National Post (Latest Edition)

‘OUR LIFEBLOOD IS TALKING TO EACH OTHER’

Elderly ‘Oprah’ leads lively ladies room discussion­s On ZOOM

- The Washington Post

i am not a morning person, but i make sure tuesday morning i am up and ready for class. … i trust her with Everything. she is very Open about her life, which makes us Open up.

— Marilyn Snider, 79, a longtime participan­t of the ladies room

It’s Tuesday morning and Trudy berlin sits in front of a laptop, a stack of books, loose papers and newspaper clippings piled next to her. It’s go time.

At 10 a.m. sharp, the 98-year-old enters a Zoom meeting, where an audience of 50 women eagerly await her.

She’s known to some as the Oprah of senior citizens at the Adolph & rose Levis Jewish Community Center in boca raton, Fla. She’s older than Oprah Winfrey, and Jewish, and some other difference­s, too — but you get the picture.

“Good morning, everyone. We have lots to discuss. but tell me first how all of you are,” berlin says, offering her usual opening remarks to a sea of Zoom boxes staring back at her from a flat-screen TV on the wall above her.

So begins a conversati­on about politics and other news of the day, as well as deep deliberati­ons on various personal quandaries.

They lament lost spouses and hash out the recent election and related controvers­ies. All topics are covered. Sometimes things get heated, but berlin will bring down the temperatur­e.

“Life is so deadly serious that you can’t treat it that way,” says berlin, who is wearing a bold scarlet top with sequins and often ties on a brightly coloured scarf. “you have to lighten it up.”

every Tuesday morning, dozens of women between the ages of 70 and 98 sign on for The Ladies room with Trudy berlin — a weekly discussion group berlin has moderated for more than 20 years with a loyal following. When the pandemic hit, the long-standing in-person sessions went virtual.

“I’m 81 years old and I want to be just like her when I grow up,” says Carol Makofsky, a regular attendee of berlin’s class.

Grief is the central theme for today’s discussion as berlin is mourning the sudden loss of her nephew with whom she spoke every day.

“you have all gone through grief and unfortunat­ely we’re all going to go through grief again,” she begins.

Women nod pensively from their Zoom boxes.

Some jot notes. Impassione­d discussion ensues.

One by one, women in the group share their own stories of loss and how they learned to cope with it.

“It will be six years in April,” one woman says about her husband’s tragic death. “I knew right from the beginning, though, that somehow, I was going to survive. I’ve learned that grief is the price you pay for great love.”

berlin, who has endured more than her share of grief, offers her perspectiv­e.

“If someone you love dies, your first thought may be ‘I want to join them, I want to be with them,’” she says. “but always remember, your first thought should be, ‘I will survive to keep their memory alive.’”

The talk eventually shifts course, moving into an energetic debate about doug emhoff — u.s. Vice-president Kamala Harris’s husband — the first-ever second gentleman.

“Should we give emhoff special credit for what political wives have been doing forever?” berlin asks the group. “I’d like to hear from all of you.”

The women weigh in. Several say that as a supportive husband, emhoff is worthy of praise: “It’s a good example for all of us and it’s a good thing for the men as well,” says Thelma drew, an avid participan­t in the Ladies room for several years.

Others disagree, saying the focus on emhoff takes the attention from Harris’s accomplish­ments.

“Kamala Harris’s husband is getting all this credit for being a supportive partner,

but what about all the women like Kamala who are doing such phenomenal work?” a new participan­t to the class rebuts.

Several nod in agreement, unmuting themselves to chime in: “Nella, you are so right,” one woman says. “So well said,” another adds.

berlin makes sure the back-and-forth stays friendly. “Our lifeblood is talking to each other,” she reminds them.

She tries to make the women feel supported, especially since many live alone and are suffering from extreme isolation, a condition that can lead to dire

health problems.

“Women tell me they’ve been cheated out of a year and it’s true if you look at it that way,” she says. “but I’m learning and I’m growing and I’m going to be better when this is all over.”

To those who know berlin well, “she is Oprah,” says beth Zoller, 46, berlin’s great-niece.

Zoller’s sister, Lori Harrison, 42, agrees.

“Seeing the effect she’s had on the women in this class is just remarkable,” says Harrison, who always listens in on the sessions.

Alice Stockhamer, 78, who has attended berlin’s classes for more than four years, can attest. “It’s been a lifeline,” she says.

“I am not a morning person, but I make sure Tuesday morning I am up and ready for class,” says Marilyn Snider, 79, a longtime participan­t of the Ladies room.

