Getting my Fun Back

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I’ve heard often how tragedy, trauma, and grief change a person. I’ve been told by grief counselors and others who’ve had experiences similar to mine, that I’ll come out on the other side a different person than who I was before. I understand this to be true, but I wasn’t really certain how I am different. Although I can say that I have partaken of far more self-reflection in the past three years than at any other time in my life, I don’t know that I've spent too much time focused on the ways in which I am a different person. Am I stronger, better at letting little things go, do I have a better understanding of living every day to the fullest? I suppose so.

After making a New Year’s resolution to get out more, I’ve had several opportunities recently to be out with friends, both in one-on-one situations and with groups. A few of these interactions have prompted some thought in the days afterward. What occurred to me most was that, though I had a nice time, I still barely felt like myself—the self that existed for many years before Kevin became sick and died. Where had that essential-self gone, I wondered. The essence that most seemed to be missing was the part of me that made things fun. I can still make a few jokes, I can have a glass of wine or a cocktail and loosen up a bit, but I don’t seem to be quite able to shake the sense of seriousness that has come to fully inhabit my personality in recent years. I've written before about being happy, and I think I am generally a happy person now. But being fun is different. I really want my fun back.

If I think back to the last time I felt fully carefree and funny, it would be during the residency of the first semester of my MFA program. It’s hard to imagine a better setting—sequestered in an opulent hotel, in the company of writers, spending hours in bourbon-fueled discussions of our lives and our craft. That first semester I connected easily with a few other students; we laughed, we danced barefoot in fountains, we were by turns flirtatious and silly. It was a joyful time. Of course it was also in the months just after Kevin’s first diagnosis, when he had completed treatment, we believed the doctors’ stories of 90% success rates, and his first scans were clear. I was learning to enjoy every minute, and now had new friends with a most beloved common interest to share in this elation.

I recall also around that time, publisher parties and other get-togethers for work, gatherings of neighborhood friends, and the occasional reunion of co-workers from my days at The Ann Arbor News. In remembering all of these events, I see myself at or near the center, joking, laughing, telling stories with a lightheartedness and an ease that seem now to be tarnished at best, even worn away. I went to dinner last April with a work colleague who said very directly that I had become so much more serious than I used to be. “You’re not sad,” she said, “just serious; as though you carry this great weight. I just want you to have fun and be happy again.” And yes, she and I had shared some very late nights that included long stories of our youth, dares, and even a bit of carousing with Dave Eggers and Father Guido Sarducci.

Little did I know how much some of these memories would come to mean to me; how they would nourish and sustain me during a time of hibernation.

Like all forward movement, trying to have fun and be fun comes with tinges of guilt for still being here having any experiences. But I know that Kevin would want for me to be a fun person again. It was, after all, the girl he fell in love with—on our third date, a picnic table at a park in Dearborn, Michigan, clear September night, bright moon, over a six-pack of Stroh’s Signature (one of which I still have because he kept it), with a cassette tape of the Psychedelic Furs playing on his car stereo. We talked about how we would each be better parents than our own, and laughed at a goofy impersonation I did of our English professor who clearly had no understanding of the Ibsen play he was trying to teach. 

In thinking of this new me and the old me that even others are missing, I at times feel as though Old Me (who is actually not old, but young) is locked away somewhere, with her hands bound and duct tape over her mouth so she doesn’t say the wrong thing or act inappropriately. If her kidnappers released her, Old Me may not know what to do, or where to go. The sunshine as she leaves the secret hide-out would cause her to squint and withdraw. This isn’t just the pre-widowed me, but perhaps even the pre-kids-mortgage-career-etc. me. I understand that responsibility and maturity wear away some of the sheen of wild youth. The Lori that danced at bars until 2 a.m. in a mini-skirt, or sang Me and Bobby Magee at the karaoke lounge, or jumped onto a band’s tour bus, has grown up. That happens to everyone. But I believe I retained a bit of the essence of that mildly wild child as an adult. That is, until recently.

So how to get it back? Is there some remediation process by which I can remember to laugh and joke, to sing and dance, to take small chances even?  How do I train myself to occasionally release the tangled yoke of only-parent responsibility and survivor guilt long enough to simply enjoy myself? And how do I work at becoming fun again? Is that kernel of comedic playfulness lying dormant, or am I truly a different person on this side of grief, one that knows too much about the seriousness of life to ever again be carefree? I suppose there's only one way to find out.

