The Late, Great Margaret Howe

Margaret Howe passed away peacefully at her home on Monday, September 11th, 2018. She was born on April XXth, 1984 in Springfield, Illinois. She is survived by three daughters, BA (5), MJ (4), and PE (3). She is preceded in death by her parents, Stephen William and Lois Elaine Crowe, and her grandparents, Trusler and Mary Margaret Howe, who raised her.

Margaret graduated from the University of Missouri in 2007 with degrees in German (Summa cum Laude) and French. She studied in Paris, France and Saarbrücken, Germany during her college years, and she went on to live in Korea for many years and travel to many other countries in Europe, Asia, and Central America. She spoke three languages besides English and aspired to become a polyglot. Margaret loved travel and freedom above all other things.

She also loved the outdoors and nature. She dearly enjoyed sailing, canoeing, hiking, and camping. She spent many happy summers in northern Wisconsin and was serving on the Clearwater Camp Junior Alumni Steering Committee at the time of her passing. She was devoted to providing young women with nature- and friendship-based experiences that would help them develop the skills and confidence that would help them become successful leaders in their communities.

Margaret also served on the United Way committee at (workplace omitted for privacy), as well as helping steer a private fundraiser. She believed in charitable giving and helping people acquire the tools necessary to live successful, fulfilling lives.

 When she was not spending time with her three daughters or working on a project, Margaret enjoyed writing and reading, as well as running (slowly, she would admit), baking, and playing her 12-string guitar. A lifelong learner, she was devoted to developing her own skills as she had time and keeping her mind sharp with new ideas.

A private burial for family will be held in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois on September 12th, 2018. A celebration of life will follow for family and friends at Clearwater Camp for Girls next summer. Click link below for details.

 In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to Clearwater Camp for Girls, Prairieland United Way, or Temple B’rith Sholom.

Okay, surprise, I’m not really dead. And I’m not planning on going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But you never know. You could get hit by a bus and wake up dead tomorrow. And in honor of Rosh Hashanah, I decided to do a little exercise in sorting myself out.

I’ve been “reading” a book on Audible called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Allen Lew. I got it with my monthly credit, and I have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting much, but it was exactly what I was hoping it would be. It is intended specifically to prepare the reader for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It talks about a variety of topics that are associated with those holidays – the history and cycles of Jewish holidays and how we might evaluate and recalibrate our lives using the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, as a tool.  

On the surface, I think the High Holy Days probably seem a bit depressing. The themes of atonement and forgiveness are center to them, and the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, in effect, meant to represent the “seven ages” of a person’s life, to put it in Shakespearean terms. They culminate with Yom Kippur, the day upon which you are to behave as if it is your last.

Functionally, the purpose of the High Holy Days is to take stock of your life and to offer and accept forgiveness for past wrongs. It is an acknowledgment of our power to accept and learn from the past, live better in the present, and influence our future for the good. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that, spiritually, this means that we must accept responsibility for the entirety of our lives, even the things that go wrong and seemingly happen to us.

It is tempting to want to blame others for our circumstances – our parents for raising us wrong, society for being too this or too that, politicians for being themselves, our friends for not being good enough friends, or even G-d/fate/the algorithm for dealing us a bad hand. The reality is that fault is somewhat irrelevant. Only we as individuals have the power to truly take responsibility for our lives and the events therein and turn them to our favor. Every moment is a chance to decide whether we will be blessed or cursed. And as the Stoics so aptly pointed out, it is a decision, to conclude whether or not we will grow from our experiences and circumstances or be undone by them, whether we will see mistakes and adopt better practices or persist in our emotional and perhaps physical addictions.  

The High Holy Days are, in short, a microcosm of our lives. We speed through from rebirth on the New Year itself (Rosh Hashanah) to death on Yom Kippur, when the Books of Life and Death are sealed for another year. It is instructive to think about death and to think about what we will leave behind, what we will feel gratitude for, and what we will wish we could remake or repent.

