47 Days

I changed the title of this blog to celebrate the new direction of my life. I spent the last 47 days relearning how to live alcohol free. I even changed my hair color to blond to match my new outlook. These before and after pictures taken two years apart illustrate the new me.

After — August 7, 2020
Before — August 7, 2018

It is very satisfying to see the progress I’ve made in these pictures of me taken two years apart. My posture is different now. I look more confident and happier than in my slouching posture of 2018, when even though I’m smiling the sadness shows through. The before picture came up in my Facebook memories from two year ago—which is a punch to my gut because my then boyfriend took the photo during a hike on the Blackcreek Greenway. He was very important to me for several years and is no longer in my life.

My life is so much simpler now than it was in 2018. I have no responsibilities for anyone but myself. Although I still have grief, I have little stress in my life. That may seem strange in the middle of a pandemic, but it is true in comparison to 2018. Then I was working twelve-hour days, in a broken relationship, and the sole support both financially and emotionally for my grandson, who died a little over a year ago.

My friends have made a huge impact in my life. I go to at least one support meeting a day—the fellowship has increased my wellbeing and happiness. I’ve also worked hard on my health. I’m buying clean food and cooking several times a week. I indulge myself in wonderful healthy meals that I make just for me. My latest concoction is beans, chilies and chicken in the crock pot. I make enough for several meals and freeze small portions so I can have a variety in my freezer to pull out and reheat. I also have frozen yogurt and the occasional pizza, my favorite food.

Exercise has literally saved my life. I swim three days a week, work out three days a week, and walk Dutch several times a day. I replaced Dutch’s 4:30 pm walk with a daily trip to the dog park. I have met new friends who love dogs as much as I do—this has been a great social outlet for me. Instead of having a glass of wine after work, I get outside, and Dutch gets to go to his favorite place. He runs and wrestles with the young pups. The other dog owners think Dutch is much younger than six, the age the vet placed him based on his teeth.

Dutch on his daily romp at the dog park

It hasn’t been easy to get back to healthy living. I experienced some depression one weekend at the end of July that stalled my progress. It started with a Colposcopy, a cervical biopsy to screen out cancer. (Fortunately, I am cancer free). That biopsy sent me back into full grief. Again! I had a scare like that several years ago when my late husband Harry was still alive. Memories of him comforting me while I lay in bed in pain after the biopsy sent me back into fresh grief. When some little thing reminds me of my daughter, my late husband, or my grandson, it is like they died today. I am right back there sobbing and freshly wounded.

Thoughts of Harry comforting me created an intense feeling of loss that overwhelmed me. So I cried and ordered wine on Instacart, lay in bed and drank through my tears — all weekend. I thought, I can’t go on living like this. I simply don’t want to be here without them. I didn’t want to die but I had no desire to get out of bed. No desire to eat or even walk Dutch. I used two boxes of tissues and still the tears came, while ambition to even shower stayed tamped down.

Dutch jumped up on the bed, put his head under my hand and pawed me. I felt guilty for not walking him and making him live this boring life with me. Somehow Dutch got through to me. I had two choices. I could keep doing what I was doing and let grief keep me from living or I could find help. I went that morning to an alcohol support meeting. That was 47 days ago.

It has been hard work to change my life. But the pictures show the difference. Two years ago, I was emotionally drained. I had driven my grandson Erik from New York to his dorm in Lima, OH. I was his sole support for college — both financially and emotionally — and his go to person for all things academic.

Erik settled in his dorm room in Lima, Ohio, after assembling his gaming desk.

Erik set up his put together his gaming desk in his dorm room the first night he was there. He was determined to put it together himself with no help from me or any of his roommates. He also refused to read the directions and so spent several hours on it. But he did it and was so proud. That was a wonderful day in his life. He was so full of hope and pride and so was I. You may notice his mom’s obituary hanging on the wall. He also kept her My Little Ponies from her memorial service.

We went out to dinner with several of Erik’s roommate’s parents. He told them how he and his dad played tricks on each other. One night he put firecrackers under the toilet. When his dad sat on it they exploded and he jumped into the bathtub. Looking around at the parents at the table I read shock in their eyes. Who was this kid that would be living with theirs for the next year?

So in able to support Erik in school, I was working hard to keep the high stress job I had a Questar Assessment. I had also just moved into a townhouse after a delayed closing that almost didn’t happen. Packing my late husband’s books before the move stirred up fresh grief for him. And I was in a broken relationship with a man I had been seeing since 2016. (I’ll call him A, since he was my addiction). He did not want a commitment, but I kept seeing him anyway hoping he would change his mind. I felt inadequate and alone even when I was with him. It was not a good feeling and it shows in the photo from 2018.

The stress overwhelmed me. I stopped taking care of myself. I replaced my regular workout with drinking, ate comfort food and gained weight, which made me even more insecure. But unlike the me of the present, I dwelled in the depression and grief and used alcohol to numb the pain. I did not find support and help.

Below are my journal entries leading up to the October 7, 2018. It smacks of desperation that I don’t have today. Even the pandemic does not cause me this much distress.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

I can’t shake the eating at night thing. Stress and loneliness. Not going to even try to get on a healthy diet until after I move. Too hard.

