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JULY BOOK NOOK: Three Books about Immigration

Book Nook reviewer Abby Pinard is back–this time, with three books about immigration.

A REPLACEMENT LIFE

by Boris Fishman, 2014

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Slava Gelman is a junior staffer at a magazine that isn’t but might as well be The New Yorker, where his assignment is to ferret out and crack wise about absurd news items in small-town newspapers. Slava lives on the Upper East Side, which isn’t but might as well be on the other side of the world from “Soviet Brooklyn” where he landed as a child on arrival from Minsk (as did Fishman), where his grandparents still live, and which his parents fled for suburban New Jersey. When Slava’s grandmother dies, he treks via subway to Brooklyn and before long is trekking regularly, roped by his scheming grandfather into crafting (he’s a writer, isn’t he?) a fictitious claim to the German government for a slice of the reparations pie earmarked for Holocaust survivors. So what if Grandfather didn’t suffer precisely as required to be eligible? Didn’t the Germans make sure to kill those who did? So begins Boris Fishman’s darkly comic and very impressive debut novel.

Fishman pulls off a difficult feat in a first novel, even one so closely grounded in his own experience. He has written a book that is both funny and genuinely moving. The Jews of Brighton Beach, who survived the Nazis and the Soviets through cunning, luck and sheer force of will, are a brilliantly drawn tough lot, re-inventing themselves once again in a place where you can “afford to be decent.” Slava wants to free himself from “the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn” and earn a byline by writing elegant prose but in borrowing true elements of his dead grandmother’s life to fashion false narratives for his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends, he is drawn more deeply into the past and into the community he has longed to escape.

Poor, confused Slava, torn between past and present, loyalty and honor, skinny uptown Arianna and luscious childhood playmate Vera… Is he being followed? Will his fraud be uncovered? At what cost? Will he do the right thing? I loved this book. Fishman tells a good story, one with moral ambiguity and conflicting loyalties, and his prose crackles with irony and wit. If you were in any danger of thinking that the immigrant experience has been exhaustively mined in fiction, think again. Boris Fishman is a welcome voice and A Replacement Life is a wholly original and worthy contribution.

 

PANIC IN A SUITCASE

by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, 2014

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“The morning was ideal, a crime to waste it cooped up. They were off to the shore. That means you too, Pasha — you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll. Aren’t you curious to see Coney Island? Freud had been. Don’t deliberate till it’s too late. Strokes are known to make surprise appearances in the family. Who knows how long…? Now, get up off that couch!

 “Pasha had just flown in last night and didn’t feel well…fourteen hours strapped into an aisle seat near the gurgling lavatory of a dented, gasoline-reeking airplane, two layovers…would have been tough on any constitution and Pasha didn’t have just any constitution but that of a poet…If he’d been smart, he would have been born a half-century earlier into a noble family and spent his adult life hopping between tiny Swiss Alp towns and lakeside sanitoria, soaking in bathhouses and natural springs, rubbing thighs with steamy neurotics, taking aimless strolls with the assistance of a branch, corrupting tubercular maidens…

“Instead Pasha was born in 1956 to a family whose nobility was strictly of spirit.”

Meet the Nasmertovs in 1991, all but Pasha planted in Brighton Beach two years ago but pining for Odessa. Scraping by in circumstances significantly reduced in status and income (both grandparents had been physicians), three generations live under one roof in a neighborhood that replicates home, even in its proximity to the sea. Gently, hilariously and mostly brilliantly, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, herself born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, captures the struggle between striving for assimilation and yearning for home. Despite their urging Pasha to emigrate and join them in Brooklyn (where he won’t have to do anything but sit on the couch so they can look at him), he is their connection to Odessa, keeper of the apartment in a prime location and the beloved dacha. Fifteen years later, Frida, the youngest Nasmertov, now in her twenties and at loose ends, visits Odessa and despite finding life there no rosier feels drawn to a place she barely remembers and that her parents and grandparents fled.

Akhtiorskaya has said that her next book might be fantasy or sci-fi. Thankfully, she wrote this one before forswearing further fiction based on her family. She is a talented writer and it will be interesting to see how she applies her talent in other realms following this fine debut.

 

I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT

by Zachary Lazar, 2014

third book

This is a book about identity.  Its characters — some fictional, some historical — are actual or metaphorical immigrants, products of the turbulence of Jewish history. Meyer Lansky flees pogroms in Eastern Europe, becomes a notorious American gangster and, denied citizenship by Israel, returns to the U.S. to face charges. Gila Konig, concentration camp survivor and Lansky’s mistress, never at home in Israel, emigrates to New York but always feels herself a refugee. Hannah Groff, a journalist who travels to Israel to investigate the death of an Israeli writer, unearths her own family’s history as she pursues her story and wrestles with her own feelings of rootlessness.

