Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Journaling Propels Me Forward

Every morning, after rising and making coffee, I sit on my couch with a 6" x 8" spiral notebook and a Pilot Razor Point Extra Fine pen. For at least a half hour, I record a diary of what I did the day before, dreams and nightmares, wounds and applause, plus tasks due that day. As of this writing, I'm up to page 10,380.

            While that number may sound impressive, it doesn't travel far enough back. I wish the innocent little girl I once was would've grabbed pen and paper as soon as she learned to print. If I had started then, writing my memoir, "The Division Street Princess," might have required less tunneling. To fill in, I had to rely on microfiche pages of Chicago newspapers, tales told by relatives, memories that had been bolted to my brain, and my imagination.

            For my second book, a slight e-novel called "She's Not The Type,"  I had some journal pages, but not the guts. The first half of that book is a roman e clef, somewhat based on my first marriage -- our secret romance, wedding, birth and upbringing of two daughters, and our eventual somber divorce after 30 years. The second half is pure fiction -- a wistful dream where the protagonist becomes a journalist and her mother, rather than dying young while in a pathetic second marriage, moves to Hawaii and finds true love.

            In this current period of my life, with my morning journaling as sacred as a religious rite, I also read a page taken from past years. I do this because I want to learn my patterns -- worries that never came to pass, prophetic musings, and other buried gold.

            Recently, I've been in 2012, reliving my husband Tommy's last weeks. Although my heart beats as I read about the emergency room visit when he became dehydrated, the astonishing discovery that it was throat cancer rather than dementia blocking his ability to swallow, ten harrowing days at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and twelve at home in hospice, the most surprising take-away was my eerie calm.

            When I discussed this odd composure with others who had experienced similar journeys, one friend said, "You did what you had to do." I'll accept that, but I have another theory: Because of my daily journaling and the The Rookie Caregiver blog I was writing at the time, I had been able to release most of the shadows, fear, and grief.

            Remarkably, on the entry I wrote November 4, 2012, just two days after Tommy died, I wrote: Plan to start post for TRC about his death. Then, keep up until I have enough pages for a book. After that, get a fee for editing and self-publishing, do a cloud fundraising, and try to get book completed by May 2013. Goal.

            I'm a year late, but thanks to 112 backers on a Kickstarter campaign, it is happening.  She Writes Press will publish "Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss" September 2014.

            It turns out it's not only starry-eyed goals that plump my journals, but other musings that bear repeating. On November 9, 2012, one week after Tommy's death, I wrote: Bank turned me down for a Home Equity Line of Credit, not enough income. Not surprised. Think I will eventually sell as house is way too big for one person & do I want hassle of roommates or borders? May be better for me to rent new apt. that can make my life easier and not have to depend on others. All options open.

            Those words turned into several posts on The Rookie Widow - a prophecy that took less time to accomplish than my third book. In a little over five months, I was settled into my new River North apartment.

            Because I'm tech savvy, it's surprising I've resisted typing my daily words into a computer. But for me, there's something about pen and paper that better stirs my brain and soul.  I'm grateful to journaling for buffing my writing voice, while also serving as memory chip, repository, therapist, best friend, cheerleader, and crystal ball. And coupled with that first cup of coffee in the morning -- for this writer, it has been the most nourishing way to start a new day.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Que Sera, Sera

Anna goes to the kitchen to find scotch tape. She heads straight for a drawer and grabs a roll -- her Early Stage Alzheimer's hasn't yet robbed her of that discovery.

"How about here?" I ask. I am standing in the hallway of her home, at the foot of the staircase, holding up a lined page ripped from a notebook.

We selected this spot because anyone entering -- particularly her adult children and caregiver -- can't miss it. Anna hands me the tape and I affix the sign so it drops from a shelf to the right of the stairs. Dictated by my friend, it reads: IF I FORGET TO FEED MY CATS OR CHANGE THEIR LITTER, PLEASE DO SO.

"Thank you," she says to me, and we return to the couch where she spends her days adjacent to a small television. A table at arms length holds a large monthly calendar, the notebook, packages of gum, telephone numbers of her children, and various homeopathic medicines someone believes will help Anna snap out of her condition.

As evidenced by our sign, I am not in the alternative treatment camp. I've read up on Alzheimer's, and have the experience of caring for my husband, Tommy, whose dementia didn't lead to memory loss, but was equally unfixable. Instead of urging Anna to curb repetition, or pull herself out of depression, or halt her worries, I instead stick with wherever her slowly erasing mind lands.

Months ago, when Anna stopped remembering what she had done earlier the same day; I began to visit her weekly. As typical of those with the illness, she has no problem recalling episodes from long ago, and is delighted when I regularly recount our first meeting.

