A Means of Escape

“Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted.”- John Lennon

I’ve just spent the last seventy-two hours in Downton Abbey. No, I didn’t have to leave my children to get there, though they might beg to disagree since my mind was obviously elsewhere for several days. As children of a writer, they may have gotten used to my blank-stared look when they interrupt my muse, but I don’t believe they have ever seen me so engrossed in a television program.

A couple of weeks ago, after meeting a deadline for an assigned article, I hit “send,” leaned back in my desk chair, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. This particular “assignment” was the first deadline I had met since David’s death, other than my weekly coupon column, and it had presented a bit of a challenge. I no longer write for our local newspaper, so there aren’t those deadlines anymore. After David’s death I’d informed the editor I would be unable to continue writing for her paper unless I found something particularly exciting to write about. Which, apparently, I have not, since I have made no effort at all to write anything for her other than one short piece about a local young woman participating in a national book giveaway.

Not to say I haven’t been writing since the end of March.  On the contrary, I wrote every morning in the fourteen weeks following the death of my husband. I was, in fact, somewhat manic about writing; when I wasn’t writing essays, it was blog posts or journal entries. I wrote, edited, and revised every single day, submitting twelve essays in as many weeks, quite prolific for a grieving widow who also managed to produce a weekly newspaper column and several workshops and public speaking engagements in the same time period. I was not exercising, reading books other than grief-related ones, and certainly not watching any television during those weeks. No, I was a writer, and I was writing, by golly. Fanatically. Frantically. I filled page after page of a journal, posted day after day on my blog, and submitted, piece after completed piece, mostly to anthologies. While all of those submitted essays had to meet a publisher’s submission deadline, the deadlines were mostly self-imposed. I knew which anthologies I was shooting for inclusion in, and I gave myself a wide window of time and a great deal of freedom. If I didn’t meet a deadline, the piece I was working on could always be reworked for elsewhere. It was the writing of the essays I found cathartic, not the possibility of publication, though that would be an added bonus.

Immediately after I submitted that assigned article, I hit a wall of sorts. I flipped through submission guidelines I’d printed out from several different sources, and none of them seemed even remotely appealing. I did a bit of research on coupon fraud for my coupon column and to include in the revision of one of the chapters of my book. I pulled out the very rough draft of the two pages I’d written after the Write to Publish conference I attended, when I knew I would be writing a book about the journey of faith David and I had taken before his death. Making a few changes, I wondered how to proceed, when I’d mostly written Chicken Soup essays for the past two years. Narrative non-fiction is fairly new to me as a genre, but the direction I would be headed in for this next big project. “Write it like a very long Chicken Soup essay,” I smiled with the memory of the advice of author Jack Cavanaugh when I consulted with him at the conference.

I worked on those two pages a bit, made a rough outline of what else might be included, but I wasn’t sure I could actually face the somewhat overwhelming task of writing our story. I set it aside. It was then I’d heard the prompting to be still. Be still? Me? The prolific writer, the aspiring speaker, the workshop presenter, the mother of children who were still young. Be still? Really? Shouldn’t I be doing something? Shouldn’t I keep busy so that I didn’t have time to think? Wasn’t writing helping me? I tried completing yet another essay, but it was obvious nothing good was going to come from forcing myself to write.

I felt a flash of fear when that stillness brought increased pain. Was it going to prove true that grief would be worse at three months, as someone from the grief support group had predicted? And if that were true, what about the woman who’d solemnly pronounced the seven-month mark would bring yet another wave of pain, or the dreaded one-year mark I was told the grief would intensify?

Be still.

Other than work on my weekly column, I stopped writing for a few days. I read a book at the pool while my children were swimming; a fiction book that gripped me with its intensity and good writing. Never mind that both the title A Household Guide to Dying, and the subject,was slightly morbid, I still enjoyed it. I read another book, Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard. I rode the bike, made strides on the neglected housecleaning, and cleaned off my desk. I listened to uplifting music.

I listened to God.

“What should I do next?”

I spotted the Downton Abbey DVD sets at a library, and remembering the high praise the series had gotten from some friends, I picked up the case. Downton Abbey was a Masterpiece Theater series from PBS, I read on the back cover. This was not typically a program I would seek out to watch, but I checked it out anyway.

And then I spent a couple of days just grieving and wishing I could escape the pain. I cried. A lot. I couldn’t cook. I still couldn’t manage a proper grocery shopping trip. I grabbed a few things and left the store. I sat in the parking lot, pounding the steering wheel, tears streaming down my face. I wrote an emotion-filled letter to my good friend Mary. What is wrong with me? I asked her. I probably scared my children with my displays of raw emotion.

Another Tuesday arrived, and yet another reminder of the loss that began on a Tuesday. I didn’t get up and write like I had every other Tuesday since. Instead, I sat on the couch with my cup of coffee and began my day with a devotional from a friend I met at the HACWN conference last November. Each of her devotions begins with a Bible verse and ends with a prayer. The prayer that morning, authored by Judith Robl was this;

Father, God,

Help us to center our lives on you, not on ourselves. Let us not be so blinded by religious traditions that we segregate ourselves from the body of Christ. School us in discernment through your Holy Spirit. 

In Jesus’ most precious name. Amen.

What did God want me to do?  Was I supposed to be working on revision of the book my agent was pitching? The new book I feel led to write? More essays? Was I to take time off of writing and speaking and just grieve? How would I know?  How could I discern which direction to take?

Then I checked my other e-mail, the one I use for writing. Before David died, I’d been working on an essay for an anthology of love stories. Of course, it was one of the first things I’d completed after his death, one way I could honor the memory of my beloved spouse. Not only did I learn this piece had been accepted, but the editor of the publishing company wrote me a personal message that she would like to see more of my writing on the subject. For once, the tears on Tuesday were joyful ones.

Two other e-mails that morning were requests for me to speak on couponing. Later the same day, I was interviewed on the phone regarding possible television exposure on the subject of my non-fiction book.

The next morning I pulled out those first two pages of what I’ve labeled “David’s story” in my files.  It is, of course, more than David’s story; it will be a true love story of marriage, faith, grief and grace.

As much as I’d like to, I cannot rush through grief. Neither can I rush the writing of this story. It will come. I spent the rest of Wednesday, immersed in an imaginary world of drama, romance, beautiful costumes, and great plotlines.  Thursday was more of the same. I went straight into the second season DVD when I completed the first. I didn’t stop watching until late last night. I did little else outside of viewing this extraordinary series, and my children definitely noticed. They alternately sighed and shook their heads, but they weren’t about to complain about something that at least brought some joy into their mother’s life. Dishes and laundry didn’t get done, and meals consisted mostly of boxed macaroni and cheese and salads. I didn’t watch every hour of the day, certainly. I attended a library book sale, met a friend for coffee, shuttled Abby to Vacation Bible School and back, and even managed to answer a few e-mails.  But I didn’t write, not even a blog posting or journal entry. For three days I wasted time watching Downton Abbey until shortly before midnight last night, when once again, I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief. It will be several weeks before Season Three of Downton Abbey temporarily pulls me away from work, my family, and grief again.

And while my internal narrator now speaks with an intriguing accent, I have no urge to watch television anytime soon.

I got up this morning and immediately began writing. I submitted another essay. Whatever that brief period of fallow was, I evidently needed it. I’m writing again, but now aware of a need to rest my pen occasionally; read a book, watch some television, or even pound a steering wheel with my closed fists.

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