Happy Holidays everyone! This month we will have five kids heading home who range from age 18 through 26. We are looking forward to finding ways to enjoy family time while we are safeguarding our health.
ADR presentation -- I will be giving a speech to RLI Design Professionals as part of a training course on the 16th of the month on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). I’ll be talking about dispute resolution through negotiation, mediation, collaborative law, arbitration, and litigation and giving case studies of how a business and a family resolved their conflicts.
Wrapping up the fall semester/Planning for spring -- I will also be grading final papers for the ADR class that I teach, closing out the semester, and planning for the Spring 2021 Mediation class at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia law school.
Share your story -- You will recall that I contributed a short piece, Five Financial Tips When You Are Facing Divorce, to a book on pandemic relationships that was published in May of 2020. The book was pulled together very quickly by the wonderful Michael Lang and Peter Nicholson. They will be soliciting contributions in early 2021 for a new book. The idea is to present stories of how people have dealt with conflicts exacerbated by the stress produced by the pandemic. I would love to write about a story of resilience for my contribution that I will submit! I am happy to interview you and tell your story so please let me know if you have a story that you would like to share.
Reflective practice group -- I joined a reflective case consultation and study group headed by legendary mediators Woody Mosten and MIchael Lang. My first meeting was in early December with a small group of mediators from all over the country. Our mission is to learn from our colleagues and our facilitators. Our guiding principles are: (1) we are committed to learning from experiences through self-examination and (2) learning comes from self-exploration and self-discovery. And my goal in joining was to raise my conflict resolution strategies and skills and help my colleagues improve as well.
Goodbye 2020 -- 2020 has been a year like no other. I think we are all ready to say goodbye to 2020 and to welcome a New Year and a new beginning in 2021. I am finding inspiration from the following uplifting quotes: Abraham Lincoln said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Helen Keller said to “resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” Buddha said that “no matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.” Last, the Dalai Lama said to “be kind whenever possible; it is always possible.”
Happy New Year and can't wait to see you, 2021!
American University presentation: This month I had the pleasure of speaking on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to Matthew Pascocello’s American Legal Culture class at American University. The class was online, of course, due to the pandemic. It was interesting to note that students are not required to turn their cameras on during class. The students were highly engaged and asked lots of interesting questions. We started off with an icebreaker role play. Students played the roles of Sandy and Al who just broke up and needed to divide their stuff. Unbeknownst to Sandy, Al wants to get back together and unbeknownst to Al, Sandy has been seeing someone else. We did the role play three different times using eight different student volunteers: first as a negotiation, second as an arbitration, and last as a mediation.
Last ADR class of semester at GMU law school: I taught my last ADR class at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, wrapping up my 7th semester teaching. The class focused in pertinent part on the work of Bill Eddy and high conflict personalities, as well as the work of Nina Meierding and cross-cultural and gender issues. It’s always sad to end the semester and to say goodbye to my law students.
High conflict personalities and Bill Eddy: I’ve talked a lot about Bill Eddy and high conflict personalities in previous blog posts. The core issue is that when a high conflict person is having a dispute with another person, the response that works is to immediately shift over from blaming, criticizing, and attaching each other to problem solving as a starting point. Bill says to connect with empathy, attention, and respect (EAR) and to use proposals as building blocks of making agreements. Read more about Bill’s approach in his book So What’s Your Proposal?
Cross-Cultural/Gender issues and Nina Meierding: Nina believes that everyone operates with implicit bias – we don’t even know we have bias most of the time. Bias affects everything that we do. Nina believes that by changing a person’s behavior, you can eventually change his or her beliefs. Here is a story that Nina shared with the Edwards Mediation Academy regarding a mediation she conducted involving cross-cultural and gender issues:
The mediation centered on a doctor who came from a country where there was a historical power distance between men and women. Due to his cultural beliefs, he made the work environment difficult for the nurses who worked with him. When Nina met with the physician, she said that he had the power to make one of three decisions:
1. He could believe what he wants about men and women, continue behaving the way he had been behaving, and the decision would be to not work at the medical facility any longer;
2. He could believe what he wants and decide to stay at the medical facility and change his behavior; or
3. He could change his beliefs and change his behavior which means he had decided to stay.
The physician chose Option #2. He asked Nina to help him change his behavior. By not trying to change his beliefs at the onset, Nina helped him change his behavior – and his beliefs may follow. (See Susan Franson Edwards’ 2018 article on Culture and Its Impact on Mediation.)
Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) conference -- For many months, I had looked forward to attending the APFM conference for 2020 in Phoenix this month. The last APFM conference I attended in San Diego in 2018 had been wonderful. I loved meeting, interacting with, and learning from mediators and dispute resolution professionals from all over the country and the world. I remember taking back ideas from San Diego and incorporating them into my own practice. October is a perfect month to visit the Southwest and I had envisioned an intense few days at the conference and then moving on to visit the Grand Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, and Antelope Canyon, as well as beautiful National Monuments.
AFPM put on its first online conference instead. There were pre-conference workshops and then a welcoming plenary, “Engaging the New Online Family Mediation Field” that was well attended. We have all been forced into online mediation due to the pandemic and, surprisingly, the major of collaborative professionals online have grown to embrace it. On the one hand, we can meet our clients where they are in their homes, and online mediation is convenient for our clients. On the other hand, we need to work harder to make sure that our personal touch as dispute resolution professionals is not lost. Our guiding principles as mediators are to lead with compassion and to continue to find ways to build rapport. We also need to be really good with technology and ensure that privacy and confidentiality requirements are emphasized when we are online! I try to replicate my in person mediation style to the extent possible now that I am mediating online and make necessary adjustments.
Other sessions that stood out include a talk on “Building a Successful Mediation Practice”, moderated by Woody Mosten, as well as a session entitled “Essential Technology for Effective Online Mediation”, moderated by mediator, lawyer, and online expert Susan Guthrie. I highly recommend reading Woody’s article on Beyond Mediation Toward Peacemaking, in which he talks about peacemaking – “creating a sense of peace and mindfulness within our own lives and in our work by harnessing our core values and best personal attributes.” Susan has been mediating online way before the pandemic and is always beyond generous in sharing her wisdom and tips for improving the online experience for both clients and small business owners. I am really hoping that in 2021, we can all be together in person in Arizona.
George Mason University (GMU) Scalia Law School Class on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) -- It’s hard to believe that I have just taught my ninth class of the fall semester with only four left. My students have been enthusiastic and engaged online as we engage in listening exercises, practice new skills, and use those newly acquired skills in various role play exercises. We have finished the negotiation and mediation units, and we began the arbitration unit this week. Arbitration differs greatly from mediation – arbitration is an adversarial process and the parties have no control over the process and the outcome. There is no appeal right and an arbitrator’s decision is final and binding. Arbitration is less expensive than a trial and can be more private than a trial; arbitration awards do not typically establish precedent for other cases. Next week retired judge, arbitrator, lawyer, and mediator Judge Paul Sheridan will be speaking to my class about arbitration – online via Zoom. I am really looking forward to watching my students interact with Judge Sheridan.
Pivot. Lead. Learn/Mastermind 2020 -- I am really grateful to have the opportunity to participate in this wonderful group online. Maura Fredericks, Coaching for Executives, offered to lead a business mastermind that started over the summer for small business owners. The focus of the mastermind group has been on (1) marketing strategies during the pandemic – how we can continue to innovate through economic uncertainty, (2) scaling and growing – how we can continue to take risks now that we are online, and (3) consulting best practices – how to define what sets our businesses apart and how we can continue to refine our practices during the pandemic. Each month a business owner is in the hot seat and prepares a document that states what type of support the business owner is seeking from the group, as well as goals and challenges. Little Falls Mediation is in the hot seat this month! I am used to listening and facilitating communication and negotiation as mediator, so being in the hot seat is a role reversal for me. I am really enjoying working with this wonderful group of small business owners and being able to support them – as well as accepting their support in my upcoming hot seat.
Back in May, when we were just two months into the pandemic, I contributed to a book on pandemic relationships called Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During A Pandemic. At the time, the creators and editors of the book, Michael Lang and Peter Nicholson, wanted to do something to help families in distress. Professionals around the world who work with families contributed to the publication.
Now, here we are deep into the pandemic in early fall. Back in May, we had no idea how long the pandemic would drag on. We just coped the best that we could and hoped that schools would open again come September. Many families have been enjoying their time at home and do not miss the daily commute to work. Other families are struggling and coping with simmering tensions, illness, and unemployment. They are seeking out mediation services in an effort to resolve conflict.
