Sunday, December 12, 2010

Happiness in 2010

Hi all - hope December isn't getting you down. I've been participating in The Happy Book project this year - see my posts back in February - and Jamie is winding things up for the year so she asked us to declare what had made us happy this year. Life still feels like a challenge for me but here goes:

This year, what has made me happy is that I have moved house (again) and am  back in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland, cold but content. Also, my little old dog is still with me - she has survived another whole year, despite her dementia, blindness and arthritis - she is now getting towards 17 years old and she makes me smile every day.

I'm also a year further away from the death of my lovely man, and I think, I really think, that I am  on the verge of feeling 'normal' again and looking forward to 2011 being an interesting and exciting year - maybe even happy!

This year has been a year of change and, because of this, it hasn't always been comfortable. Nevertheless, I have much to be happy about. I'm  still here for one thing, still alive at 52, when many better people than I died much younger, still lots to be grateful for - pretty good health, a house, some money in the bank, people to love and who love me, my soft little dog and, most of all I think, the natural world around me - the birds and animals in my garden, the trees and wild flowers, and the stars overhead. I am  happy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Still Here...

I'm sure I don't have any readers by now but just in case I do, and for the sake of the record, let me say that I AM still here - haven't given up on life just yet. I've moved house (again) - this time back very close to where I was living a year ago, up in the wacky, wonderful Highlands.

It's been a fascinating experience, moving twice in a year; let's be honest, yo-yoing between two places. I really came on to have a blog winge about my crappy life today but let's cover the progress update first.

I moved down to Ayrshire last year for a couple (at least) of reasons - to make the break with a house full of sad memories and to go back to the area where I had spent my happiest times - falling in love, early marriage, birth and early childhood of son - the full family package, in other words. We had been forced to move away from Ayrshire eleven years earlier when the Golfer was made redundant and the world stopped turning. We sort of tried to settle in in the Highlands but none of us wanted to be there. Then the Golfer got sick and died and the boy left home and I was alone with a Jack Russell with dementia. I found myself thinking that if only it had all happened when I was down in Ayrshire, I would have been surrounded with love and support and everything would have been all right. When I became brave enough to make the break with the house Ayrshire was the place calling to me.

So I moved back down and waited for the old friends to rally round and kiss my wounds better. Of course no-one came. I had been away for eleven years. Friends who had become Christmas card friends stayed Christmas card friends. But moving back was still the right thing to do. I got to live daily in the midst of memories of another life, or so it seemed. When I found myself back in the small town where I spent my childhood (that's a whole other set of neuroses) it really did feel like another life - a life separate from the married bit. Strange feeling. When I walked around the park where I used to play, I was bypassing completely the whole married section of my life, even though my husband had also grown up in this town and we used to visit every Sunday to visit the mother-in-law. Yet somehow in my mind this town inhabited two different parts of my brain. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling actually. Rather nice to go right back to childhood without any of the intervening grownup crap.

I also found to my surprise that the house I had chosen to live in was exactly the house the Golfer would have chosen to retire to. This had not been in my mind at all when I chose it and it was not, in any case, my perfect house - definitely a temporary home - but it was comforting to imagine him standing there beside me watching the waves and the boats go by. Painful but comforting. But I wasn't happy there. It was a very public house, right on the seafront of a holiday town and, especially after living unnoticed in the countryside for years, it was like living in a goldfish bowl in the middle of a fairground (literally, sometimes!) Then I came back up to visit friends and all the tension disappeared and I could be myself and the air smelt sweet. I walked the dog in the woods near my old house and even the dog visibly relaxed. Decision made. Time to get back here as soon as possible. So I went back and put the house on the market and a few short months later here I am, in a dinky little house a mile away from the old family stead. I wouldn't have made the direct move from the first house, I'm sure. I had to go away, explore the world a bit, find out who I was and what I wanted, to know that what I wanted was to live on this hill with the birds and the deer and the lichen-clad trees, amongst gentle, reserved people.

