Posts Tagged With: writing


It’s been a while since I blogged — indeed, since I wrote anything. When I was at the beach house in November, I couldn’t manage to get online, and after that, I simply found myself in a kind of funk/period of contemplation. Day by day, I lived with a low-level depression that was, I only later realized, the onset of a rip-roaring sinus infection that felled me right after Thanksgiving.

In the weeks since I blogged, I spent time watching my house as painters managed to prep it for painting. Since we were dodging periods of rain that still persist, it’s not yet done, though it is well on its way to being completed. Right now, plastic still drapes most windows.

The house is painted the coral color I love, and the white trim is almost done. The porch ceiling is a pale blue that marks Southern architecture (supposedly a good trick for keeping wasps and the like from building nests). The front doors — yes, I have two adjacent front doors — are painted a beautiful dark green (with a lot of black, the green that you often see in New Orleans). The porch will be the same color. The brick porch surround has been painted a deep clay color, with white trim. The front steps will be the same dark green as the doors and porch.

I’d originally planned to paint the house with relatives and friends, but it’s a good thing that didn’t work out. I saw a friend’s law office being painted, liked what I saw daily, and ended up hiring the two guys responsible. As they worked, we found things that hadn’t been done (or done properly) earlier in prior jobs.

One problem dates back to Hurricane Rita. My asbestos slate roof was lifted up and set back down; I had some leaks as a result. A new roof was another result — with architectural shingles rather than more expensive replacement shingles. The roof was replaced by January 2006, and only in November 2013 did I find out that the roofers had failed to put flashing everywhere. Fortunately, I didn’t have any resulting rot. Add a day of labor and more money for flashing material.

A second problem emerged as they began to prep the Hardie siding that I had put on the spring following Hurricane Ike. That contractor’s workers had failed to nail it enough. Nor had they caulked properly. Since the contractor had run way over time and budget when he worked on that job, I somehow was not really surprised at this evidence of shoddy work. Once more, I ended up paying for this work to be done properly. Again, fortunately, nothing major had gone wrong as a result.

So when my house is finally painted and looking spiffy, I’ll be a happy camper. Maybe by the New Year, with fingers crossed.

As that’s gone on in spurts, my kitchen project has also stalled. A bit more painting (a new cabinet) needs to be done, but again, it’s too rainy and damp to take it outside, paint it, and put it back in. Further, I am guilty of laziness — I must sit on the floor and use a scraper tool to get the vinyl tiles off before I can have new flooring put in there. But the kitchen is at least in much better shape.

My plans for renovation continue: My house is on piers, and I want my dogs to be able to enjoy the back yard. Two sides are already fenced by neighbors, so I only have to put in one side, plus connect to the house on both sides, and put a gate. But because the house is on piers, it’s necessary to enclose the open areas, preventing the dogs from going under and getting out. I’ve decided on latticework between the piers.

The renovations took only part of my attention. Because they are beyond my control (at least in large part) because of the weather, I simply shrugged off the frustration that kept trying to insinuate itself into my life.

Instead, I worked on jewelry because my friend Myra and I were selling our wares at a local holiday fair. I made earrings. I wrapped bails for pendants. I made a few items from precious metal clay. I tried to fuse glass with my tiny kiln (a learning experience). The one-day fair came and went. We survived. We made enough sales to cover our table cost and to take home money.

One more project in that time I’ve been off the blog: getting my memoir manuscript out, writing a proposal, going to a conference, and pitching to three agents. My first attempt at doing this — probably not my last. But it was a mixed experience. No one fell over offering me amazing book deals. Nope. But I didn’t get bad responses, either. I got lots of good suggestions and feedback.

And for three weeks, I conducted a library discussion group about Jean Lafitte, using Lyle Saxon’s Lafitte the Pirate and wrote the final report on that.

But write other than that report? Nope. And I need to do that. I have a huge writing project due in January. I spend time thinking about it. I’ll be ready in a week, I think, to hit it full on.

After all that focus on writing — the manuscript I’ve worked on (on and off) for years — I found myself depleted. I’d sit at the computer at first, start to type, and then quit. After a while, I simply stopped trying.

Instead, I turned, as always, to books, to reading. And to hibernating, to sleeping. To visiting with friends. To making jewelry.

Maybe I needed that outward activity, rather than any more inward time. Of course, I also needed antibiotics and steroids.

Now, though, I find myself ready to write again. Words have started popping up in my head, flowing again after weeks of not. In the last couple of days I kept using the Notes app on my iPhone to write down things as I thought of them. This was especially true on Friday, as I traveled west to Nevada.

Here I am at Lake Tahoe, at the Ridge Resort where I have a timeshare (an amazing good deal — but that’s another blog). I’ve not been here since 2011, when I came in September. I flew in to Reno on Friday, took a shuttle here, and have been very quiet.

Not that my life in Lake Charles and in Texas is loud — but it’s involved. Here, I find, I am simply quiet. The television? Haven’t turned it on yet. I cook light meals in the kitchen in my two-bedroom suite. I ate chili in the deli yesterday for lunch. I had an omelet at the deli just now for brunch. I read. A lot. I sleep.

And I visit the spa. Yesterday, I had a foot and hand massage. Today I had my eyebrows done, something I’d been meaning to do for two months. Tomorrow I’ve got a facial scheduled. I’m also thinking of maybe a massage. . . .

Until Tuesday, when friends from the Bay Area come up for a few days. My solitude will end then. It’ll be fun.

Yesterday I realized that I wanted to write again. Today I started. And I’m ready to haul out the memoir and work on that manuscript, beginning another revision, this time with the input of the agents I talked to. And next week I’ll start on the project I’ve got to finish in January.

I’m not going to ski. On the other hand, I probably will ride the ski lift because I want to see the beautiful scenery. The Ridge is right near Heavenly. Isn’t that a great place name?

Somehow, in the last two days, I’ve unwound– when I didn’t even realize that I was wound up. I’ve recovered a sense of balance.

