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CLEANING THE SLATE – Part II

It doesn’t even pay to try to understand. Things happen, and they happen for a reason. More times than not, in our quest to find an acceptable explanation, we examine our actions, justify our behavior, rationalize situations. Still, the answers elude us.

Because the big picture is only reserved for the author of the Play of Plays, only He knows why disappointments, betrayals, and letdowns need to happen before we are allowed to see the light.

I draw a parallel between the loss of my friendship with Viviana (read the story here) and Hurricane Irma. As shattering and destructive as the hurricane was, it left us bewildered at how powerful Nature can be. And how cleansing.

Try to tell this to a homeowner who lost his house in the Keys, or a business owner who won’t be opening her doors any time soon, or to a resident of Puerto Rico who is desperately trying to muddle through the complete destruction of the infrastructure of the island. Notwithstanding the fury of a hurricane, what remains after it is not just a peaceful calm but shimmering nuggets of insight and understanding.

BEFORE THE STORM

In the steady blueish sky that appears before the storm, you can anticipate something eerie coming. But no matter how much warning you have, you can never be fully prepared. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston and surrounding areas in Texas this past summer, when the news announced that Irma was following behind, we in South Florida braced for the worst. Irma was headed directly toward the southeast coast of Florida, and Miami-Dade and Broward counties were in its direct path. Many people opted for leaving, especially those who had been forced to evacuate the coastal zones. Caravans of cars clogged I-95 toward Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina in a desperate exodus to escape the fury that was coming. My husband and I were actually supposed to attend a wedding in New York city that weekend and our flight was scheduled for Friday, September 8th. However, when we saw that Irma was expected to make landfall on Sunday September 10th–the day we were supposed to return–we cancelled the flight. Being stuck in New York city indefinitely was not a possibility for us and we decided to stay home.

It was Thursday, September 7th and the race for gas, water, non-perishables as well as protecting our home and business, was in full swing. After spending hours in line at the gas station, only to find out that gas had just ran out as our turn arrived, we had to make up for lost time. Hanging shutters manually is something I don’t cherish doing at my age, not that I am that old, mind you. Each steel panel had to be brought from the garage to the window to be covered, hung from the pegs that were screwed into the exterior wall, and secured with wingnuts. Believe it or not, it took my husband and I until Saturday morning to cover all the windows of our home, amid breaks to rest from exhaustion and heat. We also juggled keeping the business open while securing all the glass walls and front door with scraps of wood and anything else we could find.

We were finally ready. But the storm unexpectedly veered west, heading for the Keys and the west coast of Florida instead. So were we safe? Had all this preparation been for nothing? No. We were warned that this storm was a monstrous Category 5 and that its outer bands exceeded the width and length of the entire state of Florida. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. We had no choice than to brace for the worst, pray for the best, and ride out the storm.

And we did.

THE AFTERMATH

After the terrifying hours in which all we heard was the roaring of the wind as it passed through, we ventured outside to assess the damage.

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Sections of our fence were down and the area in the northeast corner I called my sanctuary, home to the blue jays and the turtledoves, was damaged beyond repair.

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Ficus tree in the background of my sanctuary – Before the storm

The ficus tree that provides shade to it lost most of its branches, which hung limply over the bench where I had meditated regularly. Now it was a scramble of torn vegetation, the cardinals and mockingbirds desperately flying in and out of the fallen debris looking for their nests and their young.

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My sanctuary after the storm

At the opposite end of the yard, the mango tree suffered extreme damage. My beloved mango tree

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which 12 years ago was only a two-foot-tall baby. The same mango tree that survived unscathed when the neighbor’s 80 ft pine tree fell on top of it during Hurricane Wilma back in 2005. The mango tree that inspired not only a poem in my first book of poetry Whispers of the Soul, but elicited a myriad of emotions at how and why it had survived in such a miraculous way.

