Figurative Vessels

I’m writing a book. Well, co-writing a book, to be more accurate. We started the process over the summer. I haven’t really talked about it outside my closest circle because I feel like it’s one of those things you should do and then clap for your own damn self. Some people need to talk about their greatest endeavors. Lately, I only need to discuss them insofar as it’s necessary to stay accountable.  Truth be told, it’s probably because this is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. Talking about it makes it “real”. As a (recovering) addict, I am inclined to tiptoe as far away from “real” as reasonably possible. When it’s not real, it’s safe to fail.

One would think that writing a book is a solo project. It’s not. I am growing accustomed to the fact that things, in general, tend to be better when they are the result of collaborative effort. As it happens, I am currently sending the Universe strong mentorship vibes. I need someone to look at the skeleton of our work and show me how to animate it into the best possible version of itself.

At any rate, I’ve been missing this blog and the process of writing just for me. It’s not that I don’t have time – it’s that some of the stories I am poised to tell haven’t played themselves out to completion. Sometimes I’ll start a post and be unable to finish because I simply don’t know the ending. Unfortunately, they are big stories, and not telling them makes me feel a bit like I’m choking. At work, I tell my clients that looking at things in the present is just as important as examining them from the other side. It creates a measuring stick for progress. This situation is a little different. I fully believe that some things happen because we are meant to be instruments of change. In order to be an effective advocate, I need to keep my progress under lock and key for a short time.

It’s funny – when I was active in my addictive behaviors, I could only write about things in metaphor. Today, it pains me to be ambiguous. I think it’s a sign of significant growth that I prefer to be unequivocally raw. I’d rather be in my own skin than hiding beneath a veil of mystery. I can’t wait until the last pages of these stories unfurl and I can share my discoveries with you. In the meantime, I am standing my ground and letting the words take shape.

A ‘voice’ motif keeps popping up this year. My purpose in life seems to be – among other things – helping to give people a voice. The whole premise of the Human Too campaign is to provide a platform for people’s narratives. The book I am co-writing isn’t my story, either. In a roundabout way, the Universe has my best interest at heart. The ego is a particularly complex animal for alcoholics and addicts. By and large, we tend to be egomaniacs with inferiority issues. When I focus more on other people, the world stops revolving around me. I have less time to ask “What do people think of me?” On the other hand, I think it’s important to make sure I don’t let my own story get lost. It’s important to come home to myself. When I go within and reflect on my own narrative, I grow.

The reason I share my reflections so publicly (and help others to do the same) is because I think it’s a matter of life or death for us to vocalize and celebrate our flawed humanity. Many recovery programs are rooted in the power of the shared narrative. But, looking at things from outside the scope of recovery, it’s clear we are losing touch with ourselves and each other. Social media, for example, is about creating some kind of perfectly filtered ideal. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it becomes a shield behind which we can treat our fellows inhumanely. How do we form and maintain genuine connections under these conditions? In either scenario, we are moving further and further away from the very things we should be striving toward.

We don’t, however, have to label technology as good or bad. It’s a neutral thing. We choose its significance. My aim is to be part of a societal shift in significance. For every idyllic vacation photo or sickeningly sweet ode to my wife (can’t stop, won’t stop), there is also evidence of the flawed nature of my life. I set goals and partially or completely fail to meet them.  I quit drinking coffee and now I’m back in the damn Dunkin’s drive thru every day.  I set bottom lines around Facebook and food, and I don’t always stick to them. (Those are my “F” words!) Sometimes, when I’m not at home, I eat cheese. Sometimes, when I see a cute dog video, I post it. I am undisciplined and I struggle to form healthy habits. That’s precisely why I needed help to kick my most dangerous predilections. I still need help. And I will use every resource available to let people know that it is perfectly okay to ask for it.

My other writing ventures notwithstanding, I haven’t been making time for my own blog because I feel like I don’t have anything new to say (or, more accurately, I’m not quite ready to say it). Upon further consideration, I’m realizing that I don’t need to say anything new. In fact, I think it’s good to repeat some of the same things. Repetition has been a cornerstone of my recovery. I can only speak for myself, but my brain is addictively wired. In order to rewire it, I need to hear the same things over and over. I need to hear that it’s okay to ask for help. I need to hear that it’s okay not to be perfect. I need to be reminded of the simple solutions. Otherwise, my old circuitry kicks in and I’m on the crazy bus to trouble town.