Doing all this move alone! And getting Erik to college. And heavy workload. Now seller may not fix things! But I move on Tuesday.

I got up at 4 am the last couple of days. Did my workouts then worked 12-hours. Today I slept in until 5:30. I’m not sure how I’m holding it together with this move next Tuesday, then Apple Valley, Minnesota, for my company wide yearly meeting on August 7th and Erik’s trip for orientation on the 16th.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

I am so stressed I can barely function. There is the batch 1 triage (reviewing teacher written questions) deadline Wednesday that is impossible because these endless emails from the realtor with docs to sign are keeping me from working. I have to look at the inspection report to decide which repairs I should ask the seller to make. I need to talk to the realtor. But I don’t have time. Less than a week until I move.

It’s too much!  There are empty boxes all over that I need to pack. I found out last night that this house I’m selling won’t close until Thursday or Friday. So I can’t move before I leave for my company wide meeting in Apple Valley. When will I move?

As I’m sorting books and CDs to keep or give away, memories of Lynn and Harry keep flooding me. I can’t fight the tears. Harry and I watched Random Harvest every Thanksgiving. He cried every time, the big sap. I want what I had with Harry. I miss my daughter. Damn it. This is too hard! I just want to crawl in a hole, watch movies and drink! My friend C’s coming at 3 so that will help a lot!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I’m not doing well, grieving for Harry all over again with this move. I am edgy, sad, jittery and can’t focus on anything. Everything irritates me. An overall sense of sadness is like a shadow surrounding me. Yesterday the president of the homeowner’s association rang the doorbell around 1 pm to welcome me. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and I’m sure did not make a good impression.

I don’t want the responsibility of a house. I wanted to sell my house and rent an apartment, but I bought this house instead because of A. He wanted me to buy a house instead of living in an apartment. I wanted a place where he would come see me, so I bought a house. What I really wanted was for us to move in together and start a new life. I hate this!

I got my eyelashes done at 10 this morning in preparation for my work trip. Once home, I cried while packing Harry’s books and rubbed my eyes with a tissue–basically rubbed off the new eyelashes. A couple fell right off in the tissue! Damn it.

I keep forgetting basic things like where my phone is when I’m talking on it.

I’m alone and doing this move alone. I can’t wait until the move is done, I’m back from Apple Valley and taking Erik to Ohio. Just get through one thing at a time!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

It was a hard trip in Apple Valley because the remote people didn’t have cars and the meetings were both at Questar, the zoo, and the hotels. We had to find rides. I squeezed into the back of a van one of the managers had rented to and from the big meeting in the zoo, to Questar, then to the Grandstay hotel. It was exhausting. A said I looked tired yesterday. I imagine I aged years.

I can’t make myself do item triage (reviewing questions written by teachers). I need to work but my concentration is nonexistent. I am tired of endless unpacking and Questar workload. My friend C is coming at 1pm. I am helpless to get the house in order for her visit. Boxes are everywhere. I did unpack my suitcase and part of a kitchen box at least and I put away laundry.

I spent the morning setting up autopay for the utilities. I’m resentful because I do not want to be a homeowner. It’s too scary and expensive when things break. I’m sure these feelings are partially why I broke up with A again yesterday. He got here late for our hike–after 10 am. It made me mad. I am tired of being not important and told him how I felt. He says he can’t commit to being exclusive but he’s not seeing anyone.

I really need some time off to rest but I’m not going to get it. I’m taking Erik to North Western Ohio for college on Thursday. I will try to enjoy that and be happy for him and get him settled in. God give me the strength. Please put your hand on me and help me be a good example and support for Erik.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Just got back from Lima, Ohio, last night. I flew to Syracuse at 6:30 Thursday morning, picked Erik up in Homer, New York, loaded the car and drove to Lima from Syracuse, an 8-hour drive. We got there after 11 pm. I got back here a little before 7 pm last night. I’m in shell shock from the trip.

We set up Erik’s dorm room. Got his key to the dorm room from administration. Brought his stuff into the room. Went to Spectrum. Bought him a bike. Went to Walmart multiple times. Bought his books, got his hair cut, put his chair together. Met his roommates and parents. Went to dinner Sat with two of his roommates and parents.

I did stupid things yesterday. I dropped my glasses at the airport. Looked all over, in the bathroom stall, back at the restaurant, and then found them under the chair I sat in at the gate. Then I thought I left them in the Uber after searching all over the house. My glasses were on the dresser.

I felt so alone when I got to the airport and on the way home. I am alone but I did all this by myself! I am strong. Drove Erik to Lima, moved, handling the work, I hope. Deadline Monday for all triage.

I am very concerned about money and getting Erik through school. Maybe I should ask my sisters and Mom for financial help.

The Close Heart of the Afterlife: life of a short story

I started writing “The Close Heart of the Afterlife” in 2014, the year before Harry died. It is narrated by a ghost who is drawn from the afterlife to help his twin brother cope with his wife’s downward spiral into Alzheimer’s. Told from both heaven and the earthly realm, the reader experiences the desperation accompanying a loved one’s cognitive decline.

The story grew from my experience with my late-husband Harry’s dementia. It was the hardest time in my life, in many ways harder than when my daughter was in jail for heroin use. Harder because there was no break from Harry’s cognitive demise. It was difficult watching the man I loved slip away.