Karaoke anyone?

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The Bands Play On

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It is difficult to explain exactly how important music is to my life. My earliest memories have music in them, as though life has always had a soundtrack. I work in and among writing and books, which are dear to me, but popular music is my first love.

I have a distinct memory of being 4 or 5 and going to the zoo with my babysitter. I remember sitting in the back of her green Mustang Fastback convertible, speeding down Woodward Avenue, with Martha Reeves on the radio. It is certainly a Detroit memory, and perhaps my Detroit upbringing has something to do with the intrinsic connection of popular music to my being.

I’ve been thinking about music for a few reasons lately. I recently spoke to a colleague about working on a music book project this summer. I’m terribly excited by the prospect. The book has to do with widowhood, so it feels perfect in many ways. I’ve also been reading Facebook posts by friends who share the “top 10 albums that have stayed with you over the years.” I don’t think I could narrow it to ten, but I’m thinking and trying.

Then I had a conversation with another friend about the music of our childhoods, during which we discovered a mutual love of Neil Diamond that comes from the fact that our parents loved and played Diamond’s music when we were young. Like the memory of cruising to the zoo, I can put on Diamond’s Holly Holy or Cracklin’ Rose and, with the first strums of the guitar, I’m immediately taken back to springtime Saturday mornings, doing chores while these records played on the turntable that was built into a stereo cabinet the size of a VW bus that occupied most of our living room. The windows were cranked open to let fresh air in and the volume was cranked up as loudly as my mother felt was respectable. 

Having now lost my mom just over a year ago, I’m also reminded of the several times that my sister and I took her to see Neil perform in concert. Mom worked on an assembly line for GM, cutting and sewing the fabric that would become car interiors. She worked forty-plus-hour-weeks and then worked another several hours each night with household duties. We always had a full meal for dinner (which we always ate together), and the house was pristine. My memories of Mom at those concerts, standing with us, swaying to the music, her arms raised in the air, are now some of the few times I really remember her feeling and acting carefree. They are powerful memories that sustain, and that come back to me readily after the first notes.

Oliver Sacks’ fascinating book Musicophelia, and Daniel Levitan’s equally interesting Your Brain on Music, both address the idea of music from a neurological perspective, including how we remember music, from individual notes to complete symphonies. For me, music is so closely tied to memories that—with older songs especially—the two seem intertwined in my brain. That has certainly been the case where music and memories of Kevin are concerned. I can’t consider our meeting, dating, marriage, or the time of his illness without also thinking of the music we shared.

We first connected over our mutual interest in the Clash. He borrowed albums I had purchased from the import bin at Dearborn Music and told me about going to their concert at a high school gym in Grand Rapids. When we moved in together a year later, the amount of duplication in our record collection spoke of two people with very similar tastes. They differed at some points, and Kevin quickly learned to accommodate my enduring love of the music of Queen and other 70’s rock bands that he had come to disdain. We also attended concerts together, some twenty or so over the years: everyone from Echo and the Bunnymen, to the Rolling Stones, to David Bowie, U2, and Bob Dylan. We made mix tapes for each other and for our kids—the first one for our son made while he was still in utero. We hung out at record stores like Schoolkids and Wazoo. We visited Johnny Cash’s grave and the bronze statue memorial to Freddie Mercury in Montreaux, Switzerland. We named our first puppy Mustang Sally.

So when Kevin was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo treatment, it wasn’t surprising that music was part of that as well. At first, he made his own mix lists on his iPod, some songs soothing, some closer to battle cries. The radiology technicians plugged his iPod into their speaker system while he lay on the table bolted in under plastic mesh, and he put his headphones on as soon as he walked into the chemotherapy room. For round two, he solicited music from the many friends who read his carepages blog, agreeing to add anything that was suggested, even country songs and rap. The suggestions poured in and the list--over 200 songs which are still on our iTunes program--include Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, Bill Withers’ Lean on Me, Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J, a very fast version of Amazing Grace by the Dropkick Murphys, and Beethoven’s Symphony #3 in E Flat, Op.55, Eroica.

