One important question to me is, did you lie to your doctor about drinking? Is feels so wrong to ask someone this question, and it's not about hope, but I welcome the opportunity to ask.
"The Holy Spirit's temple is not a body, but a relationship." - A Course in Miracles
This will be a short post. This morning my husband and I have our divorce court proceedings. It's been three years, and all is fine, really, but it marks an official end of a nine year chapter, and I've found myself swirling the past few days. I've been trying to unpack the emotions, put some narrative to the story, with little success.
Am I sad? Certainly.
Am I grateful? Beyond.
Am I regretful? Of the way things went, but not of the outcome, yes.
Am I relieved? Not really.
Do I need to understand what I am, exactly? Not today.
Will it be delivered to me later, in chapters? Yes, as it always has.
I pulled out Marianne Williamson's "A Return to Love" last night, read a few passages and let it sit on my night stand as I slept.
"The Holy Spirit's temple is not a body, but a relationship."
Later in the chapter, she says, "in every relationship, in every moment, we teach either love or fear." Of all the things I cannot pull out, separate and identify yet, I can say that in our relationship, and especially in the dissolution of it, I was taught love. There was plenty of fear, but it was mine. I was given and taught love, so much that I could not accept it at times.
I will have more to say. There is so much more to say. But I have to get myself in the shower, get ready and put my left foot in front of my right and do the next thing.
It’s been almost three years since my ex-husband and I separated. I don’t write much about our marriage, or what we are like now, because he asked me not to and because I respect the delicate privacy of our history. But I also strive to put down what’s real, to unearth the truest narrative I can because I think that’s how we come to understand each other, and life. Sometimes not writing about it feels like a barrier. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a tough, but necessary balance to strike, and I’m learning. I think I can write about this, though. I think this is less about me or him or us and more about the way love shows up in our lives.
Yesterday was shit. I was stuck. Heavy, heavy stuck. I had no muscle memory of anything good or light. I was sure I never felt much joy to begin with. Any past sweetness felt very far away.
When I get like that I am wholly un-loveable and too needy. Nobody will ever want me again. I was feeling rejected by one person and so I felt all the rejections of a lifetime. I heard all the men who've ever said, “No,” and “No, thanks,” and “You’re the most wonderful, but I cannot.” They were the only voices I could hear.
All day the pain wouldn't budge. Not even an inch. No amount of yoga, prayer, running, TV, hot water, wise words from friends, ice cream, writing, or logic was making a dent. I thought about drinking and wished it still worked. I dragged myself to a meeting and rubbed my eyes the whole way through. I tried to read the best bits of my go-to books but couldn't focus. I waved a white flag on Instagram.
I railed on myself for spending the day I took off from work in this headspace.
But nothing was moving, except the clock. I was reminded by Momastery that pain is not a mistake.
“Pain is not a sign that you’ve taken a wrong turn or that you’re doing life wrong. It’s not a signal that you need a different life or partner or body or home or personality. Pain is not a hot potato to pass on to the next person or generation. Pain is not a mistake to fix. Pain is just a sign that a lesson is coming.”
Pain is just a sign that a lesson is coming.
So when I woke up this morning, I hit my knees first and said, show me in a way I can understand. I sat down and wrote. Pen to paper, freeform, three pages, without editing myself.
Afterward, I was drawn to pull out a stack of post-its. I started to write something about myself on each one. Something I’ve accomplished. A way I’ve changed (one of the recurring thoughts yesterday was that I cannot change, that I haven’t, that I don’t know how or have the capacity to). A shift in perception. A marker of growth. On each square I wrote something real and true about me in the most simple words possible.
They said things like:
YOU CAN DO SMART THINGS WITH YOUR BRAIN.
YOU KEEP YOUR HEART OPEN.
YOU HAVE RUN MARATHONS.
A lot of the notes are specific and new to my life in sobriety:
YOU ARE NO LONGER CAUGHT IN AN INFINITE LOOP.
YOU CAN HANDLE CRITICISM.
