Joyce Carol Oates


Example of the idyllic impression of a snowed-...

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It snowed. I am sanguine to near total zen about it. Rob reminded me that last year’s final snow dump occurred on May 4th, which I don’t recall, but I do remember the walloping we took in early April after the ground was all but clear. Spring ditch rivers run close to the road and given the decided lack of shoulder on the rural roads, slipping off is not a preferred option.

No progress beyond cabinet installation as far as the reno goes. The man took measurements for the counter top, but it won’t be ready for another week at least, so there goes my dreams of Easter in semi-complete house. If we are even close to complete by May Long, I will be surprised. I am beyond ready to be done and Rob is so far past that point that he idly toyed with the idea of checking out a house that is for sale in Ardrossan – nearer to a rail track than the house we live in now. The trains run only early morning and late night in J’berg but Ardrossan is a main track with long rumbling parades of cars rolling through continually. If you ever watched my husband’s slow burn reaction to a train – anywhere it impedes his progress or makes noise – you would recognize that his level of reno fatigue is off the charts.

Mick has been full of news of late. We took her mother’s piano into the city for her last weekend and discovered, not to my surprise at all, that she was dating. And yesterday she let Rob know that she will finally be able to escape the kitchen work that has been steadily threatening to leave her fingerless. Through the machinations of one of her dubious friends, she is now employed as the IT girl for a company in the city. We are worlds of pleased for her because the digit injuries were concerning and it’s always nice when one’s child finds gainful employment that has meaning.

And I have an opportunity to submit a small piece to a dating book that will be published soon. The author writes a weekly advice column for the wives and girlfriends of widowers. I have written about it  before,  but he planned to take the blog stuff and turn it into a self-published e-book.  However, he is under contract to a publisher and they claimed dibs.  He was  surprised.  I wasn’t.  Self-help sells and niche dating stuff, especially written by a man for women, sells bigger.

Rob was puzzled, “Who would read a book about dating widowers?”

If I wasn’t so versed in the dating advice/self-help genre, I would wonder that myself, but I also know my fellow females and we, sadly, are prone to trying to coax pig’s ears into silk status. Therefore, we will read anything that we think might help us save loser relationships.

Harsh? By the time one gets to the point where an advice book is one’s only hope, one should have walked away long ago.

The truth is that men are not so complicated where dating and marriage are concerned, and they are like women in that they will change only when they see clear benefit that doing so is advantageous for them. You can’t change anyone or analyze a bad relationship into a good one.

But, Abel’s advice is common sense. He doesn’t pull punches or blow sunshine up bums.

His publisher wanted more stories about some specific post widow dating stuff, but I couldn’t find Rob and I in any of them. We just really didn’t have issues that harkened back to dead spouses in a grief-related way. Unsurprisingly, given current grief cultures Ayn Randian emphasis on “I am grieving so my needs always come first” advice that widowed folk are spoon fed by the various books and online self-help aimed at them, dating a widowed person has probably never been more confusing for those who haven’t been widowed themselves. They like to compare a widowed past to a divorced one but it’s too apples to oranges for analogies to match up really, but I am in total agreement with the non-widowed’s view that “your dead wife does not get top billing in our relationship and your grief issues are not a trump card to play whenever you want to get your way”. I also am behind the idea that children and in-laws should be kept out of relationships just as they were previously*.

Abel though thought I could just offer an overview of how Rob and I “made it work”. In 500 words or less. You laughed? So did I. Brevity is not my middle name

I don’t know that Rob and I “made” anything work. Relationships are work of a kind, and anyone who doesn’t think so is a fool, but you can’t make love be if both people aren’t on the same page and willing to throw absolutely everything on the table and make it all about the other person. I doubt that most people who are already having issues would be willing to follow the road map that worked for Rob and I, and indeed was quite similar to the one Will and I traversed.

And that’s about it. Employment continues to vex me. I am marginally invested in the blogging gig but covering current events wearies me and I fear for my karma. I listen to others talking about new jobs or watch as they pursue business ventures and am a bit jealous. Every vacant storefront begs me to speculate. A neighbor recently opened her own saloon across the street from the yoga studio. Edie and Silver are making plans to start an industrial plastic recycling venture. Jade, at the studio, is talking expansion. I have no ideas. She suggested volunteering at the schools and getting back into the classroom, but it’s not an idea that sparks anything inside me.

I think a lot about asking the domain owner if I can try reviving Moms Speak Up. Or even starting a site of my own so I can blog events rather than go the journalist approach which chafes and isn’t my best or favored writing style. I just don’t know.

But it’s time to get to Yin class. Yin is good for snowy Fridays when one has a cold (again) and is standing at the crossroads wishing it was really spring.

*But I realize that some people have always allowed children top billing and put up with meddling in-laws and often death simply magnifies this bad training. People should run away from those who allow any of this, imo.