Underlying the displacement felt by the characters is an examination of the moral underpinnings of the state of Israel and its place in the world today. Was the writer murdered because he depicted King David as the forebear of the Jewish gangster and because he compared the founding of Israel to the vision Lansky and Bugsy Siegel had of building a shimmering city in the desert of Nevada? As a plot device, that’s an easy question to answer. As a moral/political question, it’s a heavy burden for a novel to bear and it’s not always easy for the reader to stay afloat.

Lazar skillfully weaves together multiple narrative threads across oceans and decades. When I finished the book, I was thinking that all those narrative threads were confusing and the angst suffocating. On second thought, I became more comfortable with the author’s ambition. The reflection in modern Israel of the brutality and existential threat suffered by Jews over centuries makes this more than a complex story about characters looking for a home. The novel is difficult but fascinating and ultimately satisfying.

Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Comments are most welcome–just jot your thoughts in the box below!

CAST-ing Our Lines! Another New BOLLI Special Interest Group

Dropping by the BOLLI Gathering Space at 60 Turner Street on a Tuesday afternoon, you might find some unusual activity underway as CAST members work to discover, develop, and refine their performance skills in the dramatic arts.

An outgrowth of BOLLI’s long-standing “Scene-iors” Acting Troupe (an annual springtime course offering in which participants work on and present a staged reading of a play for the BOLLI community-wide audience), CAST provides interested members with opportunities to engage in a variety of creative drama/theatre exercises and basic acting work.

During each CAST session, the group does some warm-up pantomime followed by improvisation, concentration, and observation exercises. The techniques explored are then applied to short scenes from short stories, novels and plays as well as poetry.

Recently, after a rousing session of pantomimed catch and jump rope, the group was split into two sections who were each charged with the task of creating tableaux highlighting “the key moment” in its well-known fairy tale. Of course, at BOLLI, this meant first spending several minutes in highly animated intellectual discussion and debate about which moments in these tales are truly seminal. (In “Red Riding Hood,” for example, is it when the wolf gobbles up Red? Or is it when the Woodsman arrives on the scene? In “Cinderella,” is it when Cindy loses her slipper or when the Prince arrives to try it on the Ugly Stepsisters?) The intensity and commitment to the work were palpable.

Later in that session, various “misunderstood” fairy tale characters appeared on an improvised Dr. Phil-like television talk show to air their woes. Here, Snow White’s Queen (Judy Blatt) and Cinderella’s Stepmother (Sandy Clifford) share their frustrations with their television audience.

MALIGNED MOMS Snow White's Queen (Judy Blatt) and Cinderella's Stepmother (Sandy Clifford)
MALIGNED MOMS Snow White’s Queen (Judy Blatt) and Cinderella’s Stepmother (Sandy Clifford)

During another session, we delved into the importance of “focus” in setting any scene and applied what was learned about the use of the eye to scenes offering particular “focal” challenges. Becki Norman, Monique Frank, and Eileen Mitchell (below) take some planning time to determine how to approach George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, a story in which young George’s Grandmother downs a dose of quite a nasty concoction which gives her such a jolt of energy that she shoots up to the ceiling where she is suspended for some time.

GEORGE 1
SETTING THEIR SCENE Becki Norman, Monique Frank, and Eileen Mitchell

 

GEORGE
George (Monique) is stunned to see Grandma (Becki) in robust, rising movement.

Another group—consisting of Irwin Garfinkle, Judy Blatt, and Bunny Cohen—took on the challenge provided by The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl, a short story by Ray Bradbury in which a man who has just committed a murder becomes completely obsessed with removing his fingerprints from every inch of the man’s home.

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OBSESSION TAKES HOLD Irwin Garfinkle, Judy Blatt, Bunny Cohen

FRUIT 2

After the two groups viewed each other’s work, Bunny broke into a huge smile. “This is so much fun!” she said to the rest of the CAST. Then she grinned.  “Remember when we used to just stand there and read?”

The group will continue to meet on Tuesdays throughout August and then, when the new term begins, will switch to a Friday time. Watch the weekly Bulletin for meeting announcements—any interested BOLLI member is welcome to CAST a line at any point!

MEET MEMBER DICK HANELIN: “WELL-GROUNDED” PRINTMAKER

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BOLLI Member Dick Hanelin shares linoleum prints based on his photography with the Camera Club.

At a meeting of the Camera Club during the spring term, relatively new BOLLI member Dick Hanelin shared linoleum prints he has made from photos he has taken.  The amount of detail and intricacy in his work are quite stunning.  Here’s what Dick has to say about his art.

