Re-inventing My Empty Nest Marriage

In January 2019, I decided to try two new experiments:

1. Plant a window box garden, though I’ve never had a green thumb.

2. Live separately from my spouse, without ending a marriage I valued.

Obviously the second experiment was a little more high stakes than the first, but I was equally unsure of either plan. My biggest fear was that by the summer I’d have empty window boxes and a marriage headed for divorce.

What made me want to switch up my marriage?

2018 was a health year from hell.

The first half of 2018 I was unintentionally poisoning myself with a doctor-recommended digestive supplement that included licorice. (Be very careful if your medical provider suggests a supplement with licorice! Too much licorice can raise your cortisol levels and mess with your thyroid.) The second half of the year my thyroid shut down when I stopped the supplement. Restarting my thyroid turned into a hyperthyroid nightmare.

 No one wants to be around me when I’m hyperthyroid — including me. I perseverated on the negative and fought with my spouse over everything.  I had to figure out a way to calm my thyroid down without using medications.

I moved into my writing studio up the street. * My plan was to stay at my studio for a couple weeks, do yoga, meditate, and hope my thyroid calmed down. It worked! Within a few weeks of living by myself I went from hyperthyroid hellscape to precious paradise.

Along the way though I also discovered I LOVE living alone.

My Previous Life of Sharing

I have been living with people and sharing for my entire life. As a kid, I shared bedrooms, parents, friends, and our car with my three siblings. We were a road-trip family, and so much of my life was spent fighting for space in the back seat. When I was a teen, we moved to Europe, and stayed in temporary hotels and apartments for months before we found a house, often staying in tight quarters and sharing beds.

In college, my boyfriend and I liked each other so much we’d take showers together and shared a single bed. We got married, had kids, and brought them into our full size bed. As the kids grew they slept on mats next to us for years until finally sleeping in their own room. We all shared one bathroom. When they were teens we had weekly family meetings to negotiate 15-minute morning shower slots.

When our kids moved went college, I looked forward to finally having time alone to write. But I was still sharing our small house with my spouse—I dreamed of a room of my own.

My spouse suggested I rent a studio apartment for writing, since we didn’t want to spend the time and money adding onto the house. We have several apartment buildings a few blocks away and I found a fantastic studio with a kitchen, balcony, bathroom, and even my own washer and dryer. I am incredibly fortunate to have this writing studio and am thankful for it every day. I’d walk up there in the morning and come home by evening. For several years this worked well.

When I lived alone to heal my thyroid, I learned how much I like sleeping alone, cooking alone, being alone for days at a time. After years of sharing, I longed for things that were just mine, including solitude.

Oil and Vinegar Make A Great Dressing But Like To Be Stored Separately

My spouse is one of my favorite people. We’ve known each other since high school and started dating when we were in college. Just like oil and vinegar, we make a great team but at this point we’re best stored separately.

He’s a doer who pays attention to details and lives in the present. I’m a big picture person who thinks outside the system and loves to imagine a better future.

 He goes to bed at 9 pm like clockwork. I’m a night owl whose bedtime varies widely. He likes things neat and feels doing dishes immediately is a good use of his time. Ideally, I like things neat, but prioritize taking in new information over routine cleaning. I’m in my head so much I often don’t notice the mess.

When buying something new he likes to see what’s available, quickly make a decision, and buy the new item immediately. He’d rather buy something that needs to be replaced again than go without.

I’m reluctant to buy new things, want whatever I buy to last forever, and care that the company I buy from shares my values. It takes me a long time to research future purchases. I’d often rather go without than buy something that breaks easily, is from a company that I don’t agree with, or isn’t exactly what I want.

Like many women raised in the 70s and 80s, I was taught to prioritize other people’s wants over my own needs. Like many men raised in that time, my spouse was taught to think of himself first, then consider others’ needs. When I lived with my spouse I worked hard to take my needs seriously and he worked hard to think more about others, but it was a constant battle to fight decades of programming. When one of us gave in to that programming it created resentment. This strained our relationship.

But then I moved into my studio and…

“Are We Allowed To Do This?”

I was a bit worried how my spouse would react to my desire to live separately, but I also knew that he had grown a lot over our long relationship, and trusted my weird new ideas.

At first, he only reluctantly agreed. This was the first time he’d ever lived alone. After a month of living apart, I told him I could move back if this experiment didn’t work for him. By then he loved living alone, too.

“Are we allowed to do this?” he asked.

“It’s our marriage,” I said, “we get to make the rules.”