In the last month, I’ve come to see, I was reeling from over-scheduling myself, from setting a series of projects too close together, even simultaneously. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence for me, someone who spent 3 decades (if not more) of constant juggling. I don’t have to do so much all at once. I can spread things out more than I did. Duh. . . I’m retired.

I’m not really sure what triggered the lightbulb moment, but when it happened, I felt the moment of release, of “oh, that’s what I did.” And realized that this has been another step along the way to creating and shaping my life. That I don’t have to pile everything on at once. I can spread it out.

The depression, mild as it was? Probably due to the stealth sinus infection, in part. And the sense of being overwhelmed by projects. Only in part was it grief — November was my mother’s birthday month, and I thought about her often, but not with despair at all. Simply with the sense of missing someone.

No, I can’t blame it on grief. Maybe, too, it’s just a part of my having to manage the ongoing cyclical depression issues I’ve had most of my life. I now recognize the symptoms, and must say they’re milder than ever –thanks to medication, certainly, but also to a much less stressed life. Winter has always been hardest for me, and this year isn’t any different than most years in that respect.

Despite all of this, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my sister, niece (and her boyfriend) and our friend Charles. I actively look forward to Christmas with the same bunch — at the beach house, our new Christmas tradition. For years I didn’t enjoy Christmas — it was simply another day, something to be endured. Not anymore.

Lots of friends have been posting on Facebook for November (and into December) what they’re thankful for. For me, gratitude is something I chart almost weekly. In the last few weeks, though, I’ve truly been thankful for what I’ve got — even for what (and whom) I’ve had and lost. My life is so much richer for having had friends and family I love, and those who are gone are still with me.

My circle of friends and family is most valuable in my life. I cherish them. My career was wonderful and fulfilling; my retirement is turning out to be the same. I thought I’d miss teaching far more than I have; my memories are, for the most part, warm and wonderful. I now focus on creating in a different way. I focus on love of family, of friends. I’ve been neglectful of some friends, and hope to mend that neglect.

It’s been a time of reflection, of recognition, and of learning about myself yet again.

Words are back.

Look out!

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Thursday Thoughts on Balancing Blogging, Other Writing, and Life

I haven’t been writing the blog every day — and was worrying about that.  But then I realized that my worrying was pretty stupid, really.

I mean, the goal of daily writing was my own.  It works out sometimes, but lately it hasn’t.  I’ve been running the road, and then I’ve been cocooning.  Sometimes I don’t have anything to write about, and to push it would be ridiculous.  My schedule, after all, is my own — and so are my goals.  It’s okay, I’ve admitted, to take short breaks from some things, like blogging.

What really is the purpose of the blog?  Communication, mainly.  And my needs to communicate aren’t always the same.  Nor are my days always the same.  Or my ability to get internet service.

I guess I’m saying I am adapting yet once more to myself and my life.

There are so many things to consider, to discuss with friends, to do.  Time to visit and linger.  Time for crafts and hobbies.  Time for family.  For travel. And many things to write about.

But some days, like today, I’m just sort of blank.  This week has been about so many little things.  That’s not bad, not at all.  I have time for all of those “little things” now, time that doesn’t have to be carved from precious spare time, from teaching and grading.  Sometimes, even in retirement, a little break is absolutely necessary.

I’ve been doing a bit of housework.  I’ve had regular doctors’ appointments to keep, meetings to make.  I’ve met my friend Myra to make jewelry (and will again this afternoon).  I’ve been meaning to call and schedule a repairman/service call for my refrigerator because the freezer isn’t working properly, but I’ve put it off until today — when the washer decided to join the “I don’t want to work” list.  The agitator isn’t agitating.  It just jerks.  So I made the call — for the two jobs — and next Thursday I’ll be waiting.  I want to apply for my Social Security benefits, so I looked for my Social Security card, which I’ve had for decades.  Can’t find it.  It’s put up somewhere so safe that it is hiding from me.  But I can’t get a replacement card because of the government shut-down.  However, I can still make an appointment and apply for benefits without it, so I did.  

Some days, I think I spend more time scheduling things or making phone calls than anything else.  Sometimes I can’t even manage that — for example, I’ve been trying to call my pharmacy to order refills for two hours now, but when I try, the line is always busy.  

This is a week where I’ve frantically searched for missing things — like my Social Security card — without any luck.  That list includes two rings that are very precious to me, not for their actual value but for sentimental reasons.  My frustration level has not eased.  I am berating myself pretty regularly for my carelessness. On the other hand, I’ve found the legal papers I was looking for. Guess I’m batting .300 or so, at least this week.  Some weeks it’s better; some it’s worse.

Organizing and straightening always occupy part of my time.  This week has been no different.  I spent some time in the office trying to group together things, trying to label things so that I can easily put my hands on them.  But when you couple that with looking for items you can’t locate . . . doubly frustrating.  I don’t want to destroy the place looking for things, so I try to be methodical and organize as I go.  Mild success, as in Monopoly where I at least Pass Go.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to read a lot.  I’ve worked on jewelry and made some things with the precious metal clay. Last night I went to the first monthly meeting of our new local Silver Clay group.  We hope to share our learning and our new addiction.  Yesterday,  my second kiln firing was both success and failure — thus an opportunity for learning more.  I fired six pieces at the same time yesterday — two pendant and earrings sets.  One pendant broke, as did two earrings — but not a matching set.  I’ve kept the pieces so that I can try to find out what caused this.  I am, after all, a rank newbie at this, and not having a digital kiln is a handicap.  I can see a purchase in the future. . . but for now I’m waiting for a digital pyrometer that I ordered.  In the meantime, I’ll make some more things and use the butane torch.  It’s all part of the learning curve.  Plus I’m keeping a notebook about this so that I can see what I’ve done, what works, and what doesn’t.  Without analysis, how will I know?  My analytical mind at least still functions, trained in decades of teaching and grading.  This afternoon, I’ll meet Myra and take my wires and stones and work on earrings as well as wire-wrapping stones and cabochons. 