 The most common things, it seems to me, that people wish when they come to die are as follows: That they had worked less, enjoyed more, expressed themselves more freely and more often, been truer to themselves, and done the things that they were afraid to do. While it is hardly uncommon for people to feel sorrow for poor decisions, I think the deepest sorrow most of us feel are for the roads not taken. I know in my own case, that is indubitably true, especially where it came to telling people how I felt. Expression of feeling has never been my forte, but I have made inroads with age towards being more honest in my self-expression.  

Although the last month of my life has been jam-packed with travel and social events, I have made some effort to treat Elul, the month prior to the High Holy Days, as a time for some degree of introspection and thinking about what I want from my life, not just for the next year, and how I might go about getting myself closer to those things. I have also spent a great deal of time thinking about guilt and things that I have done wrong, things other people did wrong, and the power of forgiveness for those things.

While I certainly cannot say that my life has been without slight from others, at the end of the day, I find myself the hardest person to forgive. I feel terribly guilty for not being here when my grandparents died. I have tried very, very hard to get past that, and I’m not there yet. Sometimes I think that I never will be, but I keep making myself face the guilt, in spite of that fact. I know that they would have forgiven me in an instant. Perhaps that is why it is so damned hard for me to let go. Part of me almost wishes that they would have been the types to hold that sort of grudge, but they weren’t.

I think sometimes about what might have happened if I had taken that bus ride to Seoul to see him. I think about what might have happened if I had called one more time. I think about how vastly different my life might be now, had I taken that road not traveled, had I had the courage to do what I really wanted to do and said what I really felt.

But that’s not where I took myself, and my life today is a direct result of those decisions. And for all the shitty, terrible guilt that I feel sometimes, I am not entirely unhappy with my life. I am actually more content now than I have been in a long time, even if I am not entirely satisfied. I actually hope that I am never totally satisfied because I think when you stop striving, you are a dead man walking. I have met those people, by the way, the ones who have given up. You’d be well advised to walk as fast as you can in the other direction.

In any case, I look at my own life, and the regrets I have are largely related to not telling people how I felt, not being present enough, and not chasing the thing I truly wanted. I regret giving in to my fear, and fear is generally always at the root of me not saying the thing or doing the thing. That’s a hell of a way to live life, let me tell you. You will end up a sad, miserable person if you acquiesce to defeat before you even try. That is true failure, and kids, I have been a true failure.

I have to ask myself, “Where are the pain points right now? If you were being truly honest with yourself, what is going wrong? What would you be proudest and most ashamed of, if you died tomorrow? What do you think you could do to fix that?”

Well, right now, I am in the midst of realizing that I’m hard to get along with. I knew this before, but I am seeing it more clearly with age. My friend noted once that I am “stubborn to the point of intractable” sometimes, and I have this tendency to write people off when I get angry with them. This stems entirely from disappointment on my part. I have this tendency to believe that the people I care about are saints, and that’s a terrible thing because nobody is really a saint, and it sets everyone up for failure. Moreover, it’s an unwillingness to be honest about other people, and it dishonors the whole of their personality. Most people I know really aren’t that bad, even if they are infuriating, on occasion.

 I need to realize too that I can be infuriating. I hold grudges, I put my foot in my mouth like it’s my second job, and I keep secrets like a CIA agent, partly because I distrust people, but also partly out of fear of judgment. I tend to avoid confrontation, and that has been to my detriment more times than I can count. The question then becomes, “Knowing these things about myself, how can I alter my behavior for the better or at least tone it down a notch?”

Forgiveness, mindfulness, and courage seem to the answers to these problems. I fail to consider others’ feelings sometimes while expecting them to extend me that courtesy themselves, and that doesn’t fly. If you care about someone, you should be able to be honest with them in a constructive, tactful way. Also, it pays to be forgiving because we are all human, and sometimes we fail. That’s just the way life goes.  

Courage is perhaps the most important part of this equation, at least for me. You have to be courageous to be forgiving, and you have to be courageous in telling someone things that you know they won’t like or going after something that you know you want, even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy, stupid, or merely insufferable. The truth of the matter is that if you want to do anything at all worth doing, people are probably going to think all of those things about you, at various points. There is a fine balance to be made between being kind about that sort of thing and not giving a fuck.

