Concerned

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m worried about a friend and I need some insight. Sarah is a smart
retired professional. On the surface she has a wide circle of friends,
but we have all noticed that she says, “I need down time” or “alone
time,” “unplugged time,” “retreat time,” and other variations on that
theme more and more often in the past year. He health seems fine
and she still complains about “those twenty extra pounds” so it is
unlikely she has a severe diagnosis. When I last visited I saw a stack
of Amazon delivery boxes “ready for recycling” that was three feet tall!
She seems to be cocooning at lot and even though she had three
different invitations for Thanksgiving, chose to spend it alone, going to
the movies and then watching football at home. I know Sarah has the
right to make decisions about how she spends her time, but is there
anything I/we should say or do, or should we just let her pass through
this phase?

Concerned

 
Dear Concerned:

You are a good friend. This may indeed be a phase, or it may be you
are observing early (or not-so-early) signs of depression. In either
case there are things you can do, without impinging on the friendship
between adult peers who like and respect one another. Let’s give her
the benefit of the doubt for the holiday, and consider that she may
truly not have wanted to be around other people’s families. Ditto for
needing more alone time, at least in spurts. But if you are not the only
one noticing her patterns, they may signal a behavioral change that
goes beyond the norms of privacy and a desire for more solitude and
quiet.

 
Ask her to tea or a meal at a time of her choosing. Without saying
anything close to “People are worried about you,” might would easily
and reasonably trigger shame and defensiveness, ask how she is
doing. Say you’ve noticed how much more frequently she is choosing
her own company over being social. Ask her how she is enjoying it,
whether she misses being with other folks, and whether she is feeling
okay or if she is in any way down or troubled. Listen to her answer,
assure her that she can always talk to you, and that you want her to
know how much people like and respect her. Then make a date to do
something a week or so later. Perhaps a movie or another meal. Give
her space. If her patterns persist, tag team another friend to do the
same. Winter is a time for hibernation even among humans. But if her
patterns intensify, up the ante by having two of you talk to her.

Sober and Gentle

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Do you have any good advice for dealing with the drunken relative at a
family party? This time it is Thanksgiving, but next month will be
Hanukkah, and next year will be two B’nai Mitzvah’s, so this is a
problem we need to face, and believe me we are a family what is
adept at doing everything but facing things. We have an uncle who is
angry, depressive, and alcoholic. He starts off as a sullen drunk but
the more he takes in the noisier and angrier he gets. We’ve tried
everything we can think of, but virtually every family event we can
recall has him storming out in a huff and the rest of us looking at one
another in dismay. Is there a gentle way to avoid this?, short of not
inviting him, which is always tempting but highly impractical, given the
memory of our deceased mother.

Sober and Gentle

 
Dear Sober and Gentle:

In eons past, or in multi-generational families, the burden of delivering
the hard message would fall to the eldest cogent patriarch, who would
with all solemnity sit the offender down, explain what rules of
propriety have been broken, suggest appropriate penance and
apologies, and all would be well, or at least the ground rules would
have been made clear. In this day and age there is no such traditional
model to fall back upon, so everyone has to become empowered to
speak truth to the offender.

 
Short of a full intervention, the message might get lost. In this case
my vote would be for a team of adults, say the parents of the B’nai
Mitzvah children plus one older yet generation adult if such a person
has any authority to invite the uncle to a meeting. Say the family has
lived with his rude behavior too long and they have decided to set
limits. If he will go into treatment, they will support him emotionally.
But in or out of a formal program, at the first sign of disruption he will
be immediately escorted out of the event. If he can comply for
holidays before the BMs, he will get an invite. Otherwise he will not,
and the rule will apply from this moment forward. At the very least
you will get his attention.

Earplugs?

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Please help me with the strategy for Thanksgiving, which is coming up
faster than I think I can handle. My sister, with whom I’ve always had
a very good relationship, is married to a jerk, not to put too fine a
point on it. He’s a lawyer. He’s double rich: he comes from money and
he’s earned a lot more of it. He serves on the temple board, the
boards of various nonprofits, and is a partner in a firm with his name
on the letterhead. He is convinced, convinced to the point of absolute
unreason, that his opinion is right on every subject, from child rearing
to presidential politics. And he will be first, last, and loudest to tell you
why he is right and you or anyone else is wrong. It’s not so much that
I disagree with him on everything, but that I cannot abide the way he
needs to have the last word and put everyone else down in order to be
the most right. Help. Short of not attending a family tradition do you
have a way of coping that won’t end up in acrimony, a bloody nose, or
lots of apologies.