YOU CAN SEPARATE OTHER PEOPLE'S OPINIONS OF YOU FROM YOUR OWN.
YOU CAN READ BEDTIME STORIES.
YOU CAN OPEN ALL YOUR MAIL.
YOU CAN TELL THE TRUTH.
And some were just regular, but profound, reminders of where I am:
YOU LIVE IN A BEAUTIFUL PLACE.
YOU ARE COMFORTABLE IN YOUR BODY (This was not always true.)
YOU CAN SPEAK IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.
YOU ARE TEACHABLE.
In the end, it looked like this:
The post-it that’s crumpled up didn’t seem to fit with all the others. I folded it up just after writing it, unclear where it came from, or how it belonged.
It has one word on it: my ex-husband’s name.
I let it sit there all day with the others – my weird little grid of affirmations, or whatever we want to call them – on my kitchen countertop. I went through my day. Ran six miles. Did laundry. Sat in front of the coffee shop and watched people walk their dogs. Opened every piece of mail I have. Called the IRS.
I thought about the black, dark, stuck place I was in yesterday. How I'd bound such deep, existential pain to one particular person, one rejection I was feeling, and that it just didn’t add up. I wondered what I was getting at with all those squares of paper?
I thought about one of my favorite quotes from Cheryl Strayed, “Don't surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn't true anymore.”
I think I had to write out all the other pieces of paper - all 31 of them - to get to the one I crumpled up.
I think Glennon was right in that I just had to let pain do its job. If I could still, it would show me the way home.
The crumpled up note has my ex-husband’s name on it: four letters that still spell out a large part of my heart, even though we have moved on. They spell out mercy and grace and finding a way through our individual shortcomings to build a peaceful space for our daughter. They signify so many apologies I've yet to make, so many regrets about the way I handled things before I knew a better way to handle things.
The note has his name on it, but when I hold it in my hand and close my eyes, I see these words: YOU ARE ALREADY FORGIVEN.
I got a migraine last Friday that hung around until Saturday afternoon. The kind that pulled me into catatonic sleep – pillow over the head style – and also woke me up several times in the night, from the pain. At one point I woke up parched, head pounding, and thought I was hungover.
A surge of panic rushed through me, followed by the familiar-as-a-second-skin wave of nausea, the “Nonononono. Not again. What happened. Fuck.”
I realized immediately that I wasn’t hungover, but the adrenaline had already released. I closed my eyes and gently put the pillow back over my head while my heart pounded and waves of anxiety lapped against my psyche. I repeated to myself You are ok. You are ok. You are ok. until my heartbeat slowed.
All day thereafter I thought about what it was like waking up that way, over and over again. How grateful I am that I haven't woken up that way in a while. How far away that feeling seems, but how close it is, too. How goddamn slippery the slope was to get here. How lucky I feel to have kept climbing, to have kept reaching, for something I couldn’t even see. How lucky I am that I still want to keep reaching.
I wrote some things down to try and describe exactly what it was like for that year and a half when I didn’t want to be sober but knew I couldn’t keep drinking. When almost every day was an utter struggle. To drink. To not drink. To find my place in the world. To come to terms with what felt like a shit hand I’d been dealt – the unfairness of it, the anger, the loneliness, the incessant questions beating in my heart:
Who will ever love me? Who will want this?
So yesterday I wrote down exactly what made it so hard because I never want to forget. I want to remember so I can say to someone staring down the same uncertainty: I have been there. I remember. I know. Let me tell you.
I flashed back to a Sunday in the fall of 2013.
My husband and I were recently separated. The transitions with our three-year-old daughter were still new. He had just picked her up and the silence that fell after they shut the door was deafening. I was alone. In the house that we lived in. A house much too big for one.
It was a beautiful day. The afternoon light danced all over the empty living room.
I was newly single. I had blocks of free time to myself suddenly. My instinct was to go out, find some pals to play with, to drink away the afternoon, the emptiness, the space.
But I had lost that right. A couple months prior when I very publicly left my daughter unattended while I was drinking (not the first, or the last, of my low points) I lost the right to go drink an afternoon away.