Two months in the house and I am settling in nicely except...all the old problems are, of course, still hanging round my neck. I'm still widowed and an empty-nester, a carer for an aged infirm dog and with no big thing to get up for in the morning. I try to stay motivated. I have a (very) small-scale internet bookshop, I'm trying to write a novel and I'm studying with the Open University but I still wake up in the morning with a sigh. It's driving me mad. I want to be happy but I can't seem to be. Am I just getting old? Am I going to be a grumpy old woman now, is that it? A failing body and an increasingly cynical heart?

It's strange. Five years ago, when I was first widowed, I really believed I could think myself through it and out of it. But losing my husband was so much more fundamental to my life than I thought. When I was married I would think occasionally, as you do, about how I would manage if he died in a plane crash. Sometimes, since we're being honest here, I might even fantasise a little about what a brave little widow I'd be and what a grumpy sod he'd become anyway and...But when it happens it is unlike anything you could imagine. It touches every aspect of your life, big and small. We'd been married for nearly 25 years and together for 30 and he had affected everything I had done since I was at school. Every opinion I had, every picture in the house, practically every memory I had post-18 was entwined with him, every world event, every family argument, every plant in the garden, every shop and cafe I went into - all had been experienced with him. The very house had to change after he died. Even our bed had to be replaced as it had been soiled in the last days so I couldn't even snuggle up with his scent and the dent of him on the other side. He'd run a business from home so a whole room became redundant. The phones stopped ringing. I had, I realise now, lived a lot of my life through him, and happily so. He was the clever one and, so long as I was free to play with my books and draw and work in the garden, I was happy for him to do the big exciting job. I got a lot of the benefits of the buzz of a big, exciting, international career without having actually to go out into the big bad world. When he died I lost that - completely...overnight.

And I think this is the hardest, most intractable problem for widows - I think widows rather than widowers. We lose the reason for getting up in the morning. I had a little business but it was carefully shaped to fit in round the family's needs and was so small, if perfectly formed, that it was not enough to give my daily life structure and meaning. Ever since, I have been struggling to find that one big thing that'll do the trick. I have two older, widowed friends and I know this is the biggest issue for them too. They had proper jobs all their working lives - not like little housewife me - so they really miss the buzz and the companionship and the feeling of being useful. I do not know how to sort it. I have a couple of ideas for businesses but I am scared. Without the support of a good man I simply do not know if I have the courage to open a shop or restart my old business. Married friends say blithely, with a wave of a hand "Oh, it'll be fine", but they speak from ignorance, as I would once upon a time have done. They think they know what it would be like to manage alone but they have not got a clue. I know that because I used to think I'd manage fine!

So, after a very long post (sorry), where am I? Well, I am delighted to be back in the Highlands. I have come up with a glad heart and I WANT to be here, which makes all the difference. I love my little house and I love being back amongst my friends. But I am still desperately lonely and feeling invisible, and the big dilemma for me is whether I have enough courage to risk not being invisible any longer...any advice gratefully received!

Monday, August 9, 2010


Hi gang - hope things have been going well for you all these last few weeks. I've been busy selling and buying a house - yes, I'm on the move again (more about that another day) - so I haven't had time to write here but I did recently find a book of poems by Christopher Reid and wanted to share one with you.

Christopher's wife of 30 years died in October 2005 and he wrote this collection about her illness, death and his new existence as a widower. Much of the media focus has been on the poems about his wife's terminal illness, and it is certainly beautiful and powerful work, but as a widow now of nearly five years, it is the third group of poems, about the surprises and strangeness of being alone for the first time in decades, that resonates particularly with me at the moment.


I'm the riddle to an answer:
I'm an unmarried spouse,
a flesh-and-blood revenant,
my own ghost, inhabitant
of an empty house.

You can find more of his poems in his book Scattering. It's a painful but true and beautiful read.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Still here...