One of the ways I coped was to write in my journal. The release I got from putting words on the electronic page helped me process my emotions. Some of my best stories have come from the words in my journal. I spin a painful or uplifting experience into a story. Following the 80/20 percent rule, these stories are only 20 percent fiction. This is true of this piece. I still cry when I read it.

I originally wrote about a wife caring for her husband who had dementia, based on my care of Harry. It was depressing, much like my journal below. There was nothing to hook the reader or keep them reading. So I used a trick Stephen King suggested in his book On Writing, to switch the gender roles of the characters. I tried this partly because I was afraid Harry might read the story and know it was about him. And he was in denial of his dementia. He thought the doctors were all wrong and he was fine. Hence, I reversed genders so the husband was the caregiver of his wife. It was still pretty sad and not very engaging. So I put it aside not intending to do anything with it. It was just too painful.

Until I read The Lovely Bones, which has one of the best descriptions of heaven I’ve ever read. The novel gave me the idea to add a brother from the grave. I decided to make the ghost the narrator and it worked.

I submitted my rewrite it to my writing critique group and got some great feedback. Although the dementia seemed real, the story was choppy. It had a lot of breaks with poor transitions and went back and forth in time. And didn’t hold their attention. I could not face the rewrite of the story because I didn’t want to think about that time in my life. I needed some distance from it.

Sunday I had some time and decided to take the story apart based on the feedback from my writing group pictured above. I moved scenes around and put them back together in a more chronological order. We work shopped it again Wednesday. The said they had a better sense of the wife’s dementia and were drawn into the characters relationship to make it more hard hitting and emotional.

Harry was a marketing writer and good at writing tag lines and titles so he came up with the title for the story before he died. I had told him a little about it, without telling him it was about him. So the story is very much Harry’s story. I hope my love for him shines through. My effort is a legacy to his brilliance, his talent, humor and love of language. I’m submitting it to literary magazines for publication, so hopefully you can read it soon.

This is the Harry I remember–our wedding day in 2003.

Following are thoughts from my journal when I started to lose the Harry that I loved due to his cognitive impairment. I have not shared these thoughts until today. My desperation in these honest words created “The Close Heart of the Afterlife.”

Harry’s decline started on August 8, 2011 after he had a seizure– I didn’t know it then but he was missing nearly a centimeter of his frontal lobes at that time. Brain damage from football concussions combined with alcohol abuse likely caused his dementia and seizures.

 Saturday, September 17, 2011

It is cold and rainy outside. I’m worried about Harry. Tuesday was a bad day. He had a bad episode with his seizure medication where he was so euphoric it was like he was on speed. He woke me up at 4 am telling me I couldn’t help him, that Doctor Yaremsetty couldn’t help him. His doctors were all wrong. He was a broken record, repeating over and over that no one would listen to him. He wouldn’t quit talking. He read the sports scores and the articles from the paper aloud to me. I cried several times. I went out on the deck and just stared off into the yard.

Finally I called Yaaremsetty and got his meds switched.

It has been so much pressure on me since Harry’s seizure. He is just in denial that he should be on seizure meds. He’s scared and drinking too much. I don’t have a job and I’m worried Harry will lose his job. How can he keep it when he sleeps until 11 am, works an hour or two, then takes another nap?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I’m still worried about Harry. He fell asleep while I cooked eggs. I guess it is his seizure meds making him so tired. He was up again at 3 am. I hope he’ll be able to work tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I don’t know what to do. Harry is really off. He is forgetting things. Has mood swings and concentration problems. I think he has dementia. 

He woke me up at 1 am and then at 6 am. He doesn’t remember talking with me either time. He’s scared about his meds. He keeps saying he doesn’t understand why he’s being treated like he has seizures every day instead of once every decade. I’m really concerned something is wrong with him like Alzheimer’s.

I got him up at 9:30 for work. I made him an egg sandwich and brought it up to his office. He came downstairs, saying he couldn’t remember how to put his password in and work. He didn’t know I’d made him an egg and brought it up to him. He went back to bed without eating or logging into work.

I have a call into Yaramsetty. I’m afraid it is not just the meds that is the problem.

What do I do? Even if I find a job will I be able to work with Harry in this state? What if Harry loses his job because he’s not working? We won’t have insurance if he’s not working.

He is sleeping during the day and has insomnia at night. He says biting comments to me. Says I don’t understand him and then the next minute he apologizes and says how much he loves me. I don’t think I can live with him through this.

If he would at least let me sleep at night, it would be helpful. I just feel groggy and drugged out all the time.

Should I look into hiring someone to care for him?

Should I look for a job? Will I be able to work? At least I would have something to do to occupy my time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am going out of my mind. Harry is sick to his stomach. I got home around 3 pm after swimming and lunch with Cathy. He said he was going to take a nap. He’s been coughing and sleeping since I got home. It is depressing trying to watch TV while he’s sleeping. I feel trapped.

I talked to Cathy about Harry and realize how miserable I am. Harry is sick or verbally abusive most of the time.

