Everything I Own

L-R: Hook's siblings, Walter and Claire then Allan with the big smile. Looking at his get-up, I'm going to guess 1955 maybe '56.

L-R: Hook’s siblings, Walter and Claire then Allan with the big smile. Looking at his get-up, I’m going to guess 1955 maybe ’56.

When I woke up this morning, it was still dark.  I looked at my phone wondering if it would read 2:10 in the morning.  Nope, 4:52.  Somehow this was the pass I was subconsciously hoping to receive: That I wouldn’t automatically awaken at the time of his death every September 3rd.

Before falling asleep last night, I decided that I needed today to be one of commemoration not of foreboding.  I donned my orange Hook Donor t-shirt in the hopes that people on the beach would ask, What is a Hook Donor? so I could brag on my husband and our endowment.  And that strategy may have worked if I hadn’t gotten so caught up in my shell collecting that I had to use part of my shirt as a cup-like vessel to haul back my beach goodies. Stretching and bending, I was in a race to beat the first sweltering rays before they escaped the clouds and landed on my unprotected face.

This, I thought, will be my yearly dedication to Hook — a northerly walk along an oceanfront – to honor not the miracle of witnessing his death, but one of the times he briefly returned to me in a dream, communicating without words at the water’s edge, where I could always go to find him.  Then, it was Port Aransas on the Texas coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, which spills out into the Caribbean Sea and onward into the North Atlantic Ocean.

On the 1st anniversary, I stood looking out toward the Indian Ocean whispering these words:

Waterman's Bay in Perth, Western Australia ... the rock cove where a portion of Hook's ashes were spread.

CLICK to enlarge: Waterman’s Bay in Perth, Western Australia … the rock cove where a portion of Hook’s ashes were spread.

Votary of nature* even from a child,
he sought her presence in the trackless wild

To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,
were bright and cherished emblems
of her power

In her he saw a spirit all divine,
and worshipped like a pilgrim
at her shrine

(*Votary of Nature by Thomas Say)

My whole life, I will never tire of reciting this ode to my husband, but there are three things I have learned in the last seven days:

  • Music by Bread is not to be listened to on a regular basis.
  • There is beauty to be found in the broken pieces of shells hidden deep in the sand.
  • Kitty Hawk was not home to the Wright Brothers; it was only where they learned how to fly.

~    ~    ~

My friend, Cheryl, loaned me a book in 2003 called Beachcoming at Miramar: The Quest for an Authentic Life.  The author, Richard Bode, took the bold step of leaving “the real world” in exchange for the freedom to walk the sand at Miramar in northern California for a year.  Bode died eight years later but not before he’d completed his quest:  To heal and re-engage his own life.

~    ~    ~

A week ago, I stumbled across a song that I am oh so very glad I did not hear two years ago.  As music often does, these lyrics tugged at tender places, and my plan for this anniversary was simply to post this song and nothing more.  That’s how wretched the heartache was from listening to it.  But the words describe Allan and me and where I am today, so perfectly, that I felt you deserved to cry, too:

Everything I Own by Bread (Click to hear)

You sheltered me from harm
Kept me warm, kept me warm
You gave my life to me
Set me free, set me free
The finest years I ever knew
Were all the years I had with you

And I would give anything I own
Give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again 

You taught me how to love
What it’s of, what it’s of
You never said too much
But still you showed the way
And I knew from watching you

Nobody else could ever know
The part of me that can’t let go

Is there someone you know
You’re loving them so
But taking them all for granted
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And they don’t hear the words you long to say

~    ~    ~

In the future when September 3rd rolls around, I will not fret when melancholy sets in nor try to push back the sadness.  I will be grateful for what I have, not what I do not; and I will mourn a man so worthy of my tears.

Today, I am open and thankful and yes, a little disjointed in my thoughts. I am those jagged edges of the broken shells I keep collecting.  But I know that if I stay long enough by the water, I too will be smoothed over by the ocean.

~    ~    ~

When the Wright Brothers came to Kitty Hawk in 1900 to test their dreams of flying, they failed so often that people forgot they were even here.  It ended up being four miles south in what today is known as Kill Devil Hills where the brothers made their first successful “powered” flight.  But none of that matters because the Outer Banks was never home for Orville and Wilbur.  When they had done what they had come to do, they left North Carolina and returned to their family and friends, just as I will do when I learn how to fly.

Until then, I honor Allan William Hook, September 3rd 2013.

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The colorful beauty of broken pieces.

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Vices in Week Two

HDU_LitLast Saturday, I created a dinner out of organic peanut butter, leftover chipotle sauce, and two scoops of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream that had been forgotten in the back of the freezer in a decaying container.  As a dessert, I added a freshly peeled carrot – a real carrot and not one of those tasteless baby carrots that dry out within an hour and start to whiten with what looks like toe jam.  If you’re wondering, the assembly food line looked like this:  Scoop the peanut butter, pour on some of the sauce, dip both into the ice cream, lick the spoon dry then bite the carrot.  Fresh carrots have that slight, earthy taste which balanced out the processed sugar I was shoveling into my mouth.  The limited protein reflected my refusal to hop into the Jeep and drive 1.5 miles to the grocery store.  That would have required a shower or at the very least, contact lenses in the eyes instead of my outdated, see-into-the-future glasses.  I was much too busy dreading my still unfinished taxes by tending to my vices of which the over-consumption of sugar is only oHDU_booksne.

My second vice is actually only a vice when I give into it on a non-stop, 24-hour, no showering or brushing my teeth basis. (Always, personal hygiene is the first to go.) Because I’m trying to up my writing game, I’ve checked out from the library books in twos and threes.  Telling myself that I have to read is like telling myself that I have to eat Godiva milk chocolate salted caramel bars. There is a danger with both, because I don’t read and I don’t eat — I inhale — and if I’m in procrastination mode, I run the risk of either overdosing on words or passing out from a sugar coma.  That both would find me in the same state — laying on the sofa, mouth open, dribble flowing and the cat perched on my chest causing me to gasp for air while trying to sleep — shows my consistency in all matters vice.