She perches on her couch, adjusts her two hearing aids -- which she says aren't working as they are supposed to -- and leans in for my story. "It was my first day in the exercise class," I say, using a slow cadence, as if it were a fairy tale. "You were in the first row near the mirror and I was in the back. You were dancing so gracefully, different than all of the others. I couldn't take my eyes off of you."

After class, I spotted Anna in the health club's lobby and stopped her to express my admiration. "I was a ballet dancer in my youth," she explained. "The movements are natural."

That meeting led to a deep friendship. I learned she was 10 years older than me, which brought me hope realizing I could possibly be in as great shape when I reached her milestone. She became an immediate fan of my memoir, "The Division Street Princess" and bought at least a dozen copies to give to friends. We were each other's cheerleaders.

On the couch, after the sign posting and our how-we-met story, Anna tells me, "I know how your husband Tommy must have felt. Like a prisoner." Although she declares this with each visit, I nod my head. "Que sera, sera," she says. "Whatever will be, will be. Remember that song? Doris Day, right?" She is proud she has made the right combination.

"Yes, it's from a movie," I say. "A classic Alfred Hitchcock." I pull out my iPhone and find a clip of the scene in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" where Day is at the piano singing loudly so her son, who is trapped upstairs, can hear her. Jimmy Stewart is slinking out of the ballroom where the mini concert is being held.

Anna's eyes are giving her as much trouble as her ears, so she pulls my phone close to her face to discern the action and music. When the few minutes of play are completed, we sing together the lyrics. Her caregiver, Sonia, who is seated nearby, joins in.

Then, Anna rises from the couch, walks to the piano -- standing because I am seated on the chair that is usually at the instrument -- plays the tune, perfectly; by ear. I clap loudly, as if mirroring the movie star's volume.

In an hour, as I stand up to leave, Anna asks, "When are you coming back?" Her pencil is poised at the oversized calendar.

"Sometime next week," I say, and step in for our usual hug and kiss. "I'll call you as soon as I get my schedule."

In he hallway I pass the taped sign and wonder if it will still be up when I return. "Que sera, sera," I think to myself, closing the door behind me. "Whatever will be, will be."

Note: My new memoir, "Green Nails And Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss," will be published September 2014. To join the book's crowd-funding campaign, please click on Elaine Soloway's Kickstarter Campaign. Thanks!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ink Fades; Memories Linger


I glanced at the biceps on my left arm to follow the pointing hand of a trainer at my health club.

"Oh, you mean my tattoo?"

"Yeah, what does it say?"

I stretched my neck and pulled my arm closer to read it for him. But as I searched for the words, I made an unhappy discovery. "It's faded," I said. How had I not noticed that before?

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," I said, "it was inked 15 years ago, for my 60th birthday."

"Wow," he said. Was he doing the math to get my current age, or stuck at wondering why a 60-year-old would've considered her first-time tattoo back then?

Our chat inspired me to cut my exercise routine and revisit the occasion of my tattoo. I stretched out on a bench and it all came back:

When that 60th birthday was nearing, friends and loved ones queried: How do you plan to celebrate? Expecting news of a gala party, European trip, or expensive jewelry, they learned instead: “I’m getting a tattoo.”  

 “Are you nuts?” my brother Ron had asked. “When I was in the army, any woman with a tattoo was considered a hooker.”

My husband, Tommy, whom I had wed a mere seven month's earlier, offered a gentler response: “It’s not my arm, but if that’s what you want, go ahead.” Even in that short wedlock, it's likely my spouse realized his wife could be unpredictable and not easily dissuaded.

Daughters’ Faith and Jill -- a musician and writer -- pronounced the plan “terrific.”

The next question was: “Why?” To me, achieving age 60 was a chance to thumb my nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics; who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.

Deciding on a design was difficult, considering it would be my companion till dust do us part.  Because my marriage was so fresh, I decided not to jinx it with Tommy's name splayed on my arm. I settled on a tattoo with a heart that would contain two banners, each bearing a daughter’s name. And it would be joyful, a tribute to my talented daughters, honoring them for our solid relationship and their own free spirits.

Finding my tattoo artist was easier. From referrals, I settled on Jon. “It must be fun, carnival-like,” I instructed, “with symbols of my daughters’ personalities.” He quickly sketched a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses emanating from all sides. Across the center were two banners: Faith, the eldest, on the upper, Jill, 18 months younger, the lower.

The second appointment produced the finished product on translucent paper: my puffy heart in psychedelic colors of crimson, yellow, turquoise, and emerald with my daughters’ names emblazoned on its front.

After two hours, the tattoo was complete. I stared into the mirror, praying for satisfaction, and saw my badge of courage: a 4-3/4 inch wide by 3-inch high, wildly colored tattoo, with my cherished daughters forever engraved on my arm. 

