But, rather than abandon you, my faithful, with nothing — I leave you with a morsel from one the zaniest and the most human of my favorite writers — Anne Lamott.
Her book, Grace, Eventuallystarted me down the road that led me to Baba Ram Dass, and shortly thereafter — to my own sobriety. She is a writer who had little trouble wiggling her way into my heart, and, I hope that this week you’ll devote the five minutes you might have spent reading my words to watching this short piece, and perhaps, you’ll allow her to wiggle her way into yours.
Artwork: Nicholas Roerich, “Issa and Giant’s Head”
Before you leave a place, it’s important that you commit it to memory.
Later, you’ll return to it like a dusty book on your shelf. You’ll run your fingers over its edges, and, you’ll remember something you didn’t realize you’d forgotten. It’s hard to visualize — the passage of all that time. Our memories, warping, fit in tightly-packed-cranial-crevices. But, it’s all right there waiting for us, on the dog-eared pages. We open up to that brittle spot, where the spine is cracked. We revisit our oldest secrets. For me, it’s always a story that begins in the Summer — when things were hot and uncomfortable.
* * *
Standing on the corner of Lombardy Street, where Williamsburg and Greenpoint are divided by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in front of the sports-dive, The Callbox Lounge — Adam and I invented Portland.
Inside the bar, five Hasidic Jews draped their heavy, black coats over the backs of tall chairs. Their tzitzit dangled from their hips and their faces, framed in curls, sweat profusely while they watched the Yankees game. Some of them drank beer, some of them, Coca-Cola. This place was their secret. — And, Portland was ours.
We sat at the bar, bathing ourselves in the intermittent breeze of the sputtering air conditioner. We were so different then. Young. In some kind of love. Complicated, even before cracking. We didn’t care. And, we sat there without any real concept of time. We hardly knew the things that stood before us. Our world spanned the length of the bar — and that was enough. Adam’s face was radiant in a blue glow as Keeno numbers popped up on the grid of an old TV screen and, even now — I want to kiss him. Back then, we had plans. We were getting out of that city. Soon. Maybe a year. Maybe less. And beneath the highway, under a starless sky, the night was humming a song with its passing cars and rattling metal. We drank Budwieser and smoked cigarettes and we planned our escape.
Back then, I wanted anything but Brooklyn. I wanted open sky and long, wide roads. And, green. Lots of green. I dreamed of places where no one knew me. Us. Lost together. Anywhere. Winding through some unknown place. And so, we imagined Portland. I imagined Portland. — I imagined we’d be the opposite of what we were. — And together, we would draw our maps.
* * *
The day we left, I stood at the window of our third floor walk-up. I looked down over Nassau Avenue. It was starting to feel like Fall and my screen was thrown wide open. I remember seeing a woman down below with a baby carriage drop her scarf and an old man leaned down and picked it up for her in front of the deli with the blue awning. The scarf was red. — I was going to miss that place.
My mother was in our living room putting things into boxes. We had overestimated the amount of room in our car and my father walked up and down, up and down, up and down our steps taking bins, boxes, and bags back to my childhood home in Bay Ridge. “Don’t worry Dabba,” he said, “we’ll ship them out to you when you’re settled.” Dabba is my family’s nickname for me.
It occurred to me, as I stared down at my dirty, Brooklyn street — no one would call me Dabba where we were going.
Adam came up behind me and held my shoulders. I only remember this because it was unlike him. He was reserved. He didn’t hold my shoulders often. So, I leaned in, because, when you are scared and lonely and at the precipice of something imagined becoming real — you want Adam to hold you.
“Are we really going to leave today?” I asked, fat tears pooling in my eyes. The apartment still had too many things in it. My mother looked more perplexed with every passing hour. “Sarah,” Adam said, turning me around from the window to face him, “I don’t care if we leave everything we own on this street corner. We are leaving tonight.”
And, we did, that night, around 5 or 6 PM — I can’t remember. We left to find something we both had lost. Though, now, I know that our lost things were not the same. They had never been the same. But, he had been biding his time and I had ignored the facts. So, we invented a place that already existed. We assigned it meaning. And, we drove. We placed ourselves here, in the City of Roses. We walked along rivers we’d read about in books. We learned the names of mountains that, eventually, would rise up from our backyard into a sky that turned strange colors which we did not know how to name.
At the curb, I cried in my mother’s arms. There is no feeling comparable to leaving your mother when you are scared and she wants you to stay. My father’s arms held me a little too tight, and they spoke the words that he couldn’t. Adam turned the key. Ignition. That was the last time I saw Nassau Avenue — my mother becoming smaller and smaller in the side-view mirror.
As we crossed the Verrazano Bridge, our Polish landlord called my cell phone from Nassau Avenue. “You can’t leave mattress on street like this! I get fine! Garbage pick-up not ’til Thursday. Fifty dollars I going to have to pay!”
I looked at the side of Adam’s face. His silhouette sketched a thin line against a darkening sky that met the edges of Brooklyn’s shadows below. The bridge’s wires held us up. I was seat-belted in with our scotch-taped love and some kind of freedom and an emptiness that I will never be able to describe.
“Tell him to take it out of our security deposit,” he said. “We’re not going back.”
This weekend, I evicted a squirrel from my apartment.
I first saw his ratty, grey tail peeking out from under my enormous television set. First, I panicked. Next, I reached for my yoga mat. Which, obviously, I proceeded to wield as an unruly weapon.
