I’ve been writing about the day in the spring of 2012 when my husband and I had the conversation to separate, the day I took the same run for the first time, when the sensation of running both towards and away from something was so urgent I felt I might spin right off the land into the deep, endless waters.
I'm interrupting my brief writing hiatus to put down a few things I know today, my 38th birthday. It has been a year, lovelies. A big, beautiful, transformative, burn-to-the-ground-and-build-it-back-up kind of year. I'm sitting here at the kitchen table in my dad's house in Colorado, 4:13 am. I'm tired from a bad night's sleep, but the coffee is hot and the candle burning smells like orange and cinnamon and the sky is dark and cool. The picture above is just before publishing this. Yes, I have fabulous morning hair and a few of them are grey.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. - Rainer Maria Rilke
Sometimes we have a big truth sitting inside us. A knowing. Maybe that our job is wrong, our relationship is dead, our child is suffering, our health is in danger – but we don’t know how to live into it, to navigate through. Clues will get us there.
And sometimes, it’s the clues that lead us to the truth. They can point us to our treasure, when all we have to guide us a vague feeling of discontent or misalignment. A general sense that we’re off course.
Clues are a breadcrumb trail fed by our curiosities and appetites, curated through the people and events that show up in our lives, and they are available to us always.
When I wrote the the hypothetical story about my friend’s elephant tattoo and how it might lead her through a winding but definite path to explore her heart, if she kept open and kept following the clues, I was brought back to my own path – the interplay of truths and clues that have led me to where I am today.
There are millions, of course, but a few I want to tell you about.
The First Truth
I knew somewhat early in my marriage – to a man I loved and love very much – that it wasn’t quite right. This was a massively inconvenient and complicated truth, a brutally painful one, one I didn't even understand. I didn’t know what life would look like on the other side of it, but trusting that tiny, clear voice that wouldn’t stop no matter what I did, or how I wished it to, was the hardest and most important thing I’d done in my life up to that point. Not because my life improved on the outside (in many ways, it did not and has not) as a result of listening to it, but because it was my truth, my gut – even though I didn’t have the right words to explain it, even though I didn't want it, even though it crushed me and a lot of others – and honoring it meant not denying myself, my core.
As Cheryl Strayed says in one of her Dear Sugar columns addressing three women who are questioning their own inner voices in their relationships,
“If there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It’s a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees.” – Cheryl Strayed
And this was it. Alongside the truth this tiny voice kept whispering existed so many other contradictory truths: I loved him. He loved me. We have a child we adore. He's kind, and good-hearted, and so many other things. And yet, at some point I knew this voice would eventually win out. I knew silencing it was futile.
The Second Truth
“What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” –Carl Jung
Long before I was willing to acknowledge, and even longer before I was willing to accept, I recognized I had a problem with alcohol. Some deep part of me knew that all my future happiness, and likely my life, depended on stopping this thing. The starkness of this thought seemed so dramatic when it came. I told myself it was for a long time. But in the end it turned out to be exactly that stark, exactly that serious.
There were so many clues along the way, an uncountable number. But we don’t listen until we listen, and sometimes we must be forced.
Once I couldn’t deny this truth any longer, in the same way I couldn’t deny the tiny, clear voice in my marriage, the question was how to proceed. And in this case again, I was completely lost. A girl without a map, a faulty compass, and a three ton backpack of fear.
One morning last summer, after a year of trying and falling down in sobriety, I woke up in a hotel room in California, having made it through the night before without drinking at dinner. This was a huge feat for me as traveling for work and drinking were well-worn pals. The chant from Friday Night Lights that I’d written on napkins and paper scraps and hummed in my head countless times, “Clear Eyes Full Heart” popped into my mind and I had the idea to start a new Instagram with that name.
So I created it. I didn’t follow any of my friends or co-workers; I followed nobody I knew in real life. I started it because I needed a place to write and post about this thing where people who didn’t know me could see it. My truths with the people in my real life were all mixed up and I didn’t want to keep track anymore. I wanted one small place to be brutally honest. Plus, I love words and pictures, they come easy to me, creating them makes me lose time (these are clues). It was a seemingly small little thing (clues usually are), but it set forth a whole trajectory.
Following The Clues
Through the Instagram account, I started to connect with people on the same path. Each time I created a post it felt like a tiny piece of art made of my insides. Each time I hit publish, a bit of me was released, and known. I started to let strangers know me. I started to find my words, and my need to pull those words together grew, until my posts became too long for Instagram and I started to write here again. I put more things out and got feedback from these strangers, who were starting to become people I knew.