I’ll illustrate this point by talking about the things that I have concluded that I want in my life: spiritual fulfillment, freedom, more time for the people I care about, fitness, and intellectual enjoyment. Those are broad subjects, but I know what they look like for me, and they are a lot more specific, when I see them in my mind.

 Starting with Judaism seems the most obvious one. Whether or not it seems like it from this blog, Judaism and I have been wrestling with each other for literally years now. I have these moments of crippling doubt about the whole thing. Like, why Judaism? Seriously, why? There is no familial link, I’m not marrying a Jewish guy, and I was an angry atheist for years. Why Judaism?

Sometimes I think it has quite a bit to do with the fact that my folks are gone, and there is this sense of starting over. The traditions that were particular to our house growing up have passed on with them, and I have struggled mightily to make holidays feel meaningful in the way that I remember them. I have accepted the fact that perhaps there is an element of Band-Aiding here, but the wounds of loss in my life are deep ones, and if they need a Band-Aid, I’ve decided that I’m okay with that. I can let that be what it is.

Sometimes I think it’s Judaism because I have long been searching for some spiritual system that works for me, and Christianity was just never going to be it. It never resonated with me, and I tried. It just didn’t work. I still respect Christianity for the many positive messages it has to impart. It’s just not for me, especially what I think of as the “rural Christian” culture, which looks a lot like my coworker walking around with a T-shirt that says, “Y’all need Jesus.” Yeah, about that…

The truth is, it’s probably both of those things, but the most important point about it is that Judaism just resonates with me. I fully realize that, for a lot of Jewish people, it’s more about the tribe than the religion, and I respect that, but the religion and the philosophy speak to me. I thoroughly enjoy the spirit of struggle and rigorous debate, and the ritualism is appealing to me, perhaps because I have been missing tradition in my own life. But the biggest thing, quite frankly, is that Judaism seemed to have the best responses of my own spiritual experiences, few that they were.  

The incorporation of Jewish philosophy, religion, and ritual into my life has enriched my experience and given me what I feel like is the closest thing I will ever have to a connection to G-d, whatever that is. And Judaism leaves room for that “Whatever that is” part. Maybe it’s the force of the universe, maybe it’s the little voice of conscience in your head, maybe it’s the sum total of experience of your ancestors, or maybe it’s all of those things or none of them. I don’t know, and neither does your rabbi. And that’s okay.

 The two main issues at this point are that I am still extremely nervous about approaching one of the local rabbis or anyone else about taking the Intro to Judaism class, which is generally one of the first steps in Reform conversion. Fortunately, I’ve been feeling encouraged lately, thanks to a couple of solid conversations I had during the month of August, so now I’m mostly resolved to just get over myself and prepare for a little rejection. Despite the fear, is it dumb that I’d probably be a bit disappointed now if I didn’t get a little bit of rejection, just for old time’s sake?

The other issue is cluing my family in. I’m actually 98% sure that they know, which makes it worse because now it’s just a countdown to Christmas, when I have to admit, “Yeah… No Santa at our house. Or tree. Or, you know, anything. There’s a menorah and like, some pine garland and lights. We’re very festive.”

We were at my cousin’s son’s birthday over the weekend, and the kids were explaining Beyblades to the old folks. I thought Beyoncé had perhaps come out with her own line of shaving products, but then I wondered why kids would be playing with them. No, they’re these stupid tops with a trash bag tie… I can’t explain it, but they’re a thing that nobody should pay money for. Anyway, my cousin was attempting to explain it, and then he looked over at me and said, “Some people call them dreidels.”

And then I knew. It’s probably time to actually say something. 

I suspect it’ll be like being the gay cousin or something. By the time I tell them, they’ll all be like, “Yeah, we knew. It was really stupid that you didn’t admit it for like, two years because everyone knows. Literally. Everyone.” That makes it no less uncomfortable. I don’t want anyone to have the feeling that I’m abandoning the family or anything like that because I’m not. It honestly has zero to do with anyone else. It’s a personal choice that I’ve made for myself because it makes my life better. That’s the long and short of it, really. No surprises or secrets there, no outlandish motivations.  