To avoid my taxes which I finally dropped off to the CPA yesterday morning which is why this Monday afternoon blog is posted HDU_taxpaperworkon a Wednesday evening, I checked out five books from the library while putting two more on “Hold.”  I started out with respected memoirist, Mary Karr, and two of her triology memoirs, The Liars’ Club and Lit, switching over to (some say) the 21st Century’s great American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, and his novels, The Corrections and Freedom.  Franzen once snubbed Oprah unintentionally-on-purpose saying her book club wasn’t where you’d find his readers, the literary elite. I’d inadvertently checked out his book in LARGE print so that it felt as though HE WAS YELLING AT ME THE ENTIRE TIME I was reading which, if he was snubbing Oprah, this self-proclaimed “unashamed elitist” probably was.  My literary jury is still out on Franzen but I’m sure he’ll still sleep soundly at night.

It was Karr’s writing that Gatita and I curled up with.  Her writing pulls you in like a child’s hand reaching for yours during the scary parts of a movie, leading you through the icky parts of her memories so you’re not overwhelmed when she does share.  You can hear her small, east Texas girl’s voice as she writes, “My nickname was blister tits,” or “My daddy’s Pete Karr.”  How do you read the words “my daddy” without automatically hearing a dialect from the south?

On any given day before I would give in to Mary Karr on the sofa, I’d exhaust myself through exercise so much so that I dreamt about three roaches in my house-in-the-dream.  Cockroaches in a dream symbolize being fed up with ourselves, annoyed at our own stalling of whatever it is that we’re putting off.  I had walked by that table full of tax paperwork for so long that I’d taken to running or swimming or walking five to six days a week in avoidance, sometimes occupying myself with two forms of cardio in the same day!  And I’d be 10 pounds lighter if it weren’t for the processed sugar. But you know, now that I’ve dropped off the paperwork, I congratulate myself on being two whole months earlier than I was this time last year.  So yes, I did drink a margarita today and I was damn proud when I did it and my daddy’s name is Lou!

The Writing Projects

What was originally written in memoir form might become fiction but the title probably will not change.  Without Flag (WF) is about an American Hispanic woman who leaves her home in the United States to live and travel throughout Mexico so she can learn Spanish and maybe even a little about how to embrace her Mexican ancestry.  Instead what she discovers is how to accept her Mid-western, American roots.

Is that the story I start with or is it Down Under (DU), currently written as fiction with Daniel and Ava as the lead characters whose lives are turned upside down by tragedy. The obvious autobiographical tones cannot be ignored except the story begins with five young adults standing in Waterman’s Bay in Perth, Western Australia, facing the Indian Ocean.  One is reading a poem while another is holding a canister of ashes, Ava’s ashes, and the rest of the troop are wondering what it all means … while I wonder in real life how the story will turn out.

I know I will not begin with the how to, career book, The Mystery Behind The Masters (MBM), targeted at back-to-school professionals and which already has an unreadable first draft to it.  It’s still a worthy write but not this year and maybe not next year either.  The sabbatical will definitely not start with Noisy Neighbors (NN), a fictional comedy about Hank and Lucy and the wacked-out, eclectic neighborhood they moved into.  Because Hank has difficulty remembering people’s names, Lucy dubs each of the houses by their owner’s personalities.  In NN, you meet the young couple, the gay guys, the single lady, the weirdos in the green house, the surveillance freaks, penis boy’s mom and dad, and of course the noisy neighbors.  NN is both comedy and drama because these neighbors are actually connected by more than just their zip code only they don’t know it.

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Gatita in the front cactic bed of the Hook House. Apparently, I’m not scratching her enough so she’s taken matters into her own face.

Even though With Love, Big Lou (WLBL) isn’t on the short list, I can’t help jotting notes into the biographical WLBL files as memories spill out about my father and a series of letters he wrote to me over three decades.  Nor is 30 Days in The Jungle (30 Days) on any list except my hard drive one, about my online dating experience prior to Hook when I dated 12 men in 30 days and tiered the dates based on where I was in my 30-day menstrual cycle — the jungle.

Are these short stories, essays, books, or novels?

It’ll be interesting to see how and when each of these writings reveal itself.  Oh, and I almost forgot the last writing project titled, How I Survived in the Austin Wilderness After My Sucky Owner Deserted Me.  I could never desert her so you — whoever you are that is reading this post — you call me, okay, and say you’d loved to take my cat for a year.  Like Hook, she urinates outside.  Unlike Hook, she also defecates out there relieving me or anyone else of the litter box hassle.  (Actually, I can’t say Hook never defecated outside.  Let’s just say there is a hand-held spade in the garage that I never touch.)

My goal before July 15th is to choose only one of the stories above, to accept that as my calling and to resist “should” or “need to” or “must” and devote all of my energy and carrot-eating ways to writing that story.

“… someday if my life flashes in front of my eyes, it will at least hold my interest.” – Gregg Levoy, Vital Signs

Until next Monday …

Rosemary

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Artists in Week One

HDU_bobnewhartStand-up comedian, Jen Kirkman, quipped when describing her wedding day which she said is supposed to be the best party of your life,

“There’s no party that begins with church.”

And there is no sabbatical that begins with filing taxes and writing a check to the Internal Revenue Service but that is where I am today.  In my Pre Sabbatical time after I write in the mornings, I sift through paperwork and drop figures into a tax organizer for my CPA. But once I get on the open roads next month, neither the I.R.S. nor the Texas jury summons I responded to online will be given my attention.

The first morning of my first day, I did not wake up at my normal 5:30am but at 10:30am (noisy neighbors).  I didn’t let a few hours lateness take me off course, though.  I rushed downstairs, flipped on the coffee pot and sat my butt in the writing chair which for now is not my writing office but the dining room table.  For the briefest second after opening the laptop, a bolt of fear hit and I said out loud, “Oh shit,” as in Oh shit, what did I get myself into.  Why did I have to tell the entire world that I was going to write a novel? But I didn’t say novel. Did I say novel? I don’t think I said novel. Who writes a novel in a year? WTF was I thinking?  

But that was only one-half second, maybe a full one, then I laughed and I started writing.  It’s so much fun to be insane!

