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.

Zero to Hero Day 1: A re-introduction of myself and my blog

The morning of September 1, 2012, I woke up a widow for the very first time. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. During the entire month of August, I’d rushed out every morning, either to the hospital or to work. This Saturday morning I sat down, coffee in hand, realizing I had nowhere to go.

I’d started a journal as a way to make sense of what had seemed to be a fun-house ride where nothing made sense. It became a safe place for me to vent my anger, fear, and frustration over the unraveling of our life together. My most recent entry had been made the previous night, when I documented the details of my husband’s final day on this earth. I wanted to capture every detail; I could no longer help him in any way other than to ensure that I would never forget.

I read that entire journal, and decided that I needed to keep writing. The difference was that I wanted a chance to find other people that were going through a similar situation. Googling blogs led me to the WordPress site, and I signed up for a blog. The initial name, ‘Diary of a Sad Widow’ was kind of a play on the ‘Diary of a Mad Housewife’ movie, and an expression of how I felt.

Rereading it now, those first few posts are tentative and shaky. That entire first week was surreal, with his funeral almost exactly 1 week to the hour after his death, and his memorial service 2 days after the funeral. During those first 2 months, some of what I posted was pulled from the journal I’d kept during that final month, and most was just my reactions to what I was experiencing. My first surprise came when I saw that there were people “liking” what I’d written. Then I received a few comments. Many were from people who were also in mourning, and I started reading other blogs. It was strangely comforting to share these stories of loss with people in the same situation.

I started feeling more comfortable writing and sharing. In November of 2012 I had a post featured on the Freshly Pressed site and was blown away by the number of views. At that moment, blogging changed for me. It was still a way of working out my grief, but it was also something more; I was trying to be the best writer I could and to figure out what my life could be. I slowly started writing about things other than grief, but my working through loss remained the core theme of my blog. I was lucky enough to be freshly pressed a second time, in August of 2013.

I found other blogs I enjoyed reading, and began to think of their authors modern pen pals. Some were working their way through grief as I was; others were not. I found that WordPress was the best therapy for me, more helpful than the grief counselor I saw twice, or the online grieving support group.

It is now 16 months later. At the one-year mark I changed the name of my blog to ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ as a signal that, while still mourning my loss, my life and blog were about more than just that one event. My life is moving forward; I’m not sure to what, but it is moving. I’m still reading other blogs, and I’m still writing.