Ruminations at Year’s End

Snow gauge
Copper Snow Gauge at gardners.com

I had an odd thought yesterday while I was out walking my dog. I’d put on my winter standby coat – a lined wool Winnie the Pooh letterman’s jacket I bought from the Disney Store when I was in NYC in 2001, standing with co-workers on line in Times Square in below-freezing temperatures, hoping to get tickets to The Lion King.

All of a sudden, I realized that I had owned this jacket for 17 years. I had worn it every winter since 2001 and lost six friends and a husband, a house, and two jobs in that time. What a strange thing to think, I said aloud. And yet, like most of my seeming non sequiturs, it has a context.

This year, I had Christmas dinner with a family friend and another guest was a recent widow. This was her first Christmas without her husband of more than 40 years and she was dealing with it better than I think I had. She had still baked Christmas cookies, gone to a cookie decorating party, celebrated the season. I had not celebrated for years. In fact, this 11th year since my husband’s death was the first time I took any real pleasure in Christmas and the first I made more than a half-hearted effort towards enjoying it.

My husband died on December 6th, so that first Christmas was a complete mess. I bothered with no decorations, no Christmas dinner, no gifts, no cards.

This year, my hand-stamped cards were completed in November, addressed, postage affixed, and mailed the first week of December. The effort reminded me of how much time I had spent 20 years ago on finding just the right cards, carefully calligraphing the addresses, writing a humorous holiday letter, and getting everything out on time – an endeavour that my husband’s relatives said only pointed up the fact that their guy had truly become a married man because cards for any reason had never been seen before with his return address on them.

An article I read today spoke to how many widows and widowers had to find new traditions for the holidays. For me, contemplating an old tradition, like Christmas cards, or something new like a watching a different holiday movie, meant using a pain gauge. Did the idea of doing this thing cause me pain and if so, how much?

For quite a few years, my husband’s death alone was the pain gauge. But as other people disappeared from my life for one reason or another, the pain gauge also became about memories and relationships other than having been a wife. Losing friends I had known even longer than I had known my husband became part of the equation.

When I was very young and fascinated with life, I heard that old people sometimes welcomed the idea of dying and I found that mystifying. At 66, I don’t feel old and yet I find I understand that thinking much better. It’s hard to lose those with whom you were close – with whom you shared a particular set of moments in time, events, other people. It’s the same as losing a part of your life – a piece of your soul and history entwined forever is ripped away and it leaves a mark that can’t be erased. When it happens a lot in the space of a few years, it can be overwhelming. The pain gauge pegs in the red and all you can think about is getting away from the pain; part of you shuts down.

This year has been a mixed one for me. I’ve had a couple of blessings and some challenges that have pegged that pain gauge more than a few times. But I also enjoyed Christmas this year and that brightens me in a way I didn’t expect.

For the first time in the 11 years since my husband died, I didn’t mark this December 6th with tears and a sense of loss. I acknowledged the day, but the pain gauge needle didn’t move much. And that’s probably a change I still don’t realize the immensity of. I probably won’t understand it for a few more years as I approach future Christmases.

I expect that in those future holiday times, I will once again pull out my Winnie The Pooh letterman’s jacket against the cold weather. Probably when I do, I will be reminded of those who have left this life since I have owned it. I hope when I recall them, it will be with wistful fondness and the pain gauge will register that feeling appropriately.

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What Hurts

 

Anxiety out of control

Reassurance is try and miss

Taxi cruises up and

it has the light off

Face of a friend who doesn’t hear you

when you call out in a crowd

Visit to a museum gallery while they announce

they’re closing in 15 minutes.

 

Read. Type. Look at Pinterest

Midsection squeezing itself like a lemon

while you pin a picture of a cute dog

No workout pictures because you already have

tight abs, yes, they are really so tight

you almost can’t breathe

 

There’s a hollow feeling in the middle

Can’t be hunger

Food would make you vomit

You eat anyway but you don’t

taste anything

which is okay because

you don’t want to

The realization of that presses down

on you and you do stop breathing

for a bit

 

You want to live and enjoy

living but you can’t remember

how you did it or when

No sand castles

Just holes in the beach

You dig up the sand with your little shovel and

the tide fills them in and makes them

soupy

 

You start again a distance away repeating

it’ll be okay like saying it will

make a difference this time

it’ll be okay.

