Friday, March 20, 2015

The Second Year

Rhett & Scarlett trip the light fantastic while she is still in mourning. Onlookers say, "Well, I never!" There used to be a custom in British and American culture of literally wearing your grief. For a woman who had lost a spouse or a child, the rule was to wear full mourning, i.e., all black, perhaps including a black veil, for at least one year and up to four years. Remember Rhett Butler swirling the black-clad Scarlett O’Hara around the dance floor in “Gone With the Wind?” All the correct Southern ladies who witnessed them dancing were scandalized and some even got the vapors, whatever vapors are. That was around 1861, so the custom certainly held then. In the second stage, half-mourning, you were allowed to move on to lavender and gray. Yippee. Many cultures observe the custom of wearing mourning colors and clothes but this custom was pretty much gone from America by the mid-20th century, except for the convention of wearing black at a funeral. In a way I think it’s too bad that the old color codes have lost their meaning. It was a way of letting people know that you were grieving, and they should respect you and your grief. Nowadays if you wear all black you might be taken for a Goth. Or a priest. Best case scenario, you’re mistaken for a “woman in black,” one of the sisterhood that stands in silent protest against war and social ills. At the end of my first year of grief, I had a moment of bright clarity in which I thought the color code was a good idea. I briefly wished I’d worn black all year, and could now transition to slightly less mournful purples and grays as a visible sign that things were literally lightening up. Too late to do that, but then the color code implies that there is a steady and predictable progression of grief. After fifteen months, I know that is not so. Grief is not linear. Grief is disorderly, if not drunk. You experience all the stages of grief, but you never know what stages you’ll be experiencing on any given day, or if you’ll be experiencing a stage that didn’t make the list of stages. Denial, being as numb as a rock, depression, anger, hurting yourself sobbing, overeating, oversleeping, not being able to sleep, drunkenness, unwise sexual experimentation, teeny tiny wedges of acceptance followed by more denial, depression, anger, and so forth. Really, it would be impossible to list all of the stages of grief. Grief is exactly like the rest of life, you know. Sort of a predictable routine you get into interspersed with unpredictable events and big emotions. Grief in the second year becomes not less subtle but a little less persistent. You get to have moments of actual happiness, and dare I say it, lightheartedness. I do, anyway. Then you step on a grief-mine, put your foot right in that load of hurt you’re still carrying, and bam, the tears rise and you lose the control you thought you had. If you’re in public people are either lovingly sympathetic or go stick their heads into the frozen vegetable section and pretend they didn’t see you do that embarrassing thing - that is, have a deep feeling. The emotion feels unexpected because you were going along minding your own business, feeling pretty good about not being a full time basket case anymore. Even though grieving is a normal and common state of abnormal, who wants to feel like a full time basket case? It feels good not to be sad all the time, and in the second year you may not feel sad all the time. You cannot mistake this change for a cure, though. I’m talking to myself here. I’ve always had a tendency to think that whatever my emotional state is, it’s permanent. I know better, but as I once heard someone say, that few inches between head and heart is the longest journey in the world. Driving home the other day I realized I was feeling sad. I thought, well, of course I’m sad. My husband died. I am feeling what anyone would feel in the circumstance, and there is nothing wrong with me for feeling it. Then I thought, what if every time I felt this sadness over the years, I’d realized that being sad made perfect sense and there was nothing wrong with me? Childhood was hard, and lonely. Early adulthood was also hard, and lonely. Growing older has not been a picnic. Like most of us, I have taken some hard knocks. Of course I am sad and angry at some of the cards I’ve been dealt in life. Who wouldn’t be? Isn’t that nice and neat? I laugh. Life is not nice and neat. Anything but. Like a wagon with a couple of crooked wheels on a potholed track, we straggle along, and occasionally we have a necessary and appropriate break down. We get up and keep going, though, because we still have things to do and people to love, and people who love us. Let’s say that again: we still have things to do and people to love, and people who love us. This is one of the big things grief teaches us, how connected everyone is. So many people are ricocheting around their lives acting as if what they do and how they feel doesn’t matter. So many people don’t understand that they are loved and someone cares, maybe many people care, about how they are doing and what they are feeling. Carl Jung spoke of the collective unconscious. I don’t know exactly what he meant because Carl was a much brighter and more educated person than I am, and he’d given the matter quite a lot of thought. I read about the concept, read those words, “collective unconscious,” and what it meant to me was that at some primal level we are all connected. Believing that I feel charged to say to you that if I could convince you reading this of one thing it is that you matter profoundly. It’s not because you are a hero, although you probably are in some ways, and it’s not because you’re good all the time, because nobody is good all the time. You are important because you are the one and only, unique, irreplaceable you. When you lose someone dear to you, you understand to a degree that you never did before how much that person mattered and how connected they were to everyone who knew them as well as the world of people who did not know them. It’s my second year of grief. My husband has been gone for almost fifteen months and I’m gradually beginning to move into the world again. I’m sticking around to see what happens next, to make some new friends and rekindle old friendships, to sing a few songs and write a few essays, and, of course, to keep the squirrels off the bird feeder. It’s good when life has purpose and meaning. Well, to tell the truth, I think I’m giving up on that squirrel thing. They’re jumping eight or nine feet from the apple tree to the bird feeder now and it’s hard not to admire that kind of grace and dedication.
Queen Victoria, who may have made wearing black less popular when she wore mourning after her husband died in 1861 until her own death in 1901. She did love her husband dearly, and we are sorry for her loss, but wow - forty years? That's enough to knock the meaning out of anything.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The People Who Are Better Than I Am