I was an elementary school teacher for 37 years and taught in New York City and Newton, MA.   As a teacher,  I integrated the visual and performing arts into all curriculum areas.  After retirement, I took a variety of art courses and found I was most smitten by creating sculptures and linoleum prints.  Through Arthur Sharenow’s course at BOLLI,  my interest in photography was rekindled, and I have used some of my photos as a springboard for creating some of my linoleum prints.

I was drawn to linoleum prints because of the bold and graphic images that can be created through the use of contrasts.  In seeking out subjects for my prints, I am always thinking about shape, texture, line, and value. These elements of design are my driving force. That is why, for example, I find construction sites and basements (not your typical subjects) as fertile ground for my prints. I try to create a tension and movement in my pieces by using both realistic and imaginative elements in my compositions.

The printmaking process begins with making a drawing and then transferring it onto a block of linoleum.  I then carve into the linoleum with a variety of tools that create marks of different thicknesses. After this, ink is rolled onto the block of linoleum. (For my prints, it’s black ink.)  Where I have cut out the linoleum, white lines, shapes, and textures will appear, while the rest of the print will be black or gradations of grey.  This process takes much time, but I find it very enjoyable.

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Hanelin_004_web copy

Dick and his wife Isobel, both career educators,  are now active BOLLI members who serve on the Study Group Support Committee. We are all benefitting from the wealth of their experience!

 

 

 

 

 

 

JULY’S SENIOR MOMENT: The Bright Side

Eleanor and Liz
Senior Moment Bloggers, Eleanor Jaffe (left) and Liz David (right)

LOOKING AT THE BRIGHT SIDE

by Liz David

The tune came up on my iPod during my morning “constitutional.”

Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.

I love the tune.

I step in time to the music, and I sing along as I walk.

But, how is it possible to always look at the bright side…

When my sister-in-law Miriam, whom I’ve known since I was nine, died a few weeks ago after ten years in a nursing home?

When my friends are facing life-threatening obstacles?

When the world is so topsy-turvy?

When terrorists kill and maim the innocent almost every day?

When children, old folks, and thousands in between don’t have enough food?

When our presidential candidates have higher disapproval than approval ratings?

When, worst of all, the Red Sox lose to the L.A. Angels by a score of 21-2? I mean, really!

The saying “when you save a life, you save the world” is true.

So, as elders, we need to connect our heads and our hearts,

To encourage ourselves and others to do what we can when we can,

To reach out to the people around us,

To make a difference by modeling what it is to really live, every day, until we die,

To, hopefully, save the world.

OUR TURNER STREET GALLERY: Helen Abrams’ Photography

 

AT THE TURNER STREET GALLERY:  HELEN ABRAMS

BOLLI Member and Photographer Helen Abrams
BOLLI Member and Photographer Helen Abrams

Currently, a host of Helen’s photographs are on display at 60 Turner Street.  Beginning at the stair landing where two pieces hang, viewers can proceed to the Purple Room to find an additional set of framed works which showcase her lovely work.

This is not the first show of Helen’s work.   She has had pieces in both group and solo shows at the Holyoke Center Art Gallery in Cambridge, the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, and at both the Arlington and Watertown Public Libraries.

Helen says that “Photography has inspired me to find new ways of expressing the way I see and experience the world. I find beauty in the smallest details; in the fleeting shadows and light; in the juxtaposition of lines, texture, colors and shapes. Whether traveling or observing nature, I use my camera to capture an image (of plants and trees especially) that might not be a traditional view. My goal is to bring back a glimpse of what I’ve experienced in a way that makes you stop for a moment to enjoy and reflect.”

A virtual tour of Helen’s current show at Turner Street includes:

Yellow Wood Tree
Yellow Wood Tree

“This photograph of a yellow wood tree was taken several years ago at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  Sadly, it is no more–it was struck by lightning and taken down last year.  So, this image is a treasured memory.”

Great Brewster Line
Great Brewster Line

“I took this one last summer when we were visiting Great Brewster Island and lighthouse.  The shoes, held together with clothespins, were sitting on the lighthouse base drying in the sun.”

Helen Abrams Photography
The Stewartias
“The stewartias, my favorites, are two trees located in the Consecration Dell at Mt. Auburn Cemetery that have ‘four season interest.’  This photo was taken in the fall, and you can see the leaves turning a beautiful shade of red/orange.  But it’s the bark, which stays the same all through the year that makes me love the stewartias.  Shades of brown and gray, stately and grand.”
Old Door Lock
Old Door Lock
Out on a Limb
Out on a Limb
Twin Birches
Twin Birches
Roman Garden
Roman Garden
Birch Butterfly
Birch Butterfly

For information about purchasing images or future shows, contact Helen at hsabrams@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

JUNE SCREENING ROOM: “GREAT DAMES”

“GREAT DAMES”

by Sue Wurster

When it comes to movies and videos, my taste tends to run to all things British, and in this first installment of our monthly “Screening Room” feature, I thought I’d share a few gems starring my favorite British “Great Dames” Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith.

