Thinking Thematically

I got a notification that my stats had experienced a surge yesterday, January 18, 2021, when this blog post was at the top of my home page.

I can’t explain it, other than maybe some weird, misguided attraction to the word “revolution,” which, used here, is just another way of saying “resolution.” As in New Year’s.

The phrase that contains the word links back to a post I wrote a few years ago, about changing things as a way to keep going after my husband died of cancer. So if anyone came looking for something darker, I hope they were very, very disappointed. And I hope they never come back.

I used to make a list of New Year’s “Revolutions.” The idea of changing something that I can’t change back has helped me keep moving ahead, in these years without Mike.

We just passed our 5th New Year’s Even without him. It was weird. Angelic Daughter went to bed early and slept through the sounds of fireworks from somewhere close by. I was surprised they even had them this year.

I finally turned on the TV to watch the last 45 minutes or so of the odd, empty Times Square celebrations, flipping back and forth until I settled on CNN as the most entertaining. I was lucky to land there just in time to see Andra Day sing a stunningly beautiful rendition of “Imagine.”

The recorded music that played after the ball drop included Ray Charles’ version of “America,” which made me cry, thinking that we sure could use some more of God’s grace shed on us right now.

I waited until it was midnight in Chicago to open the Veuve Clicquot. We tried it years ago, before it cost $40 a bottle, and liked it. Made it a tradition for New Year’s Eve. When Mike was here, I remember describing the flavor as “like drinking liquid gold glitter.” This year, it tasted too dry to me.

I’ve always been vaguely aware that the Veuve Clicquot brand was run by a widow, taking over for her husband in the late 1700s. But I wasn’t thinking about Madame Clicquot when I bought the bottle – I was just thinking of remembering Mike on New Year’s Eve.

When I got the bottle out of the fridge, I noticed something on the back label that I hadn’t before: there’s a line across the bottom that says, “La Veuve The Widow Die Witwe La Viuda La Viuva.”

Wow. Rub it in, much? “Widow,” in 5 languages!

I’ve never felt more widow-y than in 2020. Being responsible for Angelic Daughter’s safety this year has been nerve wracking. “Don’t take your mask off!” “Wash your hands for two Happy Birthdays!” DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE!”

I hope my bouts of hysterical maternal protection haven’t made things harder for Angelic Daughter. She’s been so resilient and patient, but the loneliness is getting to her. She misses her friends. She reaches out with texts and calls, but half are never answered. She sends greeting cards. Of the twenty or so friends she has sent cards to, five have responded. Yet she doesn’t lose hope.

“Almost to the New Year!” “Almost Martin Luther King Day!” “We’ll have meet-ups again soon!”

I guess I can be excused for not building a business empire of my own, like Madame Clicquot did, this past year. But that line on her champagne label made me look back on those past New Year’s Eves with Mike with a chill – that portent, a warning, staring us right in the face. I didn’t notice it then, but I’ll never forget it now.

Recently, I found out about a different way to look at aspirations for a new year: choosing one word to guide your actions, instead of making a list of resolutions. Apparently this is something Melinda Gates popularized.

I’ve been trying to come up with my word for 2021. Gates has used “grace,” “shine,” “spacious,” and “gentle.”

I want a word that helps me focus on what’s truly important. I want a word that filters out the noise, and helps me live with love and laughter. This past year has been a tough test for both of those.

I thought of “purpose,” but that’s not quite it. “Meaning” doesn’t seem quite right, either. I want a word that evokes an appreciation for the preciousness of time–that every second matters, and I should live that way.

Intentionality? Nah, too new-agey-trendy. Savor? Makes me think of food. What one word would encapsulate the desire to make every minute count?

“Urgency” sounds too desperate. I’m trying to stay calm here, but focus on what’s important. “Clarity” is good, but I think Ms. Gates has used that one, and I don’t want to be a copycat.

How about “lucid?” The synonyms for that one get into bright, gleaming, luminous, etc. I checked for synonyms for “present,” as in “I’m here,” but I was looking for a word that implies being present-mindfully, lovingly, present.

