I write to you full of compassion for the grief you are enduring right now. When my husband was killed – murdered – in the World Trade Center, I too was flung into a spotlight I didn’t want, didn’t expect, didn’t know how to cope with. I had people, strangers, the whole world mourning with me. People I barely knew arrived at my door crying, and I embraced them, comforting them with the vapors of my compassion, numb in my grief.
There are no words. There is no understanding someone who commits the vile act of purposely taking another’s life. You will find no comfort in vengeance. There is none to be had.
Today, I attended “Camp Widow” in San Diego, a place where people know loss. In memory of your loved ones, we were each given a stone bearing the word “hope,” a symbolic token meant to ground us, remind us of the love we once shared, to remember you in your grief and your loved ones. One of the slogans of this camp is “Hope Matters,” and I can think of no better message to impart to you in these dark days of your grief.
To each of you, I offer my rock of hope to hang onto, to ground you in the dark days ahead, to remind you that you are not alone.
I can tell you that it gets easier. The pain of grief never leaves, but it gets easier to breathe, to smile, to laugh.
You have the option to choose one of two paths in your journey of grief: you can choose to shut down, curl up in a ball, be angry, bitter, lash out. And you will do all of these things. But then you will get tired. So tired. It is exhausting to hold onto a ball of fire and eventually you will need to let go before it burns too badly. The other path is to find meaning in your grief, to release that burning ball you hold as you begin to see a little light breaking through the cracks in the darkness.
There is something different about this shooting, sadly, another among many, but Orlando is different. Can you feel it too? This country is tired of the shootings, the guns, the violence, the bullying, the terror. Enough is enough. The crack is getting wider and you, families, and me, and all the other families of innocent victims of terror around the world are poised to usher in the shift.
Your power lies in your ability to forge ahead in life, to make your loved one’s death and your own life meaningful, to teach others how to turn tragedy into love and joy, to help others through their own tragedies, to love again.
There is life after unimaginable loss, and I just want to shine a little of that light in your direction, so that you can find your way out.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph The Angel in the House
In her keynote talk at Vortext, a weekend of writing workshops put on by Hedgebrook, Ruth Orzeki talked about a poem called “The Angel of the House,” written by Coventry Patmore (what a name!), first published in 1854. The poem exemplified the Victorian ideal of a perfect woman, whose best traits were grounded in her children and home and doting upon her husband while men were best suited for public pursuits outside the home. The term “Angel in the house” came to represent the Victorian female ideal of a gentle woman devoted to her home and children and who acquiesced to all of her husband’s needs without complaint.
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
Ruth explained that Viginia Wolfe, in a speech that riffed on this poem, questioned the feminine ideal, saying about her angel in the house, “she bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.”
Ah, those voices of judgement. How often do we sit idly by and let them rule us?
Ruth’s overall message was that to write is to be brave, that we must kill our angel in order to tell the absolute truth in the best way we know how, perform an act of ancarchy.
Her words clanged me over the head. I thought about my unfinished memoir that lives in a cloud, disjointed and confused, hiding where it’s safe, just where the Angel of the House thinks it should remain.
In its place, I have taken up a “fun” project writing about a dancer in Bali for no real reason other than she had an interesting life and I’ve always wanted to go to Bali, and what better excuse? A Balinese dancer is safe. There is no death or grieving. Instead there is color and gold headdresses and world travel, love affairs with Indian princes and making movies with Bing Crosby.
But Ruth and her killing of Angels got me thinking.
But there was more. Reiko Rizzuto, who uses Tarot cards readings to help her in her writing did a reading for the entire group asking the question, “What is it about your project that’s important?”
Just that question alone had me questioning everything.
I am sure we all took away our own personal messages from her reading. For me it was about uncovering hidden truths, committment to the truth, having the will/drive, healing, making sacrificies and liberation from guilt.
My memoir in the cloud rumbled, a distant thunder. Suddenly the Balinese dancer seemed like a silly child.
Later, sitting next to Ruth at lunch, I explained my dilemma.
“Write the fun one!” she said. “Write the one you’re excited about.”
I know this too. You have to be excited about a project in order to write. If a project is trudgery, it will never get written. But what about “committment to truth” and “making sacrifices?”
I’m on a teeter-totter of projects. One is fun and easy and for the other, I must kill an angel.
Gift of gifts, I have been offered a short stint in a cottage at Hedgebrook, so I am madly trying to untangle from my life for 4 days in the quiet woods of Whidbey Island where I can teeter-totter to my heart’s content. How lucky am I?
A college trip to Boston, New York, and Philly. See friends. A mother-son trip, our first and perhaps last. For him, New York was to be the highlight.
Carter asks to go to the 9/11 Museum, a trip I dread, but if my kid wants to go, I will go with him. I make an appointment and am told we will have use of a family room if we need some time to ourselves. Perhaps seeing the museum through a 16-year-old’s eyes, who I assume is less emotionally attached given he was a two-year-old when the event occurred, will be easier. But it will not be easy.
At six, Carter built a cardboard model of the towers. He knew their height, which floors of the towers the planes hit, how many people were killed, minute technical details. The night before his first-grade “show and tell” presentation, I made him promise not to show the Time Life magazine’s more graphic pictures to his class.
His learning about the event seemed as emotional for him as learning about volcanoes or dinosaurs. He learned facts. He loved gory details. He did his show and tell and I rarely heard about 9/11 again. He no longer needed to pour over that ghastly book.
The afternoon before our visit to the museum, we noodle around Times Square, jostling along with the hordes of people, noting that the Naked Cowboy is still there (is he the same guy as 15 years ago?). We are hustled by the guys “giving” us their Hip Hop CD demos for a small “donation.” They flatter and cajole over what are probably blank CDs. Finally, we escape the mayhem and find a quiet Indian restaurant on the second floor of a building on 49th or so.
“I don’t think I like New York as much as I thought I would,” he says. “It’s cool and stuff, but all that consumerism and greed. It’s so in your face.” I agree that Times Square is certainly a good example of greed. “It’s weird to be here,” he says. “I mean, it’s New York, and that’s exciting, but it’s also where Daddy died.”