Regular domestic chores, playtime, visiting with friends, planning on family weekend and shopping for cooking for that.  That’s this week.  Tonight I’ll have to cook and chop chicken breasts for chicken salad as well as boil potatoes for potato salad — both of which I’ll actually finally put together at the farm after I get there tomorrow.  At least nine of us will show up there tomorrow, so the small kitchen gets crowded fast.  Using the stove and oven gets to be a trick with all of us working.  If I arrive with the cooking part done, then all I have to do is assemble the two salads, which can then be refrigerated.  The potato salad will actually get assembled on Saturday morning, right before the reunion, which is at lunchtime.  

I’ve got to pack for the weekend too, and load that into the truck.  Since I’ll be hauling back a riding lawn mower, I need the truck and tie-downs for this trip — and then on Sunday I’ll drive to Egan to unload the mower.  And switch vehicles.

Not that I’m complaining — I’m just amazed, as I frequently am:  just how, I often ponder, did I manage to work?  Of course then my stress levels were at DANGER WILL ROBINSON level — there isn’t a red color strong enough to label my stress levels.  Those are nearly non-existent now.  It’s funny — I always heard people saying this, and now I’m one of those people.  But it’s true, you know?  Time is now mine — but it fills up so fast!  And the calendar has dates filled in; nearly every week has something to prepare for.

In the end, though, I’m savoring all of it.  That I can wake up, decide to go back to sleep, and just get up when I’m ready still is such a treat.  That I can stay up all night reading — without having to haul myself out of bed the next morning to teach classes and go to the office — is a joy.  If I want to come here to my home office, type or work on papers or bills or make phone calls and notes — fine.  The pets follow me and keep me company.  If I want to wash dishes or put on laundry — I can do that whenever (except now, when the washer’s gone on shutdown along with the government).  Some days the sheer opportunity to live in my house, to go from room to room and chore to chore, with breaks for reading or naps — just a new and wonderful experience.  Before May 2011, I still had chores and personal errands and appointments, but I also had to teach and grade and see students and take care of Dad.  

Now — for the first time ever, I think, other than occasional vacation weeks or weekends — I am simply living in my house.  It isn’t a place where I sleep and crash after work and/or between semesters.  No it is part of my life in a very different and interesting way.  It’s easy to fall into the hibernation mode where I stay home and work and sleep and play.  Sometimes, I think if I didn’t have to get to the grocery store and pet store I might never leave the house.  Sometimes, I joke (sort of), I know that I could be one of those cat-ladies who never leave home.  I’d just have to have dogs with my cats.  

My hibernation mode never lasts more than a week at best, and usually only a few days — but now I can indulge it.  Home is, for the first time, truly the center of my life.  I go out from it to the world, and come back to it, and it’s all new.

I’m sure I’ll write most days, though perhaps not on the blog every day.  The blog is still an important part of my new life.  I have manuscripts I want to revise, too, and submit.  And editing/writing jobs occasionally.  But the blog is a kind of publication, really, one that is welcome.

Balancing all the elements that make up my life is an ever-changing, on-going process.  But without the element of teaching/grading/working for a living — not really stressful.  

I’ve blithered on enough for today about blogging and life. 

Time to gather up my supplies and go outside, get in the truck, and head for McDonald’s to meet Myra.  Then grocery store time so that I can cook tonight while I watch television and pack.

Since the farm seems to exist in a near-black hole as far as cell towers are concerned, I hope to blog from there.  If I can’t manage that, I’ll be back on Monday.

Blog on.




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Simple Gifts

There’s a lovely Shaker hymn written in 1848 — “Simple Gifts.”  I’ve always loved the tune, and the words are just as beautiful as the tune itself:

“Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

The first stanza is what looped in my head all day as I stayed home, alternately sleeping and reading.

What a joy it is to have the simple gift of a home itself, a sanctuary, a place of safety.  So many people don’t have the opportunity or the chance, and far too often we take our own homes for granted.  As I read through the news today, I was reminded just how fortunate I am.

The home itself, built in the 1920s, is a cottage or bungalow style, built on piers.  After all, in the coastal areas that architecture makes sense.  There are lots of large windows as well (and now they open, too, and have screens) so that breezes can circulate and cool the house.  Of course, in the heat of summer — which starts early and stays late here — it’s much more comfortable to use the air-conditioning.  In fall, though, as soon as the temperatures drop, it’s a treat to simply open a couple of windows and allow the breezes to circulate.

Because it’s older and on piers, some floors aren’t level.  Truly.  There’s an actual hump in the kitchen, right in front of the stove.  If I stand barefoot, my arch can actually curve to fit it.  Short of pulling the entire floor up and re-building, I’m not sure I can fix this.  Somewhere in the past, that board simply warped and settled.

Nor is the only such quirk in my home.  For years, before I discovered that there wasn’t a support beam anywhere from the living room to the back (and had one put in), the house wasn’t level — it was so not level that you could drop a tennis ball in the living room and watch it roll through the kitchen and the laundry room to the back room.  The house is more level now, and the floors no longer offer quite the fun of tennis-ball dropping.

It’s a modest home by many standards, but I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in the front door the first time.  The large windows in the living room allowed natural light to flood the room.  Since it’s a north-facing room, that’s really nice.  The bedrooms are east-facing, also nice for gentle light.

Over the years, I’ve added my own touches.  I’ve re-painted rooms.  I’ve renovated in earlier projects, but now am involved in yet more renovation.  Years ago my brother Phil pulled out the kitchen sink and lower cabinets and built new cabinets, neat and shelved and even put in some drawers.  About that same time I put down stick-tiles, but that wasn’t a wise choice.  These have popped and broken, and I am now in the process of beginning to pull them up.  New upper cabinets have been built and are soon to replace the older ones.  As those are done, one more coat of paint on the walls should do it.  Then I’ll get the lower cabinets repainted as well.  Finally, I want a new countertop and sink — I’m thinking of granite or quartz, something clean and simple.  Aqua walls above, white wainscot below — and aqua lower cabinets, white upper cabinets.  New flooring — sheet vinyl, probably, because of the uneven floor itself — will follow.

