Serenity in Solitude, Anxiety Alone

Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you … (l)ess prone to worry and fear?

I enjoy my own company. (According to friends, colleagues and former teachers, I also enjoy the sound of my own voice.  A bit too much, apparently. Fair enough, working on that.)

I have long found serenity in solitude. I enjoy a night at home with a good book and some classical music on the radio. I go to the opera by myself and enjoy watching the crowd watching each other at intermission. I write, and sitting alone at my computer, writing, is probably my favorite thing to do.

Before I met Mike, I had made peace with being a single woman. When I was in college, I drove myself to California from Chicago and back once a year. As a young professional, I took myself to Disneyworld (where one of the “cast members” asked me, when I stepped up solo in the Pirates of the Caribbean souvenir photo studio, “couldn’t you get anyone to come with you?”) and I took myself skiing in Breckenridge.  I went to theater and movies and bars. I enrolled in improv classes and ended up performing 4 shows a week. I had fun. I didn’t stop hoping to meet a guy, but I didn’t pin my happiness on it.

Only then, when I’d learned to be happy on my own, did Mike show up.

What happened to that self-assured solitude?

Lately, when I have a moment or two by myself, cracks appear; I feel my composure  peeling away, flaking off, like the veneer on the antique composition face of Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll.

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Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll. She’s wearing a bonnet my mother knitted, and a dress that I wore as an infant.

Right when I need to recapture confidence and even serenity in solitude, I find anxiety when I’m alone.

I was cleaning the bathroom and I suddenly started breathing hard, on the brink of sobs, thinking about taking care of my daughter as I try to help her gain more independence, and feeling inadequate. Talking to Mike, aloud, asking for help.

I’m nervous when driving home from choir rehearsal in the dark. It’s only 15 minutes away, but in my car alone I feel weirdly vulnerable, exposed. Fearful, even. As if I’d left a door unlocked somewhere, putting valuable things at risk.

That’s not me, or at least not who I think I am. I think of myself as strong, capable, enduring; sometimes soft and sentimental, maybe, but no ‘fraidy cat, no scaredy-pants.

I come from hardy stock. Women who gave birth on leaky 17th century ships crossing the Atlantic, or without doctors in remote farmhouses in Maine and Massachusetts. I myself gave birth without painkillers. So I’m disappointed when I feel panic rising.

Mike could calm me down when I felt panicky, which was often, back when I was working high-pressure jobs with toxic bosses or impossible goals. I got some major panic mileage out of those times. It drove my colleagues crazy, and tried Mike’s patience to the breaking point at times.

I kept that panic button pictured up there (with the Hallmark characters called Hoops and Yoyo, who kind of crack me up) on my desk, to remind myself of how charming I am when consumed with anxiety.  Here’s what it sounds like when you push it:

Sweet, huh?

What happened to that confident single woman, who travelled alone, went where she pleased, and knew she could take care of herself?

Well, she got married. Became someone who took care of others, as a mother, a wife, a breadwinner, a caregiver – and now a widow.

Isn’t getting older supposed to make you bolder? Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you wiser? More open and easygoing? Less prone to worry and fear?

It doesn’t seem to be working for me that way just now.

Which brings out the spirits of the hardy New-England ancestresses in my head, especially Grammie E, a retired New England schoolmarm, thirty years a widow herself after caring for her dying husband, in her mid-70’s, wiping her hands on her apron after producing a kitchen full of  homemade donuts at 5 am, telling me to just pick myself up and go outside for a good long walk, deah.

Then come home and scrub something.

Well, I did get the salad veg drawer in the fridge washed out today. So there’s that.

OK, Grammie. I’ll suck it up and do my job to build my daughter as independent a life as she may want.

And then?

Well, if my knees can take it, I’m going skiing.

Maybe I’ll meet a nice guy on the slopes, tee hee.

Daydreaming is what makes solitude serene.

