My Secret Azalea – or, Inside Out

It can only be seen from inside the house.

The ferns surrounded it, in lush, leafy hug.

And that made me smile.

It was a really good spring for my rhodo and my azaleas – lovely, abundant blooms. I put this one where it is last year so that there would be something evergreen to look at just outside there in the winter, even if it got buried by snow for a time.

I didn’t expect this abundance of ferns to swallow it up in the spring, but I like the effect.

It reminds me to keep something blooming within, even if others can’t see it right away.

Not until I let them in.

The garden is still a work in progress; it looks okay from the outside, but still needs a few more shrubs and perennials to fill in and squeeze out the weeds so I don’t have to spend so much time digging those out. Could use some mulch, too; I’m not much in the mood or the position to spend more money on it right now, so those things will come a little at a time.

The blooms on my secret azalea have gone by since I took the photo, but its leaves are there and will still be there there when the ferns fade. Maybe in a few years, it will even grow taller than the feathery, fluffy chaos around it.

My secret azalea reminded me that kindness implies a kind of trust – or faith, if you want to call it that – that those toward whom it is directed will benefit, be softened, encouraged, cheered, made hopeful, whatever,  but also that kindness directed from the inside out is always worth it, even if it isn’t received that way immediately, or ever, even. Being kind provides a sort of stillness, a type of calm, a sense of perspective, that is healing to me, regardless. Tends my inner garden.

My secret azalea reminded me that what’s going on inside affects what’s outside; that beauty within radiates outward, where it affects the world around it.

Let’s face it, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve figured out that I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve type. It isn’t really possible for me to hide my feelings. I send out a vibe, even when I don’t want to. So I have to work on that, pretty much constantly, trying and failing and trying again to send out a good vibe, to be kind, to be positive, to grow into the person I want to be, every moment, because every moment is precious, a gift.

In the words of my literary hero, Jack Aubrey, “there’s not a moment to lose.”

So no pity-parties, please. Fall of the horse, get right back on, keep going. The sun rises.

And the music plays.

I work at a place where I can listen to music, often at a good strong volume, all day – and sing along to it, and no one seems to mind. Or at least they put up with it. Most of the day the place is fairly empty, requiring manual (or forklift driven) labor. I’ve even got a sort of little fan club, that comes in once a week to do what they need to do, who caught me singing once and now seem to look forward to it each week.

The variety of music available is wide – classic rock, ’80s music, stations based on Journey (HA! sing like Steve Perry! who’s with me?) or the Eagles, or REM or Emmylou or Bruce Springsteen – everything from country to opera. Although it is hard to find a mix that always satisfies, I’ve found some really good stations that have brought back songs to me that I hadn’t thought about in years – good, cathartic, cryin’ songs, songs of hope, songs that put things in perspective. And arias – but don’t worry, I only rock the Puccini when the place is empty. Although come to think of it, Puccini, (O Mio Babbino Caro, to be exact) is what got the fan club going.

Remember that movie, Network News, where Holly Hunter, playing a news producer, would set aside a few minutes each day to just take the phone off the hook (hey, it was made in 1987 and set mostly in 1981 – landlines!) and just bawl her eyes out? Then she’d pull it together and get right back to work.

I’m a big fan of the good cry. And of getting right back to work.

During Mike’s illness, I did most of my crying in the car – car crying – because I didn’t want our child to see it and get upset, and I didn’t want to make Mike feel sad, or worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle things.

Now, I cry a lot less, but when I need to let it out, it often happens when I’m in the warehouse, cleaning or closing up, inspired by one of those great songs I had forgotten about, and it helps – it helps a lot. It helps reconcile the inside with the outside; harmonizing with the songs harmonizes me, in a way. Even if a lot of these songs seems sad, that’s not the point – the point is they give me a sort of cleansing that makes me feel better, calmer, stronger. Sing, cry, dry, work.