You may not have run across Dame Judi in the 2014 British made-for-television gem, ESIO TROT.  Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Dench plays a sweet widow living in an apartment house for mature residents.   Her new upstairs neighbor, Mr. Hoppy (Dustin Hoffman), soon notices the lovely lady as he waters the lush plants in his terrace garden.  This is a sweet, warm romance well worth searching out.

ESIO TROT

It can actually be seen online by clicking here.

In 2012, Dame Judi made a very short TV movie called FRIEND REQUEST PENDING in which she and a friend spend an afternoon exploring the world of social media networking.  A wonderful piece about love and lifelong friendship.

FRIEND REQUEST

Dame Joan Plowright in MRS. PALFRY AT THE CLAREMONT is a 2005 gem.   Essentially abandoned by her family after moving her into the Claremont Hotel, Mrs. Palfry ends up enjoying a wonderful friendship with a young writer.

MRS P

And for anyone who loves a good comic mystery, WIDOWS PEAK is not to be missed.  The lovely young Edwina (Natasha Richardson) moves into Widows Peak, where a surprising number of residents fit that description, and stirs up the social scene.  Great fun!

WIDOWS

And then, there’s dear Dame Maggie.  Ah…Maggie–she just keeps going!  Her most recent venture, THE LADY IN THE VAN is the true story of playwright Alan Bennett’s relationship with an eccentric homeless woman who parked her van temporarily in his driveway…and remained there for fifteen years.  Beautifully done.

the-lady-in-the-van

And if you didn’t catch this 2003 HBO Made-for-TV movie, give MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA a try.  After a terrorist bomb is detonated on a train in Italy,  Mrs. Delahunty, a rather eccentric romance novelist, opens her villa to three stranded survivors.

UMBRIA

One of my favorites includes all three of my cinematic idols–so, if you haven’t seen TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, it’s a must.  And if you have, it may be time for another visit.   It’s a lush, semi-autobiographical Zeffirelli production about a young boy being brought up by a group of British woman during (and after) World War II.

TEA 3

Lily Tomlin (a different sort of dame altogether) is in this one as well, and I recently saw GRANDMA on “On Demand.”  Lily plays a poet who hasn’t written since losing her partner.   When her pregnant teenage granddaughter appears on her doorstep, she is quick to rise to the occasion to help her.

GRANDMA

Share YOUR favorites in an upcoming “Screening Room” feature!

MEET MEMBER LARRY SCHWIRIAN: Drawing on Experience

MEET MEMBER LARRY SCHWIRIAN: DRAWING ON EXPERIENCE

Larry
Member and Writer Larry Schwirian

I was born and raised in a small town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, the second of five children. I guess you could say my father was a small business person–he owned a milk hauling route, picking up raw milk from farmers and hauling it to a dairy. As cows give milk twice every day, this was a 365-day a year job, so we never took family vacations. Still, he managed to serve on the town council for over thirty years and twice served as mayor of the town. When my mother was fifteen, her mother died, and she became surrogate mother to her six younger siblings. So, I grew up with not only an older brother and three younger sisters but with sixteen girl cousins who all lived within walking distance. Our house was where everyone congregated for morning coffee, gossip, and news analysis.

At eighteen, I went off to Case Institute of Technology to study engineering but decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I transferred to Western Reserve to study architecture. It was there that I met my wife Caroline. A year after graduation from Case Western Reserve University, we were married, and a year after that, we moved to the Boston area, working as architectural novices in large firms in Cambridge. Very soon after that, the first of our three sons was born, and a few years after that, we moved into our historic home in the Auburndale section of Newton.

Over the next forty plus years, I worked for a number of large firms in the area and eventually became a project manager and/or a project architect. I had the opportunity to work on projects all over the country in addition to doing local projects like the Harvard Square Subway Station, The Wang Ambulatory Care Center at Mass General Hospital, Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown, the addition to the old Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston, and One Newton Place in Newton Corner.

In 2010, Caroline and I retired from our positions in large firms, and in 2011, we established our own firm, Caroline & Lawrence Schwirian, Architects LLC.  We still do some residential work, and I still do some technical consulting with larger firms, but for the most part, we have enjoyed retirement, watching our grandchildren grow, and trying to keep up with gardening, yard work, and house maintenance.

