beneath the pines

While slowly navigating a sloping parking lot with sharp sticks and muddy mulch, I argue with my grandmother over which of my daughter’s birthdays had been at a park on a raw, cold day several years ago. My memory is excellent for things that don’t matter, such as birthday party venues and the names of all the boys I’ve liked since kindergarten.

Even though I know I’m right about this, it hits me how silly this need to be right is. I remember a family from childhood whose mom used to argue loudly with her own aging, confused mother when she swore she watched a team of tiny children during the day while everyone else was at work and school.

“You’re here by yourself, Ma” the younger mom said, exasperated. “There aren’t any children.”

The old mother’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms across the front of her downy flannel nightgown.

“There are so children and they greased the banister and slid down and got hurt,” she said. “Several died,” she added.

Every year my grandmother becomes a little more like her own mother, who stubbornly wore cork-heeled wedges around the house well into her 90s and kept a stash of fun-sized milky way bars in her room because she said they helped her sleep at night. My own grandmother insisted on wearing low-heeled but open sandals to the hilly farm today even though I told her sneakers would be better.

After we make it through the minefield of a parking lot and get in line to pay, my grandmother gets stung by a bee on the neck. I don’t see it happen, but she holds her neck with one hand and gestures triumphantly to a dead bee on the ground with the other. She is not allergic and in fact seems to get stung regularly. Last summer, she was stung multiple times on her arms and legs while pruning bushes in her yard. I see now that she’s not phased by her bee sting. She only wants to share her excitement with us.

I start to feel like the trip is a terrible idea. The farm is bigger and hillier than I remember. There are way more people than I expected. Toddlers, strollers, parents – even goats – are everywhere. My own kids are off like shots, and I do my best to track them with peripheral vision and that homing device all parents come equipped with.

When I see my younger one sail off a distant slide and look around for us as nonchalantly as possible, I leave my grandmother’s side to corral her back. From the slide, I see my grandmother look around as nonchalantly as possible. Once we get into her line of sight, I wave my hand and smile until she sees us and smiles back.

My grandmother spies another woman using a cane by the goats and remarks excitedly that she’s not the only one. It doesn’t occur to me that she’s self-conscious about using a cane. Her mobility is very good, excellent even, for someone turning 88 later this month. Her own mother had fought stubbornly against using this very same cane, but compromised by keeping those damn wedge heels. My grandmother uses the cane willingly for balance, but inherited her mother’s love of impractical shoes.

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sensible shoes all around

My grandmother tells me about a class trip she took in her home country when she was a little girl to a place just like this. I think she means a farm, but when she says they sang and picnicked and played in a field by the river, I realize the woods were the destination.

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My grandmother tells me this is the first time she’s felt like she was back in her home country in all the years she’s lived here. She says the woods in her village were so clean, you could lie down and rest and not even have to brush off your clothes afterwards. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and she has no way of knowing how many times my parents and I told and retold that story to each other because we loved it so much. Later, my husband loved hearing it too. We were all tickled at the idea of a preternaturally clean forest, oceans away. I look down at the ground here and see it littered with pine needles and kicked-up silt that she doesn’t seem to notice. For the moment, she is home again and she is happy.

After the farm, we make the long trek back to the car and I feel myself loosen. I help my grandmother buckle the seat belt in my car because it is hard for her and she jokes that I have three children today and I smile like it’s the first time we’ve shared this joke.

Back at her house, we assemble sandwiches and dine overlooking her back yard, which she has spent the last three decades tending and trimming. She has two beautiful bushes in the back that I fall in love with every fall. They’re so big, you can almost stand beneath them and they bloom white flowers in late summer that turn a lovely shade of purple-pink in early fall.

I ask her what kind of bush or tree they are and she says she doesn’t know. She adds, “They’re not hydrangeas” because she remembers I asked her the last time we visited. Last time we visited, I even used Leaf Snap but it only pulled up trees that don’t grow in this region.

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Honestly, it’s bugging me and I say that I wish I knew and she says, “You don’t even know the trees in your own country,” like she’s confiding to me about some other idiot. I am as handy in the yard as a plaster gnome, and this is probably her deepest disappointment in me.

My kids and I say our goodbyes, which weigh heavier each visit, and drive back home in the setting sun. I decide to detour through the town where I went to college, which is also where my other set of now long-gone grandparents once lived. For some reason, I find myself missing them terribly this fall. It’s like I held everything in until this year and now songs on the radio remind me of car rides to their house and old movies remind me of inappropriate things I watched on the small TV set in their back room while the grown ups talked in the main room, oblivious. I ache rawly with love for them it is far too late to express.

Let me tell you something

On the way back from church, we listened to the devil’s music on spotify. Anytime I feel guilty about spending $9.99 a month for premium, I remember how much premium beer I would swill in just one night. By the devil’s music, I mean Halloween playlists. My girls and I are big fans of such classics as Nightmare on My Street and the theme from Ghostbusters. I imagine the devil is probably more into zydeco or Mannheim Steamroller.

My older daughter and I couldn’t wait for Ray Parker Jr. to belt out Bustin’ makes me feel good because it had been a year since we’d heard it last. I was explaining how my second favorite part is when Parker whispers let me tell you something so quiet you could almost miss it, when from the backseat my youngest said “I don’t get why mustard makes him feel good.”

Can I just tell you how much I love kids? I don’t just mean my own, though they’re super swell and I am not at all partial. When I decided to start taking mine to church, I envisioned listening to moving sermons on loving thy neighbor and lip synching hymns because I’m no Ray Parker Jr, while my kids had their own experience downstairs. What happened instead is I volunteered to co-lead my older daughter’s Sunday school class and I’m enjoying this immensely.

