So, What Do You Do?

A reader of my blog sent me the following email:

I thought that you might be able to help answer a question my wife asked me the other day.

She and I were talking about living in Alaska.  I believe I have shared with you about my future plans.  Plan “B” is to move to Alaska and live a little bit away from civilization, kind of like what you are doing in Maine.

We were talking about some land for sale near a town called “T” and the possibility of buying it and building on it. “T” is a small town with a population of about 700.  There isn’t much there.  It is primarily a tourist stop when people are going to Denali from Anchorage.  In the winter, “T” might as well be on the other side of the moon.

After looking at what is near “T,” and that this land is a little bit away from “T,” my wife asked me “So, what do you do there?” I was taken back as I never really thought about it.  What she was asking was what do you do with your life when you move away from family, civilization, synagogue and even people?  I didn’t have an answer for her.

It occurred to me that you are living this kind of life.  And even though I have been reading your blog, I don’t know just what you “do.”

I think my wife might have also been asking “What do I do with life now that the children are leaving/gone.”  And “What would I do with no prospect of a Jewish community in which to involve myself.”

I know that one of the questions I have to answer for myself is if it’s a good idea to drag my wife off to the middle of nowhere.  And my answer is “I don’t know right now.”

Anyway, maybe you could answer the question “So, what do you do?”


Dear Friend:

There are both practical and psychological components to your letter; I will try to answer accordingly.

Let me state from the outset that I have never lived in Alaska, nor have I had the zechus to visit there, so I cannot give you answers that are specific to Alaska.  A wonderful forum exists on the Internet that is specific to each of the 50 states of the U.S.  I suggest you join this forum and “lurk” around it for several months.  You will get a feel for how people interact, and the hands-on info you receive to just about any question you place will be a great indicator of whether you can relate and possibly have a future there.  This is the link specific to Alaska:  http://www.city-data.com/forum/alaska/

I can speak only from what I know via personal experience in Maine, which is still pretty much in the infancy stage.  For instance, I can wax poetic about the power of solitude and the quiet beauty of the first snowfall, but due to familial and professional obligations in my home town, I haven’t lived more than two months consecutively in Maine.  Maybe the solitude I so relish will turn into abject loneliness; the endless winter might find me cursing my snow shovel; the isolation could turn from a reprieve from civilization into a feeling of  suffocating imprisonment and solitary confinement.  I just don’t know how I will feel – and I am actually anxious to find out!

Due to our depressed economy, my first thought is that today, it makes little sense to build when there is an ample supply of  seriously undervalued homes for sale just about everywhere, that are selling for much less than it would cost to build them new.    This was not the case when we bought our land and started building, but it is the case today.  So if at all possible, it may make sense for you to buy an attractively priced home that you can fix up to your liking, rather than starting from scratch.

I don’t know what the work ethic is like in Alaska.  In Maine, we have tradesmen and craftsmen who truly take pride in their work, and who work for $10 – 15 per hour.  In Maine, people work to earn enough to meet their needs, but rarely their wants.  I haven’t experienced the greed and “me first” attitude that is so common elsewhere.  Is the area you are looking at amenable to non-natives settling there?  Will they deal fairly with you, or will they take advantage of you because you are from afar?  Is the area relatively free of crime, especially theft and vandalism?  Because there will probably be lengthy spans of time where you will not be present to supervise your property.

Is a social life important to you?  If yes, then you need to start meeting people in that town to see if you can relate to them as future neighbors and friends.  How do they spend their free time?  What are the social problems of the town?

In the more remote parts of Maine, we have many different “types.”  Some are woodsmen, some are hippies and/or artists or lovers of nature.  Others are loners or hermits or eccentrics.  And yes, there are people who come to remote areas to escape a tragic – and sometimes destructive – past.  People who live on the fringe may be your neighbors or your workers.  Can you deal with that?

Even more so than Maine, the severe weather in Alaska will hamper any construction project.  It is unlikely that construction of your house will be completed in one season.  How will you protect your property and the building materials and infrastructure while it lies vacant over several months’ time until construction can resume?  Do you have the wherewithal to embark on a project that may take several years to complete?  Do you have the ability to check on its progress and monitor your workers?

