Me, Myself, and I Still Believe

I wanted to wait until after Christmas before I tried to write.  I was hoping, by now, the self-pity I’ve had wrapped around my throat might have gotten loose and fallen away.  It hasn’t.  I’m still all bound up and feeling sorry for myself.  Not because I’ve been craving a drink and feeling deprived.  And not because I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to spend Christmas with.  I had a perfectly lovely holiday—surprisingly pleasant for a woman who is only a few days into her fifth month of sobriety.   I have absolutely nothing to complain about.  But that still hasn’t stopped me from feeling sorry for myself.

I was determined to go to church Christmas Eve.  I was, after all, a pastor for more than a decade.  How could I not?  I stepped into the sanctuary, took a candle, found a seat and knew immediately my being there was a mistake.  Everything felt very very wrong.  I didn’t belong in a pew.  I was supposed to be the one leading worship for crying out loud.  The one who would soon rise to preach the Christmas gospel.  The one who would gaze upon the candlelit faces of people she had grown to love.  I was paralyzed.  I couldn’t sing any of the songs.  I tried like crazy to pray.   It took every ounce of strength I had to hold myself together and keep from dissolving into tears.

My alcoholism has robbed me of many things.  It took whole years of my life and knotted them into discarded bundles of forgotten days.  It compromised my health to the point where I got right up to and crossed the line past which I would never again know what it was like to feel well and whole.  And it took away the possibilities of my ever picking up the pieces and trying again, for I am now numbered among the disabled.  But what I grieve the most is no longer feeling at home in sacred space.  I am a pastor without a congregation, a servant without a call.

Christmas came and went without a miracle.  I didn’t wake up to a second chance under the tree.  I can never go back.  I don’t get a do-over.  All  I can do is not drink today and then wake up tomorrow and not drink again.  Eventually, life is supposed to get better.  At least the people in the rooms all say it will.  So far, the promises have eluded me, though.    I am not yet able to imagine what all that happy joyous freedom might look like for me.  But they tell me to not give up until the miracle happens, so I continue to stick with it.  One day at a time.

Thankfully, a new year will soon begin.  I desperately need a clean slate on which to draw four new seasons of possibilities.  2014 was pretty gruesome.  Let it be enough to say the year brought the end of my career and a 30 day stint in a rehab.  I am grateful for the cold days and long nights of winter that lie ahead.  My staying in and laying low will be far less obvious to the world.  Hopefully, by spring, a miracle or two will begin to bud on the barren branches of my sagging spirit.  Between now and then, I’m just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other and waiting.  Easter always comes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Redemption

The revelation of a verb,
the subtle nudge of a modifier,
weave an intricate pattern of possibilities.

When I abuse the letters,
linking consonants to vowels and spaces
with no purpose and to no end

I clutter the whiteness
of an otherwise pristine page
and corrupt my creativity with regret.

Oh, to have it gone.
To clear the evidence of my frailty.
To start over in the emptiness of space.

Beyond the letters
lies the key to my salvation:
The omnipotent mercy of almighty Word.

I strike swiftly.
Distortion collapses into nothing.
Leaving a welcome blankness in its wake.

Possibility is restored.
Hope again released to dance on white.
Words set free by the redeeming grace of deletion.

The Great Cat Compatibility Experiment

[The following was written in response to this week’s assignment for Blogging University’s Writing 201:  Instructional.   It is definitely not something I would normally write.  I promise more authentic pickled stuff is to come.  Please check back.  Thank you.]

Last night was the first night Mercy slept in our bed since October.  Between her and Trouble, she had always been the one to snuggle.  That is until Lilly, a long hair tortoise shell adult female, came to live with us.  For the safety of all concerned, Lilly got the bedroom.  A closed door separated this newest member of our household from the other two cats.   As might be expected, Mercy was none too pleased.  Reluctantly, she resigned herself to curling up on the sofa.  Trouble had pretty much always been content to sleep just about anywhere, so thankfully there was no immediate crisis in his world.  It was, however, going to be a long two months.  The great cat compatibility experiment had begun.

Mercy on sofa

When it was first decided that Lilly would be coming to live with us, I wanted to make everyone’s transition as easy as possible.  Insofar as Trouble and Mercy had lived with me since they were kittens, I decided a little research was in order.   I searched Google for “how to introduce adult cats” and was reminded of two things I already knew:  cats are primarily territorial by nature; and introducing adult cats would require tremendous patience.  I was not deterred.  I read on.  Some of the advice proved helpful.  Much of it was just common sense.  Two months have since passed and we’re all still alive.  Maybe I did something right.