I couldn’t justify saying “fuck it” one more time. Not with a clean conscience. I knew too much.
Suddenly it felt like the world completely closed in on me. Like I could actually hear doors shutting. SLAM! There’s the door to fun. SLAM! There’s the door to love. SLAM! There’s the door to excitement and spontaneity and silliness. SLAM! There’s the door to life as you know it.
I crumbled into a pile of tears in my oversized red chair. I wailed to the empty room and the beautiful light. I cried for a long, long time.
Some might hear this and think, Really? All those things you’d yoked to drinking? And my answer would be, Yes – all those things. Over 36 years of living and 20 years of drinking, I had linked a lot of life to drinking. It had not always been my enemy; it was actually great fun for a long time. Omni-present but not oppressive. A glue in my relationships. An activity that spun up whatever I was doing into something a little more sparkly, giddy, enticing. And now that I was to give it up, I didn’t know where to be, or how, or with whom.
Yet, the saddest girl in the world sitting there on that red chair was the same girl who woke up in her bed almost daily in a panic, shaking, and confused because of drinking. She was the same girl who didn’t know how a night would turn out once she started – truly did not know – and that aura of possibility had turned from excitement to terror somewhere along the way. She was the same girl that was afraid of herself much of the time. Whose hands shook. Whose heart raced constantly. Who couldn't look people in the eye. Who needed caffeine in crazy doses to wake up and long runs to quell her nerves. She was the same girl, and yet, she couldn’t reconcile the two. No conscious connection in the light of day.
So I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and then I just sat there, staring across my empty living room.
I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I know I didn’t drink. And I know I was very aware of this fact. That’s how the earliest days felt to me and what was so goddam unnerving: I was aware of myself constantly. Like an invisible current of electricity was circulating through me – a low-level, barely detectable, but everywhere current that left me raw and jumpy. Aware of everything I was doing and not doing. Here I am, driving my daughter home from school, not going to get wine. Here I am taking a walk to the park, not drinking. Here I am, cooking dinner, without wine. Here I am riding the train home. Here I am sitting in a meeting. Here I am running, sipping coffee, talking to a co-worker, eating lunch, sending a text, watching House of Cards. Here I am coming out of my skin.
I constantly had the urge to unplug that current. Like someone running around with their hair on fire looking for any body of water to plunge into. I wanted relief. Fast. Now. Sometimes I wanted it with terrifying urgency. A lot of times I just said, Oh, fuck it, and I’d order the wine, go to the liquor store, say yes to going out, or whatever. Because it works. It worked. Drinking let me unplug, say yes, care less, be social, be a part, be free. And even at the end, it still worked, even if only for an hour. But that hour? That time when the chemicals in your brain are rearranging nicely--it’s a relief, and it’s powerful, and I get why we do it.
So for a long time, a year or more, I kept doing this yo-yo thing. In and out, back and forth, ugh and stuck. And I get why. I get why it was so hard. I also wish I could tell that girl on the big red chair a few things about how I feel today.
If I could, this is what I'd say:
I know it sucks, sucks, sucks.
Tell the truth.
The raw current will subside, and in its place you will plug into something beautiful.
The thing you are afraid of giving up -- it is not what holds you together.
You are going to fall apart. This is good.
You are brave.
You are so much stronger than you know.
You wonder who will ever love you? The whole universe.
You wonder who will ever want this? You will.
Just keep going.
This is the beginning, sweet girl, not the end.
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.
I posted this picture on Instagram last week.
I received a bunch of messages about it. One was from a dear friend who went to get a new tattoo, a cute little black elephant on her wrist, symbolizing a large part of her heart – her deep compassion and passion for animals. She got nervous sitting there in the waiting room of the tattoo shop. Nervous about putting this on her body, yes, but I suspect the anxiety ran a little deeper, too. By getting that little guy inked onto her wrist she’s showing a bit of her heart. She’s saying, this is a thing that I love and also, please understand me.