I don’t like the crazy bus to trouble town. It smells like stale beer and ashtray, and I can never shake the feeling that I’m careening toward certain doom. Today, I’m grateful to be cruising around on the Carpathia looking for other survivors (yes, I just jumped from a bus analogy to a ship analogy). Regardless of your figurative vessel of choice, it’s going to be okay. We’re all doing this messy thing together. If you don’t like where you’re going, you can change your means of transportation at any time.

Love and Wonder

I loved technology when I was a kid. In middle school, I entertained myself for hours by teaching myself HTML code and photo manipulation. While the internet ultimately played an integral part in my addiction, it was also a creative outlet and a tool for inspiring positive change. I started my social media campaign, Human Too, in that same spirit of positivity and I feel incredibly blessed to have creative license in my career as a web content manager. However, the drawback of working with social media platforms is that you actually have to use them.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some element of futility in trying to harness social media for benevolent purposes. The part of me that teeters on the edge of needing a tinfoil hat -but I don’t think is too far off the mark – cynically believes that technology is not only a drug contributing to the achilles’ heel of civilization, but also a means by which the masses can be easily manipulated. That’s some serious 1984 or House of Cards shit, but it’s tough to refute. The difference between me and other cynics is that I still think it’s possible to live a contented and meaningful life in spite of the disillusionment.

When you turn on your TV set or scroll through your newsfeed, it seems as though the world has collectively gone mad. And maybe that’s not far from the truth. The world doesn’t make sense. There is an element of absurdity to the whole concept of human existence. But when you unplug and stop to consider the realm directly outside your window, the picture is likely to stand in stark juxtaposition. Maybe you hear the traffic or the crickets. Maybe you watch your neighbor get the mail or water the garden. Maybe the breeze blows. Maybe someone on the street coughs or waves or speaks indistinctly. And maybe, in that moment, everything is okay. So which version of reality is the most accurate?

If you choose to invest yourself solely in the digital narrative, it’s easy to view the world as an angry, hostile place. And sure, people are angry…but mostly we’re afraid. I can only speak for myself, but my buttons are most easily pushed in terms of my identity as a gay person, a woman, and a police wife. “How will you hurt me? What will you take from me?” These are the questions behind my own personal brand of rage. My fears are immediate and acute and frequently supersede my consideration of my global brothers and sisters. We are all self-preservationists in our anger. We are driven by and united by fear.

All of that is not to say that self-preservation is bad. The instinct to survive is what makes us human. Fear is human. It is merely an observation that we share a common ground.

In a climate saturated with the threat of nuclear war and simmering racial tension, it’s only natural to feel like our existential terror is somehow unique. But millions of people have experienced or are currently experiencing the heaviness of wartime. Millions of people have experienced plagues, famine, natural disaster, genocide, and the collapse of civilization. Millions of people have held their lover and wondered what kind of earth their children were destined to inherit. We have been fearing the end since the beginning. It’s part of the package deal when you occupy this planet.

I used to get very upset by the idea that there is no life after death. I don’t know what I believe anymore, but I think it’s highly likely you simply cease to have consciousness. I believe our energy leaves an imprint on a place. I also believe in the fabric of the Universe – a divine thread connecting all living things – but beyond that, I cannot say for certain.  The only reason the uncertainty bothers me now is because I can’t bear the idea of not seeing my wife. I guess if we don’t have consciousness, we don’t know the difference.

These are heavy thoughts. Perhaps you’re thinking: “What’s the point?” And here’s where the cynics and I diverge. The point is that you are conscious in this moment. The point is that you have the ability to love and to be filled with wonder. Our purpose, in my view, is to love and wonder.

Early in my college career, I spent about five minutes as a philosophy major. Looking back on my notes, I found a page that declared “the meaning of life is awe”. If you can maintain your sense of awe, you have unlocked the secret of living. It’s hard to say how that bit of insight came to me, but I have subscribed to the ideology ever since.

Addiction numbs our consciousness. Our drugs of choice block us from feeling love and wonder. We die prematurely.

There’s a reason Buddhists strive to be “awake”. There’s a reason yoga and meditation advocate for the present moment. The “now” is all we have. It is the only time in which we are able to love and be loved. It is the only time we have to consider the profound and miraculous beauty of our delicate existence. The precariousness of our position is what makes it breathtaking.

I don’t think anything needs to “come next” for this flawed and absurd life to be more than enough. We don’t need to do anything for life to have meaning…we need to simply be. I have often sat by the ocean and reflected sadly on the idea that the dead no longer have the capability to inhale the intoxicating air. It is a gift to experience the wonders of this wild earth. I think the real question is whether we receive it or we reject it.

