“Used Fictitiously”: A Non-toxic Love Challenge

(I’ve been roiling around with this for six weeks, writing, rewriting, ranting, editing – cutting, restoring, cutting again – alternately feeling angry and bold, then timid and scared, and finally, resigned. I just want to just get this off my chest so I can get back to being stressed out about the far more important stuff happening next week and then get back to regular blogging).

Bestselling author Sue Miller’s recently released novel, Monogamy, is about a widow named Annie from Chicago (but living in Cambridge, Massachusetts), who discovers her late husband had been unfaithful to her. The husband, Graham, is described as a big man with a deep voice, who is, as the character Annie says, “more than a foot taller than she was … Ridiculous, really.”

Reviewers loved Monogamy.

I hated it.

But maybe that’s because I’m a widow named Anne from the northern suburbs of Chicago, who knew her husband had been unfaithful to her, and who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice, partly because of the way he called me “Annie.”

I’ve been blogging about that since October 2017. In January 2018, in an earlier version of a post called, “The Bulgarian,” I described him (the man I fell in love with) as “at least a foot taller” than me. I’ve got a screen shot of it (thanks, WordPress), but I’ll skip it here.

I named my blog “Ridiculouswoman” in part because of the absurdity of my attraction to the Bulgarian. I blogged about writing a memoir telling the story of falling for him while caring for my terminally ill husband. My book was finished in the fall of 2018. I began sending out queries on it in December of that year.

I found Monogamy by accident, when the New York Times book review caught my eye. I had never heard of Sue Miller before I bought Monogamy and read it (with a screaming yellow highlighter in my hand) because I felt I had to. I was shocked, chilled, and pissed off. I made a nine-page, two column document listing side-by-side all the names, scenes, descriptions and phrases in Monogamy that seemed very like, and in some cases were identical, to things in my blog, my memoir, my home and my life.

A snippet of a Los Angeles Times review quoted on the book jacket of Monogamy says, “reading it is like experiencing a passage in our own lives.”

No shit.

I’ll spare you any further recitation of details from my nine-pager. There’s no point. Monogamy has the usual disclaimer:

“Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Plus, the coincidental details I recognize are woven into a story that is very different than mine, with many more characters and relationships. Some, like that Los Angeles Times reviewer, would argue that Miller’s ability to make me recognize my real life in her fictional book is what makes Miller a great writer.

I beg to differ.

There are many reasons I hate Miller’s book that have nothing to do with its similarities to my writing and my life, but a lot to do with the dissimilarities between Miller’s fictional depiction of love and widowhood and my actual experience of them.  

When my husband Mike died, this real Annie tried to close his eyes, and asked the hospice nurse to help get him dressed. I kept Mike’s cancer hats, and pressed them to my face because they still smelled like him.

Miller’s fictional Annie decided not to try to get her husband dressed after he dies in his sleep (not after 20 months of pain and struggle and heartbreak and caregiving), because she thought it didn’t matter. At one point, she presses one of his shirts to her face to take in her dead husband’s smell, while simultaneously thinking to herself what a cliché it was, “how many times she had read it and seen it in films.”

How kind, to describe that genuine gesture of aching grief, as a “cliché.” (It’s also surprising, because Miller wrote a memoir about losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease. She knows something about caregiving and loss. I’d expect more compassion).

The theme of my blog and memoir, and, seemingly, of Monogamy, is forgiveness, self-awareness, and the rediscovery of love. But how Miller handles that theme toward the end of the book is cringeworthy.

Spoiler alert

After her husband’s death, on her way home from a disillusioning encounter with a man she had flirted with in her past, the fictional Annie slips on an icy street, bangs her head, and when she comes to in the hospital, ta-da! Presto change-o! She suddenly remembers she loved her husband!

I found that scene insulting to me and to other widows who lived and worked through long and difficult marriages, finding ways to keep loving and forgiving, for decades. Mike and I did the hard work of forgiving each other, and we rediscovered enduring love, through the unfolding tragedy of Mike’s decline and death. Real widows don’t need the absurd, desperate, damn-I-need-to-figure-out-a-way-to-end-this-novel device of a slip-n-fall to knock them into remembering they loved their husbands.

So how do I react to all this in the spirit of this blog, with love and laughter?