I shared my contribution to the book – Five Financial Tips When You Are Facing Divorce – back in May. Now I want to share tips and words of wisdom from other contributors to the book: lawyers, therapists, mediators, and writers.
1. Carpe diem during corona virus: Your undivided attention helps your kids feel safe and secure. When talking with a child of any age, look into his or her eyes and listen closely to what your child has to say. When kids do chores, they build self-reliance skills and an empowering sense of purpose, plus you’ll feel less overworked and resentful. Family meetings can also break up interpersonal logjams and allow civil discussion of household progress and policies. Finally, try to set aside your worries and savor the opportunities for love, fun, and learning in the Time of Coronavirus. They won’t last forever. Jenifer Joy Madden
2. Five uncomplicated ways couples can turn arguments into discussions: (1) Agree in advance on a pause word or phrase to end the discussion for now; (2) Mentally distance yourself in time by picturing yourself a year from now looking back at this argument; (3) Acknowledge even when you don’t agree to show that you understand; (4) Give back the last word unless it is to show that you get your conversation partner; and (5) Replace ruminating about an argument by considering the perspective of an impartial observer who wants the best for you both. Tammy Lenski
3. Boundaries: What came so easily and naturally at the beginning of the relationship needs to be supplanted by a willful and mindful commitment to show respect by honoring boundaries. We need to remember that no matter how much we think we know our spouses and partners, it is always better to demonstrate respect by taking the trouble to ask than it will ever be to assume. Chip Rose
4. Diagnose and treat interpersonal conflict: (1) Be aware of escalating behaviors that are initial symptoms such as raised voices or refusal to discuss concerns or blaming others; (2) When those around you show stress or depression, make every effort to feel empathy for their emotional pain; (3) If resources are scarce, work with those in your family or business to float options to solve the problem rather than to complain or push others to accept your way of doing things; (4) Research and use the resources in your community to help you gain information and tools to solve your problem. If you treat conflict with the same care you would with a cough or fever, your odds of a fuller recovery when this pandemic passes will increase significantly. Forrest (Woody) Mosten
5. Change the nature of the interaction: Consider that it only takes one person to change the nature of an interaction and you have a great deal of power if you are the recipient of your partner’s frustration and anger. You can either engage or keep some semblance of calm. Fighting back has many negative ramifications as you already know, particularly for your children. So as you and your spouse are confined in the same house, consider the power you have in respectfully managing your part in the conflicts as they arise, by taking the high road and not engaging in the other’s angry outbursts. Marilyn McKnight
Thanks so much to American University Washington College of Law for the invitation! I am looking forward to talking to the alumni community about resolving disputes.
I'll be discussing the differences between litigation, arbitration, adversarial, competitive, and interest-based negotiation, mediation, and collaborative law.
I will also talk about (1) being a small business owner, (2) the focus of my mediation practice, (3) my time spent mediating court referred cases at Multi-Door Dispute Resolution in D.C. Courts, and (4) teaching two law school classes, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Mediation at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School.
I am looking forward to this webinar. Please join us on the 24th. You can register here:
“An ounce of mediation is worth a pound of arbitration and a ton of litigation!” — Joseph Grynbaum
Joel and I decided to get out of our comfort zone last January before the pandemic and reserved an RV for the first week of July. We had never driven an RV or vacationed in one and had been talking about trying the RV life for a while. Never did we imagine back in January that we had actually planned the perfect pandemic vacation. We brought all of our own bedding, kitchen items, food, and a grill, and we picked out our two sites last February. We chose three nights at an RV park located right on the beach in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina and another three nights at an RV Park in Wilmington, North Carolina -- a seaside city we had always wanted to visit. For seven days, we were able to relax, be outside, socially distance, and not worry so much about Covid-19. Our first RV site was located right on Pamlico Sound and the sunsets were spectacular. Above are photos we took from our RV site. I actually can’t wait to do another RV adventure sometime soon.
Looking Ahead to Fall
August has arrived! The young adults and teenagers in our family are getting ready to go back to graduate school, college, and high school. We are not sure exactly what to expect. What we do know is that most, but not all, graduate school and college classes will be online while public high school students here in Arlington, Virginia will begin the school year solely online. Also, our kids will be coming home before Thanksgiving and staying home until they go back to school in mid to late January.
I am preparing to teach a seventh semester at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. I was asked if my preference was to teach in the classroom or online. While I really enjoy teaching in the classroom, I felt more comfortable choosing the online option. I start teaching again on August 26th.
