riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Going Back to Cali, Cali

The next time I post, I will be in Los Angeles again. I’m going for a 10-day visit, at the end of which I’m participating in a 3-day writer’s conference and speaking on a panel about Writing About Loss. Before I leave, I’m being interviewed on HuffingtonPost Live (tomorrow, Thursday, March 19 at 4:00pm ET). Needless to say, it’s a very busy time, and I’m more than a little stressed.

I’m excited to go back to Los Angeles, but also nervous. When I tell people this, they don’t understand why. I’m not sure I totally understand either. I did live there for 19 years. But there’s something about going back to a place you’ve left.

Part of me is nervous that once I’m there, I’ll regret having left, like I’ll be walking (driving) around feeling homesick the whole time.

Another part of me is anxious about being asked the same questions over and over again: “How’s it going in NY? How do you like it? Are you glad you left? Are you coming back?”

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that just the thought of being in such a big city, dealing with that traffic, makes my stomach tighten a little. I’ve basically been living in the woods for the past eight months — in a quiet, zero traffic, distraction-free, practically people-free zone. I’ve been in “writing mode,” which is a lot different than “meet and greet and speak publicly mode.” Yes, I’ve been to NYC periodically, but I stay with family in Brooklyn and tend to keep my activities local.

Another source of nerves (and emotions) is that being in Los Angeles will remind me of Kaz in a way that I haven’t experienced in a while. Living in NY, where Kaz and I never visited together and therefore shared no memories of, has been a sort of respite from all the emotional triggers that come with familiar sites in a shared geographical location. I know I will be alright, but it’s the not knowing where and when I will encounter these triggers that makes my nervous.

Finally, my heart aches at leaving Ruby behind (it was too complicated and expensive to bring her). I’ve never been away from her for this long, and am already feeling the longing. She’ll be staying with family and going to doggie daycare during the day, so we’ll both be busy. But it will be strange to be apart. Our days upstate are, if nothing else, an exercise in routine. Everything happens around the same time every day. We’re nearly always together, and she is nearly always off leash, running free.

All that said, I am looking forward to the trip, to seeing all my friends, feeling heat, going to the beach, meeting many other talented writers, getting as much done as possible, visiting the mountain where I released Kaz’s ashes and more.

A lot has happened since I left Los Angeles. Maybe going back will remind me of how far I’ve come. Maybe it will remind me why I left.

Ironically, this will be my first time visiting Los Angeles. I will miss upstate NY, but I’ll be back soon.

Looking forward to sharing the journey with you, as always. xo

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New Essay on Modern Loss

Friends,

I’m happy to announce that my essay is up on Modern Loss. Please check it out: http://modernloss.com/forever-girls

Thanks for the support, as always.

Niva


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Missing The Clarity of Love and War

It’s been 2.5 years since Kaz passed away and though I’m better than I was early on, I’m still not back to feeling 100%. There are many reasons for this and many manifestations, but the one that keeps kicking me in the shins is my inability to focus. I am distracted by everything: music, television, food, my phone (gateway to the internet), computer (gateway to the internet), dog, friends, family, colleagues, even my own thoughts.

How to Focusby John T. Roosevelt (www.rsvlts.com)

How to Focus by John T. Roosevelt (www.rsvlts.com)

It’s more than just a lack of focus. Planning ahead in any concrete fashion is challenging, as is staying motivated.

Part of the issue is having a lot going on: full-time job, personal life, dog, film script, television script, book, blog, networking, and now a job search. I’m not working on everything at once, but the time I do spend on creative pursuits feels thin and scattered. Progress happens so slowly it’s almost imperceptible. I keep thinking of the metaphor: How do you eat a whale? Answer: One bite at a time. 

But it’s more than the whale too.

A friend recently told me, “We can only concentrate on three things at a time.” In her case, she has her day job, her personal life, a part-time job and one creative project.

Another friend is producing an independent film (extremely time consuming), while trying to get multiple other projects lined up, maintain her personal life and take care of her dog.