Awaiting the rheumatologist’s report, while trying-to-stop-feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-get-my-creaking-joints-and-fat-ass-to-the-gym (or at least outside for a brisk walk),

I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, solitary,

Ridiculouswoman

Thankful Thursday Returns

Need more gratitude and laughter. Working on it…

Time for a little gratitude.

Let’s see, here.

There’s this: I’m grateful for my saggy mattress, with the me-shaped trough in the middle. I sink in, it rises up on either side of me and sort of hugs me. Not great for the back, but who doesn’t want a hug right before sleep?

I’m grateful for the inspiration of my daughter’s impulse to redecorate Mike’s room and turn it into a “computer lounge.” After a pretty comical struggle, it’s done, and it looks great, painted a saturated periwinkle-blue, with a new desk, a chair and ottoman and her bookcase. She also moved her stand-up mirror in there, clearing out her bedroom and making that seem much less cramped. Maybe we’ll paint that next.

And then my room. I’m having trouble deciding if I want to paint it – the only color I can come up with that’s different than the current pale yellow, is gray. Gray? Isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, grim? Not necessarily – I can think of it as an extension of the ocean-based palette of blues, greys, greens and sand colors that seems to have emerged in the new kitchen – a nice gentle dove grey might do nicely. And it really does need new carpet. I can feel the credit cards groaning.

I’m very grateful that my daughter and I seem to be pulling through – this time we are taking together is working, I think, to help us both in our grief, to turn it into something we carry with us but that doesn’t weigh us down; to turn from sadness to gratitude for what Mike gave us both in this life, and the sweet whispers of messages we still get from him, from the next.

I’m grateful that sometime over last weekend, this blog exceeded 500 visitors and 1500 views – so, an average of 3 views per visitor. That feels like support, like I’m not so alone in my occasional responsibility-fatigue. It’s good to know readers are out there.

I’m very grateful for the support of a few wonderful other bloggers who have offered consistent likes and comments. You guys lift me up and help me carry on. I’ve added a widget to show a graphic of the posts I’ve liked recently so people who who visit here might visit you, too, there, too. Because you’re really good and I enjoy reading your stuff.

But for all the visits and views, I still have less than 50 followers – Ha! I guess I’m a bit too much of a Debbie Downer for people to want to come back for more. This blog is supposed to be about “learning from loss to live with love and laughter.” I’ve written a lot about loss and love, but not a lot about laughter, lately. I guess I’ve been having a little trouble finding the funny. Working on it.

Speaking of working on it, I’ve signed us up for six months at the local park district fitness center. In the autumn I like to get most of my exercise walking outdoors, and we’ve started doing that this week, now that the weather has cooled a bit. But I know the only thing that really works to keep me from re-inflating to a giant human beach-ball shape is a super low-carb diet coupled with lifting heavy things. My brother the keto guy, who I think is unnaturally and probably unhealthily obsessed with his body mass index, swears by “lifting heavy things,” coupled with intermittent fasting and short bursts of intense exercise. Ergo, the gym. Because, you know, “winter is comin’ “.

So, that’s it for now. Just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, and have a nice day. (Really, I mean it. If I didn’t mean it, we’d be over there in the Snark Tank. I can feel something coming for over there, soon, but not just yet.)

Until then, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, grateful, looking-for-laughs,

Ridiculouswoman

Middle-aged Woman Rules, Part Three

Dinah Shore was twenty years older than Burt Reynolds, and they had a hot romance.

Made me hopeful.

Until I looked in the mirror right after a shower.

Which caused me to formulate a new middle-aged woman rule to add to the original and as-amended rules:

  • Even if you have a magic mirror, NEVER, EVER LOOK IN THE MIRROR WHEN YOUR HAIR IS WET. Trust me, just don’t.

Corollary:

  • Do your face before you put the stuff that makes your curly hair curlier all over your hands, to work in to your wet hair. See original rules, “manage hair wherever it occurs. (emphasis added.”) Just sayin’.