I think the 100 mg of Zoloft is too strong. I think I’ll try 50 mg tomorrow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Harry was vomiting all night. Finally about 4 am he took an Adivan and was able to sleep. I feel exhausted. Dumping his puke bowl and trying to make him comfortable. I feel really bad for Harry and am worried about his health.

I have lunch with Anne at noon. I wanted to get some resumes out before that but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m just too tired.

Harry ate an English muffin and is now sleeping. I certainly hope he feels better. I have not had an entire night’s sleep since Harry’s seizure. I’ll try 50 mg of Zoloft today and see how I feel.

I feel so confused, or maybe lost is a better word. For the first time in my adult life I am jobless. I have no direction, no schedule, no sense of purpose that a job would give me.

 

Payback Is a Bitch — Surprise Publication

I was searching on Google and was pleasantly surprised to find my story “Payback is a Bitch” published in The Coil Magazine October, 18, 2018. I love the photograph they chose of the woman pointing the gun–it’s perfect.

The Coil is the fiction magazine under Alternating Current Press. It is a daily literary magazine that publishes up to four pieces a day. They say on the Alternating Current Press web site they pay a tiny token for all the pieces they accept. I had submitted the story to Leah Angstman for Alternating Current Press back in June of 2013. I have changed emails since 2013, so that’s likely why I never got notification of publication or received payment. I know Leah from my late husband Harry Calhoun’s poetry publication days. I am honored to be published in a magazine he would have loved.

I wrote to the fiction editor at The Coil yesterday thanking him for the publication and asked him to update my bio and photo. The bio is very out of date–has me listed as an educational constant, which I haven’t done in years. I work for Measurement Incorporated now, developing educational tests. The photo in the piece is an old one from probably back in 2013 when Harry was sick and I was exhausted from teaching and taking care of him. It’s not my best look. I’ve since change my hair color from the blond to my natural brunette, or medium ash brown from the dye bottle.

See my previous blog post about the life of a story that I wrote about “Payback is a Bitch” when it was accepted by Lana Station Quarterly back in 2010.

Strategies to build new habits

We develop habits as a way to conserve mental energy. With the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are that some healthier habits have been interrupted. This was the topic of a workshop my trainer Jake Onrdorff led last week. You can contact Jake by email for more information.

I work out now with Jake at UNC Wellness Center in Cary two mornings a week. Even though the gym is not open, social distanced personal training is allowed outside. Jake wears a mask and we stay six feet apart. The heat is brutal even at eight in the morning, but a little sweat is worth it. I told Jake that I can make myself go to the gym because I have an appointment with him or a reservation to swim, but I cannot seem to make myself workout at home on the off days I’m not at the gym.

Jake came up with a suggestion that I would not have thought was even a good idea. He said instead of doing a 15-30 min workout at home, do one thing instead. Do just one exercise like ten table push ups. And that’s it. This will build a habit of doing an exercise—just one—that takes only a minute or two. And since I walk Dutch four times a day—each for one half to three quarters of a mile, Jake suggested using the walks as a trigger and do one thing after the walks. It’s working. I feel so much better since I’ve been doing this. I row 1000 meters after his 6 am walk—that takes me only seven minutes. After the second walk around 11 am, I do a single set of exercises, like squats, lunges, table push ups or crunchies. I sometimes row again after his 4:30 pm walk and sometimes skip that set. I’m losing half to one pound a day.

Jake also suggested that I post a picture of me when I looked the way I want to look now. So I printed this picture from Jan 2018 taken at Lifetime Fitness when I had met my goal weight of 160. It’s hanging from a magnet on my refrigerator. I see me at my goal weight of 160 pounds every time I open my refrigerator. I’ve got 14 pounds to got to get there. I have hope I will make it and stay there.

Back when I was at my goal weight in the pre-Covid world, I had a gym habit. I worked out six or seven mornings a week at Lifetime Fitness. I was at the gym every morning from 6:30 to 8:30 because I also ate breakfast at the café with friends. And I enjoyed it. I did a leg, chest or arm workout followed by one hour of cardio every day. I either I split the hour up with walking on a steep incline on a treadmill, the elliptical machine and the rowing machine, or I swam for an hour.

Until I broke my awesome gym habit. It happened slowly over several months. Last July I took my old job back at Measurement Inc. Instead of working from home, I drove to Durham every day. I worked long hours. I quit working out at all and gained 15 pounds. I was just starting to put the gym back into my routine again in February and March when Covid happened and UNC Wellness closed. This was devastating for me.

The gym closing sent me into a downward and self-destructive spiral. I lost my newly found momentum on nutrition and exercise. The isolation took a toll on me. And then my daughter Lynn’s birthday on April 27, followed by her six-year death anniversary, and then my grandson Erik’s death anniversary a week later hit me hard. When phase 2 of the Covid shut down continued into July, I gave up. I drank every day and didn’t exercise much except for walking Dutch. I kept up with my work, but little else. I felt sad and unhealthy.

Then in June when personal training was allowed outside, I started working out with Jake once a week. This helped my attitude tremendously, but it wasn’t enough. Last week I bumped up my workout with Jake to two days a week. It’s the best money I have spent — I’m building back the gym habit. Three days a week I swim for the half hour that we are allowed per swimmer. So now I’m at the gym five days a week, building back my habit. It’s not perfect.