I too feel uneasy in New York. I always have. Its over-the-top tallness, crushes of people, blatant displays of both wealth and poverty. In just over an hour, we are both on edge, feeling a strange, jittery unease.
“After we do the museum tomorrow, we can go to some other areas that are a little more tame. A little nicer. Not so consumeristic,” I say. I picture walking along the tree-lined streets of Greenwich Village or sitting in a nice outdoor cafe in Soho watching people walk by.
We carry on our short tour, avoiding Times Square by walking through Rockafeller Center, down 5th to 41st and ducking back into the Port Authority to make our way to Montclair to see friends.
The next morning, I wake Carter early and we say goodbye to our friends in their driveway. He looks pale, but I assume it is the early morning awakening. We pull out and drive 100 feet down the road when he starts to heave. He flings open the car door and is sick.
This is not new. Usually, it happens on the way to airports. I spent many flights next to him, holding open the garbage bag that I had nabbed from a hotel or airport washroom as he threw up, rubbing his back, every half hour until we arrived home. We nearly spent one Christmas in an Atlanta hotel when the flight crew wouldn’t let us board. That was the year I learned Olivia’s ability to stand her ground, no matter who was in her way. I credited her for getting us on that flight.
The significance of his episodes always happening before a flight only dawned on me years after they began when he was finally able to articulate that he was afraid of flying because he thought bad guys could get onto the plane and fly it into a building.
“Should we go back?” I ask him. I know we probably should. This isn’t likely to end soon.
“I ate a bad Philly Cheesesteak last night,” he says. “I’ll be OK.”
This too has happened. A one-time deal, where he gets out whatever doesn’t agree with him and carries on. I put the car in drive and continue driving. At the Port Authority parking lot, I slow the car and the door flings open again.
I should turn around and go back to New Jersey, but I still hope for him to have his fun day in New York City.
We get off the subway at the World Trade Center (previously called Chambers Street, I realize). He stops to barf into a trash bin. On the street, we follow the crowds down Vesey Street. He slows into a blocked corner, cordoning off ongoing construction. I leave him there to find Dramamine and return to find him sitting on the sidewalk away from the splatter. I hope the first dose works quickly. I picture the museum’s family room having a couch and running water and make it our destination.
At the museum, I find the “family” ticket window. We are directed to stand in line. Lines are not good. I feel around my purse for the plastic bag I begged from a subway Hudson News. I panic seeing the airport-like security screening. Counting back the minutes from the last episode, I estimate we have 15 minutes before the next.
I am shocked by the number of people filing into the museum with us. It seems ghoulish. Why do they come? Why is this now one of the major tourist attractions in New York? I assume it’s for the same reason people used to watch public hangings or rubber neck at highway accidents. But what is the curiosity about? Affirmation that it couldn’t happen to them?
I see a giant steel girder. We are really here. The few times I have been to the site, I have been conscious of being in the place where Arron died. I feel as if I am stepping on his body, as irrational as that is. My heart pounds.
I get us to the cafe on the second floor and put Carter in a seat. He rests his head on the table. I buy water, give him another dose of medicine. I notice a woman, a security officer looking at us. I approach a docent, who oddly, doesn’t know where the family room is located. He asks the security officer who has been watching us. I explain our situation to her. At first, she is all business and asks to see my ticket. She walks up to Carter, who is still resting his head on the table.
“You’re not feeling well?”
He shakes his head and looks up at her.
“Follow me,” she says so abruptly that I scramble to collect bags and coats and she is standing by a door holding it open as I scurry after them.
We are led into a room where I am relieved to see a couch and two chairs. Carter flops into one. I hunt around for a garbage pail. The security guard pulls out a large container from under a sink in the corner. Within a few minutes, Carter is heaving into it.
When he is done, the security guard, who I have now learned is named Maria, leaves to get me tea.
He begins to sob. I hold him close, something I realize I haven’t done in a while. What 16-year-old boy wants comfort from his mom? I let him sob until he is spent. We let go and he flops back in his seat, looks around.
“This room is creepy,” he says. The walls are covered with photos of loved ones, etchings of names from the memorial, children’s drawings, prayer cards, things that family members have brought to add to the walls. This strikes me as odd. Who are they for? The other family members who come to this room? Is leaving a piece of their loved on in this room comforting in some way? Happy people smile at us – a guy on a bike, a young woman in the prime of life, another whose portrait is somehow haunting – she is gaunt with large, worried eyes. Did she subconsciously know her fate as I believed Arron did?
Through obscured windows, painted with a dotted pattern, I see the crowds lingering around the South Tower memorial. The waterfall from inside the huge box falls into a pool with a square hole at its center, and water pours further down the abyss.
The throwing up continues. Maria sits on the edge of one of the chairs and I learn a little about her. She worked in the medical field. Her brother died in 9/11 and her son convinced her to take the museum security job where she has learned to leave her emotions at work because every day she encounters another heartbreak.
She tells of trying to help a young man, sobbing in front of one of the displays, a group of drawings of the Twin Towers made by traumatized area school children. He was with several friends, who were clearly uncomfortable with his display of emotion. She asked him if he had lost a family member but he shook his head. He pointed to one of the drawings. “I drew that in 5th grade,” he said. We both had tears in our eyes.
Maria also tells of the many wonderful things she sees every day. The humanity, the compassion. She is reminded of the strength of the city and it’s people on a daily basis, is humbled by the thousands of people who visit the museum every day, to pay their respects, learn, understand. I begin to see the crowds as less ghoulish and more compassionate.
Later, Carter finds his way to the couch and sleeps. I eat a sandwich. Another security guard offers to take me to the wall to see Arron’s name. Maria insists I go while she stays with Carter.
I learn that Bobby, my escort, is a retired New York City Police officer. He took the job for many of the same reasons as Maria. “I lost 30 friends and colleagues that day,” he says. “It’s my way of giving back.” I wonder how many on staff at the museum work for this same reason. A form of healing, assuaging the survivor’s guilt that so many survivors must feel.