The activity of appreciating the morning light is not just for poets and painters – it’s for humans. If all I do with the rest of my days is exuberantly behold the sunset and love as much as I can, I have achieved the “it” for which mankind toils. If all I do is celebrate wildflowers, a good meal, clinging rain drops, a shy smile, cool summer grass, and all the other remarkable minutiae…it is enough.

I am sober. I am awake. My being vibrates in the truth of the moment.

The cards are stacked and it’s hard to say how the deck will scatter. I don’t know if anything I do will ultimately make a difference. But I know that my being has purpose. I want my voice to be a whisper in the din: “Wake up”. Don’t die without living. Don’t live without meaning.

Mangrove Musings

I don’t know much about Ernest Hemingway, but I can certainly understand why he chose to keep a home in Key West. Florida was never on my “must-see” list – I had always dismissed it as a tourist trap – but after visiting several times, I found myself surprisingly and unabashedly in love. If you can get beyond the strip malls and the dangerous highways, there is something both indescribable and intoxicating about the peninsula.

I love the South in general. The sight of Spanish Moss destroys me in the best possible way. I love the flowers, the birds, and the vague sense that everything is a little haunted…like energy from several centuries is trapped in the humidity.

After dedicating several trips to the Tampa Bay region, J.L. and I picked the Florida Keys for our belated honeymoon. At first, we questioned our decision. Although our rental house in Grassy Key was beyond breathtaking, the weather was initially very moody. The wind washed pungent seagrass onto our small beach. When the grass started to rot, the smell was hard to abide. Furthermore, we realized we had chosen an especially busy week. The traffic was so bad that we were unable to enjoy Key West or Bahia Honda park.

While we certainly encountered our fair share of challenges, J.L. and I were not about to sulk in such a beautiful place. I’m so glad we made that conscientious choice.  We may not have posed for a photo at the southernmost point of the U.S., but we did stuff our faces full of mahi-mahi, spend a glorious day in the Everglades, get acquainted with a crew of rescued dolphins, watch gigantic fish swim in the lights underneath our dock, eat cheesecake by the fire, and swim like fiends in our ridiculous pool. All the while, the air was filled with the perfume of tropical flowers and tiny lizards scurried over every conceivable surface.

Our very favorite thing, however, may have been taking the kayak out to explore the little inlets near our rental property. We saw so many birds – most notably a crane – and a prehistoric horseshoe crab. In one cove, we floated in one or two feet of water, while below us there were literally thousands and thousands of upside-down jellyfish. It was a surreal experience.

While I will never forget the beauty of the Keys – nor the novelty of seeing a sea turtle in the wild or a crab crawling out of a hole in the forest floor – I am still haunted by some of the pollution I witnessed.

In one of the state parks, there is a sign informing visitors that the Keys are on a well-traveled shipping route and, unfortunately, the passing ships are responsible for much of the trash that washes up on shore. As if the sign wasn’t disconcerting enough, the volume of trash I saw trapped in the mangroves shook me to my core. There wasn’t much I could do about it from the kayak – or without an army of helpers – but the image made a lasting impression. I don’t remember seeing nearly as much garbage twenty years ago as I played on the pristine, rocky beaches of Downeast Maine.

One of the most amazing things about getting clean and sober is that the world begins to open up to you. I have been very blessed to travel in recovery; this year I am looking forward to visiting St. Augustine, seeing Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, and celebrating my 31st birthday in New York City. Before I got sober, I had never even stepped foot on an airplane. Traveling is most definitely a gift… but it is also a teacher. It forces you to see the world with fresh eyes. When I was active in my disease, I was too absorbed in my addiction to think about how my life impacts the planet or my neighbors around the globe. Today, not only am I self-aware, but I am also aware of the world around me.

When I wrote Losing the Mess, I shared about how I am striving to cultivate an oasis of peace in a chaotic world. I think that sometimes we can focus on the problems around us rather than attending to the issues within us. It is the perfect cop out: “How can I possibly work on myself when there are so many problems around me that need to be solved? It would be selfish. No one would dare accuse me of making excuses when I’m being helpful”. This armor we construct around our fear is more transparent than we think.

I have always been a very sensitive and altruistic person, so it took awhile for me to understand the concept of self-care and “wearing the world like a loose cloak”. When I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders, I didn’t realize I was adding to them rather than alleviating them. Working on myself is the best possible thing I can do to foster healthy relationships and heal our ailing planet.