Bob Newhart

PBS aired a program, Stand-up to Sitcom, about comedians who successfully transitioned to television from the stage — Newhart, Burnett, Barr, Seinfeld, etc.  Bob Newhart was an accountant before he became a comedian. Those familiar with his stammering style of delivery can picture him in a starched white shirt and office suit and tie. While tabulating figures and processing endless rows of numbers, Newhart scribbled out comedy bits at his desk throughout the day.  In the evenings, he frequented clubs that would allow someone dry like him to stand and tell jokes. He was the most unlikely of comedians so that when he quit his accountant job to pursue comedy full-time, everyone including himself, thought he was crazy.  The hardest lesson Newhart said he learned was how to become a comedian as he was being a comedian.

That’s where I am. I’ve no illusions about my writing.  Well some. I can definitely picture Oprah interviewing me on a maroon velvet sofa while I say how I really got started. Like Newhart, I have to learn what I do not already know with grammar, prose, basic editing.  I will be learning to write as I write.

It’s no secret that writers expand their craft and vocabulary by becoming not voracious writers but insatiable readers.  As I mentally pack my two suitcases for my writing road-trip, I can share that the contents will look like this:  One suitcase will be full of clean undergarments and a selection of clothes not falling apart.  The other will be filled with books and maybe even one of Bob Newhart’s for inspiration.

The Rolling Stones

I had two wonderful writing professors when I was completing my graduate work.  The first guided me in the art of free-style writing where you sit and let the words flow out, not worrying how they sound or whether they make any sense. (Apparently, I’ve mastered this.)  The time for editing comes later she always said.  The second professor was much more in love with the perfect prose and never held back on her critiques.  She was the kind of mentor any struggling writer needed to develop a style.  When my sentences didn’t make sense or inanimate objects performed action in my stories, a great deal of red marks showed up in my manuscripts.  Her favorite phrase:  “Show me, don’t tell me.”

The writing project I completed for the second professor ended up being more than a 52,000 word essay, but it took me 30,000 words before I found my writing voice.  My final manuscript was good enough as a thesis, but for consideration by a literary agent, it needed to be re-framed.  Even though I knew this, I still stalked writing agents at a conference in 2012. One asked to see my first fifty pages and after I sent off that manuscript, I received a pleasant, “I like it but I can’t sell it.”

I would have believed the agent more if she had said, It needs work, as it so obviously did.  I realized my own truth when a month after the agent’s initial rejection, I received an email from her that began, “Dear Rosemary …”  The email went on to read that she and her literary house wanted to publish my work titled – [something not mine]. The entire time I was reading the email, my heart was pounding fast but not with excitement as one might expect.  I wasn’t saying Yes! Yes! Yes! in my head.  My heart was pounding No! It’s not ready. It’s not good enough. It still needs so much work.  And I was right because the agent wasn’t talking about my manuscript but someone else’s, and the attached contract wasn’t for me but for another Rosemary.

The color red filled up my cheeks from embarrassment but not the humiliation that comes from thinking you were picked for a team then they decided to choose the other guy.  I was shy about my own work and I hadn’t realized how deeply until that moment.  The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix the manuscript, how to do a full overhaul, how to build a whole new framework.  I’m not even sure I know how to do this today.  What I do know is how to go about trying, who to contact to figure this out, and I feel oh so much more comfortable admitting that I don’t know what I don’t know.

After the sad second rejection from that literary agent, I put that writing pile aside.  I did email a few more anemic requests to other agents and when they did not respond, I shrugged my shoulders with indifference.  Over time, I surrounded my writer’s pile on the desk until I almost couldn’t find the original manuscript when I walked into my writing room. All of this, of course, was happening simultaneously with Hook’s diagnosis.  After a few months of dribbling words on the laptop screen in that old manuscript, I gave up.  I gave up not because Allan was sick but because it was a great excuse to say, “I have writer’s block,” when really I meant, I have writer’s fear.  

I turned inward to the only consistent, writing outlet I had, which happened to be a blog — this blog.  This was a safe platform to dump a truckload of emotions, to share pieces of a world that made less and less sense, and to write and write and write. It wasn’t manuscript writing, but it was the lifeline that I needed at the time.

I vaguely remember a song playing at Hook’s memorial, The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  I’m not sure why he mentioned it during our awkward “which songs would you like played at your memorial” conversation. Whether it was for him or for me or for both of us no longer matters, because yes, we get what we need.  Sometimes what we need comes in the oddest forms and timelines and when it reaches us finally, we have to answer that calling, we have to answer our truth.

Pre Sabbatical Update

What I really wanted to share were some of my writing projects — what they’re about, how far along they are.  But, I am determined — Determined! — to reduce the number of words per blog post.   Here instead is a quick and fast sabbatical update:

  • WHEN:  Pre sabbatical now; Road sabbatical July 15th.
  • WHERE:  Expect first landing spot to be the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
  • WHAT:  There is someone out there who has no pets but likes cats.  You know you want to call me.  Call me!
  • HOW:  Note to self:  Call the damn realtor.

Until next Monday …

Rosemary

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Everything Happens for a Reason

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This was me being silly in class.

Two nights ago, I finished a three-week painting class in Austin. Actually, I’m not sure my work can be considered painting as much as wild stroking of a brush.

Will you keep painting, our instructor asked each night as she walked back and forth in front of our easels, the ones we stood behind as we sprinkled water on our blank pads and smoothed over the page with rounded mop brushes to prepare the paper to accept paint. I led with my right hand then switched back and forth between left and right.  I’d painted this way once before, a year ago, so I wasn’t surprised to find equal comfort using my left to water down the thick watercolor paper.

Watercolors.  I didn’t realize it was a watercolor and book-binding class.  I’d read the course description, in fact read it out loud. After I received an art list of supplies from the Dougherty Arts School on what I needed to purchase prior to the first class, my memory still blanked about the content of the class.  I showed up that first night with my brown bag full of watercolor paints and brushes and charcoal pencils and an odd assortment of other materials.

I wondered out loud, “Will we be drawing a nude?”