Kevin absolutely loved this list. It connected him to everyone that was out there supporting him during his worst days. The music cheered him, strengthened him, calmed him, and gave him nourishment as certainly as any food. He listened to these songs as the anesthesia took effect before his two spinal cord surgeries. He spent forty-five days in the hospital before his last two weeks at home. Every night, the last thing I did before leaving for home, or curling up on the chair next to him if I could stay overnight, was to put his earphones on and turn the iPod to “Chemo List #2.” The drugs knocked him out each night, but the music allowed him to sleep.

He told me that he had two favorites on the list: Dylan’s Ring Them Bells and Three Dog Night’s Shambalah. It was the closest thing we had to time spent planning a memorial service—I took that conversation as an indication that he wanted those songs played in remembrance. They were, along with several others. It was a music-filled service, as he would have wanted.

Of course I could not listen to this playlist, or even one or two of the songs on it, for the past three years. It’s still difficult to listen to Ring Them Bells or Shambala or Wonderful Life or Joe Strummer’s version of Redemption Song. I wondered sometimes, if those songs were lost to me forever, their tunes and words just too painful to have in my life. I knew my relationship to music was forever changed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. So much of what we shared is just all around me, waiting for me to deal with on my own without any choice. But songs can be turned off or avoided altogether. It has taken some time, but I'm gradually putting the headphones back on and making music a part of my everyday.

I've managed, I suppose, to come to a different place. Now, when "Kevin songs" pop up on my random playlist, I simply let the tears come and embrace the time as a few minutes that I can spend in the comfort of memories. 

And I know that the memories will always come along with the music. Someday I’ll put the music on and dance, but for now it’s ok to just sit and listen.

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Give Me Strength

Friday, January 10, 2014

I’ve just come in from shoveling the dense, packy, sodden snow that accumulated outside last week. It’s the heavy kind that fills a shovel every few inches. Lifting that full shovel reminds one of lifting a mid-sized dog. It fell in big heaps over the weekend, nearly fifteen inches by the time it was done. My car got stuck in it twice as, despite the constant clearing, I just couldn’t keep up.

Shoveling snow is one of those chores that reminds me that I’m a widow. Actually, it reminds me that I’m a widow who doesn’t own a snow blower. The driveway at our old house was long and winding enough that it required hiring a plow. The walkways were fairly short and we had a teenaged boy (now away at college) to help. I’ve never had a very good relationship with any machine that requires a pull start, so the thought of purchasing a snow blower now didn’t make much sense.

In the three years since Kevin passed away though, I have purchased other small equipment. After a tornado touched down just ¼ mile from our house, I purchased a small, battery-charged chainsaw. I have used it a few times to cut very small branches and brush. I know it’s a fairly wimpy machine (not even sure it can be called a machine) but using it is still exhilarating and somehow empowering. 

But there’s a fine line between feeling empowered and feeling overwhelmed. Problems that arise--that I know Kevin would have dealt with--or that we would have tackled together, are more than just hassles. They remind, they discourage, they bring to mind the same questions, oftentimes they simply wear me out. I have written about the emotional struggles of being widowed, but there are physical and intellectual challenges as well. I come from a long line of strong women. I am grateful for whatever genetically endowed internal fortitude I have, as it has been called upon repeatedly over the past three years. 

So let me tell you about the strong women:
My great-grandmother on my mom’s side met my great-grandfather when she was twenty-one and he was fifty-four. He had been a Civil War lieutenant and the town’s Post Master. She bore five children in six years, watched one become blinded and one die of consumption, and then buried her husband before he turned seventy. She went on to run a boarding house in a town that had a lumber mill, a cannery, and textile factory, so I can only imagine her encounters with rowdy men. 
My great-grandmother, my grandmother (holding doll) and my great-aunt. This is one of only two photos that exist of my grandmother before she was blinded.

My grandmother (her daughter) was accidentally blinded at age 7 by her brother. She lived at the Tennessee School for the Blind until she was nineteen and received a college-level education including Latin, French, calculus, and chemistry. She read Shakespeare, Cicero, and Upton Sinclair, all using Braille. She could use a sewing machine, a typewriter, and play piano. She raised her three children on her own when my grandfather, a traveling salesman who was rarely home to begin with, died of typhoid fever in 1933. 

My great-grandmother on my dad’s side was a Cherokee woman who I’m told, hid in a cellar during the government-imposed relocation of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears. She rarely ventured out of the house afterward, fearing for her life. 