I was sitting here playing solitaire and feeling guilty about all the industrious, virtuous things I am not getting done, and thinking about people who seem to have it so much more together than I do, when this came ripping out: The People Who Are Better Than I Am - second draft People who are better than I am Are people who don't watch television every night Because, you know, television makes your brain liquefy and dribble out your open mouth People who are better than I am Don't play solitaire for hours Trying to make impossible plays or win once, at least and their homes are neat and tidy And their diets are healthy and balanced and they don't feel guilty when they sit back to relax Because they aren't doing the vacuuming, or Putting away the dishes, or Folding the laundry, or any of the other chores I mean to get around to Because people who are better than I am Have balance, and structure, and equilibrium in their lives. But they are not perfect, For all their tranquility and order They've been known to split infinitives And sometimes they go out and spend money that was meant to pay bills On something frivolous Sometimes they lean over a garbage can and yell, "The world can go to hell!" So even though I know They are better than I am I kind of like them Just fine.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Squirrel vs. Smart Aleck

A squirrel made it up onto the bird feeder this morning. I was eating breakfast and looked out the window, and doggone if there wasn’t one of those adorable little rodents chomping on the suet cake as fast as it could. It was somewhat deterred by the cage the cake was in, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that there was a squirrel up on the bird feeder. It had figured out how to run up the long cane of the rose bush next to the feeder and leap up on top of the baffle. Once it had finished off the suet cake, it would go over to the seed tubes and, clinging to a tube upside down, bob its head into the feeder hole and pull out a sunflower seed or two. It usually fell off within thirty seconds, which I found somewhat amusing, but then it ran back up the cane and leaped onto the feeder and was right back pilfering bird seed again. I had seen a video online of a squirrel trying to climb a pole greased with petroleum jelly, and I thought I’d try that. I applied the stuff liberally to the pole, to the baffle on the pole which is supposed to keep squirrels down but serves as a landing stage if they’re jumping from the rosebush next door, and to various parts of the feeder that a squirrel might want to grab. It worked. The next day I was in my office and saw movement outside. It was the rosebush whipping back and forth. Down at the bottom of the feeder there were two squirrels, one watching with wonder while the other one danced and leaped around like it was on fire. It had run up the rose cane, jumped, hit the petroleum jelly on the surface of the baffle, and slipped off like an old Honda hitting black ice. Now it had goo on its feet and fur and it was not a happy squirrel. After jitterbugging around for a few seconds, kicking and twitching, it headed for the ravine. Its friend went back to scrounging dropped seeds under the feeder. Not bad pickings, as the birds drop a lot. The next day I noticed that the birds were all back using the feeder again. There was no squirrel on the feeder frightening them away. I was happy. Then, this morning, darn and drat, there was the squirrel munching away on the new suet cake. I went to the door and scared it off, and then went back to the kitchen table and thought dark thoughts. A few minutes later the little furry bugger was back. I ran it away again. It was time for a new strategy. I grabbed my loppers from the kitchen porch, went to the rose bush, and lopped off the cane that the squirrel was using for a runway. That stymied the squirrel. For now the bird feeder is squirrel-less, and the birds are back. I am happy again. It may sound like an extreme solution, cutting down part of the rose bush to stop a squirrel, but that rose bush has not made many roses the last few years, and when it did, deer came into the yard and literally nipped the roses in the bud. The deer are bigger pests than the squirrels. Growing roses or any flowers can be pretty heartbreaking in my yard. It is what you would call a full to partial shade area. It’s a small plateau on the west side of the island surrounded by tall firs, cedars, hemlocks, maples, and those perennial weeds of the forest, alders. Roses prefer a little more sun than they get here at Casa Tuel, and their puny growth and listless blooming show it. Then the deer eat them. I was thinking maybe it’s time to dig up the roses and plant some things that flourish in full to partial shade. I may end up with a yard packed with hellebores, heucheras, and hostas. That wouldn’t be so bad. I can’t simply plant some shade-loving plants and let it go at that, of course. I have to philosophize up the yin-yang and extract a greater meaning. Maybe it’s time to make a lot of changes in my life. Maybe I need a little more sun. Maybe the old hippie in me wants to travel and sing and play guitar again. Suddenly the possibilities seem limitless. Far out, man. First thing, though, is to keep that squirrel off the bird feeder. It has nothing to do with its time but figure out to get up there. I have other distractions, so I suspect it’s a losing battle, but what the heck. The birds should get some of the food I put out for them. I hope that’s not too much to ask. Post Script: Saturday morning. Squirrel on the bird feeder again. I lopped the rose back to a stump and am thinking of digging it up entirely. The birds came back to eat after that, but we'll see what's next.

