptown – they had friends who came and picked them up so they could get supplies, take showers, get their phones charged and fortunately they had a landline that worked.  I called Zoe to tell her we were safe. She was smart – she chose to remain in Brooklyn for the storm instead of coming into Manhattan. So did Abigail’s son, Nate, who lives in Williamsburg, right near the water. He was fine too. 

Last night we cooked Brussels sprouts and heated macaroni and cheese – and honestly, it was one of the rare times we sat down and ate a meal together.  We’re both usually running somewhere. 

I finished a novel (not memorable, but a good diversion) and am now starting on a book about Hillary and Bill.  I don’t miss television and I enjoy listening to the radio, but mostly I miss the Internet. It’s a relief to not have phone calls and emails, quite honestly.   I don’t know how that’s going to feel later in the day and by day four, I may be losing my mind, but I do know that at least forty people have lost lives in this terrible storm and the city has suffered serious damage.  I love New York City – so whatever we have to deal with, we’ll manage. 

It’s very odd to be in downtown Manhattan now, which feels a bit like a ghost town right now. 

Day 4:  Thursday, November 1, 2012 

We drove to Brooklyn yesterday to see our kids. We drove across the Williamsburg Bridge, there wasn’t much traffic.  We picked up Nate and went to eat in Zoe’s neighborhood.  It was so good to see them and also Zoe’s roommate, Ashley, and to eat a hot meal at David’s Brisket in Bed Stuy – typical NY, Muslim restaurant in African American neighborhood, serving Jewish food.  When we drove back, we heard that starting today you can’t drive into Manhattan over the bridge without at least three people in the car, so it’s lucky we went yesterday.

Balthazar had a big barbecue in front of the restaurant to cook all the meat they had that was going bad.  I only had three dollars in cash left and that bought me six giant shrimp with cocktail sauce.  Not bad!

Last night, on Halloween, our neighbor, Louise, came over and read our Tarot cards.  It’s actually been lovely spending time with neighbors and reading. 

This morning I turned on my phone and found out I had cell service.  Still no power.  Will check the news and see what is happening.  Today, I’m going uptown to take a shower and eat something healthy.  Still have milk for my coffee, grateful for all the small things.  Grateful to be alive. 

I’m at 88th and CPW, just took a shower, ate a good meal and will head home to Lucy soon.  Never had a better shower in my life! 

Day 5, Friday, November 2, 2012

Today I feel very depressed.  I could barely drag myself out of bed.  I listened to the radio last night and heard about people who have lost everything, a mother whose children were swept out of her arms on Staten Island.  Family run businesses that are going to have to close, and it just feels like more bad news on top of more bad news.  I feel like my interior life is matching the reality of my exterior life: dark. 

It’s hard to know that so many people are going on with their lives and work in the rest of the country, and that those of us in lower Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and Queens, Long Island and so much of New Jersey are suffering.  I am just tired.  I’m tired of not having a good, hot meal, and I don’t even feel like cooking anything.  The high pitched sound we have been hearing for days, coming from the freight elevator at Scholastic Books seems to have finally stopped.  It was driving everyone crazy. 

Maybe this will be the last day of no more lights.  Honestly, I’m having a hard time understanding why it’s taking Con Ed so long to get the power back on.  I am tired of listening to the sad stories on the radio.  I’m tired of upbeat messages of gratitude.  This sucks.  We have no healthy food in the loft and I feel angry.  It does feel like East and West Berlin. 

I guess I need to have some faith.  I’ve been praying and meditating this morning, but so far I still feel pretty blue.  I feel so bad for those who have lost family members and homes and jobs.  I’m grateful that my daughter is safe.  I’m grateful to have a roof over my head and that right now I am okay.  But if I’ve learned anything in these past few years, it’s okay to feel my feelings, whatever they are.  And right now they are sadness, depression, a sense of hopelessness and fear about the election.  I need a hug. 

4:30 pm

I’m lying on the couch napping, when I hear a scream.  My first thought is that one of the candles started a fire – but then I realize as I open my eyes that Abigail is whooping it up because the lights came on.

I take back every angry, awful thing I said.  This week has been a gift in so many ways….time with neighbors and friends.  Quiet, no phone calls, emails, no Internet, urban camping.  Now all our efforts must go to helping those who are still suffering, still have no power, who have lost their homes and also to the election.  My wish is that President Obama, who has done a great job dealing with this crisis – no one can solve all the problems of a storm of this magnitude – will come out as a strong leader and win the election.

I think we all have to take seriously the reality that we live in a new world and we can’t waste any more time debating global warming. We have to start getting prepared, even as we clean up from the disaster of this storm.