The Seriousness of Silly Soap Stories

In the shower the other day, I threw a bar of soap with an uninspired floral scent over the glass shower wall.  I am an afficionado of strong scented, beautifully crafted soaps, and this bar was a dud. I deserved better. I was aiming for the sink, where the soap loser could await its fated deposit into the garbage bin. Instead, the thick bar slid down the inner side of the sink nearest the shower, traveled across the bottom of the basin and picked up speed, ramping up the other side of the sink. The soap then flew up into the steamy air before landing with a plop into a small drinking cup perched on the top of the sink. I squealed. It was like a three-point shot from midcourt at the buzzer.

But there were no cheering fans to adore me. No partner to call to the bathroom to share the story of my sensational shot. No handy family member or friend to regale with my dramatic telling. No one but me to care that a story of soap was a joyful beginning to another morning of my life on the planet.

You see, along with the momentous moments of life, I also need to share the mundane and the absurdities. When I read an interesting news article, get lost in a great book, or see a person in a taco suit on my noontime walk, I want to tell someone about it. I need to tell someone about it. For me, it’s less interesting, less great, and far less funny if I can’t share it. Mack was like that, too. She wanted the people around her to take part in the things that amused her, and those amusements were enhanced by the sharing. She is the one I most wanted to call to share the story of Stacy’s spectacular soap shot.

Instead, I threw the soap in the bin where it belonged, got dressed, and went downstairs to my home office to start my day. No one to tell, so I put the soap out of my mind; what do little dogs know of soap and midcourt shots at the buzzer? I did wonder, however, if my ex-husband Kevin got a little twinge in his stomach at the moment I squealed over that soap. The twinge like a ghost of the past giving him a strange sense that he had been saved from another drawn-out telling of a silly story, Stacy’s eyes wide as she told it with her hands and her eyeballs and her words, fast like a child, chattering on and on and starting the story all over again.

Clearly, I didn’t forget about the soap. I’m writing about the soap story because it got me analyzing myself in the context of this new quiet life of mine. I am a storytelling chatterbox living alone, and that has been of surprising consequence to me, I suppose, and I’m just now realizing it. Oh, I text or call my daughter Savannah several times a week, and she indulges my stories when I tell them. My sister will tolerate my stories while she has a cocktail in hand. My mother, who lives far away, always appears to be listening to my stories when I tell them, but really I think she is just measuring the size of my eyeballs as I jabber on, telling the story two or three times to make sure she hears it all. And, I also have friends, near and far, with whom I will relate a story or two, if I remember a good one when I see them.

Yet I think it is true, that living alone has altered the rhythm of my storytelling, narrowed my eyes and dimmed the sparkle. This realization of diminished, daily storytelling is another clue to me that I am struggling to adjust to living alone, to relying on myself for everything that I want and need. For fifty-three years I lived with my family, then college roommates, and then a husband and daughters. For fifty-three years, I had a captive audience. I’ve only been solo for two years, and almost all of that time during a global pandemic. Such a change was bound to be dramatic, radical even, and it has altered many rhythms of my life.

And that’s okay. Good, maybe. Or, perhaps, even great. The altered rhythm of a heart demands attention, requires assessment, suggests treatment. Why not the rhythms of a life?

What the altered rhythm of my storytelling means going forward, I do not know. I realize now that I have always found joy in sharing the stories of my life, particularly the silly ones, and also in sharing my observations about the world. Perhaps that is why since living alone I have taken to Instagram. It is no true substitute, of course, but it has given me an outlet, especially on the many days in each week when there are only the walls and the dogs to hear my stories and random observations.

I miss the chattering, the animated telling, and the instant gratification of getting the words, the thought or the story, into the ears and the heart and the funny bone of someone I care about. Not a great reflection of myself, centered as it is upon my ego. But that statement is the truest statement I have written about myself in a long time.

Perhaps I should learn how to enjoy unusual occurrences like spectacular soap shots all by myself  in the same way I learned how to use a drill and to cook for one. With practice. And cursing. Lots and lots of people are content to live quietly, laugh on the inside, and leave it to other people to tell the stories. Why couldn’t I just be one of them? Because, if I am honest, I am not and likely never will be quiet. I’m a talker. Talking is what I do.

Perhaps I should start a special journal to record my soap stories. Writing them out and reading them later might provide a similar feeling to the satisfaction I get from talking to people. Nah. This option sounds like a lot work, a little pathetic, and slightly off the mark. Before this introspective rambling, I never thought of myself as a performer, but now I wonder if that might be part of it.