We find our way to Arron’s section, N21. Almost 22, our shared birthdate. His name is centered between the two people who joined him at the conference that morning. The two people he hired only weeks before. It is strange to stand there, looking into an acre-sized square hole filled with water, a giant grave. The impossibility of it all hits me again. Bobby explains how people are surprised by how far apart the two buildings actually were. “People assume they were very close since it looks that way on TV,” he says.
Carter is still sleeping when I return and Maria asks if I want to go downstairs. I have been glad to have Carter as an excuse not to go. “My boss will accompany you,” she says gently. I am torn. I don’t want to go, but feel I should, somehow. Am I strong enough? Is there any benefit? I wanted to see the museum with Carter, not a stranger, even a very kind stranger. Maria gently pushes me and I agree to go.
My new escort Claudio is a retired NYPD Lieutenant. He drove to Ground Zero that morning, positioned at the head of his fleet of motorcycles and commandeered hundreds of busses to evacuate people from the area. He didn’t stop working for 42 days. We descend into the gloom and he points out things as we walk quickly past them, ducking in front of people gazing at the displays. Much of the info I already know, and we breeze along so quickly, I don’t look closely at much. The pit under the North Tower memorial I remember from the one-year anniversary when we were corraled down the ramp into it. The slurry wall is like a vast sculpture with its giant bolts poking from it in regular intervals. Claudio tells me that during hurricane Sandy, the pit filled with 9 feet of water. “You can see the watermark there, on the steel girder. That was the last one they extricated from the site.” The girder is covered in flags and graffiti and names, the lower ones blurred where they had been underwater. The amount of water that must have flooded the area is unfathomable.
Claudio shows me how to find Arron’s name on a touchscreen, and make it appear in the small theater nearby. I am sorry that I have never recorded something to go along with Arron’s profile. I wish there are other photos of him as well, but at the time they were collecting such things, I wanted nothing to do with this place. I didn’t want Arron there either. Now it seems a shame.
I am fascinated by the display of the time lapse radar imaging of all the US flights that day. At 8am, the little yellow planes that scurry around the US map look like a swarm of bees slowly dying as the lapse continues through the day and the planes are grounded.
Claudio’s stops by a display showing the view of the burning towers from the space station which just happened to be flying over New York at the time of the attack. Even on satellite, it’s possible to see the billows of smoke. He shakes his head, “they just happened to be flying right over at exactly that time,” he says. “What were the chances of that?”
On our way out, we pass a huge photo of one of the towers taken from someone standing on the ground looking up. Although the display is below ground, sunlight from a window above casts a prism of rainbow on it, that lines up perfectly with the angle of the side of the building.
A rainbow cast on the left side of this photo of the tower
Now nearing 4pm, I rouse Carter. He is slow to wake up, but it has been a few hours since his last episode. I am hopeful that we can make it back to the Port Authority and carry on t0 Philadelphia. It seems necessary to get Carter out of the building and out of the city.
“I just want to see Daddy’s name,” he says. I look for Maria to say goodbye. “She’s on her break. She refused to take one all day,” another officer tells me. Once again I am humbled by the care of people in this city and the kindness they have always shown us.
At N21, Carter breaks down into sobs once again and I stand feeling tiny under his 6’3″ frame, long arms draped over my shoulders.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. There are no words.
Somehow managing to conceal himself within his hoodie, he takes a photo of his father’s name.
At the Port Authority, Carter leaves one final parting shot, his own form of commentary. We emerge from the Lincoln tunnel as if from Hades, into blinding sunlight, and drive south, happy to be heading in another direction.
Another reminiscence of my childhood… Seems to be a theme lately.
I lay on my stomach, my hands covered in charcoal. The polished stone floor was shiny and I could see the individual pebbles that were embedded within it. The paper kept rolling up at the edges, and so I positioned my body on it lengthwise as best as I could to still be able to write. The door to the classroom was open and I could see all the other kids leaned over their desks working. Miss Elkington, my third-grade teacher walked around the room in her long skirt, her white hair piled into a bun on top of her head with wisps falling around her face. Every now and then she would crouch down to speak quietly to one of the kids.
“Write a poem about a place where you feel calm,” she told the class. Her writing lessons were my favorite part of the day. I could tell it was her favorite part of the day as well. She loved poetry and words and reading. She always asked what we were reading and I read voraciously that year, just so I could have a good answer. In the life of most kids, the year a family splits up might be considered a tumultuous year, but I don’t remember it that way. I loved going to Miss Elkington’s class. She was the steady constant for me that year. My sister and I moved out of our house to a tiny two-bedroom apartment across the park with my mom and Larry, a friend of my mom and dad’s who had been living in the third floor of our house, and who would eventually become my step-father. My mom and Larry made it into an adventure. “It will be like camping! You’ll sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. And we can go to Thirfty’s and get you some new overalls!” I didn’t cry about how lonely my dad might be until later.
Miss Elkington suggested I copy my poem onto a larger paper and ripped a piece off a big roll. She handed me some charcoal. “You might want to do a drawing to go with your poem,” she said. I felt special because I was the only one that she gave large paper to and allowed to sit in the school hallway to write out my poem. It was a poem about listening to the silence of the sea. I was proud of it. I wrote it as big as I could on the wide page, trying to make my letters neat. I drew the sea beside the words, with whitecapped waves crashing onto the rocks. The whitecaps didn’t turn out like I wanted, they looked more like scribbles, but I was happy with it otherwise. Miss Elkington stood over me looking down at my work.
“It’s beautiful, Abby. Let’s roll it up so you can take it home.” She carefully rolled it and secured it with an elastic band.
In the lunch room later, Cecilia, an older, grade 4 girl with thick glasses, who was in the special ed class, accused me of showing off because I was practicing my cartwheels in the hallway.
“You think you’re so great!” she said.
“No I don’t. I just like doing cartwheels.” I was very scared of her. I knew the other girls in my class were scared of her too. She came and stood inches from my face and shoved me. It was very unexpected.
