Weekly Challenge 50-word story: The two-sided time travel mirror

Jordan watched the old woman in her dowdy clothes, bags toted on lumpy arms. She looked tired.  “Hope I am never like that,” Jordan thought.

Donna watched the young girl in her trampy clothes, purse slung over tattooed arm.  She looked scared.  “Glad I am over all that,” Donna thought.

When it’s a challenge to finish writing a blog post

I’m having a hard time finishing posts.  There’s a bunch of half-written ones sitting on my hard drive.  I’m feeling stuck, and not just in regards to writing.  I don’t like my life right now.  It’s lonely and I expect it will stay that way, maybe permanently.

This blog started under a different name as a way to come to terms with a widowhood that was not expected.  Writing blog posts became my way of coping with a present that seemed incomprehensible.  Its anonymity gave me a safe spot to direct anger, grief, confusion, and sadness.  Connecting with other people in a similar situation provided an ad hoc online support group.

The very act of writing was healing.  I’m a rationalist, the kind of person who likes to imagine there is a logical progression to events.  Of course, there isn’t, but I need to impose some semblance of order to chaos.  Writing provided that chance.  Creating a blog post gave me a chance to step through an event, define its genesis, and consider where it might be taking me.

Then there were those posts where I just related events as simply and honestly as possible, and the very act of documenting them was important.  I knew the smoothing effect of time and distance would eventually eliminate the sharp immediacy of what was happening, and I wanted to remember.  Writing about events as they occurred provided a first-person account of what I was going through.  Going back and rereading those raw early posts is a form of time-travel to where I was16 months ago.

That was then.  This is now.  My grief is a knife dulled from over-use.  That first year was busy; having external deadlines provided a sense of purpose and accomplishment.  It filled the void.  I realize that now, as does anyone who has gone through a similar situation.  There’s the immediate work needed in getting the memorial and funeral completed, probate managed.  The hours spent in going through effects and taking care of things.  Details vary; regardless, the work takes a lot of time and energy.   I’m struggling with the “what’s next” that comes, inevitably, to all of us who like to imagine that we can plan our way through life.  Now I’m facing the areas that can’t be managed, planned, or controlled.  I don’t want to be alone.  I don’t like my life.  I’m not happy.

All the glibly banal self-help aphorisms are useless.  I fully realize what is within my circle of influence and what isn’t, what I can control and what I cannot.  I am not stupid.  I am doing all the right things, from spending time with friends to taking classes.  I am busy, but not engaged.   There is little enjoyment from most of what occupies my time.  I look to fill time, to make the hours go by.  I am disengaged from most of what is happening around me.  I’m sure this, too will pass.  I am sure that eventually I will come to accept my new status in life, to stop expecting anything more than the reality I have.  I’ll adapt, make due.  Perhaps, even, at some point there will be something that makes me feel it’s all worth it.  Perhaps.  But not now.

Weekly Challenge: Time is not on My Side

Weekly Writing Challenge: Golden Years

For fiction, cultivate a character. Through your imagination, pinpoint a common theme in his or her life, and show us how your character’s perspective changes as he or she grows older.

In my dreams, I’m always young.  I rush about, juggling work, parenting, and the slim expectation of having a personal life.  When I lived through that time it was exhausting and not very pleasant, and yet, it’s where I go every night.

Some mornings when I wake up, I’m still back there, and start to throw off the covers to  get out of bed and start breakfast for the kids.  I realize it was a dream as soon as I see my hands on the covers.  They are age-spotted with ropy blue veins clearly visible through the thin, dry skin.  My fingers are gnarled with large knuckles and yellowed, seamed nails.  These are not the hands of a young woman.

I am old: older than I ever expected to be.  My kids are grown up.  Even my grandchildren are off on their own and forging ahead in life.

I slowly swing my legs out of bed and onto the floor, and concentrate on the challenge of walking to the bathroom.  Movement of any kind is fraught with danger for me.  Broken hips are no laughing matter; I’ve lost friends to them.

When I was young, I viewed time as a commodity that existed independently, able to be saved or spent at will.  I raced from work to pick up the kids, raced home to create some semblance of dinner, raced to music lessons and scout meetings and sports practices.  I tried to extract additional time by using thinner pasta, or driving a little over the speed limit; anything to save 10 minutes.  I bargained with the clock, trying to find a few minutes in one place to use in another.  Although I could never balance a checkbook, I was able to maintain a far more complex set of books in my head.  I knew which Saturdays I could sleep in and deliberately stayed up later those weeks, believing I could catch up.  I raced through so much of my life then, positive that I was storing time for later use.