There are other areas I’m ready to work on.  The living room needs to have the old, crumbling paneling replaced.  The ceiling tiles there are falling down, so I’d like something simple to cover the ceiling.

For so long I too took this home for granted.  It was such a place of joy and comfort for a while.  Later, though, as my mother and brother were ill and after they died (in the 90s) it became more of a place to sleep, less of a home to entertain friends.

It was more of a refuge then.  On Fridays, I’d come home and shut the front door, often staying home all weekend.  Stressful work environment and life needed some kind of balance, and this house provided it.  I simply existed in it, though it did provide me that respite from the craziness of my life beyond it.

Then as Dad’s health worsened, I spent more time with him and less time here.  Moving in with him meant I was living in the bedroom I had when I was 16.  I moved essentials of my life there.  On weekends, I could visit my own home.  There wasn’t much time, however, for working on it or for actually living in it.

But that was interesting and revealing, too.  I learned about myself and how flexible I can be.  What is essential for me.  I occupy a house about 1800 square feet, and live alone (other than the three cats and two dogs).  Yet I have lived in a 12×13 ft. bedroom, with a small area in Dad’s living room for a computer desk.  And a card-table for a work desk.

Now I live in my home again and relish the opportunities to refresh it, to open it once more to friends.  I anticipate that.  I also recognize that such renovations will not happen overnight.  I have learned patience.  I have also learned, through living in Dad’s house while renovating it, to live in the midst of such chaos.  And to make order as I can, both mentally and physically.

Right now I am in the room that was once my bedroom, a room about 13 feet square.  Now it is an office, with no pretense at being a secondary bedroom.  I have my desktop computer and printer and my beautiful Texas-star-cornered black walnut desk.  My craft tables and materials are also in here.  As I sit here, I can look beyond the computer to a wall unit that my dad built me when I was in high school.  I wanted some kind of bookcase/storage/makeup area to fit my high-school status.  He couldn’t afford to buy the furniture but he built this piece for me.  It’s been painted since then but it has a pride of place wherever I am.

Much of my furniture, in fact, is a mix of family hand-me-downs and “store-bought” furniture.  Some was bought new.  Some was bought at flea markets or antique malls.  The blend works for me.

It’s not a house that will grace the pages of Southern Living or House Beautiful.  It’s not elegant.  My friend Patty says it’s “eclectic,” and she’s right.

I can sit in the large rocker in the living room, a gift from my grandmother Ella that belonged to her parents; I have the matching love seat too.  One of my earliest memories is sitting in that very rocker, then covered with red velvet I think, in my great-grandparents’ living room — and I’m so young that my feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

If I go to the kitchen and want to make gumbo, I use a pot that my grandmother Ella gave me when I moved to Beaumont to teach at Lamar University.  There are other pots and pans, of course, but that pot is one that is special.  If I want to make fudge, I use the bottom of a pressure-cooker that my mother always used, a pot that Mother gave me at some point.  We’ve made so much fudge in it that the line where the fudge boils up to is clearly marked if you look hard enough.

If I wanted to, I could sit on my front porch and watch people without fear.  I have neighbors I know well enough to wave to, to talk to, to visit with.

What a simple gift it has been today to stay home, recovering from sinus problems.  I could sleep without worrying that someone would break in or bomb me or use poison gas.  I could walk to the kitchen, open the refrigerator or freezer and find food with no problems.  Water from the tap was fine to drink.  A stove and microwave meant that I could cook.  If I needed, I could put laundry on to wash and then dry without leaving my home or without worry.  I had extra clothes, in themselves a gift.

I could talk to friends on the telephone or text them.  I could turn on a television or listen to music.

Television allows me to watch any number of programs.  Internet opens the world yet more to me.

My pets are fed and watered.  They are cared for, not wandering the streets searching for food.

And I can take antibiotics that my doctor prescribed and that a pharmacy filled, using health insurance I can afford, with a low co-pay.

Tomorrow when I meet a friend for early coffee (he has faculty meetings tomorrow since McNeese State University’s fall term begins on Monday), I have a car that I can depend upon.

These are gifts, gifts from the work I did for years, from the savings I have, from the pension I’ve earned.

I am surrounded by gifts, gifts from loving family and friends.  Gifts from my own work. Gifts from opportunities for women that don’t exist in other parts of the world.  I went to school and was able to make teaching literature and composition my career.  I can travel without permission from my male relatives.  I can make my own financial decisions, sign my own legal papers.

Simple gifts.  Gifts to cherish.

Today was a good day to be grateful.

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Grief, Writer’s Blocks, and Breakthroughs

One of the most distressing things of the last year or so has been my inability to write. The well-known “writer’s block” set in after Dad died. For several months I’d been writing two blogs, one on Dad and being a caregiver, and one on post-retirement life.

A second draft manuscript of creative non-fiction/memoir essays has been untouched for months. I hadn’t written anything on a project about growing up in an oil-field camp. My still-in-first-draft manuscript about American writers and Greece has been stalled for two years. I hadn’t written any poems in months.

But the blogs — especially the blog about Dad — came flowing out.

And then he died. I got some more written. And then everything stopped.

It felt as though I’d never get anything written again. My journal had haphazard entries. Even last summer’s travel blog didn’t get completed.

When my brain shut down from overload after months of stress, it really stopped everything. I felt dead. I could read, read for hours. But write? Not really, other than occasional journals. My head just was fuzzy.

In Greece during the summer of 2012 for six weeks, I attended a wedding in Naoussa, in the north of Greece. My friend Carolyn’s niece was getting married to a lovely young man from there. I loved being included, and thoroughly enjoyed the days leading up to the wedding, and dancing and partying at the reception. The day after, we headed back to Thessaloniki by chartered bus, and picked up two Jeeps. Eight of us drove on to Chalkidiki to join the bride and groom and his family.