Hello everyone!

It's been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote here, and I don't know where exactly the time has gone, but I thought I should update just so's you all know I'm still here.

Since February, I guess I have come a long way, though tonight I'm feeling as bad as ever. And that's what I wanted to write about - not just to have a winge (though maybe a little) but more to reassure anyone else reading here who is still feeling lost and lonely at times, as much as five years after the death of their beloved, that they are not the only ones.

The very fact that I am calling my late husband my beloved marks a big change in my feelings. For the first eighteen months or so after he died, I was angry with him most of the time; then, after that, it felt as if too much time had passed to be crying, even though I now forgave him for dying and was beginning to have a few happy memories of him.

It was after I moved house that the thaw in the Ice Widow began to take place. I realised, after I moved in (it hadn't occurred to me when I chose the house) that the Golfer would have loved this house. I'm in a seaside town, right on the seafront - sunsets over the sea, boats passing by constantly, holiday makers wandering past, licking ice creams - he would have absolutely adored it. In fact, if we had moved here together, I would never have got him to move on from here. I had been here a few weeks when it first occurred to me, and tears sprang to my eyes at the thought, as I stood at the window and so easily imagined him standing there beside me.

Since then, I have missed him more and more. Living in a holiday town emphasises my aloneness. Everywhere are happy families and those damned couples walking slowly along the prom, hand in hand. I take my little dog out for a walk, head held high, and by the time we get back home I'm slouching along, with my head down because I've run the gauntlet of normal people living the life I should be living. When I lived in the Highlands, out in the middle of nowhere, there was no-one to see me and no-one to look at. It was great! When I was in the house, or in my beloved garden, I felt normal. I rarely felt the pain of my situation. It wasn't until I came here and had it shoved in my face every day that I was able to begin to mourn for what I have lost.

So now, eight months after moving, I feel lonelier than ever. And yet, do you know, I think that's a good thing. The irritation of my situation is almost like an itch. It's as if there is a new me struggling to emerge, and the frustration of being nearly ready but not quite is driving me mad. I hate being in the house, it makes me feel like a sad old woman waiting to die. In the first year or two after his death, my home was a haven for me but that has changed and now it's almost unbearable. I think this is a sign that I am at last ready to be out in the big world again (about time!)

In the last month I have come to some surprising conclusions about my future, including the almost certain decision to move again, back to the batty, wonderful Highlands, which I miss so much. The most surprising decision, however, is that I have decided that I need to get a job or, more likely, start my own business. People have been telling me for years that I needed to get a little job to get me out of the house, and I've been ignoring them, determined to find my own way. Well, my path apparently lies that way after all. I won't say yet what my business is likely to be, in case I change my mind - suffice it to say that it involves books and a cash register!

I love my own company, and I love my freedom, so I am surprised and rather terrified at the prospect of being back in the 9 to 5, working beside other people and clogging up the roads at rush hour, but I have come to the conclusion that I cannot cling any longer to what is left of my old life - it is not enough; that I have to be brave enough to make a brand new life for myself. Boy, it's scary. And it still hurts that I've lost the life I wanted to be living. But I am also very excited at this new life - who knows where it might lead?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Happiness is...

Well, the Happy Book has been sent on its way and should now be in Nova Scotia, being filled with happiness by Lani.

I felt a bit inhibited, being the first person in the group to make my contribution. It would be wonderful to see what the book looks like six months down the road, when people much more creative than I have filled the pages with colour. However, I did my best, and I DID have all the pages to choose from. Here are some of the bits and pieces I added to the book:

Jamie, who started the Happy Book mail marathon, is a great collage artist, and she inspired me to have a little, teeny go at it myself. Not much collage going on here, just a picture from a magazine and some words that struck a chord, but it makes me uplifted to look at it, and it has three of my favourite things in it - books, growing things, and a view through a window - hope it does something for you too.