Yet another friend is balancing a day job, her art career, a family (including two teenagers, husband and dog), and staying connected with her artistic, professional and personal community.

Each of these women manages her time and priorities to accomplish a great deal on a daily basis, even more on a long-term basis. Each is driven by Love and Passion. I know because I used to be like them… when Kaz was alive.

In the two years before he got sick, I produced and directed three music videos, a full production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, wrote a feature screenplay, worked for three months as an assistant editor in Mexico, and one year as a production manager in Los Angeles.

During the first half of his illness, I managed to write a spec television script. In the second half, I could only manage to write in my journal. But I continued to work a full-time day job while being his caregiver… and being his caregiver became my focus.

As I’ve mentioned before, there were aspects of caregiving that felt like  production, except this time it wasn’t a music video or film – it was life or death. This time I wasn’t motivated by ambition and creativity, but by the desire to keep Kaz alive, and us together, for as long as possible. Nothing had ever felt as important. While others resigned themselves to the inevitability of the sinking ship (including Kaz at one point), I was hell bent on keeping the ship afloat.

Of course, the ship did sink. And ever since, I haven’t cared about anything as much. I haven’t given up on my life or dreams, by any stretch. I do strive forward in my own hap-hazard kind of way. But what still eludes me is the fire-in-the-belly passion and laser focus that I felt during those days of intense highs and lows, when every day felt like a battle and a gift, and every moment agonizingly precious. Do I need life or death stakes to stay motivated? I hope not.

In any case, the new ship remains docked while the Captain struggles to chart the best course. It’s just me and my dog on this ship, and as much as she helps to keep me centered, in no way does she (or our current existence) compare to what was. Nothing could possibly compare to that.

It’s selfish to miss the days when Kaz was sick. I don’t miss them. But I do pine for the passion we felt. The clarity of purpose. The empowerment that came from being pushed to our limits and not falling apart. The inspiration of watching each other be so courageous. Neither of us had ever felt so alive or focused as in those days of love and war.

One day I will experience that clarity again. It might be the day I quit my job. It might be the first day of production on my next film. It might be the day I look into my child’s eyes. But this day will come, and when it does, I’ll be ready.


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Love Life (Photo)

image

Just found this photo from two years ago when I did the Brain Tumor Walk in Orange County, CA, in honor of Kaz and others. We walked 5K and raised thousands of dollars for brain tumor research. It was an inspiring day with lots of shared stories, embraces and tears. There were also lots of signs. This one was my favorite.


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The Ghost of LA Woman

Yesterday's sunset, corner of Olympic and Arlington Ave

Yesterday’s sunset, corner of Olympic and Wilton Ave

What’s lurking in the drafts section of your dashboard?

I couldn’t resist today’s Daily Post because I only had one draft post, which was just a title: LA Woman. The idea came to me a couple of months ago while driving around, or rather stuck in traffic going nowhere fast, in Los Angeles. I heard the song LA Woman by The Doors in my head and knew I had to write a post about this place.

I first arrived in LA in August 1995, a somewhat innocent 24-year-old, eager to start her first year at graduate film school. I drove here from Philadelphia in a two-door Acura hatchback, my first car, which I had purchased one week before I left, ten days after getting my license.

First impressions of LA: it was beautiful, hot, HUGE, a labyrinth of highways and streets I was sure I would never be able to figure out. On days off I would hop in my car, which had a sunroof, and drive around listening to music, not minding if I got lost (this was before Navigation and GPS so I got lost A LOT), from Hollywood to the Valley to Beverly Hills to Route 1 by the beach. Everything seemed to sparkle and shine. I felt both as if I knew this city, which I had seen umpteen times in movies, and as if I didn’t know it at all and would never truly penetrate its mystery.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I would often go out by myself to explore the bars and clubs. It didn’t take long to figure out the best places to spot celebrities were at the fancy hotels like The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons, The Peninsula. At the former, in the same night, I once saw Dustin Hoffman eating dinner and Barbara Streisand walked by me at the bar. I couldn’t believe it!