Have you ever lived with your spouse 24/7 for weeks at a time?  Was it fantastic – or stressful?  If you will be away at your job, will your spouse be able to cope with living alone?  Will she feel safe? Bored? Can she handle an emergency in extreme weather, be it mechanical, medical, or practical?  Are you comfortable living with your Self?  Because there is no one to turn to for diversion.

I live in a remote area, but not that remote.  I live 30 miles from the nearest gas station, market, and shopping; it’s about 40 minutes by car in good weather.  Yes, I could be stranded at home in bad weather for a week or two, but I am prepared with all sorts of supplies.  I also know that – – and this is an important distinction from living truly remotely, as you are planning on doing – – that if I have a need, be it practical or emotional, I can, if I want to, drive the 30 miles and be back in civilization (and that includes a WalMart!)  I rarely have this need, but perhaps just knowing that I could go is enough to keep me from needing or wanting to go  – it’s an oddly comforting possibility always stored in my back pocket.

In my case, I felt I needed a break from certain aspects of Jewish community life and its institutions, but certainly not from Judaism or Torah or individual Jews.  We may not be in Brooklyn or Jerusalem, but there are Jews everywhere!  Even in Maine or Alaska.  We have fewer opportunities to mingle with Jews, but we have Jewish guests nevertheless.  It takes more effort to seek them out and make a connection, but it is certainly possible.  And today there are literally thousands of lessons available via phone, mp3, and the Internet covering Talmud, Tanach, Philosophy, Ethics, and Jewish Law.  So isolation is not an excuse for ignorance or complacency.

As far as how an Alaskan adventure will affect your relationship/marriage, I can’t really (and really don’t) want to speculate.  Obviously I could not have begun this journey without my spouse’s 100% encouragement, enthusiasm, and support.  He really does avidly enjoy the Maine experience, too, but has also said that there is no way he would have done it if I hadn’t instigated it and seen the project through to completion. That said, the ramifications of my adventure are anything but simple.  By keeping our project under wraps until it was a done deal, many people felt hurt and betrayed by our secretiveness.  Family members were/are angry, and feel to some degree a sense of rejection and abandonment and distrust.  Sometimes I ask myself if, indeed, we’re nuts:  we have wonderful. loving children and grandchildren living nearby and we are not there, or to paraphrase one of them, “What are we, chopped liver?”  The truth is, I have always been there for my family, and devoted my life to them.  Being a mother and grandmother is and was my entire identity, even more so than being a wife.  So that’s why your wife’s question, “What do I do with life now that the children are leaving/gone?” is especially poignant to me.

When my children married, I was totally lost.  I was truly happy for them  – – it is every parent’s wish to see their child happily married – – but I was bereft.  I didn’t understand why I felt this way.  So I went to my local rabbi who, instead of feeling sympathy for my sadness, said, “You need to get a life!”  The thing is, I loved being a caretaker.  It wasn’t an obligation, it was my passion.  Even if I didn’t always do it well, it was all I wanted to do.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long before grandchildren were born, and once again I slipped into the role of caretaker before I could really think about an alternative identity.  I loved caring for them, and quite frankly, I loved feeling needed.

Then HaShem gave me a test, a test which to this day I feel I failed.  I became a caretaker of our parents, a role that goes completely against the laws of nature.  And I couldn’t handle it.  Even later, when I doled out most of the responsibility to a paid caretaker, it wasn’t enough.  I. Could. Not. Handle. It.

An essence of Judaism is the performance of chesed (acts of lovingkindness).  And all around me, in my community, I see people performing countless chesed.  I also see people performing chesed at the expense of themselves, or sometimes at the expense of their families.  Running, running – the clock is ticking and we have to get in as many mitzvos as possible before we die, that we may have a share in olam haba (the World to Come).  But what if our capacity to give is not limitless or unconditional?  I suppose the answer is to keep at it, to learn to grow from that which challenges us.  But what if one person’s ability is less than another’s?  And why are we given models which are seemingly impossible to attain?  Why does doing anything less than tzaddik-level chesed make me feel inferior and like I’ve failed because of the feeling that I can’t measure up to the standards expected of me?  I will speak for myself, although I sense that I’m speaking for others:  What if I am tired?  What if I need a break?  What if, in giving so much of myself to others, I negated my “me?”  How do I come to grips with the sense that I feel so limited, and therefore have failed in the most basic tenet, to perform chesed?  Someone once asked Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller if the particular chesed activity she (the woman) was involved in “could really be counted as a chesed – how can it be a chesed when I enjoy it so much and I in turn benefit from that nachas?”  Rebbetzin Heller answered that one must do chesed with simcha (happiness).  Therefore you should choose a chesed activity that you enjoy – you don’t get extra credit for choosing a chesed you find burdensome or that you can’t do with simcha, because it can become self-defeating.  Alas, sometimes we do not have the luxury of  “choosing” which chesed to perform . . . but do it we must, and hopefully from it we will learn and grow . . . even in defeat.

