Sandberg and Signs

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This week I read Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.  It is very well-written and full of facts and figures about losses, although it is her personal journey of pain, discovery and growth which spoke most to me.  I do not write as well as Ms. Sandberg and her co-author Adam Grant and so, quite frankly, it shut me down.  It has taken a few days to recognize even though we both want to express ourselves and be helpful to others, our voices are not meant to be the same.  Thus I continue with this blog.

Right after I lost my husband, I searched for signs.  I and his daughters saw an unusual number of rainbows, which in mythology represents a path between heaven and earth.  Rabbits seemed to pepper my path, and if they are my animal totem it means I should use the strengths already within me to survive and grow.  The color turquoise initially was prominent, and that hue is associated with a lot of positive attributes, including clarity, communication, and creativity.  Even the horoscope for my last birthday seemed to be a sign, suggesting I make changes to feel better about myself and to move forward in life.

All these signs – yet I did not see him.  I saw nothing of certainty.

I listened for his voice, his breath – yet heard nothing.

I reached across the bed in hopes to feel his body resting next to mine – yet felt nothing.

It is only in my dreams that I see, hear and feel Rick, and those dreams are too infrequent.  The truth of Rick’s continued presence in my life is his daughters’ love for their family, the stories of him told by close friends, and the ache in my heart as each of the “firsts” comes and goes.  I am certain of him.

Once there were Seven Sisters

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Just the other week I watched the movie Mona Lisa Smile, which takes place at Wellesley College in the early 1950’s.  The campus and students seemed familiar – my mother finished Mount Holyoke College back then and I followed her a few decades later.  The Seven Sister Colleges were Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, and Radcliffe.  Only the first three remain independent women-only liberal arts schools today, or more specifically, colleges that admit individuals presenting as female.

Amherst, just ten miles from both Mount Holyoke and Smith, was still men-only back in my day.  I can recall my relief in discovering most young men finally reached or surpassed my height.  I even took a course at Amherst called “Mysticism and the Moral Life;” let me just say there was no eligible man for me in that class!

My recent purchase of a book written in the 1970’s by Elaine Kendall entitled Peculiar Institutions:  An Informal History of the Seven Sister Colleges has prompted additional memories of my undergraduate years.  Besides a first-rate education, I made friends for life.  We’d gather over “milk and cookies” in our flannel Lanz nightgowns while taking study breaks, talking about our hopes and dreams.  (Did you know Lanz of Salzburg still makes nightgowns?  Christmas is not that far away . . . . hint-hint!)

My back-up choice was a coed college, but I was pleased to be accepted at Mount Holyoke first.  I was born an introvert so as a freshman I tended to remain quiet in my classes.  Over the four years I became more vocal, which I attribute to the supportive all-female environment.  Even though many of my MoHo classmates followed a STEM career track, we all benefited from our liberal arts training:  learning to think independently, question, and communicate well.  Some may consider a single-gender school anachronistic; it simply is not – even today it remains an excellent choice for many young women.

My classmates and I graduated on the waves of major change for women.  Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a MoHo alumna, wrote the play Uncommon Women and Others specifically about these changes.  More women were testing their abilities to have both career and children.  Some sought a positive impact on global issues.  Some became leaders in the LGBTQ community.  Some lived all of the above and more.  As for me, I knew I wanted to work in a professional capacity, but it took time to find my way, obtain additional education and eventually reach senior management.  My generation had more choices than my mother’s.

There are more waves coming.  My views on women’s issues continue to evolve, and I credit the Seven Sisters for this.

Un/Balanced

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Let’s face it, I’m not the most coordinated person around.  I never have been; here are two quick examples.  When I took up skiing my mother, bless her heart, told me she was amazed I could manage to stand on two skis and not fall over, considering my past athletic attempts.  And the first time I was on a road bike I fell across a railroad track, landing on a rail with my right hip.  When I got back on the bike to continue cycling, Rick said, “You’re really brave for a wo . . . .”  He swallowed the second syllable when he saw my stony face.  My current right hip pain probably originated with that spill a few decades ago.

This week I came home from dragon boat practice and prepared to bicycle the next day.  While toting my bike rack to the car, I dropped it on my big toe.  Now I can’t bicycle for a few days and have to skip a dragon boat practice to keep my wound open to the air and dry.  I wish there was someone — other than the one who stares back at me in my mirror — on whom I could blame this latest accident!