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Cover of the art book I made in class. Double-click to see full sized. Rosemary Hook, Dougherty Arts School, 2015.

The instructor was a young creative – a hippie I think – who taught art for a living and played the saxophone for fun.  She agreed how cool drawing nudes could be and I didn’t let on that I just wanted to see a naked body especially if I didn’t have to touch it.

Someone said recently, You have to start dating.  Actually, no I don’t.  It’s not a law of the United States or even of the Widow handbook.  I do applaud those widows, though, who have fallen in love again.  For now, anyone other than Hook appears insufficient and lacking somehow or at least that’s how I explained it to a friend of Hook’s.  But I’m not sad or wanting in any way.  Well, maybe a little but it’s not the held-back-from-living that it was this time last year.  I wrote to that same Hook friend that it felt odd to say out loud that Allan has been gone for over a year and a half.  That’s like no time at all.  I know he’s not coming home but the memories still hang around and unlike divorce, you’re not at all interested in falling out of love with the person who is gone.

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Rosemary Hook, Dougherty Arts School, Austin, Texas: 2015

But we do need love in our lives and I thought to do this by bringing more color into mine and this was how I signed up accidentally-on purpose for a watercolor class.  Now that it’s over, I am declaring that my painting is not horrible.  I mean, I don’t think anyone’s going to call me on the phone and offer to host an exhibit but I learned that 1) I paint in the abstract and 2) my abstracts are less awful than when I originally painted them.

What does it mean that I would paint what I would not normally gravitate towards in an art gallery?  Analyze that one for awhile.

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Rosemary Hook, Dougherty Arts School, Austin, Texas: 2015

I like to see people and structure and bold colors in artwork.  In fact, I’ve never purchased original artwork that doesn’t have one or all of those aspects in it.  It was difficult to resist a glop of deep cobalt blue on starch white and instead apply a watered down version of that vibrant azul.

You don’t have to be afraid of using more water, the instructor liked to say as she shared how she took a watercolor course by accident-on-purpose, too.  She needed a final class for her undergraduate work and a watercolor class was the only one still open.  She had begrudged the time on her academic calendar until she fell in love with the paints and now here she is more than ten years later teaching watercolor painting.

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Rosemary Hook, Dougherty Arts School, Austin, Texas: 2015

The second part of the class and the tangible goal was to bind a book from the art we created.  Our instructor kept reassuring us how great our bound paintings would look which was hard to imagine as we splashed water and color and sometimes salt onto 22 x 30 watercolor pads while occasionally drawing an outline before applying paint to paper.  I could not see how anything I was creating would be worthwhile to keep especially compared to the delicate works of my classmates.  But after we painted pages and pages and created a collage from cut outs, we trimmed down those same sheets into book size dimensions and well, now I could see.  I could see how focusing on a small piece of the full creation highlighted its beauty.

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A real Pepsis thisbe, tarantula hawk wasp, can be found at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve in Austin, Texas. Had I painted her, you would see her red satin wings and soft black underbelly.

I will not be teaching a painting class to anyone – in the universe – ever.  No amount of margaritas could ever trick me into believing otherwise.  Although, maybe if we had had margaritas in class more of my Jackson Pollock would have emerged instead of a sketched, mutated Pepsis thisbe which began as a homework assignment then turned into me inventing a story to explain why this tarantula hawk was stylishly disfigured.  In the children’s story in my head, Pepsis thisbe had two winged friends:  Glenostictia pictifrons (Glenda for short) and Sceliphron caementarium (Cammie in the story).  They all have female names because they are all female wasps.  I’ve not passed into science nerd-dum but my teacher in this subject matter exited the world so I’m left making up stories about Pepsis, Glenda, and Cammie and their two mantis friends, Hook and Rosemary.  They all, of course, live at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve where humans occasionally visit.

Oh yes, I could go on and on.

But that’s how creativity of any kind works.  You can start out in one channel and end up in another. As an untrained painter, I was excited about what I produced in my classes.  I thought about framing and hanging some of the pieces in the bathrooms of the Hook House and only mentioning them to visitors with a casual, Look at this from an unknown artist, what do you think?  But there would be no reason for me to be in the bathroom with someone so that wasn’t such a great idea.  Nonetheless, this artwork in its amateur form represents a time in my life in a way even words have not been able to do.

The instructor had a unique way of deconstructing our work for us.  She invited us to see our paintings from her angle – pointing out our distinct strokes and what she saw as our artistic style.  She’d softly offer suggestions for alternative brushes or how we might continue to add other colors over time to these pieces if we wanted a different outcome.  Did I want a different outcome?  Yes, but in more than just my painting.

Someone said recently without meaning harm, “Oh so it wasn’t recent,” in reference to the length of time that Hook has been gone.  I have to remind myself that the rest of the world isn’t tuned into Hook’s absence at a level that I’d like them to be. Some of his friends and colleagues still are.  When I hear from them or receive a hello or his name is mentioned by anyone other than me, it’s like opening a small gift full of joyful tears. It’s not all Hook all day anymore but that doesn’t remove my secret desire to use a bullhorn to announce:   He died, yes, but he hasn’t disappeared forever!  At least not for me, never for me.

Everything Happens For a Reason …

WBR_baddecisionsI used to like this saying because it was accommodating, and because life often appeared more acceptable if one were willing to allow for this unexplainable wisdom.  Then the image on the right popped up on my Facebook feed.  After my stomach stopped hurting from all the laughing, I felt a What? creep into my brain.  It was an uncertain What that pokes and prods and uses a foot to open a door so that self-doubt can sneak inside.

My art instructor felt there was a reason she ended up with that watercolor class she never wanted. There is no reason that would make sense to me as to why Allan had to leave when he did, and my only true consolation comes from knowing he died having lived a full life. No regrets. No bucket list items still to be crossed off.  But the same is not true of me.  I have a one-item list that is prepared to haunt me if I do not act on it soon.  I don’t want to be one of those, I wish I would have people. And if everything happens for a reason, I’ll either be successful or unsuccessful and it won’t matter one bit because, well, everything happens for a reason. See, it’s accommodating.