Over the years, I would meet many actors, musicians, directors, producers and other film folks at school lectures, various jobs and industry events. The novelty factor gradually wore off, as did the fascination with the nightlife, Beverly Hills, fancy hotels, and so on. The intense loneliness I used to feel in the first few years was replaced by a fluid sense of community, film school friends, colleagues and the few regular non-industry people I know.

When I met Kaz, who was from a D.C., the city came alive in a different way. We used to joke about our mutual love/hate relationship with LA, and love sharing those “I can’t believe I live here” moments. One time he passed Snoop Dogg in the hallway at work, and went to a party where Kobe Bryant showed up in a helicopter. Another time we went to a Passover seder at a famous director’s house with the granddaughter of an American film legend seated beside us. And many more such moments.

Since his passing, I’ve tried to redefine my relationship to the city. How long do I want to live here? Should I go back East and be closer to family? Should I hold out a little longer and see if I can get the career going? LA feels like a combination of high school and metropolis, playground and work center, a series of urban facades and breathtaking natural landscapes. It rarely feels as comfortable to me as the East Coast, but it’s home nonetheless.

These days, my favorite place to hang out is the dog park, usually with natty hair, dressed in my most tattered clothing. For some reason, Ruby loves rubbing her muddy tennis ball on my leg instead of just dropping it at my feet. I’ve even started meeting people there, and the other day I invited a friend to join me even though she’s dog-less. We sat on chairs in the shade and caught up, every now and then pausing to throw the muddy ball to Ruby.

Ah, how things change.

Thanks for encouraging me to finish this post, WordPress!


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Wind Chimes in the Breeze

It’s windy out tonight. The wind chimes are singing and the trees are rustling, but the chimes are in the foreground. They remind me of Kaz. Of nights lying in bed next to him, hearing the wind chimes late at night.

On nights like this, I would sometimes close my eyes and pretend we were on a tropical island or somewhere warm (he bought these wood chimes in Costa Rica). The chimes were outside our beach bungalow, and the rustling trees were really ocean waves lapping at the shore just outside our window. If these moments happened after sex, I would picture the moon glittering on the white sand outside as we were actually sleeping under a silk canopy on the beach, not a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. With my head on his shoulder, my nostrils filled with his scent, a combination of Irish Spring and his own natural muskiness (he never wore cologne or after shave), I would smile to myself.

Such is a woman’s mind. Or at least, this woman’s overly imaginative mind. We don’t always think like this. But certain things trigger us, like the sound of wind chimes on a breezy night.

And music.

As I mentioned, I went to see CLUTCH last week. I could write several posts just on what this band meant to Kaz and our time together. They were the most-listened to, most-heard music of our three years, which is saying a lot given that he was a musical aficionado and listened to music for a living.

Last week’s concert brought back so many memories. Seeing them in DC at the 9:30 Club, hanging with the band backstage and in their tour bus afterwards, seeing them at the House of Blues in LA, listening to them on road trips, listening to them in the ICU (I would play them on my phone for him), listening to them at his memorial (his ashes were released to their song “Electric Worry”). We had some of our happiest moments at their shows, and one of our saddest too. Because Clutch was also his last concert and we both knew it when we were there.

Seeing them last week was both joyful and heartbreaking. Afterwards, I went backstage to say hi to the band. They all remembered him. They all said he was special, a good spirit, a good man. They didn’t know what else to say about what happened to him. I told them they didn’t have to say anything more, and thanked them for the kind words.

It was wonderful to see live music again. Before he was sick we would go to a show almost weekly. He would go more often than that. Part of his job was to keep up on music. We saw shows at probably every major venue in the Los Angeles area, and several smaller ones too. We rarely paid for tickets and always had VIP passes. And he always had new music before it came out, which was a treat indeed.

Now I have no idea what’s going on in the music world and hardly ever see a show unless it’s one of his favorite bands.

But I still have the wind chimes. And when the wind gets going like it is tonight, it takes me back. A couple of times the wind has blown hard and the chimes have clanged about loudly. But mostly they’ve been singing in a gentle, rolling rhythm. I don’t talk about him as much with people as I used to. But I can still remember what it feels like to lay in his arms in the dark, under the imaginary silk canopy. He would laugh at my tropical island fantasy but not be surprised. He knew I was a cornball.


