How Journaling Propels Me Forward

Every morning, after rising and making coffee, I sit on my couch with a 6" x 8" spiral notebook and a Pilot Razor Point Extra Fine pen. For at least a half hour, I record a diary of what I did the day before, dreams and nightmares, wounds and applause, plus tasks due that day. As of this writing, I'm up to page 10,380.

            While that number may sound impressive, it doesn't travel far enough back. I wish the innocent little girl I once was would've grabbed pen and paper as soon as she learned to print. If I had started then, writing my memoir, "The Division Street Princess," might have required less tunneling. To fill in, I had to rely on microfiche pages of Chicago newspapers, tales told by relatives, memories that had been bolted to my brain, and my imagination.

            For my second book, a slight e-novel called "She's Not The Type,"  I had some journal pages, but not the guts. The first half of that book is a roman e clef, somewhat based on my first marriage -- our secret romance, wedding, birth and upbringing of two daughters, and our eventual somber divorce after 30 years. The second half is pure fiction -- a wistful dream where the protagonist becomes a journalist and her mother, rather than dying young while in a pathetic second marriage, moves to Hawaii and finds true love.

            In this current period of my life, with my morning journaling as sacred as a religious rite, I also read a page taken from past years. I do this because I want to learn my patterns -- worries that never came to pass, prophetic musings, and other buried gold.

            Recently, I've been in 2012, reliving my husband Tommy's last weeks. Although my heart beats as I read about the emergency room visit when he became dehydrated, the astonishing discovery that it was throat cancer rather than dementia blocking his ability to swallow, ten harrowing days at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and twelve at home in hospice, the most surprising take-away was my eerie calm.

            When I discussed this odd composure with others who had experienced similar journeys, one friend said, "You did what you had to do." I'll accept that, but I have another theory: Because of my daily journaling and the The Rookie Caregiver blog I was writing at the time, I had been able to release most of the shadows, fear, and grief.

            Remarkably, on the entry I wrote November 4, 2012, just two days after Tommy died, I wrote: Plan to start post for TRC about his death. Then, keep up until I have enough pages for a book. After that, get a fee for editing and self-publishing, do a cloud fundraising, and try to get book completed by May 2013. Goal.

            I'm a year late, but thanks to 112 backers on a Kickstarter campaign, it is happening.  She Writes Press will publish "Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss" September 2014.

            It turns out it's not only starry-eyed goals that plump my journals, but other musings that bear repeating. On November 9, 2012, one week after Tommy's death, I wrote: Bank turned me down for a Home Equity Line of Credit, not enough income. Not surprised. Think I will eventually sell as house is way too big for one person & do I want hassle of roommates or borders? May be better for me to rent new apt. that can make my life easier and not have to depend on others. All options open.

            Those words turned into several posts on The Rookie Widow - a prophecy that took less time to accomplish than my third book. In a little over five months, I was settled into my new River North apartment.

            Because I'm tech savvy, it's surprising I've resisted typing my daily words into a computer. But for me, there's something about pen and paper that better stirs my brain and soul.  I'm grateful to journaling for buffing my writing voice, while also serving as memory chip, repository, therapist, best friend, cheerleader, and crystal ball. And coupled with that first cup of coffee in the morning -- for this writer, it has been the most nourishing way to start a new day.


Coed Majoring in Phys Ed

I never went away to college. When I graduated from Roosevelt High School, my parents couldn’t afford to send me Downstate to the University of Illinois, or to other places my wealthier classmates chose. So every day, I took the CTA to Roosevelt University where I was granted a partial scholarship. And following classes, I again rode the trains to a part-time job.

As I look back, this was hardly an idyllic undergrad campus experience. But, because my best friend, Ruth, also went to Roosevelt, and because I received a great education, I didn’t feel deprived.

Now, in this new chapter of my rookie widow life, a bit of imaginary campus life seems to be emerging. Often, I feel as if I were a freshman, away from home for the first time, majoring in Physical Education.

I was explaining my theory to Ruth, who is still my best friend after all these years. “You’re right on one count,” she said. “We both went straight from our parents’ homes to our marriages. There was no period of time when we were on our own.”

One of my daughters, who was also given the hypothesis, disagreed: “What about the time you and Dad separated?” she said. “You lived alone then.”

“Somehow, this is different,” I said. “You two girls were still in Chicago and stopped in often enough that I felt as if I were living the same life. Just without him.”