“Stop it!” I screamed, my hands flailing to try and push her away. One of my hands caught on her classes and they went flying. I watched them skid along the floor in what seemed slow motion. Bouncing off a wall, one of the thick lenses popped out of the frame. I held my breath.
“TEACHER!!” she cried. “That girl just tried to beat me up and knocked my glasses off and now they’re BROKEN!!” She ran over to the teacher on lunch duty, who looked at me.
“Did you do this?” She glared at me and I burst into tears.
“I didn’t mean to.” I couldn’t say anything else to defend myself through my tears. We were both sent to the principal’s office. We sat side by side on the wooden chairs just outside the principal’s door.
“You’re going to be in BIG trouble,” she said. “They can’t get mad at me because I’m in special ed.” I responded with more tears.
“Cecilia, can you come in please?” he said. She turned and stuck her tongue out at me.
A few minutes later, she came out. As she walked past me, she whispered, “You’re in BIG trouble!”
“Abby, can you come in now?”
I sat in a big chair in front of his desk.
“Well, Abby, I’ve called your mother. She’s on her way.” I imagined my mom being very mad to have to leave work to come and get me. I cried more.
“Can you tell me what happened?” The principal said gently. I wiped my tears and sucked in a breath.
“She got mad that I was doing cartwheels. She thought I was showing off. She pushed me, and I pushed back. My hand knocked off her glasses, but it was an accident.”
“Ok,” he said. “That’s fine. I know that Cecelia can be a little… excitable. You just try and stay away from her from now on OK?”
“Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” he asked. I looked at him blankly. I couldn’t imagine what else I would talk to this man about. I had never spoken to him before. I shook my head.
“OK, well, why don’t you wait outside until your mother gets here, OK?”
I sat for what felt like hours. Lunch was long over and everyone was back in their classrooms.
When my mother arrived, I started crying again. She came and gave me a hug. “I’ll just go and talk to the principal for a minute and then we can go, OK?”
I nodded. She came out of the office a few minutes later. She didn’t look too mad.
“OK, are you ready? Let’s go to your classroom and get your things.”
“OK,” I said.
In Miss Elkington’s class, I felt weird taking my coat and my book bag. All the kids were looking at me.
“Don’t forget your poem,” Miss Elkington said, handing me the rolled up poem. She turned to my mother.
“Abby wrote a beautiful poem today.”
We sat in the car, still in the school parking lot. My mom turned to me. “So what happened?”
I told her the story again. “She’s crazy, Mommy. Really.” I said.
“And nothing else is bothering you?” She looked at me intently.
“Well, the principal thinks you might be upset because of what’s happened between your dad and I.”
I was taken aback. My parents hadn’t entered my mind at all. It never really occurred to me that my strange new living arrangement, the walks across the park clutching my three-year-old sister’s hand, telling her it would be OK, that I would be her mommy when we were at daddy’s, might have an adverse affect on me. To me it was an adventure and I got to be grown up and take care of my sister. Except for feeling sad for my dad, I didn’t see it as a bad thing, until now.
“No. I’m not Mommy. You have to believe me. She was just crazy, that’s all. She pushed me because I was doing cartwheels. All the girls are scared of her.”
“OK,” she said, not looking convinced. “Well, I hope you will talk to me if you are having a hard time with everything that’s been going on.”
“OK.” I said.
“So can I see that poem you wrote?”
I unrolled the paper and showed it to her.
“That’s lovely,” she said. “That’s beautiful writing.”
Reading the poem now, I understand the adult’s concern for a young girl whose parents have just split up. The poem is about a lone child who watches the waves roll in, before running down to the beach to listen to the sea “more loudly,” watch the seagulls, pick up a shell to hear the sound of the sea inside. The day is cloudy, about to rain. The poem is melancholy and lonely. But I don’t remember feeling that way when I wrote it. I remember dreaming about seeing the beach, and feeling lulled by the sounds and the calm that I found there. At the young age of 8, I had not yet seen a real ocean and it was something I longed to see.
I must have written more poems in Miss Elkington’s class, but I don’t remember them. No other poems were saved. Somehow, the magic of writing poetry was lost to me that day, though I was never aware of it, nor could have explained why.
I sat on a wooden bench waiting for the ballet class to let out so the next class could go in. Several young girls came in and sat nearby, yanking off their boots and pulling the familiar pink slippers out of their bags. I noticed their slippers had two crisscrossed elastics instead of the one I remembered carefully stitching on by hand when I was 10.
Inwardly, I groaned every time another 12-year-old girl took her place beside me and after putting on her slippers, bent her head over her phone. What am I doing here? The woman on the phone had said the class was mixed. “Everything from 10-year-olds to 70-year-olds,” she’d said. All I saw were the young girls.
Soon, a parade of purple leotarded girls came barreling down the steps from the studio, signalling the end of their class and the beginning of the next. The purple leotards reminded me of the pale blue leotard I used to wear, with a matching elastic around the waist (so the teacher could see your waist) and pink, almost white tights. The outfit was regulation Royal Academy of Dance, and I remembered the excited trips to the Capezio store in Toronto to buy them, along with the pink slippers that each came with a length of pink elastic that I had to sew myself into the shoes, folding down the backs, and sewing the elastic where the back met the sides.
I trudged up the steps behind a slim, ponytailed girl in tights, her boots unzipped. A blonde woman wearing black workout tights and a white t-shirt was my saviour. I watched her place her things in the corner of the room and did the same. We smiled shyly at each other. Two portable bars were moved into the center of the room, perpendicular to the mirror, which I found odd. I was used to the bar being attached to the mirror so that you mostly faced it. Perhaps tonight I would be grateful to not have to watch myself so closely.
The man teaching the class was older than I was, which comforted me somewhat. He’d be understanding when I fumbled, though after a 35 year hiatus from ballet, fumbling was the least of my worries.
“We don’t use 3rd position anymore,” he said, clearly for my benefit. “So it’s first, second, fourth and fifth.” He demonstrated each position, plié-ing at the end of the sequence. The familiar piano played and muscle memory took over. I felt like laughing. My knees crunched with the plié, but it all came back. I had to work harder to remember each sequence, in part because the instructor’s demonstrations were a little haphazard, stopping as he did in the middle of each one, to explain some nuance of form and then forgetting where he left off.