Earplugs?

 
Dear Earplugs:

Earplugs sound tempting even to me, but the bounds of propriety and
your relationship with your sister suggest that donning them is not a
good idea. I’ll assume for the moment that there are other relatives
invited, and that their response to your brother-in-law, perhaps more
mitigated, is similar to yours. I’m not suggesting you start a gossip
war, but if you could find at least one ally you could divvy up the
range of topics and tag-team him in terms of who responds and rebuts
first, and last. That way there is no specific antagonism between you
and him. The more allies, the more you might succeed, the way a
swarm might befuddle a larger predator.

 
You might also take your sister aside before the event, and tell her
how troubling her husband’s behavior is. It’s hard to believe she’s
clueless or indifferent, given that she likely sees lots more of it than
you do. Ask her what works, and how she feels it’s OK for you to
respond if you disagree with him. If worst comes to worst simply leave
earlier or go into the kitchen for a side conversation with a relative you
genuinely like. Once the room he is in is empty, maybe he’ll get the
message.

Helpful

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My godson has had a rough time figuring out what he wants to do with
his life since he got out of rehab. He got a job in a restaurant. Nothing
fancy, just a sous chef chopping vegetables, prepping plates, and
learning the basic of the trade. Then he got a bout of cellulitis, which
made it impossible for him to be on his feet. His mother, now more of
an ex-friend than a close one, decided to “teach him a lesson” because
he had not signed up for health care. She told him he would be
responsible for all his medical bills, so of course things got worse when
he stalled on a doctor/ER visit. I heard about it mid-week, offered to
pay for his doctor bills, and now he is recovering, and even got his job
held till his return. She is telling our mutual friends about how I
“interfered” with her parenting. I clearly see this very differently. I
know gossip is hard to fight. But what should I do?

Helpful

 
Dear Helpful:

Teaching moments are important but generally we think of them as in
the non-life threatening side of the spectrum. If your godson really
had a medical issue that could have cost him his job, let alone his leg,
you were correct to step up and offer to help. His mom was wrong,
and could have found a better way of accomplishing her goal (e.g.
paying for the bills as a loan). We could talk all week about what’s
wrong with the medical industry in America, but when someone you
love is sick, you help them, and worry about the teaching moments
later.

 
You may never hear what is being said about you. But if you do,
simply reply: I love Godson-name. He was in trouble and I stepped up
to help. I’m sure Mother-name meant well, but given what he has
been through already, I thought it best to support his recovery in
every way I could. I’m happy to talk to her about it, if she’ll stop being
angry and gossiping about me. I suspect whatever moved this
relationship from close enough to be a godparent to ex-friend is deep
and profound. You don’t say how long ago it happened. Focus on
helping your godson unless momma really wants to talk to you.

Cut

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I am an intelligent person with professional training beyond college,
various degrees and certifications in my field, and generally regarded
as well spoken, articulate, and worth talking to. I have a new friend
that I met in a recently formed book club organized by a mutual
friend. This woman (I’ll call her Hannah) and gravitated towards one
another very quickly and bonded on literary taste, politics, and
becoming movie buddies. We’ve taken to checking in with one another
several times during the week by text, sometimes to make plans and
others just to trade hellos and good wishes, accompanied by pictures
from a walk or home, recipes, and Face Book posts or jokes. In the
last month she has chastised me several times for what she calls
“incomprehensible texts.” Once she was correct: I had used the
dictation feature and failed to check its interpretation of my voice. But
the other three times she has pulled rank from her retirement as a
professor of communications. Frankly it rankles, but the one time we
got into a conversation about related matters it turned sharp and
brittle very quickly. Is there a way to handle someone with sharp
edges, whom I would otherwise enjoy as a friend?