I was wrong.  Time is inextricably linked to space, and all my maneuvers were meaningless.  I couldn’t “save” time any more that I could “waste” it.  It simply was, and regardless of what I did it continued to pass, and I continued to age.

My kids graduated high school and moved out, and suddenly I was inundated with more time than I knew what to do with.  Now that my evenings were long and empty, I would have loved to have read them books or just sat and talked, but there was no way to realign the time I now had with the space that was past.

I was time-rich, but it didn’t matter because there was nothing on which to spend it.  I added other things to my life: classes, work, going out with friends.  I dated, even remarried, took vacations, read books.  Nothing I did had any effect on time.  I still moved through space, the clock still ticked, and the years still passed.  I didn’t age any more slowly because I had less to do.

I get, now, that bargaining with time is futile. A minute when you are busy may seem like less time than a minute spent waiting, but it is the exact same amount of your life.  The key, I’ve learned, is to stop looking at the clock so much and start looking at the people you are standing next to.

Once divorced, once widowed: what’s the difference?

During a first meeting with a new friend, it came out that we’ve each been married twice.  He mentioned being twice divorced; I said I was once divorced, once widowed.  A brief conversation on the difference between being widowed and divorced came up.  While we didn’t spend much time talking about this (nothing dead-ends a potential relationship more than rambling on about past ones), it has gotten me thinking a lot about the differences between the two events.

Going through a divorce provides far more choices than going through the death of a spouse.  For most of us, divorce is an option that we choose, while the death of a spouse is something that happens to us.  I realize this is a “Captain Obvious” statement, but the implications are great.

Making choices provides a sense of power and control, even when the choices are limited.  Being a part of the group that is making decisions is always better than just hearing about decisions that were already made, whether the venue is work or personal life.

Very often, the situational realities surrounding death consist of a long series of events with few choices given, and those choices tend to be quite grim.  Certainly for me, and I believe for many people, going through the experience of losing a spouse is an exercise in powerlessness.  You can’t change the course of a disease, or go back in time to prevent an accident.  Especially in situations where hospitalization is involved, the role of the spouse is bystander.  I spent a month sitting with nothing meaningful I could do to help.  By the time I needed to plan a funeral, my ability to make meaningful, rational choices was gone.  In fact, one of the more challenging parts of those first few months of being a widow was a shell-shocked feeling that hit me when I did need to make decisions.  My mind felt like half-set Jell-O, sluggish and thick.

Going through a divorce presents a panoply of choices and the ability to exercise some real power. Every step of a divorce requires action and choices.  The entire process is a jockeying for power and control.

Which leads to the 2nd big difference; change.  Death has no backsies.  Divorce does.  My ex-husband and I have a good relationship. He sent me a very heartfelt sympathy note when Rick passed away.   It wasn’t always that way.  We went through years of acrimony, but the need to continue being parents, and time, eventually brought us to the place we are now.

Death eliminates change.  Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the realization that wherever you were in the relationship is where it stopped, forever.  Whether it was the best time of your relationship or the worst, there will never be any more growth.  It’s over, irrevocably, and undeniably.

Moving forward is another area, one I’ve written about before.  Every step forward after a divorce is a positive and affirming move; the same actions taken after a death seem bittersweet at best, betrayals at worst.  I first wrote about this months ago, when something as small as moving a bookcase seemed fraught with subtext.  Now I’m actively meeting new people, and it is causing me angst on a level I haven’t felt since adolescence.  I’m feeling more distant from my marriage; in my head it is now firmly in the past.

There’s a new level of grief with that realization.  Last year, I started every day wearing our wedding rings on a chain around my neck; they were my talisman, giving me strength and the ability to make it through each day.  In my heart, I was still married.  This year, I am not.  I look at those rings every morning, but I rarely wear them. My grief is less personal, more situational: I grieve the loss of a future that is no more, of hopes and expectations and dreams that will never be.

Divorce spurs that same loss of a potential future, but differs in that the bittersweet is less, the joy in realizing it will be a different future is so much greater.  I’m slowly coming to see that there can be joy, that there will be changes, but I’m still feeling guilt and loss over that realization.

Ultimately, I think that confusing patchwork of joy and sadness, poignancy and excitement that marks moving on after losing a spouse is the greatest difference between being divorced and widowed.

Spring for the Soul

Opening windows is a dangerous business; you never know what might happen.  Closed up tight everything is controllable, secured, known.  It’s a no-surprises world during winter: no errant breezes blowing papers around or unexpected odors wafting through the screen.