Pleased that cooler weather has arrived, permitting the use of a hair dryer in an un-airconditioned environment, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, disheveled,

Ridiculouswoman

Divestiture, Episode 4: Life is a Harold

Life circles back, in complex layers, like a Harold…

I first came across the idea of “synchronicity,” that thing where lots of people all over the planet seem to start thinking about the same thing at the same time, when I became interested in Jung, back in college. (I think the Police song came later. I think.)

As an improviser (after college, but still many years ago) I would experience a kind of synchronicity with my fellow players, when everybody seems to share the same insight or have the same thought or impulse at the same moment. It’s called the “group mind.”

The team I was on performed the “Harold,” from the early days of long-form improvisation. “Harold” is a thirty-minute (or so) performance involving games, scenes and monologues, in rounds of three. Each “scene” would return twice after its first appearance, with each repetition layering over, often in subtle or surprising ways that only come together at the end, on what came before.

It doesn’t work if any of the players try to predetermine or “script” what happens next. It only works if everyone is working off everyone else, and the next thing that happens, happens only because of whatever has happened before.

This sense that everything that happens is somehow connected to everything that happened before has been a theme in my life, and probably in yours, if you stop to think about it. You’ll suddenly remember a past part of your life that seems to have circled back around, but at a new and more mature or complex level. Like standing on a long spiral staircase, looking down at the previous circles of your life.

In my latest round of tidying up, getting rid of piles of old crap that oppress me now, a few moments of this helix-shaped laddering of life hit me in odd and unexpected ways. Which is kind of how it is supposed to work. To wit:

• Someone on one of the Facebook groups I participate in replied to a comment of mine by saying it was “en pointe” – and I said (truthfully) that “Ha! I used to dance “en pointe!” The next day, what did I find in the closet? A box full of old pointe shoes (really, really beat up pointe shoes) that I had saved from my teen years, and forgotten about. Smiled, and tossed them.

• Because I am having a period-style dress made to wear at an upcoming event celebrating the era of my favorite books, I suddenly remembered a dress I had made for myself, by hand. Again, back in college – I was flat broke, but I was one of the soprano soloists in “Messiah” for the Christmas concert, and I didn’t have a dress. So I went out and bought some really cheap red satin (which scandalized the orchestra, angry, I guess, that they had to wear the uniform “concert black.”) IMG_20180910_164019.jpgI ripped apart a sundress that fit me well, to use as a pattern. I laid the satin out on my dorm room floor, and came up with a way to make a criss-crossed bodice that formed cap sleeves without having to cut and sew sleeves separately. I attached that to a long, bias-cut skirt that came to a point in front. Except when I was done, one side of the skirt was shorter than and kind of off-center to the other. So I improvised a ruffle on that side, by hand again, to even it out. I loved that dress and was proud of designing it and sewing it together in a marathon all-nighter, a week or so before the concert. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with it. And what did I find in the closet? There it was, in the very bottom of a box, underneath old college papers, exam books (really? Why on earth did I save those?) and programs from recitals and performances long past. Tossed the exam books and papers, kept the programs and the dress.

• Very recently I wrote about my late husband Mike’s journals and what they revealed to me, after he died. And what did I find in the closet? A journal of my own that I had forgotten existed, that chronicled the first days and weeks of our romance – how we met, where we went together in those giddy, dizzying first days and weeks, and, sadly, how early in our relationship we started fighting. I found the earliest poems – written for me or read to me. My journal consumed only about 15% of the blank book it was written in, blazing briefly with the astonishment of those long, wild first days of love – a love that too quickly sank way down, beneath the surface, submerged for decades under the responsibilities of child-rearing and the stress of a long and difficult marriage; the love that returned to us in a profound, mature and painfully poignant way, at the end.

There’s nothing sentimental about improvisation. It’s there and then it’s not. It’s ephemeral. You can’t recreate a great “Harold.” You can only experience it while it is happening, and maybe remember how great it made you feel while you were in the midst of it.

Not unlike life.

Still tidying up, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, moving onward one-cleaned-out-closet-at-a-time,

Ridiculouswoman

Divestiture, Episode Three: Boots, Barn Coat, Bike

Empty, yet still full…

These three have been the hardest.