I’ve been musing about this sensation of a freshman year and believe some of it may be related to home furnishings, some to the youthful population in my apartment building, and some to my more active life.

Because my apartment is a convertible studio, with a bedroom behind a sliding door, the queen-sized bed that Tommy and I shared  was deemed too large. So, I dropped down a size to a “full,” better to suit my fictitious dorm room.

Also, I took with only a few pieces from our former three-bedroom home and got them painted in bright colors. This update has made it appear that the kitchen table, coffee table, and hall table are not only brand new, but purchased at kicky Ikea. Surely, that’s where true coeds find their furniture.

I revealed the other half of my conjecture -- my chosen major -- to another daughter. “So, Phys Ed,” she said. There was a pause while she likely recalled her mother’s previous attempts to learn how to swim, my start-and-stop gym memberships, as well as my lack of coordination.

“Should I expect to see you in a league?” she asked. “Uniform with logo on the back?”

I smiled and accepted the skepticism, which I knew was trimmed in pride. Both daughters are my biggest supporters in my recent sad-to-swift journey from married-to-widow, from home owner-to-apartment dweller.

“No leagues,” I said. “But, I work out every day. I take Yoga three days a week, have a personal trainer one day, do the workout on my own two more days, take swim lessons and paddle by myself whenever I can fit it in.”

“Good for you, Momma,” she said. I’d like to think that a vision of an active parent striving to keep fit, who has elected to live in a tower of mostly thirty-somethings rather than with peers in in assisted living, delights my kid. 

In my imaginative college life, I’ve also decided that I live on a campus. You see, the health club where I work out is attached to my apartment building, so I have the sense that I’m trekking the quadrangle. 

Here’s another aspect of university life that supports my theme: class assignments and homework. In the real world, I’m still operating my public relations business and my sidelines of coaching writing and using Apple mobile devices.

While my Phys. Ed workouts are a priority, there’s a danger of neglecting revenue-producing work, sort of like flunking out. And, this time around, without an empathetic university to grant me funds, hitting the books is essential. But, without frat parties, sorority mixers, or other late night revelries, I should be able to pass my freshman year.

Of course, if I wanted  to bring my make-believe world closer to a true collegiate experience, there should be a roommate sharing my space. While a corporeal buddy would be ideal, this coed will settle for framed photographs of a beloved husband. Like me, my Tommy missed the campus experience. Let’s try this together, sweetheart:

We're loyal to you, Illinois,
We're "Orange and Blue," Illinois,
 We'll back you to stand 'gainst the best in the land,
 For we know you have sand, Illinois,  Rah! Rah!

My Psyche and Its Five Stages

In the past few weeks, my psyche has been on a roller coaster. I’ve counted five stages that lifted, dropped, and finally steadied me. 

The Euphoric phase began when I prepared to move into my new apartment.  I breezed through my To-Do list: Hire a mover, arrange for a house sale,  unpack boxes with the help of a best friend, submit maintenance request for paintings to be hung,  renew membership at adjacent health club. 

Jubilant text messages and photos flew from my iPhone to friends and family. I gushed of exercise classes, breakfasts with friends, walks downtown. My daughters especially, returned words of happiness for me.
As prepared as I was Euphoria, I failed to brace myself for the next stage, and wound up capsized by Grief. This is what happened: The estate sale of left-behinds was over. I thought it wise to return and check out the house before the buyer’s walkthrough that was to occur on the morning of the real estate closing. 
 “Why are you going back?” a daughter asked. 

“I just have to be sure all is okay for the walkthrough,” I said. 

“Do you think you can handle it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I took the Blue LIne from my apartment, then walked the short blocks to my house. I got only halfway there when I could feel myself crumbling.

“Will you go with me?” I said to a neighbor as she was getting into her car. “I’m going to check out the house, and I don’t think I can do it alone.”

“I’m on my way to pick up the kids,” she said, “but I’ll get my husband.”

I stood on the sidewalk, sinking lower each minute, as she raced into the house and returned with her husband. He grabbed my hand.

“I thought I could handle it,” I said, already weeping. 

“No problem,” he said.

When we arrived at my front door, my neighbor handed me off to the owner of the estate sale company who was awaiting a pick-up of my upright piano.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said, and opened her arms for my collapse. 

As I hung on to her, I viewed the empty house, now devoid of furniture, artwork, clothing, pantry or refrigerator goods, and I sobbed.