Now, I had great fun with this page. The brief was to draw round your hand and then colour it in in whatever way you fancied - just the kind of thing you used to do back in infant class. I absolutely loved doing this. I wasn't feeling particularly merry when I started, but I set aside a couple of hours, put Murder She Wrote on the telly, snuggled up with the dog and a blanket and a pile of felt tip pens, and had a wonderful time. I really got into the decision-making process about which colour to put where, and how to divide up the space, each decision leading on to the next, but all in a very low-pressure way. It was like being a little girl again - wonderful! I think that doing a Hand Turkey (as this is called, apparently) will become a regular creative exercise for me. It'll be interesting to see how each hand differs according to my mood.

One of the pages in the Happy Book asks you to put in your favourite picture of yourself - this is mine. It was (without getting too melodramatic or tearful) probably the last time I was truly happy as a child and I love looking into the eyes of this beautiful little girl. Sometimes I wish I could go back and make it all happen differently, sometimes I wish I could just go back and be four again, but most of the time, looking at this photograph fills me with calmness and even serenity.

Well, folks, those are the main things I contributed to the book. No jokes, I'm afraid, but it was done at the darkest, coldest time of the year. I'm sure if I was to do it again in July, I would have put in different things. It was a wonderful project to be involved in - thanks Jamie, for making it all possible, and I cannot wait to see what everyone else has come up with.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Spreading Happiness - One Page at a Time

I was lucky enough to stumble across the fabulous Jamie Ridler on the internet a month or so ago (don't you just love the internet sometimes?) She runs several communal projects through her website, where people (women, mainly) get a chance to explore their creativity and make their dreams reality. It's a wonderful place to visit, full of positivity, friendship and talent.

I saw that she was about to start a new project, called The Next Chapter: The Happy Book and thought "what the hell - I'll give it a go". It is a wonderful, life-enhancing project. Jamie has sent four copies of The Happy Book to people all over the world. Each of these four gets to keep the book for a week, filling as many pages as they like with pictures, words, quotes and silly things - all the things that make them happy and bring them joy. At the end of the week they send the book on to the next person on the list, and so on to 25 other people. So, for about a year, allowing for travelling time, those little books will be flying about the world, getting filled up with joy, at which time they will return to Jamie and she'll show them on her website. Isn't that a wonderful thing to do? It is great to be involved in something that offsets all the gloom and anger in the world. Spending a week thinking about what makes me happy is doing me the world of good, getting the opportunity to express all the things I am grateful for, and knowing that my words and my little pictures are maybe going to brighten someone else's day - it doesn't get much better than that.

As I said, there are four books trundling around the world. Jamie has given each project a name of its own, so we have the Glee Circle, the Mirth Circle, the Giggle Circle and the Bliss Circle. I am in the Mirth Circle and was a little nervous to discover that I was first on the list - nobody else's pictures to inspire me, but it's been okay. And being first, I got to feature in a video of Jamie posting the books, which was pretty cool!

Jamie Putting the Happy Books in the Mail from Jamie Ridler on Vimeo.

I have to send the book on to Lani in Nova Scotia, Canada next Tuesday so I am dedicating today to filling some pages with colour, fun and all things jolly - a rather nice way to spend a Sunday. I'll post again when I've got some pictures to show.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cutting Through the Shoulds

Morning, my fellow prunes and rosehips. Definitely feeling more prunish than rosehippy this morning but I live in hope.

I've had an interesting little experience that I thought I'd share and, you never know, it might help someone else along the way.

I've had a long-standing physical problem that kicked off after my husband died and is still bugging the hell out of me. I've been trying alternative therapies of all descriptions - anything that might help me fix this and feel better. Anyway, I had a flare-up of symptoms recently and called my very wise homeopath. She suggested that I read You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, as she thought I'd find it relevant and useful.

