Posted tagged ‘Widowhood’

A Clean Sweep

December 7, 2019

I’ve been gone from French Letters for a couple of months, although no longer travelling, leading one friend to point out that as far as French Letters is concerned I’m still in New Zealand. Alas, no. This is where I’ve been: a cabin in the deep woods on the island.

It all began in Rotorua, where my phone started buzzing frantically with texts telling me that my house on the island was being flooded. Everything was being taken out of the house and put in storage, and the house would be uninhabitable for months.

Of course I hopped off the ship and onto a plane out of Auckland and came back tout de suite, missing the last 11 days of my planned journey. A little cabin in the woods was offered to me as temporary shelter, and I’ve been holed up there since the second week of October. Now, in just a week, I get to move back in to my house and unpack my life.

Of course, unpacking boxes will be a huge part of that. But this is actually the opportunity to separate out my life from the stuff Shel left behind, picked over quite some time ago, with only inertia holding it in place before it was unceremoniously boxed up by strangers. Shel liked to keep stuff like: boxes of slides of photos he shot 40 years ago, redundant rolls of masking tape that are only marginally younger, books of songs he hadn’t played since the 1960s, tech-related gizmos that haven’t been compatible with anything in at least a decade, and so on. You get the picture. You probably have stuff like that yourself.

As hard as it is to get rid of your stuff, it’s even harder to get rid of someone else’s. Some of it had meaning to him, although not to me. It’s hard enough to find meaning in my own stuff, let alone someone else’s, especially when that someone else has long since left the planet and is not available to defend its intrinsic worth. Some of it, so help me, is his light bulb collection, bulbs that don’t fit any current light fixture. This is akin to that pile of keys that you don’t dare throw out, even though you have no idea what they are supposed to unlock. He had those too.

So I have decided to take the bold step of not unpacking the boxes of his stuff. Our stuff, yes. My stuff, of course. Nor will I put back into the house furniture that he brought with him when he moved across the country to live with me some 25 years ago. This feels like a fairly momentous step, one that I wouldn’t have tackled without the assistance of the flood. Silver lining.

This will, inevitably, leave numerous gaps in the house. My intention is to live with the emptiness until I figure out whether to fill it, and if so, how. After nine weeks of living in someone else’s house, furnished with their extremely modest stuff, and virtually nothing of my own except the clothing I had with me in New Zealand and a few warm winter things I scrounged from the storage unit, I feel ready to give up pretty much everything.

It amazes me how easy it has been to slip into having nothing of my own. Now all I have to do is decide what I want to keep, and where I want to put it.

In the meantime, I have some lovely pictures and tales from the part of the New Zealand trip that hadn’t made it here when my trip was so rudely interrupted. I’ll put them up here soon, as a reward for your patience.

How Long Have I Been Sleeping?

September 16, 2019

Jackson Browne Fans will recognize that as the evocative first line of his epic song “Late for the Sky.” And that line is followed closely by “How long have I been drifting alone through the night?”

Together they pretty much sum up my past two months, during which I moved, alone, back to the island, and lived, alone, in a self-induced fog of contemplation. Beautiful contemplation, but solitary.

I’m living on my own in the house where I watched Shel die, without even a cat for comfort, and that’s proven to be a lot harder then I’d anticipated. The island has changed a lot in the intervening five years, and so have I. I’m doing a one-woman proof of the old maxim that you can’t go back, only I have. At least for now.

I’ve spent an unfathomable amount of time with my new spirit animal, this harbor seal, who lives just in front of my house, all alone. I look him in the eye as often as possible as if to say “you have a friend, right here,” but perhaps he is indifferent to my attentions, although he does gaze back at me. I look for him often, and always feel better when I see him. That’s how alone I am.

This heron is another solitary soul, an occasional companion, but his voice is a shocking, grackling squawk, reminding me that I used to sing pretty well, and could again. If I had the heart.

Although I don’t want to emulate his singing, I do plan to follow his example in another dimension. Soon, I’ll fly away. I’m a person who’d rather be on land or at sea, but soon I’ll be in the air for some 19 hours, on my way down to the bottom side of the earth, if maps are to be believed. Australia, New Zealand, and amazingly enough, my second visit to New Caledonia are in the offing.

I’ll be leaving the Northwest’s rainy, thundery almost-autumn, and arrive in the southern hemisphere’s early spring. Going back to Sydney feels familiar, I can visualize where I walked, drenched with rain, in search of an elusive opal. This time I’ll be able to visit the Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains, and I’m hoping not to be too jet-lagged to give them my full attention.

