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I celebrated the New Year by seeing three movies. Met a girlfriend at a new cinema and saw Atonement. Iíd read the book and knew it wouldnít be an uplifting film; it dragged a bit at the beginning, but I still enjoyed it. Then Bill and I went to see Charlie Wilsonís War. A review Iíd read said it was not only fictionalized, but told lies. Now I want to know the real story. Then we came home and watched a videoóthe original Die Hard with young Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. I dreamt people were shooting at me.
In spite of best intentions, the rainósteady, cold, drenchingógot me down today. The sky was dark, traffic backed up, thoughts focused on curling up with my book, reading and dozing. The book Iím reading is neither charming nor uplifting. Cormac McCarthyís brilliant but bleak read, ďThe Road.Ē Although the cause of the apocalypse has not been revealed, at least not by page 209, I canít help but feel the urgency of getting that moron who controls the red button out of the White House. The burning desolate landscape McCarthy describes that was once Americaóitís all too possible.
My mother doesnít believe in depression. She considers it simple self-absorption and one should snap out of it, get a grip, be an adult. Since seeing
back in the Ď50s or Ď60s she has dubbed herself a ďcockeyed optimist.Ē What she doesnít recognize is that her depression (and she had plenty of cause for it) merely hardened into bitterness. This was manifested by harsh criticism of everyone she came into contact with, including her two daughters. Thatís why I feel guilty when I sink below the surface into a depression I have no way to climb out of.
I once read a conjecture that time is circular and
occurs when you look across the circle and catch a glimpse of something that happened in the past. Is that what accounts for the random slide show that plays in my head? Iíll be washing dishes, working at my desk, driving to the bank, my mind empty, and Iíll see myself in another time doing something totally insignificant: sitting in a restaurant with my ex-husband, turning a corner in downtown Asheville, gazing out an apartment window at the sun glittering on snow. Maybe itís the onset of dementia.
I know Iím depressed when the people in my dreams hate me, disdain me and ignore me; a waiter escorts me to a table in the dark basement because thereís no space in the dining room where couples gaze into each otherís eyes over the glow of candlelight. I knew I was starting to come out of it when the people in my dreams were merely annoying. Then I had a dream of being in a department store and saw an elevated room with all my furniture, a vase of daffodils on the coffee table, and said, ďThere! Thatís me.Ē
I remember a conversation my ex-husband and I had after we'd been dating for a year. He told me about talking to his ex-girlfriend earlier that day and she was complaining that all the men she knew were either gay, married or romantically involved. He told her that he wasn't any of those things. I said, "You're not romantically involved?" and he said, "No." I didn't have the courage to ask him what we were doing if it wasn't being romantically involved. If I had, I probably wouldn't have married him. Courage to face reality in a relationship is essential.
You hear a lot about the importance of drawing boundaries. I continually give away services I should be charging for, help people repeatedly who show no gratitude or recognition of the sacrifice Iíve made. When I finally draw the line I feel guilty rather than taking pride that Iím learning something important. Running a business that is my only source of income is forcing me to adhere to boundaries, be less gullible, more clear about what Iím offering. Iím learning the hard wayóI donít like to disappoint peopleóbut in the end Iíll have more pride, maybe more business.
Lately Iíve taken comfort in small things. Driving through the neighborhood early one morning, while the fog was still low and dark, my eyes were drawn to lights on in a kitchen. I imagined the aroma of coffee brewing, a shower running upstairs, the newspaper freshly unfolded on the kitchen table. I imagined the knife scraping butter over crisp hot toast, someone lost in the sports page in a moment of solitude before a hectic day at work. It seemed so orderly, so timeless. In spite of chaos and worry, life is lived hour by hour, safe in its routine.
In my business I make it up as I go along, making mistakes, learning little by little how to go about it. Thatís why itís good to meet a fellow traveler in this world of trying to make a living as a writer. Talking to someone who puts my experiences in perspective, makes me feel less alone in my fears and uncertainty restores some sanity. Support groups help, even if itís only to share laughs and release some of the pressure. I tend to ignore this wisdom and go it alone. Thank you, Dave, for dragging me out for coffee.
I donít know if I was depressed throughout the first 40 years of my life or if the gray, drizzly Northwest only got me down after Iíd lived elsewhere for a brief five years. I can handle June humidity and sudden downpours followed by steamy heat. What I canít handle is constant cloud cover at the very time of year when days are short and the temperature hovers somewhere around 40. I canít get warm, I canít see my way out of the fog. Then the sun comes out for a day and my mood lifts along with the clouds.
