Respecting the past while anticipating the future

Our culture prizes quick responses and the ability to shrug off what happened in the past.   At heart, we Americans are a “suck it up and move on” kind of people.  We talk about closure, but it is less about pulling the meaning from an experience than a way to get past something.

One year ago today I was in the ER, holding vigil as my husband was admitted to the hospital and being given reassurances that the chances of his recovery were excellent.  It’s hard not to think about that as I go about my life today.  I’m old enough to have experienced other periods where my life underwent major changes within a single year; certainly the 12-month period that ended with a 3-month old child was one.  The difference is that this time, nothing was gained; there has only been loss.

Years ago my mother told me she had a miscarriage a few months before she became pregnant with me.  Had she not miscarried, I would not have been born.  Perhaps in another universe that pregnancy was carried to term, and my parents have a different first child.  Knowing that my conception was based on the ending of another didn’t hamper my parent’s ability to love me.

One of the hardest parts of grieving is learning how to move forward in a manner that is both respectful of what was lost while still being open to what can be found.  It requires a cognitive balancing act to mourn the loss of someone while simultaneously being open to finding joy in things experienced only because of that person’s loss.   The other option is to stay in the same place, to live in a state of permanent mourning, turning aside from real life to live in a fantasy land of what was and what could have been.

I think the key to making it past grief is to embrace that strange and confusing logic, and to accept that the happiest and most meaningful parts of our lives happen because we are in the right place at the right time; and that we arrive at that right place and time because other places and times ended, often earlier and in more tragic ways than we wanted.

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Daily Prompt: Mid-year state of my year: All things considered…

I’m a participant in a long-term study on sleep habits being run by the University of Wisconsin.  Every March for the past 20 years I’ve received a large questionnaire focusing on my current state of mind and emotional stability along with a 7-day sleep journal.  This year my answers to the survey questions landed me in the “run, do not walk, to see a counselor” category.

All things considered, I think I’m doing alright.

My husband died last year, at the end of August.  A year earlier, in January 2012, I started the year planning  vacations and engaged in my normal day to day life.  I had some concerns over his health, but never thought it was anything serious.  In mid-July, he was diagnosed with an illness; by the end of August, he was dead.

2013 kicked off as the start of my 5th month of being a widow.  My grief was a raw and open wound.  I was reeling from the event, still trying to understand what had happened.   By January of 2013, I had made it through my birthday, Thanksgiving, the December holidays, and New Years Eve as a widow.  I was becoming more used to the emptiness of the house, the deep silence that greeted me every morning when I awoke alone.

Winter continued, and I was depressed,  just trudging through each day.  Slowly, the days lengthened and I started feeling a little better.  I watched spring come, and realized that I was now starting my third season as a widow.  Rick’s birthday came, the first where he didn’t get a year older.  The headstone was installed on his grave.

This year is now more than half over, and I’m facing the final month of my first year of being a widow, and the final “firsts”: a wedding anniversary that will occur 6 days before the first anniversary of his death.

What’s my “state of the year”?  Taking into account what a horrible year it’s been, I think it’s Okay.  I’m starting to look forward more than back. I’m starting to have thoughts about what to do next.  There are still bad days when I rage against what happened, and despair over what will be, but those bad days happen less.  Just like Mary Tyler Moore, I’m gonna make it after all.  I think there will be a time, not this year, but sometime, when I can be whole and healthy again.

Daily Prompt: Party Animals (?) – A fairly tame animal…

After spending time with a group of people, do you feel energized and ready for anything or do you want to hide in the corner with a good book?

Ever been Myers-Briggs tested? This question gets to the heart of one of the indicators used in that test – whether you’re an introvert or extrovert.  I took this test as part of work-related training, and this is exactly how the I (introvert) versus E (extrovert) designation was described.  The question is about how you recharge your personal “batteries”; with quiet isolation or through interaction and exposure to others.

I fall within the E range, but on the low side.  When I’m feeling low and depressed I want to see other people, but there are also times where I need a bit of solitude; it’s about a 75% to 25% ratio.  I’ll take a book or my computer and head out to a coffee house.  Just being around other people makes me feel better, even if the only conversation I have the entire time I’m there is with person who hands me my drink.  I love being in a city, but I’ll also look for the quiet places where you don’t see other people.

My favorite type of vacation is to go to another city and spend a few days exploring it.  When Rick was alive we did this a few times every year.  We’d see music, go to a few museums, find the local brewpubs, see baseball games; but mostly we’d spend time just walking around and encountering new people and places.  Neither of us ever wanted to spend a vacation in quiet solitude in a cabin up North.