Separate but equal

I didn’t need an expert to tell me to initially keep the cats separated.  This was Trouble and Mercy’s home and a new cat would certainly be perceived as an intruder.  Lilly’s bed arrived a full three days before she did.  The other two didn’t seem to care.  Both were relatively uninterested in the bed and its strange scent.  I took that as a good sign.  I was optimistic.  When Lilly finally did arrive, carrier and all went into the bedroom.  The door was promptly shut, and Trouble and Mercy were left on the outside wondering who or what had just taken possession of such a large part of their territory.

For Lilly, everything was new.  She still had her bed.  Her food and water bowls were the same.  And her litter box hadn’t changed.  But everything else about this new space was unfamiliar, especially the strange smelling blanket (Trouble and Mercy’s favorite) that lay next to her bed.  Lots of attention and reassurance would be required.  It was absolutely essential for her to feel safe and loved.  Someone was in the room with her as often as possible and, when not possible, the television was left on to keep her company.  By necessity, she was adjusting.

Trouble and Mercy were understandably curious and insatiably needy.  It was imperative that their schedule not be disrupted.  Meals and treats came at the same times they always had.  Their litter boxes were scooped promptly after breakfast.  With the exception of their having been cut off from the bedroom, nothing else had changed.  But that one closed door was all the evidence they needed to know something was amiss.  I don’t think they ever had more interactive play time and loving, but they still knew life was about to change drastically.  Tentatively, they waited.

Not so pleased to meet you

About the time Trouble and Mercy figured out there was another cat in the house, it was decided that introductions were called for.  Now, the experts all agree that you should never hold one cat in your arms while introducing it to another.  A bit of advice I would encourage my reader to heed.   In the event things don’t go well and a fight breaks out, someone could easily get hurt.  I, however, have always been somewhat haphazard when it comes to the instructive wisdom of others.  Holding Lilly securely in my arms simply felt like the right thing to do.  So that’s I did.

Lilly 3Now, Trouble and Mercy are your typical black and white cats.  Not tuxedos mind you, just mixed up black and white.  They took one look at Lilly in all her multi-color long-hair glory and appeared immediately confused.  I was sure I could read their thoughts:  “Is that a cat?”  “Don’t know.  Hard to tell under all that fur.”  They gawked.  Lilly trembled.  The humans cooed and coaxed in conciliatory tones.  Not much else happened.  Initial introductions were concluded.  Lilly was returned to the bedroom.  The door was once again shut.

The next day, introductions continued.  Same preliminaries.  Only this time, Lilly ventured beyond the safety of human arms onto the sofa.  And so it went.  Each day, Lilly mustered up the courage to go a little farther.   I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there was some hissing.  Truth be told, there was a lot of hissing and even the occasional growl.  Lilly, Trouble, and Mercy were definitely three less than happy cats throughout the whole ordeal.  There were moments I feared our feline compatibility experiment might fail.  But giving up was not an option.  The humans would prevail.  We persevered.

Good things come to those who wait

For nearly two months, progress was only made in increments.  Lilly would spend her days negotiating the sometimes perilous territory of the house, and her nights safely sealed away in the bedroom.  Ever so slowly, however, the climate in the house began to change.  First, treat time became a group activity.  All three cats.  All at the same time.  All within feet of each other.  Then, there were those occasions when, for one reason or another and only ever for a short while, no one would be home to supervise.   The bedroom door was deliberately left ajar.  Much to our relief, everyone survived unscathed.

Little by little, Lilly, Trouble, and Mercy began spending more loosely supervised time together.  Any audible tension was immediately investigated and addressed.  But, for the most part, all three cats were tolerating each other—or maybe even getting along.  Although Lilly was still spending her nights in the bedroom, Trouble let it be known that these arrangements were no longer satisfactory.  He’d lie in the hallway, reaching beneath the door with his paw and whimpering like a rejected lover.  For her part, Lilly would hiss and carry on, but I suspected she was rather flattered by the attention.