I followed a young girl in front of me, who wore a black leotard with sparkling straps. I smiled at her young, flingy form, still so new to ballet, that the solid, controlled form was not yet developed. Her back swayed with each backward leg lift, arms a kimbo with each fifth position bras bas.
I surprised myself with each new exercise, realizing how ingrained each was into my brain. “Does anyone know what “Frappé” means? Whipped, I thought. The ball of my foot magically hit the floor in a quick tap, and then quickly curled itself back around my ankle in response to the word.
During a break, I approached my ally. “I think I’m going to be very sore tomorrow,” I said. She smiled. “Yes, I’m sore for two days after every class.”
“I am surprised how much this is all coming back to me,” I said. “Have you taken ballet before?” I asked her.
“For a year when I was in fourth grade.” She had a slight accent. Perhaps French. “And you?”
“Yes, quite a bit actually. From age 6 or 7 till 9th grade.” I hadn’t really thought about how long I had done ballet before. It seemed quite a while. I took classes on Saturday mornings at Canada’s National Ballet School, a rather prestigious private bilingual school that used their Saturday morning classes for recruiting purposes. I remember the harshness of the classes: sitting with legs straight out, pointing toes, trying to touch the floor with them. If they didn’t touch, the teacher came around and pushed the tops of our feet hard until they did. At the time, my feet were dry and cracked from cold, wet winter boots, and the act was painful and I cried.
Still, I took an exam one Saturday, along with hundreds of other tiny ballerinas, each in our blue leotards pinned with a number. I was one of the few accepted, and, despite the trauma of cracked feet, longed to go, but my family could not afford the tuition. Years later my mother told me their assessment of me was that I would be too tall and have trouble with my knees as I got older, which amazed me in its accuracy.
Back at the barre, we did some exercises facing the mirror and I was horrified to see a big woman’s body in place of the child-like waif I expected to see there. I averted my eyes, watching one of the unruly girls instead, mentally critiquing her form and trying to make mine better. I had forgotten too, how competitive I used to be.
We practiced pirouettes, something I still did from time to time in the middle of my kitchen. The teacher was again confusing everyone in his demonstration, so we whirled around like dervishes, hopping on toes, landing with thuds. I was relieved to be in good company.
As I slipped into my rubber boots after class, I felt as if I had claimed and old piece of myself, a little girl in a pale blue leotard and pink tights with one strap hand sewn onto her slippers. I am glad she is back. I’ve missed her.
I came downstairs the morning after Boxing Day and found Jim’s friend Jim (Big Jim) at the table, head bent over a small book that he was writing in.
“Just getting everything down so I don’t forget it,” he said by way of explanation. I had to admit it was a little incongruous to see this big, 6’4″ muscular, tattooed, shaved-headed man who’s favorite topic of discussion includes ‘knives’ and ‘poop’ to be writing in a journal.
“That, and I’m writing my list,” he added.
“Yeah, my list for 2016. I don’t write resolutions, I write a list of things I want to get done in the coming year. Last year’s list included hosting a float party. I nearly didn’t get it done, but then I saw it on my list, and even though it was late in the year, I got a bunch of people and boats together and we had a float party.”
I started thinking about this list versus resolution idea. The problem I’ve always had about resolutions is the assumption that you were somehow flawed the year before, and you need a resolution to make yourself better. So much pressure and kind of a crappy premise to start the year off with.
I suppose you could call your list goals, but even goals are different than what Big Jim was talking about. Goals, like resolutions, to me imply a certain deficit, and I’ve always felt somewhat guilty for not setting goals. Frankly, in the widow world, I think goals are often eschewed since we all had goals at one point and we all know what a load of crock they all turned out to be. So goals don’t really cut it either.
Therein lies the beauty of the list. There’s no pressure really to “accomplish” your list or to change yourself somehow in order to meet your list’s expectations. It’s just a fun list of things you want to do in the coming year. I immediately thought of the one thing I wanted to do more of this year (already added to my non-existent list when I turned 50), which was to have more dinner parties. But more have been popping into my head as I think of all those things I keep meaning to do, but because they are not on any list, I keep forgetting about them. Visit Tofino. Take down the tree-house. Figure out ways of making my house Jim’s house too. Visit a real Catalina (airplane that’s at the center of my grandfather’s novel that I am editing). Both Jims created lists and one item on both thier lists was “make a new friend,” which I think will be a rollover list item.
So not resolutions. Not goals. Just a list of fun stuff you want to do or get done. I think sharing your list is probably a good way of helping you take it more seriously, so here is mine (so far):
Have more dinner parties
Make a new friend
College trip with Carter
Visit Tofino (by way of Victoria) and visit friends
Take down tree-house
Make my house Jim’s house
Get knee in shape enough to take a dance class
Write an essay and submit to a contest or magazine.
Everywhere I turn lately, I seem to bounce into the theme of fear and bravery.
It is difficult not to fear terrorism, and events of late have certainly given me pause, not to mention unpleasant memories. It is strange to have such an intimate knowledge of what those families are going through. Many people were struck by the eloquence of the Parisian husband who lost his wife, when he said,
“I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.”
He writes of his 17 month old son:
“his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.”
I understood completely. I wrote the day after Paris, “If terrorists could see the ripple effects of power and strength that is the ultimate result of their cowardly acts, they would stop bothering with violence.”
In the face of fear, anger and heartbreak terrorists impose on the world, courage, forgiveness and love are more effective than bombs.
I was struck by an article in the NYTimes this weekend about three women who escaped ISIS. They were married off to ISIS soldiers, but fell in love with them. ISIS leaders prevented these newly married couples from having children, knowing that children would make those husbands poor soldiers and suicide bombers. These women all became grieving widows and escaped. ISIS knows the power love has over terrorism.
I know it’s simplistic to think that through acts of bravery and love we can melt all the terrorists away, like Dorothy throwing water on the bad witch, but I do believe that the power of story may have the same effect. That father’s story is a perfect example.