Summer Reading List Nostalgia

Woman reading a book at the beach

Every year around this time, publishers, booksellers, and reading sites ask us “What’s on your summer reading list?”

Phooey. Or as Nero Wolfe spelled it, pfui.

This question always takes me back to the 1950s and the olden, golden days of Madison Avenue when everyone lived in NYC. While the working poor were sleeping their summer evenings off on the cool of their fire escapes, the more well-to-do were escaping to their summer digs, where the full-time mom let the children try to drown themselves in the lake or the Atlantic Ocean while she rested in the shade of a tree or umbrella with her lemonade (liberally spiked with vodka) and her Summer Reading.

Please.

These days, your summer reading is likely to consist of a paragraph or two on your smart phone hastily crammed into the short few minutes between picking the kids up from summer day camp and the dinner making, laundry doing, bedtime madness to follow.

If you’re lucky, your kids are older and you can get in a few paragraphs or maybe even some pages (!) before bed, preferably with a glass of wine.

But whatever your situation, you are not likely to be considering which book you will lovingly peruse over the next few glorious, slow summer weeks.

Kids have summer reading lists. Everyone else has the next book in their stack left over from spring, which was left over from winter, which was left over from fall, which was…

But we’ll probably never hear the end of the question “What’s on your summer reading list?” It’s a marketing ploy that has petrified roots in the book world. Every year we will be asked this question and those of us old enough to remember back in the day will sigh and hear the faint sounds of ice cubes melting in lemonade with the musical tinkling of wind chimes. And people too young to remember will wonder what the heck they’re talking about.

Driving in a Loop

02_loop_road_everglades

A friend linked to a post about being present in the moment and how doing that with her daughter made her see how much of her life was a journey undertaken on well-known roads.

It’s the well-known that makes the days blur one into the other. As children, everything is new to us and each day seems long and intense and full of discovery. As we age, there is less new to our lives and the days shorten and become bland. They no longer require our full attention.

One of the ways we can regain the ability to focus on the moment is to be shocked into it. Dramatic news can do that. Like what seems to be an unwarranted number of creative people dying before 2016 ended. Or the unanticipated shock of a surreal election result.

Another way is to do something different. As the author of the post pointed out, this can be as simple as taking a different way home.

These things I knew.

What I didn’t know but learned in the last few years is that well-known roads are only detrimental if they lead one into complacency – it’s a cul-de-sac where thinking is minimal and much happens on auto-pilot. I lived on a cul-de-sac once, and it was peaceful but boring and sometimes I thought I would go out of my mind living there.

But well-known roads only lead to cul-de-sacs if you take the turn off. And for the last 5 years, I have not. Instead, I’ve continued to drive in a loop.

I never thought this would be me. My younger self was on fire to discover the world and I couldn’t wait to get started. But then my husband became ill and two economic downturns happened. And when it was over, my husband was dead, I’d lost my house and our savings and though outwardly I seemed the same, inwardly I’d lost my courage and my taste for new roads.

I’m better now and getting stronger all the time. But I stay on the well-known roads for the most part because getting off them for any length of time makes me anxious and worried. Minor setbacks still have effect out of their proportion. While this is true, I will continue to travel the loop.

But I have come to know myself well and driving the loop forever is out of the question. Even now, I occasionally take a side road to somewhere I haven’t been before. A quick look around, and then back to the loop. Someday soon I won’t be satisfied by those drive-by experiences. I will get off the loop and mostly stay off it. For the last two years I have been planning trips I want to take and things I want to try, and though I have reasons I haven’t yet done them, I know those reasons are pretty much excuses, and I accept that. The part of me that hasn’t yet healed will continue to resist, but the part of me that longs to be off the loop will continue to plan, and poke, and prod and eventually, the wounded part – which will never be completely healed – will give up.

I know this will happen.

So as I drive, I am patient with myself. I drive the loop, but I am in the moment as well, understanding that I take comfort from the well-known road and accept it at full value, knowing that it will not, cannot, should not, last.

Tapped Out?

