Paddling While Rome Burns

I’ve been feeling pretty healthy and strong, which allowed me to withstand a week or two of moderate depression, and then a bout of simmering rage. Then all sorts of stuff happened.

Husband’s aunt sold her summer home, a place that has always offered us repose. I needed to figure out how to get out there in time to leave husband’s ashes before the closing.

My mom got diagnosed with colon cancer. Brothers and sisters are alternating care. I need to get there. How do I get away from here? I am tethered here.

And the president came to town, and I just knew that I couldn’t bear to deal with the lines and the crowds, so I simmered with the new rage of incapacity as everyone and their mother expressed glee about the visit.

These things are not equal, and yet they all hit, like a barrage. It all feels like loss. It is so overwhelming that I am going back into shock mode. The brain shuts down at times like these, to help avoid the pain.

On the day the president visited, every other kid was getting pulled out of school to get on line. Daughter’s math teacher wasn’t going to be in school that day. Daughter woke up with sniffles. So I called her in sick. Really, it’s all just so absurd, why play along anymore?

Then we went kayaking.

And while that looks like we’re playing hooky, we only got to this inlet after a heartbreaking start. We’d ordered new kayaks online. The tractor trailer couldn’t make it up my driveway. A dear friend joined me to rendezvous with the freight driver in Big Box Store parking lot to pack up the boats and bring them to my house in two trips. I went to the clerk of courts to register the boats, brought the wrong documentation, went back home to rip open the kayak packaging for the certificate of origin, returned to the clerk of courts, got the registration cards laminated before the kids got home, bought the 3″ high letters to stick on the boats during son’s therapy appointment. On her day off, daughter and I stuck the letters on the boats, realized we failed to buy 4’s, drove back to the local hardware store and bought two 4’s (the guy behind us quipped, “You could have saved money and bought an 8.” Good one!), slapped them on, heaved the kayaks atop the car, and took them off at the boat ramp (declining an offer of help from a nice young man cycling by). She watched the boats while I parked, we adjusted our seats, plopped in the water, paddled and….she got frustrated. Her boat was too wide. Her paddle was too small. We switched paddles. We switched back. She was grumpy and tired and sad. She held back tears. I held back tears and rage and frustration and shaking my fist at the gods. We turned around and headed back to the car.

About 100 yards from shore I asked, “Hey, didn’t Our Nice Kayak Lesson Teacher put a lifejacket on your seat so you could sit up higher?” She did! I sacrificed my lifejacket. She sat up higher. Paddling ensued for the next hour, maybe an hour and a half. In the inlet, she fished around in my hatch for the granola bars and apples. We munched away. We found a spot where echoes bounced off the trees. We paddled. We floated. We glided. We raced to the shore. She won.

That evening, we heard the ruckus on campus. We walked up there and stood on the street, a few hundred yards away from the President. We couldn’t see him, but we heard his stump speech. We heard our friends and everyone else in town cheering. It was good enough for us. We live on the fringe. It’s where we belong.

Extrication: Garlic and Leaves Edition

This individuation isn’t that easy. The separation from husband isn’t a cleavage; it’s no  clean break. Imagine ripping a band-aid off your skin slowly, and you get the idea. We need to sort through our habits and our interpersonal relations to peel away the way he did things, uncovering the way we do things now, even if we are doing them atop a raw wound (such as it is).

Today I bought some new rakes. (In the summer purge I gave away or threw out the old rakes that had tines that bent and clattered.) But first I had to drop off son at his Sunday afternoon activity. I told him to run into the building himself. He resisted, insisting I accompany him. I can’t do that every time. The standoff led to my blood boiling and semi-shrieking outside the university gym. Not pretty, and reminiscent of the summer meltdowns. Yuck. He went on his way, and I went to a hardware store in the next town over, where I wouldn’t know anyone, and without looking the nice salesman in the eye, asked where the rakes are and bought two.

On the way back into town I stopped at my favorite retro grocery store and made sure to include horehound candies, an Appalachian remedy to soothe the throat that I’d scarred during said shrieking. I picked up daughter from friend’s house and found her scampering outside. She just ran down the driveway and into the car. Lovely. We retrieved son from his activity. He was in good spirits. “I was embarrassed when you yelled at me,” he said, with his equipment bag foisted over his shoulder. You and me both, kid, you and me both.