When she saw my post while she was waiting, she thought, perfect, and did it.
It’s curious, how hard we struggle to claim our own space in this world. We make big, bold, very public and sometimes expensive proclamations about our choices in partnership and love when we get married, but when it comes to the more private, soft whispers of our hearts we cup our hands over them, we swallow our words, we won’t even write them down.
This same friend told me a few weeks prior over brunch, “I started journaling, and it’s been life changing, but I kind of stopped, because I started to feel so self-conscious about it.”
What was she afraid of? What about this made her so embarrassed?
That someone would find her journals and read them?
That she had thoughts inside her nobody – not even her husband, even those who love her best – knew?
That she had a private, inner life to begin with?
We laughed, I nodded, said I understood – because I do – it can feel so awkward, even precarious to take up space with these things. I used to feel that way when I prayed or meditated. Back in the day I felt that way in yoga class when we were instructed to “Ohmmm.” It’s so personal. So tender. So odd. Yet I felt at home when I did it. I wanted to keep going back there.
Our Deepest Fear
I haven’t stopped thinking about that conversation, of what it was that actually made her stop writing in her own journal, to herself.
As I mulled it over, these words kept bubbling up, by Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?Actually, who are you not to be?
This is it, I think. We shy from giving voice to the most scared whispers of our heart – for so many reasons, but I believe this is at the root. Because:
What if the words don’t jive with what our life looks like today?
What if we secretly long to be somewhere else, or with someone else, and we don’t know why?
Or what if we do know why, and our reasons seem selfish, and terrifying?
What if we can’t stop thinking about elephants, but have spent so many years working on our chosen “career” that it just seems so wasteful/impossible/impractical to change course now?
What about the people who have invested so much time and energy in who we are – how would our thoughts confuse, or betray them?
What if we don’t think we’re qualified, worthy or deserving?
What if our desires just seem silly, and strange?
What happens if we breathe air into these thoughts…and they grow?
What if we shine so brightly we scare ourselves?
The Big Desire
The first time I experienced big, magical desire was when I was six or seven. I saw Olivia Newton John play Sandy in Grease and just about died of desire. I wanted to wear her outfits, to sing like her, to dance with John Travolta and transform from poodle skirt wearing, innocent cheerleader to powerful, cigarette-smoking, leather leggings wearing badass. I watched that movie at least fifty times, memorized the songs, sang them in my bedroom alone in front of the mirror. I rehearsed all the lines, pretended I was smooching John Travolta and blowing the Pink Ladies’ minds, who thought I was so dull, wholesome and sticky sweet.
I practiced “Hopelessly Devoted to You” while singing into my reflection in the bathtub and “Better Shape Up” while wearing my mom’s heels.
The love of musicians continued. I so badly wanted to be one. Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and then later, Jewel, Alanis Morrisette, Gwen Stefani, Ani DeFranco. I would watch them on MTV and The Grammy’s – so bold, so beautiful, with their voices and their expression. So in their element, pouring their talent onto a sea of crooning hearts, connecting to the places inside us that breathe love and loss and jealousy and heartache and angst. I wanted to do that. I wanted to do that so very badly. I wanted to have an instrument to express myself, to tell people how I felt and how to feel and to do it so heart achingly beautifully. I wanted to do this I didn’t know how, because I could not sing for shit, and all that stuff was for someone else who wasn’t a girl living in Castle Rock, Colorado with a basic life, freckles and a bunch of average skills. I wanted to do this and I didn’t know how else it could be done. I didn’t know that my instrument could be any number of things – that it was not the medium that was important – but the big, aching desire to create and express. That mattered. That matters. A lot.
As we grow up and we set about making decisions – in my case, often by rote or because I wasn’t confident enough to listen to my own voice – about school, our jobs, where we live, who we spend time with, we create a life. Sometimes that life very much reflects our insides. Sometimes only parts of it match. Sometimes – often – we outgrow things, our desires change, and we adjust. And sometimes, we can’t recognize ourselves in any part of our life. I’ve been on all parts of this spectrum, but even on the more “matching” side, I had this unnamable ache, a longing – the same ache I felt when I was six.
