A Paddle

I stopped kayaking there for awhile. Even though I have my own boat, on my own little berth at the lake, I must have associated paddling with that bile I felt early in the summer, and I’ve stayed away, even on beautiful days, even when I could have spared the time. This week, the kayaking trip leader invited me to use my credit–from a rained-out bird-watching paddle workshop I was supposed to go to in May–for the August full moon paddle. That’s how I got back in the paddle again.

Ends up that this month’s full moon fell on her birthday. To celebrate her 66th, the kayak leader loaded up 15 boats and welcomed women she’s paddled with through the years. She led us out on the lake, where we heard the music of a flute and an African drum ringing through the air as the sun went down. We paddled ahead to find two musicians perched on a rock on the side of the lake. We hung out there, then paddled away to the next inlet, with the music still ringing through the air.

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That was her birthday celebration. She hired the musicians. In the inlet, we gathered our kayaks together and passed around a Tupperware of cupcakes. Every so often she would paddle ahead of the group. She was widowed about the same time I was. I respected the space she gave herself but was sure to connect every so often, as did everyone else. She is adored.

Daughter made it out with us this time. Here was my daughter, with all these Wise Womyn, and there we were, gliding on the water–when it gets dark and you look at the other paddlers, you can only see their lights moving on the water. You can’t even make out the shape of the boat. You just see lights, gliding–with the flute, the drum, the moon….eating cupcakes.

I don’t want to make more of it than it was (but it was lovely, so very lovely).  I will note that when I unloaded Daughter’s kayak and paddle and lifejacket, I left my own lifejacket and paddle in the car. After all, I can just swing by that berth any ole’ time. It’d be good to have a paddle at the ready. Just in case.

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[Kayak leader is the on the right. Daughter is gliding in the path of the moonlight. The moon, of course, was much bigger.]

How Many Months Does It Take for a Widow to Change a Light Bulb?

This time last year I couldn’t unscrew these globes to change the lightbulb.

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I made some progress in figuring out how to unscrew them, 

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but I was pretty nervous to tinker with those round globes in the first picture. It’s hard to stand in a place that feels secure, it’s awkward to reach through the wood railings around the stairway.

Since that first photo, all three globe lights have gone out. (wtf, cfl bulbs? I thought you were supposed to last for YEARS….oh, maybe you did. We’ve lived here for 7 years.) My poor son, the night owl, has had to rig up various lighting arrangements throughout the house for getting up the dark stairs at night. 

So this morning I grabbed some new cfl bulbs and had a go at it. I started with the globe closest to me. I unscrewed the top from the globe, slid out the supporting mechanism at the correct angle and carefully lowered the globe to the ground. I replaced the bulb, dusted off the globe, carefully slipped it back onto the supporting mechanism, struggled for a moment in lining the cap back on the top, but I figured it out. Done.

Then I turned to the next globe, a little farther away. I could reach it, but I couldn’t see the top from where I was standing. Turns out that didn’t matter, now that I knew how to do it. Replaced that one. Stood back and eyed the third, which is the biggest, heaviest one and farthest away. Now that was tricky and possibly dangerous. Took a deep breath and….did it.

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I’ve gotta say, I wondered about the original designers of this groovy house, what with all these mysterious fixtures. I was stymied. Now that I know how to do it, I appreciate the mechanisms and placements as sort of brilliant. Gotta trust the process. And sometimes, you’ve got to figure the process out.

Careful readers may notice that my original globe post was dated August 11, 2012, and today is August 11, 2013. Since I’m loathe to commemorating anniversaries, we’ll just call this a coincidence and enjoy the illumination.

How to be Widowed: The Running Edition

Invent A Coach

The dogs wake you up just after dawn and you stagger downstairs to let them out. Good dogs. You’re still recovering from the horse show, which included 3+ hours driving Friday, the hustle and bustle of the show, then the return trip Saturday, which didn’t take you home but to the barn to unload horses and clean up, all in a state of exhaustion. As you brew the coffee, it occurs to you, you have to run. You have to! You laugh. It’s as if you have a coach.