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25 Stitches

Every day I interact with my puppy, an 8 month old pitbull with large, beautifully white, razor-sharp teeth, I am reminded of an experience from my childhood.

I was 8 years old. My sister, 10 years older, had invited a friend from high school over and the girl brought her dog, an Irish Setter. The girls were kind enough to let me hang out with them in my sister’s room. At some point, they left the room and me alone with the dog. I put my arm around his shoulders the way one does when about to have a conversation, and turned my face to say something to him. And in a split-second, he bit me.

I screamed. The dog ran out of the room.

I screamed again. The girls came into the room. My sister called for my mother, who was in her studio, and rushed me to the bathroom. In the mirror I could see my right cheek hanging off my face. Blood everywhere. My mother held a towel to my face and remained calm, despite the fact that my face was a bloody mess and I was crying hysterically.

We drove to the emergency room. It took 25 stitches to sew my cheek back on. The doctors told my mother I would need plastic surgery one day to repair the scar. I went to school a day later with a patch on my face, and for the next few months had a terrible-looking wound in plain sight of the other children, who were fascinated with the morphing scar tissue and discoloration.

The bite spanned from half an inch below my right eye to the right bottom of my nose. Early on, my mother had told the doctors I would be fine. No plastic surgery would be necessary. By that point, I was familiar with her stubborn positivity. When we had moved from Israel to America mid-way through my last year of kindergarten, my U.S. teachers wanted to keep me for another year. My mother told them “No way.” I would be just fine.

She ended up being right in both cases.

I was fine in the first grade. And though the scar took a long time to heal, it did heal. To the point of being almost imperceptible.

We owned two dogs after that, consecutively not at the same time. Judah was a German Shepherd and Lenny was a mix of German Shepherd and Saint Bernard. I always felt a special connection with Lenny, whom we adopted when he was two years old and I was 12. I walked him every day after school. I told him all my problems and made up stories and entire conversations. I took him sledding with me and my friends. I would watch TV with my head on his stomach. If I looked at him from across the room his tail would start wagging.

Sometimes I wonder how did I not develop a fear of dogs. Besides being exposed to them, I think on some instinctual level I knew that there was something wrong with that particular dog, not all dogs in general. Which is not to say I don’t get a little nervous when I see children put their faces into a dog’s face. But I do it all the time with my own dog. She has grown accustomed to me hugging and doting on her. We are often nose to nose, looking into each other eyes, her paws pushed into my neck.

Unfortunately, she does bark at small children. I think they scare her. She looks at them with confusion, as if unable to comprehend how humans can be small and unpredictable like that. She’s still too young to feel more mature than them, or perhaps safe from them. But I have faith that she will overcome this and be just fine.


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Confessions of a Former Caregiver

There are certain anniversaries that are tough to deal with in the first few years of grief (if not longer). Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and so on. For me, this time of year (January/February/March), brings back many painful memories as well as some good ones.

During these months two years ago, my late husband Kaz was deteriorating in mind, body and spirit. He had suffered a motorcycle accident several months prior and was still very depressed. The accident had rendered him weaker on the left side of his body. He could no longer ride, write, drive or work and he had to walk with a cane. For a man who had been an avid motorcyclist for over half his life, who loved skate and snowboarding, who prided himself on his independence, and who had a passion for speed, it was nothing short of devastating. I think the accident might have been more devastating than his cancer. At the very least, it was a significant turning point for him, me, and us.

His depression, while understandable, was challenging for me as his live-in caregiver and girlfriend. I had been warned the year before by a colleague whose mother-in-law had brain cancer, that the illness can change a person cognitively/emotionally. After the accident, he was not only depressed, but also more forgetful and disoriented. The changes were so subtle at first I thought perhaps I was imagining them. When I would suggest he try to shore up his memory by programming his phone with alarms or letting me write him reminder notes, he bristled. He also refused to go to a local brain tumor support group or speak with a psychiatrist. All of which, lead to tension between us.