When I was at my goal weight I swam for an hour on the days when swimming was my cardio. The thirty minutes of swimming we are allotted each day is not enough, but it is better than nothing. There is one shower at pool side, so swimmers rinse off and then change in the changing room. Since the locker room is still closed there’s no bathroom for the outdoor workout days. But I’ll do socially distanced exercise over no exercise.

Working out makes me hungry. So I eat small clean meals several times a day. This requires food prep, planning and cooking. I’m treating myself to good food. I made cauliflower pizza last weekend. This week I made Parmesan chicken and yesterday broiled tuna steaks. I’ve been eating salad for one or two of my meals each day–with protein. I got salad kits at Harris teeter to make it easier and Kale and spinach. I am starting to make good nutrition a habit. This habit had totally fallen out and I’d been eating junk. Late night snacking on ice cream, cookie dough and chips had become my habit.

My sleep was sporadic as a result of the poor diet and lack of exercise. I would wake up between one and three am and then couldn’t fall back to sleep. I’d read or watch TV. Sometimes I’d fall back to sleep, but usually not. I was tired and grumpy all day and then the cycle of eating junk, drinking too much and not sleeping would continue. I was ruining my immune health. It is especially important to get a good night’s sleep and exercise during this pandemic. Those two things alone can boost our immune health. With exercise and good food I’m sleeping thought the night now.

Jake and I also talked about missing work because of children—he has two school age kids. I mentioned that I missed about two months of school my first year of teaching because my daughter had surgery to remove her spleen. This was to treat the hereditary blood disease we both have. Spherocytosis causes about 1.5 percent of our red blood cell’s membranes to be imperfect. Back in 1989, her doctor and surgeon did not want her to have the surgery until she was eight. So for much of her seventh year she was sick. Her red cell count was off, so her white count was off, and her immune system was weakened. That was a hard year for me. Watching my daughter get sick and feeling helpless to do anything was heart-wrenching. I didn’t know then that a harder time would come, the day that I got  a phone call from a NY police detective. “You called us to check on your daughter,” he said. “She passed away.” He was blunt. I didn’t know then that Lynn had been dead for four days. I think the detective’s lack of detail was a kindness to me.

Jake said, “You have been through a lot. You should write a book.”

I had not considered writing a nonfiction book. Not since I first started writing nearly 20 years ago. The first thing I wrote was my autobiography. I sent a hard copy and floppy disks to my family and friends—never do this. The book was terrible because I didn’t know anything about writing. But I made those close to me read it. I even sent it to a few agents. One rejected it with a note that asked if I was famous. He said no one would publish my autobiography unless I was. But now Jake gives me something to think about. Maybe people would be interested in my story of overcoming three terrible losses.

I’m going to start a new habit of getting up at five and writing for an hour before my first walk with Dutch. I think I can make that habit stick and maybe write that book.

Writing and eating dog food

I have decided to take the plunge and revamp the young adult novel I finished back in 2008. It’s been twelve years since I looked at the word doc. I will need to take the novel apart and put the strongest parts back together. In 2008, when I thought it was finished, I shopped it around to agents and got 23 rejections. Now I see why. Katharine’s voice is not there. The narrator tells events about Katharine through most of the story. There are also point of view and voice issues and too much inner thoughts. The first chapter is not strong, not enough of a hook. So I have my work cut out for me. Because it will be a new story, I’m changing the title from Dr. Ziegawart’s War to Mysteries of Katharine because it is her story and not the evil wizard’s. I have a four-day weekend that will give me some time to get started.

As I get into writing again combined with working from home, I’m not doing a good job of eating healthy. I don’t cook for myself. Back in May I got into a good rhythm of eating small meals throughout the day, but I didn’t stick with it. I need to go back to doing meal prep on Sundays. I keep thinking since I work from home I will cook during the weekdays, but I don’t do it. Last week I ate cheese and crackers, junk food and pizza because it seemed like to much effort to go to Harris Teeter to buy ingredients to cook just for myself. And the scale shows it. So, in an effort to eat healthier, I am going back to cooking for the week on Sundays like I did when I worked in the office.

Yesterday, I told my mom I had just cooked the Turkey, Rice And Veggie Mix shown in the picture from a recipe for dog food I found online. Mom said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about that.” So here goes.

I couldn’t sleep Saturday night, really early Sunday morning, after waking up from a vivid dream on a road trip with my grandson where we having fun hanging out and exploring. It’s been a year since he passed. It hit me hard when I woke and realized it was only a dream and he’s gone. I had dreams like this of both my daughter and my husband for years after they passed. Missing Erik, I found myself wide awake. Since I’d been thinking of switching Dutch’s food to a lower calorie version, I spent some time scrolling the Web for ideas. The vet says he is too heavy at 70 pounds. He was only 58 pounds when I adopted him in November. I ran across this Web site: Kiss Kibble Goodbye: Homemade Dog Food Recipes. There are some lucky dogs out there that eat better than many people. The recipes looked so good I decided to make two of them for me. I modified the recipes slightly for human consumption, mainly adding spices. I made Beef Stew, Doggie Style as well as the Turkey and Rice dish. I shared both with Dutch and he thinks they are pretty good. I’ve got leftovers in the freezer as well as this week’s meals.