You don’t have a coach, but you have a therapist who is keen to see you running again, and George Sheehan’s advice sounds in your head–3 miles, 3 times a week (or maybe it was 4 times a week). That’s enough for basic fitness.

You think about your dad, reading the local newspaper and passing along Sheehan’s columns to you, back in the 70s, when Sheehan wasn’t so famous but just a local doctor with a running column in the local paper. Or maybe he was famous, but he was just our local guy. Your dad wasn’t a runner, but he appreciated this Irish Catholic from the city who moved to the suburbs and ran on his lunch hour. In many ways, they were fellow travelers.

Have a Mentor

After the first mile, you decide you’ll walk the next half mile. (See: horse show recovery.) You remember the condolence from a professional colleague, “Be gentle with yourself.” It’s funny advice to get from a woman who is so accomplished–in her personal life, as a mother, as a researcher and as a kick-butt advocate for others in the profession. You admired her when you were a grad student, then somehow she became a mentor, then a collaborator, and now a real friend. If an overachiever tells you to be gentle with yourself, you’ll be gentle with yourself.

Be Gentle But Don’t Stop!

At the 1.5 mile mark, you pause to stretch. This morning you had to lift daughter’s tack trunk out of the car by yourself so that you could get the dog into the car. It was heavy and unwieldy, and you felt a muscle pull in your side. Some mild stretching, here at the halfway point, feels good, but–oh my–the gnats! You’d been next to the river all this time and didn’t even notice them, even when you slowed down to walk. They only swarm when you stop. The dog–so loyal, so happy you’re running again, so privileged to be joining you–twitches. Time to move. You turn around and go.

Face Your Fears

Now you’re running on the wooded side of the path. At any moment a black snake can come slithering down the hill, through the underbrush, onto the path. You’re not afraid of the black snake, only of the surprise of it. But you’ve got the dog. She might see it first. Or she might get scared and then you’ll cast aside your fears to comfort her. You find yourself running again and not thinking of snakes anymore. If you avoided this part of the path because of the snakes, you’d miss out on the beauty of the woods and the welcome shade of the trees. This next mile feels pretty good. You kind of start to feel like a runner again, somewhere deep in your bones. There is no snake.

Be Generous But Don’t Be a Martyr

You leave the woods and pass the farm. The farm dog barks. You used to be afraid of loose dogs but one day you just kept running and you learned that she’s a nice dog. You consider stopping so the dogs can say hi, but you haven’t hit the mile marker yet. You pass the barking dog and finish your mile. You’ve learned the hard way that sometimes, you have to do what you want to do instead of dropping everything to make someone else happy. You know that this is self-care, not selfishness. You hit the mile marker and stretch a little. You see the farm dog walking toward you. You turn to greet her but she slinks away. She’s shy. So you and your dog turn to walk this last half mile. You peer over your shoulder and see her peeking around the corner of the fence. Another time, friend. There will be another time.

Cross That Bridge When You Get To It

You hit the final mile marker, making it three miles. It’s not the three miles that Sheehan was talking about, but you’ll get there. For now, you’ll just keep covering three miles, three times a week. At some point, the three miles will be all run, instead of this walk-run nonsense, and it will feel easy. You know this. Today wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but it felt right. In this new life of yours, feeling right is enough. You step on the bridge over the river to walk the last few hundred yards to the car. When you first moved here, this bridge seemed magical. Here you were, in town, and this bridge transported you past farmland, into the woods. You had the feeling it took you back in time. You used to hum “Ode to Billy Joe,” not because it felt ominous but because it felt like 1967 on this bridge. You remember discovering it with a husband and a baby and a toddler. So much magic. Nowadays, you’re a lot more accustomed to this bridge. Today, as you embark on this bridge that you’ve since been on hundreds of times–walking with dogs, cycling with kids, running with friends or alone, and on a daytime walk with husband about a month before he died. It really was a lovely spring that year and he seemed to be in such good health–you realize that the second rung of the bridge is the perfect height for you to grab onto, take a long step back and then streeeeetttch out that back. It was your side that you felt pull, but it’s the stretching of the back that really gets to it.