That’s when my stamina — and my energy — really flagged. I slept. I stayed in. It was the week of Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday. Those days hit me — he wasn’t there. When we all left, I flew back to Athens and hibernated.

That hibernation lasted for most of the rest of the year. In late December I began to “wake up,” as I called it. Rising out of hibernation, out of my stupor of grief and exhaustion, I found myself enjoying my house in Lake Charles, and anticipating find my new routine. I also thought I’d broken the writing block barrier.

Wrong. That went on for months.

Greece has been for me a place of rejuvenation, of healing, and of discovery. When I lived there for six months in 1996, teaching at the University of Athens as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, I arrived two weeks after we’d buried my brother Phil. It was my therapy, my refuge.

For years after that, I went to Greece every summer. Those summer breaks were my respite from much stress (work-related, mostly, at least at first). For a few years, I rented an apartment from the Athens Centre and took intensive or immersion Greek classes. Then I bought an apartment, and the few weeks stretched to two and a half months.

Usually I referred to going to Greece as “running away” — temporarily, of course. I always returned ready to go back to my “real life,” to work, to handle everything.

But after Dad died, it took more than a summer. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I didn’t really realize just how exhausted I was, on every level possible. Coming back from that state took over a year for me.

And it only broke while I was in Greece this year. I arrived in Greece on April 20; I wanted to be in Greece for Orthodox Easter. Friends visited me for differing amounts of time. I traveled to London for a 5-day/4-night break. I went to Istanbul for a few days. I visited with friends. I had friends over for dinner.

And then came a real treat: I was fortunate enough to attend the poetry workshop of my friend Alicia Stallings, at the Athens Centre, in Athens. For three wonderful weeks, I woke up, went to class, walked to a coffee shop, and read and wrote. We wrote, on average, a poem a day. Sometimes more. We worked with different forms, usually one a day.

There were only a few of us in the group, and it was wonderful to once more be part of a writing circle, to laugh and to listen and to read my own work out loud.

That’s when the dam apparently broke open. The class ended on a Friday, and on the following Thursday I returned to the U.S. By the following week, I’d combined my two blogs into one and began writing that daily.

My poems are in my laptop bag, and I have started to type them into my laptop, working on them as I go.

The schedule isn’t perfect yet. It’s still emerging. But I find myself writing daily and thinking about writing. What I haven’t begun working on yet I am thinking about, planning.

We often laugh about writer’s block. I’d had it before, but nothing quite so profound as I’ve experienced in the last year and a half or so. Of course, I’d never been quite so emotionally static, either, or so exhausted on every level possible.

Week by week, month by month, I read and slept and waited. Sometimes I felt bits of myself return. But a lot of times, I wondered if I’d ever be myself again.

Slowly, I emerged from the fog, the den of whatever hibernation I had entered. The death of my father clearly led to another death, the death of one part of me. Just as retirement had been a kind of death, so was losing Dad. And I was rudderless. My purposes in life were gone.

I spent six weeks in Greece in 2012. That fall, I enjoyed being in my own home, visiting with friends, picking up the pieces of my life there. In January 2013 I began to get renovations on my own Lake Charles home started. My house was no longer just a place I visited, but my home once more, and I wanted to have a place where friends could feel comfortable. Those renovations stopped when I went to Greece in April 2013, and are ready to begin again. On July 18, I flew back to Houston. By the next week, I was writing again.

Friends have told me that this time, when I came back and they heard my voice, they knew I was “back,” in a way that I hadn’t been for over a year. That’s true. I feel that I am myself again, though admittedly a changed self.

They noticed my physical voice, which clued them in that I was back.

I noticed my writing voice was back.

A new energy suffuses my outlook. Day after day for so long, I simply woke up, slept, read, ate, and talked to friends. That was a necessary time, a healing time, and something that healed me from the inside out.

Once I found I could write, I knew I was back. Now I’m ready to work on existing projects, to plan new ones. There are still days of “I think I’ll sleep in,” but there is always a time of day when I’m eager to sit down and write. Or revise.

Thanks, Alicia, for helping me break through. Thanks to all my fellow poets in the group, who patiently listened and critiqued and encouraged.

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Photographs and Memories

Recently, I’ve decided that there’s a club no one invites you to join, but that you join without realizing:  the caregiver’s club.  Even though you intuit that one exists, there’s no real way to anticipate how it operates, not exactly, nor how it changes your life.

Most of my life, I think, I knew that I would end up being the primary caregiver.  I was, after all, the eldest.  I wasn’t married.  My career teaching at university meant that I lived closest to our parents.  My brother lived in Florida.  My sister lived in Natchitoches, in north Louisiana.  I also had the most flexible job.  I didn’t feel trapped.  I didn’t question it.  I was happy to fill that role.

Mother was ill for a long time; Dad retired early, at 60, and took care of her.  They had some good years before she became an invalid, with a wheelchair, and on dialysis.  For her, I was the fill-in, for the times when Dad and Phil went hunting out in West Texas.  Of course, I was also there many other times, and by the 90s it felt as though I began every semester with Mother in the hospital in Lafayette.  I learned how to read her blood sugar, how to get her into and out of the wheelchair, how to tell when she was probably having a small stroke, etc.  My knowledge of medicine grew around her.  Now I realize that her health really became problematic when she was only in her 40s, while I was teaching at Lamar University in Beaumont.  First was the blood pressure, then the brittle diabetes, then the congestive heart failure, then dialysis.  After a while, her medicines cost about $1500 a month — in the early 90s.  Yes, I learned a lot, especially to be grateful for solid insurance. I was the helper, the one who asked questions and took more notes.

But I knew I was only second-best; that was clear.  It was Dad she wanted, and he wanted to be there with her.  I don’t think I really knew just how close they were until then.  Somehow you don’t see your parents as anything other than, say, your parents.  Yet there was that one time in the hospital in Lafayette when I saw them look at each other and realized that they were still the young couple who’d fallen in love despite the odds of different religions and married in 1948.  I could help Dad out, and did.  But the job was his, and not mine, other than temporarily.  When Mother died on July 30, 1993, Dad and Phil were with her at the hospital, and I was in Egan; Phil had come in from Florida only the day before, and I remain convinced that Mother waited for him.  She hadn’t talked in several days at that point, but she was aware of us with her, and she wouldn’t leave without Phil being there.