My mother turns 90 on January 23 and I feel an obligation to have a birthday party for her. After all those years she baked cakes (angel food with chocolate frosting), bought party favors and allowed 15 girls to trash her house for an afternoon, I think I owe her. So Iíve sent out invitations to all the cousins and my two sons and their significant others. Itís been decades since I baked a cake, so rather than flirting with disaster Iíll order once from Costco. What else? A piŮata? Pin the tail on the donkey? Iím a challenged hostess.
My number finally came up out of 375 holds at the library on Richard Russoís new book,
The Bridge of Sighs
. Iíve read mixed reviews on it, some saying that it rambles, tries to include too much, causing the reader him/herself to sigh. I havenít finished it yet (Iíve read 321 of the 528 pages), but I must say I love it. Itís darker than his others, more rambling and contemplative, covers a greater span of time, but his writing is sure and I trust him to leave me satisfied that my reading time was well spent. I recommend it.
Billís studio in the backyard is finally finished. Heís started practicing in it and I miss his music in the house. Aside from the music itself, which I love, thereís something comforting even in the scales, the mistakes, his growls when he canít get something right, then finally nailing it. Itís his devotion to it, his dedication and discipline day after day, spending hours at it. And I can hear the result. In the less-than-four years that Iíve known him I hear more expression, confidence. If I were as disciplined in my writing would it make as big a difference?
With Billís studio now available, heís moved some things from his office into it, freeing up space for me to use. The futon and TV set in my office can now go in his, I can put a bookcase, table and chair in mine. I will have a working surface to spread files and papers on. I will be able to take eleven yearsí worth of morning pages (thank you, Julia Cameron) out of boxes so I can read through them to see how far Iíve come since then. Maybe Iíll be able to sort out what happened back then.
Eleven years agoÖIíd just returned from teaching ESL in Prague. I didnít want to return to being a legal secretary, but there were no ESL jobs available that paid a living wage. My husband was anxious for me to bring home paychecks. Our monthly phone bill while I was in Prague had been $400 and I was earning barely enough to live there. So I took a job in a law office. When I left for lunch each day Iíd remark to the receptionist, ďIf Iím not back by 1:00 look for me at the airport.Ē Eventually they fired me.
My husband was convinced it was a mistake and if Iíd ask for my job back theyíd rehire me. I refused. But they did offer me a deal: if Iíd stay until they found a replacement theyíd give me $3,000 in severance pay. I didnít want to (how humiliating to show up every morning at a job Iíd been fired from) but my husband insisted. It took them three months to find a replacement. The day they asked me to clean the file room Iíd reached a low point in my life. But it got better. I divorced my husband.
There was the month, September 1997, when morning pages were written in coffee shops, on benches by the Sound. Moments stolen, lies told about how I was so swamped at work I had to go in early and stay late. Iíd left my husband by then and was living blissfully alone, except for that month a former student from the Czech Republic came to stay with me. She was a dear friend and a nut case. Before my foot had slid into a slipper each morning I was greeted with, ďCarol, Iíve been waiting hours for you to wake up.Ē
There was the endless processing, anguishing over the divorce. Ambivalence was the word so often repeated in those months. I loved him, I hated him. He was generous in the freedom he gave me to go abroad and teach while he kept the home fires burning. He was so controlling, screening my phone calls, reading my mail. He built my confidence; I learned so much from him. He tore down my confidence as a woman; I felt unattractiveóhis ďsensibleĒ mate. He was my best friend. We talked about everything, for hours over the phone. I miss him so much.
He was the one who told me, in those dark days after my return from Prague when I didnít know what to do with my life, that Iíd never be happy until I was writing again. So I started writing. I published. A short story took first place in a competition at the community college. I closed the curtain that I hung in the entry to my office because he wouldnít put a door there, and wrote morning pages. Threatened, jealous, he would interrupt me. A hand through the curtain would drop a letter I couldnít ignore on my desk.
Once I moved into my own apartment I had freedom to write whenever I wanted. I stopped writing. No stories, no essays. Panic set in, but I continued with morning pages, every morning, sometimes 10 or 11 pages. I attended a two-week workshop in Spoleto, Italy and continued in writerís block. The record-breaking heat, no AC in the 12th century convent, mosquitoes biting every inch of exposed flesh, barking dogs keeping me awake all night finally wore down resistance and I started writing. Itís never been as fluid, as heartfelt as when I wrote against his will. But I write.
Itís snow-rainingójust enough to make it miserable, not enough to make it pretty. Too miserable to go out, but not excusably impassable. If I wake in the morning to impassable snow, Iíll miss luncheon with a friend I havenít seen in nine months. I wonít take my walk and risk slipping on the hill where cars pass by too close for safety. Iíd enjoy staying warm inside, an excuse to drink hot cocoa and watch the kids sled down our hill. Iíd enjoy it for about an hour, then Iíd want it to melt so I could go out.