This reminds me of when I was teaching science in Hillsborough, NC. My then husband, my daughter and I had just moved to NC. We didn’t have much money. So my ex made a soup he called dog food. It had three ingredients: hamburger, chicken broth and noodles. It went a long way toward feeding a family of three. I’m glad I don’t have to live on a teacher’s salary now.

I look forward to spending the weekend cooking, writing, walking and swimming. My July 4 holiday will be different than most. I have no family here and will celebrate by writing and reading some young adult novels to help me get into a thirteen-year-old’s voice. I know in order to be a good writer I need to read, read, read in the genre I write. First, I’m going to polish and submit a couple of short stories before attacking the novel. I love first draft writing. The editing and polishing are painful for me so I sit on stories instead of sending them out into the world.

And in order to boost my immune system I need to get outside and get vitamin D and exercise. I have been doing social distanced swimming since June 1. And grateful to be able to swim since gyms are still closed in North Carolina. Each swimmer reserves their own lane ahead of time and swims alone in the lane. The locker room is not open, so swimmers make do by putting clothes back on over dripping suits or changing in one of the two changing rooms.

 

 

Growing up at age 57

Dutch with his gingerbread toy

The best thing I did for myself this year was to adopt Dutch on my birthday in November. He is a sweet, five-year-old Lab-shepherd mix, weighing in at 70 pounds. On March 26, when the president of the educational testing company I work for emailed us, saying that our salary would be cut 20 percent due to many states expecting minimal or no testing, I sat on the living room rug with Dutch. I hugged him and cried for a long time. Fear. Anger. I was mad at the Corona virus, at the government for shutting down, at my company.

I knew I could not pay my bills on the reduced salary. It was a struggle to live on my full salary. I had options, but that night sitting on the floor with Dutch, I did not know what they were. I was isolated from the world, living alone, and working from home. Dutch had no idea what was wrong, but he licked my tears and was content to lay on the floor while I cried. My company has since gotten a PPP award and our salaries are restored. But on March 26, I felt helpless, as many of us have, due to the Covid-19 -shelter-in-place.

Now I realize that pandemic that I was so angry at months ago is responsible getting me out of my shell. It is hard to imagine that good could come from this disease, but it has helped bring me out of the isolation I experienced for years. You might ask how being shut in alone would help with isolation.

I talked to my therapist yesterday for a half hour about just that. (Yes, I see a therapist and believe everyone should.). I told him that at age 57, I believe I have finally grown up. He said, “That’s great. Many people never do.” And while he may have been joking because he uses humor as part of his therapy, I it rings true. Why else would people react with such appalling behavior during this pandemic.

My therapist says the lack connections with people forced me to reach out and reconnect to the people in my life.  I talk to my mom twice a day now. This has helped me so much. I started calling Mom because I was worried about her living alone in South St. Louis, near Ferguson. This is an area where Corona cases are high. She lives in a retirement home where no visitors were allowed and at least one person there died from Covid. So I called her every other day or so. Then I found myself calling Mom every day and then twice a day. But I wasn’t calling anymore because I was worried about her, I needed to talk. And she enjoys my calls. She lives in a one room apartment with only herself for company.

I also reconnected with two of my sisters who live in San Diego. We have a weekly Sunday evening call. I hadn’t been close to them in years. I reached out to friends I hadn’t seen in months and some years. Now I drive to see a friend who lives out in the country every other week or so. We sit on lawn chairs and talk. Sometimes Dutch comes and plays with her dog.

I also contacted members of my former critique group. We’ve started meeting virtually—what a huge difference this has made in my life. I am inspired to write again. They helped me polish my story “Personal Best,” which I submitted yesterday to literary magazines. My first submission since 2013. The happiness the simple act of pressing send gave me is indescribable. I have not written anything other than educational articles and test questions from the time my late husband Harry got sick in 2011 until now. Here are a few lines from the story:

A couple walks by holding hands. For the first time in two years, I don’t feel envy, anger, or annoyance to see them together. “I am happy. I’m alone. But I’m okay.”

There are parallels in my life to Maria’s in the story. I loosely based her character on me. In my real life, it took me five years after my husband’s death, not two, to be able to watch happy couples and not tear up. Maria in my story healed faster than I did. She experienced a tragedy that cost her everything, much like my own losses. She struggled with addiction and despair but was helped by the enduring spirit of her daughter. I believe my daughter and husband have influenced my life from their heaven. I feel them in the decisions I make.

 

 

I’m back and writing fiction again

I am reviving this blog and will be posting regularly about my writing life and overcoming loss.

My last post here was Dec 30, 2010, ten years ago. I cannot believe I let so much time pass. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine I could have written during that time because I lost my daughter, husband and grandson several years apart. Much like David, in my story “Good Game,” I was sinking into despair and grief. I would like to take you on my journey back to writing and living.

A Facebook memory popped up on June 14, where I had written that I was excited that “Good Game” would appear in the July, 2013, issue of Thunder Sandwich. That was the last story I wrote until recently. I had a dream a few days later about my father who passed away in 2007. I believe he was sending me a message of hope and encouraging me toward writing again.