My grandmother in the camp kitchen with my dad, c. 1922.
My father’s mother married my grandfather at fifteen. She worked with him in the logging camps along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, where she managed the kitchen. Each day, she rose at 4 a.m. to make breakfast and supper for sixty-seven men, including baking over a hundred biscuits. She raised eight children, including a granddaughter. She and my grandfather were married sixty-six years.

My mother, worried that her mother would never understand that she wished to marry and move away, eloped with my father in 1943. Together, they left their families and moved to Detroit, where my dad registered for and was drafted into World War II. At eighteen, and pregnant with my brother, my mom lived on her own in the second floor of a house owned by an Armenian family that didn’t speak English. In 1950, she went to work for General Motors. She worked full-time, raised 4 children, and kept a spotless house. She taught my sisters and me to be independent, to have our own money, and to love unconditionally.

I have often called upon the memories and the strength of these women as I’ve moved through the past three years, knowing that they also suffered losses as great as mine, and kept going. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the thought of one more pep talk to myself makes me want to scream.

I remember in the months after Kevin’s passing it seemed that everything that could go wrong did. In six months’ time, I replaced a hot water heater, a water softener, the heater control on our hot tub (twice), a sump pump, then had major car repairs for both my car and my son’s (which broke down on the freeway sixty miles from home). The furnace went out when it was cold, and the air conditioner quit on the hottest day of the summer. 

After going through so much, I was greatly anticipating spending a quiet summer evening at the home of a neighborhood friend. We would sit on the deck, sip wine and laugh about all of these problems. But when I arrived at my friend’s house, we instead discussed the fact that a black bear had been sighted at the house across the street. We wouldn’t be eating on the deck, and before we could dine at all, I was advised to return home, lock my dog in the house, and remove all bird feeders from the yard. 

A bear. A f#@**&ing bear!

Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be put through anything more, I had to deal with a bear.

I sat down that evening after dinner and looked to the sky. I told Kevin that if his purpose was to make me realize I had taken him for granted, it had worked! But I was now ready to have a little break from this cosmic joke. 

Other things have happened, as they do. And even the day-to-day takes additional strength some days. I’ve broken down doing the simplest things: unloading groceries, putting gas in the car, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, and yes, shoveling snow. It doesn’t have to be something big to remind me that I am doing all of these things on my own.
And the big things remind me too, even those things that are planned. When I think back on selling my house, buying a new condo, buying a car, selling a car, helping my son with college arrangements, getting my daughter through high school, and all the other things big and small, I am thankful for whatever amount of fortitude I inherited from the strong women who came before me. 

Oh, and if you think the genealogy detailed above is impressive, you should also know that Elvis and I are cousins!

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If the Fates Allow

Monday, December 23, 2013

The kids and I brought home our Christmas tree last night: a big, spindly, beautifully-smelling ten-footer. We drove out to the tree lot and cut it ourselves, my son and I taking turns lying on the ground with the bow saw, pushing and pulling against the grip of the wood on the blade, snow filling our boots, the ground a mix of slush and mud as the temperature climbed above freezing. The two of us dragged the tree from the back-forty up to the barn while my daughter, newly-turned 16, drove the car back to meet us.

So much of this scene is different from past Christmases that it incites reflection on what can only be called a time of transition for all of us. If I stop and consider, as one is wont to do this time of year, I realize how many steps forward I’ve taken. Each of those steps feels hard-won, and each carries with it the weight of leaving behind a past life that was perfectly fine until it wasn’t. That my son, who for years complained about our sojourns into the woods for a tree, now insists on maintaining this tradition, and my daughter is now old enough to drive the car to help, are both reminders that life goes on, even at those times when we wish it didn’t. Transitioning from one place in life to another always causes the ground to feel uncertain beneath your feet. When that transition wasn’t planned and in fact arrives as a shock, this is even more the case. Second-guessing and regret often accompany each step.

A ten-foot tree would never have fit in our old farmhouse, built as it was with low ceilings so as to conserve heat. The very fact that we have this tall tree is a result of forward movement as we celebrate Christmas this year in a house we don’t own. I miss Christmases in our old house, where I decorated so much, I believe I could have convinced visitors that Norman Rockwell had married Martha Stewart and settled into our home. Considerable effort was put into making everything perfect. I realize now (as I transition to purposely spending my time in other ways) that it usually resulted in a beautiful setting and a very cranky decorator. 