The really interesting thing about the introvert/extrovert alignment of people is how relevant it is to understanding and getting along with people.  When I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs test, it was an eye opener.   I worked in IT, an industry that attracts a far greater number of introverts than extroverts.  It was a constant struggle for me to figure out how to work with people on projects.  When handed a problem, my gut instinct was for everyone to go off somewhere and talk it through. I love fast, rapid-fire back and forth conversations where people feed off each others ideas and quickly put forth new ones.  When I’m working through a problem or trying to come up with a solution, I need to talk it through with people.

Most of the people I worked with in IT were the opposite.  They wanted to go off to a quiet, isolated space, shut the door and work through everything first.  For the introverts, ideas are processed internally, thought through, and carefully considered before sharing.  The result of those very different styles was that I spent a lot of time chasing people down, trying to talk with them, while they were just as busy running from me.

What I learned is how to respect and understand the value that each type of person brings.  My friends and colleagues who spend their vacations in quiet solitude come back refreshed and energized, just as I do after spending several days in a new city.

When I’m working with individuals who need solitude to refresh and recharge, I do a few things to make sure they can get that solitude.  I don’t hand out materials at a meeting and expect an instant response; I distribute them ahead of time to make sure people have time to review them in private and then be ready to give a response.  In meetings where planning or idea generation is needed, I get input by going around in a circle, so the quieter people can know when their turn will be.  I often have people write things down and then read it back to the group.  Most of all, whenever possible, I make sure that final decisions are delayed to a later point in time; often the people who need that solitude to recharge and refresh also need it to reflect, and their insights and thoughts are best when they are given time outside of a group to do so.

For me personally, I realize that I’ll never be that person who lives all alone in a small cottage and writes a beautiful memoir of my year in (fill in the blank: Ireland, Tuscany, Northern Wisconsin, the coast of Maine).  No, if I ever get the chance to do something like that it will be the story of my year living in mid-town Manhattan.

When Rick was alive we’d often talk about becoming snowbirds, those people who leave Wisconsin in the winter.  Our ideal was to spend the winter in New Orleans and San Francisco, surrounded by noise and people and music and activity; but then to spend a few weeks in Kauai, on the quiet and remote Northern end of the island.  That would be the perfect blend for me; most of the time in crowded, noisy people-rich cities, with a small dip into a serene and quiet small-town rural area.

That dream is still alive, but in the meantime I’ll meet my 75 – 25 need for interaction versus solitude by living in a central city neighborhood of a small city.

This beer’s for you

It’s not fancy; just a simple Wisconsin tavern, the kind of semi-rustic place found in every town and city in the state.  The building is small and unassuming.  Inside, there’s a bar that runs the length of the room, with the grill at one end and a storage area at the other.  The floor has just enough space to fit the pool table and 7 or 8 small tables.  Sports paraphernalia hangs on the walls, with the Packers the clear leader and the Badgers a close runner up.  The menu is simple but good; burgers, grilled cheese, brats; items that can be done quickly and easily.

I passed it this morning, on my way to an exercise class.

Nine years ago we were newly dating, but already starting to go beyond casual.  About once a week we would have dinner with your elderly Aunt.  We drove there separately and would stop afterwards at this bar for an after dinner drink.  The bar was across the street from a golf course situated on the edge of a cemetery, in an area that was once upon a time the far Western edge of town.  At 7pm the place was quiet, past dinner, not yet time for the evening golfers to have finished their games.  We’d sit at the bar and nurse a beer, talking quietly.  There was electricity between us, a spark I’m sure was palpable to others.  We’d spend 40 minutes or so before going out to the parking lot. After a goodnight kiss we’d each drive home in different directions.

I woke up early this morning, early enough to stop and visit your grave before heading off to exercise and grocery shop and see people and do all the things that occupy the living.  My best friend helped me pick the site last fall, when I was so much in shock I could barely move.  It’s a lovely old cemetery with Civil War soldiers and the history of my adopted city lying within its borders.  There aren’t many open areas left.  I found one on the far end, near to the golf course, that seemed perfect.  A large old tree secludes the site chosen for you.  Many of your nearby neighbors are members of the Hmong clans that settled here in Wisconsin, and the loving attention paid to those graves made me feel better.

All through July and August we met weekly at that bar.  By the end of August we drove in one car, together.   Over the course of those summer weeks we’d gone from dating to something more.  We hadn’t yet made it official, but we both knew where we were headed.

A few years went by.  We didn’t go there as often; once we started living together, its location as the fulcrum between your house and mine wasn’t as important.  You still went past on errands and business, but I hardly saw it any more.

Until last fall.  When you were buried just a few short blocks from where we first started.  There’s symmetry there; our beginnings and endings, so closely tied together.  I usually visit you early on weekend mornings, long before the bar is open.  I think, though, that I’ll have to plan on an afternoon visit soon.  When I’m done, I’ll turn left instead of right and go a few blocks out of my way.  I’ll park in the lot and go into that little tavern, sit down at the bar and order a beer.  I’ll make a small, private toast to you; to us; to that couple we were nine years ago, full of promise and hope in the future.