sunday, march 14, 2012…a whole year…

A whole fucking year ago…I don’t think I’ve use the word fuck more than I did in 2020 (which is saying a LOT, because I say it a LOT), though already, we’re only mid-March, and 2021 is a close contender. In my defense, I’d argue that studies prove people who swear are more verbally fluent (fuck yeah!), honest and intelligent than their non-cussing counterparts, but I might be accused of confirmation bias. pfffft. What the eff ever, I say to that.

Swearing nor not, I’d still offer this advice a year later, today, or any day: Get outside, take some deep breaths—exhale as long as you can….Jon Kabat Zinn says “as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong.” I came upon his words months ago, when I was still living in Minneapolis, when the twin cities were still deep in the smoke of riots after George Floyd’s murder, when when breathing, or not being able to, was on everyone’s mind and lips, when I was wakened constantly by throbbing helicopters, wailing sirens, roaring pickup trucks tearing down 24th…I’d go for walks in the neighborhood, to local parks, sometimes drive to William O’Brien or Afton state park, just to feel the ground (not asphalt or sidewalk, but living, breathing earth) underfoot, wrap my arms around trees, glide my hand along rough skin, press my cheek against strong trunks. To feel a tree’s heart beat, when you have nothing or no one else to hold on to, is astonishing and calming, even amidst chaos. It really is.

Who would have thought, a year ago, we’d still be in this strange state a whole year later? Who could’ve possibly imagined the immeasurable devastation contained between last March and now? No one, that’s who. We were all so innocent, so optimistic last March, weren’t we? Well, except maybe the holy genius, Michael Osterholm, who’s probably been wandering around muttering “told you so, told you so, told you so” all day long, for decades. Why he hasn’t just bailed on humanity and our Olympian dedication to willful stupidity long ago speaks to his holiness. Lord knows I would have, which is probably why the lord of such things, if there is such a thing, didn’t put a brain like Michael Osterholm’s inside someone like me, who has zero tolerance for bullshit.

I recently read an interview with a scientist who isn’t Mr. Osterholm, described the impact that the past year has had on our bodies and minds as a “covid concussion.” I like the catchiness of the phrase; as I read through the article, I would be inclined to call this year-long state complex grief, with a heap of trauma thrown onto the steaming pile. Mind-boggling losses, this past year…the similarities between a concussion and the impact of the pandemic on our brain, though, is fascinating to consider.

Maybe thinking like this would help more of us to be kinder and gracious to ourselves in this jacked-up era if we understood the true impact the pandemic is wreaking on our physiology, psychology and dare I say spirituality… maybe instead of beating ourselves up for not doing more with this “gift of time,” we could decide we’re like someone with a concussion in the ICU, who is deserving of the greatest, tender loving care we can administer…maybe it would help knowing that we are still very much in survival mode and our body is doing everything it can to protect us…maybe what we end up doing is not the best thing for us, but maybe it would help to know that there is profound and gentle grace hiding in the doing, that we are doing the very best we can with what we have available, and that if whatever we’re doing isn’t working, at any point we can start over, as many times as we need to, and try something else. Maybe we would drop to our knees in awe, if we knew that our soul loves us so much, it’s using our body to get our attention. Maybe it would help to know it doesn’t have to be a massive overhaul all at once; that every day matters, every single thing carries weight—even the screw ups, especially the screw ups. And even the slightest of shift can offer a blessed reprieve…and slight shifts, as they accumulate, begin to nudge toward change, and it doesn’t take special equipment or a class or guru. It might simply begin with our breath, and as we marvel at our ability to tune into our breath, even if it’s just a short time today, we might begin to see that all along, we’ve been our own guru, patiently waiting to be noticed among the external things we keep turning to… and “dang those Indigo Girls,” you might think, “if only I’d studied Closer to Fine the way others study the Bible, all of this would have come together for me a long time ago…”

The catastrophic losses we’ve sustained continue to accumulate, on personal and communal and global levels. A year of extreme contradictions, incongruence, disruptions, chaos, violence of epic proportions, there’s barely enough time to catch our breath before the next wave crashes in—I’d argue that the hardest, most damaging element of this year has been the things that aren’t visible, touchable, breathable—the severing of relationships and connections to those so vital to our existence. A tragic version of Opposite Day, where staying apart became the deepest expression of love and care, and being together has the capacity to kill—I don’t know if our hearts will ever be able to reconcile such incongruence in our lives or the fallout…it will stain our hearts and brains to varying degrees, forever…but I also know that our world is filled with breathtaking stories of resilience and survival, and these stories are not fairytales or the Hollywood movie version, they’re often teeming with fuckups without a happy ending, or they’re quietly happening without fanfare or headlines, and not even realized as powerful survival stories until long after the tragedy has subsided.