Perhaps living alone is not for me, after all. Maybe I am one of those people who needs a partner, a captive audience with whom to share my daily soap stories. Or maybe it is going to take so much time to get used to living alone that I will never get used to living alone. Goodness. I hope not. On both counts, I hope not. Because I am a long way from healthy enough to live with somebody else, and I may not be for a long time or ever. Besides, although I admit I am needy of attention, the peace and privilege of making all the rules and curating every corner of my house and my yard, all on my own, is too lovely to give up. And, I know for certain, that having to compromise only with dogs and myself provides the most blissful environment in which to figure out what ails me and what heals me.

For now, maybe I’ll just talk to the walls or tell my stories to myself, out loud, while I take my daily walk. What if some, or a lot, of the people we see muttering to themselves on city streets, aren’t mentally ill, but people just like me. Chatterboxes with no one to tell their stores. Hmm… That’s an interesting idea to ponder on a Saturday afternoon, blustery with indoor weather.

I think, I’ll just try telling my stories to the dogs, and see how it goes.

Writing away the Shadows

The Winter Solstice, which I passed with a small group of lovely (vaccinated and boosted) new friends, was, as it always is, a charm against my onset-of-winter melancholy. Though the prairie winds blow cold, now that the days are slowly lengthening as we stretch our way to spring, I am okay. I am well, I promise, but I need to write a few bitter shadows off my heart.

I have survived another set of holidays. Another four seasons. Another year without her, my baby girl, my Mack. I have passed another 365 days of missing her grin and her giggle and her light against my darkness. This year was not easy. Nor was it easier than last year, or the year before that. It is not getting easier, despite the promises of well-meaning people trying to make me feel better. For me it will never be easy. It will just be different. Different the way summer feels different with every additional year between the human I am now and the human I was when I was barefoot and ten in the backyard of childhood.

I know myself well enough to accept and to admit that from Thanksgiving through Christmas, I am the worst of me. Sorrow, anxiety, and impatience override joy, productivity, and peace. The short days and long nights and my false cheer for the holidays and my shame for humbug plague me, and they will, I suspect, forever conjure the ghosts that haunt me. My grieving-mother sadness is the primary source of my melancholy, of course, but I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which rubs like course sandpaper against the raw edges of my grief. This is an annual torment, and it always takes me three cycles of the moon to accept the end of warm and joyful summer.

Yet this December I leaned sadder than usual. My divorce being finalized and my beloved dog Pepper’s health problems cast menacing spells against my spirit and made the melancholy debilitating for a number of days. Burying a female house sparrow who died on my porch on December 19 made the last two days to the Winter Solstice a moody struggle. And although I have tried to keep other negative emotions in check, I have also been angry and filled with despair. My fury and frustration rising with every new report on the climate crisis, deadly tornadoes in December, and the pandemic going on and on and on because so many selfish Americans falsely believe that public health policy is a violation of their individual rights.

“What about my individual rights,” I screamed as I paced through my empty house these past few weeks. “Don’t I deserve during my hardest time of the year to be surrounded by people without having to worry about my health and the possibility of making my loved ones unwell?” Family and friends are my medicine against grief, and this fucking pandemic has withheld in large measure the remedy that sustains me.

And then there was the added insult of writer’s block.

In early November, I began a new scholarly project, which during my struggle season was unfortunate timing. At the beginnings of big projects when I am setting my head to a difficult task, the intellectual power that effort requires zaps my energy, stealing away the creative power I usually ration so well for my personal, therapy writing. The writer’s block this year has been as difficult as anything to endure. Writing is my solace, especially when I am at my worst, in my seasonal doldrums, when I need most to turn my emotions into words and sentences, paragraphs, prose, and bad poetry. This year that coping mechanism failed me. Next year, I will be more cognizant about keeping safe the ration for personal writing, because although I make a great many mistakes, my grief has made a good student of learning what I need to survive the difficult and beautiful condition of being human. Already with the packing away of another year of holidays, made as joyful as absolutely possible by my good and cheerful sister Tracy, and with my new project well underway, my attitude is brighter even as I pen this last blog essay of 2021.

You see, I really I am okay. I struggle, yes, but I am capable of finding my way back home. Now that I have written away the bitter shadows, I feel lighter. I am lighter. Even as my head is filled up with the brains of a cynic who ascribes no tangible value, no magic, to the turn of the New Year, I am hopeful I will find purpose and peace in 2022. Perhaps it is simply the pleasant surprise of my survival of another year which has provided this shift in perspective. I forget sometimes that I can do hard things, and when I am reminded that I can I am grateful. Gratitude frames my mind to see the long winter in front of me as time to work on another book, to rest, and to wonder. And as each passing day gets a little longer, I will be stretching my spirit toward the spring.

Here is to a productive and peaceful winter to us all.

The Dorothy-Parker inspired ditty below is the only thing of any value I managed to write in the past two months. More bad poetry, I know, and I’m sorry! But Mack would appreciate it, and that makes it okay by me.