This year, we are in a rental home—a way station along this path. As mentioned in an earlier post, I sold our farmhouse this past summer, unable to deal with the constant work and expense of maintaining it. I live in the rental home while my daughter finishes high school. Once she’s away at college, I will move into a renovated loft in the Midtown area of Detroit. It’s an old Jeep factory, and I currently own a shell of space that will be built out over the next year. It is walking distance to many things that are important to me: Eastern Market, Comerica Park, Whole Foods, the Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony, a community garden, three galleries, a nationally-known bakery, multiple restaurants. I can’t contain my excitement when I think about it. My recent meeting with a newly-hired architect resulted in a change of plans whereby the room with fifteen large windows and tons of natural light will be my writing space. The kitchen now opens up into the living room so that I can cook and entertain. I cannot consider this space without smiling.

I also used to bake cookies this time of year—thirty dozen by one count. They were gifts for friends and service providers, they accompanied us to every party we attended. On the second Friday after Thanksgiving, I would begin at 7 a.m. and finish around midnight. Kevin would call and check-in from work a few times through the day, getting an updated grocery list of items that had run out, and later, collecting my dinner order for Chinese carry-out. Once home, he sampled each kind, a smile on his face like that of a child in his favorite bakery where everything is free.

I have cooked and baked very little over the past three years, and couldn’t even begin to think about recreating the annual “cookie baking day extravaganza.” There is no longer the time, and I just don’t have the heart for it. But I did bake this year for my cooking group cookie exchange. I am grateful for my cooking group. They will never realize what their friendship (over half of them being brand new friends that I had never met prior to our first gathering) has meant to me this year. Together we have made numerous trips to Eastern Market in Detroit where we discover new things to eat, and befriend vendors like the lady who, with her son, sells the best turkey and veggie burgers, or the completely engaging couple who run the Middle Eastern store—they treat us like their long-lost daughters each time we visit. Because of this, I've returned to cooking with renewed interest and purpose. For my month of hosting our group I prepared—as a tribute to my parents and grandparents—an authentic Southern meal complete with chicken and dumplings, collard greens, green beans, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler. 

Tonight, my children and I will decorate the tree. Ornaments are now kept in a storage unit instead of the dusty attic of our old house. I’ll look at each one (and we’ll need each one in order to cover this huge tree) and know of the memories it represents. There are ornaments from trips to family reunions, our first trip south for Kevin to meet my extended family, two trips to Europe. I have the ornament we purchased while on our honeymoon and the ornament I gave him on our 25th wedding anniversary. Some ornaments I made by hand and several were made by our children. 

This year, I’ll place three new ornaments on the tree—small, beautiful, hand-crafted bangles given to me by friends as we celebrated at a holiday dinner last week. The four of us are all single women who happened to live in the same neighborhood—two divorced and two widowed. We gather each month at one of our homes or at a local restaurant and share equal amounts of celebration and commiseration. They (and many others) were there for us during Kevin’s illness and then for me after his death. I cherish these friendships as well, and find myself hoarding away little incidents and big news as I go through the month, in order to share with this group who understands better than most what this new life entails.

There are other recent events that cause both smiles and contemplation: I reconnected with a wonderful friend last week that I hadn’t seen since my wedding day. Twenty-seven years evaporated like the steam from our coffee as we caught up on our lives and made plans to keep in better touch. It’s always good to be reminded that I can reclaim some of the fun of the past and bring it along with me.

My siblings and I have started a new tradition of meeting just before Christmas to lay a wreath at my parents’ grave and have lunch together--a new tradition that brings sadness and laughter colliding together. As part of my move, I found and watched several old videos of my family sharing Christmas Eve. Time moved in fast motion as I pulled one video out and popped the next one in, a year having passed in the moments in between. So much time and so little; so much change.

Old friends and new, just-born traditions and those well-worn, all bring comfort; they occupy in different ways the empty space that’s created when those so important are no longer here. I permit myself the time for sadness and hope that it settles into a place that also allows for the joy that springs up along the path when I’m not looking. 

Here’s wishing each of you a safe, joyous, peaceful, holiday season filled with both reflection and hope, and surrounded by those you love.

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