A year ago, I lost all three sources of my income in one fell swoop; it took months to get on the state’s emergency unemployment program because my work is a strange hybrid that fell through the cracks (my deepest gratitude to my dear, wise friend Marty Bragg, for showing me through that quagmire). My loved ones were suddenly, jarringly inaccessible. A year ago, an all too-familiar anxious, incessant buzzing settled into my cells and followed me wherever I went, even to sleep (did I even sleep last summer? I sometimes wonder). This everpresent panic mode felt alarmingly familiar, echoing what I experienced when my husband was diagnosed with cancer and our life was thrown into a blender set on puree, the same alarm that resettled into my cells after the 2016 election and never went away.

A year ago, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were murdered, George Floyd’s murder would soon follow, the names on the list continues to grow… a president and his administration blatantly denying the global crisis that landed on our soil, refusing to do anything to mitigate the swiftly growing catastrophe or to help the average and disadadvantaged, our nation floundered, states left to their own devices, we in the midwest watched in horror as each coast was rapidly invaded by the virus, how long it would take to reach us. A year ago, I was in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program, which like everything, transitioned to the abnormal godsend/curse of Zoom. Even in two dimensions, our pained, bewildered state was so palpable, our ability to concentrate, shredded; my cohorts and I gave online readings instead of in-person, we had no idea if anyone was even out there listening to the stories and essays and poems we’d cobbled together in crisis. A year ago, we were thrust ass-over-teakettle into an epic tragedy, and our options for support suddenly, severely shunted…we were forced to become resourceful, or desperate, or despondent, whatever it took, to get through…

What was different about this crisis than others I’ve been in, is that a little over a year ago, I quit drinking; it was only meant to be a 30 day experiment, but at the end of January, I decided to commit to another 30 days, then another…my life was pretty ho-hum then; I wondered aloud, could I handle a crisis without any alcohol? Hell, what about a concert? A friendly gathering? Can I even dance without a couple glasses of wine? My sister blames me for the pandemic.

About a year ago, I wrote in my journal: “March 31, 2020. 91 days Alcohol Free As F*ck. Smack dab in the middle of a goddamned global pandemic, no less (is “global pandemic” redundant? does the goddamned make it not?). A wise person once said, ‘Life is what happens when you make other plans.’ To say that no one saw this pandemic coming, much less was prepared for it, is the understatement of the century. I sure as hell didn’t plan to be sober during a worldwide crisis—that’s not my usual crisis strategy. But I sure as hell plan to stay that way while riding this changing-by-the-minute-crawling-out-of-my-skin-waking-up-in-a-full-blown-heart-racing-mind-on-warp-speed-panic-attack-every-night-i-don’t-have-a-job-and-am-so-alone-and-my-god-all-the-people-getting-sick-and-dying-when-will-the-shit-hit-full-force-here-and-uncomfortable-doesn’t-even-begin-to-describe-these-excriciating-debilitating-waves-of-uncertainty-and-fear-I-think-I-might-vomit—which sounds an awful lot like a hangover, except it’s not. Believe me when I say it’s a million and one times better to wake up feeling like that without an actual hangover slathered on top. I think…talk to me in an hour, when the next crisis drops…

Right now, being AF feels like the only super power I have to help me navigate life on a planet that’s staging a mutiny-without-end against the collective transgression its inhabitants have inflicted upon it (I’m 100% convinced that’s what’s happening). Scared shitless, I feel like Signourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and that little redhead girl from Brave, all bundled up into one, and I’m going to protect this superpower like it’s the last roll of TP on earth. I know too well what alcohol does to me in crisis. Kicks my fears, anxiety and worst-case-scenarioitis into hyper-drive sending me into a downward spiral of depression, paralysis, brain fog, shame, self-loathing, guilt. Pour, swig, sweat, repeat. Why has it taken me so long to come to this truth? My god, the timing…

