By Malkie Gordon Hirsch

I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a bit about my speaking engagement at the Levi Yitzchak Library two weeks ago.

There are times in my life lately when I feel like fairy dust is sprinkled from the heavens directly into my life, and as many of you have been privy to the happenings in this medium, I feel like something that has greatly inspired me can do the same for you.

I walked in to the library, all prepared with what I was to say, as I was nervous at the prospect of speaking to even a small group that day.

I figured that if it was all written down in front of me, I’d leave no room for error, and while it would prevent me from truly connecting to my audience, it was the only way I could feasibly get through my fear of public speaking.

Before anything began, some women approached me because I was visibly younger (by around 25–30 years) than the ladies attending the lunch that day, so naturally they were curious about who I was.

When I introduced myself, some were familiar with my writing and others, after briefing them about my life, had what to share about their struggles as well. In a very deep way, I truly felt like I was among my people.

Maybe because they were older and lived more life.

The more life lived, the greater the chance there is to experience loss. Chazal say that the word for elder, “zaken,” is a contraction of “ze she’kanah chachmah”—this one who acquired wisdom.

Maybe it was the way they gave over their stories bravely and in a way that made me realize that I wasn’t among ordinary people, but actual warrior women who’ve collectively been through a variety of different struggles and prevailed.

I’ve noticed that my demographic of readers (or at least the ones who reach out) is on the older side, which is why I felt the importance to depart from my comfort zone and speak that day—because I knew I’d have the chance to learn and be inspired by them as well.

And while I didn’t have much time to hear more than the few stories, the ones that I did showed me why I showed up.

Linda was sitting next to me and initially didn’t realize that I was the one who would be speaking.

We struck up a conversation as I waited for other women to arrive and she shared a bit about her story with me.

Widowed at the age of 71, Linda relocated to a different community to be closer to her kids. While it was the practical move to make, so much change in such a small window of time created feelings of anxiety and longing for the life she once had. She wanted to live in the life she recognized; her own suddenly seemed so foreign to her. She said there were times in the very beginning when she’d spend hours feeling bad for herself. But instead of sitting in that feeling indefinitely, she regained control of her life and decided to sign up for programs that would enable for her to meet other women of her age and stage of life.

Linda also started volunteering her time and began visiting a local woman every week who has suffered from a long-standing illness that limited her mobility. As she’d sit with this woman and see how hard everything came to her and how she had to rely on others for basically everything, Linda quickly realized how lucky she was to have all that she did.

She had freedom of movement, she had a loving family to whom she could articulate her feelings, and she could wipe away her own tears when she cried.

And this woman had none of that but still managed to be happy when visitors came by.

It taught her a tremendous lesson about perspective and it’s something she thinks about whenever that self-pity intrudes into her day. It was an “aha moment” in her life that taught her that no matter what’s handed to you, there’s always a way to find gratitude.

Sometimes, it’s harder to find gratitude among the stress and sadness and the self-pity and the life changes that come with age. But it’s there. You need to open your eyes to find those moments to be thankful for. And on that day, Linda realized that it was her ability to have movement and independence that showed her how good she actually does have it.

Another woman at the library that day named Frima spoke about her childhood in the early years of the Holocaust. She was a 5½-year-old child who suddenly was on her own and was left on the street, accepting handouts to eat for survival. Frima relied on the kindness of strangers to make it through the trauma of losing everything and completely being on her own at such a young age.

But when you meet her and hear her story, there isn’t a shred of bitterness or anger. She feels incredibly lucky to have lived a full and happy life, despite the hardships she’s been through.

As I stood there in front of these women who should’ve been in front of the room, teaching me instead of the other way around, I shared the things that got me through hard times. I told them about how I changed the only thing I was able to change—my reaction to the situation I was placed in. The only power we have is changing the narrative that society has deemed appropriate for different life scenarios. Once you realize that you don’t have to be the way other people think you should, you regain the freedom to feel the way you want and to live the life you want.

At some point during speaking, I realized that I wasn’t looking down at a paper as I spoke. I was actually just speaking about my story and the things I’ve learned along the way. It felt liberating to face a fear that I’ve had for so long and just accept that I’d feel a certain way and still take a risk. The feeling I had sharing my experiences with these women and doing it without reciting from a paper made me understand why I decided to show up that day and not prepare a thing to say.

Sometimes it’s the unpredictable moments in life that are the most impactful. The moments that you thought would go one way but ended up being the most memorable.

That’s what meeting these women and sharing an hour with them did for me on that day two weeks ago, when I learned that life is better when you look up from the paper and speak from the heart.

And I’ll be forever grateful for that opportunity. 

Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, a social media influencer, veteran real estate agent, and runs a patisserie in Woodmere.

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