In the fall of 2015, we joined BOLLI, and, for the first term, just attended the Lunch & Learns. I also participated in the Sages & Seekers program and joined the BOLLI Writers Guild. For the second term, I signed up for Betsy Campbell’s “Five Stories in Five Weeks” writing class, Peter Carcia’s “The Art of Storytelling” class, Mary Ann Byrnes’  “The Elephant in the Room” class about metaphors, and Larry Koff’s class on “The Death and Life of Cities and Towns in Metro Boston.”  I enjoyed all the classes, but I especially relished the opportunity to refine my writing and storytelling skills.

Here is one of the nonfiction pieces Larry has done as a participant in the BOLLI Writers Guild.

GIFTED OR TALENTED

(In Response to the Prompt: “What a Remarkable Gift”)

What is the difference between being “gifted” and being “talented?” Although there are no generally agreed upon definitions for these two words, they are similar in meaning but are generally used in different ways.  The term “gifted” is most often, but not always, used in conjunction with intellectual ability and implies an innate quality. In many school placement decisions, individuals with IQ scores above 130 (the upper 2% on the bell curve) are generally classified as being “gifted.”  While a person’s IQ may or may not be a true measure of intelligence, it at least measures some innate ability. The term “talented” is most often used to describe someone with an acquired ability to perform significantly above the norm in any one of many different endeavors, including but not limited to music, art, food preparation, or athletics but typically not intellectual pursuits. A person becomes “talented” after much hard work and practice.

I am aware of no numerical scale that can be used to evaluate “talent” in music other than the number of records or albums sold by an artist, but it would be unfair and foolhardy to compare the “talent” of a classical violinist to a pop singer by this method. Similarly, there is no logical way to numerically evaluate a painter, a sculptor, or a chef.   Sports may be the exception.   In baseball, for example, the batting or earned run average can be used to evaluate a player’s performance.   In football, a quarterback can be evaluated based upon the percentage of passes completed, touchdown passes thrown, or number of games won, but you can’t really evaluate the “talent” of a defensive lineman by comparing it to the “talent” of a running back or quarterback.

Using the above meanings, it is possible to be “gifted” without being “talented” and “talented” without being “gifted.”   It is also possible to be both “gifted and talented,” which is probably the case for most people who rise to the very top in their respective vocations. It could be said that people like Madonna and Shakira are both “intellectually gifted” and “musically gifted” as well as being “talented.”   Many people would agree that Elvis Presley was “musically gifted” and “talented” but not “intellectually gifted.”  Many who don’t make it quite to the top can be very “talented” but not necessarily “gifted.”  Similarly, most lists don’t include Sharon Stone as being among the one hundred most “talented” actresses, but I have read that she has a nearly genius IQ of over 150.

While it appears there is at least some standard way to evaluate whether a person is “intellectually gifted,” there is no universally accepted, objective way to evaluate and compare the “talent” of two or more individuals.  One would have to say then that “giftedness” is innate, but “talent” is in the eye, ear, nose, or taste buds of the beholder.

You can leave comments for Larry in the box below.

 

 

MEET MEMBER MARJORIE ROEMER: “It Feels Like Choreography”

MARJORIE ROEMER: “IT FEELS LIKE CHOREOGRAPHY”

A Profile by Sue Wurster

Marjorie Roemer
BOLLI Member, SGL, Study Group Support Committee Chair, Writer, and more…

Every August, a group of writers and teachers of writing gather at the Bread Loaf Inn near Bread Loaf Mountain near Middlebury, Vermont for a ten-day conference. The New Yorker has called it “the oldest and most prestigious writers’ conference in the country.”  And this August, that group of prominent writers and teachers will include BOLLI’s own Marjorie Roemer.

Marjorie’s background as a teacher of writing is an impressive one, which includes her having served as director of the Rhode Island Writing Project and having been a frequent contributor to The Quarterly of the National Writing Project. Her scholarly publications have appeared in numerous professional journals; she has presented at a wide range of professional conferences; and, all along, she has taught.

At BOLLI, Marjorie’s memoir writing class has been a perennial favorite, with many participants, in fact, returning semester after semester.  (One class member has actually taken the course all nine times that it has been offered!) “I’m most relaxed when I’m teaching writing,” she says, “and after teaching everything from junior high through grad school, working on writing with this population is thrilling.” She explains that, in this setting, people write what is real, providing testaments to lives lived and reflected upon. “When we read and share, it is a stirring affirmation of our time of life and the wisdom that helps us to cope.”

And yet, writing and teaching writing were not Marjorie’s original path.  She actually started out as a dancer.