I have come to realize: I didn’t know what it was, but something inside me did.
Something inside you knows, too. We just have to follow our clues.
Following The Clues
Getting the little elephant tattoo wasn’t a proclamation that my friend is changing her life, but it’s a small expression of the very fabric of her heart. She’d been thinking about it and wanted to do it for months or longer; she couldn’t stop thinking about it (this is a clue). So she did it. Right now it’s a little ink on her wrist – a symbol of something she loves.
But perhaps one day, she’ll be sitting on the train reading a book, and a stranger will ask her what it means. Perhaps she’ll find herself explaining to this person not only what it means, but much more, and did they know that Barnum & Bailey’s circus just stopped using elephants in their act because of cruelty? And the stranger may say, no, but that’s interesting. Perhaps an eavesdropper will say, I just couldn’t help but overhear, and I’m reading this beautiful book by Barbara Kingsolver called Prodigal Summer – have you read it? And my friend will say no, what’s it about? And the eavesdropper will explain it’s not about elephants, but about wolves, who are not extinct, but are also magical creatures for sure. That she’s learned more about her own relationships with humans through reading this book about wolves, and that she highly recommends it.
Perhaps my friend will pick up this book, will read it, devour it, and will look up more about the author.
Perhaps she’ll notice Barbara Kingsolver is doing a reading at Brookline Booksmith this spring, and she’ll get tickets and get there early to sit in the front row, and while she’ll love the part where Barbara talked about the book, what will mesmerize her to the core, what will speak to her very guts, is to hear Barbara talk about her brief time living in the Congo as a child.
She will mention tigers and tell a story about them, and my friend’s heart will explode with joy and longing for tigers that she didn’t even know existed.
Barbara will sign her book and my friend will place it on her shelf, at home. Perhaps one night she’ll be having a dinner party and one of the guests will grab the book off the shelf, casually. The guest will ask my friend if it’s good, and what’s it about, and my friend will get a chance to share the experience of the tattoo that led to the train conversation that led to the book that led to the book signing that led to the conversation with Barbara Kingsolver that led to this book the guest is holding and that yes, it’s a wonderful book, but the story behind it is what’s most special to my friend.
Perhaps the guest will say, that’s amazing, do you want to work with animals? And my friend will explain that she’s always sort of longed to, maybe, but she doesn’t know what that looks like, and the guest will remember a podcast she just listened to on Radiolab about Dolphins, and that she also has a cousin that just started volunteering at the zoo, where he gets to feed rare animals, and maybe he can connect my friend with his cousin?
And my friend will say yes, perhaps, or maybe she’ll say no, but realize that she was so thrilled by the conversation, so lit up inside by getting to talk about this thing that her heart loves, this thing she’s so curious about and has been since she can remember, that she’ll remember to keep talking about it more, to putting a voice to her desires, to put her intention out to the universe again and again – reminding it to keep throwing signs her way, to keep reminding her who she is, to keep tossing her clues to follow – and that if it does, she will follow them.
Perhaps one day, my friend will get the opportunity to work with elephants, or tigers, or dolphins. Or maybe along the way she’ll realize she wants something else entirely, but the only way she’d have found out, is to keep following the clues. To pay very close attention to her curiosities, to the whispers of her heart, to not regard them as silly or strange – but as sacred and beautiful and important.
I took this picture five years ago today in Salem, MA with my fancy Nikon DSLR. I was walking my dog, Addie, around our yellow, half low-income housing apartment complex in my black yoga pants and long down puffer coat, my boots crunching the frozen grass. When I stopped to take this shot Addie leached forward to smell something and the camera nearly hurled out of my hands. My body surged with agitation; why couldn't I just take a picture of this beautiful light without also nearly breaking my $600 camera? Why was everything so hard? When would everything stop being so goddamn hard all the time? I had no business owning a $600 camera. Less than two months prior, the four of us (me, my husband, Alma at 6 months old, and our dog) were living with his brother and wife in their cozy but tiny home, with their two small kids and dog. They’d invited us in as a way to get back to the east coast after an ill-advised six-month stint in Colorado. We arrived the last week in August, two days before my 32nd birthday.