Dear Granny’s Attic: Thanks. We Heart You

For some of us, Granny’s Attic is a cornerstone of island life. A week without Granny’s is a sere and arid week. Even if you don’t have time or reason or money enough to go, it’s comforting to know that Granny’s is there, waiting for you. In 1975 a group of wonderful women decided that they would sell some rummage and cast offs in order to help fund the new health center, and that they would call this ongoing garage sale “Granny’s Attic.” Granny’s Attic started in the repair bay of what used to be Ev Clark’s garage down on the corner of 204th Avenue SW and the Main Highway. The garage would soon be remade as Minglement, but it was deserted then. The old gas station repair bay doors were opened up, two or three sheets of plywood were put up on sawhorses to make tables, and the jumble was piled on the tables in no particular order. Or maybe it started out in order, and by the time I got there it had been rifled into those disordered piles. People came in droves, and the grannies persevered and moved to Paradise Ridge, down the hill from the health center, and the customers rejoiced, and there Granny’s Attic has prospered for lo, these many years. There was a learning curve to the thrift store business. I wasn’t going to pay three dollars for a used guitar string, for example, but in general the prices were delightfully low. Granny’s was where we had hugs and conversations with friends, and found great finds. I found my Manhasset music stand, for example, and Betty Kimmel held it for me while I went home to get my checkbook. Over the years I have purchased stationery, envelopes, mouse pads, computer keyboards (because I go through them like Kleenex), mugs, dishes, magazines, lamps, furniture, clothes, books – so many books, especially books of humor and cartoon collections, both panel cartoons and comic strips, because I love cartoons. Some of those things I donated back to Granny’s. I don’t buy from Granny’s so much as rent from Granny’s. All those years, all that stuff. Granny’s was my escape, my recreation, my social hour, my chance to shop knowing I could afford most of what was for sale in those two old government-issue buildings. I knew when the store’s move to town was announced that I would miss those creaky old substandard structures. I would miss walking from room to room, checking shelves and crannies. There is something about a human being that does not like to walk in straight lines (unless you’re an ancient Roman road builder). There is also something about a human being that does like the familiar, no matter how uncomfortable the familiar might be. Now Granny’s has moved uptown and taken over the spaces where the bowling alley used to be (“We had a bowling alley?” said my 12-year-old granddaughter in surprise) and where the Variety Store once did business. I went in and walked around to see what the new Granny’s Attic was like. Guess what: it’s still Granny’s. The same people greet us when we walk in the door. The paths through the rectangle are not straight, especially if you stop to see everything, and you know I had to see everything, like a dog checking out all the new butts at the off-leash park. I ran into friends and had hugs and conversations, browsed the whole space, bought one book, and decided that forty years on, in a new home, none of what mattered about Granny’s has changed. So not missing the old place much. All is well. I want to say thank you to the many volunteers and paid staff who have made Granny’s Attic a beloved island institution. You people, present and past, rock. Thanks for all the good you’ve done with the proceeds. Thanks also to the customers and donors for what you contribute to Granny’s. I hope the new home is cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and an all-around better space in which the store can function. I for one am grateful not to have to climb up stairs to use the bathroom. I should be donating things to Granny’s more than bringing things home from Granny’s, but as I sit here writing, I look at the time and see it’s almost 4 o’clock. Too late to drop off donations, but still another hour to browse the shelves. I gotta go. See you later. Post Script: in later visits, I realized how much I missed the windows up at Granny's. The new space does have a sealed in atmosphere. I am still confident that Granny's will go on thriving, though. It really is part of our island life.