Trouble and Lilly (other side of door)Before long, Lilly and Trouble would be rocking that door in its frame at night trying to get Lilly out or Trouble in.  I’m not sure which.  They learned if the noise persisted long enough, someone would eventually get up and open the door.  The first time it happened around 5 AM.  The next, closer to 4.  And then, opening the bedroom door became more like a middle of the night trip to the bathroom.  Finally, it seemed pointless to even close the door in the first place.  At least that was our reasoning last night.  The door was left open.  The humans slept.  The cats survived.  And Mercy got the bed back.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, they still hiss at one another.  The top perch of the cat tree has become the major cause for contention, but they can just as easily get their whiskers in a knot over any perceived offense.  A spray bottle has proven enormously helpful in pointing out selfish behavior.   They can stomp their feet and hiss at each other all they want, but raise a paw, and they get a squirt.  Not that I’m foolish enough to think we will live in perfect harmony happily ever after.  There are and will continue to be skirmishes.  We are all going to be ok, though.  I am sure of it.

I would encourage anyone who is bringing an additional cat into the home to do your research.  Do a Google search.  Talk to your vet.  Call that crazy cat lady you been trying your best to avoid up until now.  In other words, know what you are getting into.  But, when all is said and done and those paws hit the carpet, the single most important thing you’ll have going for you is that you know and love your cats.  They pick up on that.  Cats are smarter than we give them credit for.  If the humans in the house are convinced that everything is going to be okay, chances are they will.

Please know, dear reader, I write only out of my own experience.  There are some cats in this world that cannot cohabitate regardless of any amount of love shown or patience demonstrated.  Such an outcome, while unfortunate, is no one’s fault—neither human nor feline.  If your own experiment fails and it becomes necessary to rehome your newly adopted cat, just make sure he or she is entrusted to the care of someone who will love and care for it as you had wanted to.  It is your responsibility to make sure your cat has a new and happy home.

Now that our sleeping arrangements have been renegotiated, I am confident the nights around here will be considerably quieter.  I also suspect the day will come when the great cat compatibility experiment will be but a distant memory and any initial fears long forgotten.   I am looking forward to that day.  For now, however, my attention has shifted to seeing whether or not our Christmas tree survives until the end of the year.  It’s always something.

This Year’s List

pen

When it came to Christmas cards, my mother would have made the marketing folks at Hallmark proud.  Of course she loved receiving cards, but she was also borderline obsessive about sending them.  One year, I remember her mailing off a photograph to some company she found in a catalog.  Her cards came back with a pen and ink drawing of our house on them.   I thought that was a little over the top.  I mean, I liked our house and all, but the idea of my friends’ parents getting a card with a picture of our house on it mortified me.  Why couldn’t we be like normal people and send Christmas cards that looked, well, at least Christmassy?  There was no arguing with my mother, though.  Christmas cards were her department and she was in charge.

She kept track, too.  In a book.  Page after page of addresses and columns and check marks.  Name.  Year.  Sent.  Received.  She often talked about cutting her list back, about not sending cards to the people she hadn’t received a card from for a while.  She never did, though.  If your name was in her book, you got a card.  Unless you died that year, in which case she would neatly draw a line through your name and tuck your obituary inside the back cover.  Yes, her Christmas card book was her go-to for all sorts of information.  Addresses.  Birthdays.  Death notices.  You name it.  If she thought it was important, it was in that book.  Looking back, it was most probably symptomatic of some sort of addiction disorder, but at the end of the day, no one could say my mother wasn’t organized.

It didn’t stop there, either.  You’d think by the time the tree was down and the decorations put away my mother would be over the whole Christmas card thing.  She wasn’t.  For days after, she’d sit down at the kitchen table to look through her cards just one more time.  “Don’t you want to see my cards?” she’d ask.  I dutifully would sit down next to her and try to appear interested.  “Yes, Mom, that one does read nice.”  “Yes, Mom, it is a beautiful picture.”  And so it would go.  She’d read and reread those cards well into the spring.  Eventually she threw them away.  She had to, because every year there was a new bundle.  Stockings and snow and the baby Jesus all wrapped up in a ribbon. Tangible reminders that people remembered her, that something she said or did in her life mattered.

I don’t have a Christmas card book.  Never did.  But I do keep track of who I send cards to.  There is, you see, a key to my address book.  This year’s designation is a solid circle.  Not to be confused with the empty circles, x’s, and check marks of years past.  If an address entry has a circle colored in next to it, I sent a card this year.   Now, I realize such a system may very well make the case for there being a genetic predisposition to addiction, but my Christmas cards are all done.  Sealed and stamped and ready to go, with corresponding 2014 orbs noted in my address book.   I’m not sending to everybody, though.  Stamps have gotten expensive and too much has happened in my life this past year to risk raising unnecessary curiosity.