The very act of writing story requires courage. Speaking or writing truth is a brave act, and in telling our stories we break through fear by sharing our truth with others, giving them the courage to do the same.
I saw Elizabeth Gilbert a few weeks ago talking about her new book, Big Magic, about her ideas for living “beyond fear.” In Big Magic, she explores the need for courage in finding and living a “creative” life. She writes about poet, Jack Gilbert (no relation), recounting a story about telling one of his students when she admitted she wanted to be a writer:
“Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”
As an adolescent growing out of a very fearful childhood, she writes,
“I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: ‘STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!'”
In Cheryl Strayed’s interview with Gloria Steinem, talking about her new book My Life on the Road, one of the predominant themes was overcoming fear, being brave in the face of adversity and using the power of story to affect change. Some great lines from the evening:
“The scariness of writing comes from caring”
“Just telling each other our stories is the single most revolutionary act.”
“We make the invisible part of us visible so we can intertwine our experiences”
The next night, my friend Theo Nestor interviewed Cheryl Stayed about her new book, Brave Enough. Cheryl spoke a lot about the death of her mother and how it affected her life, how she immersed herself in whatever took the pain away, until she undertook her adventure of walking the Pacific Coast Trail, which she writes about in her book Wild.
Cheryl’s new book is full of great quotes, but this one nails the fear theme:
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. That nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I felt something terrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
Not only are these messages coming in the face of renewed terrorism in the world, but they come just as I am trying to climb my own wall of fear in writing my memoir, which right now is called “Sex and the Single Widow.” This is a scary book to write, and yet a story I want to tell. I am again trying to write the book I wish I had as I recovered from the devastation of Arron’s death. Dating and sex after loss was an abyss of confusion and guilt and hope and longing, fear and courage and love. But to write it, I am going to have to reveal secrets that are scary to reveal.
I sent my proposal to Susie Bright, a well-known writer on the subject of sex and she stated my dilemma eloquently:
“I would commit to the form where you can be the most viciously honest and unsparing of the sex, the anger, the grief, no punches pulled at all. No soft landings on the hard parts or the visceral or thrill or obsession. I mean, eventually, there are a lot of soft places, but the challenge with memoir on this subject is one likely has a lot of living eyes upon you and there is an urge to protect them. I would feel that way, anyway.”
Can I do this? I don’t know. But Elizabeth, Gloria, Cheryl and Susie all seem to think so, so I guess I will give it my best shot. I am going to will myself to not be afraid because telling my story is a revolutionary act.
I am ambivalent when Jim suggests we join Carter in taking a motorcycle safety course. “What other way are you going to be able to spend a weekend with your sixteen-year-old son?” he argues. It’s a sound argument. Communicating with this certain sixteen year old boy has certainly been a challenge of late. The closest location for the class is in Silverdale, WA where Jim books us a room at the local Best Western. It has a hot tub and a pool and it’s right on the water. He does his best to sell to a luke-warm audience.
At 8am on a Saturday morning in pouring rain, we arrive at a tiny trailer in the middle of a desolate parking lot in the middle of a desolate airport. Many students are “soldier men” as Carter later calls them, young guys who work on the giant aircraft carriers in nearby Bremerton, a naval base. A couple are older men, and there is one other woman.
We are asked our reasons for taking the class. Why am I here? I’m scared of motorcycles. Though I have ridden on the back of Jim’s motorcycle on several occasions, clutching his waist for dear life, I have no real desire to learn to ride one of my own. I want to spend time with my boyfriend and son who proves entertaining in a classroom setting. No surprise. He becomes the class heckler. So similar to someone I once knew.
Carter gearing up for first class.
After lunch, we gear up (it’s still pouring rain), and select bikes. I end up with one held together by yards of black duct tape, and swipe the seat, doing little to reduce the puddle I then sit in. We learn to turn on the bike, then push them around in neutral, then crab walk them around before finally lifting our feet off the ground. I fumble the clutch and my left toe trying to differentiate neutral from first. I stall and stall and stall. I never do find neutral. I watch Jim, calm and confident. Carter looks grown up on his bike, his long, lean legs jutting out, straight back, head up. We share grins as we pass one another after an exercise.
One instructor is calm, calling out “good job!” after a maneuver, the other barks commands and makes me nervous. “Take your hand off the brake! That’s a terrible habit to get into!” I watch the other woman who can barely reach the ground with her toes when pushing her bike around corners and she seems to physically recoil each time she gets berated by Mr. Nasty. I want to kick him in the shins.
It’s not until we learn to weave between cones, that I find a certain rhythm and gain a sliver of confidence. By the end of the afternoon, we are all shivering from wet and cold. When we get back to the hotel, we sprint to the hot tub to defrost.
The next day, we take the written test and everyone passes. By 11:30, we are back on our bikes. The rain has slowed and thus the riding more pleasant. My braking hand continues to elicit anger in my instructor, but now I shrug at him. I flounder with the first exercise, the “quick stop.” I stop too soon. Or stall. Or have my hand on the brake. Or am going too slow. My confidence sags. Jim encourages me and instructs me between exercises. “You’re really solid on the slow maneuvers… Just keep it in first for that one… you’ll need to go faster on the quick stops.”
We do the pre-test and I feel fairly confident, though the quick stop still throws me. I either don’t go fast enough or I brake too soon. I do fine on the slow U-turns. I do a couple of swerves and lane changes, though don’t understand the cones and thus go through them rather than around them.
Proof that I actually drove my own motorcycle
By the time of the real test, we have been on our bikes for 4 solid hours. The instructor asks if anyone wants to defer taking the test and I consider it. I am shaky and tired, but say nothing. The other woman in the class has already dropped out. Another of the older men also defers.
I am glad when the first test is the weave. I wiggle my way down the line, and somehow manage to stop in the yellow square. The next test is the U-turns and I am shaky. I put a foot down, I go out of the lines, I miss the stop zone. I’m convinced I have just failed. They make me do the swerve test a second time, taking it faster. I take it faster and swerve, but run over a cone. Another fail, I am certain. I shake my head at Jim and shrug. I am just too tired. I long for the test to be over. I redo the quick stop, ending with a sloppy double stop. I long for the catastrophe to be over. There is no way I have passed. It’s OK. Carter seems to be doing well. He’s the reason I am here, after all. I have no intention of actually riding a motorcycle again.