The women flock to berlin for advice and wisdom.

“I trust her with everything. She is very open about her life, which makes us open up,” Snider says.

berlin’s own life experience­s, the women say, have also positioned her for this role.

“you realize you’ve been through many tough situations — losses and all. you tighten your belt and you keep going,” berlin says.

born in New york City in 1923, berlin grew up in an upper West Side apartment overlookin­g the Hudson river. The youngest of her two siblings, she remembers her early years fondly.

but when she was 10, her father died suddenly of a heart attack.

From then on, berlin’s life was punctuated by loss: Her older brother died unexpected­ly when he was 45; her husband, whom she married when she was 21, took his own life at 56. In the years that followed, she suffered a string of losses. Most recently, her nephew.

“Life was handing me battles. I realized I had to keep myself going,” berlin says. “The only way to lift tragedy is to bring light in.”

For her, the light was — and still is — education.

“education is the only way. It’s a tool,” she says.

Although berlin dropped out of russell Sage College in Troy, N.y., after getting married, her thirsty intellect ultimately drove her back to school.

At the age of 39, long after having her only child, she enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College in bronxville, graduating in 1967. She earned both a bachelor’s degree in literature and community studies and a master’s degree in college teaching.

“Sarah Lawrence opened up a world to me,” berlin recalls. “I was starved for learning. I didn’t realize how much I treasured it.”

She later transition­ed from student to quasi-teacher — first as the social director at a resort in Hudson Valley, N.y., where her Talks under the Willow Tree brought women back year after year to hear her speak and ponder life out loud.

Now, the Ladies room has a similar appeal. berlin moved to boca raton in 1989 and lives alone in an apartment next to the JCC, where she has been teaching courses since 2000.

She was paid a small wage to teach before the pandemic, but since March, berlin has been instructin­g the course as a volunteer. The group needed her more than ever, she figured.

“We very quickly realized that all of these people were going to feel extremely isolated,” says Stephanie Owitz, director of arts, culture and learning at the JCC, who helps facilitate the meetings.

“The fact that these women are Zooming in every week is really quite miraculous.”

When the pandemic is over, the community centre plans to still offer some classes online, especially for people who don’t have as much mobility.

berlin, for her part, intends to continue running the Ladies room for as long as she can, in whatever form she can.

“Time is limited. I am 98 after all,” she says. “but living your life is something you decide to do. And I decided a long time ago that I was going to do it.”

She reads the group a poem she recently wrote: “When my life has ended and makes of me a seed, I would rather be a tree than just another weed.”

this is a really wonderful example of How Public spaces and really Public space Management entities are being really smart about those investment­s in Public art and connecting them to other Programmin­g. — Elena Madison

Every summer and winter, the Portuguese city of Agueda fills with visitors who wander the streets, turn their gaze to the skies and flood social media with cheery umbrellas that seem to float overhead.

The artwork, called umbrella Sky Project, has expanded beyond the city’s borders over the past 10 years to shopping districts, downtown promenades and even theme parks around the globe. Temporary installati­ons have gone up in countries including Portugal, bahrain, Japan, Norway, Spain and the u.s.

Travel influencer­s pose under them. Pinterest boards are full of them. Architectu­ral digest in 2019 included Agueda’s umbrella-draped roads in its list of the “most beautiful streets in the world.”

“The motto is to colour life, bring colour to the grey spaces of the city and make the ones who pass by smile,” says promotiona­l material from Impactplan, the creative agency behind the umbrellas. “A simple idea that brings life and protection to public spaces and at the same time transports us to a fantasy world.”

And in an era when outdoor gatherings are the only option for safe coexistenc­e, the project that is meant to offer a shared public experience in the open air has gained a new relevance — or even urgency.

“Public spaces are really the spaces where we come together as communitie­s, where we cross each other, where we run into neighbours or bring visitors from out of town to show them proudly what our town or neighbourh­ood or city is really about,” said elena Madison, director of projects at the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit planning and design organizati­on. “They’re very important for a long range of reasons, but I think with the recent pandemic, we’ve seen

how important they are for our social and for our physical health and well-being.”

umbrella Sky Project started in 2011 as a result of a challenge to drum up more business on an Agueda street filled with small stores, said Patricia Cunha, Impactplan’s creative director. The agency was experiment­ing with different types of work in public spaces, but ran into the problem of artwork disappeari­ng.

“We started developing something that was a bit out of reach,” she said. Cunha said she drew inspiratio­n for a colourful, unexpected fantasy scenario from Mary Poppins while embracing the symbolism of protection.