Cut

 
Dear Cut:

There are several ways to communicate with person who likes to feel
superior to others. One is not to give her anything to criticize, and see
if she reflexively needs to critique you anyhow. That would give you a
lot of information about her personality. If it remains sharp, I
personally would limit the friendship as well as the texting, regardless
of whether we ended up discussing it. Another is to limit your texting
to visual images, and one-word or one-sentence replies. It is a little
punishing, but she might get the hint.

 
The most honest is to say, It feels like a put down when you correct
me. I’m not your student and I don’t want to have a friendship in
which we’re not equals. I’ll do my best to communicate clearly, if you’ll
do your best to communicate kindly. Does that seem fair? Then see
what she says and trust your gut on how to proceed.

Walkies

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I go walking with a friend several times a week. She has two dogs and
I have none. Usually she holds them both, and she is very
conscientious about bagging their poop when we walk in urban
neighborhoods. She is also unashamed about asking me to carry the
poop bags while we continue on our walk, until we can deposit them in
a receptacle. Honestly, I find it rude and a little disgusting. I don’t
have a dog anymore and prefer not to do it. Is there a polite way to
decline? I otherwise enjoy her company.

Walkies

 
Dear Walkies:

This is situation where a simple No should suffice. Since she hasn’t
heard it if you said that, or if you are not ready to be quite so blunt, go
for the cheerful, helpful alternative. You can do this yourself if you can
sew, or perhaps you can find it already made by googling. But imagine
a small cloth bag with a Velcro strap that would fit around your friend’s
dog leash. When she scoops up the poop into a bag, you can hold the
leash while she puts the plastic bag in this receptacle and attaches it
to the leash. I would find or make two of them, and present them to
her with a roll of plastic bags, saying cheerfully, Look, I solved your
problem of poop control!

 
Most folks would get the message, but you might need to just say No
thanks when she hands you the bag. Or else find a new walking buddy
and meet her for coffee and schmooze instead.

Semi-Recluse

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Four of us go drinking every couple months, and have done so for the
past dozen years or so. I’ll spare you the internal group politics, but
despite minor tensions and annoyances most of the caring is sincere
and ongoing. I am the only retired person, and generally
accommodate the needs of the other three, who are all younger and
still working. But after six weeks of trying to get us together I gave up,
because everyone’s needs were so specific that it just seemed
impossible. The outlier for each date texted “Go ahead without me”
but I’m a traditionalist and don’t want to see the group bonding
weaken.

 

Then they came up with a date that I could not do because I
have jury duty and this was smack dab in the middle of it. When I
explained why I couldn’t, one of the friends (the one I speak to almost
every day), texted, “Sure you can. I have two jobs and I will make the
time.” I felt angry and shamed, and resentful that my needs didn’t
seem to count as much as everyone else’s, which is what I replied. I
also said they should go ahead without me and I would come if I
could. I’m sure I will be worm our and sick of people if I have to serve,
and not particularly chatty or social. Am I being reasonable or not?

Semi-Recluse

 
Dear Semi-Recluse:

A lot depends on how important this group is to you. As someone with
finite patience for chitchat, I am empathetic. But I also value long-
term friendships, and would suggest they’re worth the stretch. I would
follow up with a second email response saying: I truly have no idea if
my number will be called or if I will have to spend all day in court. I
suggest you go ahead without me, and unless I am seriously pooped
and cranky, I will show up. Then leave it to them to decide what to do.

Tiring Fast

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m a woman in my 50’s who is trying to make a career change. I’ve
sent out 50 resumes and haven’t gotten one bite for an interview. Do
you have any ideas for what to do? I used to be a school counselor.
Now I will do anything (but that).

Tiring Fast

 
Dear Tiring Fast:

The job market isn’t as bad as it was during the great recession, but
for middle-aged women it remains a tough place to make a transition.
You won’t face the tacit discrimination that motherly-aged women do,
when employers fear absenteeism because of sick children, which yes
is illegal but still happens tacitly. But you will be classified in the what-
happens-if-she-decides-to-just-stop-working bias as well as
competition from many other equally qualified folks.

