Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Four Years

There was no wonder I picked Hoboken as the place to relocate when I first saw it back in June 2007. The wide sidewalks of Washington Street were welcoming, the skies were blue, the people friendly as those in a small town. It had the self-contained feeling of a historical and pleasant community, yet it was only 20 minutes from the heart of New York City by bus or subway.

I put my house on the market, sold 3/4 of my furniture and possessions--including my car--bought a one-way airline ticket, and packed my bags. I was returning north from the town founded as utopia to the one known as the mile-square city. I had lived my happiest years in New York back in the 1960s and 70s, but with the way things were I found it impossible to afford now. Hoboken would have to do, even though I assumed I would be spending a lot of time in Manhattan. That was four years ago. On December 1, Fairhope friends drove me to the Pensacola airport, where I flew to Newark and spend the first night of my new life in a Marriott in Jersey City. It was much colder in Jersey City than in south Alabama which I had just left, but I was prepared for that. The Marriott is in a neighborhood I know pretty well now, across from the Pavonia Newport Mall.

I walked, that cold December day, from the Marriott to Target and bought a pair of folding chairs, carrying them back to my hotel room. There would be no furniture in the new apartment but an inflatable bed and these until the moving men brought my stuff from Alabama in a few days. I've been around long enough to know a body does need a chair or two.

My furniture did arrive as scheduled, and I began to make adjustments to my new location bit by bit. I found that what furniture I'd kept more than filled the 800-sq.-ft. apartment. Luckily there were lots of big closets, and most of the stuff was shoved in. I bought a little single bed since the bedroom was too tiny to get even a double in comfortably. I was also able to use the little room for my laptop. I began my new blog.

Right away I found a doctor, a dentist, and the public library. I explored Hoboken on foot and got a little disoriented looking for basics like the A & P; tried to adapt to the colder climate, and wrote about all my new situations on the blog. A compulsive blogger in my home town, writing about my life helped me clarify things in my own mind.

The enormity of what I had done was slow to sink in. I had thought about the climate, the isolation, the difficulties of getting everywhere on foot--the blank slate that lay before me--and it all confronted me every morning. It was a whole new life. There would be no phone calls, no board meetings, club meetings, organizational meetings. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t experience this as loneliness, but rather as a transition to something I couldn’t possibly understand. It seemed like an opportunity, but I couldn’t define for what.

I felt a little uncomfortable in my own skin, as if I were in a dream or on vacation in a place where I could speak the language but nothing else. I would get confused on the city streets, even in my old neighborhood in Manhattan. I took it slowly and didn’t push myself into doing too much too soon. It seemed as if my feet always hurt, from the walking and from minor foot surgery I had endured at the end of summer. I was never sure my clothes looked right--everybody in New York and New Jersey seemed to wear black all the time, not the bright colors and patterns I had been looking at in the South for almost 20 years. It took time to realize that this was less about Hoboken than about myself, facing a new phase of life in which I had to admit the person in the mirror looked didn’t look much like the self I had once known.

Writing a blog about these things was helpful in surprising ways. Within a few months people were actually reading the blog, which had not necessarily been the case of my blog in my home town, “Finding Fair Hope.” On the Fairhope blog I had had a few regular readers, but most of them were people I had known in the distant past, keeping in touch with me from far flung outposts. I had about five regulars from contemporary Fairhope, and they were all people I knew who seemed a little uncomfortable about the thought that I might quiz them about the blog the next time I saw them. Hoboken brought me an average of some 40 readers a day, and they began to make themselves known to me by sending me emails and commenting on the blog. The blog posts about "old" Hoboken brought interesting responses and commenters enlivened the blog and informed me about my new-found home. I learned what Hoboken was like in the 1940s and 50s, about the making of On the Waterfront, about the ice cream parlors and the Fabian Theater, Mr. Stover of Demarest High School and what it meant to be a b-n-r in those days. From Chris and Mary I learned where to get the best mutz in town (Lisa's); and I met Christina, who has been a loyal and kind friend in need ever since. I heard many stories about Frank Sinatra, and about the history of Hoboken as the birthplace of baseball and as a place of debarkation for the doughboys of WWI.

