Sunday, September 29, 2013

Saving All Your Nice For Other People

When I was teaching in my last few years of public school, it took every ounce of control to be nice at work. Not to the kids, who were fine and dandy in the main, but to clueless administrators and helicopter parents, very few of whom actually saw me as a person with thoughts, feelings, emotions and talents but rather as a lowly, replaceable cog in the machine of education. #Assholes #IDon'tMissYou

The result of this amount of stress was physical illness and a general bitchiness at home. One of the main reasons I quit public school (other than the fact that it was/is headed straight down the toilet and has been since the inception of NCLB. But I digress.) was that I was sick and tired of wasting all of my nice on other people and their children.

My name is Suzannah Kolbeck, and I am an Introvert.

(Hi, Suzannah. Keep coming back.)

I can only take so much small talk and general hi-LARITY before I need some quiet, unstructured time to putter around the garden, the kitchen, the bookstore, etc. The sheer amount of effort I had to expend to maintain civility amid the chaos and disorder of public school and its environs meant that I came home and took it all out on my people, the people who unconditionally took it (and sometimes gave it back, let's be honest. We're not saints.).

This is unacceptable. As a follow-up to my Advice to Couples From a Widow Blog, I offer this final piece of advice: don't waste all your nice on other people. There are some people who have an infinite store of nice: my friend Tamara, the Dalai Lama. That's about all I know.

All of us other mortals tend to be very nice in public but less so at home (to varying degrees), so I say this to everyone other than the Dalai Lama and my friend Tamara:  BE NICE. Show love and gratitude to the people who are where you hang your hat. They are the ones who have seen you at your worst and celebrate you at your best; they are the ones who love you best. They got your back.

Kindness anywhere is never wasted, and I am all for civility and courtesy in public. I am not suggesting you eliminate these things from your daily interactions.

I am suggesting, however, that we all turn off the screens, listen better, do more fun stuff together and generally enjoy each other's company. Don't waste time with your family in argument and petty disagreement, or nit-picking about trash removal, who is going to clean up the dog puke (AGAIN) and why is it that no one appreciates what you do around here (ad infinitum, et cetera. Fill in the blank with your personalized ranting)?!

If you are currently living with a sullen teenager, this advice is harder to implement. I know I am going to try anyway. I can only change myself, and I have realized that I just need to RELAX. Anyone who knows me knows that this is stupidly hard for me to do. Near impossible.

Ah, well. It matters, so I will try. I am planning on implementing deep breathing, rose smelling, art making, cookie baking and thoughtful listening. Also silence bearing, as The Child is way less interested in talking to me now, so I have to suck it up and let it be instead of asking constantly if anything is wrong, further annoying her. Or breathing. Which also annoys her. But I digress.

Be nicest to the ones you love the most. It's that simple.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Be Kind

Be kind to yourself.*
This is the overriding message I am receiving. From internet memes, therapists, the lady who curates the Brain Pickings website (which is absurdly and profoundly amazing and you should really check it out if you want to be inspired by people who are also, themselves, absurdly and profoundly amazing), friends, various other sources.

This is not be kind to yourself by doing things that aren't really actually kind but feel good in the moment, like eating too much or spending too much or ignoring responsibilities.

This is be kind like give enough of a shit about yourself to go ahead and cut your ass some SLACK.

This is be kind like do the best you can on any given day, and realize that "the best you can" on any given day is a totally relative and subjective term.

This is be kind like stop saying things to yourself in your head that you wouldn't say to a good friend.

If you can be kind to yourself like that, then everything else will fall into place. It's not narcissistic or selfish to be kind to yourself, and actually, it makes you be kind to other people.

Doing this also makes you realize what is actually important. I am trying to allow myself to be changed by this experience. I am trying to be open and better and more aware of what is really important, cosmically, hugely important, so when those things are present I can shower them with the riches of my attention and love.

So be kind.

*The above advice is totally intended as a reminder for the writer, and should not be construed as bossy or do-it-or-else type of arrangement. That's not very kind.  Do what you like. It's a free country. I just know that I am trying, and some days are better than others. Knowing that being kind is the thing that will save me is totally different than practicing that kindness, so go ahead and expect me to be an asshole sometimes. Totes normale, to mix the vernacular.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I Am Losing Her

I can feel her pulling away.