Had I fled the state of Texas after Hook died, that would have qualified as a bad decision. Mourning doesn’t know logistics. Instead, I held onto a buoy in the middle of my life. I swam through the worst of grief while building my business back up and did my best to re-create a new home.  My progress was slow, true, but it was progress nonetheless.  I’ll even give myself a B+ for overall effort with weekly outbursts of, Today was an A day!  (I actually say this stuff, out loud, to myself when I’m alone.)  What I’m trying to explain is that I didn’t run away. I did not give up hope but mainly that was because I had no hope to give up. I did become slightly amazed at what I’d been able to produce writing-wise without discipline and through tears. I mention discipline because real writers write every single day or nearly every day. It is their life, and it prompted me to ask myself what could happen if I actually committed to this craft daily.

So I signed up for a NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – where each sadistic writer agrees to pen about 2,000 words a day and/or at least 50,000 words in a month. I never wished I was on crack more than in the month of November last year.  Although I didn’t need to start another new novel, I did and for the sole purpose of proving that if I cleared my calendar and physically left my home office that I could sit in a chair every single day without wireless access and with no other purpose than to write.  Could I do it?

Well yes I can.

I’m not Allan. I could never be him. I don’t wear plaid. But I’m so (glad? relieved?) that he was wholly satisfied with what he’d accomplished in his life before he left it. As I continue to strive to live in my now, I’m ready to say out loud what journey is next for me — a year-long writing sabbatical.  The questioning What? bubble was meant to test whether self-doubt would mar my choice as being one of a “bad decision.” This is the writing sabbatical I never took with Allan.  It is time.  It is time for a year of focus and carefree creating in whatever direction my right hand leads me.  I must answer for myself whether I have the discipline to finish a novel.

That I will publish something before I die is a given assuming I do not die next week. Even if the world falls into chaos, I will at least finish a book. But it is one of my in-the-works novels that my heart and my mind want to jump into first. I’d been holding back rationalizing that I needed to be focused on a non-fiction book first.  I stalled, because when I’m not working on what I really want to be working on, it’s drudgery to do anything else. Drudgery is what I put in the to-be-filed tax paperwork. I could spend another year stalling on both the novel and the book wondering how long the universe will keep trying to get through without any action on my part.  But I would have to be dead to ignore the communique.  Besides, since anything is possible, I could finish both a novel and a book!  If I produce nothing at all, it will not be because I was not disciplined. It will not be because I did not sit in the chair every, single day for hours and hours at a time to write and only write.

My soul is begging to create what it wants to create, to conceive what it feels drawn to conceive, and to be let loose to do what I’d meant to do back in 2012 before our world fell apart. Crying for a year and a half does not count as a sabbatical.  If everything doesn’t happen for a reason, then I plan to make one up with a splash of paint and pray to God that I don’t end up living down by the river in a van.

Details about the upcoming sabbatical in the next post!

xo

Rosemary

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Living in the Now

HTT_YouThinkYouHaveTimeI said something to Allan almost a year before he was ever diagnosed that haunts me not because I wished I wouldn’t have said it but because I wished I would have acted on it more.  I repeated it to my mother in her last month’s visit with me.  I’m sharing it today because I want you and me and the rest of the world to wake up and know that it behooves us to be present in the now.

I said, “We don’t have as much time as you think we do.”

I don’t really know why I said it, maybe to ward off another “No” from him about a trip I’d wanted us to take together.  I’d already booked the business trip and wouldn’t he like to come with me?  A part of me knew, perhaps it was a premonition, a tug of the conscious world that our time together was limited.

I discovered during my mother’s four-month visit that she likes hot dogs – the woman enjoys a good Vienna sausage – who knew?  I learned that she had a thing for a young John Wayne and she wouldn’t have said ‘No’ to an older version of The Duke either.  Who was this woman?   But as I came to know a different side of my mother, I interpreted my new knowledge to be an invitation to plan whole days around eating and watching those times from the past.  I must have dragged my mother to at least three hipster hot dog places in Austin.

“Oh no,” she’d say every time, “let’s go later.” Or tomorrow or not today, “Another time.”

John Wayne_SIP Cover copy.indd

I had no idea that John Wayne was such a hottie.

My mother’s deep seated arthritis is real.  It’s not something in her head.  When she’d wake me up in the middle of the night for a pain pill, it was sometimes the only way I knew it was going to rain, because her bones were always at least one day ahead of humidity predictions than weather.com.  But she (and I) paid for that knowledge, her with knife-sharp stings in her arms and her legs, and me with sleepless nights. When I would coax her into dragging her walker from the house to the Jeep to whatever venue I had picked out for us, just the wienie-eating alone was our day long adventure.  For someone healthy like you or me, we cannot really understand what it means to constantly feel cold even in 70 degree weather, or the mental preparation she had to have to go along in these outings.

I used to coach her two or even three days in advance, gearing her up with, “Were going to have a GREAT DAY!” My manic smile plastered on my face hoping to radiate some energy into her 79-year old body.  When she pushed back, and she did daily, I would remind her.

“Mom, there is no other time.  Seriously.”

“Why not?” she’d ask and I could only ever tell the truth:  “Because, you know, I’m not the boss of time.”

And I’d have to say out loud the obvious and ask of myself:  Is what I want in her best interests or mine or both?  Obligation is a heavy thing.  I could have put my mother on a plane anytime, back to Michigan and their sub-zero temps.  My younger sister said, “No one expects you to do this.”  But I expected it and once I got over myself, I could look at the situation and willingly choose every single day to poke and prod my mother to live just a little bit more.   I made sure that the now we shared together was worthy of us and us of it.  Could her life be improved by trying even small things?  Is it a disservice to care-taking if I allowed her to sit for hours at a time watching t.v. instead of pressing her to improve one afternoon with something as mundane as driving 30 miles to eat a Chicago-style hot dog on the lake?  I chose the juicy wiener adventure and she bragged about it the next day to her during-the-week caretaker, Peter.  So I’ll say yes that it was worth the effort to both of us.

With Allan, it was more the premonition of we’re not 30 years old.  Our bodies will start to ache just like our parents or God forbid, one of us will get sick.  One of us did get sick, and one of us died, and now one of us is wondering why didn’t we live more of our days together when we had the chance.