Writer’s Block
Some days I can write on for hours,
So clever I am with my pen;
But then comes a clog in
My thick, stupid noggin,
And I think I shall never write again.

In our front yard in Springfield, May 2012, this is one of my favorite photos of me and Mack
(although it is a rare serious pose and one of her in a dress!).
To me she was was always larger than life, and in so many ways she still is.

The Fears of Bug

On the outside, my long-haired chihuahua mix is golden and gorgeous. Her fur is the blended color of sunshine and fields of wheat turning autumn shades of amber. Her face is chiseled and dainty, and her delicate, pointed snout and dreamy, doe eyes would place Bug in the cute-as-a-bug category of dogs even without the glorious ears that stretch up as if to reach me when I call her name. Bug is sweet and gentle, my lamb, my snuggles, my dear littlest one.

On the inside of Bug, however, are scars and shadows on her willowy bones from anxieties I will never understand. She must be carried up the staircase to bed, but she scrambles down the steps quickly to breakfast all by herself every morning. She trembles at the sound of thunder, but she is brave in her demand that squirrels stay off our porch. She’s shy around men and distrustful of people in uniforms, but she adores the six people she has invited into her nervous little heart.

I adore Miss Bug for her goofy, heartwarming cuteness, even though loving her has required an acceptance of quirky, contradictory, and sometimes infuriating behaviors, like her interminable searching for the poop spot that will allow the least amount of contact of her precious butt with itchy or wet or unfamiliar surfaces. Patience is as important as love in my tending of Bug. If she were a human child, I would have her tested for Asperger Syndrome and practice strategies to improve her social skills and make her more comfortable with the spontaneous, unexpected things that pop up when you are a living creature on this crazy planet. But, Bug is dog, just seven pounds, and even though her neuroses have neuroses, she’s not that much trouble.

Most of the time.

Last night, though, around 3 a.m., just a couple hours after I had stopped reading and settled into a deep sleep, a scream like a banshee from nightmares pierced the quiet dark. My heart jumped like a startled frog into my throat, and I sat bolt upright in bed. I lunged for Pepper, my middle-aged Pomeranian with congestive heart failure, my mind going straight to painful heart attack. But she was sitting up, engaging her annoyance gurgle, having also been yanked from peaceful slumber by the terrible screech. I reached then for Bug, who sleeps on the pillow next to me. She wasn’t there, but I could hear her squeaking and struggling. I found her wiggling body tucked under and between our two pillows, her head pushed through the slats of the headboard. I pulled her free, and she melted into my arms. And then as if we were members of a freaky, psychically-connected chorus, all three of us let out long, whispery sighs.

I’ll never know for certain, but I think in her sleep Bug must have dreamed herself into that pickle between and under the pillows, woke up with her head in that scary and dark place between the headboard and the wall, and screamed out in holy horror.

Pepper rolled over on her back and went right back to sleep, while I tucked Bug under my arm, cuddling her deep into the comforter. I took some deep, meditative breaths to ease my body back into rest, and then I remembered I had heard that scream once before. A couple of years ago, while running up the long hallway of the loft where we lived in St. Louis, Bug screamed like a banshee from nightmares and fainted dead away. I thought she really was dead, limp in my arms when I picked her up. After a minute or two, however, she woke up and I rushed her to the vet. There was nothing at all wrong with her. The vet surmised that she might have twisted her leg or hyperextended her tiny knee while running fast, that she might have felt pain or a twinge or took an unexpected skid that scared her so badly she fainted.

Two years ago, I took my screaming, fainting chihuahua to the vet. Last night, I cuddled my screaming, terrified chihuahua and showered her with love and patience until she fell back into an easy slumber. Once her breathing was even and she was tucked away in a good dream, I closed my eyes and joined my funny little family in sleep.

The Innocence of Grandmothers

She is wearing a black blouse with bold pink flowers. Cabbage roses, they are, as big as her smooth cheeks, which are blushed to match them. I recognize my grandmother in the photograph, but her sweet, hopeful gaze, and the invincibility of her youth is that of a woman I do not know. It is 1943. Kathleen is twenty. She is the wife of a young man who is leaving for war. She is a young mother of two baby boys, my own mother not yet a sparkle in her eyes.

On her young face, there are no lines etched by three decades of factory labor. None textured with the grief of widowhood, which will come to her when she is forty-four, less than a year after I am born. There is no trace of the sorrowful eyes that I remember, the eyes that were a window to the pain of her loneliness, raging diabetes, and the heart disease that would take her life before she turned seventy. No, this Kathleen in the photograph, wrapped up in the arms of a handsome, bright-eyed soldier, who does not know what the war will do to them, is a vision of hope, of purpose, and of life all out in front of her.