The coat is just called a barn coat. We don’t have a barn, and even if you could have called the big red shed a barn, that’s gone now, accused of harboring racoons. But he liked the coat – great for fall yard work, lined with wool and warm.

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His coat is the beige one on the right, bigger, but made for a man’s flat, rectangular shape. I drown in it, but I can’t button it around me.

It stood up to buckthorn and other hazardous greenery. He’d trim the bushes in the in the summer, and wear that coat to trim them in the fall. I don’t have the gift, or the height, to trim them as well as he did, but now I have to try.

Doesn’t matter that I can’t use it. I love that coat and have held on to it for two years because, along with the boots up there, it forms an image of him in my mind that I don’t want to forget: bundled up, heading out to Home Depot to get something or other, weakened from the illness but determined to show me that he could participate in the manly art of bashing and rebuilding things going on all around him during the lunacy of kitchen- remodeling-while-husband-dying-of-cancer.

I bought him the boots the first winter of his diagnosis, when the infusion made him exceptionally sensitive to cold. At the time, his feet and ankles were so swollen with edema that I was afraid he was already actively dying, when the doc said he should have another 18 months. He hadn’t had the experience with dying people that I had, helping with Dad, then Mom, so he wasn’t afraid of the edema, just inconvenienced and perplexed by it. He couldn’t, or didn’t want to, try the boots on and asked that I take them back. He wore the size-too-big slippers I got him instead, that winter.

But by the next fall the edema was under control. He wanted to go outside, but he only had a shredded pair of walking shoes he refused to let me replace.

Which is when I told him that I had lied to him, I didn’t take the boots back. I hid them in the front hall closet.

“I knew you’d make it, and you’d need them.”

I fetched them, and they fit. He wore them occasionally that last winter, when he had just enough strength to drive himself to his infusions. He wore them the day of the trip to Home Depot, along with a sad, resigned, slightly apprehensive expression that is burned in my memory forever.

The tandem is is the hardest. Mike and our daughter became local celebrities on that bike, riding three miles to and from school every sunny day. He loved that bike.

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Mike and I had a huge fight about him giving a photo of himself and our daughter to a woman he met online. I had good reason to be furious, then. Now, I explained to our daughter that this picture shows just the bike, her feet, and Dad’s feet, but anybody in the world could see it. She said that’s OK.

It’s huge. When he found it at a bike shop 15 miles from home, it wouldn’t fit in the car, but he was so taken with it that he rode it home, solo. We went back to get the car the next day.

From then on, the two of them rode the tandem everywhere, befriending crossing guards, and charming other parents who were picking up and dropping off in cars.

It’s too big for me. I can’t sling my leg over it, and even if I could, I wouldn’t trust my strength or balance to ride her on it, now that she’s fully an adult woman.

Fall is a great season for biking, and as we all know, “winter is coming.” I’ll try to find a church or shelter that will give the coat and boots directly to a person in need. Or I’ll drive around with them in the car as I did last year, trying to spot someone of the right size on the street, who looks like they need them.

A local charity specializes in fixing up bikes and giving them away to people who need them or want them but can’t afford them. People bike a lot around here, some of necessity to and from work, even in the winter. That bike could be a sort of “bike pool” for two people who work at the same place.

Or maybe provide another special activity for another father and child.

I think I’m ready. I’ll always have the pictures – the physical photograph of the tandem, now in the one of our daughter’s “memories of Dad” photo albums, and the other, a memory only, but etched always in my mind, of Mike setting bravely off to the big box hardware store, wincing a little, just to show me he could, wearing that coat.

And those boots.

May they clothe the person who receives them with the love that infuses them. Amen.

Yours,

Ridiculouswoman.

The Journals

The final journal was a very good read.

Some widows find receipts.

Hotels they didn’t visit. Jewelry they didn’t receive.

Or they find love letters. Not to them.

Shock, anger, disbelief, more grief. Sick with the discovery of betrayal. Embarrassed at having been deceived.