For the first time, my law students will not be able to observe live mediations in the Small Claims Division of D.C. Courts at Multi-Door Dispute Resolution as part of the experiential Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) class that I teach each fall. D.C. Courts has shifted toward online mediations, and the online mediation program is still so new that Court staff did not want students observing at this time. The ADR class focuses on four units -- negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and collaborative law. Students learn about these alternatives to litigation by practicing dispute resolution skills and then using these skills in various role play exercises. So instead of observing real mediations, students will observe recorded mediations that I am asking the law school to purchase from the Harvard Program on Negotiation. And their role plays will take place via Zoom rather than in the classroom.
I am also receiving a lot of calls lately from Little Falls Mediation clients who are inquiring about mediation services. I pivoted to online mediation in mid-March when all of the schools shut down. Typically, I schedule a no charge confidential phone consult with each party to a dispute so that they can ask all the questions that they have about what the mediation process looks like, what alternative dispute resolution is, how I work with clients, what is the timeline, and what costs will be. Since the pandemic began, I have mediated all of my cases online via Zoom. I learned early on that it was important to upgrade my internet capability and speed, as well as my computer, and to make sure that all of us could see and hear each other really well on separate devices during online mediation.
In talking to potential new clients, I realized that much of what I teach to my law students I can impart to my clients. Most of my clients have not been part of a mediation before, and they feel overwhelmed regarding how to resolve a dispute. They do not know what ADR is, so I take time during the no charge consult to explain the differences between litigation, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and collaborative law. I also talk to my clients about the differences in settling a dispute in court (litigation) versus settling a dispute outside of court (alternative dispute resolution).
Here is a summary of what I tell new clients about Litigation and ADR:
Many of us are conflict averse -- and so we tend to avoid conflict. We find communication to be difficult. I find that, in the end, most of my clients really like resolving their disputes through face to face communication using interest-based negotiation in mediation sessions and outside of mediation rather than by using adversarial methods to resolve their differences. Practice of communication and negotiation skills in mediation sessions (and in classroom role plays) does not make perfect, as the expression goes, but practice certainly makes things easier and helps all of us to feel more comfortable in communicating with each other.
Guest blogger and college student Katherine Barnes talks about the silver linings she is finding during the pandemic. Katherine is an Integrated Marketing Communications major at the University of Mississippi. Photo from Ole Miss website.
On March 9, 2020, I boarded the Carnival Valor cruise ship for my spring break vacation. There were approximately 500 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time in the United States, yet life was seemingly normal. I went shopping, picked up coffee, and enjoyed a drink on Bourbon Street with my friends the morning before the cruise set sail. I had absolutely no idea that that day would be the last time I could enjoy such luxuries.
On the vessel I had no cell reception, an unreliable wifi connection, and no idea of what was going on in the world around me. The crew members aboard the ship shielded us from what the public health officials were saying and denied any knowledge of the outbreak. While docked for the day in Mexico, I received a notice that my classes at the University of Mississippi were cancelled for the rest of the semester. I was shocked to find out that the NBA was suspended, Tom Hanks had contracted the disease, and that the virus was officially classified as a pandemic. I realized the severity of the public health crisis after recognizing several similarities to the plot of one of my favorite movies, Contagion.
My friends and I were terrified that we would be stuck quarantined on the cruise ship for months at a time. Other cruise ships were stuck at sea, as seaports were directed not to allow ships to dock. Thankfully, I was able to get off of the ship with no problems at the end of the trip. I arrived in New Orleans and for the first time witnessed the Big Easy as a ghost town. Popular tourist attractions were deserted, and the shelves at every gas station and convenience store were bare.
The reality of the outbreak settled in when I fell ill on the drive back to Oxford. I was exhausted and feverish, and felt a dry cough coming on. These common symptoms of the virus led me to self-quarantine in my apartment. I quickly became bored, irritable, and tired of watching Netflix all by myself. I lacked motivation to read or do anything productive. I wallowed in my sadness and spent days doing virtually nothing, but I eventually accepted the fact that I couldn’t leave my apartment or see my friends. To cope with this new reality, I pushed myself to try new hobbies by ordering resistance bands and arts and crafts projects. These small purchases helped improve my mood while quarantined, and they kept me entertained while in my isolated apartment.