In no particular order, songs that came up that helped me “take the phone off the hook,” feel what I feel, let it out, and then pull it together and carry on include:

  • Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer, sung by Linda Ronstadt
  • Warren Zevon’s Keep Me In Your Heart For A While
  • The Eagles’ Peaceful, Easy Feelin’
  • Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, Cowboy Take Me Away, Not Ready to Back Down 
  • Iris DeMent’s Our Town (she was a discovery for me – hadn’t heard her before)
  • Any version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide
  • Long, Long Time, sung by Linda Ronstadt
  • Shenandoah’s Ghost in this House,  sung by Alison Krauss (really, anything sung by Alison Krauss – Down in the River to Pray, Long Lost Friend, etc.
  • Softly and Tenderly, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt

and the one that kind of sums up what I learned from losing Mike, and why I’m trying to grow in to a better, kinder, more loving person:

When We’re Gone, sung by Emmylou, Dolly and Linda –

…”And when we’re gone, long gone,
the only thing that will have mattered
is the love that we shared
and the way that we cared
when we’re gone, long gone….”

This song helps me remember there’s not a moment to lose, and not to skimp on love – it helps me nourish my inner, secret azalea, gives me hope that what blooms within will radiate out as love, as kindness, and as hope, one precious moment at a time.

May you find the music that gives you hope and peace, as this song does for me.

 

 

Just My Luck; or, An Out-of-Synch Life

Is this all there is?

……” Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
and go to work each day,
and when the evening rolls around,
I’ll go on home and lay my body down,
and when the morning light comes streaming in,
I’ll get up and do it again. Amen.”

-Jackson Browne, The Pretender

I snapped that picture up there, of my crabtree in full bloom, in mid-May, intending to write about it – in mid-May.

Well, here we are in mid-June and the blossoms on the tree have gone by – just my luck.

For more decades than I like to admit, I’ve been doing things too late, living a kind of “pretend” life by putting things off, expecting to get to them in some imagined future that never comes, and now I look up and find I’ve lived two-thirds of my life in a sort of  prolonged delay – “I’ll start living the life I want, right after I get all this other stuff done” —  my life never seemed to “synch up” with my hopes, dreams, talents, whatever.

Examples:

I met Mike at 30, married him at 32, gave birth to our one and only child at 35; nothing so wrong with any of that, but if you think about it now, it means it took me thirty years (well, ok, let’s say, twelve, in adulthood) to find him.

What if it takes that long again? I don’t have another twelve good woman years left in me, I’m afraid.

Just my luck.

The Fourth of July, a/k/a Independence Day, is a big deal in my little home town – more people come home for the parades and parties than seem to come home for Christmas around here.

And having attended decades of the same front-driveway-parade-watching party, watching decades worth of acquaintances, two generations at least, bring new babies to show off at that party, I finally got my chance, at 35.

And for the first time in 100 years, the parade was rained out.

Just my luck.

And right when Mike and I had the chance to rebuild our marriage and plan a retirement together, when our child was gaining more independence and growing into adulthood? Cancer. Gone in 18 months. It’s not like Mike could choose when to die, but it felt so unfair to us, so out of synch. Husbands are not supposed to die right when things could get good again. But it happened.

Now, here I am, nearly two years later, trying to be positive, to look ahead, to be open to a new relationship, to really want a new relationship with a kind, nice man, and what happens?

Kind, nice, men who like and respect women have sounded the retreat, afraid of saying so much as “how do you do?” because the lid has blown off the disgusting, abusive, boorish behavior of the unkind, not-sweet, not-nice men. Everywhere.

Just my luck.

Right when I’ve been trying (failing all too frequently, but trying) to become a nicer, kinder person, to live with love and laughter, my phone blows up with dozens of emails daily alerting me to some new atrocity to be furious about.

Fury is way out of synch with my efforts to respond to this world and people in it with kindness and love.

I feel guilty – selfish, trivial and ineffective. I sign petitions, I try to give money, but lately I’ve just felt peevish and out of sorts and jumpy-jangly all the time. In addition to being lonely.