Now, I've bought all sorts of self-help books over the years but have always avoided Louise Hay. She just seemed too big and too popular to be of any use to me. Far too many weeks in the bestseller tables to be relevant to me (how does that work? Discovering that little fact about myself was interesting in itself.) But I respect my homeopath so I went out and bought a copy. Wow - what a great book! The very first exercise brought results for me and I thought I'd share it with you.

She says to get a big bit of paper and at the top of it to write "I should..." and underneath that you make a list of five or six ways to complete that sentence. Wow - when I saw this exercise I thought it was pointless but then I thought - "well, I want to get better, let's give it a go", so I settled myself down with a coffee and tried to think of one or two "shoulds" in my life.

Once I started, I could barely stop. I discovered that my whole life is full of "shoulds". I should lose weight. I should keep the house cleaner. I should get out more. I should be able to stop the dog doing the toilet in the house. I should walk her more often. I should do some voluntary work. I should redecorate. I should cook proper meals...and on and on and on.

I realised that from the moment I woke up every morning, I was beating myself up about pretty much everything in my life. No wonder I wasn't feeling well.

Even taking the exercise just this far has been useful in the week since, but she suggests that you take each "should" statement and turn it into a "If I really wanted to, I could...", not to put further pressure on yourself, but to find out exactly what kind of pressures you are putting yourself under.

There are many more exercises in the book to work on, and I am seeing new things all the time as I do. I hadn't realised, for example, that the overwhelming message I got as a child, both from parents and society at large, (and anyone brought up in the sixties and seventies will know what I'm talking about) was that girls would never be as good as boys and that, as a woman, all I had to look forward to was being gorgeous and the target of constant sexual innuendo or plain and a figure of fun. Plain women were a waste of space and beautiful women were only useful for one thing. As an adult, of course, you try to put these things behind you but, deep down, that message is apparently still singing loud and clear in my ear. So there's lots of work to be done there.

But what I wanted to tell you about today was a practical example of the life of "should". Ever since I did this exercise, when I have found myself saying "I should", I stop myself, question myself as to why I am saying "should", and then try to rephrase the thought. I wandered into my study and thought, with a sinking heart and a pang of guilt, "I really should vacuum this carpet." Spotting the use of the dreaded s-word, I decided to find a way to rephrase the thought without saying should. I couldn't. I felt guilty about the dirty carpet and I couldn't find a way of not beating myself up about it. Then it suddenly struck me. I could say "This carpet really needs vacuuming." And that made all the difference. All of a sudden it wasn't about me being lazy and a lifelong bad housekeeper. It was simply that the carpet needed cleaning.

And once I'd had that thought, I could see that there were other solutions to the situation. If the carpet needed cleaning, I could pay someone to come in and do it. Or I could say - "Yes, it needs doing but I am not going to do it today." Or I could get the vacuum cleaner out and clean it!

I know this is a really trivial situation, but I think it represents a hundred, a thousand similar thoughts that we beat ourselves up with constantly. From now on, whatever the situation, I will try to take away the self-blame and see things in an objective way, lighten the emotional load on myself and be gentle with myself.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Paired For Life? Part 2

And now for the other side...

Part 2 has taken a while to produce - the reason is that in this part I want to write about the positive side of living alone, and I haven't been feeling that positive about it, which makes it hard to write enthusiastically about! Nevertheless, I have done such a lot since I was widowed - many things through necessity, but many also because I no longer need to answer to anyone else. And that's the rub - being widowed ISN'T all bad. That knowledge brings with it a whole new bundle of guilt, but that's another post.

Where to start - well, I've just moved house, let's start there. For the first time in my life, I have chosen a house just for me, no compromises, no negotiations, and I've arranged it the way I want, and that is completely new for me. It's a funny thing to think that my student son has had more independence in his few years since leaving home than I have in my fifty years. In fact, I sometimes feel as though I am just starting out on on my life as an adult. I went straight from parental home to married home and never even went through the student-flat phase, as I lived at home when I was at University.