So this is about taking a break, but it’s also about reinventing my Self, and redistributing my priorities.   My children may need me to babysit, but they don’t really need me or need me:  they’re responsible adults, parents of their own children, successfully employed, socially adept.  They appreciate my babysitting but they also expect it, and do not distinguish why I might like to do something else without feeling rejection or detachment from their families; nor do they consider that I may have to interrupt or discontinue an activity I’m involved in to fulfill  their desires.  On the one hand I’m honored and pleased that they trust me and want me to take care of their children (and they are most certainly wonderful grandchildren, who are a beautiful blessing and source of nachas to me!), on the other hand I feel devalued because my own obligations and activities are deemed of lesser importance than meeting their needs.  I also know that they will never be able to understand these ambiguous feelings until they reach midlife and find themselves in my shoes!

Reinventing myself will be an ongoing process, because my identity over the next few years as I age will be in a constant state of flux.  I have chosen to make this change in my life to help rediscover who the new Me will be, now and in the future, when I will undoubtedly have to reinvent myself yet again.   I loved my life as a caretaker of my children, but I am following the rabbi’s admonition:  I am making a (new) life, and redefining myself so that I can bear to live with myself fully instead of a shadow of myself. And at the end of the day, either my spouse or myself, despite the love of my children, will be alone.  The clock is ticking.  I want to prioritize my time in my relationship with my spouse, which is something I’ve neglected.  My kids might have been a legitimate excuse for neglecting my spouse  when they were small, but then it became a sort of pattern.  I doubt I’m the only woman out there who experienced this.  I really want to make him, me, and us come first, while we still have our health, our minds and our hearts.  I also see that if this little adventure turns out to be a big misadventure, I will still take away much, and with what I have learned, I will reinvent myself yet again.  I look at being in a state of flux not as a sign of instability, but of flexibility, of open-mindedness.  As long as I want to learn, to be curious, to achieve – – I am alive.

I recently had a friend, who is a mother and grandmother,  visit me from my home town.  Something she said touched me deeply.  She said the reason she came to visit was not only to get away for a little vacation, but because in re-evaluating her life, she realized that perhaps at this stage in life it was time to nourish her friendships.

The first 24 hours of her stay she got constant texts, emails, and phone calls from her children, siblings and parents.  Not to worry, but this kid is sick. Never mind, but that one is stressed from work.  It’s really okay, but another is exhausted.  But it’s fine, we are managing. And when did you say are you coming back?  We miss you . . .Don’t forget we need you to (choose one or more) babysit, pick up carpool, shop, attend a birthday party, go to a school event, be there for a snow day. . .

I guess this is what is meant by the “sandwich generation” and I realized that it is not only me that feels pulled from all directions.  I don’t know if I was comforted or horrified or amused that my friend and I share this common experience of expectations and demands, exhaustion and guilt . . . but I could certainly relate!

Your wife’s question, “What do you do?” is good.  There is a different answer to that question for every person, because every person is different.  So what if you stumble in trying to find out what to do with this new phase in your life?  There may be loss, error, or poor judgment, but the only things set in stone are death and taxes, as long as you are constantly willing to forge ahead and reinvent yourself.  (And even if you don’t feel a need to reinvent, and you are truly happy with yourself, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to always grow).  Just remember that your spouse is your “partner in crime” and a goal of  the ramifications of your decision should be to further strengthen and revitalize that partnership even as it is redefined.

That said, what do I do in the practical sense? I still have the same chores (cleaning, food preparation, shopping, etc) but now I have more time for research, writing, reading, photography, learning, creating, loving, listening, exploring, thinking, and spiritually communing.  There is no time to be bored – I’m too busy living.

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