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.

Losing the Mess

Life is invariably messy. But does it have to be? There are so many factors in the world we can’t single-handedly control. Right now, the tension within the United States is palpable, never mind the tension brewing with our neighbors on the same continent and across the ocean. I try to steer away from taking heated public political stances because I personally believe it doesn’t help push our society forward – rather it perpetuates the backward momentum – but it is undeniable that we live in scary times. If you look beyond the inflammatory headlines and simply examine the legislation, available as stark, inarguable, fact, it is impossible not to feel a chill of existential anxiety run down your spine and sit like a rock in your stomach. Who can say how it will all conclude? It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on; we collectively have a lot riding on the less-than-pure-white White House.

If that isn’t enough, we are each fighting our own messy personal battles. For example: I can’t control the fact that my upper G.I. system has recently decided to stage a rebellion in my esophagus. No specialists are immediately available, and the discomfort has resulted in being pulled from medication that helps me stay focused, patient, less impulsive, and less irritable. Just when I thought I was starting to get ahead with my health, my body threw a curve ball.

With the world in such an uncertain state of chaos and the circumstances of our lives often out of our control, how can one possibly be content? How can we attain even a modicum of serenity? Doesn’t the grand scale of all this uncertainty make us VICTIMS of circumstance? I think society would respond with a resounding “hell YES”!   But lately, I have been questioning this programmed “victim” attitude in both the personal and political spectrum.

With my personal circumstances, for example, I could ask: “How am I supposed to function?” One version of the aforementioned question would be rhetorical and soaked in self-pity. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t the first version of the question that I did, indeed, ask. I panicked. I shed some tears. I’m a recovering worrier. It’s what I do. But then I asked the non-rhetorical, pro-active question: “Okay, what can I do to function as best I can until this situation gets resolved?”

I think that victims become victimizers. It’s standard practice for political discourse on social media. It’s identity politics. One group feels victimized by another and retaliates by trying to make the other group feel as miserable as possible. Or, in a more general sense, one individual has a miserable life so he or she does x, y, or z and these behaviors detract from the general benefit of his/her personal relationships and society as a whole.

I recently deleted Facebook from my phone for just this reason. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve taken “vacations” but I’ve never permanently pulled the plug. I log on to manage Human Too and to periodically check my wall, but I don’t read my newsfeed anymore. As a gay woman, I very well could be in the political crosshairs. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel like a victim or let my peers suck me into bullying and general misery. You don’t like gay people? Fine. Are you a gay person who feels shitty about the current state of affairs? Fine. I can acknowledge both as co-existing realities but I am NOT going to wallow in the swamp by spending HOURS of my time scrolling through the murk every day. I can’t do anything to clean the water in the swamp if I’m stuck in it up to my chest. When I’m submerged, the water isn’t getting clean. My soul is just getting dirty.

I am learning that we can control a lot more than we think. There are, of course, things I can’t change and must accept. My addiction is one of those things. But I can control my response to just about everything.

Even though the world is arguably more chaotic than it has ever been in my lifetime and I must face life on life’s terms – unexpected hurdles and all – I am also finding ways to invite in more peace and contentment than ever before. And that, my friends, is the beauty of recovery. Recovery is constant learning and growth. But you don’t have to be in recovery to strive for constant learning and growth. One could posit that a life richly lived is the same by definition.

Discovering the Frugalwoods blog a few months ago jump-started my most recent self-evolution. It taught me to let go of society’s definition of success. (I am, in fact, wildly successful! I have a daily reprieve from a deadly disease. And I have a really kind heart.) It taught me about letting go of yet another addiction: consumerism. It taught me how to change my attitude toward money. I didn’t pick a high-paying field but that doesn’t mean I can’t save for retirement. After a few trial runs with some of the principles that work for our family, we are on our way.

It didn’t stop with the Frugalwoods. The Universe has had many things to show me and my heart has been wide open.

I am currently reading a book called Everything that Remains by The Minimalists. The word minimalism often conjures an extreme picture of stark rooms and empty closets. But it’s not really about that. Because when you get rid of all your stuff you are still left with you. It’s about clearing your life of things that don’t add value…and stopping the pursuit of even more things that don’t add value to fill the bottomless void inside.

You will never walk into my home and find barren shelves and empty walls. But I am engaging in a massive clean-out and a firm assessment of whether or not an item/activity adds value. Keeping Facebook on my phone does not add value. An excess of clothes I don’t wear or coffee mugs I don’t drink from do not add value. Buying shit I do not need does not add value.

I said in my last post that I don’t deal in extremes anymore. This is still true. I intend to keep my antique bottles and my seashells and most of my decorations. We will still celebrate holidays and live a full life. It just means that I don’t need more. I don’t need to buy an Audi in two years when my current vehicle is paid off. We don’t need to go out to eat at least once a week. We don’t need presents stacked from floor to ceiling every Christmas. I don’t need to buy everything I see that glitters appealingly in my direction because I “deserve” it.

Every time an item hits the trash or the donate pile, I feel like I can breathe a little easier. Adopting some of the Frugalwoods and Minimalists’ ideologies has added a whole new element of calm and gratitude to my life. I have realized that what I have is enough. It is beyond enough. I have realized that the “things” I value most are time, freedom, kindness, and travel with my wife. I have realized that I can better utilize my money to support these values and that I can quite literally clear both my physical space and my head space for these values.

Everything that Remains also talks about the difference between passion and excitement. As an addict, this resounded so deeply with me that I sat briefly in stunned reverie. I am historically accustomed to experiencing life in highs and lows: excitement and despair. I can fall back onto this roller coaster if I am not careful. Not dealing in extremes does require constant vigilance. The Minimalists point out that passion is not excitement. Sure, passion can feel exciting at moments, but it is also loving something so much that you’re willing to “drudge through the drudgery”. It is discipline and patience. It is putting in the work to master a skill. To say that I needed to hear that message is a vast understatement.

So, yes, while the world burns and my own life continues to be perfectly imperfect, I have been choosing to cultivate an oasis of peace.

I think that the answers to life’s biggest questions are sometimes so painfully simple that it’s appalling that we don’t all “get” them. But the simplest answers are sometimes the hardest to swallow. Recovery programs are full of infuriatingly simple clichés that prove this very point. It has certainly taken me years to get basic principles…and yet I still need constant reminders. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it would be like if the whole world stopped and asked: “How does this add value…to my life and the lives of others? Is this word or action adding value?” And if we all deprogrammed ourselves from excess, consumerism, and an overstimulating amount of technology, would our relationships be better? Would our waste be reduced and there be enough resources for everyone?

The answer is simple but the execution is hard. I can only do my part. Perhaps in cultivating my own oasis of peace, I can skim a little of the murk from the swamp.

*If you’re interested in a FREE copy of the book Everything That Remains, please visit here.