She is at the stage where I can't possibly understand what she is going through. I can't possibly know how she feels. I can't possibly relate.

I don't know what it's like to feel out of place. Or lonely. Or gawky. Or ugly. Or stupid. Or fat. Or sad. Or trapped. Or desperate.

I have all the answers, and on top of that, I haven't lost my father. Well, at any rate, not as a 13-year-old, so there's that.

She is on the edge of rebelling. She knows I can't make her do anything, but she likes to please me. She isn't doing any of this to hurt me.

She is angry. She is sad. She is lost. But she won't say it. I shouldn't say it. She hasn't said it to me; I just know her in her bones. I see it in her eyes. I feel it coming off her in waves.

We are truly back, and in the thick of it again.

I can feel her pulling away.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

He is Not. He is Here.

It's late here.

The crickets are out, and I can hear the train on the Square clearly because the window is open wide to get the cool breeze and the leaves are already dropping off the trees.  When we bought this, our first house, in 2001, Dane and I would curse the train, tossing and turning for months as summer turned to fall and it sounded like the damn thing was rolling through the backyard. Then spring would come; the leaves muffled the sound and made it easier to sleep.

The dogs hear it, too; they jump and bark at the slightest noise these days, which makes The Child and me jumpy as well. I look at them and realize that they know he is missing and are hoping he will come back. Dane was rough with them at times, not mean, just rough in that "they're just dogs" sort of way, but I would catch him now and then, absent-mindedly rubbing Winston's head or scratching behind Gatsby's ears. I am their pack leader, but they know someone is gone, and they feel the disorder in their universe. I read a dog training book once that said that dogs don't care what their number is in the hierarchy, just so long as it is clear and they know what their number is. They have suddenly all moved up a notch. They are still adjusting.

It is still so surreal. I guess by now it should be clear and true and what has happened, but it is hard to describe the unreality of every day. The marks on the road have finally washed away; the tree's bark has healed completely. It is done.

And yet every day is so strange. I am not in denial. I am not bargaining. I am not any of those other stages. I just still can't believe it. He is so present, and so absent at the same time. He is Not. He is Here. All at once. Vividly clouded.

I accept it. I am too pragmatic to be fooling myself, and too atheist to believe that he is floating all around me. To sit outside in the morning with a cup of coffee and not get his standard good morning phone call is still astonishing to me. To take Sicily to catching and not hear his voice booming in the pitching facility is deafening in its silence. To lay my head on my pillow at night and have the vast endless open ocean of his side of the bed is shocking, every time.

The unreality of it all is nearly too much to bear, and daily awful. Even as we make progress on the Tiny House, as softball season looms large, as I try to figure out what the hell to do next, the discord of what is and what it should be is hard to reconcile.

I have a recurring nightmare (something of an irrational fear, also) of dying in a car accident whereby I lose control of the car and go plunging down an embankment and into water; it is nearly always winter in the dream, so the water frequently has a thin crust of ice that gives me just enough time to contemplate what is about to happen before it breaks with a crash and icy water jolts me from the dream. Perhaps this is the waking version of that dream.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The First Day of Fall

The significance of today:

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-0.

The Washington Huskies are 3-0.

I have settled on the subject of my next painting, and it should be done sometime in the next ten years or so.

We have moved one step closer to siding the tiny house in that today we finished Dane's window (a salvaged boat window from Alaska, a real pain in the ass, much like the man himself. Just difficult angles, rough around the edges.) and also moved the butt-ugly electrical plug from sticking out of the front of the house to running discreetly down its undercarriage (note to self: make sure to secure a bit, well, more securely, before the house travels to the Tiny House Conference). Now all we have to do is finish the tiniest bit of trim and soffit work and order the siding, which will be delivered the following day.

It's the autumnal equinox, my favorite season of the year. There is something about fall; most people bemoan the shorter days, but I must have some bear in me because I love the prospect of hibernating, watching football, reading under a blanket in the sun outside and generally buttoning everything up before winter. Which is supposed to be brutal in the south this year.