The emptiness and finality summoned the same anguish as I experienced with my husband’s death

“Get it all out,” she said. 

By the time I left our house for the last time, I recovered. I reversed my route and returned to my apartment.

Two days later a text arrived from my real estate broker, “The walkthrough went fine, no problems.” 

“Thank God!,” I sent back. “I was on pins and needles.” Because I had rolled the dice and moved out before the closing, I was especially grateful to enter this stage, Relief.

A few hours later, a phone call from the same person, “Congratulations,” he led off. “I wanted to be the first to tell you. The closing is over, all went well. You’re no longer a home owner.”

I sent texts to my daughters and friends who were awaiting the outcome of the closing, “‘Tis done!” 

Their responses came immediately: “Congratulations!” “You must be so relieved!” “Yay!” 

But instead of joining the glee chorus, I had an odd feeling of, how shall I say it, anticlimax. Where was the Euphoria I had felt when I moved, pre-closing, to my new apartment? Where was the Relief from the first text of a successful walkthrough? 

I realized then that those positive emotions had been first put into play with Tommy’s death. His absence, the void, the empty house, the finality, would forever tinge these pleasurable feelings.

“You can pick up your check,” came the next electronic message. This, from the paralegal who had worked on the deal. 

As I walked from the lawyer’s office to my financial manager, with the check from the house sale proceeds tucked inside my tote, I felt myself entering yet another stage, Pride. I had done it. I made the decision to put the house on the market. I had successfully, with my broker’s aid, negotiated a price that brought a bounce to my retirement account. I had moved, unpacked, and was already settled in my new home.

My roller coaster ride is easing into the finish line. I’m calling this stage, Tranquillity. Not as heady as Euphoria, much better than Grief, a companion to Relief and Pride, and an emotion that, prayerfully, will keep me company as I move through even more stages of this new life.  

Rolling the Dice

We have a contract for the sale of my house! 

Although the closing doesn’t occur until May 1, I’ve already signed a lease for my new apartment in River North that begins April 15. Then, I’ill use the week of the 15th to slowly move from one residence to another, with my final departure date, April 22.

This early transition -- 16 days before I turn over the keys -- is due to an April 28 sale of all of my belongings that are staying put. The company conducting the sale wants me, and a few furniture pieces, clothing, and personal items that are going with, to scram before a week-long set-up begins. Hence the premature exit.

To many, my plan -- as carefully thought out as a military maneuver -- might seem risky. In fact, it was my lawyer’s paralegal who warned, “You know there are always possibilities that a closing is held up.” I didn’t fault her caution; after all, it’s her firm’s job to protect me throughout the contract process.

“I understand the risks,” I said. “I’m willing to take them. I have to move ahead.”

I’ve often talked of my philosophy of Leap Before You Look. Now, I’m adding another credo, which I will call, Resist Limbo.

It was Chris, my temporary roommate, who originally urged a leap from on-hold to full-speed ahead. “You’re ready to go,” he had said. “This house is too big for you. If this deal doesn’t go through, it will certainly sell in a month.”

Because Chris had been using his time with me to explore my neighborhood, I felt his words had weight. And, since he has had access to all the house has to offer, I believed he knew what he was talking about. “Essentially you’re a stranger,” I said, “and you have faith in this house. Right?”

“No doubt,” he said. “You should go.”

That was all the incentive I needed.

 “I’ll be in tomorrow to sign the lease,” I told the rental building’s agent in an immediate phone call. He had held this particular apartment for me for over a month, and its time limit was growing closer. Because the rent and floor plan were exactly as I wanted, I didn’t want to chance losing the unit.

“The 28th is solid,” was the message in my next phone call. Again, the owner of the estate sale company had been reserving the Sunday date for me, but I knew it was in jeopardy because of the increasing number of her sales coming up in April. 

As I was about to make my third call, to my daughters to tell them of my speed-dialing decision, the paralegal called back. “No problems on the inspection,” she said. “All looks good.” She didn’t bring up the closing risks; perhaps she now understood I couldn’t be dissuaded. So, I took the latest news as a sign I was moving in the right direction.

While I can probably count on one hand a few rolls of the dice that didn’t win me the jackpot; on the whole, my risks have turned out successfully. Let me relate stories of quick, and potentially dangerous decisions:

-After my first date with Tommy, we became a duo. He moved in with me just a month after that dinner at El Tapatio restaurant. We married within two years. We would have celebrated 15 years January 13, 2013, but sadly, my spouse was otherwise engaged. 