That’s the thing.  I have been exploring with my therapist the emotional ups and downs I’ve had since losing my husband.  I need to stop looking outside of myself for validation and activity.  Of course I do appreciate the support of my friends and family, but it really is up to me, and just me, to get my act together — to develop a routine for taking care of myself and the house, and to find new opportunities for personal growth and stimulation.

Last summer my life as I knew it ended.  I wrote out cards for all the new experiences I could try in my new chapter of life as I wanted to know there would be some good things ahead for me.  Being the project-oriented person that I am, I blew through almost everything I wrote down within months.  Some didn’t work out (such as pickle ball – see first two paragraphs above); others have become part of my routine (mahjong and dragon boat racing).  I think the only card left says “dog” and someday a canine will join my household again, but not now.

It’s time to write out more cards to help balance this new life.

Water-full

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When you like a flower, you just pluck it.

But when you love a flower, you water it daily.

~ Unknown

This week I’ve begun reading Awakening the Buddha Within.  The above quote is often attributed to Buddha, but a quick Google search showed the author is unknown.

I know my marriage to Rick was strong and good.  Sure, we had disagreements and sometimes had to flex to meet the other’s strong preferences, but overall we loved one another and were close.  Many of those who sent condolence cards specifically mentioned how unusually bonded we were to one another.  I agree.

Some time ago I heard marriage (or any loving, committed relationship) includes cycles of falling in and out of love with one another.  This rings true for me – not that I think either one of us was ever “out of love” but there certainly were times that our affection ebbed a bit.  Commitment does require effort (i.e., daily watering of the flowers), and for us, confronting challenges together often brought us closer again.  We had to talk through difficult subjects – illness, money, residence – all subjects fraught with the possibility of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Rick faced serious medical issues for a long time.  At first we thought it would just be a couple of knee replacements and rotator cuff surgery, but soon the big “C” (as my mother called it) entered our lives.  With the initial surgeries, I probably hovered a bit too much – a clue might be that when Rick got the all-clear from the orthopedic surgeon to drive he was gone for hours, lingering at motorcycle and bicycle shops!  As we entered the realm of cancer treatments, procedures, surgeries, and chemotherapy with the associated appointments and hospitalizations, we found our roles and rhythm.  Rick was a spirited fighter who impressed his medical teams with his resiliency.  He stayed focused on the big picture and I took care of the details.  We leaned into one another for comfort on this difficult journey.

Our marriage became stronger because of the challenges we faced together.  We had:

  • Passion for one another,
  • Respect for each other’s abilities, and
  • Trust that we had each other’s back.

Laughter, new experiences, friends and family also contributed to the well-being of our marriage.  So did the occasional bouquet of roses . . . .

Now it’s time to post this on my blog, go outside and address my infrequently watered flowers!

 

Waterlogged

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Today is a bit of a rant about home ownership.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am grateful to have a nice house in which I plan to live for many years.  I wish Rick was still here, but since he is not, I appreciate the solitude within my home.  I do not, however, enjoy maintaining the physical structure and landscaping.

Last year I developed a calendar of planned maintenance activities, such as shrub trimming, window washing, and mulch freshening.  I was proud of my documentation, but as this year has gone by I have seen my specificity is not realistic.  Sometimes more needs to be done and so far I haven’t seen where less will suffice.  And then there’s the inevitability of unforeseen or unfortunate issues.

I’ve had a water leak for some time.

This is not just a practical and monetary problem, it is emotional as well.  Years and years ago I bought my first home on my own – a townhome on a cement slab.  My dog and I moved in, happy to have a patch of fenced yard and a bit more room.  About a week later the water department left a note on my door – the prior owners had received a huge bill indicative of a leak.  Soon I had plumbers jack-hammering holes in my living room and laundry closet, ripping shrubs away from the house and searching for the leak – which turned out to be under the kitchen cabinets.  I never, ever liked that house again, and my next home had a generously-sized crawl space beneath.

Now I live alone, again, in a home on a cement slab with water issues.