“I think I always danced,” she muses. “We did a lot of creative play in the neighborhood school I went to in Queens, so there was often a lot of movement.  I started lessons with Sophie Maslow at the New Dance Group when I was six.” Sophie Maslow, who danced with the Martha Graham company for nearly a decade, was, herself, a modern dance pioneer who founded the group. “Sophie did with us what modern dance teachers do with children—jumping over puddles, reaching up high for stars.  It didn’t seem serious enough to me, and I didn’t like it.  So I took ballet—and, to me, that was real dance! Eventually, when I was old enough to take the subway into the city, I studied at Ballet Arts at Carnegie Hall, and on Fridays, after class, I would go to City Center to watch the NYC Ballet Company. When I was a high school freshman, I finally saw Martha Graham, and it was a revelation. I began studying at the Graham studio and then, later, I was back at the New Dance Group—this time, with a new appreciation for puddles and stars. And then, I went to Bennington, in part because of its famous dance department.”

mom dancing edit
Marjorie in a piece she choreographed about a medieval lady and a bird.

After graduation, Marjorie studied at the Jose Limon company on a scholarship. Classes were not only taught by members of the company but often by Jose himself whom she remembers as “a tremendously elegant man who wore black tights and a ruffled white dress shirt when he taught. I never danced with his company but with Joe Gifford and my then husband Martin Morginsky who both ended up forming companies in New York. We taught and performed at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. And then, I had a baby, needed to make a living, and began teaching junior high school.”

After a thoughtful pause, Marjorie says that, “teaching feels like choreography to me” and that, to this day, she still gets that “on-stage, it’s-here-and-now, rush” before every class begins. “I feel like my whole life has been ‘provisioning’ as I have looked to find the rhythm and the shape of it. Looking at a class this way gives me a sense of how I might shape it–but how I might improvise at the same time.”

This juxtaposition of planning and improvising seems to be central to Marjorie’s thoughts about dance, about teaching, and about life itself. “That idea of working with ‘the chance thing’ is so intriguing to me…surprising yourself—shaping but maintaining some wildness.” The poet Stanley Kunitz, she points out, says that, “when you pay too much attention, the garden becomes a landscape.”

Today, Marjorie’s writing takes a largely reflective bent—as is evident in the following sermon she wrote and delivered recently at the UCC in Franklin.

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RECALCULATING

A Sermon by Marjorie Roemer

I’m a retired English professor, but the sonnets of Shakespeare are not all memorized in my mind, in order 1 – 154. They are not even all entirely familiar. But one of them has always nestled in my thoughts, even before it had particular, personal meaning for me.   Sonnet 73. Here’s the first stanza:

                       That time of year thou may’st in me behold                                                                When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang                                                            Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,                                                    Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

The poem reflects on the waning of life, the time when most leaves are gone, when only a few yellow leaves remain. The branches that once were filled with birds are now bare, like the empty section of a church where the choir once was housed. The poem is about the November of life… that time of waning. Not the end, but toward the end.

Somehow, the poem always seemed resonant for me, but as my husband was struggling with brain cancer in the last year of his life, the words seemed more and more relevant, etched into my consciousness. Don died almost a year and a half ago, but the poem follows me around, stays with me as background music, a sound track for my life.

                       That time of year thou may’st in me behold                                                                When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang                                                            Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,                                                    Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

 So, now in my 76th year, I think about this November of life. There is much, always, to remind us about aging. The new aches and pains, the knees that don’t quite work the way they used to, the forgetfulness, the night blindness, the diminishment of some faculties, the many losses in our world, in our circle of friends, in our closest loved ones.

But perhaps nothing marks age for me as sharply as my incompetence with electronic devices. Four-year-olds can manage what I struggle with. My grandchildren need to be called in to show me, one more time, how to play the DVD, how to work the iPad, how to text. What is intuitive for them is not for me and seems to mark a dividing line between our lives. Even more significant than our differences in musical taste, or the TV shows we watch, or the movies that we go to are these differences in how we access information, place ourselves as receivers and senders of the pertinent facts about our lives.

If I manage to master one medium, they are already on to the next. I’m on Facebook, but they have moved onto to InstaGram or Twitter. I can manage writing on the computer, but I don’t blog, use wikis, crowd source, or podcast.

What I have finally managed to use is my GPS. For several years, I avoided it. That woman with the irritating voice always wanted me to get on 495 from exit 17 on 140 instead of the King Street exit 16. So, I found myself at odds with her from the beginning. I put away the device and said I’d get along without it, Googling directions in advance and printing out a map. But, recently, I’ve come to rely on the lady in the GPS. When I’m driving alone now and floundering, it is useful to have her tell me that in .2 miles I will be turning right. Or to have her let me know that I’ve got another 45 miles to go on this road and I’m likely to arrive at my destination just in time.

But if I have any idea where I’m going, that I want to come home on 495, not on 126, that I don’t want to drive through Framingham Center on this trip, that I won’t get off the highway at Forge Park . . . I hear that voice saying over and over again recalculating, recalculating.