I’ve been living in that closed world for a long time, going through my own personal winter as dark and cold as the one I face outside every morning.  Nature is cyclical, and we humans are part of that cycle.  No matter how long and brutal the winter, spring always comes.

The ice and snow are retreating, and I have started to open a few windows.  I’m reawakening to the outside world.   Some of it is wonderful, scents and scenes I haven’t been privy to in a year and a half.  Other parts are not.  Spring winds blow warm and inviting, but can abruptly change.  Damages can happen.  Still… I’m tired of breathing  stale air.  I’m ready, even though I know the risk.

I opened some windows, and so far, I’ve gotten more rain than sun, more gusts than sweet gentle breezes; but that’s Okay.  I can shut the window against the rain, but I’ll open it back up again.  Because the only way to get that warm, wonderful sun and fresh scent of growing things is to leave those windows open.

Weekly Challenge: Out of my mind – Perpetual calendars then and now

Take us back to a specific time or event in your past.

Somewhere out in the vast stratosphere is a room filled with everything I have ever lost.  I’m not being poetic about ideals, or loves, or even virginity; I’m speaking to the very mundane pile of physical items lost during my lifetime.  Among the piles of gloves, books, and pretty much every piece of good jewelry I’ve ever owned, sits a small, inexpensive item that still haunts my memory.

It was 1964, at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry’s gift shop.  I used my own money to purchase this item.  It was small, about 1.5 inches square and had a bronze-like finish.  I ignored the bracelets and necklaces, even overlooked my favorites, the fossils.  What had I bought?  Time travel, that’s what.  I’d purchased a perpetual calendar.  You worked this nifty device by lining up the cube’s sides to the year, month, and day desired; it then displayed the day of week.

I was entranced.  The very first thing I did was to look up my birthday in the year 2000.  It was a Wednesday and I would turn 46 that year.  Forty-six years old!  My 9-year old mind boggled at the thought I’d ever reach such an ancient age.  My parents, who were the gold standard for age as far as I was concerned, were nowhere near that old.  My grandparents were only in their early 50s, and the idea of being closer in age to my grandmother than my mother was staggering. 

I stared at this twisty little calendar wondering about that magical, far off year 2000.  The 36 years between 1964 and 2000 seemed a lifetime, actually 4 of my 9-year-old life times.  I knew the world would be vastly different.  Would we be driving cars in the sky, like George Jetson?  Certainly, the US would have a colony on the Moon, and most likely be getting ready to send space ships out exploring for other planets.   The future world would be exciting and wonderful.  Everything bad would be better.  Poverty, hatred, disease: all would be eradicated.

In the year 2000 I wanted to be living in a space-age house, wearing stylish clothing that looked something like mod fashions, but more geometric and space-suit like.  What would I be doing?  The New Frontiers, early 1960’s, post-modern, futuristic viewpoint of popular culture updated houses and cars and clothing, but not women’s roles.  I fully expected my future life would be similar to my Mom’s, though of course with more glamour and excitement.  I would be a famous actor and a great writer, but more to the point, I would be a married lady with kids and a suburban house, albeit a nifty futuristic house and perhaps a station wagon that could fly.

The future was exciting; what terrified me was the whole idea of how I’d get there.  Somewhere, I was sure, existed a list that laid out step-by-step plans to get from my current self to that future self, but I had no idea where it was.  I was sure to fail without it, and then instead of the future me wearing a nifty silver mini dress and boots, I’d be more like the scary people sitting on the curb drinking from bottles hidden in paper bags that I saw when we drove through skid row.   I knew those people hadn’t found any instructions.

I lost the perpetual calendar at some point, but never forgot that feeling of mingled fear and anticipation regarding the year 2000.  When I had my birthday that year I remembered back to that long ago little girl who couldn’t imagine ever being that old.

A lot has changed between 1964 and now.  I think the biggest changes are the societal and cultural ones that weren’t even being considered back when I bought that toy.  My life has been nothing like my Mother’s was.  I’ve worked full time throughout my adult life, not to “help out”, but for the same reason my father worked: to support a family.  I’ve worked most of my life in an industry that didn’t even exist back in 1964.

Some things haven’t changed.  I still have that same fear about the journey from whatever my current state is to the future.    But there’s one thing I’m sure of.  I still want that flying car.

Daily Prompt: Write Here, Write Now – My morning routine

Write a post entirely in the present tense.

There’s a siren blaring, and I’m moving from one to place to another in the hopes of avoiding the annoying noise.  It doesn’t work.  Slowly I realize that it isn’t a siren, it’s the cat.  My sense of place fades; now I have only the faint remembrance of having been somewhere and done something.  I emerge from sleep realizing that the cat is sitting on my chest and meowing in an insistent tone, pushing her paw against my chin over and over again. 