Anniversary

WordPress notified me recently that I’d reached my first anniversary. That was, I dunno, a week or two ago.

I dwelt for a moment on my first post, which was when my son was sleeping on a mattress on my floor talking about our wifi connection. It was almost a sweet memory. He seemed a lot littler a year ago. Definitely more vulnerable.

Then I let it pass. Because you know what? I’m sick of anniversaries. The first year of widowhood is passed by marking the dates–his first birthday without him, our first wedding anniversary without him, first Thanksgiving without him, and so on. You begin to accumulate holidays you thought you never cared about, including the Hallmark holidays. 

Now we’re in the second year, and I mark those anniversaries as some kind of obligation. Now it’s the first birthday without him in which we don’t fall apart, and so on. Or maybe we will fall apart. It’s hard to know. Each of these dates is marked by a gauge, a wary looking around and asking “How we doin’?”

I’m so tired of assessing our collective mental stability. I’m so tired of holidays, still. I’m so weary of anniversaries.

So, thanks, WordPress for acknowledging my blogging anniversary. I’m glad I am keeping this blog as a record of this wretched journey. I am immensely grateful to the folks I’ve connected with here. But I don’t collect anniversary dates anymore. That’s too much weight to carry around.

Living with Metaphors

I listen to music a lot–in the car, at the computer, while running or walking the dogs. I like it, but it does spark internal dialogues.

The Song: *fa la la* “What would I do without you?”

[or the variant

“What would become of me without you?”

or

“What did I do before I met you?”

and so on] 

Me: Well, let me tell ya. You’d get up, you’d make the coffee, and you’d sit at this here red light, just like I am right now. You’d be amazed what you could live without, hon, you’d simply be amazed.

I got over those moments pretty quickly, but my new Mumford & Sons cd has a song that is really lively and I really like, except for this part:

…But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again…

Read more: Mumford & Sons – The Cave Lyrics | MetroLyrics

I sing along while driving and then just kind of mumble and peter out when they get to that one line. I try not to feel bad about it, though. It’s a working metaphor, rooted in a mode of execution that’s pretty much obsolete. I could see why people use it as a metaphor. Luckily, it’s not a trigger.

(Trigger! Again, with the grotesque metaphors!)

But something happens, anyway. When I hear metaphors like that, I let them go, but in the process, that veil comes down between me and them, me and the rest of polite society that uses that metaphor without question, that can think of that metaphor in the abstract without visceral memories of skin, and weight, and pain.

That’s the moment of disconnection that led to the alienation I was feeling early this summer. It’s a pattern that has come up again and again–when a stay-at-home housewife wonders how she’ll get dinner on the table, when a male colleague is all proud for pitching in with childcare, when colleagues bemoan the end of the summer. I get why people say these things, but they are not connecting to me. They are revealing the chasm between their experience and mine, and I feel like I don’t belong in normal society.

I’ve been learning how to get over it, but it took a series of encounters and a change of perspective for me to get here. And I’m not there yet. I’m better at it, but I’m still practicing. I’ve learned to recognize that complaints that seem, to me, to be minor may be truly difficult for the complainer. I respect that it’s hard for them, and they’re struggling. I try not to compare or internalize while still remaining connected to the other person. It’s practice, every time. I’m going to have to do that if I plan to mingle in polite society.

This Times piece by Mark Epstein has been making the rounds. It’s like a palimpest, in that people’s reactions tell you where they are in life. For me, this piece is about the feeling of estrangement that people feel after trauma, that sense of being an outsider. It’s heartening to see someone confirm what I’ve been feeling. Sometimes I hide my feelings because I feel like such a brat. It’s good to know, though, that my feelings are following logical processes of the brain.