I’m not saying never rest, always go go go.  I spent this past weekend writing and reading and talking to the cat and listening to music and occasional crying (okay, maybe more crying than usual because I’d kept a lot of it in for four months while Mom was here so that by the time she went to bed at night, I was too exhausted to cry and when she finally returned to Michigan, I had a lot of pent up grief!).  I love weekends like that, but it’s not exactly a recommended way to live forever.  I can’t wonder, What’s Next?, indefinitely.

I know what is next for me or at least I know what I want to be next, and the only question still to be answered is if I am willing to throw my heart over the bar so my body can follow.  (Dr. Vincent Normal Peale)

After Hook died I ceased to have heart, to have passion for anything.  There was nothing to throw anywhere.  I threw my body over the bar and trusted that eventually my heart would re-open and maybe even follow.  It did and it didn’t.  It’s open again but not for what I’d expected – not for love; I don’t expect that to happen.  Hook was enough for a lifetime.  My heart opened to exploration, to wonderment, to change … lots and lots of change.

I’m no longer willing to wait for tomorrow or maybe next week or another time.   I don’t ever want to wish I had more time because time ran out.  When I shed tears, they are bitter drops that reflect a regret for not enough time.  Hook and I, we didn’t live our married life to the max.   We pushed a lot of things aside saying they were next – after I was finished with school, and after he did one more summer in Trinidad, and after and after, and next and next.   But what came after and what was next was decided for us.

Ordinary Time

A year ago, I attended a spiritual retreat and a young priest talked about Ordinary Time which is the time that comes after Lent and Easter which many will celebrate this weekend.  The priest said that for God there was no such thing as time – that hours and minutes were relevant only to man.  I’d heard this from wise professors years before when I was completing my graduate work. Women were the moon; Men were the sun. All of us were timeless.  According to this priest, God operated only in the now. There was no past, no future, no present – everything was happening now.  At the first retreat break, I cornered the priest in a 1:1.

“You said that everythingHDU_LivngInTheNow is in the now.”

“Yes.”

“That it’s all happening now,” I pressed.

“Yes,” he said and his eyes shone with excitement.

“So what I’m hearing you say is that Hook is alive now, and Hook is sick now, and Hook is dying now, and Hook is healthy now?” I stopped because I could feel hysteria rising in my voice.

“Yes,” the priest said. “It blows your mind, doesn’t it?”

It blew my mind so much, I left the retreat so I could cry in the Jeep on the drive back to Austin from Belton.  I believed and still believe that yes, everything is happening now – our past, our future, our present – all of it, right now.

I don’t even think Hook is completely gone anymore at least not in the sense that I spread his ashes and that’s that.  That was him as far as earth was concerned, but he’s somewhere, somewhere I can’t see nor can I visit.  Every time I get pissed about some dirt bag I think who doesn’t deserve to live when my fine husband is dead, I remind myself that he exists in the now, on some other plane, some God time that I cannot reach in my now.  He’s there because he was ready to be there.  Me and dirt bag aren’t there because we’re not ready to be.

Hook had lived in the now as a scientist, maybe not as a husband. That was indeed his one fault, and I will not let him off the hook (pun absolutely intended) just because he is dead. But maybe in his now he doesn’t keep those who love him at bay. Maybe he’s learned how to let the love of science and the love of people to co-exist, where they don’t have to be separate but complimentary to one another. Maybe he’s learning what I’m learning every day — we are our imperfections and it’s from this beauty that we learn.  And, I know he’s learning that although man needs science, science benefits from man, too, when we promote its wisdom and care for its future.

I wasn’t always clear where Mom existed when she was in Austin with me, and I don’t think it was for me to figure that out for her.  I thought perhaps she missed my father so much that sharing stories of him would feed her heart.  But after peppering her with questions about how she grieved through some things in the hopes of learning how to advance my own mourning, she shushed me with a quick, “No more questions about your father.”

On Facebook, I posted photos of places I took my mother to during her Texas visit.  I do not mind admitting that I tricked her into every one of those outings to stave off the onslaught of “No” I knew was inevitable. She is back home now in Michigan, and I’m sure she’s been sharing with everyone about all the places we went, and the things she saw, and the ceramic cup she painted, and the new people she met.

This all makes me remember the one and only Hook Wine & Cheese party that Allan and I hosted a year after we were married.  He did not know it was a wine and cheese party until the day before the event when he saw me sneak in two crates of rented wine glasses from the utility garage door into the kitchen.

“What are those for?” he asked.

“They’re wine glasses.”

He sighed, “But we have wine glasses.  You said it was only going to be seven people.”

I peered into his eyes and debated how much information he could handle. This incredibly intelligent, selectively social man that I married had his limits, and I was still learning what they were. I’d forgotten what fib I’d originally given him.  Apparently I’d said something about seven people coming over for wine or dinner or both or who knows what I said.

“It’s going to be more than seven,” I said.

“How many more?” he asked with a slight whine to his voice.

I narrowed my eyes looking into both of his, back and forth.  No, he could not be trusted with this data.  His head would explode for sure.

“It’s going to be more like fourteen,” I lied.

“Fourteen people?” Hook cried.  “You said seven and now it’s fourteen!”

Silence.

“Do you promise it’s not more than fourteen?” he asked.

That was all the confirmation I needed as I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “You’re on a need to know basis.”  And with that, I ended his interrogation of the 47+ people that would eventually show up the next night for our gathering.

But let me tell you how it all turned out:  Hook had the best time and it was a great evening for both of us.  Although my husband resisted most Homo sapiens, he was an ideal host because he wanted people to be comfortable so he was keen to fill a glass or offer an hors d’oeuvre if a person appeared starved.  In the same way he knew a little bit about everything in nature, his knowledge of world events and culture and sports made him an ideal listener and conversationalist at any gathering. I knew all of this after our third date and saw it play out in action during our intimate wedding.

After the last of our wine and cheese guests left at 1:30 in the morning, Hook hugged me and said, “We’re a great team, baby” then he followed with, “and I’m on a need to know basis from now on.”