Last summer I found out Elizabeth Gilbert was doing a book signing at Brookline Booksmith for her latest book, The Signature of All Things, and despite it being inconvenient and sweltering hot, I went with my daughter and my friend, Alex. We sat in the front row because I wanted Alma to see her and hear her talk about the main character in the book – whose name is also Alma – and so that I could ask her a question if the chance arose. We sat and listened: me, mesmerized and Alma, delighted if not a little confused about the character reference (Is that me? Who is she talking about?). When Liz asked the audience for questions, I raised my shaking hand. My heart pounded as I explained to her that this was Alma, my Alma, and that I wanted to bring her here to hear about the story of her Alma, but also that I’ve loved her work since before Eat, Pray, Love, that her words helped me navigate through my own marriage and separation and life. She smiled graciously and then proceeded to have a one-on-one exchange with Alma amidst hundreds of people in this theater.
She asked her, "How is it can I see your blue eyes in such a dark theater?"
Alma answered, "I don't know."
My heart exploded.
The bit of this day I'll never forget, the part that cut right through to my bones, is her response when someone asked her how she got over "writer's block." I loathed this question, but her response was something like:
“Whatever it is that keeps you afraid, that lets fear run the show, that holds you back from letting creativity work through you, you have to work through it and let it go. It might be an illness, your body image, the place where you live, resentments you have toward your father, I don’t really know. It might be alcoholism or an unhealthy relationship…”
--- she went on, but my heart stopped there.
“It might be alcoholism.”
She mentioned it in a list of a bunch of other things and she moved on, not placing any more emphasis on its significance or difficulty. And in that moment I knew, again, that it was the thing I had to move through first. That everything else – including any potential future I might possibly have as a writer – was on the other side of that.
It was that stark, that serious.
Through having been connected to Lindsey from my old Instagram account for years (someone I’ve also never met, although we are neighbors in Boston), I found Aidan, a mama and writer living in New York, who hosts “Happier Hour” literary salons, where she brings together women in her stunning home to talk about writing and support the chosen author’s book. One of the Happier Hours finally coincided with my bi-weekly work trips to the city, and in January I was able to attend a Happier Hour with Jane Green and Mira Jacob.
It was a freezing night in Manhattan and absolutely magical. I talked to women who were very well-established writers, and several who'd left their careers in legal/healthcare/real estate to pursue writing. On that night I realized, these women are just like me. This mystical, far-away place where “writers” lived and my own place in the world were not so far apart.
I started to write more, and to be more honest in my writing, particularly about my struggle with addiction and sobriety and the dissolution of my marriage. I started to write from my heart. I started to write even when I didn’t want to. I took Ira Glass' advice and let myself write horribly. I focused on producing a bunch of work, to show up every day for this thing because it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do.
I started to stay sober.
And because I was sober, I could write.
Because I could write, because it helped me tell the truth in words, I started to learn how to tell the truth in-person.
In meetings, in day-to-day conversations, in my friendships, I told the truth.
Because I could tell the truth, I could stay sober for another day, and then another.
I grew lighter. The thing I thought impossible to do was the thing making me lighter.
One Saturday last fall I got an email from a girl I knew from high school and college. Someone whose life ran parallel tracks to mine, but we never really knew each other well.
She told me that she wasn’t quite sure if she should reach out, but felt compelled to, that she identified with parts of my story, that she really looks forward to reading my posts, that she hoped I kept writing because it helped her.
This note came at a time of doubt and it nudged me to keep going.
This same girl then tagged me in a note on Facebook about a writing retreat Cheryl Strayed was hosting in Greece the following summer, urging me to apply. I thought, No way. Too big. Too fabulous. How would I afford it? I'd never be chosen.
But a little voice in me wouldn't shut up: Why not?
Then I couldn't stop thinking about it.
So I applied, and a month or so later, on a Friday night, I got an email that I was in. I screamed and danced around my apartment like an insane person.
So this summer I'm going to Greece to hang out with Cheryl Strayed. Pinch me one hundred times, and then again.
There are so many other details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would be a book itself (it's happening).
This Ain't No Whimsy Thing
There are so many more details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings, detours and guideposts - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would require a book itself (it's happening).
The point of it all is this: we must tell our truths and follow our clues.
Hearing your truth and following your clues requires being brave. It requires staying open, being patient for so much longer than we think we can, and then moving quickly. It requires trust that we are guided, and learning to identify the difference between our ego’s will and the divine (which is tricky, because our egos are sneaky bitches). Following clues requires that we slow down and take notice, regularly. It means we sometimes have to do things that are inconvenient and against our plan, or someone else’s, entirely. It means we often proceed without clarity or a promised outcome, which is to say it requires faith, and faith is often hard-earned only by surviving our cuts and bruises.
Following your path, trusting your heart, living out your dream – all this stuff might sound so whimsical and airy-fairy. Like extravagance, a luxury, a selfish pursuit. But I think it is the exact opposite.
I believe there’s great danger in so many of us walking around separated from our hearts, unknowable to ourselves and therefore each other.