When we got home I whipped up some dinner sandwiches–local roasted garlic smeared on local heated-up bakery French bread, topped with a garlicky white bean spread and local wilted kale. Son was pleased, but daughter was outside raking leaves into a pile as tall as she is. I joined her and used one of the new rakes to rake the ivy. Piles and piles of leaves came out, and most of the ivy remained. Excellent new rake. I let the Saint Bernard-looking dog out, commanding, “Get daughter!” He ran right to the leaf pile and “rescued” her, just like old times. We tied him up to the rope swing next to the leaf pile, so he could enjoy the activity.

While out there with daughter, I decided that we should plant garlic. We have some bulbs from a farmer. Husband was working on garden beds the last day he was with us. Those beds have represented nothing but inexplicable trauma to me, and I have mostly ignored them and let clover grow over them this summer. They get full sun, though, and would be a nice spot. While raking, I ventured over to the compost bin, which I haven’t gone near since I stopped composting 4+ months ago. For all those months I’ve steered clear, figuring the rat(s) have taken over it. But nay, there’s nothing in there but rich, black soil. That’s it. We’re going to add it to the garden beds and make it a nice home for the garlic bulbs.

We can’t avoid him. He is everywhere around us, but he’s not here with us. He doesn’t protect us, he doesn’t help us. So we move forward. We do it by extricating him, peeling him away, then we replace it with whatever it is we are doing now.

Tis Herself

This one involves navel gazing, because we’ve reached that stage, apparently.

The crying at the gynecologist’s office last week forced me to think about intimacy. One of the many cruelties inflicted by husband is that he left when I reached the–ahem–prime of a woman’s early 40s. Of all the deprivations, that is not the worst, but it is not the least of them, either, to leave me hanging like that as I was blossoming.  After sitting with it for a week, I appreciate that sexuality is something we shared for most of our adult lives, but we shared it. I have my own. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with that.

I saw an image of a long-haired man wearing a baby in a grocery store, invoking memories of husband’s sweet babywearing days. But I can’t figure out what that means anymore. When we had babies, we were building a life together, so full of hope for our family. Those hopes have been dashed, and I don’t know how to read the past anymore. Were those hopes of the happy days all a lie? I don’t know what hope means in the past when the dreams weren’t realized. It’s like rereading a novel, when the ending changes the way you read the chain of events. I don’t know how to tell the story of my own life, now that I know how it ends up. That became so fraught that my memory got blocked again this week. The one difference this week is that I was looking at the past not to understand husband but to make sense of myself and my own life. I’m starting to think of myself as a discrete individual.

I overshared with some friends and admitted that I just don’t give a shit about things. I feel so detached. One of the friends, a poet, interpreted that conversation like a text and later returned a touching insight. I am detached, indeed; I’ve been detaching from what I knew–I threw out carloads of things this summer, and I am detaching from this relationship, and from how I understood myself. But, she added, I am making new attachments–with people, with new things to do, with new ways of understanding the world. My life is being unravelled and rewoven at the same time. All I see is the unravelling. She sees something else. O, to have a poet for a friend!

What I hear a lot is that I’ll get through this. What I hear a lot is that I am strong. I know I’ll get through it, damaged and weary and chastened maybe, but I know I will. I know I am strong, and I ‘m afraid that husband knew that, too. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be strong. That’s why I ended up with him in the first place. I was responsible and did all the right things. He was flaky but brilliant, he didn’t care about the things he was supposed to but he was so thoughtful about things that didn’t seem to matter, he was irresponsible but got away with things, and he was so trenchantly witty. He allowed me to let go, to kick back. But there’s none of that anymore. Now I need to be strong, to get through the pain, but feeling this pain is my last attachment to him, and it is my loyalty to his own pain. But of course, I know I have to move through the pain, and when I do, I’ll be alone. Being alone will prolly be all right,* because I’m–you know–strong.

Realizing this set me to a widow’s wailing this morning. I didn’t feel like I was crying him out. It felt like I was crying myself away from him. It was so loud that the dogs fled and made themselves scarce. It lasted so long that the cat came around, not to make sure I was okay, but just to see what was up. She let me pick her up. I stopped crying. I made a pot of coffee and a cup of dandelion tea, because I wanted the one but figured I needed the other more.