Plus, we are just that much closer to getting the fuck out of 2013. I am working hard to appreciate every day more than I have in the past, and that includes not wishing for time to speed up, but in the case of this year, I am done. Twenty-fourteen couldn't come fast enough.

Still no prospects for the future, still no end in sight of grief, still no closer to understanding the thing that is The Child's brain. But the sun is out, the sky is clear, and I have fresh flowers in my front planters. That will have to do.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Morbid Humor. Too Soon?

So I was wasting time, avoiding work this morning and I came across this story about how a widow is suing an airline because they forced her to check her husband's ashes and then promptly lost them.

Dane had requested at some point that if he died he should be cremated and scattered in Puget Sound, at the very least, or maybe up in Alaska (best case scenario, but he always assured me that he wouldn't know the difference at that point). Even after he died and the saccharin funeral director "brought Dane home"  (could there be a more bullshit term?) in his lovely little box I didn't really think too much about it until I was talking to my friend Mandy about the issues that could arise in transport on a plane. Would I have to check him? Would his tongue ring set off the metal detectors? Would they open the box? Would I need to buy a separate seat, or could he sit on my lap like a child? Holy crap. The possibilities for a ginormous clusterfuck, a major scene and Suzannah in the hoosegow are endless.

The other thing Dane and I used to say we were going to do is to kidnap someone's garden gnome and then take him/her on a cross-country trip, taking photographs and then mailing them back to the house from whence the gnome came (returning the gnome at the end, of course). In the event that I ever do get up for scattering Dane's ashes, perhaps this is what I will do; we will make the trip, and I will take artful shots of Dane at sunset in the Grand Canyon; at Elvis's house next to a fried peanut butter and nanner sandwich; under the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.  Not sure who I would mail them to, though. Any takers?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Welcome to My Sad Little Party

That moment when you realize someone else is living your life, and you are going to die alone and very hairy (both from your legs, which you haven't shaved in decades, and from the eleventy million cats who are sucking the life out of you and pissing in your bathtub on a regular basis); that moment when you realize that even if you did die it would be weeks until your corpse was discovered if it weren't for your kid, who you may end up living with for the rest of your miserable little life because, well, there isn't really anyone else you'd rather hang out with, and if you'd rather hang out with someone else too bad for you because there isn't anyone else?

Yeah. I'm there.

I'm going to watch Breaking bad now. Because watching random fake violence has to be better than wallowing.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Sunday the child and I had some time to kill between catching sessions, so we stopped at the local used bookstore to browse.

When I rounded the corner, I heard, "Oh, my God, Mrs. Kolbeck!" and "Holy crap! Mrs. Kolbeck!" and before me were two former students, the latter of which (Alex) I had not seen in six years (and was graduating in May 2014), and the former of which (Olivia) I had taught in my school until that whole thing sort of imploded for various reasons that are nobody's business but mine, hers and her family's.

Alex has decided to study philosophy, and Olivia, who is graduating early in December 2013, has decided to go to the local university and become a teacher, inspired by me, she says, the very best teacher she has ever had (her words, not mine, I swear). Alex seconded that statement.

I miss teaching. I miss teaching at HoneyFern, and I even miss teaching at public school (the teaching part; nothing else). I miss that feeling when a student comes back and tells you how they are doing. It doesn't even have to be a tribute visit; just knowing that they are doing well, and that I had some part in it (for better or for worse, either inspiring them to do it because of or in spite of me) is why I became a teacher.

As we flail about this year, trying to figure out what to do next, I have been unsure as to whether or not I would teach again in any format (continuing my school after this sabbatical, teaching in a different school altogether, tutoring, other). This didn't push me one way or the other, but it reminded me that once I did have a passion for something grander than myself. Once I did feel something worth waking up for. Once I made a difference.

That visit today was manna. <3

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Love Is...

A prayer for your Sabbath:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Corinthians 13.4-8a

I would add:

Love is simple. Love is not limited by boundaries of sex or gender; it does not care what you look like, where you come from or how fat your wallet it. Love is the realization that your kind of crazy has found its kindred spirit in another, and all of the trials and tribulations it takes to make your life together are worth it. Love is the reason, the light and the way.