You Only Think You've Made It Over the Finish Line

Having observed the first anniversary of my husband’s passing, I felt like I’d accomplished something – I’d lived through that first year and would never have to do that again. In this sense of relief I relaxed. I was feeling pretty good. The drama was over. Not quite. Suddenly this week it was necessary to remove Rick’s name from our checking account. I had thought about this at times over the last year, but occasionally I’d get a refund check from some medical agency that had taken care of him before he died, and it was good to have his name on the account when I deposited the check. It turns out that there is some paperwork you cannot process for a joint checking account unless both parties sign. Rick is no longer available to sign, and I never was one of the wives who learn to expertly forge their husband’s signature. So yesterday I had to take a copy of Rick’s death certificate up to the bank and have his name removed from our accounts. It became emotional for me. The feelings kind of ambushed me. It feels so good to think you’re almost normal instead of completely wrecked following the death of your spouse, but turns out that was a comfy little lie I’d told myself. I’m still wrecked, only not having to disturb the rubble as often as last year, so I don’t see it as often. After leaving the bank I called my step-mother-in-law, Diane. Diane was married to Rick’s father a few years after Rick’s mother died. Mark, Rick’s dad, died exactly four months before Rick. Sorry there are so many dead people in this column. I’ve reached an age where I know a lot of dead people, and stories that involve them. Diane and I are widow buddies. Because she is four months ahead of me in the process, she is my mentor, but we also can talk widow shop together, and compare our experiences. Being married to a father and son, respectively, gave us both insights into their family dynamic that no one else could see, and it’s good to be able to talk about our lives with them as well as our lives after they’ve gone. Neither of us planned this, but it is a comfort for both of us. I recommend having a widow buddy. No one will understand your experience so well as someone who is going through or has been through the same thing you’re going through. You understand things like being out in public and seeing couples and wanting to go up to them and grab them each by the lapels and say, “Be grateful for each other! Do you know how lucky you are to have each other?” We don’t actually do this, but we feel it, and think it. Conversely, when you see couples who are all lovey-dovey, you feel so bereft and cheated you have to go someplace quiet and pull yourself together. That’s after you’ve managed to stop yourself from slapping their smug couple faces. Or some legal matter comes up, and you have to dig the death certificate out of the file and use it to prove that yes, he is dead, and no, he is not here to sign the paper. Every time you have to do that, it feels like your departed spouse has another bureaucratic brick piled on his grave. I talk to Rick about that. “Well, Rick, you’re even more dead than the last time I had to do this.” Oddly enough, I find that the longer he is gone and the more officially he is deceased, the more aware I am of his presence in my heart and mind and soul. I found a video of him the other day, sitting across a table and talking to me. The liveliness of his face, the familiarity of his expressions, his smile, the love that he gave in every word and movement and gaze, are all so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that it felt like it had only been a day, an hour, since we talked, instead of over a year. I watched the video and smiled and teared up a little, but didn’t break down. I can barely remember all the years of illness, that long grinding decline that sucked up both our lives and that finally wore him down. I remember the bright essence of him. There are no certificates for that. I don’t have to prove that he lives on in my heart and memory. Having lost his corporeal being, it is good to know that he lives on in me, still himself, still that guy who after forty years could tell me stories about his life that I hadn’t heard yet. Dang it. I wanted to hear them all.