Nobody wants to be around a person who is anxious, pissed-off, negative and jumpy all the time. Not exactly attractive.

Just my luck.

What do you do with an out-of-synch life? If you feel that time has passed you by?

Gratitude. I’m supposed to be working on being grateful, for each moment, each breath I am yet granted on this Earth.

So when I feel selfish for not being the person who has the snappy comeback or who can cite the verses that say what I’m thinking back at the person I want to cite them at, I’m grateful that someone else has done it for me. I’m reminded that many, many people are feeling what I’m feeling, and can respond to it better and more eloquently than I can right now.

I’m grateful for that.

Father’s Day. People innocently asking our child what we did for Dad yesterday.

“Dad’s in heaven,” is the reply. Which makes them feel bad, but it’s not their fault. They didn’t know. So I explain gently that we had a nice picnic by his grave, as a sort of “meet up” with his spirit.

I had a very vivid dream of him last night – our child announcing, “Dad’s here!” and me finding him there on a couch, and able to give him a hug, before he flew out the window, chasing something. I really needed to give him that hug. So I’m grateful for that dream.

A monarch butterfly, flitting past as I waiting for the train to the Allison Krauss concert. A perfect show. An angelic voice. Comfort in that.

I’m grateful for that.

But it can’t be denied that the second year of widowhood is hard – our child and I both going through a relapse of grief, trying to figure out how to carry it around with us without letting it define us.

There are no more ritual “first this-es” and “first thats” without him – it’s the second, which will lead to the third, and on and on, for the rest of our lives, without him.

Which magnifies the emptiness, intensifies the loneliness, makes what should be a good day a bleak one.

Out of synch.

Is this all there is?

“I want to know what became of the changes
we waited for love to bring..
were they only the fitful dreams
of some greater awakening?
I’ve been aware of the time going by
They say in the end, it’s the blink of an eye
When the morning light comes streaming in
You’ll get up and do it again
Amen”

(Note: “Out of Synch” came from a wonderful book called The Out-of-Synch Child that helped me understand my child’s sensory challenges – highly recommend for parents struggling to understand a developmentally different child’s sensitivities. It really has nothing to do with this post, just thought I should give credit where credit is due.)

 

 

Now

There are these rare people who have the ability to be fully present….I am not one of them.

“Be still and know that I am…”

…God (well, Psalm 46:10, actually, but same thing, really)

There are these rare people who have the ability to be still, to be fully present, right now, where they are and whoever they are with, and to listen, intensely, to others.

I am not one of them.

Being still is not my forte.

I always think of that verse up there as ending with “I am.” But it is actually, “I am God.”

Either way, to me it is basically God’s way of saying, “Shut yer pie hole and remember that I’m here; listen for me.”

Failing to be still and to be present to the people in the same room with you is a form of toxicity. I did it at work, and I have done it for years at home. My thoughts were and are always racing around, to the past and future, to the “to-do’s” and the “fix that”s and the “will you f…in get ON with it already?”s. Never focused on the right NOW.

I come from a long line of women whose behavior indicated a belief that the cure for any kind of illness or upset, depression, bereavement, disappointment, setback etc., was a good round of vigorous housework followed by a brisk walk outside, preferably in sub-freezing weather. Move, do, bustle, hustle.

Being still was not on their list.

These women also kept up a running commentary of self-talk – Grandma and Mom did it at a whisper, under their breath. I do it out loud (no surprise to anyone who knows me personally.)

Keeping my big yap shut is a constant challenge to me.

I love words, the more syllables the better. I love to sing, and I am prone to sudden outbursts of song, regardless of my surroundings.

When I go for one of those brisk walks, I often exclaim, out loud, to no one in particular, usually when no one else is anywhere close, about the beauty I see around me.

I spend very little time being still.