Me?

I already knew about the infidelities, and I found the journals long before he got sick.

He kept one journal just to record his chess games and his thoughts on chess strategy from tournaments he played.

The others were for the others.

When we first met, in the two years we were together before we got married, he wrote poems to me, for me. He refused to save them. Had some artistic, poetical notion of the ephemeral nature of the art, not unlike improvisation, which I was performing when I met him. So I got that. It’s there and it’s gone and you can’t recreate it. I remember only whispers (I first typed that “whishpers.” Ha.)

After we were married, there were poems written for other women. Women he told me about. Women he met in classes he took, or online.

Written in journals he saved.

Twenty years ago, when I confronted him, he raged at me.

Anger at being busted, I suppose. Fear of the consequences, I’m sure.

Once he calmed down and looked at me, he realized he had broken my heart. The heart he loved for its innocence, shown only to him.

He went grocery shopping.

Twenty years ago. I looked out the kitchen window of our townhome in a transitional, slowly gentrifying neighborhood and saw him walking home, down the alley.

Crying.

Bringing me booze (Captain Morgan rum, to be exact – I had never tasted it before. Now, oddly, my cocktail of choice) and a balloon.

Leaving it up to me to decide if he was staying or if he’d go.

I decided he’d stay.

Who else would ever love me? Who else would ever be a father to our daughter?

But he didn’t stop sleeping with other women, until ten years later, when the then-still-unknown illness must have begun to affect his mind, and he came to believe that one of those other women was stalking him. Remotely. From a continent away.

I asked him why he had married me. He said it was because he could see that I needed to be loved.

Not that he loved me, but that he could see that I needed to be loved.

Which brings me back to the journals.

He asked for a journal to write something to our daughter before he died, but became too weak too fast to write much at all.

But he did write something, if not for me, at least about me. And it revealed that he did love me, after all. That he was grateful for our little family, our home and my care for him.

I have included an excerpt of that journal in the Epilogue to my book, because after everything we went through, everything we put each other through, especially after the Bulgarian, I thought he deserved to have a voice there.

As soon as I am finished transcribing that excerpt, the manuscript will be ready to show to my brothers (as a courtesy) and a few friends.

I know those friends, former colleagues, will be brutally honest with me when I ask if I should just dig a hole in the backyard and bury the book forever, never let it see the light of day, not expose myself that way (or any more that way, since this is whole blog is a kind of exposure) or if there might be a story there, some writing they’d recommend to a friend. Maybe even a good read.

Mike’s final journal, found posthumously, though sparse and at times illegible or incoherent, was still a good read. A very good read.

Because I forgave him long ago and eventually came to understand why he had done what he had done, and all the things I had said and done that made him feel belittled. Toxic in a marriage.

And when I found that journal, I found that he had forgiven me. That even with his increasing delirium, he remembered the earliest, best part of our time together.

That he appreciated the new kitchen.

That he still loved my roundness.

“Your head is round, your ears are round, your butt is round,” he wrote.

“Round, not pound,” because he knew I’d find it and that I’d need reassurance that he wasn’t referring to my weight.

He never, not once that I can remember, complained about my weight, no matter how big I got.

I’m grateful that he saw me lose weight, a lot of weight, before he died, and saw me looking more like the woman he married before all of it, and after.

And I’m grateful he left those words behind, for me to find.

Words for the innocent heart he loved.

The heart he broke.

And the heart he mended, through the journal his widow found, after he was gone.

Wishing you forgiveness, amends, comfort and love,

I remain,

Your devoted, broken but healing, struggling but moving forward,

Ridiculouswoman

Unlikely Tearjerker: Crying at Catalogs

No man to shop for. Incomplete. Halved.

(FYI: I mention brand names sometimes. I’m not getting paid for it. Not that I don’t hope to get paid for it someday, to be honest, but please be assured that I wouldn’t accept payment to endorse something I don’t like or don’t use. There’s a name for that. I’m not that.)