When All Else Fails, Do the Dishes

We watched the Seahawks game against the Packers. Before it started I said to my son that I hoped it was a good game. At the end of the fourth quarter with the score tied, my son turned to me and asked, “Is this tense enough for you?” Whew. Yeah, it was. Football, I’ve been told, is but one of the games that simulate war. Strategy, land won and lost, physical violence, injuries. I found myself thinking that it’s too bad that football isn’t as violent as we get. How’s that for a vain surmise? Sometimes I am rocked out of my preferred personal contemplative state. Some days I look at what seems to be the infinite capacity of human beings for cruelty and violence, and I wonder how we made it this far without making ourselves extinct. I have written essays in the past when I tried to bring readers to the point of realizing that we are all in this together. I’m not even going to try to go there today. We are divided so many ways, one from each other, I won’t try to sell that “C’mon, people, love one another,”* philosophy. It ain’t that simple. The election of a black president in 2008 seemed to herald a new paradigm of equality at the highest level of political power. Yes, that, and a new wave of outspoken racism, hatred, and incredible lies in this country. Racism had been somewhat covert for a few decades, but it’s been right back out in the open since 2008. Racism is a twisted complexity of unreason that allows people to feel superior by dehumanizing other people. It allows the subjugation, torture, and killing of other human beings because they are seen as less than human. It’s part of our cultural psychosis, racism. The institution of racism goes back to slavery in this country. You cannot buy and sell human beings without telling yourself they aren’t really human beings. There would have not been a United States if there had not been a political compromise to accept slavery in the southern states. This is the great divide that has run through our country since before it was formed. The Civil War was fought to keep the divide from causing a complete breakup of the country, but the Civil War was not the beginning, and it was not the end. We are still divided. We are still, we are ever, at war with each other, and there can be no meeting of minds. I believe deep in my heart that all people are equally loved children of God. Then I am left wondering how God could love racists. This is one of those tough Christian precepts that it’s hard to live up to, that each person, each creature, is loved alike, is of the same worth. Okay, God, they are your children, but why do you need them to be the way they are? So am I falling right in there and seeing racists as less than human? Dammit. I’m thinking too much again. I’m sure there are people out there with a scientific understanding of human behavior who could tell us why some people ardently want and wish and work for peace and equality and justice, while some people as ardently want and wish and work for hatred, separation, prejudice, war, and sorrow. It has to do with power, and money, usually, but it must be some profound difference of temperament and understanding, don’t you think? I don’t get it. Sometimes the evil I see gets me down, especially when it’s people I care about who are spouting lies and espousing hatred. So when I’ve thought myself into one of these holes, I’ll finally get up and go do the dishes. There is not much I can do about racism, war, and lies, but I can do the dishes. Each morning I thank God for my life and my many blessings. I try to be kind, and often fail. I wonder sometimes if there is a reason I am still here, and if there is, how will I live up to it? I need to take a lot of naps, you know, and I’m not brave. Guess I’ll go do the dishes. *A tip o’ the hat to Chet Powers, who wrote “Let’s Get Together”