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.

New Curtains

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am still flabbergasted by the huge difference it has made to delete Facebook from my phone, examine my spending, and gradually purge my house of unwanted items and unnecessary excess. I really can’t get over it. They say that in order to form a habit and change your life, you have to change something you do every day. I never expected that changing such small things would have such a massive impact. This is my fourth blog post in a month. I’m lucky if I clear four posts in a YEAR. These days, I sometimes wake up so inspired that I can barely contain genuine feelings of excitement about the day. It used to take a Red Bull and a cup of coffee before I could move beyond “meh”. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Well… rarely. As a treat. And mostly decaf. I am a tea person now.

I can imagine a critical and/or unhappy-in-life skeptic thinking: “Well, Autumn, you’re obviously going through a phase”. And that’s okay. People said that about my initial sobriety. This isn’t a phase, it’s just another curtain drawing back to reveal the next level of my recovery.

Recovery, as a whole, has been a series of curtains drawing back to reveal life in ever more stark relief. My addiction kept me in a haze. As I gradually recovered, the world not only came into focus but also brightened and intensified in color. It has been a slow process but the exciting part, for me, is that it will continue as long as I’m willing to examine how I can improve.

While I do take the time to talk about what it was like before and how recovery works for me, this “on-going story of recovery from addiction” is just the story of my life. It’s about the evolution that occurs with the appearance of each new curtain: some are pulled aside slowly and others are thrown wide open. I can try to explain what recovery feels like…or I can just show you.

I think I mentioned three different addictions in my introduction: social media, consumerism, and caffeine. It is no coincidence that I feel better; these are all things that have a powerful ability to change the brain. So much can be linked back to addiction. I would even go so far as to argue that addiction could be the achilles heel of our civilization: the scourge of more.

That’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about fighting it.

The irony of addiction is that you chase more but you end up manifesting less. Now that I am no longer chained to my phone, I write more, I bake more (I made a delicious pudding pie, outrageous Valentine’s Day cookies, and sinful macaroni and cheese), and I have more time to dedicate to clearing  space and bettering our home. I discovered that if I throw items relating to tasks I have been procrastinating SMACK in the middle of the living room floor, it offends my OCD sensibilities to the point that I have to attend to them immediately. I read a year’s worth of magazines this way and also sorted through our entire record collection. (We subsequently got $45 of store credit to spend on records to which we will actually listen!)

If you’re struggling with procrastination, throw your shit in the middle of the floor in the most unsightly place you can find. It’s pretty funny how fast you get motivated.

When I moved in with my now-wife, J.L., in 2013, our spare room became a dumping ground. One can’t designate it as a bedroom because it doesn’t have a closet, but it would certainly make an adequate guest area or office. It has been weighing on me for years. Since Christmas, we have been transforming the area into my personal walk-in closet and writing/meditation area. (I say “we” because J.L. has been such a good sport and my muscle-for-hire 😉 ) It’s still a work in progress, but the space is almost clear. I bought a garment rack so I can see my clothes. The items that I don’t wear can no longer be hidden in some dark corner of the master bedroom closet. It is so clear how much I don’t need. I have discovered that there is a pattern to my basic personal style and I am determined to stick to that in the future rather than fall prey to the little jolt I get every time I make a purchase.

I mentioned that I bought a garment rack. I also bought a little turquoise table for a light display, a picture frame, two mason jars, three baskets, and a professional outfit. These items are all for our home/life betterment project. Examining my spending hasn’t meant NO spending at all. It just means that I put more thought into the items I buy rather than shopping for the sake of shopping. I wait three days before I order an item online. I go to the store with a list and I stick to the list. (Most of the time. I’m certainly not perfect!) Consumerism is the hardest habit to break. But I am on track to be one hundred percent debt free by the end of 2018. What temporary shopping high could possibly be more valuable than that?

We have a vision for our life in ten years. They say life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But I think it’s okay – if not necessary – to dream. Our dream is to buy an eco-friendly condo in our favorite beach town and to live amongst the palm trees and tropical flowers. Perhaps J.L. will work at a state park. Since there will be no snow, I can finally drive a classic car or truck. We can park on the causeway and watch the dolphins, pelicans, and herons with our morning tea or coffee.

I can make space for this vision by not only clearing away the financial clutter, but also by lightening our physical possessions. I don’t want to drag a bunch of shit halfway across the country that I either a.) don’t use or b.) don’t care about but keep for sentimental reasons. My house still looks like a mermaid and a storybook gypsy had a baby and it threw-up everywhere: there are sea shells, rocks, dried flowers, jeweled glass bottles, lights, a folk-art unicorn, pin-up girls, and the list goes on…However, every single item I keep makes me smile. If it doesn’t, it goes. Or it will go in the next 5-8 years. Also, as a general rule of thumb, for every new thing that comes through the door, something else gets tossed into the donate pile.

The Minimalists point out that people are not in their possessions. I agree up to a certain point. On the other hand, I view some of my possessions as fragments of my life frozen in time. They bridge the gap between the present moment and a memory. Take, for example, the Bass River Mercantile root beer bottle adorned with a single dried carnation. The bottle is from an anniversary trip to Cape Cod. When I see it, I remember the overcast sky and taking pictures of shells with J.L. I remember getting a massage at the spa that was so relaxing I cried and hugged my masseuse. The carnation? Well, that is from a stranger who sat next to me at WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island. I specifically remember feeling very “anti-people” and I didn’t want to be enveloped by the crush of the crowd. A woman and her companions, one of whom may have been her elderly, disabled father, asked if there was room to sit next to us. Then she asked for help with her camera. English wasn’t her first language and the experience that transpired ended up making me laugh and reminding me that people are mostly lovely and good. The woman found out it was my birthday and she gave me the little red flower. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that people are good. And that I am a part of a benevolent universal fabric that sends me messages precisely when I need them.

That is why I would lovingly pack-up and carry my silly flowers and rocks; looking at these items is like thumbing through a chronicle of my life’s happiest memories. While I am not interested in creating a museum, I know that my brain is fallible and my life’s narrative is precious. I would not remember these moments otherwise. My choices give me creative license to shape my story. I can either smother myself with objects that hold no meaning or I can curate a narrative that celebrates joy and only joy.

One of my favorite artists, Patti Smith, often considers the value of objects in her books and photographs. In an article on one of Smith’s traveling museum exhibitions, Vince Carducci notes:

The chasm between the dead gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation come in. Her father’s cracked teacup, her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith’s cherished 1964 Mosrite“Ventures”-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe, each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

My goal is to keep my talismans thoughtful, if not few. And maybe, like Patti Smith, I’ll write a book. I’m not quite sure what it will be about but, as the fabric of each new curtain billows and unfurls, I am given plenty of material to choose from.