Would that we could know the innocence of our grandmothers. To know the girls that bloomed their wisdom. To be friends with the women they were when their best days were in front instead of behind them. My grandmother had grit and humor, grown of her struggles. She taught me to trust my voice and the power of raising it. I loved her and appreciated her rough edges, which often snagged the tapestry of expectations about traditional grandmothers.

She was special to me because she was my grandmother and she loved me unconditionally. She was extraordinary to me because she was a woman who survived great hardship and profound grief and still she could belly laugh at a dirty joke and find joy eating sweets against doctor’s orders, or watching professional wrestling, or teaching her grandchildren how to curse like male factory workers in the 1950s.

But I wish my affection for my grandmother could have been rooted more deeply, as well, in the whole being of Kathleen. I wish her life could have overlapped with my desire to know her better. I wish I would have asked her what it was like to be twenty. In 1943. When she was young and the world was at war. I wish I would have asked her about that crazy blouse with cabbage roses and the bright blush upon her cheeks, and what she was thinking when she posed with my grandfather for that photograph. A photograph that is an artifact of the 1940s. A photograph that is evidence of both my tether to and my distance from my grandmother, far away and across the distance of eighty years and two generations of a family. 

Winter Ughs and Uggs

Winter coming on as a global pandemic heats up is a one-two punch to my gut. Even winters passed with dear friends in warm kitchens and cozy pubs doesn’t melt the ice between me and the jerk Old Man Winter. The bitter air, the sleet and snow, the short days and the overcast skies, and turtlenecks and fleece that make my thin hair fly out kooky away from head make me grumpy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not fake news. I get it every year. Black Friday means red-hot shopping deals for most people, but for me Black Friday means the arrival of my winter blues.

I hate the cold months. I abhor snow flurries. And as a daily pedestrian, I abominate sidewalk skating rinks created when an Illinois winter storm can’t decide whether it prefers to drown me in freezing cold rain or bury me under the snow. I am a sun worshipping, flip-flop wearing woman who loves to sweat and to bake my skin in the heat of a muggy Midwestern summer. I like my arms free of sleeves. I want to live every day in bare feet without socks and shoes hindering the wiggling of my painted toes. I love my freckles, bursting in July and August, when tomatoes are ripe and cold beer beats the heat at a backyard cookout with friends.

Summer is my season, and Thanksgiving, otherwise known as the American launch of Christmas, marks the end of it. No more Indian summers to keep me in denial. Thanksgiving fills up my belly with my sister’s wonderful food all jacked up on carbs and calories, but it leaves my summer-loving heart bitter and empty. Every year, just as the Thanksgiving sun sets and I’m falling into a food coma, winter shows up. It watches me get all liquored and fooded up on Thanksgiving, and as if to smite me—because that’s the kind of season winter is, a smiting season—it moves in while I am weak and whining about how much unhealthy food I have just consumed. And then, that jerk throws his winter blues at me when I’m too fat to get out of the way.

I don’t have a lot of coping strategies for my winter blues. My way is to cry about the cold, badmouth sledding and snow angels, and blame winter for my bah humbugging of Christmas. All of the standard winter rituals get me down. But there is one personal winter ritual that doesn’t completely ruin my life: the rotation of shoes in my closet. I put away my flip flops and Birkenstocks and hiking sandals, because they cannot make me happy when the temperatures drop into the thirties. I pull out my embarrassingly extravagant collection of Ugg boots. When the weather turns cold and wet in the days after Thanksgiving, and the furnace has kicked on to stay on for the next three and a half months, I slip my feet into a pair of my beloved, shearling-lined Uggs.

Ahhh. Toasty and warm. Uggs give me a spirit power. Uggs are my way of sticking up my middle finger to winter. The first feeling of this ritual cuddling of my feet makes me smile. It makes my toes and my heart toasty warm. I know I will still curse the winter, swear at every flurry that flies. But I also know that my feet will be luxuriously warm all winter while I dream about next summer.

Holidays are hard without Mack. This year I also had to endure Thanksgiving without Savannah and her husband Levi, without my mom and her husband Mike, and without my friend Dan, who has been joining our feast for years. Grief is always a challenge, but in a pandemic it has tested the limits of my ability to cope. Thank goodness for my sister Tracy, who fed me, albeit in the driveway at a healthy distance from her and my brother-in-law Jason and their daughter Zoe.
I did enjoy a couple of holiday cocktails, including this gin and jam with fresh cranberry sauce and rosemary. I toasted Mack, like I always do, after curating my perfect last bite in her honor: homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, and a dab of fresh cranberry sauce.

Silence

The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.

*****

Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.”