by | Aug 30, 2011 | 4 comments

This writing lately is like taking something out of a hot oven with no potholders.  If I leave it in, it will burn, but while I take it out, I get burned.  So, I do it as quickly as possible and cry out as it drops onto the table.

Lately there is the feeling that I am slipping.  I need something solid to hold onto.  Something fixed.  I’ve been thinking of how ballerinas learn how to spot.  I remember learning this technique when I took ballet as a child.  When doing a turn or pirouette, you will obviously get dizzy, and you may lose your balance.  But if you choose a spot on the wall ahead of you and keep your gaze fixed on that spot, returning to it each time your head whips around, you will not get dizzy- you will remain balanced.

I have not found my spot yet, though I am hoping it will be God.

What I do instead now is soak myself in ritual and routine.  With Audrey starting preschool soon, our schedule will be changing a bit.  I’ve typed up a routine for each day of the week with every detail of our day, from drinking a glass of water for me at each meal, to fifteen minutes of quiet play for her while I clean up the kitchen each night (do dishes, wipe counters, vacuum floor).  It’s sick really, but then it’s all I’ve got right now to hold on to.

I read about a painter and poet named Mary Jane Q Cross who had to relearn the painting craft after she was struck with permanent tremors on her right side.  Her career ended abruptly until she relearned how to paint with both of her fingers as well as prosthetic devices she invented.  In her own words, she felt like “a live dead artist.”

Yes, yes, I get this.  Every widow does I think.

And then in the Oliver Sacks book, “The Mind’s Eye,” each chapter tells the story of someone who lost a vital sense but also had to adapt and find a new way to navigate the world.  In the first chapter, an accomplished pianist named Lilian who, one day, just could not make sense of the music notes before her.  It turned out she had a neurological disorder called agnosia in which she basically could see everything, but recognize nothing.  Yes, I thought, yes, this is exactly how it is.  When cards of objects were flashed at her, for example, she could sometimes tell if something was living or non-living but not identify it.  She could recognize things by color or shape but not name.

So, she adapted.  And this is how:

Though Lilian could scarcely recognize anything in the kitchen visually, she had organized it in such a way that mistakes, rarely, if ever, occurred, utilizing a sort of informal classification system instead of a direct perceptual gnosis.  Things were categorized not by meaning but by color, by size and shape, by position, by context, by association, somewhat as an illiterate person might arrange the books in a library.  Everything had its place, and she had memorized this.

This description, of a true neurological disorder, is the closest I have found since entering this world, to the disorder of the widow.  To see everything- but recognize nothing.

So, I’ve been going about things, trying to adapt as this woman did.  Because like the disorder, there is no cure for widowhood.  I write out routines, morning routines- up at 6:30, make bed, potty (for Audrey), get dressed- choose from preselected outfits for the week, eat breakfast- choose from list on refrigerator; afternoon- craft time, snack time, tea time; evening routine- dinner, bath (bubble baths on Fridays), storytime at seven, sip of water, one story in bed, two songs (Jesus Loves Me and Amazing Grace).

If losing a spouse is anything, it is disorienting, dizzying even.  And widow brain means you do things like chop up a bunch of strawberries for your daughter, and then head to the garbage with the cutting board and throw them all out.  Then look around for them so you can give them to her.  It means leaving the electric burner on sometimes after you take off what’s cooking until you feel heat rising from it.  It means searching for your keys every single time you come back home- even though they’re always in your purse, and getting out of the shower and realizing you haven’t washed yourself.

I’ve never had a great sense of direction.  I keep thinking lately, of how when NYC was still quite new to me, I’d often be standing on a busy corner, on my cell phone, as you asked me to look around and tell you what I saw.  “I see…a Wendy’s and that building with the slanty curve.”  Then you’d tell me where I was and what train to take if I needed to.  Thank you for that.

But you’re gone now.

I see everything.  Recognize nothing.  A “live dead” woman.  Looking to find a reliable hope that I can use to spot as I spin around each day.  Until then, I try to create my own informal classification system.  So that I can stay alive, and even thrive.  So that I can navigate my way home.


August 30, 2011


  1. megan

    **************************************************I have not found my spot yet, though I am hoping it will be God.
    and all the rest of it too. ********************

  2. Vee

    "To see everything – but recognize nothing."


    Thank you for continuing to write, you describe things in a way I cannot. Thank you, also for your encouragement, it means a lot. Prayers for you today.

  3. Anne D

    Your routines, your lists, are like frames and trellises to support you when strength falters. The storm last weekend blew the crap out of my cherry tomato vines, but they stayed (mostly) upright and are recovering now thanks to the wire enclosure and posts I built around and among them. Hang on tight.

  4. Anonymous

    Sounds like Audrey is your "spot" for the time being. What a wonderful person to focus on while you regain your balance.


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