I watched Mother and Dad take care of Phil, my brother, when he had cancer the first time, at 26.  He recovered, eventually moved to Florida, and was later diagnosed with a melanoma on his arm; that traveled to his brain, and then his spine.  By the time he was terminal, Mother had died.  Dad was once more the primary caregiver while Phil was in M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston in fall 1995.  I was there every weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, and on every holiday.  My sister, Kay, was there when she could be.  Again, I was closer and when my last class was over, I was on the road every Friday.  Dad slept in the pull-out chair; I slept on the floor.  If I could convince Dad to take a weekend off and go to Egan, I got the chair.  Occasionally I stayed in my cousin Jim’s condo; that was a real treat at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Phil was released two days after Christmas and came home to Egan, where we had hospice.  He died on January 4, 1996, with Dad and me and Phil’s fiancé, Darcie, at his side.

While he was at M.D. Anderson, I became familiar with yet more medical jargon and helped daily when I was there as nurses and Phil’s primary oncologist cared for him through one procedure after another.  For the first time since he was a little boy, he called me “Cheryl Lynn,” and I had to be there right at the bedside holding his hand most of the time.  Together, Dad and I helped take care of him, but during those weekdays while I was teaching, it was Dad who bore the heaviest load, because he had to be there alone.

Dad was such a vital person, independent and stubborn (I get my stubbornness honestly).  He went on dialysis when he was 80 or 81, and drove himself there 3 days a week. Well into his 80s he drove to East Texas almost every other week to meet his sister, Mildred (she’s 18 months older) so that they could mow the large yard and part of the pasture at the family farm.  I worried, but there wasn’t much I could do, frankly.

He was determined not to give up driving, and that was difficult for him.  Yet his family practitioner took that chore out of my hands, and when she put Dad on oxygen, that effectively ended his driving.  While I was still working, I relied on a close family friend to drive him to dialysis.  I spent a lot of weekends there, and eventually did more commuting to work than commuting to Dad’s.  Kay came in too on weekends, and spent time helping out.

We were fortunate, really, that we enjoyed each other.  We really liked each other.  Spending time together wasn’t a chore. And I needed to remember that, because there were still times when I was so tired and exhausted that I was snappy and bitchy.  (Just ask Kay!  We were each other’s “safe place,” and could unload with each other, then apologize, and it was all okay.)

So as Dad’s ability to live alone ended, I “lived” with him much of the time and commuted to Lake Charles, spending weekends at my own home when Kay came down.  She and I laugh about tag-teaming, but that’s exactly what we did.  My last semester and a half of teaching was spent doing a lot of driving, but it was no hardship.  I got tired at times, and learned to treasure sleep, but was so grateful that I was able to work out the responsibilities that way.

When I retired in May 2011, I spent most of the time in Egan.  Dad was still pretty mobile and relatively stable.  He was losing weight.  He was more unsteady on his feet.  While I was gone on a trip in December 2011, he got tangled in his oxygen cord and fell, and that was truly, I think, the beginning of the final slide.  By the end of December, he couldn’t really walk without a walker AND someone helping, but that was only for a few steps.

I bought all new clothes for him so that I could dress him — sweatpants and pullover sweaters.  I fed him too.  By the time we finally got a diagnosis for his problem — an L1 compression fracture — he was dependent.  His surgery seemed to help, but he went to a nursing home for rehabilitation care.  In the two months he was there, I got the house renovated for him.

He came home and had a good first week.  The second week?  Not very good, and he died at home just about two weeks after he’d returned.

He had been such a role model for Phil and Kay and me all of our lives, and was such a generous, loving man.  His own role as caregiver for Mother and Phil was unstinting and without complaint.  He gave joyfully of himself.  I think that by the time it was my turn for that full-time role, I had the way made easy.  I only hope that I lived up to my role model’s example.

Caregiving requires attention.  It demands much.  I don’t know when I’ve ever been so tired and exhausted.  Yet it can also be a blessing.  Time together, laughter, talks about so many things.  I would do it all again, even knowing the outcome.  While I was living with Dad, I spent time online looking for stories by other caregivers, looking for articles about others like myself.  There are a lot of us out there, and not everyone has the flexibility I had in my teaching.  Not everyone has the support group.  The club is huge, my friends.  Some of you are in it too, and we’ve talked about it.  Just as caregiving became my life, it continues to be part of me even though Dad has died.  It remains part of the way I live, defines how I see things.  How I appreciate things — family, friends, home, pets.  Even — maybe especially — time.

It’s been over a year since Dad died.  For the rest of the year afterwards till 2013 began, I think I hibernated.  Sometime in December 2012 I seemed to wake up.  The next six months have been a gradual recovery of my own life — or maybe a rediscovery, a re-invention, even.

At times, I’ve felt absolutely lost, without purpose.  So much of my life had been focused on teaching, a career I cherished and loved.  And then my life centered on taking care of Dad.  The second focus overlapped so much with the last months of teaching that I didn’t really have a transition period.  I simply moved into caregiving full-time. But after?  Neither focus was there; I was cut adrift and felt it.

I am slowly finding myself again, learning to make a life again.  Rediscovering my own home and finding the pleasures of it once more.  I’ve realized that I have never simply lived in this house without working.  Now I live here in a way that I never did before.  Schedule?  No, I don’t have one, but I’m setting one for myself.  Defined not by someone else (not most of the time) but by me and my interests.

In January 2013 I began (finally) the renovations on my home in Lake Charles.  For far too long I’d not been able to do what needed to be done.  But suddenly, it seemed, it was my time — and the kitchen project took off.  Progress there made me feel as though I hadn’t simply abandoned it to fall apart. I got the porch and brickwork repaired.  The kitchen’s not complete yet, but will be before too long.  And I don’t need to feel frustrated when it doesn’t happen immediately.