It is fitting to discuss “Good Game” today, on Father’s Day, because David’s character was inspired by my father. In the story, David was a professional bicyclist until an accident changed his life. Paralyzed and sinking into despair, he had to learn to live on two wheels. Again. With the help of his service dog and the enduring spirit of his father.

The character David was a composite of my friend, Jim, who was in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident, and my father. David’s dog was inspired by my late husband and my black lab, Alex. Now, I see a parallel to David’s life and my own. I could not have known back in 2010 when I wrote the story that I would experience the loss of three important people in my life. Or that a dog, my dog Dutch, would play an important role in my recovery.

“Good Game” took a long journey into publication. After being a finalist the 2011 Eric Hoffer Award, it was rejected by 23 magazines before finding its way to print. It was finally the featured story in the September online issue of go read your lunch: http://www.goreadyourlunch.com/2013/09/goodgame.html.

Back in 2010 when I wrote the story, I was proud of it. It was by far my best work. Now reading it ten years later, I see that could have made the story better. First person is hard to write well because we are limited by only the thoughts and emotions of the first-person narrator.  I could have made the story stronger if I brought the reader into the story instead of telling them about David’s experiences. There are a lot of “I” and “my” in the piece.

This is a great article from Now Novel on how to wtite in first person: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/first-person-narrative-7-tips/

I think my current work in process will be even better, due to my writing critique group who help me learn as a writer. The story, “Personal Best,” is an autobiographical piece based on recovering from loss through strength training and exercise. Like “Good Game,” there is a supernatural element.

I am ready to start submitting for the first time in eight years. I feel so blessed to be writing again.

Goodbye

As my blog posts become more infrequent, I realize that it is time for me to take another hiatus from blogging –maybe temporary, but most likely permanent. When I started this blog back in September of 2006, I intended to post about science education as my career up to that point had been as a science teacher.  Then as I finished my first young adult novel and began work on a short story collection and a new novel, my posts turned toward the process of writing fiction .

Now I find my time so taken up by my day job as a educational test developer that I have little energy to devote to my fiction writing or blogging, so I will say goodbye for now. I will update my Web site frequently, so check there for more information.

Here’s to finding balance and the happiness it brings!

Trina

Time flies faster as we age

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

Alex barks, strains and emits a low growl that increases in volume. I know that growl. All ninety pounds of black lab rear up, testing the strength of his leather leash and the power of my grip. Too late I see a German shepherd looping toward us. My blood sounds loudly in my ears like waves crashing a rocky shore.

The large dog’s owner stands in his yard, makes no attempt to corral his dog, even while Alex continues growling and lunging. I make a futile attempt to drag Alex away.

“Gizmo is friendly,” the man says. He is actually smiling.

“My dog is not!” I yell. Alex is a rescue dog and even three years after we adopted him, he is still aggressive toward other dogs.

Hanging onto the plastic bag of poop I captured from earlier in the walk with my left hand, I jerk Alex’s leash with my right hand. It is like trying to drag a tank. Struggling to keep my footing, I wonder why I am still clutching the bag of poop like it was solid gold. I throw down the bag, grasp Alex’s leash with both hands, while using my body to block Gizmo.

Dragging ninety pounds of a Labrador in the opposite direction he wants to go is impossible. So as the laws of physics decree, I tumble face forward. Eat gravel. Fortunately, the bag of poop cushions my fall. I am astonished that I’m still holding the leash. This is only a small victory because at the end of his leash Alex has Gizmo by the throat.

In a daze, aware of an ache in my knees and blood dripping from my chin, nearly overpowered by the stench of dog shit clinging to my shirt, I stand up. I grab both of Alex’s back legs, hauling him off the larger German shepherd. I hope Gizmo’s owner is right about the friendly bit, because if Gizmo attacks me, I’ll have to let go of Alex and run.

I notice Alex’s legs are bloody either from my cut lip or Gizmo’s teeth.

Gizmo’s owner runs up–a little late for the party. He grabs Gizmo’s collar and drags his dog away muttering “Sorry . . . so sorry.” He doesn’t look back, doesn’t ask if Alex or I needed help.

“You’ve got to keep your dog on a leash, man!” I yell and mutter, “Asshole.”

I wipe blood from my mouth. My upper lip is split where it had lost the battle with the gravel, but at least I didn’t break any teeth. I pull Alex to the side of the road on wobbly legs. “Sit,” I command. He does. How nice. What a model citizen.

I sit on the curb. Tears run down my cheeks and I am aware that I’m shaking. I wipe the moisture away with my hand. The smell of dog shit grows stronger and I realize I’ve just smeared the stuff on my face. I wipe my hands off on the grass and then check Alex for injuries. No blood in his teeth or on his tongue. He must have only gotten Gizmo’s fur. I couldn’t find any cuts on him either. He is lucky.

I am not. My knees hurt. Both are scraped. I brush off my knees, smearing brown stripes down my legs. It could only be dog shit. I fume, cursing Gizmo’s owner. I’m a mile from home. I’ll have to walk back covered in dog excrement. Angry, and, I admit, embarrassed, I curse myself for not bringing my cell phone. I stand up. Or at least try to. My legs don’t hold. I sit hard on the curb, probably adding a bruise on my bum to my other injuries.