It sounds counterintuitive… but most things that work are contrary in nature. Imagine if everyone in the world stopped fighting and worked on becoming the best person they could be. I think we might finally know peace.

I don’t have control over anyone else, though, so I can only focus on myself. This has become a key mantra for me in the past year: “Can’t control others, can only control myself”. Aaaaaand repeat. Because I forget just about every five seconds. Relating to the world from this perspective helps me maintain a sense of compassion. I am still far from perfect, but it has saved me from becoming an angry and jaded person.

In Losing the Mess, I talked about “skimming some of the murk from the swamp” by bettering the space within my control. I guess this post is about how I am continuing to explore that concept. It has been almost a year since my honeymoon and – coupled with the fact that I just recently watched the documentary The True Cost – I am beginning to push the envelope of personal change further still.

I never thought about the people who make my clothes. After watching The True Cost, I am a changed woman. I love documentaries – part of the work I do with the Human Too campaign draws from the documentary spirit – but I think it’s easy to walk away from these visual educations and think: “Ugh! Society sucks. Why can’t other people get their shit together? Human beings are gross. This world is doomed”.

Whelp, that attitude isn’t very helpful. And I don’t think that’s the kind of reaction filmmakers are trying to inspire, either. I admit, I looked at the footage of shoppers in various chain stores – and beating the shit out of each other on Black Friday – and thought “Murderers! Awful, awful people!” But then I stopped and thought: ” You’re the same. How about focusing on how you can do better?”

I don’t think I am going to single-handedly save the world by shopping from fair trade stores and rinsing out my plastic cups for recycling. But if I try to treat the environment and my global brothers and sisters with thoughtfulness and love, at least I can look back on my life and feel a sense of peace because I did the best I could with what I had. What more do we have to offer, really, than our very best?

Life feels so much better when you relate to it from a gentle place. I am interested in judging less and doing more. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It matters what I am doing. I used to get offended when people in recovery meetings told me to “mind my own business”. Now I cherish that advice because it refocuses my attention on the one thing I can control: myself.

Here are some of the changes I am implementing:

  • Giving up bottled water. Although I am not willing to sacrifice my favorite seltzer, there will still be a whopping 48+ plastic bottles/month that no longer come from my household.
  • Recycling more in general. I need to stop being lazy and rinse out my yogurt dishes, margarine containers, and rare iced coffee cups .
  • Buying fewer articles of clothing, i.e. not shopping for “fun”. (Seeing how much damage the garment industry is doing has taken the fun out of it for me.)
  • Researching earth and people friendly brands. Patagonia is my favorite. I also like the looks of Alternative Apparel for basics.
  • Giving up some of my favorite brands…like Victoria’s Secret. Vicky, the secret is out: You’re mean! We’re breaking up!
  • Simplifying holidays. There’s no reason we need to have presents stacked from floor to ceiling. (We got off to a pretty good start on this goal in 2016.)
  • Focusing more on consumable gifts. Experiences are much more valuable than things.
  • Adopting an attitude of longevity in spending versus an attitude of disposability. I do not need to replace perfectly good items just because it’s “trendy”. I will ask myself: “Is this item high quality and made to last?”

I’m not sharing all this on some mad mission to change the world. I’m sharing this because maybe there are people out there, like me, who are just trying to navigate this shit with some sense of dignity, grace, compassion, and peace. I know I don’t feel very peaceful when I’m railing against other people about what they “should” be doing. I feel peaceful when I make changes in my own life and share my story with others.

I think that’s what the process of healing often looks like: sharing your story and saying, “Hey, if you’re interested, I can show you how I got to this point in my life”. I know that’s how it worked for me when I was getting clean and sober.  No one said: “You have to do it this way,” or “Hey, you’re pretty fucked up. Why don’t you pull your shit together?” People just shared about how they modified themselves and, if I wanted to make a change, I was welcome to ask them to show me the way.

I recognize that I am profoundly privileged to be thinking about these issues. My life no longer revolves around some form of addictive obsession. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a reasonable amount of mental and spiritual wellness. My heart is overflowing with gratitude.

It always amazes me that the happiest people in the world are those who arguably have the least. It’s not the millionaire or the king. I want to emulate the people who find abundance in “enough”. Now that I don’t have to chase substances or behaviors, I want to stop chasing “more”.  I want to honor the planet that sustains me and share my abundance with my brothers and sisters.