"Keep it covered until morning," Jon said as he protected it with Saran Wrap™.  

At home that afternoon Tommy was eager to view the results, but I pleaded, “Wait till morning,” preferring to keep my raw portrait protected in its plastic bunting.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Visions of regrets, onlookers’ gasps, and lifelong pain prohibited repose. I prayed for the hours to race by. In the morning, I ran to the bathroom, and was ecstatic to find my gorgeous tattoo intact. It was bright, fun, and, well, tough!

Today, with Tommy gone, but still brighter in my memory than my fading tattoo, I recall his response: "I love it!" he had said. "It's sexy."

Rather than refreshing the ink on my 15-year-old tattoo, as I first considered, I think I'll leave it as is. Somehow, the soft colors seem more appropriate to a widow. But, who knows how I'll feel at 80; perhaps a brand new one?

Note: This essay is part of my new memoir, "Green Nails And Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss," which is to be published September 2014. To join the book's crowd-funding campaign, please click on Elaine Soloway's Kickstarter Campaign. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A New Lease

I've raised the horizontal blinds that cover the floor-to-ceiling windows of my convertible studio apartment.  The Chicago River is frozen over, cars on the expressway are slogging in both directions, and the sun is sneaking above the high-rise and loft buildings that complete my view to the north.

A new lease waiting to be approved is on my small Lime Ricky green table. As of April 15, I will have lived here for one year. I settle on a pillow that softens the seat of a wooden chair and start reviewing before I sign on the dotted line.

The view distracts me, so I drop my pen and allow myself to muse over the decision I made just two months after my husband died November 2, 2012.  Elbowing past advice to make no major moves for at least a year, I put our house on the market. And five months later I landed here, in this new apartment and life. Now, as the lease renewal approaches, I decide it's time to review the pros and cons, and changes, which have occurred since that swift transition.

First the pros:

I love my living space. While the views are new, the furnishings are warmly familiar. A dozen paintings that burst our house's walls with color and interest are now hanging in my 612-foot-cocoon. My Kingsbury Plaza maintenance men leveled, nailed, and attached all; one of many tasks they have undertaken with sweet eagerness.

I am typing this essay on a gaunt MacBook Air, which I exchanged for a muscular desktop that would've overwhelmed my Sapphire blue worktable and pint-sized apartment. Instead of the home office I once had, I now work in a snug corner with a built-in bookshelf that holds the few volumes, photographs, mementoes, and supplies I brought with.

I am managing without owning a car. A major change between my former life and current -- other than I'm absent my husband -- is that I no longer own a car. Finances were the primary reason, but also, I can walk to grocery and department stores, am a few blocks from three CTA lines, and can hail taxicabs or use an App for shared rides.

I have boosted my physical and spiritual health.  The East Bank Club is adjacent to my apartment building, so no matter what winter delivered, I've been able to travel underground and work out at least five days a week.

The club has also become my afternoon distraction. At times, my apartment feels claustrophobic, so I return with my laptop to an alternative, people-filled environment. And because, off-and-on, I've been a member for 30 years, I greet many old friends and meet new ones.

I've joined Chicago Sinai Congregation (walking distance) and attend weekly Torah study. Along with filling in the holes of my religious knowledge, membership has brought a sense of community and new friends.

I don't have to worry about home maintenance. When weather forecasters warned homeowners to beware of frozen pipes, icicles dangling from eaves, and sidewalks and driveways needing plowing, I was grateful I was no longer a homeowner.  

And now the cons:

I have made only one friend in my building. In my old Dakin Street neighborhood, I knew nearly every family on my block. I watched kids grow from babies to teens. In my apartment building, which is more like a dorm because of its thirty-something population, I have made only one good friend. She's the age of my daughters, and cares for me and makes me laugh just as my flesh-and-blood do.

I miss owning a dog. Although my building allows pets, and there are many I can coo at, including my friend's bity boy, I pine for a pup. But, the practical me understands I can't afford the extra expense, I'd have a hard time racing to a vet without a car, and potty breaks in a high rise are challenging.

I'm spending too much money.
I think it's a wash between my monthly rent and my former mortgage payment. And, with the absence of car expenses and lower utility bills, it would appear I'm in good financial shape.

But, with the pros I mentioned earlier, like my pricey health club and proximity to grocery shopping (Whole Foods) and department stores (Nordstrom's), I'm finding temptations hard to pass up. Thus, I'm wary every time I face a monthly statement.

Despite the cons I've confessed, I know that if I had stayed put, the traces of Tommy and our Golden Retriever, Buddy, would've trumped all and tinted my mood. I signed the lease. A new year, a new me.