Better Lives For Both Of Us

In the past two years my spouse has had fun turning our former cluttered living room into a sleek VR gaming room. He got the downstairs repainted and redecorated the dining room and kitchen to his liking. He has one of those voice-activated systems so everything from the lights to his coffee is programed to his schedule.

Meanwhile, I’ve fixed up my studio to my tastes. My spouse bought me window boxes and soil for my balcony and I successfully planted my first zinnia garden. Like with my marriage experiment I was unsure if these tiny seeds – hidden in the dark soil – would turn into a garden, but by July I had an explosion of greenery and color.

How This Arrangement Works

Unlike my spouse’s quick decisions, living alone allowed me to be careful and thoughtful about what I bought. For over a year I lit my place with one overhead hall light or the glow of my laptop until I found the perfect stained-glass lamps on sale at a local shop. I didn’t hang anything on my walls for almost 2 years until I’d collected a series of individual pieces of art, mostly created by people I knew.

My official address is still our house. It’s my house, too. He consults with me before making any big changes and I’m easy-going about what he wants to do. We still share money and bank accounts. I still get all my mail at the house and he texts me if I receive a package. I see my studio more as an extension of the house than my own separate residence.

We text nightly to ask about each other’s day. When one of us gets sick, we help the other out. Twice a week we have “dates” – which mostly consists of hanging together at the house since I can’t eat at restaurants. Last summer we camped together at the beach. Last winter break, we took a family vacation with our kids in Vermont and began monthly family video chats (even before Covid). This summer he got a new puppy and I stayed with the little one in the afternoons for a few days before his vacation started. Now I’m one of the pup’s afternoon walkers four days a week.

Living apart has made our relationship stronger and let both of us figure out who we are—separate from each other—making our time together even better. We no longer fight over shared resources and have more time to discuss politics, music, books, TV, computer games – all the important stuff we loved to discuss in college.

Coming Out

At first, I didn’t tell anyone I was sleeping in my writing studio, afraid what others would think. In our society there’s a lot of pressure to do things the way other people do them.

When I told a friend about our new living arrangement, she understood and said, “You don’t need to be in each other’s pockets.”

Yes! I was surprised how many older women confided in me that they wished they could live separately from their spouse. The more women friends I told, and the more good reactions I received, and the more I realized women are often asked to give up more than they want in marriage.

The reaction from my spouse’s male friends was interesting, too. They were sure I was divorcing him and this was my way of easing him into my leaving. It wasn’t. But I found the different reactions from women and men interesting.

What The Future Holds

After two happy years we have no idea what we’ll be doing in the future. We’ve casually discussed renovating our house to create two separate apartments inside it, but are unsure about spending so much money during uncertain political times. For now, we’re happy with our arrangement and live in the moment – enjoying our time together and our time apart.

* Privilege

We are extremely fortunate to afford two residences and have a several apartment building blocks from our house. Many couples don’t have these options. I want to work to create a world where everyone has the financial means to create a relationship that works for them.

Finally decorated!

8 Reasons For Blogging In 2020

I’m restarting my blog and committing to one post a week for all of 2020.

Here are eight reasons why:

__________

1. I Want Control

I don’t own my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. They’re free for me to use because those companies make money selling my ad views and data. I have little control over who actually gets see my posts or how those platforms will work in the future.

With WordPress, I pay to control my own content and choose if there are ads or not.

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2. My Thoughts Are Longer Than A Soundbite

Facebook and Instagram are best for photos, short announcements, or fun questions that connect me to my family and friends. Writing a blog allows me to write about complex topics like: big changes I’ve made in in my life over the past two years, my favorite non-fiction reads, how utopia is misunderstood, why I prefer short stories to novels, or what each of us can do to help reverse global warming.

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3. I Want To Contribute To The Tapas Menu of Memoir

When I was a stay-at-home parent struggling with chronic illness I escaped into blogs as a way of vicariously living other lives. I could sample the lives of so many people just by reading a few posts online because blogs are the tapas of memoir.

I read Tara Ariano’s blog about her life as one of the co-founders of the popular now defunct online forum Television Without Pity. I loved reading about the highs and lows of editing such a massive project, complete with her frequent all-night work sessions and weekly game nights with her spouse and friends in Toronto, Canada.

I also was a fan of Amanda Marcotte’s feminist blog Pandongon.net. Her clear, engaging discussions on what feminism is and isn’t, and how it helps daily life— for both men and women— made my life better in concrete ways. Marcotte also described her move from Austin, Texas to Brooklyn, New York. It was like was living in places I’d never actually been to at the time.