It has become a new mantra for me . . . recalculating. As I move on to a life alone after 48 years of marriage, to a house without children in it, to a life after retirement, I find myself recalculating, taking a new path, making new choices in the November of my life. And in this “time of year thou may’st in me behold,” while there is no GPS to tell me where to turn or how many miles more I have to go, I have found remarkable guides along the way, a reminder that when you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the universe, it will respond, it will provide.

I began to search out supports. Suddenly, friends became more central to my life . . . the women’s group at the condominiums where I live, the people I know from BOLLI. Old friends. Things that were in the background of my life moved to the foreground. My children became essential to me in a way that was new. And I added some new things as well: painting classes at the Danforth Museum and attendance at the First Universalist Society in Franklin.

I did not grow up believing in a bearded man sitting in the sky keeping watch over my every move and listening to my every cry for help. But I can’t help but believe in some sort of benevolence in the universe, some way that the world can provide what we need if only we are ready to receive. I arrived at the church sort of unexpectedly, venturing tentatively one Sunday when I read there would be some Miles Davis music played. It was right down the street, easy to get to, easy to sit down, and easy to enter on the fringe of this community. The music was great. The feel of the place was interesting. Though the rituals were new to me, the feel of a sacred communal space was palpable. I stayed.

Eventually, I took a sermon writing class and found that the task of writing in a way that bears witness to your own experience while also offering some hopeful idea for others to grab on to was intriguing and challenging. For me, in this last year, the primary subject has been loss– how to deal with it, how to survive it, how to make something useful from it. Writing sermons offered me new ways to approach the problem. I’ve searched for images or situations that could name what I was experiencing. What I found was…Recalculating.

So, on my recalculated journey, what have I found? Certainly that there is love and support in the world that you may overlook when you are tightly enmeshed in your own self-sufficient, small cocoon. Possibilities for growth and new directions are there when you need them enough to seek them out.

The final couplet of that Shakespeare sonnet is:

               This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,                                  To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Those lines haunted me as Don was dying. Mortality is certainly something we all know about. Still, we come, at certain moments in our lives, to know mortality more acutely, more directly. So it was for us when the surgeon said: “The surgery was entirely successful; he has fourteen months to live.”   For fourteen months, we lived with that life-sentence hanging over our every minute. And it was true . . . those moments became more precious because we knew that they were few, that they would soon be gone.

And if there is something positive to be wrested from this ordeal, it is that sense of mortality that gives meaning and savor to life. It is because it is fleeting that life is so very precious; it is because it is finite that we have to use it well. And, in the end, it is love which is the enduring, transforming action. Love emerges as the stave against obliteration, the defense against loss.

In her online column, Heart Advice, the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has some advice that can be applied here. She says:

YOU HAVE A CHOICE

If you have embarked on this journey of self-reflection, you may be at a place that everyone, sooner or later, experiences on the spiritual path. After a while it seems like almost every moment of your life you’re there, where you realize you have a  choice. You have a choice whether to open or close, whether to hold on or let go, whether to harden or soften, whether to hold your seat or strike out.  That choice is presented to you again and again and again.

In my words:    We can always recalculate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUNE’S SENIOR MOMENT: Resilience

This month, we decided to focus on resilience–from an expert’s point of view…and from our own.  We hope these thoughts resonate with you as well–Liz and Eleanor

Eleanor and Liz

RESILIENCE

By Elizabeth David

“Resilient people are like trees bending in the wind,” says Beth Howard in her article The Secrets of Resilient People. “They bounce back.” In her article, originally published in the November 10, 2010 issue of AARP Magazine, Howard says that developing and nurturing the quality of “resilience” is key to whether or not we age well.

Resilient people, she notes, have some qualities in common which, most importantly, can also be learned.  The following is a summary of the steps and qualities she isolates as being central to resilience. Resilient people…

  1. Stay Connected: “Research bears out the importance of connection, and good social support. .Resilient people report increased quality of life and well- being regardless of their burdens.”
  2. Remain Optimistic: Finding positive meaning in caregiving and helping others enhances ones ability to bounce back after death or a significant loss.
  3. Avoid Negative Thinking: “Experts say negative thinking is just a bad habit though it may take some work to change your mindset.” Negative thinking is learned and can be unlearned. We don’t need to be “cockeyed optimists” to have an optimistic point of view.
  4. Nurture Their Spiritual Dimension: Those of us who nurture our spiritual dimension, whether through religion or other means, bounce back from normal depression more easily.
  5. Maintain Their Sense of Wonder: “They’re playful.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross used to write that we should be childlike in developing our sense of wonderment.
  6. Give Back: “The benefit you derive for yourself is as great as that which you give to others.”
  7. “Pick Their Battles”: “tending to focus on things they have some influence over.”
  8. Eat Well and Stay Healthy: “Exercise literally helps to repair neurons in brain areas that are particularly susceptible to stress.”
  9. Gain Strength from Adversity: They find the “silver lining.”