As time went by I felt less and less like a visitor and more convinced that this was indeed my real life. I could hop a bus and go see a matinee on Broadway in less than an hour's time and I saw some great ones: Bernadette Peters in both A Little Night Music and Follies, Kevin Kline in Cyrano de Bergerac, Christopher Walken in A Behanding in Spokane, Anything Goes, The Book of Mormon and the extraordinary English import Jerusalem I took my grandsons (who met me at the Port Authority Bus Terminal), to The Farnsworth Invention,, Blythe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, Avenue Q and All My Sons with John Lithgow. I've even omitted a few, but I've seen a boatload of plays.

I took part in a local reading of The Flora Dora Girls by Hoboken playwright Louis La Russo II and met a number of Hoboken and Jersey City actresses in the process. I wrote reviews on my blog of the productions of Hoboken's Hudson Theater Company every year.

With a little time and distance, my perspective on recent life events changes; I rewrote my book about Fairhope Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, retitled and repackaged it as The Fair Hope of Heaven.
I surprised myself by writing a novel last year, set in the utopian Fairhope of 1921, about a young teacher from Hoboken who finds herself there, finds romance, and moves on. It has been rewritten three or four times now and is in the hands of its second editor. I've learned that it's one thing to sail through the writing of fiction and quite another to make it come alive and interesting (nay, compelling) to an unbiased reader. It's more than a project--it is a new experience. An adventure.

After that first year I discovered the joy of going south for at least a month every winter. Last winter, full of blizzards and bitter temperatures in the Northeast, I decided to make that two months this year. I love the beginning of winter, the look of the city at Christmastime, the crunch of snow under my boots, but month and month of grey skies, layering clothes, and dodging slippery black ice, is wearing to the spirit. From South Alabama, I had become accustomed to a flowery and fragrant March. I shall spend that month where it is already spring, and when I return to Hoboken it will be spring here too.

Wherever I am based, things keep happening to me. Over time in Hoboken I've made new friends. I have the option of lunch with a friend or the theatre in New York, a visit with my daughter and her family upstate, or a movie date with a nice guy I met online. People still ask me why I chose Hoboken, and the answer is always that you may not know it, but it's a beautiful little town. I invite you to scroll through this blog for old posts that deal with my growing affection for Hoboken and my life here. It was a good move, just four years ago, and I love living with the promise of still better things to come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thank You for My Gratitude

It’s hard for me to think of Thanksgiving in the terms that other people say they do: Take some time every day to say something you are thankful for…Say grace at this meal by listing the things you are thankful for…If you had a wonderful mother (father, brother, child, cousin, etc), post this to your status for a day…

I have no memories of a Norman Rockwell meal with Granny placing the long-awaited bird on the table to the sound track of oohs and ahhs. My mother hated cooking and we never had turkey. We did not have a family of cousins, uncles and aunts who gathered together for one or two big meals during the holiday season. I didn’t miss it, because it had never happened. I loved my cousins, but they were teenagers when I was born and they lived in another state. Neither of my grandmothers were living. I had one great aunt whom we all treasured, but she stayed home that day to cook the big meal for her brothers who lived with her. We must have celebrated Thanksgiving with something, but I don’t remember what.

I didn’t have turkey until I was in my late teens, and it always just seemed like an overgrown chicken to me. I learned to cook it and had it often that first year of marriage because it was so cheap. I loved all the things you could do with the leftovers, and with cooking a whole turkey for two people there were always plenty of leftovers. The first Thanksgiving meal I prepared was one month after my wedding, in November of 1960. We had the boss and his wife over for the meal. It was a breeze as far as I remember, but all I know is that I made a cornbread stuffing with oysters. Probably I made pecan pie because it was one of the first things I had learned to cook.

We didn’t serve wine with Thanksgiving in the South in the 1950s. There was no more drinking on that day than any others, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much. There was no tradition of watching the game and getting drunk that has become part of the Thanksgiving ritual in so many homes today. I never saw the family brawls most people report from the tension of trying to create loving scenes of family joy and unity.

As to the thanks-giving,I didn’t learn about real gratitude until I was in my 50s. I was at my first Al-Anon meeting and a man, leading the group, said, “Whenever I get in a fight with my wife, I stop myself now. I say, ‘This is not about her. It’s about me. I want to blame her, I want her to change—but all I can change is myself; all I can change is my reaction to her.’” I had never heard anything like this before. It’s not about her. It’s about me. I was overcome by a feeling that I identified as relief. In these meetings, I learned that moment, it could be about me. “Me” was the only thing I could work on, the only thing I could change.