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PERCEIVING THE LIGHT

So now, despite the devastation, I was able to unearth powerful revelations. For one, when something is supposed to happen, it will happen no matter what. You can prepare for it, you can fret about it, you can perch yourself on the verge of denial, but escape it you will not. It’s scary, and humbling. Sometimes I think G-d does it just so He can hear our voices reaching out to Him in prayer.

Looking at my fence, down at several places, made me think about vulnerability. All of a sudden we were no longer enclosed, our turf no longer contained within its boundaries. We were not protected from intrusions from the outside. Dealing with that sense of exposure was the first step toward healing: facing the outside world with all its threats–imagined or real–can be quite challenging, which brought me to my next revelation.

The yard was littered with broken limbs and debris. But those broken trees taught me about faith. I cried for the birds that had nested in them, birds I’d been feeding every morning for the past 20 years. Where would they go now? Would they fly to safer skies? Would they look for other trees? Would this mark the beginning of a new era in the development of my garden in which no birds would ever come back to feed?

I only had to wait one day for the answer:

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Cardinals flew back in their vibrant red plumage, and the blue jays dashed from broken branch to the edge of the fountain for a drink of water. The morning silence became peppered with a choir of chirps, coos, and trills. The birds were back, either to scope what was left of their homes or to gather from the rubble to rebuild new ones.

The over-sized vining leaves that had climbed up the fence, thick, green, abundant, were now a sorry reminder of what had been my sanctuary. Viviana had given us a stalk from her garden years ago, which we planted on the ground and nurtured with water and sun until they grew roots that would affix them firmly on the ground while climbing up the fence. It was no coincidence then that the same structure that symbolized protection from the outside world would be uprooted together with the same plants that anchored it firmly to the ground. Only a hurricane could yank it out of its security, leaving in its aftermath a decimated and sad view of what had once been a beautiful garden.

How propitious. A clean slate.

A blank page on the ground, on which happy stories can be written again, a canvas on which a new sanctuary can be rebuilt, amid harmonious melodies from songbirds that come to feed every day. A new environment that can replace the old one as it blooms once more with renewed vitality.

As for the mango tree, the gardener tells me it will come back. “Nothing like cutting and discarding what’s broken. All you have to do is fertilize it and you’ll have more mangoes than you’ll know what to do with.”

I’ll drink to that. With my newfound faith and the strength that comes from having survived–a hurricane and the loss of a friendship–I am looking forward to a fruitful harvest and to share the bounty and abundance with those who will grace us on their path through our garden.

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CLEANING THE SLATE – Part I

The rabbi’s words resonated with a situation my husband and I had been dealing with for the last three weeks. From the pulpit, the rabbi delivered his sermon to the congregation as we all sat ushering the Jewish New Year. As he recounted the story of Babel I couldn’t help but marvel at the connection between that story and what we were going through. The concept of splintering one language into many, thus causing unity between human beings to shatter into as many differences as eventually emerged from that event, seemed to illustrate our situation clearly and metaphorically. Let me explain:

On Labor Day weekend, we invited a couple over for dinner. We had been friends for over seven years. I had met Viviana (not her real name) through work, one day when she came to the store I own with my husband to purchase towels for the facility she worked for at the time. She immediately detected my accent and asked where I was from. She was thrilled to learn I was from Argentina. “I’m from Chile,” she said, excited. We shared jokes about our marital situation, and marveled at the coincidence of our similarities. Being both Hispanic women married to American men, we laughed at the cultural differences that make our marriages work—and sizzle— and then, before leaving, she childishly asked, “Would you like to be my friend?” I must confess as genuine as such invitation sounded, a shadow of apprehension crossed my mind. I debated for a split second before openly taking a sheet of paper and scribbling my phone number on it. We were in America.