Have a beautiful day. Watch this video and love one another as deeply as these two do right at this moment.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Advice to Couples From a Widow

I used to fantasize sometimes about what it would be like if Dane and I got a divorce. I thought that might just be the best deal ever; I still get my fabulous kid, but I also get a break from her and get some time where I wouldn’t have to care for anyone but myself. I wouldn’t have to rely on someone who I felt was unreliable. I wouldn’t have to share decision-making or, more often, make all of the important decisions by myself.

And then Dane was killed in a car accident.

In the past seven months, I have had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about our marriage and my part in it. In listening to friends talk about their partners, and reflecting on what I have lost, I offer up these pieces of advice for long-term, committed relationships:

Stop complaining about each other. Seriously. Most of what people complain about (not fixing something, or not doing enough at home, or not being “there” for them) is patently false and has more to do with control or the other person not getting things done in the appropriate time frame (like “now” instead of after the game). It is one thing to blow off steam to a friend, and I am more than willing to listen, but it is quite another to have a standard litany of complaints about your partner that becomes a mantra. The only person you can change is you. Full stop. There is really no way around that simple fact.  If it’s that bad, leave. If you can step away and realize it’s not, change yourself, or build a bridge and get over it.

Have more sex. Lots more sex. Being intimate with someone you love should not be a chore, and chances are pretty good that, male or female, if you have been married for longer than a year, or less if you have kids, you are not having enough sex. I mean quickies. I mean leisurely, day-long, laying around in bed sex, with foreplay and everything, the kind where you are in bed for so long that the shadows change on your bodies over the course of the day. I mean whatever happens in the middle. All of it. Whatever amount of sex you are having (see stats on averages here), go ahead and at least double that.

Display more affection in general. A friend of mine reminded me of the time when Dane bounded up the bleachers at a softball game to give me a kiss, then bounded off to do whatever it was he was on the way to do. Of my married friends, I have only seen two couples kiss. Be loving towards your partner. Demonstrate affection. Put your hands on them. You would miss that intimate connection if it were gone, and don't kid yourself: it is not the same as shaking a colleague’s hand or a hug from your kids. Touch is essential for human beings.

Recognize what your partner does for you, not what they don’t do for you. This is a big one. I used to complain about how the sky would fall if I weren’t there to hold it up; early in our relationship, I went on strike for a week, just to prove a point. This is not about unequal distribution of work; this is about showing gratitude and being appreciative of what your partner does. In a classic tale of too little, too late, I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for all of the things Dane used to do, from unclogging drains to setting up printers and running virus scans to dealing with all things car-related to pressure washing to gutter cleaning and much, much more. Some of these things happened as if by magic; the car appeared with new oil, or the blinds suddenly were hung in the living room.

I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for Dane in general. He did little things that I was only just beginning to recognize in the months before he was killed, like always giving me the first bite of his ice cream when I said I didn’t want any and he sat down next to me with a delicious-looking bowl. He always gave me the mail to read first, the best seat at the movies and moved off “my spot” on the couch when I asked. Complaining about socks on the floor or not scrubbing a toilet seems minor when I reflect on his obvious desire for me to be comfortable and happy.

Don’t get complacent. About anything. I am not talking about shaving your legs or still getting fancy for your partner, although that’s nice to remember to do. Don’t stop learning or doing because you have a partner who does these things for you. I used to always say that I know how to change the oil in the car, but I chose not to because Dane would do it, and he liked it. Same goes for unclogging the drain (took me several weeks to figure this out), setting up a wireless printer, and helping our kid finish building her tiny house. I have been frustrated and challenged on top of grieving because I got lazy and stopped learning, and now that I have to be two parents with two skill sets, I am regretting the times I just pawned specific chores off on Dane. I just assumed that he would always take care of it, division of labor and all that, but while I was dividing the labor, I lost my own ability in certain areas. This looks suspiciously like taking him for granted, an action for which I criticized him in the past (see above, the week on strike).

