Getting Ready

Chapter 2

Kathy Larson
Feb. 22, 2022

Sadie stood at the sink, her right hip leaning against the edge of the counter. She was looking out the window into the backyard, but wasn’t really seeing anything. Her mind was stuck in a memory from four decades previous; the day she and Stan had moved into this house.

The apple trees in the back west corner were waving gently in the breeze, their new leaves and newly-formed buds seemed to glow almost incandescently in the bright light of this fresh spring morning. If there wasn’t a late frost, there’d be a bumper crop of apples this year. Sadie sighed. They had bought the trees at that little nursery where they had ordered the topsoil for the garden. Stan wanted a big vegetable garden, better and cheaper to grow your own food, he’d told her. She had looked at him in wonder, and with true adoration; this man she was about to marry was such a surprise.

He had grown up on a farm where everything you needed was either raised, harvested or made. Sadie had grown up in the city and the only garden she’d ever tended was the small flower bed her mother had kept. Her mother’s flowers had been the only bit of joy and colour in her world, and when she had died the flowers died too. Sadie had just turned 17 the week before her father finally put an end to her mother. He went to prison and she went into care. She’d never been back to the little house with the peeling blue paint and the sad patch of earth nestled beneath the front window.

She met Stan while she was working as a waitress at a little restaurant in a strip mall close to where she lived. By that time she had moved out on her own and had a small basement apartment in a three story walk-up. The apartment was cold in winter but lovely in summer. She had furnished it almost completely with things she’d found in thrift stores and on the side of the street. If something was at the curb and it looked serviceable she’d drag it home. The library provided her with all the how-to she needed in order to fix things up, and she soon discovered that she had a love and a talent for painting and refinishing furniture. Her little home was bright and airy, filled with colour, and, best of all, peaceful and safe.

The day Stan walked into her life everything changed. He was big, loud and had a laugh that carried her along with it. He’d been coming to the restaurant for a little over a week before he stopped her on his way out after lunch one day and asked if she’d be interested in going out sometime. Until that moment she’d thought she was invisible to him, just the mousy little waitress who brought him his club sandwich with extra fries, large water and a slice of apple pie every day at 11:45. Him, and the crew he was with had established a standing reservation with Gino, the owner of the restaurant, and everyday they trooped in and headed to the large table at the back where it was Sadie’s job to take care of them.

She was a good waitress; attentive, quick and anticipatory of their needs. This came, she knew, from living in an environment of terror. Her mother had taught her early how to read her father’s moods and silences and how to appease them when possible. This also meant, though, that she was constantly on alert for any signs of anger or discontent; she made herself as small and unobtrusive as possible trying as best she could to do her job and get out of their way. Most of them had given up trying to make small talk with her after the first couple of days, but not Stan. He always had a big smile for her, called her darlin’, and left her a decent tip each day. She found herself watching out for him and made sure that it was him she always served first when the orders were ready.

If only she had known, she thought now.

Their courtship had been fast and they were married within six months. During that time he had only ever been patient, kind and indulgent with her. The few times he had stayed at her apartment he had praised her on her ability to make something worn and destined for the garbage look new and usable again, but he wasn’t crazy about her ‘wild’ use of colour. Things were better painted neutral, everyday colours, he said, that way they didn’t stand out, they could fit in anywhere. She saw the wisdom in this and soon began painting things in shades of white, beige and pale grey only. They were still lovely, she thought, but they lacked a sense of life, of vibrancy, but if it meant pleasing him then it was a small thing.

They found the house a month before they were married. It was in an older part of the city, a real fixer-upper — completely neglected, the real estate agent had said — but it had a huge back yard and the price was right. Secretly, she was disappointed that they weren’t going to buy a new house in one of the new neighbourhoods that had sprung up on the outskirts of town, but Stan was adamant about not throwing his money away on crappy construction just to line the pockets of shyster councilmen and their crony business partners. He convinced her that they could make the house look new again with his carpentry skills and her knack for painting and decorating. It would be a solid investment, one they could make a good profit on, and someday they’d build their own new home in the country on an acreage. It was such a convincing argument and she could see how excited he was at the prospect of redeeming this shoddy, worn little house that she couldn’t help getting swept along by his enthusiasm.