New Zealand will be all new to me, a place I’ve always wanted to go, with so many wineries I long to visit. And no, Tolkien lovers, no Hobbit-related photos are forthcoming, just wineries and whales and Maori sites. All of which sounds like heaven to me.

And then back to New Caledonia, a place that wasn’t even on my radar a year ago, and now this will be my second visit.

Last time I didn’t join people in this beautiful water because: Sharks? Sea snakes? People seeing me half naked? But this time: Screw that! Pack a snorkel, mask, and fins! If people don’t like how I look half-naked they can look at something else! Like: Keep your eyes out for sharks and sea snakes and stinging jellyfish and off of me!

So for the next month I’ll be back on and off a cruise ship, trying to be my best and happiest self wherever I go. Still alone, but more myself than ever. And of course I’ll post it all here. It helps to know you’ll be with me in spirit.

Transplant Shock

July 26, 2019

I’ve kind of been stunned into silence lately, getting ready to leave my cozy life in Walla Walla, moving back to my island home, and then trying to settle in. It’s taken me three entire weeks to relax enough to reflect.

I’ve been going in all directions, every which way. After four years away from my island life I’ve gotten a bit lost and even taken the wrong roads a couple of times, and had to re-invent every tiniest part of a daily routine. This house has stairs; my knee wishes it didn’t. It’s amazing how much energy it takes just figuring out when to go up, when to go down. It’s all been surprisingly exhausting, uprooting myself, making me feel that I must indeed be getting older.

I have been trying to work on one thing at a time, but keep getting distracted by the sheer number of things that need to be done. I’m going very easy on myself, not doing more than I want to in any given day, even though that prolongs the chaos.

The many hundreds of bumblebees in my garden are so focused and industrious that it makes me feel more productive just to watch them. I call it seeking inspiration, so as not to call it taking a break.

These blue and pink hydrangea blossoms are blooming on the same plant, defying what I think I know about soil chemistry. They remind me of myself, pining for my old home, kitties, and friends, but also slipping back into my old ways with surprising gusto, the two states existing simultaneously,

the old and the new colliding in the present. Who will emerge victorious? Because this is a contest, my happiness project. I’m giving myself a year to see whether I can find more happiness here than there, and it’s a pretty high bar.

I’ve left my old life behind, kind of. I’ve made sure that my home and cats and garden in Walla Walla will be perfectly preserved a year from now, should I choose to go back.

But like these blueberries that I planted before I left the island, the fruit of a possible new life is still a long way from being ripe.

The sun is shining now, but there was a long run of misty and coolish days, perfect for contemplation. Every night I have dinner right here, and ask myself what I really want. I’m giving myself a year to find out, engaged in a happiness project.

Because like it or not, I am inexorably aging, and while there’s no use wallowing or despairing, there’s no use denying it either. If I am lucky I now have the last quarter of my life left to live, and my goal is to make the absolute most of it. Where’s the best place to do that? I’m letting time tell me.

Be My (own) Valentine

February 14, 2019

If you, like me, are spending your Valentine’s Day alone, let’s talk about that. This is my fourth time around this particular holiday-sun since Shel died, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Because deep down I don’t think the day is a cliché, a reflection of crass commercialism, a day of platitudes and saccharine sentiment. I absolutely am for the idea of a day that celebrates love, in all its forms.

Last night I had a good cry, anticipating the annual sorrow of the day. But today I’m making a good effort to be my own Valentine. Because, if I’m honest, it’s been that way for a long time.

Shel, for all that he loved me madly and preferred rom-coms to all other films, was not great about Valentine’s Day. I’d remind him, and make some sort of minor fuss over it, and he’d play along, but his heart was never really in it.

He’d have chosen sheltering from the Mediterranean sun under a tea towel, while cleaning salad greens, over dining at the nearby Michelin 1-star any day, and that goes for a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day as well. In fact, this picture was taken not long after V-Day, which is also celebrated to a moderate extent in France, way back in 2009.

So you’d think that by now I’d have a plan, a sure-fire approach to tackling the day on my own. Only kinda sorta, to tell the truth.

I thought about sending myself flowers, but then I thought better of it. I did do a lot of other comforting things for myself, some of which are undoubtedly peculiar.