As I’ve written many times, it appeared Tommy and I had little in common. Certainly our marriage could be considered a major gamble. From religion to education to family obligations to bank accounts, we were at different ends of the spectrum. But, my guy and I enjoyed the very same lifestyle: a peaceful home with a pet, evenings on the couch with TV, and respect for each other’s hobbies. In short, I didn’t have to golf, and he didn’t have to love computers.

-My career is one of a series of risky bets. In fact, some of my jobs lasted less than a year; others went a tad beyond that timeframe. Here’s the map: Bernard Ury & Associates, Elaine Soloway Public Relations, Public Communications, Inc., Mayor Jane Byrne, CPS Superintendent Ruth Love, Jasculca/Terman, Elaine Soloway Public Relations, Apple Store, and then, drum roll, please, back to my own business.

Did this dicey route stigmatize Elaine Soloway as someone with a short attention span? I prefer seeing myself as a Selective Seizer of Opportunity.

There’s no predicting my latest wager will pay off. Certainly, glitches could arise before, or at the closing. But, once again, I’ll take my chances. Leap Before You Look, Resist Limbo, and now: Trust.

Un-couching The Potato

After I hit the "Submit" button, I felt as proud as if I had just earned a degree. My accomplishment certainly can’t compare to matriculating, but for me, promising -- via a paid-for ticket -- to go out to an evening event, was nearly as daunting.

It all started with a demand from one of my longtime friends. "Now that Tommy is gone,” she said, “you've got to get off your couch and go out in the evenings." She is a persuasive woman, someone who easily wins any debate.

She pressed on, "I remember you used to love going to plays."

"I have to go to bed at eight so I can get up at four and start my work,” I said. I assumed she’d applaud my entrepreneurial spirit, but instead she countered:

"That's nuts."  I have heard that diagnosis from many others.

I once could use my husband as an excuse for staying in. There was a time when he and I were frequent theatre-goers, and there were many evenings when we joined friends for dinner. But as his brain degeneration worsened, and his aphasia left him unable to speak one word, we discarded those pastimes.

"It just wasn't fun anymore," I told her. She’s a very empathetic person, so I thought this tack might get her to go easy on me. "Tommy couldn't join in on conversations at a restaurant,” I continued, “and at the theatre, I'd worry if he went to the men's room on his own. He refused to let me stand outside the door, but I was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back to our seats."

My poignant story did slow her down, but it was temporary. "So, now?" she asked.

"I love T.V.," I admitted. "For me, a perfect evening is bringing a dinner tray to the couch and watching one of the shows I taped the night before." I felt my heart lighten as I conjured the scene. Bliss for me; evidently a horror story for my friend, who was wrinkling her nose as if my laptop meal had gone sour.

"That's awful," she said.

I ignored her disdain and for a moment, continued my meditation. Except for the dinner tray, that was how my husband and I spent our evenings. We stretched out on couches that faced each other. But instead of chatting across the coffee table, our focus was on a procedural drama, such as the entire "Law and Order" franchise that was playing out on the screen.

Amazingly, for two people so different from each other, we enjoyed the very same television shows and routine. There were no disputes coming from our dual couches; it was simply a scroll through "My Recordings" to decide on the one we'd watch for the evening.

"That's why our marriage has lasted as long as it has," I often told friends. We were nearing our 15-year anniversary, which I considered a record for the second-time around and for such a mismatched pair. I'd further explain: "Tommy's Gentile; I'm Jewish. He has no kids; I've got two and grandchildren. I have a master's degree; Tommy never went to college. He lived on a budget; I was married to a doctor. But, we both love staying home and watching the same television programs."

In fact, our passion for our couch potato lifestyle was so strong that we came to begrudge invitations for evenings out. "We're hosting Passover dinner," another very longtime friend had said, "but I know you don't want to come." Sweetly, the invitations continued despite her anticipating my response.

But now, with Tommy gone, without my head wrapped around his caregiving, my nights on the couch are starting to fray. I'm getting lonely. I admit that evenings out to theatre, to dinner, to the event I just ordered tickets for, are becoming more appealing.

I'm even managing my dislike for nighttime driving by using taxicabs. And, I'm adjusting to getting gussied up as the sky darkens. To prevent head- and eye-droops as the evening wears on, I take catnaps. Slowly, one event at a time, one limb at a time, I’m peeling this small and stubborn body off the couch.