After getting the doctor’s approval to return home, I moved back to Arlington, Virginia. A silver lining of COVID-19 is that I got to move in with my long-distance boyfriend Kevin who goes to college in Virginia. Kevin encouraged me to make the most out of every day, and to not dwell on the things that I could not control. We constructed a routine together that consisted of completing our schoolwork, cooking elaborate meals together, and going on walks. To my surprise, I adapted well to online learning, and my grades for the spring semester were straight As and Chancellor's List.
There were many days that I felt sad and frustrated with being quarantined. It was hard for me to accept social distancing as the new normal. I missed seeing my family, attending cycling classes, and having face-to-face interactions with my professors. I often struggled to explain the complexity of my emotions to Kevin, as I was extremely happy to be with him but often pessimistic due to isolation. I tried to keep my negative thoughts and emotions to myself, but they always poured out of me eventually. Over time, I learned the importance of communication and articulating how I feel. It isn’t always easy for me to discuss my feelings, but being vocal really improved our time together in quarantine and our relationship overall.
I also struggled with communicating with my friends. I was used to seeing familiar faces every day, whether in my apartment or on campus. Isolation contributed to extreme loneliness and anxiety regarding my friendships. It seemed as if my friendships were fading away, but the reality of the situation was that everyone was coping with the pandemic in different ways. I continued to reach out to my friends, and I began to incorporate mindfulness and journaling into my daily routine to ease my anxiety. It definitely was not easy, but reframing my thoughts and actively keeping in touch with my loved ones through texts and phone calls helped improve my mood over time.
Adapting to the coronavirus pandemic has been difficult, but my experience throughout lockdown has helped me grow as a person. I am so grateful to spend time with my family, whether from a distance or on zoom calls. I have rediscovered my love of reading for pleasure and found joy in cooking and trying new foods. I am appreciative that my family members are healthy and safe.
I know that I will have to continue to adapt to COVID-19, as case numbers are rising and my classes will remain online. I am so sad that I won’t get to experience the physical beauty of campus every day. However, I know I will make the most of my situation. I plan on adopting even more hobbies, communicating effectively, and focusing on one day at a time.
Join family mediator Virginia Colin, parent educator Jenifer Joy Madden, and me for a webinar on Thursday, June 11th at noon Eastern Standard Time. We will be talking about the book on pandemic relationships to which we all contributed: Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During A Pandemic.
We will talk about:
• handling anger, exhaustion, and stress
• rules of engagement for family survival
• facing separation when you're living together
• financial tips when preparing for divorce
• how a family mediator can help you
Register at DurableHuman.com/RelationshipSOS. We look forward to talking to you on June 11th!
Recently, I was online and saw a post in a family mediator group from a fellow mediator who I did not know -- Michael Lang from Sarasota, Florida. He mentioned something about pulling together a book to help people who are struggling during this COVID-19 pandemic. He felt strongly that worries are felt very intensely in families where couples are separating and divorcing. I replied to the post that I would be happy to help out, having no idea that Michael and his colleague Peter Nicholson, advertising and marketing CEO of OGX group in Ireland, intended to publish the book from start to finish in a week!
I sent Michael a few articles that I had recently written, and he wanted to include Five Financial Tips When You Are Facing Divorce because he thought that no other mediator was including a written piece on a similar topic. He also thought that concrete tips would be most helpful to families.
Michael and Peter’s goal was to produce the book to help families coping with great difficulties immediately. Over a one week period, Michael and Peter (1) reached out to mediators, lawyers, therapists, financial planners, and child specialists from around the world, (2) received articles, (3) asked for changes, (4) formatted, (5) illustrated, (6) solved challenging technical issues, and (7) produced the book. The book is now available in hard copy on Amazon and in kindle version. My book just arrived today, and I can’t wait to read all of the various pieces representing the collective wisdom and guidance of this experienced group of contributors.
A wonderful and unexpected byproduct of this book is that a new supportive and collaborative community has been born: mediators and other professionals contributed to the book from all over the U.S., as well as from Ireland, Australia, Italy, the UK, Poland, Canada, Trinidad, Czech Republic, and South Africa. We are all now connected by email and social media and in touch with each other. Thank you, Peter and Michael, for bringing us all together.
Here is the article:
Five Financial Tips When You Are Facing Divorce
I picked up the phone the other day to speak to a potential new client, and she cried, 'I'm panicked!" She had left her career to be a stay at home mom of three small children, the couple had been talking about divorce for a while, and the husband is the primary breadwinner. I mediated a case yesterday in which the husband was the stay at home dad and the wife is the primary source of income for the family. He is nervous about his financial future but moving forward with hope.