First, I turned the heat up one degree. I always leave my daytime heat at 64° in winter, to the despair of my chillier friends. Normally I wear a lot of fleece and shawls in the house, and am sometimes a bit cold, sometimes not. But when people come over I turn up the heat a bit, a degree or three, to be kind to them. I decided to give myself an extra degree today, just for me alone, which turns out to be sort of like giving myself a continuous hug.

I also cooked myself a nice dinner and served it to myself with a pleasing and memory-laden bottle of wine I brought home with me, after a visit to a tiny winery in France, a couple of years ago. Because if I don’t drink it today, then when? And who is going to appreciate it more than I?

As a gift to myself I finished my taxes in just one afternoon, a personal best for me, both in earliness of date completed and shortness of time spent filling out forms.

I went into my icy and snowy back yard with my camera and crunched loudly through the snow, looking for beauty.

I made sure to feel happy, instead of jealous, for my friends who still have their loves beside them. I snuggled a lot with Minou and Toby, who are conveniently spending almost 24/7 in the house to keep their dainty paws off the tundra formerly known as home.

And I made sure to be glad to be alive. Because that’s not a given, not to be taken for granted for the space of one breath. Which is, after all, the space that makes all the difference. That one breath, whether you draw it alone or in the arms of your best beloved, is your real link to this earth, to this life. Valentine’s Day is just the celebration, that breath is what makes it all possible. Keep breathing, keep loving, that’s my plan, and I hope that it’s yours.

Soaking Up The Land

August 25, 2018

Today I had the doors open all day, for the first time in months. The temperatures had plummeted into the 70s, which to me is paradise. And tonight I could sit outside for dinner, and linger long afterwards, for the first time in weeks, The smoke has finally dissipated, and left us with Moderate air quality, and I swear, I’ll take it, even though it’s not classified as Good.

And tonight I lay in the grass and looked at the sky, awash in the sweet fragrance of alyssum. Evidently it’s been far too long since I did that, since Minou circled me restlessly, mewing gently and rubbing himself against my outstretched extremities. A starfish on land, I was.

But soon, in less than a month, I’ll be at sea. At sea for three months, surrounded by oceans and the lands that abut them. Traveling in the company of 1300 strangers, all people who’d presumably rather be at sea than on land. So what could possibly go wrong?

Really, I expect all to go, forgive me, swimmingly. By then I will have eaten all the garden vegetables I can, and will leave the rest to my house sitter. I don’t know whether she cooks, but I hope so, because there will be approximately 400 padron pepper for her to deal with. When I planted them I forget what late producers they are.

As much as I enjoy my current life, I am looking forward to being cast adrift, waking each morning not knowing what the day will hold. Aside from a couple of weeks on the island and a week in France, I’ve been tethered here for the past three years. For me, that’s a long time.

A part of me is yearning to fly free. Another part of me, the part that’s older and on this journey alone, is scared shitless.

I have just one more month to prepare for this adventure. Yesterday my dining room looked like a shoe bomb had gone off. A dozen pairs of shoes (thank you Zappo’s) were spread over my dining table, and spilling onto the floor. I’m in search of the shoes in which I can walk comfortably all day, a task complicated by the fact that I have enormous feet, and a recent foot injury. Only certain shoes will do, and holy moly are they had to find. Today I managed to get seven pairs returned, but I have to confess, a few more pairs are on the way. No vanity is involved, I assure you. All of them are in the “ugly as sin” category.

But then, I ask myself, why in the world should I care? There’s not a person in the world that gives a fig how I look. And I’m going to be in places I’ve always wanted to see (China! Japan! Australia! and other wonderful Asian and South Pacific countries as well).That’s what counts, that I get to go there.

Here’s what I can’t let count, even when it’s hard: Leaving Minou and Toby for three months with a person they don’t know. Not making anything with the prodigious plum crop my tree will be dropping soon. Trading the nostalgic scent of flowers for the aphrodisiac scent of salt air. Leaving the people I am used to seeing on the regular for people I’ve never seen in my life.

Trading land for sea, that’s the dilemma. It’s the thing that keeps me wondering whether I’ll stay here or return to the island. I love my home here, and am having a good life. But the sea is in my blood, and it tugs at me every day. Maybe I’ll get that out of my system after floating in its aqueous embrace for the next quarter of a year. Or maybe I’ll learn that I can’t live without it a moment longer.

So in a month I’m setting sail, hoping that time and the sea will tell me where my future lies, and will show me how far I’ve come.

How Young Is Too Old?

June 1, 2018

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Lately I’ve been contemplating this puzzle: am I too old or too young? Specifically, too old to live alone, or too young to live with others who might feel that they are too old to live alone.