When I interact with my BOLLI friends I often see examples of resilience that bring a sense of wonderment to my heart. As I am reminded of the above, so I hope that this will be food for thought for you in facing the challenges of life.

As we move forward together, may we all go from strength to strength.

 

To read Howard’s article, click here: “The Secrets of Resilient People”

TIMES OF CRISIS

by Eleanor Jaffe

With unnerving frequency, friends—especially male friends—are growing sick, having accidents, experiencing complications from illnesses and surgeries, and are dying.  Statistics have predicted this mortality jump among men while we women generally are outliving our male partners and classmates by some years.  Scant comfort for survivors.  We mourn our friends and comfort their widows.  We close ranks and try to hold one another closer.

Have you noticed?  Nothing in a good, long, traditional marriage prepares one for widowhood.  The division of labor and tasks, the other half of your memory, your partner in conversation, your bedmate — vanish.  And then there is just one, with the memories of two and only half the previous skills and talents.

A thousand or more miles away, my friend Tom has just died.  His wife Martha soldiers on.  I try to send comforts over the miles.  But if I, a friend, feel shaken, what does Martha feel?

All of us, we age mates, are on this road together–observing, experiencing, and comforting our friends.  The community that we have created and continue to create at BOLLI can be a sustaining and supporting one during our crises.  Our activities, courses, conversations, and shared experiences can provide new ballast during these senior years.  Let’s remember to support one another, and “be there” for each other.  Let’s connect, create new friendships, and reach out when needed.

 

BOLLI’S NEW BOOK CLUB

YES, BOLLI NOW HAS A BOOK CLUB!

Seems like such a natural for BOLLI, doesn’t it?   And yet, BOLLI’s Book Club has only recently been added to an ever burgeoning array of Special Interest Groups at 60 Turner Street.  Abby Pinard and Charlie Marz have been active in both the New Yorker Fiction Salon, focused on short stories, and the Poetry Circle.  Both are avid readers as well, and so, it seems as though it was a completely logical step to team up and lead a BOLLI-wide Book Club.   When asked about the forming of the group, the two had much to share.

> What made you decide to start the group?

Charlie: I wanted to be in a book group in which I had some greater control over the choices made.  Not that we’re not completely open to others’ suggestions, but I did want to be able to exert some significant influence over what we might read. I didn’t want to do it alone and thought co-leading with Abby, one of BOLLI’s most voracious readers, would make it more interesting and enjoyable – for me and for those who attend.

Abby: It was an easy decision for me when Charlie suggested it. I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to read them, and I knew there were many BOLLI members who would be ideal companions. I had gotten to know Charlie in the New Yorker Fiction Salon and the Poetry Circle (also venues for lively discussion), and I knew his leadership would elevate any discussion.

> Have you been in other book groups?  

Abby:  I’ve never been in a private book group, but, after retirement, I started attending a drop-in group at the library led by a wonderful professional book group leader (yes, there is such a thing). I came to trust her selections and particularly enjoyed the books I would not have chosen on my own.

Charlie: I’m in a non-fiction book group.  Mostly, we don’t talk about the month’s selection.  Almost every conversation becomes a discussion of politics, more often than not the Middle East.  I thought it might be time to find an opportunity to actually talk about interesting and provocative contemporary literary fiction.

> How did you go about choosing the books that you have chosen for the group thus far?

Charlie:  So far, they’ve been a mix of books we’ve read and felt would be good for discussion (Stegner’s Crossing to Safety) and books from our stacks of books we’ve not read but that have been well received (Schlink’s Homecoming and Erdrich’s The Round House).  We’ve also tried to focus on work that is relatively accessible (i.e. in paperback and without long wait lines at the library), relatively short (200-300+ pages), and by important if sometimes overlooked writers.

Abby:   We also wanted to mix things up: something old, something new, some challenging, some less so,…

> What plans do you have for the future of the group?

Charlie:  Our hope is that we will continue to meet monthly throughout the year and that there will continue to be a group of 15 – 20 who find the books selected and conversation sufficiently interesting to trust our choices and to return as often as possible.

Abby:  What he said.

> So, what are some of your all-time favorite books?

Abby:   Here are a few, spanning many years–The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, the four “Rabbit” novels by John Updike, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, anything by Philip Roth,…

Charlie:   Hard enough to remember what I read last week.  I suppose McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, early John Irving, McKewan’s Atonement

Clearly, these two have excellent taste, and each gathering of the group is sure to be an animated and engaged one.  Come once–come regularly.  And enjoy!