I’m a fan of Epstein. He’s a Buddhist psychoanalyst, and I have one of his books at my bedside and one in the car (along with a book of Jane Hirshfield poems) for idle moments. The Guardian had done a story about Sonali Deraniyagala, a Londoner who suffered unspeakable loss in the tsunami in Sri Lanka. As much as I respect differences in our experiences, I felt connected with her in this way: 

Sonali came to New York at the end of 2006, partly to be near her therapist and lifeline, but also craving some anonymity. In Colombo where she had been living, everyone knew her and her story, and when she eventually started to leave her uncle’s house she knew people were looking and thinking “She’s out!” and wondering what she might do next. In New York she could begin what she laughingly calls her “witness-protection-programme life”. Colleagues and acquaintances assumed she was a single visiting academic having a nice time in Manhattan, and she was happy to let them do so.

I don’t know what she went through in the tsunami, but I know just how she feels about living anonymously in New York. But here’s where I felt disconnected with her–she simply moved to New York and got a position at Columbia, and Mark Epstein is her therapist. Honestly, I was a little envious of her. Which is funny, and might be a form of gallows humor….See, there we go again, with the grotesque metaphors. They’re unavoidable, so I might as well just live with them.

Nap

I’m back to napping again, almost daily. The need hits mid-afternoon and/or early evening. Unlike the napping in those early days, I can resist the urge and soldier through the fatigue, but it’s much more pleasant to give in.

I went to a yin yoga class with a new teacher. Her voice is calming. The room was so warm. So, yes, during those three-minute poses held in a reclined position, I napped. It got to the point where I would move to the next position and fall right back into the zone. In a few poses, I started dreaming, which I know because I heard dialogue that was interrupted by the teacher’s instruction to move on to the next pose. It stopped being sleeping-while-practicing-yoga and more like sleepwalking, only doing yoga instead of walking. How inappropriate, but how nice. I got my nap and stretched my hips, too. 

We’re not supposed to sleep in yoga or meditation. But I like to think that I can break those rules. If I slept, it was probably because I needed to. I’m not sure why I’m sleeping so much lately. It could be the bodywork (acupuncture one week, followed by a massage). It could be the accumulated insomnia. It could be the increase in exercise (as modest as it is). I don’t need to pinpoint the cause. I need to nap. I nap. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with healing. 

Soundtrack of Our Lives

When I taught my last class of the spring semester I walked out to my car and felt deflated. I wanted to tell someone, “I’m done!” But colleagues might have taken that for woohoo-it’s-summer and not I-accomplished-something-I-was-terrified-to-do-we-survived-etc. There was no one to tell. And I was kind of sad to be done, too. Teaching did a lot for me. It provided a regular schedule, it made me focus on the task at hand, I know how to do it so I felt pretty capable and those few hours in the classroom each week were my favorite hours where I left my cares behind. So finishing up the semester was complicated. And there I was, walking to the car, to an empty house, a tragic life.

My Pandora music stations weren’t offering what I needed to mark this occasion. So I pulled up Julio Iglesias’ La Mer, the song playing in the climax of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (Note: The video shows the end of the movie, and there’s a violent scene.) Given its use in the movie, it’s triumphant. As each round of the song increased in energy, I grew more and more chuffed. I recalled Gary Oldham and Benedict Cumberpath’s exchange of suppressed smiles. That’s the moment of triumph among repressed folks, and I count it as one of the most moving movie endings. And then Oldham assumes his place at the head of the table in the control room and there’s applause from the song. The applause hit moments before I reached my car.

“This is ridiculous,” I thought. But, really, I loved it. This is all so ridiculous. Why not have a soundtrack to mark my small triumph?

I have a mixed cd that a friend made to remind me I am cared for. I’ve got sensitive indie fellas who I like to listen to on the windy country roads. I turn to Leonard Cohen when I’m feeling feisty but world-weary. And I pull out the smart, strong women with a sense of humor for those rare times when I am feeling strong and capable. But every once in a while, when I am quietly proud and feel like I could use some applause, I fire up La Mer. I pulled it up this morning as I walked after my jog, which was short and probably slow but I was very pleased to be out there and I ran more today than I did a week ago. My triumphant soundtrack makes me laugh every time. It’s so ridiculous. Yup, it is, it all is. *Applause*