Some people tend to view their experiences in metaphorical terms, looking at their lives as chapters in a book. That is a reasonable metaphor, I think, but our lives might just as easily be collections of short stories. Chapters of a book have connections to one another. Short story collections can be threaded together with a theme or thrown together in chaotic fashion, eschewing a common theme in favor of a series of disconnected experiences.
Until the death of my wife, I unconsciously looked at my life as a book whose chapters were relatively simple and straightforward. And, I suppose the book was plodding along as intended until, suddenly, the final chapters became impossible to write. Now, that simple and straightforward book can no longer be finished. So, I am faced with deciding whether to cobble together chapters to tack on to an unfinished manuscript. If I do that, I must recognize that the body of work cannot be edited to accurately reflect the way the past moves into the future. The other option: abandon the unfinished book and start something new.
A few years ago, as I was entering retirement, I worked out a plan I called the “New Trick Tour.” My plan was to arrange to work for one week at a time at a wide array of jobs, from manual labor to service industry positions to technical service roles to professional engagements. The idea was to either work without pay, at the employer’s option, or with some modest stipend to cover the cost of lodging and meals for the week. I was willing to cover the costs, if necessary, but I hoped to get some support. During my fifty-two weeks of one-week-at-a-time employment, I would write about each experience, which I envisioned would be eye-opening and exciting. At the end of the year, I would assemble my writings, week by week, and would edit them into a book-length manuscript. The idea, as might be obvious, was to produce a book promoting the idea that you can “teach an old dog new tricks.” For various reasons, not the least of which were learning of competing endeavors and encountering insufficient support in finding even the first few weeks of “employment,” I dropped the idea. My wife was relieved, as she thought it was akin to “the impossible dream” and she envisioned me being away from home most of the time, spending money we did not have. But I hated to leave the idea. And I still wish I had moved ahead with it, somehow. Bygones will be bygones, though, whether we like it or not.
Yet I have never given up on the idea in its entirety. It has gone through multiple iterations, but none of them have seemed doable for one reason or another. Now, though, some of the constraints that prevented me from acting on the ideas no longer seem insurmountable. And while I am no longer considering the same scenario as I was back then, I think I might be able to create a series of experiences that might well fit into a “short story collection” of sorts. Change is hard, though, even for someone like me who likes to think I embrace new experiences and discard broken ones.
Perhaps I will attempt to craft a tapestry instead of a book. A tapestry made of new experiences in new places with new people. Or alone. And my tapestry may take the form of vignettes, my favorite form of writing fiction. Except, in my case, the vignettes will not be fiction. They will be—if I weave them—autobiographical. Perhaps with a twist. I could manufacture a companion, visible only to me, with whom to share my new experiences. A dog, perhaps, or a woman with sparkling eyes and a sense of adventure. Or maybe this will slip into the dustbin of ideas that grows so heavy it is impossible to empty.
Years ago, I read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. The book details Didion’s experiences concerning her husband’s death. Lately, I’ve realized that I, too, have engaged in magical thinking surrounding my wife’s death. I speak to the beautiful wooden urn holding her ashes as if she can hear my apologies for the mistakes I made during our years together. I cling to certain of her clothes; not with any specific purpose in mind but with a fear that if I give them away I will lose an important connection with her. There are dozens of other bits of “magical thinking” that take place in my mind, with respect to my wife’s death. I try to understand them and get over and through them, but I suppose the only way to do that is to allow healing time to move ahead on its own schedule. It is approaching five months since she died and ten months since the fall that led to her hospitalization and her time in rehabilitation facilities. The pain is rarely as sharp as it was when she died, but it comes in waves that almost equal those first few days. I do not remember the “lesson” from Didion’s book. Was her magical thinking a necessary part of the healing process? In Didion’s case, her grief was magnified by her daughter’s illness and, ultimately, her daughter’s death. But are there really lessons to be learned from the book? Perhaps I should read it again. I won’t, though. I have too many other books waiting to be read; I blame the delay on the insufficiency of my eyeglasses, but I know it’s more likely my ADHD or whatever it is that keeps me from finishing almost everything I start.
I try to make it a point not to mention my wife or my grief when I am around other people these days. I know from experience how listening to and witnessing the depression of grief can be draining. It is not that one tires of hearing about it; it’s more a matter that one needs protection against falling into the pit from which the griever is attempting to escape. But I know from experience, too, that avoiding the topic can amplify the emotions connected to it. When I am alone, I unleash the pain and try to come to grips with competing emotions, which is perhaps the most difficult aspect of my personal grief. That is, I deeply grieve for and miss my wife, but at the same time I long for some kind of connection to fill the void. That longing, taking place at the same moment as my grief, causes me to feel guilt, as if I am simultaneously missing my wife and looking for a replacement. Allowing these emotions to exist in the same mind at the same time could rip me apart. Some days, I wish I could simply become utterly detached and unfeeling. Even that wish, though, makes me feel guilty for wanting my natural pain to subside and be replaced by unnatural serenity. I can’t win for losing. Or something like that.
Today, I will have lunch with a friend and then will get a tour of her RV, which I have seen only once in a photograph she showed me. She is about to leave on a ten-day trip that will have her staying at several “uncommon” places. She belongs to two organizations that give her access to somewhat remote but attractive RV sites: farms with just one or two RV hookups, lakeside retreats with limited RV capacity, etc. These are places where she can relax without the noise and hustle-bustle of other RVers. Though I’m not nearly far enough along in my thinking to believe I will buy an RV, I’m curious enough to want to explore the idea.
I woke up a little earlier than usual this morning, about 4:45. That early start prompted me to put in a load of clothes, including two pairs of jeans, one of which need a belt loop repaired. Because I have never learned to use a sewing machine, I will again have to take the jeans in to a seamstress, a woman who operates a sewing and embroidery shop nearby. The cost of cheap jeans increases quickly when I have to have her repair belt loops; apparently, I regularly grab the same belt loop to “hike up” my jeans, causing it to fail. This would not be a problem if I would lose enough inches around my waist to allow my jeans to sit just above my hips. Maybe. The fact that I have no butt to speak of doesn’t help. There’s very little upon which the jeans can sit. So they attempt to slide down to uncomfortable levels. But that’s not what I started to write about. I was writing about my laundry, an exciting subject if ever there was one. I washed almost all of my regular day-to-day clothes this morning, so I’ll have to wait to get dressed until the dryer finishes (I just put them in). So, no point in showering until I have something to wear. I could shave, but that will have to wait until I finish writing, won’t it?
I am hungry. I should feed myself a glass of tomato juice and an olive and quit eating for the day. But I will not do that. I will have tomato juice, thank you, but the olive will wait. Instead, I will have something a bit more substantial. What, remains to be seen.