We stand outside waiting to be graded. I am shaky and thirsty and worried about the late hour. I have to be back in the city for an event. Gloria Steinem being interviewed by Cheryl Strayed about her book, My Life on the Road. I am on the board of Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, and they have asked that I do my best to meet some specific people – wives and partners of well-known bands and companies. There will be no time to go home to change now. I will arrive at the event wearing my “biking gear” of ski jacket, jeans and tall boots. I have helmet hair and wind blown skin.
Me and Jim in blue and red. Carter to left of guy in yellow.
I text a friend I have invited to the event to tell her I will be a little late. “Badass.” she writes. I smile. I guess I am sort of badass. I’ll be meeting Gloria as a badass! Does learning to ride a motorcycle make me a feminist badass?
We are back in the trailer as the instructor brings us individually back into another room to give us our result. Jim passes. A couple of the soldier men leave quickly with heads hung, green sheets of paper clutched in their hands. I am certain I will be leaving with a green sheet as well. Carter appears with a giant smile and his card. “80 percent! I just made it!” he says. I am called. “You lost 10 points on the U-turn for missing the lines and putting your foot down and another 5 points for hitting the cone during the swerve, but you’ve passed,” the instructor says. “I passed? Are you sure? That can’t be possible! I was horrible!”
“You passed,” he repeats. “Congratulations.” I walk out, mouth hanging open. I see one the of the green-sheeted soldier men duck out quickly. How must it feel for him to watch a 50 year old mom and her 16 year old son pass? I feel bad for him.
Cheeks flushed, I sit in the audience at Benaroya Hall watching Gloria and Cheryl, the ultimate badass women banter about Gloria’s book, My Life on the Road, life, feminism, and the power of story. “Women become more radical with age,” Gloria says. I chuckle and nod.
My terrible, blurry picture of Gloria and Cheryl.
Was taking a motorcycle class a feminist act? Perhaps, because of Gloria’s influence, I didn’t need to think of it that way. Or was the fact that I took the class at the prompting of my boyfriend in order to be with my son the antithesis of feminism? Did it even matter?
The prelude of Gloria’s book opens with her meeting a couple of leather-clad bikers. The woman shows Gloria her big purple Harley, and proudly tells her how she used to ride on the back of her husband’s bike, but then put her foot down and insisted on having her own. Gloria writes, “…I’ve come to believe that, inside each of us has a purple motorcycle. We have only to discover it–and ride.”
Gloria’s message over the course of the evening becomes loud and clear, as it is one that is dear to any memoir writer: The world is changed through the power of story, of telling our truths. Incidentally, this is also the power of Hedgebook, whose tag line is “Women Authoring Change.”
“Telling each other our stories is the most revolutionary act.” Gloria says. “Change comes from telling the truth and discovering that we’re not alone.” This has certainly been true in the widow world, but is also true in any instance where something or someone renders a person invisible.
Gloria speaks about a book called Sex and World Peace, that talks about the one defining factor when it comes to determining how peaceful a country is likely to be: how that country treats its women. The is an audible “ah” from the audience as the simple truth is recognized. “The treatment of women affects all levels of society.”
“As women,” Gloria says later, “we deserve to be raised to be loved and seen as equal, but boys deserve to be raised that way too.” This makes me think of Carter.
Only then do I realize that in passing the motorcycle safety class, I have taught Carter something about women and being equal. For that, even if I never again drive my own motorcycle, I am claiming my badass-ness and my purple motorcycle. Thank you Gloria.
Kind David I of Scotland (possibly my 30th great-grandfather)
It’s September. I should know better.
Perhaps it was the one-day shift from summer to fall that happened last Saturday in Seattle, but September caught me off guard again. The melancholy has me wrapped in its fuzzy, warm cloak. I’ve become reclusive and have found a new addiction, but more on that later.
It could be the prospect of turning 50 this month, as well as having what might have been my 25th wedding anniversary, something I only just realized. 25 years. Damn. I had to do the math in my head. Could it really be?
For my 50th, my family was quite insistent that I have a big ol’ party. Since I have carved my weird Canadian niche in this US town with my “Boxing Day” parties, I figured I’d keep the Commonwealth theme alive and have a proper 50th Jubilee. Because then I don’t have to call it a birthday, right?
And yes, I plan on wearing a tiara. Thank you for asking.
Part of the 50th birthday demand from my mother is that I scan through my last 50 years of photos and come up with the most embarrassing. She specifically asked for “the one with the snake.”
Last night, I started going through them and although I laughed at many, the whole exercise made me feel sad and happy at once. On one hand, there aren’t that many photos of me, since I am usually the one taking them. On the other, the ones that I do have of myself are usually me laughing or goofing around with one or both of the kids.
My mom also asked for photos of me with Jim and me with Arron. Pulling out the ones with Jim was easy and made me smile. I avoided the ones of Arron. Should I include the shots of just Arron, since that is mostly what I have? Or do I have to scan new ones of the both of us which means opening actual physical photo albums (if you are under 30, you won’t understand this reference, sorry). And although this month will also mark 14 years sans Arron, I can’t quite bring myself to do it.
This surprises me. Yeah, turns out pulling out old photos of you and your dead husband on the occasion of your 50th birthday, 25th wedding anniversary and 14th deathiversary might actually be a little bit emotional, Ab. Go figure.
And thus I retreat inwards. Have I mentioned that I have an addiction?
Yes, my name is Abigail Carter and I am addicted to Ancestry.com.
Not some *little* addiction suited to the casual family historian, but hours, hours! spent (wasted?) behind the computer clicking through years. I now find myself in the time of William the Conquerer. I think I might be related to him. I suspect that is a sentence you will hear from any serious Ancestry.com addict.
“I think I was related to [place any member of the Royal family in history here].”