It was sort of a catch 22 situation. He resented me taking control of more aspects of our lives, but was too depressed to do much to maintain his independence. Meanwhile, I resented that he wasn’t taking advantage of his dwindling time on earth and with me. He had lost a lot, but not the ability to appreciate a sunset or a good meal or the smell of the ocean.

We had a few terrible arguments during this period. The worst, when I came back from visiting my family in NYC for a few days. I had recharged my batteries but also tasted ‘normal’ life again, which made the return to our sad situation all the more upsetting. I accused him of giving up prematurely, of basically waiting to die, and warned him that this attitude would not fly with me for much longer. He had said many times that if he lost the ability to ride, he wouldn’t want to live. But if he no longer wanted to live, why was I approaching a nervous breakdown trying to help him?

Finally, in mid-March he started to turn around. He agreed to speak with a few potential psychiatrists and he went to (and enjoyed) a brain tumor support group. We hung out with some friends and had some good times. Whether he was doing so because he genuinely thought it would help or to please me, I’m not sure. We never got a chance to see if any of these things were helping because he had seizures in late March.

Before he passed, I tearfully apologized to him for being such a terrible caregiver. He responded, “You weren’t a terrible caregiver. You did a great job. And please don’t cry. It hurts me to see you cry.”

After he passed, the guilt I had already started feeling intensified. I had done much right, but had also done some wrong. The moments when I said things in anger were the hardest to live with. And it was difficult to discuss with anyone except my therapist because people didn’t want to hear about it.

Since then, I have learned that there is such a thing as caregiver’s guilt, as well as survivor’s guilt. I will write more about them in another post. These days, I try and reflect with compassion. I try to understand his point of view, and in my communication with him since his death (through my writing), have tried to articulate mine. It’s strange and bittersweet, but sometimes I feel as if we understand each other better now than when were in the thick of it. It’s amazing what one sees after the fog of cancer-related stress has lifted.


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Valentine’s Memory

Since it’s Valentine’s Day in a few hours, I thought I’d share a favorite memory with my late husband. This is also an expert from the current draft of my book. Happy Valentine’s day to you and yours.

February 13-15, 2009
For our first official Valentine’s Day, at my suggestion, we go camping in Joshua Tree National Park even though I’ve never been camping before. Since it’s my idea and I’ve organized the whole trip, I’m the only one who receives the instructions for the tent. Once we arrive and unpack, Kaz watches me circle the tarp a few times.

“You okay?” he asks.
“Yup.” I turn my back to him and silently bite my lip. I have no idea what I’m doing. Why did I even suggest a camping trip? What will happen if I can’t remember the instructions?
“Why don’t you try telling me how it’s supposed to go?” I hear him say gently behind me. “It might help you remember.”
“Okay.”

I start talking out loud, and he’s right. The instructions slowly come back to me. I begin to place certain pegs in certain holes, then bend the tent’s spine and stretch the fabric. We finish pitching it together, after which I’m practically giddy with relief and gratitude.

We celebrate by going for a walk in a nearby field of rocks. “Have you ever been here before?” I ask. “Yes, with my ex,” he answers. I nod and look down at the ground. He puts an arm around my shoulder. “But I’m very happy to be here again with you.”

We take a series of pictures. In one, he stands on a boulder, his hands spread wide, his feet straddling a large crevice running up the middle.

“Because he’s a crack man!” I yell as I take it.

As we walk back, he picks up a long, straight branch, which we immediately dub his Moses stick.

After dinner, which I manage to make without utensils (because I forgot those too), we sit in our borrowed camping chairs by the fire and pass a flask of Jack Daniels back and forth. Other than the fire, our entertainment is the star-filled sky and a small transistor radio which doubles as a flashlight (a Christmas gift from his mother). Tonight the only channel we can get clearly is a classical one with a DJ who speaks in Japanese.