When I left for Greece in late April, I took a break.  Friends came to visit there.  I spent a lot of time reading and simply taking care of my apartment. I went to London for a long weekend.  I went to Istanbul for a few days with a friend. I visited with friends in Greece, had coffee, went to the movies, did the shopping.  And the last three weeks I was there I participated in a poetry workshop.  The companionship, the daily writing — what a treat.  The last dam of the writer’s block that has characterized my life for a year has (fingers crossed) been broken.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I am reminded of it all at the oddest times.  My cousin Mike sent Kay and me some photos he and his wife had of a few days of a trip to Lake Sam Rayburn; I’m not in either photo.  But what a treat to see Mother and Dad and Phil and Kay (and Mike and Sis) enjoying themselves.  Even now, I get a bit teary thinking of the photos.  Mother is there sitting with Dad; they’re laughing.  Phil is clearly telling a story in the photo of him in the boat — he’s grinning and has his arms stretched out as though to say “it was THIS big!”

To see them healthy and happy and laughing is to remind me that the caregiving has only been a blessing, truly.

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Homecoming Week

It’s Friday morning, and Dad came home on Monday.  It’s been a week for homecoming, for adjusting, and for many discoveries.  A long week, but one worth it all.

From last week until Monday I worked to get the house cleaned, organized, and ready for Dad.  My friend Patty came from Moss Bluff a couple of times, and the two of us managed to get a lot done.  By Easter weekend, when I needed to see Dad, I was working still, and exhausted.  Kay came in on Saturday, and I just stayed in my bed and slept.  No visit to Lake Charles.

By Monday morning, things were ready.  By 11, Dad’s hospital bed had been delivered and set up and I put fresh new linens on it, with a blue comforter.  The bed is in what was the living room and is now his bedroom.  I angled it with the head toward the kitchen and the feet toward the front of the house so that he could see the television and look out the front door if he wanted.  I drove to Crowley, signed the discharge papers, loaded his clothes in the truck, then wheeled Dad (holding more stuff on his lap) to the truck and left.  A few minutes down the road, I pulled in at the dialysis clinic and reversed the procedure, getting the wheelchair out of the truck bed, unfolded, and getting Dad out of the truck into the chair.  I sat with him in the waiting room until the dialysis tech came to get him, and talked with her briefly.  Then it was off to run errands.  Medicine first, then a couple of other stops, and then back to Egan.

I unloaded a few things, leaving the rest until later.  I set up Dad’s medicines in his pill box and put some clothes away.  Most were dirty, though, and I left those near the laundry room for later.  Back to Crowley, a quick stop for celery and other things, and then to dialysis.  By the time I picked Dad up and got him home, I was truly tired.  Getting him out of the truck and into the house wasn’t too hard, but learning to get his wheelchair up the ramp and in the house was a bit tricky.  He was really tired, so I put him to bed.  While he slept, I made shrimp etouffee and cooked rice.

He ate some etouffee, enjoyed it, and then after taking his medicine, slept.  I tried to sleep, but gave up — he was restless, I was anxious, and didn’t really sleep steadily. At 3:30 a.m. I looked for him and he wasn’t in bed; he’d managed to get out of bed and into the kitchen– without a walker!  I have no idea how long he’d been there, but his skinny legs were pretty shaky, and I managed to get him back to bed.  He was confused, thought it was suppertime, and had been ready to get something to cook.

Needless to say, I did not sleep any more that night.  Luckily, the recliners in the room are very comfortable.  My iPad kept me company as I watched and worried.

Tuesday morning was a busy one.  Physical therapy came to evaluate and assess his condition; a physical therapist will come twice a week to work with Dad.  While the PT was still there, the home health nurse came to evaluate and assess Dad as well.  Dad was pretty alert by this time, which was good to see.  He interacted with the PT and nurse and held conversations.

He slept; we had visitors on and off that afternoon.  Tuesday night was better — I gave Dad his bedtime meds a bit later, to assure that he slept through the night.  Or I hoped so.  I slept, on and off.

Wednesday morning was pretty uneventful.  I cooked breakfast again; he ate.  He always wants his coffee, though I notice he doesn’t drink as much as he used to do.  Still, it’s something he wants. The home health aide came to help Dad shower. By 11:30, I’d delivered him to dialysis again and headed back to Egan.  My friend Patty had come again to help; she was catching up on Dad’s laundry while I took him to Crowley.  I came back and we worked some more.  Charles came over and visited some; I love friends who bring chocolate cake with them!  That was a perfect snack.

Errands, errands:  this time to Jennings, to find a bed alarm (the home health nurse had told me I could get one at the medical supply pharmacy there), a new shower bench (adjustable, because the one in the shower is too low).  I then headed through Egan to Crowley, stopping for another couple of errands.

Dad had been clear all morning.Wednesday afternoon, though, when I picked Dad up at dialysis, the tech told me he’d become a bit disoriented.  He still was so — and stayed that way through yesterday.  Every day at dialysis seems to tax him a bit harder.  He slept on Wednesday night and wouldn’t eat supper, though he did take his medicine.

Yesterday, I puttered around the plants on the front porch.  Carmichael’s delivered the portable oxygen concentrator that’s been in repair for nearly two months.  Physical therapy and home health came again.  Billie sat with Dad so that I could take Dad’s tax information to his CPA in Iota.  I quickly picked up mail and came home.  After Billie left, I warmed up some lunch and he ate, slowly; he finished his small bowl of etouffee.  Later in the afternoon, he wanted cake, and ate the whole piece. That was good.  He was still a bit confused, though less.  His back has been giving him a good bit of pain, and the pain meds help.  He does sleep a lot, though.  But I have to pay attention: last night while I was working on my taxes on the computer here in the office, I heard him — he’d gotten out of bed and was using the walker to head to the back bathroom, which has always been his.  Only when his walker wouldn’t fit in did he believe that he had to use the front bathroom.  By the time he’d turned around and gotten back to the living room, he was too tired to do anything but go back to bed.