The got married by a justice of the peace. There was no honeymoon. He got drunk that night and she cried herself to sleep. In the morning he went and picked up the rented moving truck and they piled her few belongings into it and they moved into the house. They had taken possession two weeks previous and had spent that time cleaning and painting walls, removing old, stained carpet, replacing broken fixtures and, as her mother had once told her, simply nesting. It had been fun working alongside him and he had been full of smiles and laughs and had grabbed her up in big bear hugs whenever they completed one of the projects they’d set themselves. What happened, she wondered. Did I do something wrong? Was he disappointed because their wedding night hadn’t been more special?

When he came back from returning the truck he had a bottle of whiskey and a two-four of beer. She had never seen him buy booze before and seeing this made her think of her father. An involuntary shudder ran through her.

Sadie had told Stan very little about her background, but she had told him her father was an alcoholic and that he had beat her mother to death. He had held her while she told him this and stroked her hair and kissed her gently and promised that he would never let anyone hurt her ever again.

Unable to stop herself from shaking she approached him carefully. “Stan?,” she said in as small a voice as she could, “why are you so angry?”

The look he have her was so cold and filled with contempt it stilled her breath. “I ain’t angry,” he said. “I’m tired. You’ve had me working like a goddamned dog and now I need a break.” He stalked to the refrigerator and put the beer inside. “You got what you wanted — a hardworking husband, a nice house — but this ain’t no free ride, sweetie. You got to earn your keep.” He pulled a glass out of a box, filled it half full with whiskey, added a splash of water from the tap. “I’m hungry. Make something to eat. I don’t care what it is.”

It hit her then. The inevitability of it. Everything, her childhood, her mother’s death, the group home, all of it had all been preparation for this day. She turned inward into the dull and dingy kitchen and began preparing his meal. He stayed outside and waited until she called to tell him it was ready.

A steady, loud beeping interrupted Sadie’s thoughts. Startled, she sloshed coffee over her hand and was mildly surprised to find that it was cold. With a rueful smile she placed the mug into the sink. The tree removal company she’d hired was here. She slipped into the new, bulky, bright yellow sweater she’d bought last week and stepped out into the sunshine, waving at the young man backing his truck into the driveway. Her smile broadened as she walked past all of the colourful plants and flowers spread out across the patio. She’d canned her last damned jar of applesauce.

Just a ramble

Kathy Larson
Feb. 20, 2022

It’s Sunday morning, it’s cold outside, and I really don’t feel like doing much of anything.

I’ve become hooked on the game Wordle. Have my sisters to thank for that. Lol. I am very happy that they introduced me to it though — it’s my early morning addiction and I can’t wait to see how I have done compared to them. What I love about Wordle is that it is a relatively quick game; solve the word of the day and you’re done. Once I’ve solved it and shared my score (usually 5/6, sometimes 4/6) I am happy to get on with the rest of my day. I don’t waste any time thinking about mistakes I made or if I can do better on the next challenge — it’s done, and that’s it until I open it up the next morning.

I also like the brief connection with my sisters first thing in the morning. Most days we only share our scores, but occasionally we add a few words of conversation. It’s a small thing, but a good thing.

This week I began writing again. For real. It has been a long, long struggle to get back to wanting to write. For so many years I just pushed writing aside, choosing to do anything else, where once upon a time I did anything I could to find any extra scrap of time that I could use to indulge my passion.

When I sat down at the keyboard for the first time this past week I was amazed at how familiar it felt, how absolutely lovely it was to see words appearing as I typed them. I don’t even care if most of them are garbage — I’m just so happy to be doing something that makes me happy. For years I’ve treated myself as a failure for not having made a successful career out of my writing; I wouldn’t write because I judged myself too harshly.

Then, I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and I realized just how much I missed writing. Words make me happy. Stringing words together in sentences makes me ecstatic. Joining sentences together into paragraphs, into pages, into chapters and essays makes me positively starry-eyed. For too long I’ve been focused on the wrong thing — trying to impress others, to seek validation in their opinions — when, really, I only ever had to worry about myself.