And settling in to this house HAS been an adventure. I've arranged things the way I want, got rid of all sorts of baggage, literal and emotional and, for the first time, I feel that I am in a house that reflects my personality. That can't be a bad thing.

Moving house has been a big thing but life alone is filled with hundreds of little delights, from having your bedroom at the temperature that suits you, to eating what and when you like.

And with the new year, another good thing about being alone occurs to me. Yesterday I phoned a widowed friend to have a chat and to wish her a happy new year. We talked for twenty minutes or so. I am only too aware that if I was still married I would probably never have picked up the phone. Why not? Well, for several reasons. The first is that we would probably never have met. She was a distant neighbour who I didn't know when she knocked at my door a week or so after the Golfer died. She introduced herself, refused to come in and said merely that she herself had been widowed three months previously, that she lived at the top of the hill and that if I ever needed help or just to talk, she was there. I was so touched by this kindness from a stranger and over the years since then our friendship gradually developed. Until recently, we had never been in each other's houses, we merely chatted and compared notes as we passed on the road. A few months ago she called me and asked me for some help with her computer and our acquaintance developed into a friendship.

So when New Year approached, I thought of her, especially as the weather has been pretty extreme up there in the Highlands, and called her. She was delighted to hear from me and our conversation cheered us both, I think. I felt better both for brightening her day and for the mutual support we offered. Now, the point of this is that if I had still been a married woman, not only would I never have met her, but that even if we had met, I probably simply wouldn't think of staying in touch. This has been the case for most of the friendships that I have developed over the last four years. Before, when I was a wife and mother, I didn't need girlfriends. I had a few 'coffee' friends - women I liked who I would meet for coffee and gossip once a month or so - but I would never think of talking about anything too personal with them, and I wouldn't need to call on them if I had a problem because I had a husband to fix everything in my life.

The nature of friendship I will keep for another blog post but suffice it to say that I may NEED friends now in a way that I have never done before but that need has developed some genuine and deep friendships that will last a lifetime. It sounds like a trivial thing to say, but it's a sign of the change in my life to say that I get more Christmas cards and birthday cards now than I ever did before I was widowed. When I go to sleep at night, my thoughts are jam-packed with all the people I care about. Before, it was just the Golfer and my son, and that was about it.

I have only scraped the surface of the benefits of living alone, and I expect I'll come back to the topic and express myself a little better than I have done here but let me finish with one thought about a particular problem of being widowed which may make it more difficult to celebrate life alone. One of the most important weapons in defeating difficult times in your life is defiance. "Living well is the best revenge" is a great maxim to live by if you had parents who abused you, if you are made redundant or if your spouse runs away with the postwoman. Putting a smile on your face and trying to use that adversity to recreate a better life, even if at first it's only in defiance to the bastards who have screwed you, is a great way to deal with life's big stresses. However, when you are widowed, it is difficult to adopt this attitude (I'm not expressing myself well here but I hope I'm getting my meaning across - I'll try to write it better one day!) I have heard people say that losing their job, or even getting a serious illness like cancer, was the best thing that ever happened to them, because it transformed their lives. It is VERY difficult to say that in relation to the death of your spouse. In fact, it is unacceptable to say that publicly, even if it's true. Can you imagine what people would say if you came out with the line "Ah yes, the Golfer's death was the best thing that ever happened to me". And yet, that is the task we are faced with when our partners die. If the Golfer had walked out on me, I would have said "The Golfer walking out on me was the best thing that ever happened to me" with gusto and would have been determined to make the rest of my life as good as possible, if only to stick it to him. But he didn't walk out on me, he died on me, and I find it almost impossible to suggest out loud (even if I think it sometimes) that I am having a happier life BECAUSE he died.

I think that adds an element of difficulty to the widowed person's job of rebuilding their lives. So, for those of you out there in the same boat as me, go easy on yourselves, you are making progress, and you will be happy again. Happy New Year to all you Rosehips and Prunes out there and I wish you all a wonderful 2010!