While the goal was to increase business in the area,

2011 and 2012 coincided with the rise of the selfie. Cunha said people who passed by found the hanging umbrellas “so weird” and started sharing photos.

“It was a viral thing,” she said. “At the time, it was very unexpected.”

The agency saw demand for its services grow, with five customers in 2013 ballooning to 167 in 2020. That includes all art installati­ons, but most of them have been umbrella Sky projects, Cunha said. depending on the size and scope, Impactplan charges between 10,000 and 100,000 euros. Projects go up for only three or four months because they can’t last longer exposed to the elements.

“The timeline creates a

little bit of an urgency to go see it, take the selfie, be in the space, experience it,” said Madison of the Project for Public Spaces. “This is a really wonderful example of how public spaces and really public space management entities are being really smart about those investment­s in public art and connecting them to other programmin­g and building the name of the place as a place that is interestin­g and exciting and worth going to.”

That’s what batesville, a small city in Indiana, is hoping to do this summer. The batesville Area Arts Council is bringing the project to its downtown from mid-june until mid-october after its board president, ethel rodriguez, was inspired

by a similar installati­on in Mexico.

rodriguez discovered that an umbrella-filled selfie magnet takes a lot of work: getting permits, building a structure, securing permission from business owners to use a parking lot, working with different organizati­ons to program the space.

but the arts council believes the effort will be worth it. They want to give residents of the city, located between Indianapol­is and Cincinnati, a safe place to gather and they are aiming to draw visitors from surroundin­g areas to help boost local businesses.

“We were kind of hoping it would help with tourism,” said Anne raver, the council’s community liaison. “We just think the possibilit­ies are endless.”

At dollywood, the theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., partially owned by entertaine­r dolly Parton, the idea was to add an immersive, visually appealing experience to a springtime Flower and Food Festival.

The plan for the 2020 festival had been in the works since 2018, but because of the pandemic, the team from Portugal couldn’t come to install the project. Instead, they sent instructio­ns and walked the dollywood staff through the steps over video calls.

Amy Owenby, vice-president of product and planning, said that when the park reopened with new safety protocols and the festival ultimately ran from June through August, the installati­on represente­d much more than a photo opportunit­y.

“It was symbolic of hope and joy,” she said. “Our community needed a very strong aspiration­al message, our guests visiting our park needed a very strong aspiration­al message in those moments.” She added: “It really did become kind of the emotional heart of the event.”

The project will return from late April until early June this year.

back in Agueda, where Impactplan is based, the umbrellas have become a local point of pride. Cunha said residents put umbrellas on their balconies; people wear umbrella hats.

“It became such a symbol of the city,” she said. “Although we do it in other places in the world, here in this city, it’s more of a tradition.”

The only problem, she said, is that travellers sometimes show up and find they’ve arrived during umbrella-free times. Cunha said her company is working with the city to have installati­ons up consistent­ly, changing the themes for different times of the year.

“We don’t want them to come and not find anything,” she said. “That is so sad.”

 ?? PHOTOS: ADOLPH & rose LEVIS JEWISH COMMUNITY Center ?? Trudy Berlin, 98, leads The Ladies Room with Trudy Berlin, which is attended by about 50 women each week.
PHOTOS: ADOLPH & rose LEVIS JEWISH COMMUNITY Center Trudy Berlin, 98, leads The Ladies Room with Trudy Berlin, which is attended by about 50 women each week.
 ??  ?? “Life is so deadly serious that you can’t treat it that way,” says Trudy Berlin, left, with members of her Ladies Room discussion group in Boca Raton, Fla., before the
pandemic. “You have to lighten it up.”
“Life is so deadly serious that you can’t treat it that way,” says Trudy Berlin, left, with members of her Ladies Room discussion group in Boca Raton, Fla., before the pandemic. “You have to lighten it up.”
 ?? PHOTOS: BORIS HORVAT / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Installati­ons of the Umbrella Sky Project by Portuguese artist Patricia Cunha, like this one in Aix-en-provence, are a magnet for selfie-lovers.
PHOTOS: BORIS HORVAT / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Installati­ons of the Umbrella Sky Project by Portuguese artist Patricia Cunha, like this one in Aix-en-provence, are a magnet for selfie-lovers.
 ??  ?? Visitors and residents take shelter from the summer heat under the Umbrella Sky Project installati­on.
Visitors and residents take shelter from the summer heat under the Umbrella Sky Project installati­on.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada