Monday, July 18, 2016

On second thought...

My blog post of the other day was, essentially, an attempt to be positive. Stretchy, shiny, cheap plastic thoughts with no air filling them; not even as lively as balloons. Limp assertions.
The truth is, I am bitter about my life, a lot of the time. At least work distracted me from this bitterness and threatening depression. Now, having retired, I have to distract myself, and I’m not up for it. Nor am I up for all the “creative projects” I thought I’d be rarin’ to be doing.
This morning I was pondering what it “means” to be an older person who doesn’t have children. Since my husband is spending a lot of time dealing with his elderly father who is in “rehab” after a stroke, I can be glad that at least I won’t be inflicting that kind of obligation on a son or daughter (only on said husband or a couple of caring friends, or more likely, strangers).
It also means that my family’s genes won’t have as much of a chance, or at least my particular combination won’t. A total of five male offspring have been produced by two of my five siblings, but no female offspring. It would have been nice to provide my family with one female descendant. I had the opportunity, back in 1979, but I wasn’t brave enough or stupidly optimistic enough. And I didn’t think about my family’s “legacy” at the time. I was selfish, scared, and heartbroken because my boyfriend didn’t want to proceed with the project and had moved to another state. He was going through a divorce, and I had just been through one. Sometimes life is not a fairytale.
My overall estimation of myself has improved somewhat since then, because I have made better choices. But still, what have I really done? Nothing very brave or unusual at all! As a white woman from the suburbs of Massachusetts, I was, yes, privileged, and even though I felt the effects of the “second-class citizenship” that feminism fought against, I still got away with a lot. I worked hard, but only when I felt like it. I took responsibility, but only for things that seemed interesting to me. I looked on “love” as something I could “get” when I needed it, with very little effort, simply because I was female and attractive. It took me YEARS to learn that sex and love were not the same thing. I was a naive idiot with intellectual and artistic pretensions. I didn’t know how to really LOVE anyone. I knew who pleased me and gave me attention, and I experienced what I thought was “suffering” when those people left. And of course I tried to make everyone “like” me, if not “admire” me. I fooled a lot of people into thinking I was a “good” person. I really wasn’t even a person. I still don’t know if I am.
I’ve been re-reading some letters from the 1960s, sent to me by friends. All of us were doing a lot of soul-searching in those days, yet it was so solipsistic. We were exploring our own moods, our own feelings. We were constantly disappointed in other people because they didn’t share our values, opinions, or energy level. We were prematurely disillusioned without even experiencing much of the world outside ourselves or our “crowd.” Sure, some of us traveled, but the efforts were superficial, considering all the drug-assisted writing and poetry-making and music-listening that seemed to fill each day. We were having an effect only on ourselves as individuals. We often thought the world owed us a living for being sensitive and creative and easily wounded. I admit it!
I could have read more books. I could have NOT dropped out of history class in high school and somehow gotten away with it. After my year of being away from high school, I returned to a groovy, “special” school that overlooked the gaps in my previous curriculum and eased me on to graduation with courses like “Journal Writing,” and “Photography.” I deserve to be the subject of a parody, only it’s a bit late. Maybe I can do it myself, if I can sum up the motivation (which I probably can’t).
Yes, I indulge in a vicious assessment of myself sometimes, having practiced attitudes taught me by my mother, the stern Catholic authority figure of my childhood. But since I “lost” my religion when I was 15, I can’t seek help from the saints. Often, I don’t even recognize that I’m down, or might need some fun, or might need to talk to a friend. I just stay at home. I make clever remarks on Facebook. I try to remain kind, or at least civil, toward my husband. He’s very important to me. I would say that I love him as much as I can love anyone, and also that I need him. I have needed him ever since we met and I saw what a genuinely kind person he is. I benefit from that kindness. I have survived because of it, I suppose. We have been together more than 30 years. My own father used to claim that marriage was simply an economic arrangement; I don’t know what philosopher he’d been reading at the time. But it’s more like a psychological arrangement for me!
So, in these days of racist violence and religious wars and poisoned politics, I am trying to become more aware, and to see if there is anything I can do to “help.” But usually, on any given day, I have only enough psychological energy to do something like give a ride to a friend whose car is in the shop. I’ve become more introverted; I’m not into neighborhood watches or peace rallies. I suppose I should be—I keep beating myself over the head for not doing things like that, because I no longer have the excuse of having to go to work. I exercise, but only because I don’t want to die before my time. I have always treasured “the life of the mind,” but I am distracted by the constant guilt of not doing enough for others. It is hard to find peace. So there, previous blog post!
Photo credit: Edith and Little Bear play with a toy camera and their teddy bears. Photo by Dare Wright: Photo from "The Secret Life of The Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright" by Jean Nathan.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Parakeet in a new cage

Many years ago, I had the chore of placing a pink cloth cover on our family parakeet's birdcage each night. On the fabric, which was sewn into a box-like shape, was a picture of a bird, with “Time to retire!” in large, cursive letters above it.


Now I have retired, not just for the evening but from my most recent full-time involvement in the work force at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. It was a decision made in February 2016, and as the date of release, May 1, came closer there was a feeling of impatience: soon I could stop doing all these by-now boring things for other people! But there was also a feeling of dread: would I feel like a useful human being? Was that important?

My 66th birthday occurred just before retirement, so I was eligible for close-to-maximum Social Security benefits. I also have a pension. Of course, as an hourly, not salaried, staff assistant in the art department, I wasn't making big bucks, and I'm not making them now. I have to watch my spending. There won't be any trips to Europe or even Alabama beach weekends, unless I diligently save for months. But there's enough for occasional fancy olives or local craft beer.

My job was the best (and longest) I'd ever had during my varied career. I carried a lot of keys. I was “in charge” of many things. People came to me for help and advice. My ego benefited from this. I was the “go-to” person for everything from getting an I.D.card activated for lab access, to contacting people outside the university for exhibit space or publicity. I had developed habits of responding and feeling that seemed to be “who I was.” But now I know that they were just habits, and possibly, coping mechanisms.
I always knew, deep down, that being super-responsible and available to everyone for more hours than I was paid was not always healthy. I threw myself into it. And I was able to do that because it was not my enterprise. In other words, I have been the kind of person who finds it easier to believe in the causes of others than in my own causes, whatever they might be. And although I'm capable of great selfishness, the expression of it has often been accidental or desperate rather than intentional and rational.


The first thing I discovered, not having to be at work every day, was that I could slow down. Activities that seemed a nuisance when done in haste became pleasurable when done slowly. Doing the dishes. Changing the sheets. Cooking a meal. Completing my morning exercise routine. These ordinary tasks took on a charm they hadn't had before. Perhaps it will wear off, but now I know it's a possibility.

The occasional bout of insomnia, once alarming because of how it interfered with my effectiveness the next day, is now an exploration of my own thoughts: I travel through time and visit many places, review memories and emotions, even chase a creative idea or two, knowing I can sleep late if necessary. This sometimes hours-long mental meandering is not always a source of pleasure, but at least it no longer causes panic.

I am more available to friends. I am happier when they call. There had been so many times when I experienced their invitations or communications as interference with “work.” Now I can pay more attention, be kinder, agree to meet for coffee or lunch or a drink, appreciate knowing them, and experience their unique qualities. This new openness of mine reminds me of when I was a hippie, before work slowly took over my life. Being a “people person” for work was not as sweet or sincere or rewarding as the years went by. I had no choice of which people, and the role was necessary all day long, which was exhausting. Now I can choose.

Finally, after some subtle sparring (my husband is self-employed and is at home a lot) with both of us feeling observed and perhaps assessed by the other, we realized that neither of us is always going to do what's silently expected or even out-loud asked. Rooms aren't going to get organized immediately, the way I pictured they would. Home improvements will be incremental, and maybe never happen. And it's not the end of the world. Instead of worrying about all that, I've agreed to rent half a room in the house of a friend, and will go there in the afternoons with some materials and my video camera to start working on a short Ken Burns-style film about my mother. There's an October deadline for a festival. I know what I'm doing from having taken a couple of courses, and I'm looking forward to the mind-trip that the process will afford me.

I now suspect that I might be old enough and mature enough, and possibly flexible enough, and perhaps capable of supporting my own causes enough, that it was truly “Time to retire!”

Monday, December 28, 2015

The tortuous route to not-being...