Which makes it very hard to be fully present in the now. All that activity is an effective way of avoiding being still, being present, now. Because really, who wants to do that? If I stop doing stuff, I’ll notice that “now” kind of sucks. Mike’s gone, I’m unemployed and gaining weight, it snowed 15 inches and I just barely saved the new kitchen from a bad ice dam situation, but a bit of the paint is still ruined.

The point of being still, though, is to notice that “now” does not actually suck – in fact, it is pretty damn miraculous. If I have learned anything from losing Mike, it should be how precious every breath, every moment in this world is – and to cherish each simple thing here as the miraculous gift that it is, right NOW. Even the little bubbles in the paint on the ceiling from the almost-leak. Reminds me of how bad it used to be and isn’t, now.

I’m going to give being still a go. The old college try, anyway.

I took myself off the dating sites again. I really don’t need to go back to the playground and be the last one chosen for the team, just now. (Besides which, there were the two guys who listed “Dexter” among their favorite TV shows – you know, Dexter? The one about the serial killer? The kicker was the guy who listed his most recently read books, every single one of which had the word “killing” in the title. I kid you not. These are men who are trying to attract women, not send them screaming in terror for the exits.)

I have unsubscribed from lots of promotional and political emails I had been getting. They feel too intrusive, grabby and, in the case of the political ones, hysterical. The notifications of their arrival caused me to attend to my phone when I should have been attending to my child, whose existence is by far the most miraculous, and absolute, proof of the existence of God that anyone should ever need.

And this being “non-toxic Tuesday,” I have set myself what should be a simple, non-toxic love challenge: I’m going to try to get through an entire day without “thinking out loud,” also known as “talking to myself.” I have to be able to do this first, before I even think about trying to learn to meditate. I mean, meditate? You have to shut up inside your head! Who does that? Really, who can actually do that? Not me, not yet. Not NOW.

On the simpler task of not talking out loud to myself?

I already failed at it. Within seconds.

Seriously, seconds. I narrated my way through the house just to get to my laptop to write this. The only time I really succeed in being quiet (in terms of not having sounds come out of my mouth through the mechanism of my voice) is when I’m writing. But when I’m writing, words are still coming out, and I’m throwing the flag on that. Writing, while pleasurable and cathartic for me, will not count as stillness.

Talking to the cat, however, is exempt. She counts as another sentient being and talking to her is paying attention to her, now, so there.IMG_20171128_131842496.jpg

Talking out loud to my late husband is also exempt. It just is, OK?

Reflexively saying “excuse me” out loud in an otherwise empty house when I sneeze or commit some other involuntary bodily expostulation is also exempt.

Listening to music is OK as long as I don’t talk back to the radio (e.g., Oh, come on, Carl! It’s 6 a.m.! Do we really need crashy-bangy Beethoven at 6 a.m.? Would it hurt so much to start the day with a little Palestrina or Bach cello sonata or something?)

Reading is OK, and talking back to my favorite literary characters, laughing with them, crying with them, all good. (See, “it just is, OK?”, above).

Other than that, however, I am declaring my constant stream of babbling self-talk to be a form of displacement activity: a way to avoid being still. Being still requires being QUIET and listening. A kind of surrender (also not my forte. I’m a stand-my-ground-and-wear- you-down type).

The photo up there is of the male cardinal who lives in the yard. He’s in the crabtree by the deck, in all his crimson glory. What you probably can’t see is the female, who is always with him, and is near him in that tree, hidden in the background, far less ostentatious, quiet, steady, faithful, constant. Present, but not presenting. I want to be more like her. For the time being, anyway. For now.

When the sun comes back out, regardless of the temperature, I think I will take that brisk walk. I hope the only sound I make will be my breathing and the crunch of my boots on the snowy path. I’ll watch the red tailed hawks soar and circle, but I won’t exclaim. I’ll work on being still.

Oh, and I’ll mute notifications on my phone, for the duration of the walk. It’s a start, anyway.

I’ll keep you posted.