Thatís one of the differences between Bill and me. When he looks out and sees snow he gets surly; when I see snow Iím as excited as a child. He knows his day will be more difficult, he wonít be able to leave the house and do the things he enjoys. Mine is a visceral response to the beauty and novelty, the sense that today will be different from the others. Bill knows he will get cabin fever. I fail to anticipate the restlessness, welcoming the break in routine, our street transformed into a Christmas card. Whoís the more self-aware?
My mother turned 90 today. She was born in Boise, Idaho, and lived in a number of small towns in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon. My grandfather worked as a section foreman for the Union Pacific railroad. Her parents were from North Carolina, a place I envisioned as being on the other side of the world, a backward place where we had a lot of relatives who talked in accents and used quaint expressions. I never dreamed Iíd one day live there myself. She has Alzheimerís now and lives again in those days when her life was rich and purposeful.
When I taught ESL at an assisted living facility last year I couldnít help wondering if Baby Boomers would change the way elders are taken care of in this society. BBs are known for changing things, widening the swath as we go through life. When my class (the first wave of Boomers to hit the elementary school) arrived, we required two classrooms. Itís been that way ever sinceówe left a large footprint. I saw vacant-eyed people in assisted living who still had active brains that craved stimulation. Not someone playing Edelweiss on the accordion telling them to sing along.
I understand the challenge of taking care of elders. I felt guilty not taking care of Mom in her own home, or taking her into mine. The problem was not only Alzheimerís (that was manageable) but also incontinence. She denied its existence and wouldnít manage it or allow anyone else to. Furniture, carpets, hardwood floors were all ruined. The house reeked. The staff at the first assisted living facility couldnít manage it. But watching her now sitting in front of the TV watching whatever comes across the screen, having nothing to talk about when I visit, it breaks my heart.
It also frightens me. The distance between my age and Momís has shrunk. My turning 60 put us into the same age group. Whereas before she was an adult, I was a child; she was a senior, I was middle aged; now we are both seniors. I watch her eyes frantically search for an elusive memory (what she had for breakfast) and know that I now do the same thing. Names of friends, places, songsÖthey all escape me. I often remember things wrong. Weíre not so different, Mom and me. Itís only a matter of degree, and a few years.
Sprinting to the finish line, as Shrub says. January is nearly over and, though itís premature, I tend to think of February as getting pretty close to spring, the worst of winter over with. Good thing I donít live where thereís serious winter. This year we get a real breakóa cruise to Mexico and three days in San Diego. What luxury, to have some warm sun, to get away, be served grand meals, go swimming when I feel like it, curl up in the library with a book. Not worry about business. What did I do to deserve this?
According to plan, when Bill moved his music to his studio, Iíd take over part of his office and have more room in mine. Itís a complex move, but I put some of the pieces together today. Got Junk is coming Monday to remove redundant furniture; Wednesday two strong men will move heavy furniture from the garage to the office; tomorrow we shop for a chair. Today I found a credenza on Craigís List and tomorrow my son will pick it up and move it to our garage. I donít know who will hold up the other end of it.
Iím completely stuck in writing the memoir/fiction piece I began a couple of months ago. Itís a story one would think would write itself, full of conflict, drama, life lessons. Instead, it dies on the page. Maybe I hold myself too far above the pain, unwilling to relive those dark days. Maybe itís too dark and I need to let some light in. Maybe I need to ditch it and create nice, safe fictional characters in a fairytale land and just let go of the real story. No further need to dwell there just when weíre all starting to heal.
I saw a wonderful name in the obituaries yesterday: Hattie Prickett. What images come to mind. Ma Kettle types. A local character full of quirks and mannerisms. Of course sheíd have to have more depth and complexity, some surprising qualities so she doesnít become a clichť. I should change the name so as not to offend the family of the real Hattie Prickett who, Iím certain, was not the character I imagine. She was a technician, mother and widow who died of cancer. What other name possibilities? Nettie Hettrick. Lottie Potts. Hennie Hatfield. Now all I need is a plot.
Thereís a call for submissions to Chicken Soup for the Soul: resolution stories. True stories about a New Yearís resolution you made and what the results were. Itís a good topic. Unfortunately Iíve never been successful in making or keeping resolutions. Thatís why I decided a number of years ago to make New Yearís Intentions. It takes some of the pressure off. I deliberately stay away from the clichťs: weight loss, more exercise, making a budgetÖ My intentions are more modest. Be more generous in spirit. Get my oil changed on time. Write 100 Words on the actual calendar dayÖ
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