 
I hate to say it but 50 resumes is a drop in the bucket. When you’ve
sent out 1,000 you can be tired. My best advice would be to seek out
headhunters, both the kind who is paid by employers and (I know you
will hate this) the kind you might have to pay for finding you a
professional placement. From doing the tireless work of planning and
crisis intervention, scheduling and coping with bureaucracies, and all
the manifold duties of a counselor you have acquired a great many
transferrable skills. You just need someone who is in the employment
industry to understand them.

 

Create resumes for counseling and for
administration. Then connect with recruiters, both in your area and
national folks. You can find many of them online who have list-serves.
Get on the list-serves of all local governments and non-profits too. And
then get yourself as many informational interviews as you can with all
the folks I just identified. Pitch yourself as reliable, experienced, and
incredible well-rounded, ready to tackle any job. See how many doors
they can get you into. It will take time.

Horrified

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I am not a germophobe, at least most of the time. But I do have a
particular phobia against hanging out with people who have bad table
manners, like slurping or chewing with their mouths open. I serve on a
committee that often meets over lunch when we are at the tail end of
our agenda. Last week one of the members (who is from out of town)
brought along a friend from home, as they had a day of activities
planned after the meeting. The friend helped with the committee
chores and we all went out for Chinese food, served family style. The
friend had a wracking cough that she seemed very conscientious about
covering, but never explained. My assumption was that she was on the
tail end of something but I didn’t ask. At lunch she repeatedly licked
her chopsticks and served extra portions from the common dishes
!!!! Not once but repeatedly. I was so stunned that I was speechless. I
know I should have spoken up right away but having failed to do so I
just avoided where I saw her serve herself. Should I say something to
the person who brought her or just avoid eating with her again?

Horrified

 
Dear Horrified:

You are correct that the time to have said something, as quietly but
firmly as possible, was the moment you saw it. You could have said,
Excuse me but I’m trying to avoid germs, could you please use the
common serving implements if you want more? That doesn’t focus so
much on how unsanitary her behavior is but gets the point across. And
since no one else said anything, you have no idea if they were
bothered as well, but if they would likely have been relieved to hear
someone intervene.

 

 

I would say something to the mutual friend. The woman might have a
medical condition that is in no way contagious. But no one who hears
her cough would know that. When she’s with strangers, she could
learn to say, Please excuse the cough. It’s not anything contagious
and it’s a pain to live with. Then germaphobes or not don’t have to
fret. But the bad table manners are unsanitary and she’s better off
hearing about them from a friend.

Trumped

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My name is Sadie and I am a bridge addict. Specifically online bridge,
which since my beloved husband of forty years died, has become a
form of personal connection as well as a way to fill up the long empty
hours. I found an online site and at the flick of wrist I can be happily
engaged for hours with people who share my interests and with whom
I can chat and hone my brain. But having “friended” so many people,
it is hard to choose whom to play with when. I like the newness of
random “take me to the first available seat” and have no compunction
about leaving a table where people are rude. But in my eagerness to
set up games with people like myself (lonely widows, sigh) I find that I
have overscheduled and my in-person human friends here at home
have been saying they feel neglected. How do I find the happy middle?

Trumped

 
Dear Trumped:

Only you can decide what to do with your time. But favoring online
cocooning instead of live humans is a poor choice for a woman who
still sounds cogent and vital. You need to find the happy middle by
being honest not just with your friend but also with yourself.
Are you lonely for friendship or for relationship? Assuming you do not
want to become re-partnered, you can skip a large focus of energy and
attention by not adding dating to the mix. But do not assume others
will not try to date you or set you up. If you just want something to
while away the hours, consider volunteering in an after-school
program, teaching bridge to a younger generation who may not know
the game and love it as you do. There are of course the usual lunches
with friends, social engagements to theater and movies, and
volunteering at your synagogue.

 

My vote would be to take a class in
something you know nothing about but would like to become a novice
at doing. You will be surprised how quickly your obsessive streak can
shift to a new and engaging activity. Limit your pre-set games to a few
a week, and trust the fates to connect you with new people who will
interest and challenge you. Your job is to show up and leave room for
that to happen.