Don’t forget why you fell in love in the first place. When I met Dane, he was a commercial fisherman in Alaska; we had one month together before he got back on the boat and was gone for two months. Our love story unfolded in letters, and I read them a couple months ago when I was going through some of his things. He saved every letter I wrote to him, and I got to read all of the reasons why I fell in love, in my own words, and his responses to me. Ours was not a perfect relationship by any stretch of the imagination, but in our letters to each other was a deep and abiding commitment to the union. Don’t ever let that fade; remind yourself often of all of the reasons why you and your partner belong together. Dig deep if you have to, but dig.

Finally, treat them like the friend they are. Dane was a constant source of unflagging support in every endeavor. He never said no, never took someone else’s side. He was my party post-mortem go-to, my behind-the-scenes support.  There has never been another person in my life who was so unfailingly supportive regardless of the endeavor. I can’t name one thing I will miss the most about Dane, but this is definitely up there. You can’t get this kind of unconditional love and support just anywhere; try as they might, even parents aren’t 100% on this one. If you have this in your relationship, cherish it as the pure gift that it is, and try very hard to give the same in return.

Dane and I had a stormy relationship at times; we fought, we made up, we had times when things were so rocky that we considered separating. In short, we were much like many other couples in that life and stress and trouble got in the way and made life together sometimes frankly miserable. At the root, though, was a commitment to each other that I am only beginning to recognize and appreciate fully now. Most advice focuses on the superficial aspects (making an effort in how you dress, having separate hobbies, etc), but I say dig deep and the other stuff won’t matter as much. In good times and bad, it is the depth of the connection that will support and sustain your relationship. Recognize it, nourish and appreciate what you have every day. Don’t wait.





Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

So we are home.

Have been since Monday.

It only took about 24 hours to fall back into the same patterns we had when we left, and this is not a good thing.

I wrote in an earlier blog about going back to Friendly's for the first time in 30 years and having it be just the same as I remembered; Assateague was the same way.

Reality: places stay the same; it's us who change, and our memories that distort what is real (or our perceptions at a specific age).

So maybe the reason those two places stayed the same is because I am actually the same person I was when I went to Friendly's with my dad and Assateague with my family in the summers. It is so unusual to have a clear memory of something and then go back and have it be just what you remember; maybe the few times that happens is because, for whatever reason, in that moment and in those places, you were the truest version of yourself, so it makes sense that the places didn't change when you re-visit them because you, yourself, haven't changed from the version of you who visited in the first place.

Existential stuff and nonsense perhaps.

Easier to talk about that then about being home.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Heading Home...

We were driven from Assateague by bugs and 20+ mph winds that blew over a screened tent and made life on the beach miserable. I am writing this from Elizabeth City, NC; tomorrow we will visit our friend Andrew and his lovely family in their tiny house, and then make our way south to GA.

I am not happy to go home.

Too tired to write more, but I just don't want to go home. Pix and more to follow after we settle in.

I don't want to go home.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Off Grid

Tomorrow we go off grid to Assateague State Park. La and I are camping for five days, which should be interesting, as we haven't camped in six+ years and are only nominally provisioned.

No matter.

We plan to roast marshmallows, clam, swim in the surf, try to avoid the increasingly-pushy ponies eating a hole in our tent to get at our food.

We will eat crabs, cook over a campfire, and read. Blogs will be written by hand, then possibly uploaded at the camp store around the end of the week (they have Wi-Fi, but I really don't want to utilize it at all). I hope to catch some of our own crabs the old-fashioned way, with a chicken neck and a string, but the skeeters might discourage us from that.

I expect there will be some card playing and long walks.

We are only about ten days away from going home. It is hard to believe we have been gone since August 6th. I don't feel much closer to making any decisions. I don't feel much peace. I am pretty sure that's not what was going to happen anyway, but I was hoping to bring home something other than a couple pairs of shoes, goat's milk caramel and some kick-ass maraschino cherries from Italy (thanks, Mark!!!).

The beach is a good place for reflection. We'll see what happens.

Until then, have a good Labor Day, a lovely week. Whoever is reading this, be nice to each other.