There’s no way I could write one of those inane enclosure letters.  And say what?  “It’s been an interesting year?”  “I lost my job, spent 30 days in an alcohol rehab, and followed up with an intensive outpatient program?”  Sure, I could go on about having been sober for nearly four months now, how AA has become an integral part of my life, and that I’m feeling more alive and hopeful than I have for years.  But I know people wouldn’t read that far.  They’d get hung up on the rehab part, the same way traffic slows down at the scene of an accident.    I’m just not going there.  There’s no reason to clutter up my holiday with a bunch of well-meaning phone calls.  The only people who are getting cards from me this year are those who either already know or don’t ever have to.

I am aware not everyone sends Christmas cards.  There are people who think a “Merry Christmas” status update on Facebook suffices for a holiday greeting.  But I’m not one of them.  For me, cards will always be an unavoidable necessity.  I  have relatives in the don’t ever have to know category who would think I died or something, wonder why they hadn’t seen my obituary, and neatly cross my name off of their own lists.  Some cards simply have to be sent and I am hoping to at least get a few back this year.  More than ever, I need to be reminded there are people who remember me, people for whom something I said or did in this life mattered.  I know it’s ridiculous.  You can’t judge your value as a human being on how many Christmas cards land in your mailbox each year.  But I can’t lie.  I do.  I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

Countdown

Being Able To Breathe

seashore

Morning is the best time of day.  And by morning, I mean those fragile hours between the middle of the night and daybreak when the world begins to stir.  Danger is still out there lurking in the darkness, huddled together with desperate lovers and junkies scheming for another fix.  This hour of day, everybody’s hooked on something.  Nobody comes through the night unscathed.  If you’re awake at this hour, chances are something’s on your mind.  Maybe you write about it, or maybe you act on it, but there’s something eating at you.  I guess that’s what makes the dawn so interesting.  Impending daylight reveals the raw humanness of people. Nobody’s hair looks good at 4 AM.   I like that.  Always did.

Two mornings ago, I stumbled upon my younger self in the back ally by the dumpster.  She looked tired and hallow, as if she’d been running on empty for days.  I wanted to share with her all I had learned in the intervening years, but I knew she wouldn’t listen.  Who cares what old people think, anyway?  Instead, I asked if she wanted to have breakfast with me, if the two of us couldn’t sit down with a hot cup of coffee and talk about whatever was bothering her.  She looked nervous and I thought for a moment she was going to take off into the night.  But, before I knew it, the two of us were sitting at my kitchen table with our hands wrapped around steaming mugs of coffee with cream.  All these years later, I still drink it that way.

The room felt heavy with awkward.  I stood up to adjust the blinds, hoping to prolong the safety of night.  Reaching down to scratch the cat who lay curled up by the sill, I searched for words of encouragement.  What might I have most wanted to hear?  Certainly not anything about trying to get sober or giving AA a shot, that’s for sure.  What could I say?  “You will survive this.”?  “You will one day buy a condo and adopt a cat and sit down with yourself for coffee”?  “The ramblings of an idiot,” that’s what I would have thought.  So I simply resumed my seat, took hold of my mug again, and hoped real hard that words would come.

“How about eggs?”  Yep.  That was it.  No brilliant insight.  No buoyant words of hope.  Just, “How about eggs?”  Those were my first words.  “I’m sure you probably don’t feel like eating, but maybe some scrambled eggs?  I could make rye toast.  I think there’s even jam in the fridge.”  I watched as my younger self stared back at me.  Or maybe into space, I couldn’t be sure.  She lifted her mug with effort, took a sip of coffee, and then set it back down on the table.  “OK if I smoke?” she asked.  “Sure,” I said.  “I still do, too.”  And, with that, I retrieved an ashtray from beside the sink and set it down between us.  You would have thought I had poured her a near-full tumbler of vodka.  The relief on her face was that obvious.

I reached for my own cigarettes, lit one, and thought to start again.  “These past few days have been warmer than usual.  Are you still collecting seashells?”  One would have thought I had just asked the best possible question.  She smiled, retrieved her bag from the back of the chair, and pulled out a still-sandy conch shell.  Proudly setting it down on the table, she studied it for a short second before asking, “Isn’t it beautiful?”  She was obviously more delighted with her own discovery than curious about my opinion, but, for the sake of making conversation, I answered her anyway.  “Yes.  It is.  Amazing.  Really.  When you think about it, the sea is the giver of such wonderful gifts, isn’t it?”