One toilet has dripped off and on since we moved into our newly-built home less than two years ago.  The plumber sequentially replaced every part of the toilet, including tank and bowl, and then recently installed an entirely new toilet.  We’ll see, but so far it appears resolved.

The water company’s analysis, however, indicated high usage occurs when the sprinkler system is on.  I reduced the cycle times and dropped a day to reduce the bill.  One sprinkler company sent a couple of employees who declared the water pressure in every zone was satisfactory, thus not indicating a leak anywhere.  A second sprinkler company representative performed the same actions and made the same declaration.  A professional leak detection company analyst drove a long way only to tell me his equipment could not find external leaks.  The water company sent out a conservation representative who walked around each and every sprinkler head.  May I note that she was the only woman in this process, and she was the only one to find damaged heads? One of the sprinkler companies then sent someone out to replace and adjust heads.  I have my fingers crossed.

So far this year I have had servicemen for plumbing, pest control, landscaping, sprinklers, cracked stucco, HVAC service, cable and electrical issues.  Every scheduled appointment is for several hours – 8 am -12 noon, 1 – 4 pm, 6 – 8 pm – and of course almost no one shows up early in his time slot.  I understand they cannot anticipate how long each job will take, but I also feel as if they assume retired people have nothing better to do than wait.  Today I have two different service people coming, anytime from 1 – 5 pm.  Canceled bicycling plans and a homebound afternoon for me, but at least I will cross a couple to-do’s off my list!

Paddles Up!

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Team sports – any sports, actually – were never my thing.  Whatever required grace and coordination was out of the question.  Over the years I tried ballet, tap-dancing, ice-skating, baton twirling, horseback riding, dancing and piano.  I took to downhill skiing for a while, and I hiked when I lived near the Appalachian Trail.  I even organized a company softball team one year – we lost every single game, but we did have fun partying afterwards!  Bicycling was always an interest, but it was not until middle age that I became a cycling enthusiast.

One of my closest high school girlfriends was (and is) a competitive swimmer.  She was kept off the varsity team in the early years even though she swam well enough.  When we reached our senior year, the swim coach told her she still couldn’t be on the varsity team because she was the only girl and there were no female chaperones available.  I never learned anything about the team sport of swimming, but I became her chaperone because she was my friend . . . and because I had a crush on a boy on the team.

When Rick emphasized points by using sports team analogies, my thoughts drifted away.  I understand the concept of a work team, certainly, but more in the vein of different specialties coming together for the common good.  Some people are just simply more adept than others in terms of skills, knowledge sets, energy, etc.

Which brings me to the team sport of dragon boat racing.

OMG!  What a tremendous sport!  I had been to a few dragon boat festivals over the years and knew some of the people in my local dragon boat club, so I decided to give it a try last fall.

This past year has been full of decision-making, to-do lists and erratic emotional swings.  In the dragon boat with nineteen other paddlers I have no responsibilities except to listen to my coach, stay in sync and perform my best.  The whole movement of rotating inward, reaching my arms forward, catching and pulling water with my core and legs, and returning to the starting position is rhythmic and a form of mindfulness for me.  The pleasure of moving in symmetry with the others and feeling our collective power moving the boat is almost indescribable.  Physical exertion and peace.

And that’s just practice.

In a race, there’s the same focus on form and synchronicity, with the added oomph of our team members pushing themselves to their physical limits to reach the finish line first.  I have so much respect for the focus of each paddler in my club; each woman and man exhibits character, teamwork, and competitiveness.  Power and punch.

Rick, I get it.

Reaction to Feedback

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Now that I have put myself out there by telling my Facebook friends and others about this blog, I have been receiving a lot of feedback.  Many tell me I am brave for writing something so personal and emotional.

I don’t see it that way.

I am not writing about childhood traumas, shameful secrets or even bygone escapades that best remain in the past.  Those subjects are for me and my therapist – or very close friends over a glass of wine!

My blog is about my present.

Two years ago Rick and I were told his cancer continued to be in remission.  Two years ago our new home was almost finished.  Two years ago we were planning trips to see family.  Two years ago our lives had a positive trajectory.

Now I must build a new version of my life.  It is understandably only a beta version while I try out new features and discard outdated ones.  No one has a smooth arc through life.  I share my stories, humor and progress to inspire others to find their own way, too.

As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”