Both bloggers have moved on to other projects, and neither blog is available on the Internet anymore, but I’m a happier person because those two women wrote them. After sampling so many blogs, I want to write my own blog again.

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4. I Made Real Life Friends After Reading Strangers’ Blogs

Before I decided to apply to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I read Katia Rania’s blog about her experience of going through the program. Katia’s honest, hopeful entries allowed me to virtually try out the program from the comfort of my own living room.

I was in the middle of the MFA program myself when Katia moved to my hometown. I reached out to her on Facebook to tell her how much I liked her blog and we became friends in real life. She now writes about what it’s like to be a newly published author with the time-consuming job of teaching middle schoolers. I continue to enjoy her posts, even as we now get together in person.

Before I went to VCFA, I was also a regular reader of the annual music list on the blog Presenting Lenore. Lenore was a complete stranger, but I noted that we had similar music tastes, and got new music recommendations from her annual list.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Lenore I met at my first residency at VCFA was the same Lenore who had suggested all those new bands I sampled. We’ve been to a concert together in real life now, and she even made me a mixed CD.

My life is better because Katia and Lenore blogged.

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5. Thanks To Cynsations, I Know That Value Of Deadlines

I also read author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s fantastic children’s literature industry blog, Cynsations, years before I met her as a faculty member at VCFA. After graduating, I became a “Cyntern” on her blog for two years, interviewing writers and putting together the weekly Friday news roundups. I’m still a reporter for the blog, posting interviews occasionally.

When I first joined Cynsations I had never interviewed someone for a blog. Through working with my fellow Cynterns — Gayleen and Stephani–I learned how to meet deadlines. It was eye-opening to see how a deadline could force me to write a posts I didn’t think I was capable of. A lesson I received only because Cynthia took the time and energy to blog.

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6. It’s Time to Embrace My Voice

My very first post on Cynsations was an essay about my struggle to give myself permission to write. I still struggle with voice.

I’ve come to realize that as a kid I unconsciously believed the unfortunate rule that it’s better to be silent rather than to take the chance of offending someone. It’s not like I’m out to offend people, it’s just that when I express my opinions, I’m bound to offend somebody. I used to think I should avoid offending people at all costs.

For years I bent over backwards to not offend people. You know what? I still offended people. Being silent offends people; being sick offended a ton of people. Even being nice to everyone can offend. You might think you’re including everyone, but you always forget someone, and offend them anyway. There is no way not to offend.

What I’ve learned from reading thousands of blog posts is that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to offend people. Taking an opinion clarifies your thinking.

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7. The Assignment That Taught Me Joan Didion Was Right

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” – Joan Didion

https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/05/archives/why-i-write-why-i-write.html

At VCFA, I was obsessed with writing a story about a utopian future, but didn’t understand the basics of utopia and couldn’t explain to my advisors why such a story was not delusional, but aspirational.

In my third semester, I had to write a thirty page critical thesis on a writing craft topic. My topic was how to write a satisfying utopian YA novel.

It was the most difficult topic I ever tackled. At one point, I had pages of quotes and references spread out all over my carpet. I was sure I would never wrestle my thoughts into a coherent argument, but I did.

The clarity I gained from writing about utopia, then rethinking my analysis and putting together an even better and clearer lecture for fourth semester, taught me the value of writing.

Before I wrote about utopia, it was hard for me to clearly articulate its value. Now I’m able to easily give a short five minute elevator speech on how utopia is misunderstood, and what value it has for society. (Hint: you can’t get to a new better place if you don’t have a map.)

People tell me that I have changed the way they think about utopia. That ability to change people’s minds is all due to writing it down first.

I’m at a crossroads in my life. Our country and world is at a crossroads. It seems like a good time to figure out what I think and why.

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8. There Will Never Be A Better Time

My current circumstances for blogging are pretty utopian. I’m finally healthy! My kids are happy adults, and I’m taking a year long sabbatical from paid work to embrace slow living. Plus, I have my own writing space.

Either I take the chance on blogging now or I never will.

I’ve decided to take the leap and write one post a week for the rest of 2020.