Even in my hysteria, it seemed simple enough. — I just had to lock the cat in the back bedroom, open the front door, and then usher my squirrel guest out, with gusto, flopping my yoga mat this way and that.
As it turned out, we were both quite terrified. So, I called my friend Tony who lives across from me in our apartment complex. No answer. Then, I tried my landlord. No answer. Then, I called my father — in New York City. Though separated by five thousand miles, he was the one who did not fail me. And while he did laugh at me like a hyena for five minutes, he also remained on the line for my intense, steady, and, dare-I-say-it — hunter-like — progression of profanity. Which, progressed as follows:
“Holy shit! Oh my God he’s in the closet now! Fuck! He’s making noises! Holy fucking shit, I can’t see him! What if he fucking bites me, Dad? Dad — Stop laughing! That stupid fucker just ran into the kitchen. God, that asshole’s a stupid motherfucker. THE FRONT DOOR IS OPEN YOU ASSHOLE!!! Jesus fucking Christ, he just ran out the front door. He was, like, fuckin’ airborne Dad. He’s out. Holy shit. He’s out! Fuck.”
My heart was beating like rapid fire. — And, there I was, yoga mat in hand. — Alive.
In truth, I’m rarely present. I run over the past in my mind, I plan the future, I design escapes and intrigue. But, I’m not here. It’s tough to get me in the moment.
One evening, my ex, after hearing me spout off about this or that, asked me how it came to be that Ram Dass was my hero — my guru — if I was constantly struggling to “Be Here Now.” — “Why didn’t I try harder to live in the present?” He wondered. I didn’t have an answer. It’s hard to explain to someone else how you can love a person that has the one, intangible thing that you want most, but, can never seem to grasp. It’s not coveting. It’s reverence. And, it’s nearly impossible to describe to someone who cannot comprehend any spirit that’s bigger than their own.
It’s funny, because that very same ex got me a framed “Be Here Now” poster as a gift. — A reminder I guess. It’s purple with a white lotus flower in the center. And, even though my ex is gone, the poster remains, situated happily on my mantle. So, after I had called, texted, emailed, and tweeted to everyone I knew — I plopped down on my couch to draw in my breath and stare at my purple-poster. I smiled with my teeth for the first time in months.
Excitement. Joy. Suspense. Hilarity. A SQUIRREL. Here. Now. IN MY APARTMENT.
That squirrel was my gift. Maybe from Baba himself. The moment where I was reminded: I am a real, breathing creature, wielding a yoga mat and taming wild — albeit tiny — beasts. Even when the moment had passed — the tiny creature bounding out over my two-step stoop, the feeling he awakened in me remained. — A feeling that will not escape me so quickly.
Sometimes, we can only love those that are present — without us. We can bask in their light. Their awareness. Their true presence. We can read the words that they have spilled across thousands of pages in countless books, we can watch their YouTube channels, we can sing chants along with Krishna Das. We seek out the presence.
But, sometimes, it will come to you: A squirrel who shits all over your house —while you chase it wildly with a yoga mat — while your father laughs in your ear — while your heart pumps in your chest. At the end of it all, you watch something leap to freedom. — And, it’s you.
I thank the purple poster and, for old time’s sake, I text my ex.
Because, I need to tell someone — I’m here. Now.
“Now is now. Are you going to be here, or not?” — Baba Ram Das
When I first discovered Ram Dass, I was a lost soul.
I felt stuck. I was still drinking heavily, but, I was starting to question the road I was on. I knew in my gut that there was no way for me to keep up with my own lifestyle. I was afraid of who I was becoming. I didn’t know how to change. I didn’t know who to be. And, I was afraid to ask for help.
In my confusion, I began to read voraciously. And, in a passage of Anne LaMott’s Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, she mentions reading, and having a life-changing experience with, Ram Dass’ classic: The Only Dance There Is. I immediately went to my local bookstore and bought a copy. The moment I cracked open the spine, Ram Dass exploded into my heart. His language: woo woo, hippie-dippy, far-out, and super groovy, spoke to me. He was unapologetic about his place in the Universe. His presence was his own. I envied his clarity and confidence. In his own, marked place of presence, he made me feel PRESENT and ALIVE.
It was only a few months after reading The Only Dance There Is that I called my parents and told them I needed help: I wanted to stop drinking. And, with their support, I was able to leave my job and enter a six month, holistic, outpatient rehab center.
Without drinking or using drugs I had no choice but to be present. Of course, I tried to distract myself. I obsessed. I got lost. But, eventually, I found myself in a moment where I had to stay. A moment where I had no choice but to experience what was happening. A moment that is everything and nothing simultaneously. Yes, it’s far out.
When I found my presence, it was scary. I’d spent most of my adult life attempting to escape such moments. Yet, somehow, it came to pass that I was actually seeking my own presence, my own unapologetic being.
Sobriety is the ability to be fully present. Any type of addiction cuts us off from our authentic state. It was difficult for me to get to a place where that concept made sense. I spent a lot of time missing my drinks. I was convinced I was missing out on something. But, eventually the opposite was revealed: I had been missing out on lots of things by continuing to drink and use drugs. Being present is the ultimate tool. If you can live with yourself, you can be anywhere, do anything, and feel any and every emotion, because no matter what, you’ll be authentically you. That’s all there is.
For the first time, I became present. I became available to myself and to the infinite Universe of which we are all an important part. It is a gift that I sincerely hope everyone has the opportunity to receive.
This week I encourage you to stop and Be. Here. Now.
How will you show up for yourself and the world today? What stops you from being present? Share your story in the comments…I want to hear it…