A week later, we made plans to have dinner together, and we had a great time. Conversation flowed, and we found we had a lot in common. The third time we shared dinner, it was at their house, and she popped the question: “Where did you guys meet?” My husband and I exchanged looks, knowing our cover had just been challenged. We approached the inquiry the way one treads the slippery surface of a mud-covered swamp, murky, treacherous, dangerous. Having a flair for storytelling, I embellished my account of how I had spotted a handsome and athletic single young man across the dance floor of the synagogue’s singles dance one winter Saturday night, and how I had felt with unmistakable certainty that I had found my soulmate. “Synagogue?” she asked. We clarified that yes, in fact, we were Jewish. “More tea?” I heard her say as she got up from the table in search of boiling water. Was this an attempt to change the subject? Was it a celebratory gesture for having found Jewish friends? Was it a desperate attempt to buy time so she could process the shock and somehow package the information?

We didn’t get the answer right away. We forged a bond that would last seven years. We had dinner at each other’s homes, sharing recipes and the closeness that results when good friends get together. We celebrated birthdays, work promotions, and my writing achievements. We supported each other through tough times, and we strengthened a connection that superseded our differences in opinions and religious beliefs. Or so I thought.

Fast forward seven years, and we are at our home having dinner with them on Labor Day Weekend. As we sweetened our palates with key lime pie over a conversation about politics that became more heated with each bite, I sat in silence, letting my husband and her exchange their differences while her husband nodded at each one of her statements. What could have been—and should have been—a healthy exchange of opinions, became the ax that severed our ties, cleanly and permanently, as she announced with sharp glassy eyes that “the Jews” were responsible for keeping the lower class down, that they were at the top of the chain, that they controlled the world, and that in fact, were completely responsible for all the ills in the world. Yes, Hitler’s argument.

We saw how our friendship dissipated in the moonless night as they drove off for one last time. Just as we said goodbye in our bruised hearts to a relationship that ended on such a bitter note—despite the key lime pie— another storm was brewing in the ocean. A week later, we prepared for Hurricane Irma, unaware of the powerful lessons this destructive force of Nature would bring to us as gifts in its wake. Stay tuned for the next blog.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, EXCHANGE AT THE BORDER–Celebrating two years of success

 

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It’s hard to imagine it’s two years to the day Exchange at the Border made its debut in the literary world. What took five years to conceive, mull over, collect jotted down notes, organize, write, rewrite, revise, edit, and publish, was finally a dream come true. I remember thinking at that moment being a published author at 55 was the culmination of a lifetime of preparation. Everything I had done up until this point, felt like training ground for what was in store for me as an aspiring writer and also for the literary scene. All the teachers I had along the way, who gave of themselves so selflessly, sharing their knowledge, demanding only the best in return, should know my success is also theirs.

All my experiences, from celebrations to disappointments, my travels around the world, my losses and grief, my daily inner journeys to hide from a sometimes hostile environment, everything was an instrument in the orchestra of my life. Now, I am finally hearing the music.

Exchange at the Border was born from an obsession to know all I could about the last royal family Romanov. Why my interest in them is an enigma. But for now, let it suffice that to quench my thirst for knowledge about Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, I stocked my night table with books, and books, and more books on the subject.

Thus began an exploration into one of the most talked about families in world history: Who was Tsarina Alexandra, and why was she so hated, so criticized by Tsar Nicholas’ family; her devotion to her husband and children, her shyness and withdrawal from the spotlight, her anguish about her son Alexei’s hemophilia, her fierce faith; her belief that faith and prayers would bring, accurately enough, the only healer capable to heal her son, a peasant from Siberia called Rasputin. And how can we explain her subsequent surrender to him in the form of a friendship that precipitated the decline and execution of the royal family?

Rasputin… such a mysterious character, hypnotic, peasant-turned-priest-turned-healer, and of Prince Alexei at that. A powerful man who could will himself sober at a moment’s notice, who could see what the human eye cannot, who could change the chemistry of the body to heal ailments doctors could not even begin to relieve; a man who defied his own death by surviving the large dose of poison he consumed inadvertently in his drink and pastries at a party made by his enemies especially for this purpose. A man who survived three shots in the back, and who after being pronounced dead was tied with rope, wrapped in a carpet and thrown in a frozen river. A man who surprised the world and baffled historians and scientists alike when he surfaced–dead but unwrapped– two days later for all the world to see.