I’m opting for gratitude. Yep, I’m grateful. Monogamy has made me hate my memoir. Seriously, I’m relieved. My story is true, sad, and funny, but I have doubts now about whether it needs to be told. It feels like 300 pages of “too much information.”

Yet even if I didn’t have doubts about my book, I have no doubts whatsoever that, because of Monogamy, there’s no hope in pitching and querying my memoir anymore. In this case, fiction outruns truth, especially because the fiction is by a longstanding, bestselling author. Lesson learned.

It’s time for me to start writing my next book. Maybe I’ll try a novel. I’ll use this lesson -use it fictitiously, of course – as inspiration.

Ready to move on, but wanting the 23 bucks back that I spent to read Miller’s damn book, I remain,

Your real widow Annie from the suburbs of Chicago who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice who was “at least a foot taller” than she, who didn’t need a head injury to remember she loved her husband,  

Ridiculouswoman

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Widows and Germ Freaks

By definition, a pandemic affects everyone on the planet. Synchronicity has been powerfully present – scarcity (toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, food, money, jobs) and distractions (sourdough bread, home improvement, sports with cardboard fans, political vitriol) afflict us all. As I was ruminating on a post about how we’re all widows and germ freaks now, the New York Times published a piece about declining social skills caused by isolation. Synchronicity.

People are still dying, behind glass, while their families helplessly watch on tablets, speaking final words through phones held by brave and compassionate nurses. This plague makes new widows and widowers every day. There are coronavirus orphans, and babies born during this time are dubbed “coronials.”

I hear fewer people using the phrase “back to normal” lately. It’s sinking in now. After a pandemic, there is no “back to normal.” In that sense, we’re all widows now. Doorknobs and light switches, the sound of a sneeze, offices with sealed windows, crowded concert halls – none of these will ever feel “normal” again, even after a safe, effective and adequately tested vaccine emerges. We’re all germ freaks now. I don’t expect consciousness of sources of contagion to go away for anyone who has measured their relationships in 6-foot circles, or washed their hands for two rounds of Happy Birthday, umpteen times a day. Who of us will ever hear that birthday song the same way again?

We’re all widows now, too, in a sense – grieving for a life that was supposed to be, but has vanished. School will never be the same. “Learning pods” may become permanent for those that can afford them. Those that can’t must send their kids, wearing masks they’ll never be able to keep on over their noses for a full school day, into classrooms where they’ll be seated at desks spaced 6 feet apart, surrounded by plexiglass. What kind of learning is that? Learning that laughter and singing and holding hands with your friends are dangerous? How are these kids going to carry that message into their future lives? There is grief for play and joy, displaced by sterile, lonely, fearful childhoods.

Grieving young adults behave wantonly, in total denial, feeling cheated of their “right to paaaartay!,” risking each others’ lives by packing themselves into illegal or unauthorized gatherings, resulting in colleges and universities reporting thousands of new cases. Dorms shut down, classes go back online. College isn’t what it was supposed to be, and may never be whatever that was again.

I take no solace in knowing that so many people now understand the permanence of grief. In my case, it’s carrying the weight of memories of Mike, the good and the bad, every minute of every day. There are triggers everywhere, especially at home, where we’ve been holed up for six months. It’s not that I think about him all the time – I don’t – but the “presence of absence” hangs around me like a shawl.

The “Lost Generation” emerged from the horrors of World War I only to confront a pandemic of their own, one hundred years ago. They were also faced with a president, Warren G. Harding, who was was pro-business, anti-international organizations, and anti-immigration. Three years into his presidency, Harding died, and his administration was revealed as the most corrupt in American history, up to that time. Harding appointees sold government medical supplies to private contractors, and benefited from loans and gifts in exchange for directing oil leases to cronies in the famous Teapot Dome scandal. The echoes are deafening. Harding campaigned on returning to “normalcy.” He succeed only in proving that there are some kinds of “normalcy” we could all do without. No wonder so many of the lost generation writers decamped to Paris.

Will this present generation, a century later, robbed of innocence by 9/11 and of proms and graduations and big happy weddings by a pandemic, turn into another “lost generation,” living for the moment because they expect the next moment to be worse?

I hold on to examples of these young adults’ resilience, leadership, and compassion. Their zeal for justice, equality, dignity, and environmental responsibility is undeniable. They give me hope.