Fan

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

This is very embarrassing to admit but here goes: I am addicted to
college football. I played on my college team and coach my son’s
kidsports team. This year my alumni team is played a night game that
started right after the end of the last Yom Kippur service. Usually I go
to a colleague’s house for break fast but this year I demurred and said
I had “other plans” without being specific about what they were. Our
sons are friends and I just had to listen to a ration of abuse about my
“priorities” from him. I suspect he too would rather have watched the
game but because he and his wife traditionally host the break fast he
was given no choice. My defense was feeble and I really did feel guilty
about letting down my friend. Ideas on remediation?

Fan

 
Dear Fan:

Eating crow is never fun. In point of fact, your colleague was right
that you could have taped the game and sped through the first half or
just picked it up when you returned home from the break fast. So you
were in the wrong. Especially because the time after Yom Kippur is
magical, and a slow glide path back into reality is simply more
spiritually gracious than jumping into the noise and bustle of a game.
But what’s done is done, so make it up to your buddy with a bro-date:
Either invite him over to watch a special game, just the two of you, or
invite him to go to a sports bar and treat him to food and drinks. I’m
assuming, btw, that you cheer for the same team. If you don’t a small
friendly wager would sweeten the pot even more. Even if you are
colleagues instead of close friends, a little bonding goes a long way.
Next year, make the right call. Unless you’re on the team, they will
rise or fall just fine without you.

Concerned

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Four of us have been friends for about twenty years. We’ve seen one
another through divorce, chemo, bankruptcy, job changes, and house
buying, selling, and remodeling. Along the way there have been any
number of misunderstandings or arguments, but like the four
musketeers we have stuck together through thick and thin. Now one of
our number (I’ll call her Sarah) seems to be falling under the weight or
collapsing systems in her life. Her marriage has been in trouble for a
while and one of us is pretty certain that her husband is having an
affair. They have gone bankrupt once and now she is unemployed
after complaining for years about how much they struggle even on two
incomes. We all spent today at an arts festival. Three of us spent no
more than a food-cart lunch, but (you guessed it) Sarah donated
almost $100 to the local economy. None of us said anything but you
could feel the silent sound waves. Do we just mind our own business
or should one or all of us step up and tell her what we are seeing: a
friend in a tailspin who needs help?

Concerned

 
Dear Concerned:

You should most definitely not all turn on her as a group. If you do,
you will see only defensiveness and withdrawal. Yes, clearly your
friend is hurting and struggling. Retail therapy of $100 at an arts
festival is not enough cause for alarm that you need to stage an
intervention. But context matters, and if she is clearly in distress you
are obligated as her friends to pay attention and not stay silent.

 

Usually in a friend group there are dyads that are closer than other
combos. The one who is closest to Sarah should take point on this,
scheduling lunch or coffee at her earliest convenience. I’d recommend
doing this at home as opposed to in public. Without poking her sore
places too hard, encourage her to get emotional. Crying is far better
for healing than retail therapy. Once she has unburdened the top layer
of pain, help her develop a strategy for coping: counseling for her;
marriage counseling for them; help finding work; financial counseling;
and perhaps a one-time consult with a divorce lawyer so she knows
where she stands. Secure assurances from the other two friends that
they will play tag team in a support system for her until she is through
this hard spot. And then help her rebuild her life in whatever direction
it goes.

Struggling

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

How can I forgive my parents the damage that I realize they inflicted
on me? Not just with the obvious impacts of living in a household
organized around parental alcoholism but also because they made me
think I was “a bad girl,” a characterization I realize that I took in much
too deeply. I’m not. But at age 35 I can still hear their voices.

Struggling

 
Dear Struggling:

We all get told many stories when were young. There are the ones we
think we’re being told, the ones we tell ourselves, and the ones others
(parents and more) act like are true even if they are far from who we
really are or think we are at the time. These stories all help shape and
define us even if they are stories we run away from me instead of
embracing. Some people’s stories were told with seeming love and
support, but got taken in sideways or in ways that people felt
constrained by having to enact them to satisfy family (e.g. my smart
son the future doctor, who might have preferred to play jazz clarinet).
Other people who have had bad stories beaten and raped into them go
on to become the most tender loving people, while others stay stuck in
pain all their lives. Inside we’re all battling some version of these
stories, regardless of how they were defined or delivered.