Even confused, he manages to do things that surprise me.  Yesterday he kept talking about cooking peas.  He was dreaming, I kept telling him.  I wasn’t cooking peas, and neither was he.  He kept insisting, though.  It was about 5 when I finally noticed a plastic container out on the kitchen counter.  You guessed it — frozen peas. Just when he got them out, I have no idea.  But believe me, I’m learning that he manages to do things whether he should or no.

By this morning when I got up at 6:45, I’d been awake for awhile.  Dad was awake too, and I started breakfast while I gave him his meds.  In between, I finally started writing this blog again.  It’s 7:45 now.  In the last hour, he has gotten out of bed and used the walker to go to the bathroom by himself. He’s eaten part of his sausage and most of his biscuit and jelly.   He’s resting again now, after taking a pain pill.  I told him I’d let him sleep for a while.  I need to shave him and help him change clothes before I take him to dialysis.  While he’s there, I will run errands.  I also need to put the bed alarm on the bed — it’s a pad that fits under the sheet, wired to an alarm.  When Dad is off the pad completely, the alarm sounds.  I’m sure it will startle both of us if it goes off.  But I don’t want any more 3 a.m. surprise visits to the kitchen.  Nor do I want to find any more containers of frozen peas (or whatever) on the counter and wonder when he got those out of the freezer. I’ll unload the groceries and the shower bench.  I probably ought to load the extra garbage bags and boxes and take them to the dump as well.  By 3:30, I’ll be at the clinic waiting for Dad, and wondering what to expect.  Will he be confused again?

Homecoming Week in high school and college is usually about football games and parades and celebrations.  It’s been Homecoming Week here, just without the football game or parade.  Celebrations?  They’ve gone on all week, every day.  I celebrate that he’s home and asks questions about the house occasionally.  I celebrate when he wants to look outside and I coax him to sit on the front porch bench for a few minutes.  I celebrate when friends drop by and he engages in conversations.

Those celebrations are important — he’s home.  He knows it and is comfortable.  He’s glad to see friends.  Even with the confusion and the weakness, Dad knows he’s home again, and I think he’s relaxed more.  He smiles more than I saw him smile while he was in Southwind.  Sometimes, I think, he wasn’t sure he was going to come home.  Now he’s secure in his home of nearly 46 years.

It’s been a week of adjustments — for both of us.  By today, I know the schedule to expect from home health:  Tuesdays and Thursdays, physical therapy; Wednesdays, aide to bathe Dad; twice a week, home health nurse.  I’ve figured out that my free time to run errands will be on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while Dad is at dialysis.  If I need to make an appointment for me in Lake Charles, it needs to be on Tuesday and Thursday morning, when Billie can sit with Dad; I need to be back by 1 because she works at the library in Crowley on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.   Friday afternoons by the time I get Dad back from dialysis, Kay will be here, and I can have until Sunday afternoon to head to Lake Charles to my house.  I know I’ll have a week to 10 days in June; I’m trying to figure out how to have a longer break — I want to go to Greece to a friend’s niece’s wedding, and to see my apartment in Athens, and to hang out with friends there.  That’s my goal, anyway.

I can tell that every day I will start Dad’s breakfast by 7 — a biscuit, one patty of sausage, and some coffee.  He doesn’t want an egg right now.  I’ll cook.  We eat supper together every night, which is good for both of us.

He sleeps.  While he does that, I do laundry.  I watch television.  I wash dishes and I cook.  I check on him frequently, sometimes talking with him if he’s awake.  Reassuring him if he’s confused.  Today he told me about a trip to town, seeing someone he used to work with.  I guess his dreams take him places he can’t go anymore. I don’t fuss at this; I just accept it and nod and talk.  Frequently, he tries to get out of bed because we “have to go . . .” somewhere; I reassure him that no, we don’t, that he’s at home and we don’t have to go anywhere yet, that he can go back to sleep.  Keeping calm is easy, I find, and if I’m calm, it sets the tone for him.

Now I also I putter around the front porch plants.  They’re all looking healthy and green.  The agapanthus are beautiful and blue; I have some other smaller blue flowers as well.  My friend Carolyn gave me some lovely yellow flowers in a blue pot.  I have two kinds of ivy in hanging baskets.  I’ve planted a lot of herbs.  I have a hibiscus tree in a big pot.  The windchime reminds me often just to close my eyes and listen, to sit and enjoy the moments.  The hummingbird feeder and bird feeder haven’t gotten any action yet, but I’m hopeful — and they’re cute, anyway.  The yellow bench with the blue and tan floral cushion is comfortable and inviting.  It’s lovely to have the small space so handy, so available — and so welcoming to all.

As the week winds up, I now find time to write as well — finally.  It’s as though I’ve been racing for days to get ready to get Dad home, and then to get Dad settled and to figure out what’s going on.  Now, I think I have a handle on the general scheme of things.  I’ve still got chores to do and appointments to set up; I need to set up a follow-up visit with Dad’s primary physician.  Today while he’s in dialysis I’ve got to buy groceries and some cleaning supplies.

Charles reminded me yesterday that I need to spend time here in the office space, too.  I’ll need my own space, he says, and he’s right.  So I’ll start working on clearing up the boxes that are still stacked here.  I’ll figure out where my own craft supplies really are so that next week I can begin working on jewelry again.

In the meantime, I have discovered that when I go to Lake Charles, I have to crate my three cats and set them on the front porch there while I flea-bomb the house.  Yes, that house now has fleas.  Oh well, at least I can bring the laptop and iPad and some cold drinks and sit on the porch there in my rocker.  I don’t have any plants in pots on that porch, but I do have lovely roses that are in bloom.

Two porches to enjoy — and my pets.  Dogs here in Egan, cats in Lake Charles.  Friends in both places.  Dad at home, comfortable and feeling secure.  Kay to relieve me on weekends.

And time to enjoy, to write, to read, to create.

Who needs a parade?  I’ve got porches!

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