Image via Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been working on a short story. It’s supposed to be slightly horror – that is, it should unsettle the reader, though won’t likely scare anyone. A horrific thing happens and you can see the lead up to it, but because of the viewpoint, the reader never gets all the information and when the story concludes, they’re likely to have more questions than answers.

I’ve never written one like this before, and that was the point of it. I wanted to stretch myself, challenge myself as a writer, and so I came up with a few ideas that I thought might help me do that.

Problem is, I haven’t been working on it.

This may mean nothing – I haven’t been working on anything lately. I have a painting on my easel, just waiting for me to get back to it, a watercolour planned, a diorama kit of an abandoned gas station I’d like to get to, and some felt soft sculptures that need finishing. Instead, I’ve been thinking about other people’s writing, trying to make some room in my tiny cottage by going through three boxes of long unplayed LPs, gardening, and working on my family’s history.

This isn’t unusual for me. My creative output is always low because I’m easily distracted by all of the other things that interest me – volcanoes, history, political science, mind science, and everything I’ve never heard of before. Lately, I’ve had a near-obsession with Ancestry.com and working my way up and down the family tree in every direction. This is complicated by the fact that I’m also working on my late husband’s family tree at the same time.

But getting back to the story.

So distraction is part of the problem, but I try to at least write 200 words a day. Very little, considering I have done upwards of 3-4K a day, when I’m on writing fire. Which I’m not with my writing lately. In the olden days, and with most of the very short fiction I post here, the writing sort of took off and I was just along for the ride. Hasn’t been like that with my longer works – I struggle to feel my way through as though I’m blindfolded rather than the helter-skelter gallop I have been used to and got high off of.

That’s obviously another part of the problem.

Distraction I can – and have – dealt with. But it’s not a problem, when I’m fully invested in the work. Yep, there’s the real issue – I’m not fully invested in the work. And I don’t know why. Other stories I’ve told were just as complicated and I had no difficulty starting or continuing. If anything, I had difficulty turning off the flow at any point.

The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe I’m overthinking. Trying to infuse what I write with as much literary goodness as possible might have sucked all the fun out of the process and caused the tap to close. And while the desire to open the tap is there, the handle seems to have been mislaid.

How I can fix this, I’m not sure. But I know that, in the meantime, I have to work on finding the discipline I need to continue putting the words down, even if they’re only 200 at a time. If I let myself off the hook for one day, getting back to it the next day is harder and the temptation to skip another day is easier.

One day, I hope I can find the handle for that tap and see my words flowing freely again. Until then, I’ll have to savor each drop I get.

Why We Grieve

spock2

Leonard Nimoy created many firsts on ST. The Vulcan Salute, Live Long and Prosper, Mind Melds, the nerve pinch. He ‘sneaked’ Jewish culture into mainstream television in what was already a groundbreaking series featuring the first competent black woman officer, the Prime Directive, and so much more.

Those who never watched it or weren’t old enough to see it when it was launched will never know the excitement ST engendered in we who were already fans of science fiction and how much of a game-changer it turned out to be for television and film in its 3 short seasons.

Star Trek, the original series, is kind of like the Beatles. If you weren’t there at the time, you won’t be able to comprehend the fuss. But if you were, you know all the reasons we grieve today.

The Silence

woman alone at the edge of water

She felt unusually cut off from the rest of humankind today. Even a short trip to the grocery store, where she might trade comments with others standing in line, did nothing. She had gone too late in the evening and the aisles were quiet, the lines very short. She had bagged her own groceries without help from the register clerk, who had offered her only the mandated corporate greetings and otherwise ignored her.

Usually, she could count on at least one short conversation to remind her of her own humanity, but the exchanges she had after the market, at the drugstore, the filling station, were devoid of anything real, just the normal and deplorable small talk between strangers that left her feeling less and less tethered to the planet.

She could choose to eat out and hope the waitress was more conversational. She could choose to call friend or family member, but she suddenly lacked the energy. No doubt it was her own fault; she tended to stay much to herself, maybe too much to herself, so others tended either to avoid imposing themselves upon her, or they let her slip from their everyday minds.

The daily silence was a blessing. The silence was a curse. So it was with everything; there was no either/or, everything blended, was connected, was part of the same organism. How strange then, that one part of that interconnected life should sometimes feel so un-connected.

She returned home, returned to the silence.