All of my clients are apprehensive and scared of the changes that a divorce will bring. These tips will focus on financial concerns when a couple is facing divorce. Often only one spouse was involved in handling the finances in the marriage (paying bills, budgeting, investing) and establishing relationships with the family accountant, attorney, and financial advisor.
1. Assemble a good team of advisors -- Find a good certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA). Financial analysts help to assess every aspect of your financial life -- including savings, investments, insurance, taxes, and retirement -- and help you develop a detailed strategy or financial plan for meeting all of your financial goals. Your CDFA may also be skilled in advising you on business valuation if either party owns a business or on financial forensics. Sometimes my clients together hire a divorce financial neutral who works collaboratively with them during the process of mediation.
You will need to find a neutral mediator if you are mediating your divorce and a lawyer to review any agreement that you may reach and with whom to consult during your divorce negotiations, You may also need to consult with an accountant, a real estate appraiser, a therapist, and a parenting coordinator if there are children.
Worried about how to pay for a team of advisors? Ask for a no charge consult before you commit to working with and paying a CDFA, mediator, lawyer, accountant, and/or therapist. You want to make sure that all of the advisors who you are hiring will be a good fit and will be affordable. Negotiate sharing the cost of your neutral mediator, divorce financial neutral, and real estate appraiser with your former spouse. And if you do not have the financial resources to hire a CDFA or similar advisor, do not worry. Many couples do not have a complex financial situation that might benefit from and require a financial analysis. A neutral mediator will help to empower the divorcing couple to negotiate splitting of assets and liabilities without hiring a financial analyst. Moreover, health insurance will cover much of the cost of a therapist and/or parenting coordinator, if needed.
2. Organize your financial documents and record your monthly expenses -- Set up an organizational system if you don't already have one in place so that you have easy access to all of your utility bills, mortgage statements, car loan documents, credit card statements, joint retirement and bank accounts, tax returns, homeowner/car/liability insurance statements, appraisals of valuable items, and all other important financial documents and records. Estimate the net worth that you and your spouse have accrued.
It's important to understand what all of your specific monthly expenses are so that you know what monthly income you will need for the future. You will want to create a budget for future income and expenses. Save your receipts and track all of your monthly expenses with an easy to use money management program such as Quicken or Mint.
3. Update insurance and beneficiaries -- if you have health insurance coverage through your spouse's plan, you will need to investigate new coverage options and change to a different health insurance plan once you are divorced. Contact a health insurance broker if employer-based health insurance is not an option. A broker can help explain different benefit packages and costs. Review and update beneficiaries on your various insurance policies and financial accounts, as well as who has legal authority to make health care decisions for you on your medical proxy document. If you had joint car, valuable articles, and liability insurance or any other joint insurance policies, set up your own separate insurance policies in your own name. Update your will. (You may need to consult with a lawyer who specializes in wills, trusts, and estate planning.)
4. Hold off on major financial decisions for now -- Don't make impulsive large financial purchases, switch jobs, or move to a different geographic location at this time.
5. Review and monitor your credit report and check your credit score -- Close your joint bank accounts and open accounts in your own name. You don't want to be responsible for the spending and debt of your spouse once you've decided to divorce. Obtain a new credit card account in your own name. Protect your credit score.
When I was a teenager, my favorite book was All But My Life, written by Gerda Weissman Klein. Gerda is a Holocaust survivor who for many years lived in Buffalo, where I grew up, with her family. One of Gerda’s daughters, Vivian, was my Sunday school teacher. Gerda, throughout my life, has always been my hero because she radiates strength, hope, optimism, resilience, and love.
I remember my mother, who died in 1992 at age 55, telling me Gerda’s story as well since they were friends. I could not wait to meet Gerda’s husband and great love, Kurt, who I pictured as a young, handsome soldier -- and one day, I did.
Gerda spoke to my high school classmates and me in the 1970s and shared her story about her parents and her brother and life after the Germans invaded her hometown in Poland when she was 15 years old in 1939. Flash forward to many years later, maybe around 2004, and my oldest daughter did not want to go to Sunday school in northern Virginia. I happened to be at our temple and walked into the temple library with her where I saw All But My Life – my book that had been so special to me and that I had not thought of in years.