We talk about our families again. I tell him how my mother was an artist and did art throughout her life, even when she was sick. That she loved music, especially jazz and reggae, and she spoke in a whisper due to multiple tracheotomies and open heart surgeries. I describe to him the moment my brother informed me of her death, 17 years prior. “It was and still is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me.”

In the flickering light of our campfire, Kaz tells me the closest he can relate is losing his paternal grandmother, who had helped raise him as a child. He describes the vegetable garden in the back of her house, the strawberry patch where he used to help her pick strawberries. He had been very fond of her.

“By the way, you can never go wrong making me something with strawberries in it, or berries in general,” he adds.
“Noted,” I laugh.

Later, he points out a couple of constellations and explains that because of the time it takes for the light to travel from the stars to us, some of the stars might actually be dead planets.
I look up at the sky. “That’s disappointing.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble,” he chuckles.
“You haven’t. I choose to believe the stars I’m looking at are alive,” I smirk. He laughs.

The next day, we visit Skull Rock where, to our surprise, it’s snowing. When he discovers both the heat and defrost don’t work in my car, we have a mini-spat, later to be referred to as Incident at Skull Rock.

We quickly take pictures before hurrying back to my car, where he jumps behind the wheel. A few miles and minutes away, we’re in the low desert and it’s sunny and warm.

“Oh my G-d,” I squeal. “Look at that!” I point over his left shoulder at a full rainbow arched over the plain, end to end, like something out of a movie. “Can we stop to take pictures, pleeease?” I plead. He pulls over and I jump out to photograph the rainbow, which, coupled with the fact that it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, feels like a divine symbol of love and hope.

View from the tent

View from the tent

Kaz and the crack

Kaz and the crack

Skull Rock in the snow

Skull Rock in the snow

the rainbow

the rainbow


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Musical Memory

Yesterday I met up with a friend who works at Scholastic, the company that publishes Young Adult and Children’s books and educational material. She was kind enough to give me a tour of their very cool building, right in the middle of SoHo. In the lobby, they have about half a dozen letters from famous authors, journalists and (for some reason) Alec Baldwin, meant to inspire children writers. The best note was from Arthur Miller, which I will have to add later (I forgot to write it down).

At lunch my friend and I got to talking about my late husband K and how music played such a big role in his life. He used to work in the music department of DreamWorks Animation, contributing to the soundtracks of some of the biggest animated films like Shrek, Madagascar, The Prince of Egypt, and many others. Later he worked at Capitol Records (in the famous Capitol Records building), licensing their catalogue to films, television shows, commercials, sports, etc.

It still amazes me how much of our relationship revolved around music. When we first started dating he would give me CDs as gifts, both music that he received at work and thought I would like, and music compilations that he put together specifically. He was an expert at hip hop, heavy metal, rock and blues, he rarely went to see a band unless he was on the list (the exception being bands he really loved like The Black Keys), and he always got the VIP treatment.

We once had an argument at a Brother Ali concert at the El Rey (Brother Ali is a white albino rapper). He surprised me with tickets to Atmosphere (another hip hop group) for my birthday in 2008. We listened to hours upon hours of music during road trips. We saw shows at venues all over Los Angeles and Gogol Bordello, Clutch, The Roots and Wu Tang Clan at the 9:30 in D.C.

When he got sick we started going to less shows, and near the end, I was choosing the music for him. After his seizures, when he was unconscious, I played his favorite band Clutch on Pandora in the ICU, hoping somehow the music would bring him back. When he woke up, he couldn’t remember what year it was, but when the doctor asked him “What’s your favorite band?” he answered without hesitation, “Clutch!”

Later, when he was on hospice, I played blues and reggae softly in the background. I was surprised to find dozens of Chopin pieces on his iPod. “I didn’t know you liked Chopin,” I told him. “Lotta things you don’t know,” he replied with a smile.

At his memorial, I asked a friend of K’s to play two Chopin pieces live, including this one (which was also played at Chopin’s funeral):

To this day, my most treasured possession is K’s iPod. I take it with me everywhere I go and listen to it almost exclusively. It used to be ahead of its time because he was always listening to music before it came out. Now, it’s frozen in time because I will never change his playlists.