This past summer I boxed up all but a few of my manuscripts, my files of story ideas, my files of weird news articles, strange phrases gleaned from conversations, images clipped from magazines, words scrawled on bits of napkins, receipts and corners of pages torn from notebooks, because I had given up on myself as a writer. It was something I tried, I told myself, something else that I had failed at.

I think when I did that a switch got stuck somewhere inside me — like a light switch that is stuck halfway between on and off. The light will flicker intermittently until someone comes along and flicks it all the way one way or the other. All the empty space in my office that had been filled for so long with pages and pages of words that I had written kept flickering in my mind’s peripheral vision, like that cluster of stars in the night sky that you only see when you’re not looking directly at them.

Thank God, thank the muses, thank the Divine, thank the guardians, guides and angels — thank the Universe — that I decided to flip the switch to on.

I like feeling happy again.

Today

Chapter 1

by Kathy Larson
Feb 17, 2022

“When I wake up tomorrow,” she said to the empty room, “I’m going to do two things that will get me closer to my goal.” Then, she looked around herself, took in the faded wallpaper, the fraying pillowcases and the dust that lined her dresser and sighed. What goal would that be, she asked silently.

The next morning, as she sat eating her usual bowl of oatmeal with trail mix, honey and a half a banana (which she hated) and a sprinkle of cinnamon, she thought about her proclamation of the night before. What exactly was the goal she had been thinking of? Truth was, she didn’t have any goals. Not a one. She spooned oatmeal into her mouth and asked herself when and why it was that she’d started eating the stuff everyday for breakfast.

Once upon a time she’d eaten other things for breakfast — eggs, Frosted Flakes, muffins, bagels and cream cheese — she’d kind of chosen her meal based on how she felt that particular day. Not anymore. It was oatmeal every day. Every single day. She put the spoon down as it was halfway to her mouth and oatmeal splattered on the placemat and on to the table. Why? She couldn’t get the ‘why?’ out of her thoughts.

With a heavy sigh she looked down at the mess she’d made then picked up the faded cloth napkin laying beside her bowl and wiped it up. I’ve had these napkins for over 40 years, she thought, and they’re still holding up. The flower pattern had dulled from the brilliant reds, blues and yellows they’d once been to a sort of uniform dull grayish-brownish taupe. She told herself that she was proud of the fact that they had lasted so long, but looking at this one, all gummed up with congealing globs of oatmeal she felt suddenly embarrassed. She gave these to guests to use! My God, what did they think? She stood up quickly, knocking her chair back hard against the wall and practically ran across the room to the drawer where she kept the rest of the napkins and grabbed them up. She hurried over to the garbage can and without stopping to consider what she was doing tossed them in.

Stan would have had a holy fit. “There’s nothing wrong with those!” he would have bellowed. “You wash’em after we use’em, don’t you? Too bloody bad if people think they’re dirty! They ain’t!” He would have fished them out of the garbage and flung them back at her telling her to not be so stupid and wasteful.

He’d been gone now for three years and lately she’d begun to forget what his face looked like. She’d begun to feel guilty, too, because, truthfully, she wasn’t missing him anymore. At first, it had been hard. Honestly, how could it not be after 38 years together? There’d never been any children, just the two of them, always. She had wanted a child desperately in the beginning, but Stan refused, saying the cost of raising a child in North America was enough to bankrupt a small third-world country and, besides, the government had taken away all rights from parents and he wouldn’t raise no spoiled, self-entitled brat who’d never want to leave home and they’d end up in the poor house supporting it. So, that was that. He’d made sure she took her birth control pills every day so that on those rare occasions he ‘felt like it’, she wouldn’t get knocked up.

She stood over the garbage can and looked at the pile of grubby cloth the napkins made. Her right hand moved tremulously forward as though Stan was somehow guiding it down to pick them out of the trash.