Next Week: Favorite Non-Fiction Reads From 2019

Book Review for: Take Joy

Take Joy

Title: Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide To Loving The Craft
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Non-Fiction, Craft Book on Writing
Age Range: Adults and Teens
Rating: 5 stars (One of my new favorite writing books)
Versions Available: Paperback (New and Used)

 

Accomplished writer Jane Yolen applies the same magic she used to turn her classic picture book, Owl Moon, from a simple story about a child and her father going out to look for owls into a magical poetic journey. In Take Joy, Yolen creates a craft book that inspires the reader to see the charm and adventure of writing.

Yolen, a prolific writer of novels, picture books, and essays, sees writing as a joyful activity, rather than a struggle. While I do at times struggle with my writing, the more I read Yolen’s comforting, optimistic ideas, the more I got excited about my own work.

Yolen’s writing advice is not a Mary Sunshine take on writing. She is well aware that all is not rosy in the writing world, but she also delights in creating stories and worlds. The more I read about her approach to writing, the more I relished my own writing time.

Yolen combines her enchanting slant on writing with an organized, common sense structure. There is a chapter on each aspect of writing. I especially liked the chapters on gathering ideas, researching a topic, choosing a point of view, and dealing with rejection. She combines specific, concrete advice on each of these subjects with her own special blend of inspiration, and gave me lots of new ideas on how to approach my own projects.

There’s no eBook version of Take Joy— my favorite way to read books—so I had to order a paperback copy through Amazon.  This made me realize that I expect to receive a book instantly now that eBooks exist.  The added wait was well worth it though. Now I have a paper copy full of penciled underlines to pick up and read anytime I need writing inspiration.

Highlights Workshop

In March I was lucky enough to go to the Whole Novel Revision Workshop at the Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania.  I got excellent feedback on my novel, listened to helpful writing lectures, read my classmates work and gave feedback, wrote in my cabin, chatted books and writing with others, and ate fabulous food.  What a fantastic seven days! Here are a few pictures:

The Whole Novel Revision Group

The whole group of students and teachers

The main building where we worked and ate

Me and a few classmates having appetizers before dinner in the main building

I loved the cute cabins we stayed in.  In my ideal fantasy life I'd have my own cabin (and so would each of my friends and family) and then we see each other several times a day in the main building for classes and meals!

Inside my cabin.  There are 2 beds but I had the cabin to myself.  It was wonderful having a cabin to myself and having my laptop and Internet.  Home is where my laptop and Internet are!

Rowena Eureka Goes To New York

Life – I went to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference in New York City a couple weeks ago. Since the conference I've struggled with a flood of writing assignments, plus I got some wicked cold virus that came with its own fever, chills, and sweats.  I've finally finished my writing assignments and am starting to feel healthier too.  Yay! (PS- I'm taking an excellent online writing course right now.)

 The SCBWI Official Conference Blog has good summaries of the entire conference so I'm going to link to it (and a couple other sources) to list my favorite parts:

* Cheryl Klein, an executive editor at Scholastic, gave an excellent hour-long crash course on how to revise your novel.  Her blog and plot checklist will give you a good start on revising.  Now I want to read her book on revision because the hour went too fast for me.

* Katherine Erskine's speech on how to focus on writing was full of concrete ways to nurture creativity and make sure that turns into actual writing. 

* Jennifer Laughran was my favorite agent to speak at the conference.  Not only does she know the book world inside and out, she's funny too, and sharp, and she has her own blog.

*I got to meet and talk to my regional advisers –Edie Hemingway and Lois Szymanski– and was struck by not only how truly kind both of them are, but also how much writing and publishing experience they each have.  

*I went to the extra evening LGBTQ session as a spur of the moment decision and was glad I went.  It was a refreshingly fun and honest session, full of:  good writing information, friendly people, and a list of new books I now want to read.

* I was surprised how much I liked Cassandra Clare's speech about forbidden love and how to create satisfying love triangles.  It was partly because she used shows like: Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, and Felicity as examples, but I also liked her speech because she made a lot of good points. 

Clare explained that to have a real love triangle, as opposed to a love "V", all three parties have to have a relationship and connection with each other. She used the TV show, Felicity, as an example of a love "V" because the two guys Felicity likes– Ben and Noel– have no real relationship or connection to each other.  Her example of a true love triangle was from the TV show, The Vampire Diaries.  The fact that Damon and Stefan are brothers makes their love triangle with Elena all the more interesting because the audience cares about their relationship as much as they care about Elena and Stefan or Elena and Damon.

After Clare's speech, the SCBWI Co-President Lin Oliver pointed out that if you are writing Middle Grade fiction, you can use Clare's points on love triangles by exchanging the word love or romance for friendship.