My father’s gone now, too. According to recent family lore, he was aiming for All Saints Day, and almost made it. He died late on Halloween night. When I saw him at the hospital, his eyes were rolled back and his mouth was open, and he was breathing irregularly. I don’t know if he could hear me telling him I loved him, or if he could feel my hand on his, or feel my hand stroking his head with its sparse white hairs. My gestures were sincere, and I vaguely hoped he would pick up the feeling and take it with him into wherever, but then I remembered that I don’t believe in any wherever, and neither did he. If he wasn’t even conscious at that moment, what would be the difference a few hours later when he was dead?
My sister had driven me back to the cluttered homestead around 8 pm, and I was on my second or third beer when my brother called with the news of my father’s passing. I immediately called my high-school friend in Maine, Janet. I was still under the decades-long illusion that she cared about me and my family, and she seemed suitably sympathetic. I had called her a year-and-a-half earlier, when my mother died. She said she felt “privileged” that she was the one I called, but I couldn’t tell if she said it with irony or not. She hasn’t written to me in the last few years except for one postcard. I know she’s retired, and spends a lot of time with her brother and sister and their families. Her parents are both gone; that happened some years ago. She had said then that she felt like an orphan. I was so sorry for her at the time; I didn’t know that was something everyone says. My overseas sister later told me not to say that about myself, though. My overseas sister feels she contains the best of what both our parents taught (or inadvertantly gave) her, and therefore, she will never be an orphan. I am urged to feel the same way. But all I feel is a bit angry.
My bedridden father had only gone to the hospital for oxygen. He knew he needed oxygen because he was hallucinating, he’d said. While there, they discovered he had pneumonia in one lung and his heart was failing. After oxygen, antibiotics and a few other things, they put something in his mouth, maybe nitroglycerine. It caused a bad reaction, and things got worse. I wish I knew more about this incident, which occurred the day before I got there. My brother had been by his side most of the time, but had been away when this thing happened. After this thing happened my father was unconscious, and that’s the condition he was in when I saw him. I am angry that this happened, and angry that death hasn’t been “peaceful” for either of my parents. My mother died as she was being cleaned by the hospice nurse. She yelled in pain, my sister said, as she was rolled onto her recently operated-on hip to facilitate the nurse’s actions. Then suddenly, she, uh, ceased to exist.
Why couldn’t my parents have died peacefully and painlessly in their sleep? The whole process, so long-drawn-out and pain-filled, is not a good conclusion to a life, however that life was lived. It isn’t fair. I am angry. I am not looking forward to my own demise. I used to think that being dead would be fine, since it would be the end of obligations and responsibilities. No more worries! However, if the last part of life is just a horrible mess, regardless of how long or how well you lived, then it’s just a destructive sensory weight crushing any pleasant memories or thoughts that might be drifting through one’s mind. In fact, it seems “designed” to cancel out everything good about life. I am angry. And I suppose I have been naive.
About two months after my father's death, a good friend died of ovarian cancer that she’d “battled” for two years. She was in her fifties. I saw her two weeks before it happened, on Thanksgiving weekend (a time I’d already planned to visit my family, thinking my father would still be alive). I drove to upstate New York from Massachusetts to see her for half an hour. She was skeletal, weary, unable to swallow, teary. And yet she was putting on a brave (British; she grew up in the UK) face, trying to be sociable. We stared at each other. I almost cried, but the tears remained behind my eyes. I haven’t cried for years. Something is wrong with me, I guess.
This is all very depressing. I strongly feel I need to concoct a new approach to life, a new attitude to take me through my remaining 20 (maybe) years. But I don’t know what notions to pursue, or what resources to gather from within myself. Spirituality is not working for me. But neither is materialism (that is, science). I think I need some good experiences, but right now I’m just trudging through the same old daily experiences. Where could I possibly find the energy (let alone funds) for any new experiences when I can’t even cope with the usual ones?
Happy New Year!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bridge over the river whatever...

It’s difficult these days for me to feel comfortable writing anything that’s not part of a welter of comments and posts; to write something that’s not tied by however slender a thread to some fuzzily defined consensus of my friends on Facebook. Well, that’s not exactly true—I do write contradictory or curmudgeonly posts, but only when I know I might have secret support. I might, for instance, gently mock some absurd “New Age” idea, especially if it’s just a “meme,” and not actually composed by a Facebook friend to express her deep convictions.
Facebook aside, there’s this huge VOID. Yes, the void. The abyss. But it’s a very foggy one. For all I know, the drop could be about five feet into some mud. Or, it could be infinite and cold and full of meaningless stars. There’s not much within me these days to get me motivated; and I can tell that what is there is merely intellectual—a few thoughts to keep me clinging to future possibilities of interest. But there is no real emotional need, yearning, repulsion, or discernment between one or another activity, or even between one or another person. Well, that’s not exactly true—I do have my preferences. Even when I’m just “hanging out,” I rarely do it with more than one person, or for more than two consecutive hours. That I can be with my husband for days is a given; it’s a condition, not a challenge. Yes, I take him for granted, and I am grateful to be able to do that. I do try to occasionally show him I care.
With retirement envisioned to happen in less than a year now, I’m no longer invested feelingly in work. I have neither the bursts of compassion nor muffled fits of fury that I used to have. I just want to get through the day. This is not really “me” anymore.
And my body is slow and achy; it’s no longer eager. It wants to lie down all the time. It wants to eat, drink, and be slothful. My mind wants to avoid stress or focusing.
I have a hazy sense of “unfairness” regarding my mother being gone, just when she was beginning to mellow, and to offer loving that wasn’t conditional (nevertheless with religious admonitions attached). It took long enough! I supposed I’d become a little more receptive, too. One of the last things she said to me was, “You guys were an interesting bunch.” Faint, but welcome praise, at long last.
I have a lot I can do. I can watch pretty-good new series on the computer. I can take up Scene Study classes again, and am trying to do so without paying by just being involved in the one scene from “I Love You, I Love You Not” with 14-year-old Sue. I can think about my collaged-artifacts art project that I hope to do for next spring. I can consider starting that book about my mother that I so wanted to write immediately after her death. But these days I don’t have any strong feeling of wanting to do anything. And that makes me worry. I hope it will come back—some kind of wanting—however ludicrous or inappropriate it might be. Better some crazy, rickety bridges across the abyss than just standing on its edge, staring and wondering, and ultimately being utterly bored by the fog with which it’s apparently filled.