I’m irritated at her; there’s still more time to sleep, and I’m tired.  I turn around and open my eyes just enough to see the clock to check how much more time I can sleep.  The clock is blinking a steady “6:37” at me, and I come fully awake realizing I should have been up 20 minutes ago.  Instead of pushing the cat off the bed, I give her a quick pat and cuddle for waking me up.  Then I turn on the TV and get up.

Once out of bed I take a fast shower and get dressed.  There is no need to check the weather; it has been cold all week.  Double-digits below zero cold, the kind of cold where frostbite can happen in 10 minutes.  I put on a pair of tights, trousers, a long-sleeved turtleneck, and top the outfit off with a heavy sweater.  I don’t give a shit about fashion; I just want to stay warm.

Downstairs, I turn on the coffee maker and then turn to the most important matter of the morning, the cat’s food bowl.  She’s old and mostly toothless, so the wet food she now eats gets crusty and hard sitting overnight.  I empty out the uneaten remnants of yesterday’s food and open a new can while she dances around my feet uttering sharp little meows of excitement and impatience.  When she’s comfortably ensconced before filled food and water bowls, I grab an empty cup and add a half-package of hot chocolate mix, and then pour in the freshly made coffee on top.  Add a shot of half and half, stir well and I’ve got what I need.

Coffee in hand, I wander over to the dining room table, open the laptop and check my emails.  As expected, there is nothing in my in-basket but spam and ads.  I sip coffee and idly wonder when email stopped being personal and started being junk.  Picking up the remote, I turn on MSNBC to check on the pundit’s review of last night’s State of Union address.

As I’m checking Facebook, sipping coffee, and half listening to the TV, I realize that the reason I no longer get any real emails is that FB has become the personal messaging area of the internet.  I read and respond to messages, post a few “likes” and leave a comment, and then move on to other web sites.

It’s now 7:15, and I have 15 minutes left before I have to leave for work.  I play a few games I like, check the front pages of the New York Times and my local paper, peruse Huffington Post & CNN.  Of course, I have to check WordPress to see if any the bloggers I follow have added new posts overnight; one has.  I read her post, add a comment, and then look at my stats.  Nothing much going on, and a glance up at the upper right-hand corner of my laptop shows that the time is now 7:28, time to put the computer to sleep.

I go into the bathroom to check my hair, and then realize how pointless that is, because it’s going to get ruined under my hood.  I take off my nice warm slippers and put on heavy winter boots.  Next comes my coat, zipped all the way up.  I pull the hood up and fasten the sides so the bottom half of my face is now covered.  I put my purse over my shoulder, military style so I don’t have to adjust it while I’m walking, and then wind a long, warm scarf around my face and neck.  There is now nothing visible of my face but a 2” wide slit for my eyes, bordered on the top and sides by my hood and on the bottom by my scarf.

It’s go time now.  I walk out the door and lock it shut, putting the keys away into my purse, then down the stairs.  At the front door, I verify that I still have my keys, slide on my gloves, open the door and walk out.  I’m immediately hit with a blast of cold air.  I walk down the steps and turn left, knowing I have a 15 minute walk ahead of me.

My day has begun.

Daily Prompt: Obstacle Course

An obstacle course is a great metaphor for grief.  I’m still on it, but far enough along that I’m starting to sense the end.

“What’s new with everyone?” asked our improv teacher yesterday.  It was the 1st session of class.  By now we’ve been together a while, and greetings were given with hugs and smiles.  Improv is based on trust; it works best when you believe that everyone has your back.  The more you work with people, the more that trust builds.

When it was my turn to talk  I found myself talking about how good I’ve been feeling lately, how much I’m now looking forward instead of back, and that I am starting to feel reconnected to life again.  It’s true; I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that I’m feeling positive and looking forward to the future.  I joined an online dating site, and while I haven’t yet had a date, just joining is a step I couldn’t have done 3 months ago.  I’ve set a goal of having the second bedroom, Rick’s office, turned back into a room I can use by this summer.

I’ve accepted that I’m a widow, and that my marriage is a part of my past.  I still miss Rick and wish he was here with me, but it is different now.  It’s no longer raw and harshly painful.  I look back fondly on what we had, but the obsessing has stopped.  It’s in the past.  My life is now.

And then, this morning at work, I got an email asking me about a past project.  The project I was managing during 2012.  The project where my emails show a gap in August, as I was spending less and less time at work, as my time at the hospital increased.  The project where there’s an email from a co-worker explaining I’d be out of the office for a few weeks due to the death of my husband.  That project.  That year.  That month.