The other three things all sort of tie in together – family, friends, fitness, and freedom. I have spent a lot of time sitting in a cubicle over the last five years. That’s fine. It has been a necessary thing. I have to put food on the table and pay the mortgage, and I’m grateful to work for a company that treats its employees well. Having said that, I don’t think it’s normal or natural for humans to spend a long string of days in succession punching keys on a keyboard under fluorescent lights, unable to remember what distinguishes today from every other day. Sitting in a chair all day in front of a screen is terrible for the mind and body.

I want to be able to say, when my time comes, that I made the most of my days and enjoyed my life. I don’t want to have to think that I wasted it in a succession of long months and years sitting in a box doing something that I don’t believe ultimately has any particular value beyond the fact of paying the bills.

I have realized that I don’t need to be especially fulfilled in my work, but I do need time to do other things that are fulfilling to me. Writing. Running. Being with family and friends. Traveling. Volunteering. Those are things that I enjoy. So my goal is to get free of the cubicle. Get a hustle. Get to the point where I can work 4-5 hours a day for myself, and then spend the rest of the day doing whatever I want, including spending some of that time with my kids. Run. Write. Do whatever.

 Will it be easy? No. Do I know exactly how it’s going to work? Heck no. But I know that it can be done because I’ve seen others do it. I don’t need to be rich. I just want to be free. I don’t want a boss, and I don’t want someone else to dictate to me how I live. One’s life needs structure, but it isn’t necessary to have a boss to have structure.  

One thing about making all of this happen is that it requires courage, and it requires letting go of the self-doubt and anxiety about doing something that not everyone else is doing and that not everyone is going to believe in. There are always people who are going to say that you’re crazy for one reason or another. There is always going to be a voice inside your head that agrees with them. Giving in to anxiety is like listening to conspiracy theories about yourself. And you know where most conspiracy theories lead, right? “I bet the Jews did this!” Don’t give in to conspiracy theories.

 The remedy to this is action. Constant, unrelenting action. Introspection and contemplation certainly has its place. In fact, it is necessary. However, it becomes damaging when we think too much about our plans, how they could fail, where our shortcomings are, etc. This leads to procrastination and fear, and I say this as someone who could be a professional contemplator. It’s not a profession that you want to go into, trust me.

Coming to the conclusion that this is necessary requires radical responsibility. You have to be able to look in the mirror and say, “This is my life, right this minute. Everything that has happened up to this point is my responsibility. Nothing happens to you. You choose every minute what to make of your life, and if you aren’t happy with what you have made of your life, you have to act differently. Not think about acting differently. You must change your behavior, and you must change it immediately. Yesterday cannot be revisited, and tomorrow is out of reach, but right now, there is the opportunity to do differently.”

 I think most people skip the “radical responsibility” part. I see it in others when they talk about wanting to move forward. At the slightest suggestion that they have chosen X situation or Y relationship, they balk.

“Well, So-And-So was an asshole! The demise of the relationship wasn’t my fault!”

That’s true, but you chose So-And-So. And you chose What’s-His-Face and Who’s-It, and they were assholes too, right? But their common denominator is you. You are choosing the wrong people, and at some point you have to admit that you have responsibility for that. Nobody else. You. You chose this relationship, that job, that college major, those friends.

“But Howe, I didn’t choose to have an abusive parent! I couldn’t leave that relationship as a child!”

 No, that’s true, you probably couldn’t. Children are powerless, in that regard. You cannot change someone else’s actions towards you in cases like that, but you can change how much you allow the harm to continue, once that time has passed out of your life. You can choose to deal with it or ignore it and let it fester. Most people ignore it for a lengthy period of time. I’ve met plenty of people who have done or are still doing that very thing. Bad things can happen to you, but if you view it through the lens of victimhood, you won’t get very far. It is far more useful to view it as something that brought you forward to a new place of understanding and development. Is that easy? No. Sometimes there is no coming back from certain things, but I have a lot of faith in the human psyche, honestly. We all have tremendous power within ourselves, just as we all have the capacity for great good and terrifying evil.