Who was this man, and what did he want from the tsarina? Was his motive just to fulfill his mission as healer that brought him so close to the royal family? Or was it his insatiable sexual appetite fueled by her cool detachment despite her devoted obsession with him and his mesmerizing personality?

The rumors that infected the palace with lies about her romantic involvement with Rasputin changed the course of history. Despite the evidence–clear in her correspondence with the tsar while away with the troops–that her only love in life was her husband, we remember her as the queen who had an affair with Rasputin, and we remember him as an evil, sinister, manipulative, and perverted impostor. Why?

Through my research I discovered he did possess supernatural abilities that transcended human logic, defied the laws of nature, and produced results that left the most skeptic perplexed. But why isn’t it as well known the fact that he did heal the sick, many times without any monetary expectation, and he interceded with the tsarina on behalf of oppressed Jews to obtain exit visas from Russia? Why doesn’t history emphasize that? Soon he became so popular people lined up in the street outside his apartment in St. Petersburg. He saw everybody and helped everybody, did not ask for payment–except for sexual favors women were quite eager to fulfill–but accepted donations from wealthier gentlemen who appealed to his powers to solve different troublesome situations. Then he became so wealthy he could not handle the torrent of money and jewels that came his way, so he gifted it all to the poor frivolously, carelessly, generously.

So it occurred to me one day: what if he regrets this reputation? What if he would have a chance to come back and change the way things happened? And if he could, what would he do different? Could he be trusted?

Exchange at the Border attempts to answer these and other questions that plague the human being; questions about the battle between good and evil, about repentance, and also forgiveness.

What a journey it was indeed.

 

 

TRUE COLORS

Watching the encore of AFI Lifetime Achievement Award by TCM on July 31 honoring actress Diane Keaton, opened a window into the way I view myself.

Let me explain: Throughout the show, snippets of past interviews with Diane Keaton appeared on the screen displaying her iconoclastic, unconventional fashion style. Always polished, her shoulder length, straight, light brown hair peeking under her bolero hat and minimal make-up, she exudes confidence in her all white or all black pants suits. Talk about simplicity–in her quirky and incomparable dressing style, she is the epitomy of good taste and elegance.

I found myself comparing my wardrobe with hers. Seeing the effect the white blazer had on her appearance with an all white or white and black polka dots scarf, I began to doubt my own looks. With my ever present hot pinks and corals, not to mention the blaring absence of whites and blacks in the clothes I wear, I wondered if my style has the bombshell effect on people as I assume Diane’s has. Living in the tropics, there’s never a chance to wear her ever present turtleneck, long sleeves, and neckties. But as she talked about herself and her career, her inner light shone through. Was it her baggy yet slimming pant suit, or the self assurance that comes when you find yourself and you don’t give a second thought to what people will say?

At the end of the show, she got up and walked to the stage to accept her award. She was wearing a boxy, oversized white coat below the knee, puffed up as if she were wearing a dress from the 1800s. A black belt circled around her tiny waist, and black, low heeled, tie-up booties clashed with her elegant hat.

Defiance at its best.

Or fashion statements.

Or is it courage perhaps, to just be your absolute self before an audience of millions on national TV?

That was it. An admirable trait that suddenly tied in with my own doubts about the validity of my own uniqueness. Yes, she looked great in black and white, but would I?

Epiphany of the day: your appearance defines who you are and vice versa. Your signature look, if you have one, is a faithful expression of who you really are inside. It reflects your inner landscape. It shows you glowing–or wilting. It’s the compass that tells you–and others–where you stand.

So stand, and stand tall as you wear your eccentric self, while you watch your soul soaring through your true colors.

THE POWER OF ENDURANCE–OR SURVIVAL ACROSS THE AGES

Growing up in Argentina, my literary diet consisted of a rich and diverse menu of Spanish, German, American and British authors. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Juan Ramon Jimenez populated my bookshelf with illustrated volumes of Don Quixote and Platero y Yo, respectively. Joanna Spyri cultivated in me an awe for the Swiss Alps in her all inspiring Heidi, while the vivid poems of William Wordsworth competed with the nourishing prose of Louisa May Alcott.