Broken Vows

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In the course of the “uproar” about Joyce Carol Oates tome, A Widow’s Story, I pondered yet again my withdrawal from my memoir. I truly believe that most memoirs slog through a marsh of well-trod ground, offering nothing new in terms of insight. They hack up analogies, metaphors and similes like a cat does hairballs. Just so much stinking, steaming emotive glop.

Without anything new to add to the conversation, it’s just another entry in a reality-soaked entertainment genre that’s come to define our society. It’s pretend self-help because no one wants to be helped. Misery loves company, but it craves validation more.

That’s why grief blogs and on-line communities thrive. The hurting arrive looking for hope and answers and stay because being accepted and understood in the dark  Gollum-like shady places is easier than getting back out into the harsh light and starting over again.

Mostly, I have been John the Baptist in the online grief world. Yelling like a mad-man out in the desert. Chastised and dismissed or ignored entirely.

So I thought, what have I to offer? My clichés and analogies? They are no different from Oates. She wryly observed all the same odd and annoying aspects of losing a loved one that I have read hundreds of times before from better writers possessed with abundantly more self-awareness.

“But what about our story?” Rob asked. “You have our story to tell.”

Yes, but what can I add to that old plotline? Widow finds love again. Widower finds love again.

Finding love again is the basis of every rom-com ever inflicted on the movie-going public.

I think our story is as special as he does, but what makes it worth the time of someone else to read? And doesn’t our contention – that love is possible, attainable and doable after loss –  fly in the face of grief’s tenets? The work of sorrow, the long hard hoed row, and the idea that one never heals?

It knocks the stuffing out of the soul mate theory, and the notion that seconds (a charming term I learned recently from the widowed community) should simply be grateful for a spare room in someone’s chapter two because the master bedroom is a memorial shrine as “til death do us part” applies to other people’s lesser romances.

And then I was perusing a couple of the more well-known widowed folk blogs. Reading comments, one where I was kitty-clawed a bit for my insensitivity, and another that dealt with someone discussing the new person in his/her life that was so insulting to this new love that I nearly asked the blogger why he/she was dating in the first place* and it hit me.

What I have to offer is dissent.

I don’t agree. Widowhood is not a life long emotional disability. One can, and most do, move on. MOVE ON. Not “forward”, but “on”.**

We can and many, many of us do love others just as deeply and passionately and with our whole hearts – not some basement room or attic space.

Life does get better and sometimes it even gets awesome. And it’s a choice.

Oh, and our children? Not doomed to be emotional eunuchs. They will be as okay. They are far more resilient than they are painted.

And the vast majority of people whose hearts have been broken – because it’s hardly just a widow thing – don’t snivel, whine or retreat into lives of quiet desperation. At least not at a rate any more significant than the rest of the population, who believe it or not, also don’t enjoy single parenthood, loneliness or having no family or friends who understand them or have their backs when they need help. They too are under-appreciated, overworked and struggle financially, which might have more to do with their lack of interest in your problems than “not getting it”.

We are not special. Charlie Sheen is special.***

*Really, if I read one more person droning on about how their dead spouse in every and any way can’t possibly be replaced and that the new boy/girlfriend should just shut up and be grateful for scraps – I might go on a commenting frenzy.

Seconds? Shudder. It’s like a derogatory term from a bad sci-fi movie about artificial lifeforms.

**Semantics? Yep, telling semantics. And not in a good way because when one needs to parse things so finely, perhaps relationships are part of one’s past, or one is more concerned about what others think of them than in being honest.

*** Rob is fond of a saying of his late, and certainly unsympathetic, father. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re special, son,” he would tell Rob. “Because they mean you’re retarded.”


Money

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Joyce Carol Oates published her contribution to the dead spouse memoir section of your local bookstore this last week or so. How another rather elderly woman is widowed by an even more elderly man rates as soul wrenching tragedy eludes me, but she felt the need to chronicle her “magical” first year and share all 400 pages of it with the world – for a price.

Because you can find more authentic accounts of widowhood for free in the blogosphere, it’s a wonder that publishers still acquire this kinds of books and shell out capital to print and promote them. Notice I didn’t include “edit”. No one, apparently, puts Joyce in the editing corner and more than a few reviews of her work have pointed out that her memoir suffers from the lack of it.

The only thing of Oates that I have ever tried to slog through was We Were the Mulvaneys. I didn’t get far. Her style is bloated and slow.

But her new memoir kicked up a bit of a tropical storm in grief culture circles because of a reviewer who dared to wonder – out loud – how Oates could leave out of her story the fact that she was dating and engaged to be married before the first anniversary of her husband’s death.

Oates herself threw out, by way of  explanation, a cliché – that widowed folk with long happy unions tend to be so grounded that they naturally move on to equally awesome new unions with more alacrity than those who had short and/or problem filled marriages. Which has always rung hollow for me because my anecdotal experiences have revealed no such pattern.

But this was lost in the vicarious rallying of the widowed around their favorite theme – no one outside the sacred brother/sisterhood has any business questioning or criticizing. So there.

Rational discussions – and there are some here and there – ignore anyone who brings up the very good point that Oates was being a bit disingenuous by leaving out the dating and remarriage thing. It’s not a small thing and it absolutely is valid to wonder what prompted her to leave it out.

