may 9, 2020—walking in the woods

Weird day today. Not bad, just weird. But aren’t they all some variation on weird lately, even the good ones? 4 months and some odd days alcohol free for me; today is the first day I was hit with very strong cravings that I just couldn’t shake.

This morning, my two sisters and I, along with a baker’s dozen or so others, got together for a Zoom celebration for an acquaintance’s college graduation, an amazing story in its own right—I don’t know this this young woman well; she’s the first recipient of a scholarship my siblings and I set up in memory of our beloved mom who died just after Christmas in 2018; in the 80’s, our mom was a single parent and poet, in her 30s, hardscrabbling her way through her BA and MA at the same university; by a series of serendipitous events, thirty years later, the scholarship recipient is also a single mom in her 30s who’s also endured mindboggling hardships, an emerging poet *and* weird coinkydink, hails from our hometown—if one didn’t believe in divine intervention, one might suspect the scholarship dealio was rigged…

Anyhow, I was honored to be invited to this gathering this morning, to watch the pre-recorded commencement ceremony, part of which included my gifted friend’s commencement speech. At 9 am, most of the attendees were already celebrating with mimosas and bloody marys, laughing and toasting the guest of honor with laughter and joy. I didn’t know anyone except my friend and my sissies, and suddenly, I felt conspicuously like the odd woman out, as I toasted the new graduate with my lame plain black coffee, startled by my visceral reaction…

I’ve invested enough skin in this game to recognize that this kind of discomfort will show up again and again in my life—a call to grow, as Victoria Valli calls it—and I need to just stay with it and work through it, unsettling as it can be…but I’m also still green enough to think, “Fuck it. I’m a grown-ass woman. Why didn’t I grab a bottle of prosecco and some OJ, and join the party like a real woman…I could call it a data point and move on…” As the morning celebration continued, most of it us talking about nothing and everything; it really was a joyous occasion; though the cravings never really subsided, I held on tight as the waves carried me along. About an hour into the gathering, a woman drinking mimosas cracked open another bottle of bubbly, the group cheered her on. Laughing and bantering back, she filled her glass, all bubbly this time, no OJ…

Toward the end of the gathering, I noticed the bubbly woman was no longer bubbly or engaging with the group the way she had been at the beginning of the event. She was listless, withdrawn, looking off-camera, her eyes flitting from one unseen thing to the next, her smile now tightened into a flat line. I didn’t think much about it, a fleeting notice is all, but it struck me deeper than I was aware of at the time…

After the event was over, the cravings were still front and center in my brain, so with a big bottle of water, I tossed (not literally) my dog in my ol’ Jeep and headed out to a state park just beyond edges of the metro area where I live, and we hiked for a good couple hours. In that time, I breathed in deep cool spring air, exhaled long and warm. I felt the rough ground underfoot, hugged a tree or two (have you ever, literally, hugged a tree? I swear to God, you will feel its strong spirit move through you when you do), listened to bird chatter and wind song and smiled back at the occasional fellow hiker.

As I walked, I asked myself, “Okay. As much as I know that alcohol doesn’t do any of the things I used to think it did for me, clearly, there’s something about today that struck a sour chord. What’s up?” I walked myself through a process that Annie Grace calls the ACT (Awareness, Clarity, Turnaround, inspired by Byron Katie and others): obviously, I still associate celebrations with alcohol. Being so new to the alcohol-free world, and smack-dab in the middle of a fucking pandemic, too—we can’t forget this very critical element—it didn’t feel quite like any other celebrations, since we were all sitting in our living rooms, all dressy on top, pjs beneath, so maybe that’s why it ambushed me. I realized that I had yet to be in a celebratory setting, until today. Of course old feelings would come flooding back in, because all of my life, alcohol always went along merrily with a celebration. Always. Even as a young kid, I remember relatives’ booze-soaked weddings and other gatherings—everyone laughing and dancing and having the time of their lives, it seemed to this kid (we were whisked away for bed before the fights and the DUIs and such ensued). I couldn’t wait for this to eventually become my life as an adult…I recalled my own college graduation, some of it, anyway. Photos of the time reveal a young face already leaking signs: puffy cheeks, glassy eyes, a vacancy in my smile. But I still recall the times as mostly fun, surrounded by friends I loved, proud of my accomplishment, an electric mix of fear and excitement for what lay ahead…

Today, as my feet pressed into a blanket of flattened prairie grass and my hands slid against rough bark, I acknowledged that, until I collect a few more AF celebrations in my brain, it will defer to the deeply grooved, familiar path. I thought about the bubbly woman, and suddenly I knew why she affected my subconscious so powerfully. She was too familiar, like an out of body experience with someone else’s body, watching her morph from cheery and joyful, to withdrawn, disengaged, disappearing expression…

I know this is conjecture, I can’t know anything for certain except what I observed, still, I imagined how the rest of her day might have played out, based on my own experiences. That she continued to drink after the zoom session ended. That she got into a ridiculous argument with her mom, or a sister, or someone—maybe the asshole cable company phone technician, that she wouldn’t remember. That she eventually passed out in the early afternoon, waking hours later as the sun was sliding down the horizon groggy, in rumpled clothes, sticky make-up still on her face, sour, pasty mouth. That she didn’t get anything done she’d wanted to get done for the day; maybe she’d eat crummy junk food, or she’d be too nauseous to eat at all. The rumble of voices that would begin: “How can you get so out of control at 10 am?! In front of all those people? Do you think you’re in college again? God, you’re a grown ass woman, for fuck’s sake. This day wasn’t even about you, but without even trying, you went and made it about you. Again…” I know I’m transposing here, using “she” instead of “me,” because I still want to defer this to other things. How may celebrations have I attended in my history, that ended on a variation of this theme? Hell, how many times have I decided to open a bottle of wine or prosecco, or an IPA or pour a tall gin and tonic on the first warm day of summer, or because I don’t have to work the next day, or because a friend called, or… too many to count.

My mind then wanders over to the territory of envy: that my friend has a beautiful, powerful network of friends in her life, who have surrounded and supported her on her journey, bubbly woman included. They’re all clearly very close, and have been rock solid anchors for each other through various waves of life. How my own journey of the past several years has been so different—that after my husband died, I imploded and cut myself off from everyone, except the bare minimum. My mom, my sisters, a very few select friends. That this self-imposed isolation became a driving source of my own drinking—an unbearable loneliness unwittingly made more unbearable by drinking.

Life is a delicate balance of so many things that are always shifting and reshaping and sliding and settling, things  known and unknown, seen and unseen. It’s a beautifully tragic shapeshifter, incomprehensible and infuriatingly simple at the same time. I know this today, because I am not drinking. Even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I feel my life shifting from disconnect to connected, from running to staying. From imploding to expanding, like the stand of aspen bowing in the wind, we are stronger and more tender than we appear.

If I had given into my cravings today, I would have taken the simple path that only leads to the incomprehensible. I would have missed walking soooo close to the geese and their fuzzy little tennis ball goslings sliding into a pond in the reedy wetlands, I would have missed the stand of aspens glowing raw and green as I am, and the tiny anemone, a deceptively delicate spring wildflower, defiantly push tiny pink faces through deep layers of winter detritus. I would have missed hugging a tree and feeling spirit move through me…I wouldn’t have known that I can, authentically, celebrate a friend’s spectacular accomplishment, without alcohol. I wouldn’t have known that I could offer grace and empathy, rather than judgment, toward a woman I don’t know. And get more from the day than I could have imagined.

please, don’t ever give up. xo

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