There’s great sadness, but also real risk, in not showing up in our lives as we were meant to (and I do believe we are all meant to do something) because it robs others of our gifts, and our gifts are what bring us joy, and love, and healing, and often life-saving grace. Our gifts are the least selfish thing we can bring forth, even though it may require selfishness to own them, and grow them.
I have no idea where my own path will all lead, but I do know that as of today I've been sober almost six months and I'm writing every day and I feel like I'm finally coming home. Following this path feels right in the deepest center of my being - my core - and I'm committed to staying open to what comes next.
All week on vacation I’ve been sitting in this spot just outside the front door of our little cottage. Thinking about writing, mostly. Collecting words that I’m reading, and words I’m stringing together myself. Patchworks of words that don’t match but might make some semblance of a theme if stitched together; who knows? I think: where do I start? I have a thousand middles but nothing that feels like a start. And I’m sitting here on the last day of this little retreat, enough quiet to gain space in between the thoughts of every day life, and I see what you see right now. A green thicket of plants and trees. Not a garden. Some weeds. Wildly grown and un-groomed.
From where I sit, it’s pretty nice. From here, you could start anywhere - there is no worn path - and if you just kept going, step by step, just beyond the taller trees, you’d see… (at Chatham Beach, Cape Cod, MA)
Today’s let go is this: I am not a writer. This is an icky one to say out loud, so I know I must. As someone who writes but would never call myself a “writer,” this strikes a chord. I’ve always assumed the label writer belonged to more officially qualified folks. Say, those who’ve been published. Or have written a book. Or make money writing.
It can’t belong to me because it’s not on my business card and I’ve never been hired to write and I’m nowhere near as good - not even in the same universe! - as the real writers I adore: Annie Lamott, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Joan Didion, Mary Oliver.
Or, I can’t call myself a writer when I don’t write every day. Thinking about writing, obsessing over words, reading voraciously - those things don’t make you a writer. Right?
The thing is this: there are many thoughts and fears that have kept me from writing, but the most pervasive and consistent one is the thought that I’M NOT A WRITER. How insane is that? Dear self, don’t pick up a pen or sit down with a blank screen and see what happens because you’re not a real writer.
Kind of crazy.
But also kind of human nature, it seems.
The best parallel I can draw from in my experience is around running. When people find out I’ve run marathons, the most common response I get is, “I could never do that.”
And my response back, every time, is, “You could if you wanted to.” And not as in, “If you were as driven as me, you’d be able to do it” but as in, “If you want to run that far, you totally can.”
But maybe wanting to is only half the equation, because I think what really allowed me to run those crazy distances was that I honestly didn’t care what the outcome was. I like to run. I like to do things that break my own perceptions of what’s possible. I like to push myself physically. But, I never really attached myself to an outcome. The first time I ran one, I didn’t even have a number and I can’t tell you what my time was — I just know that I finished it. I’ve never timed my splits (I still don’t even know how that works) and I’ve never felt bad about myself for having “a bad long run.” Any day I run more than 10 miles is a win. 16? I kick ass. There’s no such thing as a bad 18-mile run in my book. And a marathon? It’s a MARATHON.
This kind of detachment, but also commitment, allowed me to train for and run three Boston marathons. One in a pretty kick-ass time. One in soul-crushing, record-breaking heat. I committed to the process, submitted myself to it, let it be what it was. And you know what? I now say that I’m a runner.
But the thing is, guys, I care so much more about writing than I ever have about running. I do worry about the outcome, even if I’m the only one who ever sees what I’ve written. I judge. I criticize. I lament. I sweat when the words don’t come or come out hacky. I self-defeat. Yet still, in my heart of hearts, in the truth that runs stronger than all the other truths, is that I love to write and I love to read great writing.
When it comes to running, I just lace up and go. Some days I can blast through six miles and feel like doing six more. Other days my veins are filled with cement and I can barely trudge through two. Both experiences have happened enough times that I know neither means all that much. The point is to keep doing it; tomorrow’s run has yet to be revealed.
A few things have recently raised my attention to the exact idiocy and danger of my “I am not a writer” thinking.
1. Ira Glass’ impeccable bit on storytelling and the secret of producing great creative work. He says a lot in this video, but the thing that keeps ringing in my head is,
"The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work."
2. This little line, which has been haunting me, and I shared my thoughts on the other day.
4. Perhaps most importantly, Cheryl Strayed, or the voice behind Dear Sugar is one of my most sacred and beloved current writers. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about some piece of what she wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things.
I recently revisited a piece, where she lists some nuggets of advice to a fledgling 22 year-old.
"Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet."
"You don’t have a career. You have a life." has been ringin’ like a bell in my head, over and over. Just like I’m not a mother, sister, daughter, co-worker, yogi, runner, reader or friend because it’s printed somewhere; I’m all those things because they’re what I do. Right.
"You are a writer because you write."
Well, ok then. I am.