That brought me back to “now.” Why didn’t I think of that? Actually, I did think of that, a few years ago, in much the same way.

So, I think I’ve got it. My word for 2021 will be “now.” That’s a word that will help me attend to how I’m spending my time, each moment of each day, without before and after.

Happy I spent “now” writing this for you, I remain,

your flawed, anxious, trying to stay calm and attentive,

Ridiculouswoman

Tree for Two

Mike used to make us wait to the second week of December to get a tree, but Angelic Daughter and I went to fetch one from the big box hardware store early on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Double masked and distanced, I motored in to the outdoor section where the Christmas trees were. Since Mike died, we’ve been getting smaller trees that don’t require me to get up on a ladder to do the lights or the tree topper. Falling and breaking a hip or an arm would be, erm, …. non-optimal.

I went straight for the 6′-7′ section, grabbed one of the shortest trees, gave it a cursory once-over and decided it would do.

Self-check out, and I stood back a good 20 feet while the chain-saw guy cut a slice off the end so the tree could absorb water better. Asked him to chuck it over the chain that separated me from the saw area. Picked it up off the floor, stuffed in the back of the Subaru, and off we went.

The annual Christmas tree fight Mike and I used to have about the tree originated mostly from our inability to use our tree stand correctly. It has a foot pedal in its base, and a separate piece you attach to the trunk of the tree.

You’re supposed to fit the tree, with the separate piece attached, into the base. Then you depress the foot pedal and waggle the tree around until one of you pronounces it straight.

The problem was, we rarely remembered that the piece attached to the trunk is supposed to snap in to the bottom of the base.

For 17 years, we waggled the tree, pronounced it straight, and pushed the foot pedal back into the base, which was supposed to lock the tree in place. It rarely worked, and we settled for teetering trees in danger of keeling over.

This year, I got the tree stand to work the way it’s supposed to after just a few tries. I got the “click” I needed when I lopped off a few more branches to get the attachable base high up enough on the tree.

Minor waggling, and it was straight. Push the pedal in, locked!

Then for the lights. I tested the strings before I started. Predictably, when I got lights around the entire tree and plugged them in, the top half didn’t light up.

Sigh.

My old self would have spend a good 15 minutes swearing and yelling. This year, redoing the lights seemed like a minor inconvenience. Second time around, they lit up just fine. I probably just hadn’t plugged them together tightly enough. Sigh.

We used to put the tree in front of the bay window in our “library” room. I turned that room into a dining room that could seat six. It’s kind of a combo library/dining room with a clubby atmosphere – reading chairs in the window, and another in a corner by the bookcases. I love it, sloppy paint job and all.

The front room, where the fireplace is, to me has always been a more natural habitat for a Christmas tree. My idea for that room was a kind of pseudo-eighteenth/nineteenth century parlor, where guests have conversation before dinner, and the ladies retire after dinner to sip and chat, while the gentlemen enjoy their brandy (but no cigars, not in this house) in the clubby dining room.

I went overboard. Too much furniture. I’ll find another place for four chairs, or sell at least two of them. I liked two I bought online for their eighteenth century shape and animal pattern. Online, the background had appeared to be a lovely gold color.

It turned out to be a pucey- green, which I don’t like, and which doesn’t go with the room. They’re in my “budoir” now. My mid-century looking plum velvet chair is in the basement, all to make room for the Christmas tree. I’ll switch it all back after Christmas, and figure out what to do with the ancestress rocker, as well.

All this talk of excess furniture and guest-worthiness is meaningless until vaccines are more widely available and enough people have taken them, sometime around the end of the third quarter of 2021.

There will be no happy guests and lively conversation this year. It’s just us, with a tree for two.

I got an email from a friend this week, bemoaning the loss of our annual holiday brunch with another friend. But we’re in it to win it, being as careful as we can. We’re hoping to be around next year for a mimosa-saturated good time.

By then, maybe this house will finally see the dinner parties with friends I had hoped to host.

Until then, I remain,

Your double-masked-with-filter-inside, hand-washing, diligently distancing,

Ridiculouswoman

“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