Labor Day Weekend. So far, it’s been a weekend of funerals and public mourning here in the US  – Aretha. John McCain. Rainy here in Chicagoland. But Labor Day weekend is still and always, regardless, the informal “official” beginning of the fall season.

My favorite season.

Break out the pumpkins and gourds, the red, orange and rusty leaves, the deep blue October skies, the fall excursions, the clean, brisk chill.

Here come the catalogs.

For a while there, I was the catalog queen. I delighted in finding obscure, funny or “just right” gifts for family and friends in the deluge of catalogs that start arriving in the mail this time of year, anticipating my other favorite season, Christmastime.

The volume of catalogs in my mailbox has decreased markedly, probably because I don’t buy so much stuff from them anymore.

I used to buy Mike a lot of stuff from catalogs.

Clothes, mostly. Like many men, Mike hated shopping, couldn’t stand having to make decisions about which shirt or what color or how many pockets. So I bought most of his clothes for him, primarily from catalogs.

Mostly from the L.L. Bean catalog

I get catalogs from L.L. Bean regularly, I suppose because I buy stuff from them regularly. And the fall L.L. Bean catalog is one fat-ass catalog.

These catalogs are usually neatly divided into women’s clothing, footwear, outdoor gear and men’s clothing.

When I first collect the catalogs from the mailbox, I still find myself reflexively flipping to the back half, where the men’s clothing is featured.

That’s when the tears start.

It used to be fun, joyful, even, to peruse, study, contemplate and even agonize a little over which shirts, what pair of shorts or trousers or which color sweater I would buy for Mike this year. Always something muted – he liked misty ocean blues, olive greens, greys. He surprised me once, on our annual pilgrimage to Renny’s, an old-fashioned all-goods mini-department store in Bath or Damariscotta, Maine, by choosing a bright, rosy orange t-shirt. But for the most part, navy, dark green and greys would do.

Now, looking at the L.L. Bean catalog just feels sad, incomplete. Diminished.

What do I need with a new flannel shirt? Another expensive (always v-necked, I’m short, it helps) cashmere sweater? I’ll only forget and toss it in the shared laundry basket at the top of the basement stairs, where Angelic Daughter will collect it and with her beautiful, helpful, eager-to-please, utterly innocent heart, wash it in hot water and put it in the dryer, to emerge, a pint-sized shadow of its former self.  I have hundreds of dollars worth of such boiled-wool sweaters. I’ll cut them into squares and stitch them into a blanket for my grand-nephew, one of these days.

That raggy sweater up there in the picture was one of Mike’s stalwarts. So much so that it got snagged and torn during bouts of fall yard work. I kept it and, submerged in it, used it in the deep of winter on sub-zero mornings when tending the chickens. Those birds are gone now, but I still have the sweater.

But the catalog. There it sits, on top of my “mount to-be-read” (an expression I am borrowing from a member of a a listserv and website for Patrick O’Brian enthusiasts), half of it now dimmed, shrouded in sad irrelevance.

No man to shop for. Incomplete. Halved.

I’ve learned to give these catalogs a glance, anyway, silently thanking L.L. Bean for their neat organization, making it easy to avoid the back half of the book, where the men’s clothing is grouped. There might be something there my daughter needs. I’ll  give it a look for that.

Boots, hats, gloves, socks. Perennially unprepared for winter before it comes, I’m determined to fix that this year. We’ll have enough to muffle ourselves up in when we go to hang an autumn decoration, obtained on a fall excursion, on the shepherd’s hook by his gravestone, and when the time for winter wreaths rolls around.

Muffled, with that ever-empty space beside us, where Mike, the anchor of our little family triumvirate, should be.

We walk with that empty space beside us, inside us, now, through every moment of our days.

The tear-dampened back half of that catalog flaps limply as I fold it under.

Recycle.

 

Hoping for a hummingbird, to remind me we’ll be OK,

I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, I hope not-too-self-pitying, incomplete but trying to recycle and carry on,

Ridiculouswoman