When I contemplate all of these things, I have to ask myself what my real obituary should look like. If we were being totally honest with ourselves about who we are today, right this very hour, how would it read? How would our friends and family really remember us? What would G-d see, if He were writing the blurb for the newspaper? 

Margaret Howe passed away peacefully at her home today, September 11th, 2018. She was born on April 16th, 1984, to Stephen William and Lois Elaine Howe Crowe. She was preceded in death by her parents and her grandparents, Trusler and Mary Margaret Howe, who raised her.

Margaret had many gifts. She excelled in writing and picked up languages easily. Her dream was to go to law school or perhaps become a Germanistik professor who wrote many books. She did neither of those things because she was afraid that she would not be the best, and so she elected not to try at all, a fact which she regretted until approximately the final year or so of her life.

Margaret traveled extensively and loved to experience new cultures and people. She craved freedom, and she reveled in a certain lack of responsibility that came with such a life. She sensed inherently that she needed more structure than that and that a wandering life would ultimately leave her unfulfilled, but she persisted in that life out of fear for many years.

Margaret was in love only once in her life. He broke her heart into a million tiny pieces, and she never loved again, though doubtless she would have liked to. Out of fear of further heartbreak, she married someone that she knew could never break her heart, for she did not love him. Three beautiful girls resulted from that union, ill fated though it was, and destructive though it became for both parties. She realized after the fact that fear had been a terrible poison that she willingly drank – the poison that kept her from real love, a real career, and real freedom.

 She loved her three children dearly, though she often had difficulty expressing it. She did not spend as much time with her children as she should have, partly due to the burdens of single parenthood and partly because she was a person who easily made due in solitude and even craved it, at points.

In spite of the emotional shortcoming, she worked to provide well for her children. They always had clothes to wear, food to eat, comfortable beds to sleep in, and regular physicals and dental visits. She read to them, snuggled on the couch with them, and chased them in the park. She enrolled them in preschool and made sure that they learned things that were good to know and always wanted to know if they had asked good questions that day.

Margaret wasn’t spectacularly neat, and housekeeping was not her forte, although she tried much harder as she got older. She was an excellent baker, and she had learned to enjoy cooking, despite being somewhat mediocre. Sometimes she left the mail in the box for several days at a time, and she liked to sneak a sweet treat in between exiting the grocery story and picking up the kids so that she wouldn’t have to share.

 Margaret loved the great outdoors. She loved to spend time sailing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and running. Doubtless she would have loved it more, had her fitness level been greater. She struggled perpetually with her weight from the time she was young, and it was more often a losing than winning battle. She had begun to slowly turn the tide at the time of her passing. She was deeply interested in running long distances, but she fell short of running her first 5k by four days. She had hoped that someday she would be able to run in the big ultra marathons like Keys 100, Western States, or perhaps even Badwater.

 Margaret served on many committees, including the Clearwater Camp for Girls Junior Advisory Committee, Prairieland United Way for (still not telling you my employer), and a private fundraising committee. Margaret enjoyed helping people, and she enjoyed keeping herself busy. Perhaps some part of her also liked the way her busyness looked to herself and others. 

She was also deeply interested in Judaism and had spent the final year of her life living as a Noahide, a Gentile living Jewishly. She had hoped to go through the conversion process, but as she had not begun that at the time of her passing, it has been determined that there will be no Jewish burial in Oak Ridge nor Shiva during which mourners might express condolences to the family.  

A visitation will be held at B&C Funeral Home where family will greet friends and mourners. A wake will be held next summer at Clearwater Camp for Girls, which will include a spreading of ashes in Lady Tom, followed by a celebration of life on the waterfront.

In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to Clearwater Camp for Girls, Prairieland United Way, or the roof fund at Temple B’rith Sholom. The Jews will no doubt be very confused at the sudden influx of money from a funeral for a person they had never met.

Also, sometimes, when she thought nobody was looking… She picked her nose.

 Shana Tovah, kids! Stay thirsty!