I’ve quit drinking countless times in the past. Nothing to it. After 30 days, I check the “not an alcoholic!” box and head on my merry way, to celebrate with a bottle of wine…there’s a huge difference, I’m learning, between “quitting drinking” and digging-deep-and-do-the-hard-ugly-absolutely-worth-it-work-to-figure-out-why-I-drink-in-the-first-place, and spoiler alert: it goes back to childhood. Always does, doesn’t it. God, who wants to go back there? No one, that’s who, but another spoiler alert: it’s where real healing begins. I’m not gonna lie—I adore a good, hoppy IPA any time of the year, a robust red in the fall, a refreshing gin and tonic in the summer, it makes this introvert feel more at ease in an extrovert-intense world. But, I’m also not gonna lie—alcohol was an insidious intruder in my life, seeping in and slowly stealing my joy. Sure, drinking took a spike when Bob got sick, but out of the gate, it’s been a dysfunctional thing in my life. It’s the ultimate anesthetic—yes, it does a bang-up job of blurring sharp edges, dulling the sting of great loss and other life hardships, but it also cuts my creativity off at the knees, it disconnects me from others, except on a most unsatisfying, superficial level, most importantly, from myself. It numbs all the feels, not just the hard, but all the really good stuff, too, to the point where not much else exists in a body except dread and anxiety and looping thoughts of doom and failure. Do that long enough and you’ll begin to feel like you’re dying from the inside out…it’s funny, how few people even catch on…But, here’s an interesting discovery—I can do most every single thing I used to do when I drank, WITHOUT DRINKING. Most things, even better….WHO EVER EVEN KNEW??!!

How does it happen, that alcohol becomes so deeply engrained into every facet of our lives, we get to a point that we’re convinced we cannot do a thing without it? It’s hard to resist slipping in a “Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t THAT bad!” disclaimer (the fine line between “not that bad” and “that bad” is often a crisis, say a pandemic, or plain and simple dumb luck—DUI, or…point is, it doesn’t have to take a tragedy, quantity or degrees of “that bad” don’t matter, there’s an insidious danger to that mindset, I speak from experience—you will do nothing for far longer than necessary, at your heart’s expense); at the same time, it’s horrifyingly nauseating, to reveal myself as someone who was not a superstar-caregiver-advocate but someone who was losing her shit behind the keyboard while her husband was dying (it never occurred to me until just recently, that I could be both—a deeply loving, competent caregiver and a brokenhearted, traumatized wife—such contradictions/truths can equally exist in the same body at the same time, we are divinely complex creatures like that)…who, even alcohol free, is as freaked out as the rest of the world is right now in a pandemic, maybe even more so, because I’m not resorting to my usual emotion-numbing strategy… I’m curious to know what it’s like to take on a crisis or hell, just day to day life, head on, with real, not liquid, courage. Do I even have it? Can I even do it?

The fact that I haven’t gone more than 90 days without alcohol for as long as I’ve been drinking, is a sobering thought, to use the AF world’s most over-used pun…I want to see with my own clear eyes and fog-free mind, how this shit show’s gonna go down. We’re living in terrifying, severely disconnected, maybe end-of-world times, and I can use all the help I can get, especially now that my usual reserves aren’t available…). I’m more alone than I’ve ever been in my life, and I know too well where isolation leads me when left unchecked…”

A whole fucking year ago, I wrote all that…which is NOT to say I’ve handled the past year like a boss because I’m not drinking. I often think I should be doing more, accomplishing more, embracing more, NAILING this pandemic, now that I’m of unadulterated mind…I still hate most things about it. I hate masks, I hate distancing, for someone who’s a self-proclaimed not-a-hugger, I miss hugging most of all. I still overall despise teaching restorative movement and Pilates online—I did not ever plan on teaching online (though a curious, unexpected side effect is that the clients I am working with are progressing at a rate like I’ve never seen in a studio setting. I am convinced that it’s because they cannot rely on me to “do” their work for them; the weird environment has made me a better teacher because I have to be more creative with modifications and progressions, more observant, among other reasons.)

I have to remind myself that feeling all the feels is insanely intense, even day-to-day life without a crisis layered heavily on top, and that is life. It’s hard, period. Makes it glaringly apparent why I’d drink in crisis in the first place. Intense emotions can be immobilizing, even the good ones. As a culture, we’re not particularly adept at handling them. Our first inclination is to somehow try to alter them—either enhance or subdue—so we don’t have to deal head-on (spoiler alert: they’ll still be there, patiently awaiting our attention…). There are as many ways to numb as there are stars in the sky. Alcohol is just one of endless coping strategies. Which also means, there are as many ways to begin returning to our precious selves as there are stars. Begin with the closest, simplest act: breathe. Then, take it to the woods, and give those trees a big hug. xo.

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