Until then, I remain,

Your most devoted, humble, obedient, etc.

Ridiculouswoman

The Kindness of Strangers

I asked the advice of about 6,700 of my closest friends, all of whom are strangers….

“I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

…Blanche DuBois

Another easy one for Thankful Thursday: today I am grateful for the kindness of strangers.

A little freaked out by it, too, but grateful.

Allow me to explain.

I asked about 6,700 of my closest friends, strangers all, for some advice. How can strangers be friends, you ask? Well, it’s a Facebook group of people with a shared interest in my favorite books. I thought they might have some insight as to why my charming profile on those dating sites, which included mention of my love for those books, was getting me nothing. Crickets. Lots of scams (“I’m doing this for a friend. Here’s his email. Contact him, go ahead!”) and and a surprising number of fake or hacked profiles (really? three pictures three different men, in one profile?) but no actual interest from anyone I might be interested in back.

I mentioned I was a widow having lost my husband (first lieutenant, chef, coxswain and most particular friend) to cancer, and I was trying to find someone new to be my boon companion. And my surprise that mention of loving these books got me nothing.

This set off an exceptionally long thread of commenting, where I received much compassion, many helpful suggestions (“perhaps start off a little slow, and introduce the love of  these books later?”), lots of support (“don’t dumb yourself down!”) a few private messages and a long, really lovely compliment to me that would have made my day if it hadn’t been based on a lengthy, unkind comparison to the author’s wife.

And then things veered off into complaint about the off-topic nature of the thread (hey, c’mon, not really – I’m looking for the dating sites you guys would hang out on!) and then the thread seemed to inspire another one in which the author confessed their own cancer diagnosis and in the most poignant terms, asked for help identifying music for the eventual memorial service. I sent my love and prayers, and all those kind strangers sent their support and suggestions not just for great seafaring-related music, but also for not giving up, fighting it, employing non-traditional healing methods, etc.

These two threads have been, in my experience with that group and others, the longest, kindest, most personal and most supportive I have seen in any online environment in which I’ve spent time, ever.  They were filled with authentic concern, great good humor, and personal commiseration.

Which gave me the courage to re-activate one of my online dating accounts and, after softening my profile a bit (I took out mention of using multisyllabic words unapologetically, the aside about never missing a chance to overdress when going out, the mention of my tendency toward sudden outburst of song, and the bonus points for knowing the difference between “effect” and “affect.”), I sent direct messages some likely fellows.

None of them have responded.

So, hell with it. I put all that stuff back in (except the “effect” and “affect” stuff – it really was getting too long). I reminded prospective suitors that I liked to laugh, and had been trained in improvisation, which has weakened my inner censor and causes me to say what I’m actually thinking. Meaning if you can’t take a joke, take a hike. (And, come to think of it, take a hike if you don’t know what the word “suitor” means, in this context. But that’s not in there, because I’m not thinking about getting married again. Just need some kind, respectful, fun-loving male companionship). Honesty is the best policy, Right?

As soon as I published that final version of my profile and made myself visible again, wouldn’t you know it? Almost immediately I got a fake profile response. The one with three different pictures of three different men, and a canned profile (“I used to be shy but now I’m a social butterfly”) that I’ve seen attached to several other guys.

Sigh.

Someday my prince will come, but until then, I remain,

Your devoted, humble, obedient, etc.

Ridiculouswoman

Non-Toxic Tuesday, At Last

In “And What Do We Learn From This?”,  I explained that I originally named this blog “nontoxicwoman,” because I really did, and still really do, want to take the lessons that I learned from losing Mike and try to apply them in daily life.

Basically, these lessons boiled down to, “be kind.”

Be kind to everyone.

And right there’s where I get tripped up.

Why should it be difficult to be kind?

Well, for me, two reasons (with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, whose books I have not read): fear and loathing.

The fear comes primarily from a concern for personal safety, health or hygiene. There are some people that make being kind feel risky.