“A generous one at that,” she agreed.  “The tide has saved my life, you know.  More than once.  Whenever my heart starts racing and I feel like I can’t breathe, it’s the only thing that helps.  It’s like I have no choice but to go down to the sea and focus on the waves.  They go out.  They come in.  They go out.  They come in.  Eventually I begin to take up their rhythm.  I exhale.  I breathe in.  My heart slows.  My mind clears.  Out.  In.  Over and again.  Until finally I feel ok.  At least ok enough to go home or maybe look for shells.  I found this one this morning.”

Taking up the shell with her now warm hands, she continued.  “Listen.  When you hold the shell to your ear like this, you can still hear the waves.  Go ahead.  Try it.  They’re in there.  In the shell.  Like an emergency kit to go.  I can bring the waves with me!  Here.  Listen.”

She extends her arms eagerly, wanting me to take the shell.  Sand spills out across the table.  I don’t care.  I gratefully accept the shell into my own hands and hold it to my ear.  The emptiness feels like an almost forgotten secret.  She is right.  I always was.  The sea is in there.  I listen.  Something catches in my throat.  I breathe.  Out.  In.  I remember.  “Yes,” I say.  “I can hear the waves.  This is a beautiful shell.”

“I’m glad you like it.  I thought you would.  Not everyone understands.  People think I’m crazy.  Who walks the beach looking for shells in the winter?  At dawn, no less?  But you understand, don’t you?”

Yes, I have always been a little crazy.  Never really minded all that much.  Crazy makes living a little more colorful and certainly more fun.  I smile knowingly and place the shell back on the table.  “I have always treasured shells,” I say, simultaneously nodding toward a collection dating to both before and after her present.  So many shells.  Silent.  Dusty.  Souvenirs of another time.  “You know, you really shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think.”

“I know.  But it’s hard not to.  I mean, how can I not?  Other people, they never aren’t able to breathe. Other people don’t get rescued from death by the sea.  Other people just don’t think like I do.  I’ve got to be crazy.  Never been anything but, though, so I live with it.  Sometimes I write.”

“You should try to do more of that,” I say.  “Don’t ever stop.  Stopping can get you all jammed up.  The words can’t get out and, before you know it, you’re alone with a bottle praying to God for your thoughts to stop.”

Her eyes widened.  “You know about that?” she asked.  Her voice barely audible.  She looked thinner than I remembered.  Almost gray with exhaustion and despair.  Too familiar.  “I know,” was all I could say.

Oh, did I know.  I think I survived for whole years without breathing.  I should have never stopped looking for shells.  Should have kept letting the words find their way out of my head somehow.  Should have stayed focused on keeping myself alive.   I drank instead.  Killing another piece of myself with every bottle.  I’m one of the lucky ones, though.  I’m ok.  She will be, too.  But I don’t want to tell her that.  It is good that she is afraid.  If it wasn’t for the terror, I’d probably still be drinking.  Either that or dead.  But I couldn’t say that either.

“Is rye toast ok?  Sometimes you have wheat.  Would you rather have wheat?”

Momentarily startled by my return to the topic of breakfast, she pauses, only to then slip farther away.  “I should really be going,” she says.  “I don’t belong here.”

“Please stay,” I plead.  “When was the last time you had something to eat? At least let me make you some toast.  There’s real butter in the fridge.  And strawberry jam, too, if you want.  You always liked strawberry jam.  Mom used to make her own.  Remember?”

I think I see her remembering the sweet taste of Mom’s jam, but she’s already decided.  “No.  I should go.  You know I shouldn’t be here.  I belong in your memories.  Down by the sea.”

I don’t know when exactly she left.  One minute she was there and the next she was gone.  I stood by the front window for long minutes watching the sun rise above the distant reeds.

The world is coming awake now.  It is time for breakfast and another day.   I don’t feel particularly hungry.  Not even for toast.  I pour more coffee into my mug and sit down at the table.   There are crystals scattered there between the placemats.  It’s sand.  I’m sure of it.  Or maybe just carelessly shaken salt.  Lighting a cigarette, I wonder if I’m going to be ok.  I settle, again, on the conclusion that I already am.  I should really get in the shower.  At least wash my hair.  Yes.  I best get moving.  I think I want to walk this morning.  The sun is up.  The tide’s going out.  I am finally able to breathe.