*That’s an inside joke. Husband was delighted by some repairman who looked at a part (in a car, a piece of household equipment, I can’t remember) and, despite husband’s concerns about its state of disrepair, the repairman shrugged and pronounced, “It’ll prolly be all right.” Husband loved to say that when things looked dicey. And if he were here now and I admitted how scared I am, he’d say, It’ll prolly be all right.

There It Goes

I padded around the house this morning feeling…enclosed, as if in a bubble. I felt a bit of the floating around that I’d felt over the summer, like I’ve just washed ashore here, and am not quite a part of this place I find myself in. I think my memories are blocked again.

The last few weeks have been hard weeks of grieving and healing. I’ve made progress, but the process wore me down. My body was tight again over the weekend. I stretched throughout the day. My temper was a little short. Rather than have meltdowns like I did over the summer, last week I’d feel my heart become a stone and know that it was coming. I’d get myself away from the kids, breathe, and stay steady until it went away.

There goes my memory. It will come back. I trust that it will, and I trust that I need to forget, for now. This is the brain’s way of protecting me.

Lowered Expectations

When the leader takes us out for kayak paddles under the full moon, she can’t promise us anything. She can’t promise the moon will shine, even. She just knows it’s the full moon, and she takes out a group of women to paddle and see what happens.

Here’s what happens: Sometimes we watch the sun set. Then we turn and realize that, while we were doing that, the moon rose over the trees and is shining down on us. We’ve seen a blue heron glide over the lake. While watching in awe, we saw a stream of urine pour out of it. (So much water comes out of that one bird, by the way.) As we gathered in a dark inlet, we heard a barred owl. One of the kayakers talked to it, and they talked back and forth until they woke up a screech owl, who joined in. As we left the inlet, owls on the woods on either side called to one another, above our heads. After moments like that, we glide around in the dark, under the moon, finding one another, losing one another, until we paddle back.

The leader can’t promise that any of this will happen, but she knows it can happen. She is open to making it happen. And so long as I make room in my schedule and get into the kayak before the sun sets, I can be privy to it.

This, I think, is the key. Happiness is out there. Joy and beauty are out there. I can’t strive for them, or expect them, or think I deserve them. I can’t be disappointed if they don’t come. I can only put myself in a position to be open to receive them when they do. I must lower my expectations and open myself to the possibility of them happening, or not. Being open takes practice. Being open is practice.

I’ve been practicing at home. Since the kids have gone back to school, cooking has been a way to keep me grounded. I buy my goods at the farmers market and distribute the nutrition across the week. I feel good knowing that they are filled with good food. They ask for so many warm drinks, and I come through with hot cider, herbal teas, spiced teas, hot chocolate. I put ginger and garlic and cinnamon and cloves in their meals, drinks, and desserts. I am fortifying them, hoping they will feel safe and warm. I don’t mind if they don’t love my dinners. So long as they try a few bites and don’t complain, I can take it. If one of them is unexpectedly delighted by a cabbage dish or something, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s all laid back. But one day last week, daughter got downright pissy about a dish I’d been creative about. I was surprised by my impatience for it. She complained about it before we left for horse riding. She was complaining when we returned, so I didn’t even try to serve the sweet potato under the stew of chickpeas in coconut milk. I gave the grumpy girl the bowl of chickpeas in coconut milk and the sick, lonely boy a cup of tea, and I retreated upstairs. Hours later, she was still mad at me, because I didn’t give her a cup of tea.

These cups of tea mean a lot to my kids. They fill their bellies, they keep them warm. I think the tea makes them feel safe. My denial of tea to her was a denial of care. I didn’t mean to send her that message. I was only so disappointed by her complaining about the Dinner I’d Worked So Hard On that I was done serving people. I shouldn’t have gotten my expectations up about the dinner. If she didn’t like it, fine. If she was being rude, I should have called her out on it, but I didn’t need to make her mood affect my mood about household labor.

I kept that cooked, unused sweet potato in the fridge and turned it into sweet potato biscuits over the weekend.

Chop wood, carry water. Brew the tea. Pack the lunch. Float on the lake.