Case in point: the online dating thing got so creepy so fast that I de-activated my accounts. I wish I could consider getting a large, loyal and protective dog, but that won’t work for us, so I’ll have to figure something else out.

The loathing just comes from my inner (well, not so inner, that has been the problem) patronizing, little-miss-smartypants attitude. And that’s the part I’m really trying to work on. Hence, the non-toxic Tuesday challenge.

I will challenge myself to find the person in my life who most drives me up a wall. The human embodiment of fingernails on a chalkboard.

And be nice to that person. Not just today, but from now on.

When I was working, it would have been easy to find that person at any of the many jobs I’ve had. I would have started slow, with just a nice, “Good Morning!” or a “how’re you doing?” They would have been suspicious, because with a person who rubs me the wrong way, I had probably been trying to minimize interaction. Or worse, I was muttering under my breath, rolling my eyes and using the indoor version of the briefcase maneuver to steam right by. Sweet, huh?

But I would have hoped that if I had been successful in being consistently kind, the person would have softened, would have become less annoying, less defensive and more humanized to me.

Or, they might have become clingy, or weirdly resentful, or they might have remained suspicious of my motives. Which wouldn’t have absolved me of the duty of trying to be kind. Because in the words of that Jewel song, “in the end, only kindness matters.”

I hope I have enough time left on my life’s clock to try to put kindness into effect in every corner of my life.

(This may require wallowing in the Snark Tank from time to time, just to get miss smartypants off of here and out of my system, if something sets her off).

It is going to be difficult for me to rise to this challenge right now. I’ve been keeping to myself too much lately. I’ve been skipping church and spending too much time on Facebook and on those online dating services, which have only succeeded in creeping me out. I’m going to stay deactivated for quite a while. I felt so much better so immediately after abandoning the online man-hunt that I now realize I was not ready for that at all. I intend to return to more traditional methods, where you actually interact with live human beings in reasonably safe public or social settings. Wow, brilliant. Shoulda thought of that first.

However, because I’m not working right now, which has fueled my isolation, I’m going to have to work a little to identify the actual live human I interact with regularly who most reliably drives me nuts, so I can consciously be kind to them. One day, I hope it won’t take conscious effort for me just to be kind.

There’s the lady in the neighborhood who knows, has known for decades, that our child is afraid of dogs, yet persists in letting her large, goofy, completely untrained pooch run around unleashed, which freedom the animal uses to stop traffic in the street and to come bounding around our yard.

But I don’t really see her often enough to interact, and the last time didn’t go so well, on my part. I may have pointed out, in not exactly a kind tone of voice, how the lady was the only person around for miles who doesn’t seem to understand how to leash her dog.  Yeah, so, that was a kindness fail, there.

There are drivers, of course. Too fast, too slow, never use their turn signal, weave in and out from lane to lane, text, etc. etc. Lots of material there. That’s a long swim in the Snark Tank that I’ll probably have to take someday soon, but for now, I think I’ll just try to stop swearing and using the word “moron” so much. Not kind.

There are the check-writers, I suppose. You know, the people in the grocery store who still write checks? They always take the extra time to carefully enter the check in their ledger and carefully replace the checkbook in the wallet and then carefully place the wallet in the purse, all the while blocking further progress for the next person in line, which would be – me. Is there a briefcase maneuver for grocery check-out lines? But, it is someone different, every time.

I need to get out there and meet someone more consistently annoying and regularly in my face. In the meantime, I’ll just try deep breathing and reminding myself that I’m supposed to be trying, really trying, to be kind. Maybe someday it will become second nature. I can dream, can’t I?

Sadly, I had another big fail today, when I received a message from someone saying that the message I sent to them was the meanest they ever received. The message to which they referred, the one I sent, that they thought was the meanest they ever got, was a message that contained an apology. Yeah, so, need to keep working on those communication skills, it seems.

Sigh. If at first you don’t succeed…

I’ll keep you posted.