Allan and I were a great team.  I didn’t know it then.  I’d stopped living in our now and had jumped to a future that would never happen.  My Mom for all her unwillingness to live in the now is still a good mother.  I cannot live her life for her, though, any more than I could prevent my husband from dying.  The only way I know to honor them both is to live the life I have been granted, in the now, with no regrets of the past or the present or fear of time that is not infinite on earth.

There are things I want to accomplish before I move onto that other plane, and I want to do these while my body is still healthy and my mind still alert.  I’m sure you do, too, so let’s live in our now and say Yes instead of No, and when necessary, put yourself on a need-to-know basis.

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Sixteen

Anselma Sanchez (Guzman), 1952

Anselma Sanchez (Guzman), 1952

“Guess whose birthday it is tomorrow,” I ask as I push the washcloth in a circular motion inside her ear.

“Whose?”

“Yours!” I say as she tilts her head to the side to look at me.

She glances down before she asks, “How old?”

“How old would you like to be?” A smirk forms on her face as I ask this so that only the right side of her lips move upwards.

“Oh sure,”  she whispers but our eyes lock in a stare as we look at one another in the bathroom mirror, a smile plastered on my face.

“Really?” she asks.

And I have to laugh as I answer, “Of course! On your birthday you get to decide how old you want to be.”

“Sixteen,” she says.

Then she begins to describe what her life was like at sixteen years old.  Most of her story gets lost in the mix-up of nouns and pronouns and incorrect verbs that are no longer filed neatly away in her brain’s communication drawers but tossed around as though a raccoon were deciding the order of English structure. She is clearest in the mornings and if I’m able to sit with her long enough, her sentences are like a song whose tune my brain has committed to memory without ever fully knowing the lyrics.  The tone of her voice and intonation are familiar even if not flawless as they push forth a pattern I know, have always known because she is not just any woman standing in my bathroom — she is my mother.

Since her stroke a year ago, Mom’s verbal communication is limited.  She cannot at this moment convey what 16 years old signifies to her, what it meant to live in the early 1950s when Macarthyism had taken over the minds of crazed politicians while the dropping of the hydrogen bomb was considered a solution to anything.  Had she been able, I’m sure my mother would have described her last year of freedom and budding independence with the same wistfulness she has always harbored.

“I wished I would have waited another year before I got married,” she admits.

After she turned from 16 to 17, my mother married my father and she began a long journey of giving birth to ten children, six of whom she would have to hand wash cloth diapers for because Pampers wouldn’t hit the market for another 13 years.

Before I tucked her into bed tonight, I showed her a photo and asked, “How old were you here?”

That same smile returned and clear as though it were morning, she said, “Oh look at me!  Sixteen; I was 16 there.”

Tomorrow morning, the calendar marks 79 years for my mother, but she’s chosen to be 16 years old instead.  I’d say she’s earned it.

Mom & I in Michigan, 2005.

Mom & me in Michigan, 2005.

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Thrive or Survive

HDU_surviveRains falls down in Austin today, allowing me to continue my dedicated procrastination towards the obvious weed pulling and mulch spreading needed in the front lawn.  Every day I am reminded of all the outside work my husband did when he was still alive; and, every day that it rains is a chance for me to stay inside and write to you.

Earlier this month, I wrote a summary of thoughts on my Facebook company page that began:

After my husband passed away in late 2013, people with good intentions said, “You’ll survive this,” except I wasn’t interested in surviving. I wanted to live; I wanted to thrive; I wanted to know hope again.

I wrote that after I was reminded of the final conversation I had with my husband’s oncologist.  The doctor thought he was talking about living except he kept saying things like, “survive longer,” and my husband’s head kept nodding along.  After the third survive platitude, I stood up in the examination room with arms stiff by my sides, fingers balled into tight little fists.  My voice was elevated while my eyes filled with water. I lifted my chin, refusing to allow the liquid to fall down my face in front of those two scientists.

“I’m not interested in my husband surviving longer,” was the most I could say.

But the oncologist failed to understand what I meant. I wanted my husband to come and go as he pleased, to eat what he desired, to swim daily laps in a pool, to walk for miles with a bug net collecting his girls.  What the doctor was offering was some grotesque version of living dependent upon bottles of pills, liquid food, and every day seeing my husband less and less capable of even the simplest of tasks.

Apparently, the oncologist thought that was living.

Surviving is not Living

Since the end of November, my mother has been living with me.  What started out as a short vacation has turned into an indefinite stay.  She originally came for a holiday visit at the suggestion and encouragement of my younger sister, Susan, and me. Susan has been our mother’s primary caregiver since she had a stroke last February, but in reality, my sister took over the management of both our parents in 2010. She has had to transition Mom into widowhood then into assisted living then to the hospital and a rehabilitation facility and now into permanent living in her home.  If you aren’t exhausted from reading that then perhaps you shuddered at the thought of being the caregiving child or worse, the elderly parent.

My mother’s visit to Texas ceased to be a holiday for either of us towards the end of the second week.  But because sub-zero temperatures continue to barrage the state of Michigan, we all agreed that Mom should remain where the sun makes a daily appearance and warm air sometimes nudges over the 70-degree mark in the winter.  Even on a dreary, wet Saturday like today, Austin temperatures are still twenty to thirty degrees higher than those living in the hand state.

More good people with well-meaning intentions have said that this time with my mother is a blessing. Many times these are people who lost their parents too soon or usually have not had to care for a parent in their home for an indefinite period of time or perhaps they have no interests or friends so being stuck at home 24×7 appeals to them.  I see it as my job to dispel the misconceptions about caring for an elderly parent and to announce that blessings come after the occasion not during. This time with my mother is work, it is difficult, it requires an unbelievable amount of patience and compassion, and it allows for a limited social life outside of the home.  I recommend to others in the same predicament what I recommend to myself:  Margaritas in moderation – and offer your parent some, too.