They’d given up their bedroom to us on the second floor where their kids also slept. Alma’s crib was set up in their closet. They slept on the pull-out couch in the living room of the first floor. When the bed was pulled out it took up the entire room, so anyone who wanted to get to the kitchen had to climb over the corner of it and the legs underneath. The humility and kindness of it all was crushing.
It was a clown car scene – four adults, three children, two dogs, and one billion ounces of life force packed into that 1,000 foot home. We tripped over each other a lot. The kids had a ball.
One cold fall night we’d all walked to a neighborhood party with the kids my husband and d I stayed behind after the party ended. We drank Absolut and Sprite and Absolut and Ginger with the guys who hosted until we were both smashed and stumbled back late into the house. We were loud stumbled around the kitchen - I think I tried to make tea. When we woke to the morning routine, I was filled with crippling dread and my husband didn't remember much. We said we were sorry but I never got over it myself – the lack of respect. I felt like a teenager again: embarrassed, selfish and self-righteous. Weren't we allowed to have fun? Shouldn't we be able to blow off steam after the past six months of insanity? I was not a teenager, though. I was 32 with an MBA and a husband with two big degrees and a six-month old baby and we were both unemployed and lost as fuck.
One morning toward the end of the two-month stretch there, I checked our bank account and we had exactly $110 in it. Total. Our phones were ringing constantly with 800-numbers; we’d stopped answering. Bankruptcy was a foregone conclusion, we just had to make the phone call to a lawyer and get the process moving. My husband started working at Whole Foods a few weeks prior just to get the energy moving in the right direction, to send some kind of signal to the universe.
$110 and I had no idea what to spend it on. Food? Diapers? I remember thinking I wanted a pedicure. Wine. Should I take it out of the bank in case a bill got processed and we were over-withdrawn? I closed my eyes and squeezed my fists together tight. Alma was sitting beside me on the bed, rolling around making baby noises and I thought, FUCK. NO.
This was not happening.
I spent four hours that day on the phone with some woman at the Massachusetts unemployment office. I’d filed a few weeks before but between two states and a bunch of extra paperwork, we’d got lost in the process somewhere and I’d about given up. I paced outside behind the house on the phone, watching my flip-flopped feet take step after step on the hot black driveway, willing this woman to please, please, please make a miracle happen and help get this processed. Before we hung up, she told me I’d receive a check in the next few days for six-thousand and some dollars. I cried.
Shortly thereafter, we moved into the yellow, half low-income housing apartment complex in Salem. It was October, Halloween month. I got a couple good consulting gigs and my my first regular yoga class on Monday nights at the YMCA down the street. He kept looking for jobs and worked at a place for free for a year, until he got a paying gig. He hated both. Things blur together after that, but the photo was taken about a month after we’d moved in, in November of 2009.
I remember looking through the lens of my camera and feeling the stark juxtaposition of the gorgeous, glowing dusk light on those tree berries against the heaviness of what we’d gone through and were still in. How much I hated him. How much I loved him. How grateful I was to be back by the ocean, and how desperate the winter already felt. How madly I loved my daughter, and what a burden she was, too. How life-giving the cold air felt in my lungs, and how trapped I would feel when I walked back inside.
It was May, 2012. I'd been drinking a lot during this time. Daily. Not during the day, but daily. A lot of wine. A lot of dosing myself with countless glasses of it and Ambien each night. I wanted to completely black out of reality as often as possible and that combo worked. I'd often come to at 3 or 4 am with a freight-train rush of adrenaline and the smell of red wine searing my nostrils from the inside and out. I was soaked with booze inside and also often laying in a pool of it, having spilled the last glass upon passing out.
Sometimes the walls and floor around my side of the bed would be spattered with maroon, like dried blood; shards of glass scattered about from the fallen glass. I'd whip my head around to find my husband either situated as far away from me as possible in our bed, or not there at all. I'd frantically scan the bed, floor, nightstand for my phone, running my shaky fingers across the surfaces until I felt it. Once I’d find it I’d blink a few times hard – willing my eyes to focus on the screen – to check the time, scan through my texts and calls.
Did I make phone calls?
Was my last memory really the last thing I did? (It almost never was.)
This was a nightly routine and it was horrific. I'd been caught in this dilemma in the true, greek sense of the word, “a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable” for too long at that point. Leaving or staying, staying or leaving. Both outcomes were undesirable, painful, unfathomable.
I drank to numb this reality. I drank to pursue it. I drank to find the truth. I drank to un-know it.
One Wednesday that May, I was making my way to a conference room after eating lunch at my desk. My agency was in the final rounds of a pitch to the state of Massachusetts tourism board and we had a prep meeting to walk through our presentation. As we were filing into the room my stomach suddenly started aching badly. Stabbing pain with waves of nausea. I sat down at the table and took a few deep breaths, assuming this was just the regular-grade anxiety I had in these types of situations. But with each breath my stomach and chest only clenched tighter. I leaned toward my boss and quietly told him I'd be back. I hurried to our bathroom, shut the door, and knelt in front of the toilet. I placed my forehead down on the cool tile of the floor. What was happening? I needed to throw up. I started to shake. Gasped for air. Tingles radiated from my chest out to my limbs. I stood up and paced the tiny circle of this bathroom I'd cried in so many times before. I wrung out my hands, shook my head and whispering loudly to the whir of the fan, no no no no no no no no.
Whatever was happening was escalating fast and I needed help. I stumbled out of the bathroom to face the open landscape of the office. I spotted my co-worker Kelly across the room and made my way over to her. It took years.
"I need help. I don't know what's happening."
She nodded in that knowing way and helped me to one of the couches. I was positive I was dying. My hands curled in on themselves, sweat poured out from everywhere, my chest was getting crushed, and my face went numb while I repeated over and over what’s happening, what’s happening, what’s happening. Concerned faces hovered above me as the scene played out (it is not a large office) – the partners, my boss, a few others – and then, the EMTs. An oxygen mask went on. They said I’d be alright. They wheeled me out on a stretcher, onto the elevator, down four floors, I was gone.
Anyone who’s experienced a panic attack knows just how terrifying they are. That you actually, truly believe you are about to die. That death is a flit of a second away.
So naturally when the terror passes, you are washed over with profound exhaustion and relief. A kind of rawness I’ve only ever experienced after childbirth. I rode in the back of the ambulance to Boston Medical, still holding Kelly’s hand.
She asked me what was happening.
I heard my voice speak these words, “I know it’s done, Kelly. I know my marriage is over.” With those words came a river of slow, hot, salty tears - each one carrying an equal amount of pain and relief. There it was. I had said it. I let the words hang out there in the space of that ambulance. Without further explanation, justification, debate, backtracking. I just let them be. I closed my eyes.
I got checked in, Kelly called my husband, and eventually he came.
Despite all we’d been through – the countless ways I’d hurt him and he’d disappointed me, despite our colossal failings and unresolved resentments that preceded this moment – he sat at my side and held my hand. Under the hard armor of grief and frustration, I saw a trace of old, familiar kindness in the back of his eyes. The softness one has for someone with whom they’ve fought a war. The marrow part of love.
“This happens when you're drinking too much,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
Silence. A long silence.
“Are we going to be okay?” I turned to him, looking up from the hospital bed.
“Yeah.” He nodded quietly, knowing what I meant. That I was not referring to the married “we,” but to each of us, separately. Separate. That we were letting it all fall apart.
I do not remember the rest of that night. If we slept in the same bed, or alone. Who put our daughter to bed. Whether or not we ate. The moving out, the reorganization of drawers to fill extra space, the purchase of his new navy couch, the old hiking boots he left behind and never took back, waking up alone after a blizzard one Saturday morning in January and digging out my own path, for eight hours, hungover.
We could have arrived at that point dozens of other times before or after that. There were countless crescendos to fights where we pushed up to the edge of the end, but did not leap. Stretches of time we filled with day-to-day comings and goings, talk about our daughter, bills, a party, family, so we could turn away from the elephant – still unsure whether it had come to stay. But this is how it goes, doesn’t it? We hold on when we do not know whether to let go.
We stand still when can’t decide which way to turn.
We put our hands over our eyes until we are forced to peel them away.
We keep it together until we are forced to let it all fall apart.
We suspend disbelief and hold out for a miracle.
I've had these words bangin' around in my head for the past few days. They're from the one and only Pema Chodron in her book "When Things Fall Apart." I first came across her and this book back in the early days of my marriage, when life was throwing us one massive curveball after another, and I myself was gasping for air daily. I was in an unrelenting state of not wanting to be where I was. Wishing for things to be different than they were. Wishing I could disappear, runaway, and save everyone around me from the pain that would cause. I had no idea how to proceed.
I would listen to Pema on my iPod every night in bed, on my walk to the train, on the bus. Her words were oxygen. She told her own story of her marriage, how her husband approached her on their porch one hot, dusty summer day in Arizona and announced that he was leaving, that he was in love with another woman, and that she threw rocks at him and spit words of hate. She described the hot anger, the frightening rage she felt towards him and this other woman, the plans she made to hurt them, the arresting thoughts of violence and how her own mind attacked her moment after moment.
She also described how that experience set her life on a different course. Not immediately, and not easily, but it cracked her open in such a way that the former version of herself and her life were annihilated. In an attempt to find some way out of her pain, she was talking to a friend who recommended she read an article written by Chögyam Trungpa. The article was about how we relate to negative feelings - and that it's not the negative feelings that hurt us, but the stories we tell ourselves about them, which are often filled with thoughts of shame, self-hatred and blame. It awakened something in her. The possibility that there was another way to move through this. This set her on the path to being a student of his and eventually becoming the first Tibetan buddhist nun, a prolific author and one of the most renowned spiritual teachers of our time.
In my own case, working through her books and workshops and listening to her words helped me navigate the next several years. "When Things Fall Apart" is one of the seven ten books I keep on my desk at all times. As with all big lessons, they take different meaning over time. You could study buddhism until the day you die and never grasp it all -- the lessons never end. But there is something pure and essential about the idea that sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart.
Two years ago this concept meant letting go of my marriage without having any guarantee of what the future would hold. Letting it all fall to the ground without knowing if I would be forgiven, if I would be loved again, if I would be able to support myself, if I would have to fight to keep custody of my daughter, if I would one day regret my decision and if I could even make it through the next day, and the next, and the next without being swallowed whole by the fear. It meant telling the raw, honest truth about the mess we'd created and my own part in it. It meant not knowing a fucking thing but letting it happen anyway.
Today, the story has different characters and circumstances, but the lesson is the same. I've found myself thinking, again? We are here again?Really? But this is the part of the lesson I missed or ignored the first time around.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
Until we learn something the universe will keep feeding the lesson to us. This is the good news and the bad news. We are given a lot of chances. As long as we wake up, we have another chance. But we have to do the work to actually change. We have to jump off the cliff.
Two years ago, I jumped off the cliff that was my marriage. It turned out to be okay, but it was not okay for a long time. There was a lot of free fall.
Today, the characters and circumstances are different, but the concept is the same. I'd avoided jumping off the cliff into sobriety for a long time. Really jumping off; not just peeking over the edge or hanging from it looking down while still clutching onto the rocks and dirt. I'd asked others to push me off (they cannot). I'd even hung some limbs out there in hopes that maybe a big wind would just scoop me up and throw me over (also does not work). Turns out the only thing that works is actually closing your eyes, taking a breath, bending your knees and launching yourself forward. Only when you've jumped do you need to fly. I'm remembering I can fly.