I had to spend 30 minutes reviewing notes, materials, and emails to find the answer.  It was devastating.  Just the dates were enough to send me back.  Here’s an email send out in mid-July.  It was just before his initial diagnosis, when my life was normal.  Next, I look at a document that was written in late July.  We were feeling good; Rick had gotten a serious diagnosis, but it was Okay as there was finally a reason for why he wasn’t feeling good.  There are a few more emails from first half of August.  That was the first 2 weeks he was in the hospital, when I started feeling that everything was going wrong, when each day was bringing more bad news, but there was still hope for a good ending.  Next are the incoming documents from the end of August, from that nightmare period where I was spending less and less time at work and coming to realize that the time I was spending with Rick was the final times we would have together.

I found what I was looking for and sent off an answer, but lost the peace of mind I’d had.  Now I’m back, remembering that feeling of powerlessness, the realization that the chances of a “happily ever after” were getting smaller every minute.  The way I felt compressed and squeezed, unable to breathe.  The desire I had to run away from everything and not have to deal with anything.  That feeling of being trapped in a terrible nightmare, unable to wake up or escape.

I’m feeling as lost and despondent as I was a year ago.   There is a difference, though.  I know I’ll feel better more quickly than I would have a year ago.  I know that now, at this stage of my grief, feeling this bad is the exception, not the standard.  I know that I will feel better because I have been feeling better, and that gives me hope, even right now when I’m feeling low.   I’m jumping over hurdles, but this time I know they’re just hurdles and that they will come to an end.

Grab a bucket and start bailing

There’s a lot of chatter out there on the interwebs about the difference between optimists and pessimists, and if pessimists have been unfairly maligned. Traditional thinking labels them as the gloomy Gus’ and Debbie downers of the world, the people that see the glass as half full, those who are just resolutely negative. The new approach identifies “positive pessimists” as pragmatic planners who hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

I think the real difference is being missed. It’s not a matter of being positive or negative, but rather how much a person thinks they can affect the external world around them. Let’s call this the difference between passivity and activism.

An activist who is diagnosed with a chronic disease doesn’t go home in defeat, but instead researches treatment options, enlists friends and family to help, and does everything possible to improve their situation. Activist pessimists and optimists can be hard to tell apart because they are often doing the same things; it’s the reasons that will differ. An activist optimist will exercise and eat right because they believe doing so will keep them healthy and provide a better life. An activist pessimist will follow the same exercise and diet regimen, but will explain that it’s to prevent health problems from affecting them. The difference is subtle; the optimist acts offensively, the pessimist defensively.

The same holds true for the passive optimist and pessimist. Neither of them will change their diet and exercise patterns: the optimist because of a belief that everything will turn out fine anyway, and the pessimist because of a belief that “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” There’s an old joke that perfectly defines the passive person. An area has had a massive flood, and a guy is climbing up on his roof just as his neighbor paddles over in a rowboat. “Climb in” says the neighbor. He waves him off saying “No thank you, I have faith that God will rescue me.” A few hours go by and water starts lapping at the base of his roof. A helicopter hovers overhead and drops a ladder; again, he refuses, stating that God will rescue him. Eventually, with the waters closing in, he loses his balance, slides off and drowns. The man awakens at the pearly gates of heaven, in front of St. Peter. “What happened,” he angrily demands, “Why didn’t God rescue me?” St. Peter looks at him and says, “Who do you think sent the boat and the helicopter?”

The passive optimist believes that things will turn out well, and therefore no special action is required. The passive pessimist believes that things will not turn out well, and therefore why bother trying. These two groups have far more in common with each other than they do with their more active compatriots. Passive people are less likely to be strategic, because being strategic means thinking through possible scenarios and having plans on how to react.

Why is this important? Speaking as a life-long pessimist, I’ve caught my share (and more) of grief for raising “what if” questions. I approach new things or ideas by first trying to disprove them, working my way around the edges looking for soft spots. It’s disconcerting to be perceived as that person always trying to ruin the party. Then there is the body of work suggesting that pessimists get sicker and die younger because of their negative views.

I never felt that the traditional description of a pessimist fit me. While I’m more than willing to entertain “the dark side” doing so has never deterred me from moving forward with a plan to lesson the impact of that worst-case scenario. There are a lot of people out there like me; we aren’t afraid to consider negative possibilities, and then we work like hell in the hope we can either stop them or mitigate their impact.

The revelation for me was realizing that the more important distinction was between those folks who put their hands up to do something versus the ones who sit and wait for someone else to do it. The underlying reasons why are less important.