“No!” Her yell startled her and she pulled her hand back, stuffing it into the ratty, thread-bare pocket of her ancient house coat. A wedding gift from Stan. She’d been wearing this same house coat for 40 years! Her face crumpled and her shoulders shook as she struggled to untie the belt that held it closed. With trembling hands she pulled it off and let it fall to the floor. Tears streamed down her cheeks and dropped with fat plops onto the thin material of her nightgown. She looked down at herself and then around at the kitchen. Through the prism of her tears the room looked bright, looked fresh and new.

Sadie smiled. She knew what her goal was.

A few thoughts on happiness

by Kathy Larson

Feb. 16, 2022

I just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This wasn’t a book I sought out on my own. It was given to me by my sister-in-law, Connie. She said it was okay; I said I’d give it a try.

From the beginning I was a little skeptical about someone writing about trying to bring more happiness into their life, or, more specifically, about them trying to determine if they were happy in their life. I thought it would just be another one of those painful self-awareness books exhorting us all to be our best selves!, or live our best life!, topics for which I have very little patience.

In hindsight I think that could have been a clue.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t have a clue about whether I was happy or not. I thought I was happy, but was I? Really?

Certainly, life had not turned out the way I had imagined it would some forty-odd years ago when I was a 21-year-old bride staring into a future that seemed to stretch on forever.

We think we know ourselves when we’re that age, think we know EVERYTHING, and think there is nothing we can’t do. Then life happens and before you know it you’re struggling to keep up, struggling to change with every new day, every new challenge. You’re learning that you don’t really know who you are, don’t really know anyone, for that matter, and it scares you. Luckily, you also learn how to grow up, to face your fears, to meet your challenges, and, even if the results are not always what you thought or hoped they’d be, you learn to accept them and ready yourself for whatever comes next.

Then, forty years go by. One day you look at yourself and wonder who you are. Wonder who the man you married is. Wonder where the people you thought you were went. You start reading a book on happiness and your mind is flooded with questions. All of them leading to one single question: Am I happy?

If I rate myself according to Rubin’s Eight Splendid Truths I would say I am semi-happy. I try to make others happy by being happy myself; like most people, though, this is tough to do ALL. THE. TIME. I try to focus on things in my life that make me happy. This one is even tougher to accomplish, because I tend to end up feeling guilty and selfish if I spend too much time focusing on things that only make me happy. Then, I don’t feel happy anymore. Catch-22 anyone?

Her Fourth Splendid Truth states that ‘you’re not happy unless you think you’re happy”. Huh? I’ve tried going about my day telling myself ‘you are happy!” over and over again, but when there is evidence to the contrary floating all around me I end up feeling silly and beleaguered and resentful. Anything but happy.

I won’t go through all the Splendid Truths, just suffice it to say that they boil down to something we all know and have heard a million times – you alone are responsible for your own happiness and no one else’s. You can make people happy by being happy, but, no one can make you happy, and you can’t make someone be happy if they choose not to be.

Generally speaking I’d say I’m a reluctant optimist. I believe that things will work out — eventually — and I accept that they may not work out exactly as I’d like. I believe that most people are good at heart — even though they may do things that would seem to prove otherwise. Though the glass is half full for me, I’m extremely careful about where and how I set it down — in case it spills and I’m left with nothing. My proven strategy to getting through life is to expect the best and prepare for the worst.

Perhaps not the best recipe for happiness, but it’s gotten me this far.

After finishing The Happiness Project I immediately began contemplating starting my own happiness project. Because it’s apparent that I could stand to be a little more happy. The problem is that thinking about getting started has made me feel very unhappy. At this particular time in my life I’m dealing with a whole lot of stress and uncertainty and though it sounds counter-intuitive, taking time to focus on my personal happiness just seems impossible.

So, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done — take each day as it comes — and approach it every morning with a positive attitude and the belief that today will be a good day. Maybe it won’t be a particularly happy day, but it can be a good day.

I liked Rubin’s book; it gave me a lot to think about. In the end, though, I think it’s as simple as this: Happiness is a choice — you can choose to be happy or you can choose to not be happy. Maybe choosing happiness is the harder choice, but it’s also the better choice. As the Grail Knight says to Indiana Jones: Choose wisely.