It is indeed important that I have these months with Mom if only to grasp the enormity of responsibility my sister has shouldered for this unspecified amount of time.  Although I cared for my husband through his dying, the differences in the dynamics of a relationship to a spouse versus a parent are too wide for comparison.  Unlike my husband, Allan, who fought to contribute to his own life even after he said, “This is no way to live,” my mother is docile in her approach to her last years.  Allan could barely walk down the street, his appetite erratic, his forever playful attitude diminished, but even so he still woke up every day and sent emails out or dictated messages to me as I typed.  He struggled to get scientific research mailed off so that articles of his work were published posthumously.  I won’t say Allan lived because I don’t think being strapped to a wheelchair unable to hold your own head up is living, but he squeaked out what he could in his last days.

I try to remember how my parents used to go out dancing, how they’d have friends over to play poker or how my mother would bend over four hot burners to cook for eight children. Nowadays she leads a sedentary life.  She was never a runner like Susan and me or an ultra-organizer of people and events like her daughters, but she also wasn’t as motionless as she is today. Sometimes I’m able to coax her out of the house to visit a museum or to decorate pottery or to eat at a restaurant. Daily, though, an extended effort is needed to pull her away from staring mindlessly at the television screen or watching out the front windows for passersby.

The pottery we decorated. Mother's cup is on the right.

The pottery we decorated. Mother’s cup is on the right.

I invite friends over to break up the monotony of her days but also as an incentive for her to do more than just survive.  I don’t know if I am helping or hurting.  What I do know is that this fastidious woman who would never have left her home without a shower, make-up on the face, and hair coiffed sometimes has to be cajoled into basic, everyday tasks.  If the in-house caregiver I hired is not due to come on a particular day or if guests are not expected, my mother may decide to sleep until the early afternoon. No amount of meowing from the cat or sleep interruptions from me can pull her out of bed. Do I encourage her to live for what could very well be many more years?  Or, do I let her wither away in survival mode, her brain going to mush, her inability to communicate a frustrating barrier for her and for others?  I don’t know.  I really do not know.

There was a tenderness I had with my husband in the last weeks of his life, a way of being that I wished I had had with him the entire time he was sick.  I see my time with my mother as a second chance to do things differently, as a way to be for her what I wished I had been for him.  Each day I attend to her needs, I repeat in my head:  Patience Compassion Forgiveness, Patience Compassion Forgiveness. Patience and compassion I learned from Hook; forgiveness I am learning from caring for her. When she asks if she’ll get any better or why this is happening to her, I tell the truth but not the God-awful truth.

“Today is a good day,” I’ll say if it is or, “Tomorrow will be better.”

“You promise?” she asks every time.

“It can be but we have to put some effort into it.”

How to Thrive

On Wednesday mornings, I post an If Not Now Then When question to my Facebook followers. The questions are meant to spur creative thoughts of change or why a person may want change or how someone might change.  Usually, they are also questions I’m answering for myself, my hand holding fast to a pen paused in mid-sentence inside a writing book.

Last January I began reading Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way, to help me unblock creatively.  One of Cameron’s recommended techniques for unblocking is to hand write three pages first thing every morning  As I look back into my mind and watch myself crying over those handwritten pages, a kaleidoscope of awareness spins through my head.  It was too soon after my husband’s death to expect so much of myself, too frightening to imagine anything new.  I had scoffed at the word survival during that last visit with the oncologist then grieved myself into my own survival mode:  Wake up!  Remember to shower. Feed the cat. Stop turning down clients. How many days in a row have I worn these clothes?  I was existing but I was not living.

The rest of the Facebook post:

Survive nothing. Live everything. Thrive. It is not easy to move through the darkness. It is not easy to humble yourself when you’re in need. But we do what we must to get to the other side. 

And what does the other side look like? I’m still learning, but I can tell you it is full of hope and frustration, joy and disappointment, laughter and anxiety. It is not perfect because life is not perfect, and I am not perfect and you are not perfect. The other side looks like what you look like, what you feel like inside, what you create and re-create or don’t bother to try at all. It is everything and nothing. You are everything and nothing and everything.

I asked my readers not to stay in a situation that they no longer enjoyed.  I begged them to begin today to plan and to think and to begin discussing with themselves what a whole new future could feel like and be like if they were willing to live rather than just survive; if they were ready to thrive instead of just exist.

~       ~       ~

When I originally started this blog post a week ago, I was sitting in a restaurant that my husband and I used to frequent.  I was doing that because sometimes during the day, to escape my home office, I work there.  Rock and roll from the 80s played overhead and I could hear Phil Collins singing:

All that time I was searching with nowhere to run to, it started me thinking

Wondering what I could make of my life and who’d be waiting

Asking all kinds of questions to myself but never finding the answers

Crying at the top of my voice

For all the times my husband and I sat in that dingy booth with its cracked plastic seats and an endless supply of tortilla chips, we never once discussed the possibility that life might turn towards an unplanned course.  I mention this not to say there’s no point in planning a new life.  I speak of this because it’s all the more reason to live the life you’ve dreamed for yourself but haven’t yet carved a path towards.

~       ~       ~

More and more I can feel the strength inside myself to change my life however I want.  Other times I struggle with the vision of a whole new life sans Allan.  That second thought happens only when I come upon an impasse in my mind and when I succumb to insecurities.  But I cannot honor myself or the memory of my husband by clinging to the past that has passed.  And I most definitely cannot live that way.

Two years ago, I could barely stop falling down when I ran so I stopped running altogether. One year ago I could barely get out of bed.  For awhile, I gave up. Today and most days, I wake up joyful again.  Before the sun and my mother rise, I run a four-mile course around Town Lake.  On the days that I don’t run, I dip my body into an outdoor, heated pool known as Big Stacy.  Steam floats up from the water when our winter temps in Texas dip below 40 degrees. Unlike other swimmers, I wet my toes first allowing the warm water to reassure me that this swim will be as fabulous as the last.  Rolling one arm over the other in my laps, I let go of any anxieties in my head.  Back and forth, back and forth, my heart pumps blood and oxygen throughout my body.  And each time my head rolls to the side so that my mouth can lift out of the water for air, it is usually memories of my husband that come to me. Surviving was not enough for him.  It is not enough for me.  For now, it is enough for my mother. Please don’t let it be enough for you.

Live. Thrive.

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