It’s only now dawned on me that my new addiction and my September melancholy might actually be related (ha! Did you catch that genealogical reference?).
In some respects, this genealogy thing stems from a curiosity to find out where I came from, but I am keenly aware of one failing of Ancestry.com that I think illuminates my other motivation.
Mapping. Now here’s a great opportunity for you Ancestry.com developers. Here’s what I want: I want you to take all the places that the various branches of my family come from (England mostly) and plot them on a map. Show migrations, years, names, etc.
Here’s why: I think on some subliminal level, I am somehow trying to link my family and Arron’s. Irrational of course. But I can’t help finding great pleasure in imagining our connection in the distant past would perhaps give the present some context. Some cute (royal?) princess brushing past a handsome Viking perhaps? OK, perhaps I have also been reading too many Outlander novels (my other secret addiction).
Grief is so freakin irrational sometimes, I grant you.
I don’t think my connecting the dots is limited to Arron though. I want to do Jim’s family too. His dad’s family is from Wales. Apparently, so were some distant relatives of mine… Can we say “two Vikings?” Yes, please!
The linkages are what fascinate me. The realization (again) that we are all connected. I don’t know what it all means or why this is important to me now as I turn 50 and watch another phantom wedding anniversary pass me by.
But here I am. Suddenly a 50th Jubilee party doesn’t sound so far fetched. Did I mention that King David I of Scotland was my 30th great-grandfather?
Facing September in a tiara will it a whole lot more palatable, wouldn’t you agree?
I took a generative writing class to get myself writing again. I’ve been so enmeshed in life and three jobs as I now run an Airbnb, am the Chief Marketing Officer for a startup and the booker of Country and Western bands for a BBQ restaurant. I can’t say my life is ever dull! But writing has fallen off the cliff and I’ve missed it. I forced the issue by taking a class where we do nothing but write for 4 hours.
I pulled out the memoir I’m working on and tried to find a place to start. I sat staring at a sheet of writing prompts until a line jumped out: “Take a character you’ve been having trouble really getting a handle on. Describe that character without using any visual information.” It went on, but that was all I read. I thought about how hard a time I have writing about Arron, my husband. How hard he is to describe. And so I started with an image I had of him, one of the last. It was during a fight, one of the few times I was ever really angry with him. We had been having a hard time. He started a new job, had been miserable for months in his old one, and I felt invisible to him through all of it.
I was surprised when tears started rolling down my cheeks as I wrote. My anger and sadness during that time came back, yes, but there was something more. It was triggering something: a similar feeling I’ve been encountering more recently. I’ve been hard-pressed to name what I’ve been feeling in my relationship with Jim. He’s been distracted for months, most of his energy being poured into a seaplane, to the point I’ve been teasing him about it being his mistress, his “other woman.”
It’s been difficult to fault Jim for being inattentive. I know he will always find me at the end of the day. He will always text, want to tell me the latest plane update, find time for quick dates. I know that he wants to spend time with me. But when we’re together, I can tell that he is thinking about the plane. Or he is making a list, or bent over a computer buying a part. It takes effort to draw his attention away from the plane. Or the motorcycle that he’s building with Carter. Which I adore. I admire his passion. I make room for it, because I know how important such a passion is in life. It’s his passion for life that I admire most about him.
But, in allowing the “other woman” into our lives, I feel myself shrinking. Is it attention I need? I ask myself. I don’t need him every second of the day, but when we are together sometimes, I feel invisible. I come up with ways to broach the subject with him in my mind, but each one sounds trite. “I wish we spent more time together,” sounds weak. We spend lots of time together. “You don’t seem to notice me,” sounds silly because he is so present, when he is present. Except when he’s not. “There’s something missing and I don’t know what it is,” seems to be the closest I can come. How is someone meant to react to that?
I can’t figure out what is is that I seem to be missing. Intimacy? Connection? Time together? Expressions of love? Commitment?
As I wrote about Arron, I realized that I was dealing with the very same issue with him all those years ago. I felt as if I had become and afterthought in his ever more complicated life. I was the one left to hold everything together, manage the kids, the house, the bills, the meals. I was the invisible glue that held it all together.
How often do women do this? It’s a classic tale.
After the writing class, I saw my friend Theo and I told her about what I wrote that day until I eventually stumbled upon this pattern of supporting our men’s passions while neglecting our own needs.
“That’s all men, in a way, don’t you think?” she asked after I listed all of Jim’s commitments. “I think of my own relationships,” she continued, “and I see how often I’ve gotten into relationships with people who resemble the men I grew up with.”
I thought of my own father. He’s a man who you have a relationship with on his terms. His mantra when I was growing up was, “Sure come on by, I’ll be here.” He was always there for me, but I had to make the effort to get there, both literally and figuratively. I had to make the stretch to carve out a relationship with him, which he was happy to accept, but rarely seemed to make a reciprocal effort when the circumstance required it.
I watch Jim struggle to balance his life. He is trying so hard to establish a home base, follow a lofty dream to build and own a plane, manage two rental properties, care for his mother, excel at his job and love a woman and her kids. All very noble and time intensive quests in their own right and as I write this, I think he is no different than most people. Aren’t we all trying to balance our lives with our passions?
His hobbies and dreams are the things I admire most about him but they are also the things that keep him from me.
So should I just shut up and wait for the scales to tip back in my direction? Or will I just wind up waiting forever feeling as if tiny slivers are being sliced off my piece of the pie in order to fulfill another’s appetite. How much do I push back? And how do I articulate me own needs?
Jump up and down, crying insisting that we have lost some mysterious “something” that I can’t name? Demand a weekend away together? Insist he stare into my eyes for four minutes and answer a bunch of ever-increasing intimate questions? Sell my house so we can buy a house together and finally live together?
With Arron, I realize I did a version of the first option and finally got angry. I questioned his priorities. I re-established my own. I got his attention, at least for a moment. But by then it was too late. I had him back for one week. And then he was gone.
I have no answers, just a keen sense of history repeating itself and wondering when or if I will ever learn the lessons life is trying to teach me.