 

My grandmother said that time passes more and more quickly as we age. I didn’t understand her words when I was twenty and she was still alive. Now with my 48th birthday approaching, I understand. It seems like only a minute has passed since that day in July when Alex made Gizmo’s acquaintance. I was walking Alex early in the mornings then to avoid the brutal Carolina summer heat. Now, when I walk Alex in the early morning–in a route that takes us nowhere near Gizmo’s home–it is still dark and I’ve traded the shorts and tanks I wore this summer for gloves, a hat and an insulated sweat suit. Now I’m suddenly crunching acorns under my feet and the leaves remaining on the trees have traded their greens for the colors of autumn.

Likewise, time seems to be flying by faster the harder I work at my day job. I have put in hard hours for months at the testing company where I develop science questions. Hard because the project is massive: 30,000 questions. And hard because we have been understaffed. At first the challenge was enough. But, now I want more. As the company gears up with additional staff, I am ready to take a lesser role.

I thought by now I would have made some progress on  THE RIPPER. Instead four months have passed without me opening the Word doc containing the novel. Likewise I have sent out no story submissions. Life is passing me by.

But it took a coworker to help me see how fast. I mentioned that I am the fiction editor of Pig in a Poke to a new manager and he asked me to send him a link to the magazine. When he e-mailed me that he was reading my blog, I was embarrassed. My last blog post was over a month ago.

I’ve started a new writing project that I think will help me get back on track. I am only in the contemplating stage. I’ve made notes and am thinking about how the story will come together. It will take a close up look at how dissociative identify disorder (DID) affects a woman, her relationships and her children. It is different from anything I’ve done so far. I’m excited to get started, which should motivate me to work on it.

I think THE RIPPER novel will take the back burner for now. The characters have grown cold. I think part of the reason I had lost momentum for my writing is that I couldn’t get excited about Rosa’s character.

 

Pig in a Poke update:

Harry has 11 poets lined up for the January issue. I have accepted three stories, but am considering several others. I am still deciding on a few stories sent in as far back as September. If you haven’t gotten a rejection it means I think your story has merit and may place it in the January issue. I have sent rejection letters to all those I know I won’t use. I’m going to try to read all the submissions by next weekend so I can reply to writers.

Yesterday I read ten stories, rejected two and am considering the others. I have 21 more to read before I make my final decision. I plan to read 10 more today and the rest next weekend. The good news is that the quality of stories I am receiving for the Pig is high. I think this last round of submissions is the best I’ve received. But, the high quality makes it tough for me because I will have to reject stories that are good.

Issue #3 of Pig in a Poke now alive and oinking!

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

Pig in a Poke, issue #3, is live today … enjoy!

The third time’s a charm, and Pig in a Poke is charmed to be here. And we hope you’re charmed by the great lineup of poets (fiction writers and essayists) we have for you. I still can’t believe the amazing writers we’ve managed to attract, and Trina and I are grateful for that. As always, we try to put pearls of superb writing in our swinish sty. I think that once again we’ve put together a good mixture of poetry, fiction and some fine literary essays. Trina and I are proud to call this our magazine. A Pig in a Poke it is, because you might never know what you’re getting, but you know it’s going to be good.”  Harry Calhoun, editor.

Harry Calhoun, a.k.a. my husband, edits the poetry and I, a.k.a. Trina Allen, have picked out the stories and laid out the pages. The two of us have pretty much collaborated on choosing the essays.  Not only is there new talent here — new to the Pig, that is — but for this issue we asked several writers to submit stories including Christina Hoag, Lynne Barrett, Anne Woodman and Mark Howell.

I do hope you’ll drop by, give a read, spread the word, and maybe donate to the cause. Let me know what you think.

http://www.piginpoke.com/ currentissue.html

The lineup for this issue includes:

Poetry by

A.D. Winans

Tim Peeler

Robert Demaree

Louis McKee

Lyn Lifshin

Karla Huston

Donal Mahoney

Michael L. Newell

Corey Cook

Doug Draime

Sandy Benitez

M.P. Powers

Mather Schneider

Carol Lynn Grellas

Luis Berriozabal

Fiction by:

Jane Banning

Lynne Barrett

Christina Hoag

Mark Howell

Thomas Sullivan

Laura Garrison

Laurence Klavan

Michael L. Newell

Nathaniel Tower

Essays by:

Anne Woodman

Michael L. Newell

Amanda LaPergola

As always, quality stuff all around . Drop in and wallow a while in the Pig sty … it’s not a bad place to be! Thanks in advance for your support.

Poetry by

A.D. Winans

Tim Peeler

Robert Demaree

Louis McKee

Lyn Lifshin

Karla Huston

Donal Mahoney

Michael L. Newell

Corey Cook

Doug Draime

Sandy Benitez

M.P. Powers

Mather Schneider

Carol Lynn Grellas

Luis Berriozabal

Fiction by:

Jane Banning

Lynne Barrett

Christina Hoag

Mark Howell

Thomas Sullivan

Laura Garrison

Laurence Klavan

Michael L. Newell

Nathaniel Tower

Essays by:

Anne Woodman

Michael L. Newell

Amanda LaPergola