If you know me, for sure you’ll say that I’m not too old, in fact, I’m too young. But here’s the thing. Parts of me are broken and I don’t know how to fix them.

Last fall I was told that my shoulder needs surgery, again. As soon as I was done saying all the bad words I know in all the languages, I realized that it was impossible. In 2010 when I last had shoulder surgery, Shel did every little thing for me, fastening my bra, moussing my hair, all the stuff married people do for each other when they absolutely have to. Because I couldn’t do those things alone.

So now I struggle with that shoulder every day, and try to ignore the pain and awkwardness for as long as I can. Because I can’t think of the alternative. Really, who is going to do up my bra in a pinch?

And if I have that awful surgery again, and it really is brutal, I have no Shel. Living alone, I’d basically be going bra-less and shampoo-less for a couple of months. And while I might have done that in the 60s, I’m way too old for it now.

And then, a couple of days ago I broke a bone in my foot, something that’s surprisingly excruciating. I have to wait almost a week, because our healthcare here is appalling, to see someone who might know why this happened to me while I was just walking across the parking lot at work, and tell me what might be done about it.

“Stay off it,” said the nice Urgent Care doc. Uh, how? I need to cook, do dishes, buy groceries, feed the cats, how in tarnation am I supposed to stay off it?

I guess I always thought that by the time I’d be needing help with the quotidian, the simplest stuff, I would have found a partner, or at least a companion. But no, here I am four years after Shel’s death living with just my cats, who are decidedly not helpful under the circumstances.

So yeah, I’m brave, and independent, and all that good stuff. But seriously, I’m only going to get older,even I will cop to that. And while my mind and heart are as good as ever, which is pretty darn good, various other parts of me are letting me know that all is not as it once was.

I’d like to get my shoulder fixed. I’d like to get my foot fixed. I’d like them not to need to be fixed! But hobbling around with the heavy bag of cat food in my left hand because my right shoulder doesn’t want the load, thus putting all that extra weight on my broken left foot, that sucks. And when I say it sucks I mean that it sucks the big one, and that I don’t know how to make it better.

Am I too old to live on my own? Am I too young not to live on my own? You tell me.

Road Narrows, Road Widens

March 14, 2018

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Crossing the back of beyond I passed a sign that said Road Narrows. I slowed down a bit, although the way was plenty wide enough for me. Then another sign, same warning. I slowed a little more. Tired of sharing the trip between Pasco and Walla Walla with other travelers, I had chosen a very small road, the back way into town, no one in sight for miles.

In fact I hadn’t been on this road for years, couldn’t even remember its name. I hoped that I would recognize it in passing, and I did. I remembered right away how delighted Shel and I had been to discover this little twist of pavement running through low, rolling wheat fields. How we wondered whether we’d really find our way.

In the ten or so years since that moment nothing and everything has changed. The road is still deserted, perhaps narrow for the tractors that must travel it more often than cars, no door to knock on if you need help, or companionship, or directions. I too still feel deserted, my life having narrowed so that there’s still room enough for the everyday, but not for the exalted. And although I’m often looking for a door to knock on, I generally keep on going, heading for home. And now I rely on GPS to find my way.

But last month a friend asked me what I was looking forward to, now that Spring is in sight. “Flowers,” I replied, but could think of nothing else. It took a couple of days for that to sink in, the knowledge that I had nothing in particular to look forward to, except another day on the planet, for which I am always grateful.

Suddenly it felt claustrophobic, to be living my life on such a confining track. My emotional GPS began to shriek, softly, telling me to stop choosing the narrow path, to stop slowing down when there’s really no need. Telling me that it’s time to start knocking on my own door.

For a whole host of reasons I’ve been neglecting this space. I’ve been working as a writer, and so free-time writing has felt redundant. And my life has felt unremarkable, just le train train, as you say in French, the daily thrum of chugging down the rails. Nothing much to say for myself. Feeling that maybe I’m old enough to just let myself get old. Stuff like that.

But now I’ve decided to widen my path. Because of course I’ll never be younger or stronger or braver than I am right now, and it would be a shame to waste all that. So I’m planning a big trip for myself, in just six months. I’ll be doing everything I can to get prepared for that, and part of it will be to hang out here on a regular basis, thinking out loud.

Because when I don’t, it’s often too quiet to hear myself think. And because it feels like staying on that narrow, too quiet path for much longer, I might forget how think at all, might forget how to look forward to whatever’s just down the road.