My daughter and I read the book together, and I decided to get in touch with Gerda and invite her to speak at our temple. She had written several newer books – including The Hours After, Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath and A Boring Evening at Home. It turned out that Gerda’s son James lives in Potomac, Maryland. We were able to arrange for Gerda to fly from Arizona to the East Coast, stay with her son, and I would pick her up and bring her to the temple in Falls Church. Gerda spoke to the northern Virginia community in two sessions – one presentation for children and another for teens and adults.
Later, when I was traveling to Phoenix with my three kids, Gerda invited us to visit with her in her home and we had a wonderful time. Then, in 2008, I was watching the Academy Awards and there was my Gerda up on the podium accepting an Oscar for her story that was told in the documentary One Survivor Remembers. You can see her remarks here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zn-fPM4KS0. The film also won an Emmy.
In 2011, I opened up the Washington Post to see that Gerda had been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S. The award recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".
In her talks to various audiences around the world, Gerda described hiding in her basement, living in a Jewish ghetto, and being separated first from her brother and then from her parents in 1942. The last words her mother spoke to her were, “Be strong”. Her father told her to wear her ski boots – in June – when the family was separated from each other. She never saw her family again. Gerda was taken to various slave labor and concentration camps and endured unspeakable horrors. She hid pictures of her family in her ski boots, which she wore on a forced 350 mile death march from Germany to Czechoslavakia through the snow and cold in 1945. Of 2000 Jewish women who were forced to march, just 120 survived.
I remember Gerda telling the story of her best friend Ilse, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.” Ilse did not survive the death march and died just a few days before liberation.
At the end of the war and the death march, Gerda and the other surviving girls were left by the Nazis in an old abandoned bicycle factory along with a bomb that was set to detonate but somehow did not. Kurt Klein found Gerda. Kurt was an American who had been born in Germany and had emigrated to the U.S., settling in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1937 at age 17 without his parents -- who were unable to leave Germany and died in Auschwitz. Kurt joined the U.S. Army and was trained in military intelligence. Kurt describes the moment he met Gerda:
…I saw a girl standing and I decided to go, walk up to her…I asked about her companions… And we went inside the factory...There were women scattered over the floor on scraps of straw…some of them quite obviously with the mark of death on their faces…The girl who was my guide made sort of a sweeping gesture over this scene of devastation, and said the following words: "Noble be man, merciful and good." And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe, which…is called "The Divine," at such a moment. And there was nothing that she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than…what she did. And it was a totally shattering experience for me.
Gerda describes the moment she met Kurt: “He looked to me like a god…” Nervously, before asking for help, she apprised him of what had been a dangerous truth. “You know, we are Jews,” she told him…He paused, then said, “So am I.” Gerda and Kurt were engaged four months later and married the following year.
The other day, I saw an article in the Arizona Republic about Gerda. The headline stated: 96 year old Phoenix Holocaust Survivor Becomes Beacon of Hope During Covid-19 Crisis. As she always does, Gerda provided words of hope and comfort. Quoting from the article:
"If we have hope even in the darkest moments, I think it's the most important weapon," Klein said. 'We all have an incredible amount of strength that we are not familiar with until we are really tested."
"Even in the most difficult times, you have to have hope. Hope is the light to the future, to everything,"
She said it's important not to let one's mind wander into the dark doubting corners of fear. "I think we should always have hope and never give into the frightening thoughts," Klein said. "We always have the 'what ifs.' Well, what if we have incredible strength?"
"Ten years from now, you will look at it entirely different. You'll think, 'Things were really tough then, but how fortunate that I am now that that all belongs to the past,'" Klein said.
Sadly, Kurt died at age 81 in 2002 while on a lecture tour in Guatemala with Gerda. Gerda’s son James talks about his dad's death in the forward to Gerda’s book A Boring Evening at Home: “...in tribute to Dad, who believed in both the vital importance of their life’s work as well as Mom’s unique ability to convey eloquently their message of tolerance, hope, and the redemptive power of love, Mom has somehow mustered the strength to go on…” James also talks about his belief that his parents’ greatest achievement was to create a normal life for themselves and their children and a home in which the family all genuinely had a lot of fun and spent a lot of time laughing.
I find Gerda's words, as always, to be encouraging and helpful to me during this pandemic. I hope you find comfort in her words as well.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1995, Arizona Republic, April 11, 2020
Photo: From the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.