My prior group experience dates back to 1995, when this guy Tony and I sat around a circle of folding chairs with “at risk” teens from a Lutheran school down the road from my grandparent’s house. What I mostly remember is this kid, Christopher, talking about building a potato gun to shoot seagulls. I suspect his stories weren’t entirely true since we were hours from the sea, but I myself felt unmoored, adrift. I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing, saying, and I left each week feeling like I let everyone down.

My undergraduate degree was in psychology, though I work in insurance now. How did I wind up here? An old boss said once that he fell sideways into insurance, and I pictured myself doing the same, like a directed freefall. I unconsciously moved away from listening to and helping people, especially young people. Yet here I am in Sunday school, and it feels exactly like where I need to be. These kids, they have so much to say and they are bright and thoughtful and articulate and they have great passion for life and snacks. I feel a deep affection for them.

This brings me to parenting, which is harder to write about without digging into the ugly past when I know I was not the best mom. When I drank, my mind and energy became progressively redirected and preoccupied so that parenting felt tedious, like a distraction. I never was good at multitasking.

I still feel deep regret for this slapdash attention towards my own girls, but mostly I feel grateful I don’t feel it anymore. Over time in sobriety – and this didn’t happen all at once or even in the first year or two for me – I found more patience and genuine interest in listening rather than directing. I learned, I guess, not to make parenting all about me.

After church yesterday, my husband took the kids outside to make our front yard look like a graveyard. It’s a family tradition to dangle plastic skeletons from trees so that we have small heart attacks every time we walk past a front window.

While they hauled out boxes to decorate, I changed in running clothes. I’m training for a 10K next month, and my husband was sort of complainy about me not helping string up demons. I said “I’ll only be gone an hour. You’re getting off easy.” He said “did you ever think you’re the one who’s got it easy?” Touché.

I am super lucky. I have two healthy kids, a husband who loves me, two sweet cats who don’t sit on laps yet but maybe they’ll come around when it gets cold again. We share a cozy old home and not everything works right and we don’t have much money to fix the things that don’t, but there’s food in the pantry and the roof doesn’t leak and ghouls dangle from trees out front. Life is simple and good, and in moments like this and many others, I feel deeply grateful for all that changed since I got sober. On the surface, life looks remarkably the same as it did before, but the way it feels is wholly, entirely richer.

Trail I noticed while running that I want to take the family to sometime. See, running isn't selfish.

Trail I noticed while running that I want to take the family to sometime. See, running isn’t selfish.

the best nightmare ever

I just woke from the most realistic drinking dream I’ve had in a long time. I’d ordered and drunk most of a glass of an old favorite beer and then stressed and fretted about telling people I knew would be deeply disappointed in me, including you. This all went on for what felt like an hour but was probably only a nanosecond because dreams are weird like that.

The first clue it was only a dream should have been that I was eating chicken wings and muffins and getting ready to go to a high school party. Then there were the two sober bloggers helping me fix a bicycle that doesn’t really exist. (which is totally something Josie and Christy would do because they’re the best!)

Drinking dreams have been a completely normal, if occasionally terrifying, part of the sober experience for me. I haven’t had one in a good long while and this one was particularly vivid, but so was the immense relief upon waking. It’s the opposite feeling of waking from a dream where you’re rich or reunited with a lost loved one or, as was the case in a dream last week, of giant sea otters the size of King Kong, only more playful and less murderous.

Sleep has to be the single most curative remedy I still look forward to on a hard or disappointing day. I love the simple act of putting myself to bed once the kids are tucked in. I used to watch Gilligan’s Island, but I guess you can only watch a group of people unwittingly blow their rescue so many times before what should be a simple pleasure feels like the stress I’m trying to escape. Usually I settle in with a good book and read until I feel sleepy. Sweet, sweet sleep…the real nectar of the gods.

I recently read a fascinating post on Greenland which touched on its abnormally high rate of suicide and alcoholism. I have no idea if it’s all fact, but it makes sense that a country which is partly bathed in sunlight 24 hours a day from late May to July might battle serious insomnia and related mood issues. The dog-wolves and landscape sound lovely, but sleep deprivation is hell.

The morning after a night of insomnia reminds me so much of a hangover. I find myself fidgety and restless, stricken with a low grade, pervasive sense of fatigue and doom. All day long, I obsess over sleep and when I can have more without raising eyebrows. I don’t have to look far for reminders of what life used to be like when I drank.

In the drinking dream last night, I won’t lie and tell you I didn’t enjoy the beer. It’s odd how the brain can still conjure tastes it hasn’t had in more than three years, but I can also remember lima beans and it’s been much longer. Enjoying the dream beer doesn’t surprise me because it’s not like I stopped drinking because I didn’t like the way it tasted or how it felt. I stopped because of increasing tolerance and obsession, not only with drinking but also the fearful way of life I saw as inevitable, if not exactly normal.

In my dream, I had already decided to stop at just the one. I was fretting over how to admit my lapse in judgement and how to get people to trust me again. Sober blogging does help me stay sober, though I am pleased to reveal the real reason I still don’t drink is because my life feels so much fucking better now.

If you struggled or still struggle with alcohol issues, I wish a lifetime of periodic, terrifying drinking dreams so that you too will know the flood of relief upon waking. I didn’t give up my precious, beautiful sobriety. I’m celebrating with a trip back to bed.

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.