But Shakespeare? We had dabbled on it in school, but I think even the teachers were afraid to approach it. Of course, we learned of his greatness with plays and poetry and language and symbolism–the list goes on. However, we never really did venture to the heart of it.

As I became older, I tried–I really, really did–to incorporate Hamlet, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream into my repertoire of read books, to no avail. Invariably, I would shut them close, frustrated at my persistent inability to understand them.

One to never give up, and intent on answering the basic question of why Shakespeare endured and survived across the ages, I came across a gem at my local library. Nestled among books on literary criticism was How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, by Ken Ludwig. What an idea! What if I pretended to be a kid again and let myself be spoonfed by the author? I took the book home and settled under my mango tree in the backyard.

And thus began a journey from which I will never return. For you are never the same after you come back to planet Earth from an exceptional work of fiction or poetry. And this, my friends, was no exception. Ken Ludwig holds your hand as you both traverse the forest of Shakespeare’s worlds. He explains in detail the function of each tree in that forest–phrases, sentences–and reveals the textures, smells, and sounds particular to each leaf–the words that conform those phrases–delivering a delectable understanding of the master and his masterpieces.

So if you don’t have children, or they’re grown up, teach Shakespeare to your inner child–the one within that once in a while will play peek-a-boo to remind you there’s still time for good literature.

 

THERE’S ONLY TODAY

Not too long ago, a set of unforeseen circumstances disrupted the daily flow of our business. As a result, we were left with no help in our warehouse. Merchandise began to accumulate as we watched in despair the growing mountain of clutter.

But yesterday, we were blessed with unexpected help. The warehouse was transformed once again in the axis of organizational bliss. I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have this happen every day? To be able to count on an effective, reliable worker, someone who shows up every day, and is willing to do what needs to be done? Wouldn’t it be reassuring to know with certainty that things will run smoothly again?” My inner voice responded “There are no guarantees in life.” Then, I ask, how can we have a sense of constant peace of mind, a feeling that no matter what, our needs will create the fulfillment of those needs, that the solution to our problems will reveal–and materialize–itself at the exact moment it needs to?

The concept of zen comes to mind. I found myself enjoying how things played out yesterday. I wanted to keep thinking about it because it brought peace to my mind. I wanted to stay in that state of bliss and I wanted it to repeat itself the next day. And it was revealed to me, at that moment of wanting more, that all we have is today. I was enjoying the gifts given us, and perhaps I should leave it at that. Tomorrow? It will bring a different challenge , with its own lessons and gifts. But tomorrow does not exist yet There’s only today.

HONORING THE MEMORY OF HEROES

Three years ago, the lives of three families were changed forever. My husband and I were vacationing in Israel when the news announced the disappearance of three teenage boys on their way home from school. It wasn’t long before their bodies were discovered not far from where they had last been seen. Because of this, the infamous tunnels of terror were discovered, which had been built by Palestinian terrorists forming a net of underground passages into Israeli towns, cities, and kibbutzim. Soon it was clear that the boys’ tragic kidnapping and murder had brought with it Israel’s salvation from what would have been one of the most heinous acts of terrorism perpetuated against the Jewish State. This poem is written in their memory.

FOR EYAL YIFRACH, NAFTALI FRANKEL, AND GIL-AD SHAER

By Alexandra Goodwin – July 1st, 2014

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Heaven weeps.

It’s not the rain that insists
On falling tonight
Nor the sadness that washes
Away our sap
Nor the disbelief that this time
Our prayers were ignored.

Your tender bodies, full of
Promise, brimming with future
Generations, aborted before conception.

Three journeys cut short
Fruit plundered before it got
A chance to be ripe.

Blood drips from your murderers’ hands
Blood too, from those who don’t cry
And while the world goes on in peace,
Three mothers in Israel weep.

School children play in
The freedom of their lives,
The three bodies of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad
Forever in the grave of hatred lie.

And Heaven weeps.