“She didn’t want to be judged!”

Because we are so judged for remarriage. Yawn. Within the brother/sisterhood, we are. I’ll agree with that. But by and large the vast majority of people who don’t know us at all, or very well, find remarriage heartwarming and a just reward for our “suffering”. Aside from my late husband’s family and friends – and widows here and there on the ‘net, I never encountered judgment.

Or jealousy. There are, I hear, herds of divorced and never married women out there who will sneer and snipe at a remarried woman’s alleged “hogging” of the small pool of decent men their age. Which I don’t buy either.

Mate envy is almost a DNA XX code thing. We are taught to compete and undermine each other from an early age and some of us never quite rise above the early training meant to reinforce our Darwinian breeding drive. It’s not personal. It’s not widow-centric.

Was Oates looking to avoid envy? Wanting to compete with Didion’s dominance and firm hold on the title of “Widow of the Millenium”. Worried about the reaction of her fans? Critics.

I think she is too canny a promoter of herself and work to not have realized that including information about moving on to a new relationship would have really changed the focus of the book. It wouldn’t have been a pure “grief” memoir. And she wanted her story to focus on the sadness, the pain, the affronts aplenty from the non-grieving world. Moving on just doesn’t fit neatly into the “poor widow me” paradigm promoted by the current grief culture, which is about life long struggle with loss. Even if that isn’t actually true – it sells more books. And at the end of the day, Oates has been a writer longer than she was a widow.

People who write for a living are only as fresh and marketable as their last book. And they do look for the hot trends and try to shoe horn themselves in. Writing is a business.

One thing I read over and over from literary agents, editors and publishers is that even a memoir has to have a point and say something new. It needs a hook. It’s not enough to simply have survived a tragedy. People do that all the time. What’s different about your tragedy? What did you do that was different? How can you apply your epiphany in a way that’s inspiring and will move readers to more than just pity?

Oates told the typical widowed story ,if the examples and excerpts in the reviews are accurate, with the obligatory touch points that we all have come to recognize from other books, movies and tv. She gets away with it because she is already quite famous. An icon. The well-established are allowed to be trite and re-tell well-known tales without adding to the narrative in any significant way.

Even if she had copped to falling in love again during that first year, that isn’t a new story either. Though it’s a lot closer to reality and offers far more hope for people who are widowed.

Oates played to the readers she knew would likely be her audience. Women who are older and alone, looking to be validated. It was shrewd. Also, by leaving out her new husband, she guaranteed a bit of controversy. I doubt at all that she was surprised when one reviewer had guts enough to bring it up. I’d even venture to guess that she was counting on it.

The dead husband memoir genre is real. There are books and blogs aplenty. Workshops are built around them. Cult followings spring up. It’s a business that compels memorists and self-help writers to plug their offerings in the comment sections of blogs and every time they write on someone’s Facebook wall. That’s not altruism, you know. It’s marketing.

Every memoir has a hook. Oates’s is her well-established fame. She didn’t need anything else. But the average person does. My own story, which will never be published anywhere but in bits and pieces on this blog and in various comment sections of other people’s blogs here and there, has no hook. There is nothing special about my story. Young mother widowed. I am no different from a thousand others but for minutia.

Rob could sell his story. He’s a guy for starters. That’s not typical. He went on a quest of sorts after Shelley died to leave her ashes in all the places they’d loved. A man in his truck travels across America spreading the essence of the woman he loved in those sacred places that represented their life together. He even took pictures. People might read that.

Widowers being a rarer tug at the female heart-strings and they can sell tragedy that’s identical but for gender to a public that rolls its eyes and yawns at the female version. Young widowed father? Heart-warming. But a woman in similar circumstances is just another single mom.

But here’s the thing about memoir, everyone thinks that if they’ve lived something than they can write it in a way that resonates, enlightens and moves the discussion forward. If you’ve read enough blogs, you know that isn’t true. Living an event is not enough to make one an authority and it doesn’t ensure that one has anything to add to the subject. It also, doesn’t make one a writer.

Oates is a writer, though of the literary set, meaning she appeals to a limited audience most of the time. Memoir has a wider audience. Voyeurism can be counted upon in the U.S. at any rate. But I question the value of her contribution. It’s not like older couples are unaware of their mortality. We get old. We die. That a woman her age remarried is the bigger statistical surprise, but even that is a tired, well-worn story path.

She doesn’t strike me as someone who is too worried about what others think of her. She left out the second husband thing because it didn’t fit with the image of herself she was promoting. Very simple and strategic choice.

Being a widow has more cachet than being remarried after all. It conjures up all manner of heroic stereotypes. Look at Liam Neeson, for example, a recent interview touted his statement about “grief waking him up in the middle of the night”. I wonder how lines in the story touched upon the fact that he’s had a girlfriend now for quite a while? Actually, I don’t really wonder at all.

Widowhood is the hot.

Moving on? Not so much. Oates is a savvy woman.