It was several months later at another meeting when someone suggested the topic of gratitude for the group to talk about. She expressed gratitude for a hammock chair she had bought for herself and the peace she experienced just swinging in it. When it was my turn to talk I said, “Gratitude! That is the silliest topic I’ve ever heard brought up in these meetings. I see nothing spiritual about swinging in a hammock chair…” The group laughed indulgently and told me that as a newcomer my response was valid and that they hadn’t grasped the healing power of gratitude for small things until they had been in the program for a while themselves. They went around the circle, as is done in 12-Step groups, speaking one by one, all contributing their notions of gratitude until finally it sank in, to me. What I had felt that first meeting when the the brave man spoke of fixing himself instead of yelling at his wife—the gift of being allowed to make your life about yourself and not about what some other person is doing or not doing. The feeling I had thought of as relief-at-long-last was not so much relief as gratitude.

Like many intangibles (serenity, for example; and sobriety), in the 12-Step programs, gratitude is regarded as palpable, malleable, a tool to be sought and found. It’s even a goal, to be planned for, sought and found every day of your life, not just when there’s an abundance of food and good cheer around. Gratitude can provide a path to a whole and resplendent life. Finding gratitude on a deep level is part of finding yourself. In Hoboken, or in Fairhope, in the movies, in a book, in creation, or in discovering insights, wherever you might be.

I’ve had many pleasant Thanksgiving meals, in my own homes and in those of others, and I’m sure a national day of thanks is a positive celebration in any society. The concept of gratitude, while suffusing this one day in most lives, transcends the day, the nation, the spirit and can bring a great deal more in depth and breadth to our lives than a day of eating, drinking, and watching football on television ever can.

I’m looking forward to a solitary, simple Thanksgiving Day this year. I love to cook and will give myself something special on the day. But the most special part of the day is the moment of personal realization. The joy of gratitude itself. That is the one thing every human being can give thanks for.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Me and Wall Street

For a minute after I got off the train at the World Trade Center stop I thought I wasn't even going to find the OWS protest. I had thought I'd just follow the crowd, but of course you don't do that in that part of the city--they are going everywhere. I knew Wall Street was somewhere off to my right so I started walking. Names that I recognized cropped up: Cortland, Vesey, Maiden Lane (I always liked that one). I assumed I was going vaguely in the right direction.

I didn't relax until I saw a news camera pointed in the direction I was walking. It had a little maple leaf sticker on the side--I and a cameraman from Canadian television were off to cover the movement. I didn't want to ask, "Can you tell me where the protest is?" Nothing more uncool than that.

Then, there it was. A little square filled with people, tents, and signs. The smell of Indian-vegetarian cooking was in the air, and young people holding signs that said things like PROSECUTE WALL STREET FRAUD lined the edges of the park. There were some 500 or more actively working in the stalls and I even got to hear one of those "human microphone" announcements. Everybody looked so happy and friendly I had trouble believing I was in the right place.

It's a little too easy to say it was the 60s all over again, but that was what it felt like. Maybe cleaner, maybe brighter, and not so angry. It looked to be mostly people in their 20s and 30s. A lady sat doing her knitting next to a sign that proclaimed she was a 52-year-old grandmother, and, "Don't wait for change. Be the change." All the people seemed to be diligently working on something--either the Liberty Library (a section of the park where books of all kinds are donated and traded) or passing out leaflets like The Occupied Wall Street Journal, and talking, explaining the mission and the movement. Nothing ambiguous about it. They were out of work and wanted to make their voices known. The top one per cent has all the money, we are not in that one per cent. We don't like being treated like undeserving children. We don't like that money dictates everything from where the jobs are (overseas) to who gets to be president--or what agenda that president follows.

The signs were well made and elegant. One read, "WE JUST BOUGHT REAL ESTATE IN YOUR MIND." Another held by a rather handsome young man said MEDIA: Please Tell the Truth about What Is Happening Here.

The Occupied Wall Street Journal is a good read. It's literate, upbeat, brief and to the point. It lists places where you can learn about the movement, or volunteer to help. It seems they need help in the areas of Outreach (mostly contacting commuters on the subway platforms and trains); Medical; Facilitation (holding daily training sessions on communication and mediation); Food; Comfort (sleeping in a park is not always comfortable, they need blankets, socks, etc.); and Design (this committee is responsible for the signs).

If you want to follow the occupation, here are some places you can go: or

As for me, the OWS movement has already bought real estate in my head.