 
Every family is organized around some story. A parent’s mental
problems, alcoholism, abuse, fill in the blank. But whether the scarring
and stories come from ignorance or are willfully inflicted, part of
becoming our adult, healed selves is wrestling with them and coming
to our own understanding of who we really are. If you really want to
grow you will make it through this passage, on your own or with
trained help. But please distinguish between the stories that came at
you, and the better stories that you are making and have already
made for yourself.

 
Two practices of the High Holidays might help. Perhaps do a private
tashich ritual around this, and talk it out at a riverbank the way you
might in a therapist’s office. Then during the appropriate prayers, try
to forgive your parents, and also forgive yourself for ever believing the
stories they told that are not true for you. None of this is easy. But
you can become happier.

Boundaries Needed

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I have a friend with whom I run hot and cold. I suspect she feels the
same about me. For years we were close, but the friendship eroded
over a variety of factors, from disapproval about who was dating
whom and how that impacted the friendship, to matters of synagogue
politics, and because of misunderstandings of a small nature that felt
bigger because we cared less about one another. Nothing fatal but we
drifted apart, except for monthly movie/meal evenings and
conversation between plays watching football. Her house is being
remodeled and she has taken to sending me texts saying, I’d like to
come watch the game, the Emmys, etc etc, without asking if this is
good for me or even suggesting that she will bring anything for the
meal that occurs during those times. I know she is not trying to be
rude, but I feel very taken for granted. In the spirit of the season,
what should I say?

Boundaries Needed

 
Dear Boundaries:

In the spirit of the season you should be honest and also welcoming.
In the Tree of Life there is a very intentional balance between chesed
(loving-kindness) and gevurah (boundaries/discernment). It is fine to
apply both to get to a balance. Tell her you’re glad to be a hostess to
her during her dislocation when it works with your schedule. Ask her to
give you as much notice as possible so you can try to accommodate
what she needs, and say you will alert her asap if her timing doesn’t
work for you.

 
When you have opened your home to her, and are sharing a meal (to
which you may or may not choose to ask her to bring something she
could pick up easily along the way), tell her that you are happy that
you two are closer again, and past the difficulties of the past. Tell he
you enjoy her company when you connect, and, in the spirit of the
season, want to be sure that any past elements of disagreement have
been resolved. That conversation will either bring you closer or less so,
either of which will shift where you place your welcome mat.

Simple Son

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

In temple I’ve been hearing the phrase tikkun olam. Can you tell me
what it means and how to do it? I’m too embarrassed to ask my locals.

Simple Son

 
Dear Simple Son:

Tikkun olam literally means repairing the world. The imagery comes
out of the mystical tradition, which says that in the beginning, when
the Divine essence came into the world, it was poured into vessels, the
spheres on the Tree of Life. The vessels could not hold HaShem’s pure
energy. They shattered, and the Divine sparks were scattered
throughout the universe, into every living thing: you, me, every critter
and blade of grass. Now it’s our job, as conscious, caring beings, to
gather those sparks. To create wholeness. To create the world to
come, whether you believe that means a literal messiah or simply a
happier and more just reality for us all.

 
The concept translates into big ideas like social, economic, and
environmental justice. Also into smaller daily actions, like telling the
truth and helping your neighbor. Tikkun olam is about saying No to
evil, in forms large or small, and saying Yes to goodness, equity, and
compassion. It’s a responsibility that each of us carries, and
sometimes we forget to honor. Tikkun olam is about transcending the
immediacy of personal desire. It’s about shifting your focus, and
raising it higher. To me it always comes back to two aspects of
consciousness that are simple to say but harder to do: live with
greater awareness and greater intention. Living on a higher plane gets
tested by bad politicians or even long lines at Costco. Remind yourself
regularly that what you do makes a difference. Recognize when you’re
living up to your moral standards and when you’re not. Know your
values. Know what you can live with and what you’re willing to stand
up for and against.

 
How to put tikkun olam into action? Pay attention. Speak. Act. Practice
healing yourself and the world in as many ways as you can each day.
If we all practice tikkun olam, perhaps we can avoid more Holocausts
and more 9/11s. Perhaps we can diminish homelessness and hunger in
our communities. Perhaps we can cultivate a greater global
consciousness rather than staying stuck in our small tribal minds. If we
all do that, we’ll heal ourselves, and this place we call home.