We widows and germ freaks can’t recreate the “before” in whatever our “after” is going to be, if we survive. But we can learn from all this to be kinder, to respect integrity, to appreciate competence, and to be humble in the face of irrefutable scientific facts. We can move forward together with decency.

Naked Emperors, living in houses of cards, always eventually crumble. In the ashes of the chaos they created, those they duped and those whose worst fears they realized are left to clean up the mess together, and move on.

Hunkering with hope, I remain,

Your masked, sanitized, socially distanced, trying-to-stay-positive-while-grieving-with-Angelic-Daughter,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by Daniel Langezaal from Pixabay

Socrates Was a Bad Ass

When I went on hiatus in June, I said I was going to shut up and listen, and try to figure out something positive to do.

And then everything just kept getting worse. And then it got inspiring, and then it got worse again. Now we’re all just starring in our own versions of Groundhog Day, praying for time to move faster, for leaders who can think and care about something other than themselves, for safety and relief and help for health care and other essential workers, and for a return of common human decency and compassion.

Before the pandemic, when the shouting matches were mostly about immigration, not masks, I attended a town hall meeting held by my congressional representative. There were shouting people there. Fortunately, my seventh grade social studies teacher was presiding: she has held the post of town president for years, and has lost none of her fearsome, teacherly formidability. Her stentorian call to order and threat to expel misbehavers quelled the noise.

After the meeting, I encountered one of the shouters – the female half of a husband-wife team of shouters, and I asked her, “if you came across a person dying of thirst in the middle of the road, would you ask them if they were a citizen before you gave them a drink of water?” She said no.

When I reminded her that her obviously European heritage (this was before we had the “Karen” meme, but this lady was an aged, fearful, trembling, supercharged Karen presumably of the red-hatted type) meant that her family all started here as immigrants, she could barely contain her rage, shouting “No! THEY WERE SETTLERS!”

Let’s just let that land for a minute.

I haven’t figured out how to engage in useful dialog with shouting, red hatted, mask-free types yet, but I have recognized two things I can do: I can write, and I can ask good, and possibly challenging or impertinent, questions.

Before you say this is a cop out, that I should be out there in a yellow shirt with a Wall of Moms, let me say that I mostly agree with you, but circumstances require my presence at home.

I don’t flatter myself that anything I write or any questions I ask could possibly inspire change on a grand, or even micro, scale, but they might be helpful, or cathartic, or amusing, or thought-provoking, at least.

The writing is for readers who need a laugh, or need to “feel the feels,” as many in the writing community seem to like to say.

The questions will be offered in the hope of spurring discourse, or at least reflection, for long enough to get whoever reads them to stop shouting and think – perhaps, for example, about the existence of Native Americans, Madam “settler?”

When I started this blog I promised no politics. This was about working through grief, focusing on gratitude and being generous with love and laughter. But it was also supposed to be, in part, about letting go of fear, and being courageous enough to be who I am – vulnerabilities, imperfections, impertinence and all.

In a distant other life, in law school and around the dinner table with my long-departed Dad, I was taught by the Socratic method – my law professors, or my dad, would ask a series of questions designed to lead me toward a solution to a problem, or a point of view, or a realization of a fact I hadn’t seen before.

As we’ve seen time and again, people in power don’t like to be led down paths of self-examination, and they don’t like to be asked questions that expose their weaknesses and their lies. That didn’t end well for Socrates.

But his method of teaching survived. And asking questions isn’t just for teaching – it’s also for learning. So I’m going to ask questions from time to time, here – I’ll probably write about questions I wish others had asked, perhaps at Senate hearings (yellow card! politics!) or of people who refuse to wear masks (masks are NOT politics – just basic human compassion and decency – oh, wait, we’re talking about asking people who refuse to wear masks why they won’t behave with basic human compassion and decency) or directed toward people who can magically think their way into believing that a pandemic that has sickened over 17.3 million people and killed 674,000 globally (as of ten minutes before I’m writing this, according to Google), is a hoax.

So here are my first two questions:

How is populated land “settled?”

and

Are individual rights and the common good mutually exclusive?

Discuss.

Good to be back, doing what I hope will be some small good. I remain,

Your mask-wearing, hand-washing, fretful, and nowhere near as brave as I’d like to be,

Ridiculouswoman.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay