why church

I’ve found myself back at church, though I hadn’t gone in decades. The last time I remember going, I’d ditched out of youth group in search of some party with boys and booze. I imagine Jesus looking downwards, dejected, as my friends and I peeled off into the night.

I was raised in a non-religious household, though my parents introduced us to church and even went themselves for awhile. The one church was too Fire and Brimstone for one, the other too Hippy Dippy for the other. I liked the Hippy Dippy one best. We watched The Yellow Submarine and ate graham crackers heavy with cinnamon sugar. The crackers at the Fire and Brimstone church were plain, possibly saltines.

At the fun church, we got to draw all over a plain white belted robe with magic markers. While captivated wholly by the tale of poor Jacob stripped of his trippy robe and thrown into a pit by his own brothers, which I could easily imagine because I had an older brother, I was mostly thrilled to somehow win this robe as a take-home prize. I kept it folded neatly in the dress up box underneath my bed and wore it occasionally during solemn events, such as the front garden funeral for Sundance the hermit crab and, later, his brother Spicoli.

I don’t know why then that I wound up back at the Fire and Brimstone church a year or so later, alone and voluntarily to my recollection, though we all know how memories are holey and not to be trusted. I remember sitting around a table and closing my eyes tight when the sunday school teacher told us to ask Jesus to enter our hearts and feeling nothing but embarrassment for all of us.

And how on earth did I wind up back at church at the ripe age of 40, or is it that exactly? Is this what people do in middle age, like taking up exercise and paying bills on time and giving up booze and cigarettes? Let’s hedge our bets, play it safe where we can. No one lives forever, you know.

I’m pretty sure that giving up the drink led me to church in a roundabout way. Alcohol was a real spirit blocker and the god talk in early recovery never really bothered me because I picked up right where I left off. I don’t still have Jacob’s trippy robe, but I feel power and comfort in something bigger beyond my own little world. I feel tapped in to other people doing better by themselves and their families and the world at large. It’s intoxicating, ironically or maybe not.

I wound up back at church to give my kids a hopefully well-rounded base for their own spirituality and for my own selfish reasons, though I don’t fully know what those are. A sense of community, maybe, or the feeling of connecting and giving back. The decision to try church again reminds me of when I quit drinking. It feels sudden yet a long time coming, with some purpose beyond grasp but instinctively accepted. It feels like the right place to be, though not without causing conflict in our household.

My husband married someone who didn’t go to church because Sundays were Hangover Days. We drove to Target in the late morning and joked it was our church, with Elvis belting out hymns on the radio. Many years later, his wife is this strange teetotaler who puts on work clothes voluntarily on a Sunday morning and drives the kids to church and isn’t around to paint the hallway or help out with yard work, though to be fair that may be for the best. It’s one more change to adapt to, and I have a hard time explaining to him or anyone why church? so I guess I am just attempting to do that here.

No dealbreakers here

Occasionally I get emails from people who are thinking of getting sober but aren’t quite there yet. I love getting these emails, but they scare me a little too because I want to tell them it’s fine here in Soberland – better than fine, even peachy keen most days – but I remember that jumping off point and how little I thought about it before making the leap. My counselor at the time told me to get to AA and I blindly did that and it just so happened to work for me in those early days. I went to meetings and I soaked in the stories and feeling of support and hope, and sobriety just kind of blossomed from there.

But what about those people who don’t believe AA will work for them? I know numerous people who got and stayed sober without setting foot in a meeting because it didn’t appeal or sometimes didn’t occur to them. They took up blogging or yoga or painting or running or chocolate – sometimes all of the above – to fill that god-sized hole that people at meetings talk about all the time, but of course they don’t know that because they’ve never set foot in one. Is their approach any more doomed or less-than compared to a 12-step recovery program? They certainly don’t seem to think so.

And what about someone who already went the AA route and doesn’t want to go it again but fears there is no easier, softer way? This isn’t a deal breaker. I believe there are as many ways to get sober as there are to go about your day. You can wake up and drink and lose most of it in blurriness and blackout regret or you can choose not to drink and read a sober book or blog or email a sober stranger instead and start to build your sober support network. And not drink. That last part is the only thing you absolutely must do if you want to stop drinking.

In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking of not drinking and aren’t quite there yet or you just want to read a poem about how to climb out of hell, Christy at Running on Sober cranked this out in a bout of sober insomnia. I’ve been up since 3:30 and all I wrote was an essay about carrying a metal Holly Hobbie lunchbox to school  and fighting over a tire swing for my daughter’s first grade class (my daughter just asked who’s Holly Hobbie?). Some of us make beautiful music, some of us clank around pots and pans. It’s still sober, and sober is pretty awesome, let us be the first to tell you.

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Yellow

The past few Septembers felt rocky and unsteady as I struggled with this idea that, hey, I’m not in charge of everything. It’s a time of transition and change and ragweed, all of which I’ve written about before in a kind of can you believe this? tone that even I am sick of. 

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This year I don’t feel so fooled into thinking I am in charge or need to be. This year I keep noticing how yellow everything looks, like the green is leaching out of our landscape in preparation for the brilliance of fall. This year, for some reason, I keep traveling back to September of my freshman year of high school. 

That was the September I tried out for cheerleading and made it, not because I was good but because there were only two more girls than spots and the coach showed mercy and let us all on, though true mercy would have been to point me in the direction of recycling club, which was a real thing because I joined it the next year and littered the hallways with preachy posters made on non-recycled paper. 

Cheerleading and I just weren’t a good fit. I was the cheerleader who always seemed half stoned, and only occasionally because I actually was. I only did it for that one excruciatingly painful fall into winter and tried to laugh about it later to people who didn’t know me then and who would say “hm, I can’t really picture you as a cheerleader.”

That was the September I tried on a completely different me that wouldn’t fit and in fact would have to be returned, but in that glorious month I drank rolling rocks and made out with older boys in backseats of now classic cars and accepted the life I was sure I was meant to have. Once the rolling rocks wore off and the older boys avoided eye contact in the halls, I wrote terrible short stories about a cheerleader who fell from the tippy-top of a pyramid and haunted the school. No shit. Man, I love that period of my life now. I’m so freaking glad it happened. That might not make sense or maybe it does. 

Fall is still one of my favorite seasons. It used to be the undisputed favorite but got put on probation after I got sober. It’s taken the completion of three falls to not equate this time of year with Oktoberfest merrymaking, ie Beer. I think this makes perfect sense. I drank for so many falls…more than 20. Would my brain suddenly forget just because that would be more convenient for me? I think it takes a long time to break some of these associations, these strongholds in the warmest, fuzziest (bald-faced lying) recesses of our memories. 

This September fits. It’s the only way I can describe it. I’m not happy about some things and I feel kind of stagnant, but I’m mostly okay with not being happy and this makes me feel less stagnant. This year I want to take in the yellow of September because it’s only here for a little bit and it’s really quite beautiful.  

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Bison! I’ve been looking for these guys all summer and here they finally are.

Not swimming with sharks

If summer were a meal, I ate the whole thing and feel satisfied. 

I wrote the above sentence last September and then said how crazy I felt anyway. I’ve had the phrase I ate the whole thing stuck in my head again lately. I’ve also felt the angst that comes with putting too much on my plate: the guilt and greed of wanting it all, the doubt that I’m worthy of any of it, and the disappointing reality that summertime isn’t one big lemonade commercial. Although yeah, it kind of is. 

I took an unplanned break from reading and writing blog posts and the act felt like drifting along a lazy river all day wearing only SPF 4. It felt easy and indulgent and reckless all at once. I didn’t drink or change my mind about drinking. Every purple-orange-pink sunset confirmed that life has richer hues without drinking, that none of this would even be possible if I were still stuck in that hell rut. 

We just got back from a final trip to the beach. I felt off my game in packing for it and forgot all sorts of things…phone charger, medicine, nectarines rotting sweetly in a basket at home. Most schools started back already, and any remaining tanned beachgoers had a dazed, tired look, like they missed the last ferry home and were sorting out what to do about it in no particular hurry. 

One night, we walked along the beach and saw a crowd forming. A fisherman had caught a five-foot shark and everyone stood around watching it thrash about while also looking dazed or possibly bored. The fisherman finally cut the line and another brave/stupid soul awkwardly cradled it back to the waves. As the shark’s fin disappeared under the water, my youngest asked “why didn’t anyone tell me those were in there?” 

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A couple of mornings later, I went for a much anticipated run 4 miles up the coastal highway to check out one of the old submarine watch towers that pepper the Delaware coast, relics leftover from WWII if you can even imagine.

 

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I’ve been riding past these towers for, oh, roughly the last 40 summers and never stopped to get a closer look. This year inspiration came and rewarded. 

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great graffiti

I ran 6.2 miles to mentally prepare for a 10K I signed up for this fall and walked the remaining distance along the shore with an endorphin high and jelly legs and true appreciation for those who run half marathons and longer. The wind whipped the ocean and sand around and ruled out any kind of beach day. The truth is I never got in the ocean at all this season to swim. I drove home yesterday feeling bent out of shape about it and not sure why it bothered me so much. 

I think I decided that not swimming this year made me feel suddenly old, like my best days are behind me. I wallowed in that feeling on the drive home and it receded some, so I think that was it.

Maybe it was a break, nothing more or less. Breaks can be good.

 

 

Lessons in mindfulness from an 87 year old

My grandmother tells me she wants me to read a letter from the electric company, so I follow her into the small room next to her bedroom. This room used to be my great-grandmother’s den many years ago and still has an old lamp of hers and paintings that once hung in her home on Birchwood Avenue.

Every available surface of the den has been taken over with neat stacks of rubberbanded letters and bills and photos my brother and I sent her over the years. There’s my old cat when he was in his prime. There’s my niece when she was in grade school. There three of us stand in our finest suits after my grandfather died.

The letter my grandmother shows me has love letter written on the envelope in her blocky, angular print. The letter has something to do with a penalty charge for refusing mandatory installation of some newfangled meter, and when I tell my grandmother she says “they already told me I don’t have to pay that” and rustles through other stacks and doesn’t find what she’s looking for but doesn’t seem worried.

We both shuffle back to the kitchen to sit at her table and eat cherries and look out onto her beautiful backyard through a big picture window. I can’t remember now if she had this window put in, but I think she did. It would have been the biggest change she’s made since moving from the city 25 years ago. The blood-red carpeting in the living room is still there. The ivory wallpaper with its gold accent still clings to the pillar near the door, and my youngest needs reminding not to pull at its curling edges.

It strikes me during this visit how deliberate and mindful my grandmother is. I used to struggle with even the definition of mindfulness in early sobriety, and here is a living, breathing example before me. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

My grandmother doesn’t do anything quickly or half-heartedly. In fact, in the past when I’ve told her we’re in a hurry – that we have to leave by a certain time and that time happens to have been 15 minutes ago – her entire demeanor changes. Her eyes take on a certain wild flightiness. Her shuffle becomes more pronounced but not faster. Her relaxed smile first straightens at the corners and then disappears. The first lesson in mindfulness that I learn from my grandmother is to ditch the schedule.

Early in our visit, she takes my daughters and I to the back bedroom, the one that I don’t like sleeping in because it feels haunted, even though I don’t believe in such things. We look at a very old picture of relatives hanging on the wall. This photograph and a pair of wooden Siamese cats used to hang in the hall in my great-grandmother’s house and they scared me. It was something about the eyes.

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L-R: great-great-great grandmother (name unknown); great-great grandfather, Antonas; great-great grandmother, Magdalena

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Siamese devils (names unknown)

I notice my own kids have quietly left the room. I get it, kids, but I am older and closer to these relics than I am to youth and need to hear what they have to say. My grandmother tells a story about her great grandmother in the old photograph. This is the second lesson in mindfulness: the key to the past lies in the quiet of the present.

My great-great-great grandmother used to visit the United States regularly. In those days you didn’t need a passport but simply money to travel and something my grandmother called a ship card. When my great-great-great grandmother returned to Lithuania, she brought enough candy for her nine grandchildren in a straw bag that she hung from the ceiling to make sure it lasted. The grandchildren sat below the straw bag transfixed like obedient dogs until it was empty, at which point she traveled into town with her straw bag and filled it with less exotic candies to restore order.

My grandmother tells me other very old stories and I make cryptic notes in my phone and think where did I put that small cassette recorder we had years ago and where does one buy cassette tapes now anyway. Unlike my kids, who begrudgingly pose for too-many pictures, my grandmother is a proud, patient model. I take a picture of her standing next to the photo of our very old relatives with haunting eyes and she lays two pair of tiny shoes she believes belonged to my now adult niece on the green shag carpet and asks me to take a picture. I do because I am the archivist and this is my job.

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Before we leave, I ask my grandmother to tell me her sauerkraut recipe. She is the only one who can make it and, believe me, the rest of my family gets a little panicky when Thanksgiving rolls around and she’s on the fence about coming. Her recipe involves bagged sauerkraut and chopped cabbage, a whole onion removed at the end, some shredded carrot for sweetness, cloves of allspice and some other ingredients I can’t remember but thankfully wrote down on yellow lined paper I brought home along with a container filled with sauerkraut she’d made a few days prior.

Here’s where I confess I left the sauerkraut overnight in the car and briefly considered serving it anyway but ultimately thought how tragic it would be to poison the family with grandmother’s beloved recipe. I dumped it in the trash and then removed the trash from the house because sauerkraut is potent stuff. I feel terrible about it, and I know I have a lot to learn about mindfulness and not getting so far into putting the kids and myself to bed that I forget to unload the car.

Here’s where I thank you, Dear Reader, for making the visit to my grandmother happen. When I wrote the last post about my grandmother, I had a flimsy excuse not to make the longish drive to see her. And whether or not you meant to change my mind, too many of you commented how you missed your own Dear Grandmothers and how lucky I was to still have mine. I can take a hint, though sometimes it takes a gentle knock upside the head. So I want to thank you for your comments and prompting. My grandmother thanks you too.

 

Blog tour thingy

Last week Paul tagged me in an ongoing open project that gives bloggers the chance to share their writing process and tag other unsuspecting bloggers, which is what I’m going to do at the end of this at this post.

Here is Paul’s post. Paul is one of my favorites because he’s funny, smart, kind and he scours the internet for the most disturbing and/or cutest pictures to work into his beautiful messages about life and recovery. He also writes the most thoughtful and kindest comments I’ve ever seen. He’s priceless.

Here are the questions and my answers to the blog tour thingy.

What am I working on?

Today I am working on how I’m going to clean the bathrooms after work and before karate class. So I am working on hopefully inspiring one of you to invent an affordable bathroom cleaning robot. I would suggest a self-cleaning bathroom, but last week I self-cleaned the oven and started a small fire so a robot seems safer. 
 
I am also pre-writing a post based on a surprise visit with my grandmother last weekend after I said I wasn’t going to visit her and you all left touching comments about how you lost your grandmother and miss her very much. When I say surprise visit, I told her I was coming, so it’s not like I rang her doorbell and hid in the bushes and jumped out. 
 
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
 
I have a hard time writing over 800 words. I include pictures I’ve taken myself or occasional doodles. I write about non-sober things like grandmothers and cats and running and trees. None of this feels different and I like that about blogging. I feel no pressure to fit into a certain mold. It’s very freeing and fun. 
 
Why do I write/create what I do?
 
Years before I got sober and while I was struggling through a tough time, I started a nonsense blog that had approximately 3 followers. It was a lot of fun and I was instantly hooked. I switched to a sober blog to work through the first year of sobriety and then it snowballed once I realized what a great source of support it was. I get to connect with so many amazing people I never would have met otherwise! This is my favorite part about writing. Writing is an extroverted introvert’s dream come true. 
 
How does my writing/creating process work?
 
I usually have most of my new ideas while running. I had this great idea for a radio collar-activated cat door on a run but later saw it had already been invented, so I try and stick to thinking up blog posts. I pre-write them on runs (or in the car/shower/bed) and usually remember at least a few points or key phrases. If I wait too long in between having the idea and getting to a computer, the post vanishes into the ether, but I know another will come along shortly like a bus or a bill. With 800 words or less, these posts are usually quick to write and edit.

 


The other bloggers I am tagging are Michele from Mished Up, Sherry from Oh For the Love of Me and Josie from The Miracle is Around the Corner. I’ve followed these lovely ladies pretty much from the start and learned a lot from their wisdom and kindness.

Michele writes beautifully on a variety of topics, from music to meditation to grief, but she is best known perhaps for motivating a bunch of us to choose a word of the year each December to work on in the coming year.

Sherry is a funny lady and a straight shooter and I’ve seen her reach out generously to help newcomers in recovery. This post she wrote recently pretty much covers it.

Josie is not only a blog buddy but my go-to for local 5Ks. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with her in real life several times, which I never thought I’d be doing when I started here three years ago. She’s even more terrific in person. What I love about Josie’s writing is how dedicated and instructional she is. Here is a recent favorite post about acceptancea topic she seems to cover when I am struggling with the same.

There is no pressure at all on any of these ladies to write a post and tag others if their schedule is too busy. This blog tour thingy is my way of sharing a few writers who helped me over the years through words and kindness. As Paul said to me, it’s not a chain letter :)

Dog days

Grandmother with great-granddaughter

I called my grandmother today. She said she’d been waiting for me to call her back for the last two weeks. She said she’d left a message on the answering machine at the beach, a message I’d assumed was already old when I heard it because I’d talked to her the day before. The date stamp on the answering machine was no help. Sunday 2pm, the tinny robot man informed me on Wednesday. I pictured her sitting by her phone unmoving while the sun rose and set in the sky, again and again.

My grandmother launches right into politics and world war III. She says “I know you won’t believe me” which makes my ears perk up like when I hear my name mentioned in another room.  She uses some word that isn’t really a word – castrophy? astrosy? It’s familiar enough that it rolls around on the tip of my tongue, waiting for the correct combination to fall out.

She asks after me and the kids and Joe and moves onto childhood friends I still keep in touch with. I tell her about one friend who had surgery and another who suddenly became gravely ill and she says “You know what that means?”

“I’m next?” I ask.

“It means you’re the HEALTHIEST one,” she says, her voice strong and proud.

She asks if I still smoke and I say no too quickly and then remember the time in high school she walked right up and reached into my pocket and pulled out a pack of smokes I’d thought were hidden. I think I was smoking Benson and Hedges then because, you know, sophistication. She let me smoke at her house once and we lit our cigarettes on the stove and stood in the kitchen chatting like old friends. I cherished that moment until she ratted out the smoking to my parents. Some wounds are hard to forgive.

My grandmother tells me about an AARP luncheon she went to that cost $3.37. She has no idea why that oddball number but says they couldn’t provide change so she wound up giving them a sixty-three cent tip. She points out the lunch included unlimited coffee and declares it a “good deal” even for $4.  The speaker during lunch joked how old the crowd was and said no one could hear him but they were all nodding at where they thought he might be because they couldn’t see him either. My grandmother says they almost fell out of their chairs they were laughing so hard. I picture overturned walkers and canes askew, broken hips and $3.37 plates everywhere.

When my grandmother learns Joe is out of town, she tells me she wishes I would come down to visit even though she knows I can’t.  She says it just like my kids do when they point out a wonderful toy they know I won’t buy them. I launch into a lengthy excuse involving our cat’s new medication regime for asthma. My grandmother suggests maybe we adopted a defective cat and spends five minutes detailing how she came to the decision to put each of her long-gone cats to sleep.

Her cats all had funny sounding names because they were Lithuanian, like my grandmother. One of my friends used to ask me to tell her the cats’ names because she could never remember but thought they were hilarious. We used to prank call people and I would ask confused old ladies if my grandmother’s cats were there.

“Yes, may I please speak with Snujuki Ryunuki?” I would ask in some terrible accent while my friend trembled with laughter. Kids these days don’t appreciate how caller ID ruined everything, really.

My grandmother and I talk about how hot it’s been and how much worse our storms are than anybody else’s storms anywhere, ever. She tells me she can’t go outside in the afternoon because it’s too humid and there’s nothing to look forward to. For a moment, I can’t remember if I’m old like her. It feels like we are the same person, even.

I say these are the dog days of summer. They’re supposed to be lazy and easy, but mostly they feel deflated and bleached out. We bide our time sprawled across the cool tile, waiting for some sweet breeze we don’t even believe is coming.

My grandmother tells me she’s going to make sauerkraut though she doesn’t know why because no one is coming to eat it. She sounds happy before we hang up, bright with anticipation of cooking for an army of none. When it’s time to say goodbye, she makes a kissing sound through the phone. I do the same and the asthmatic cat looks up expectantly. My grandmother and I say our goodbyes and I pad off into the kitchen like a lazy, aimless dog.