The Muddied In-between

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July 15th, 2014, I walked down SE 37th Avenue toward Reed College campus.

The canvas of my black Vans, a pair far beyond their prime, ripped at the seams of the heels. That morning, I’d cut up a pair of Levi’s jeans that I’d bought on 14th Street in NYC back in 2008, and pulled them over my sticky legs. I never wear shorts, but, that day in Portland, it was too wicked to wear anything else. It was too hot to stay inside. And, I shoved my book, an old, red sheet, and a bottle of water into my canvas, “Catch 22” bag from Barnes & Noble and stepped out of my apartment, waiting to find some space to breathe. But, the air was too thick.

Like that day in July, my life had stagnated. Love and joy had left me. And, I walked down the sidewalk, shoes disintegrating, toward the only place I had left that, I felt, could still hold the entirety of me: The green lawn beside Reed’s gravel track, in the the shade of a tree whose trunk looked as weathered as I felt.

I cast my sheet out, hoping for the assistance of a breeze that never came. The leaves above me moved in slow, gentle waves. The sun glinted through the green canopy, and I lay on my stomach, my head turned to one side, watching the brave few walking their panting dogs toward the nature trail that ran along side the brook on the other side of the red, brick dormitory.

Happiness, in that strange summer, always found me beneath that tree. The sun, sparkling, between cracks in the branches, reflecting off my Ray-Bans. Beneath me, was an Earth that felt damp and alive. Above me, was a cloudless, unmoving sky. — When we are sure we are forsaken, there is always a place we can go to find ourselves again.

***          ***          ***

This month of March, is the final month in my Year of Happiness. And, it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right that a whole year has past since I first decided that, if I was determined, I could uncover anything — only by deciding to seek it. I continue to search for moments in my memory where I have been as sure, as aware, as I am now. Moments when I knew where to go to get what I needed. There are so few, but, in seeking them, I am able to measure how truly profound those few moments in my life have been.

I’m still not sure how to sum this year up. It has been unlike any other. And, I tell myself that this can be said of any year, but, I know that, somehow, this year has been different. I have sought myself, and others, in a different way. I have allowed myself, and those around me, room to move. And, as a result, I have discovered such truth and hurt and joy and Happiness that, now, as I try to describe it, words fail me. In making these discoveries, I find that, everything I’d been seeking was with me, inside me, all along. And, when I close my eyes and try to pinpoint the exact feeling that has connected me to this new freedom, I always find myself beneath my weathered tree.

***          ***          ***

I unlaced my Vans and pulled my feet out from inside them. I placed my heels on the grass, and let my toes press into the dirt. I let my head rest on the corner of my red sheet and I spread my arms wide. I let my chest, beaded with sweat, press into the ground, hard and uneven beneath me. And, even though I found myself more alone on that afternoon than I’d ever been — in that quiet, solitary moment, I felt that I was a part of everything. A perfect sky hung above me. A cool Earth surged beneath me. And, the umbrella of my tree’s leaves, floated somewhere in-between the the two.

I wrote a song about Oregon. And, in it, I sing, “The mountains hold your heart, but, they don’t own you. Tree tops touch the sky, but, they’re still rooted deep below you.” And, for me, this is what Happiness has become. The muddied in-between. The balance of what we can truly touch and what we can only see in the mind’s eye. There is no time, person, or place that can define us. What will define us, is the time that we allow ourselves to sit still and truly become part of everything.

Happiness is not joy. Happiness is everything. Joy is the recognition that you have been a part of any of it — all of it.

It’s all very ambiguous. Very hippied out.  And, that’s what I missed while I was busy being so methodical and regimented. I missed out on the beauty of all my missteps because I was fixated on creating something that I’ll never be able to create. Because, it has already been created for me, for us — not by us. The sky, the tree, the ground — they were already there — just as we are here.

This time last year, as I brainstormed my plan for writing my Year of Happiness, I imagined I’d be wrapping up all this time in some kind of bullet-pointed retrospective. Expository obscurity. A list of lessons and realizations. A set of instructions. Definitive proof that the the pursuit of Happiness can never be fruitless. But, as I stand, looking out over these last, four weeks before me — I know. — I’ll write no such list.

Photo: Selfie, July 15th, 2014

 

 

 

Carlee, Carlee, Carlee Chameleon

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Carlee, the beauty school director, tells me that she loves my glasses.

“Those are fabulous. I have a pair just like them! I love them!” She squealed. She is thin and wiry and impeccably dressed. A button-less, coral cardigan is draped around her sinewy, sculpted arms. Her white-hot-blonde curls dangle like tight springs at the tops of her shoulders. She was complimenting me, of course, because it is her job. But, I don’t mind. And, she’s right, my glasses are fabulous.

In the true spirit of chameleon-ism, I’m touring an aesthetics institute because, I’m thinking about changing color — again. I’ve been chided, warned, and scoffed at for entertaining this idea, but, I’ve also been patted on the back and encouraged. And, in managing other people’s responses to what I’m thinking about doing, I begin to realize just how much I’ve learned in this past year. And, not just about me.

When you’re a chameleon, color bleeds. You step on one leaf and your leg turns a waxy green, and then, in your next step, your webbed toe turns a bark-y brown. Then, you’re standing on a yellow blossom and your whole torso blooms along with it, igniting like a burst of sunlight. — Our surroundings change us. People. Places. Circumstances. Situations. Everyday, we step onto a new palate of incredible color. And, I can’t help but think, for so many years, all I wanted was to remain in one place. To understand myself in one color. — But, try as I may, it can’t be done.

Carlee holds the grey door open for me as we walk into a stairway of floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is our new space,” she says, “we just moved into this building, only a few months ago.” — I figured as much, because I made it to my interview on time only because I saw the shiny, new building, with it’s giant windows and inviting sign, as I drove by it on route to the old location — the location Google maps still deems accurate. At the top of the stairs, we walked onto a floor filled with classrooms. White, dry-erase boards lined the walls and book bags sat in chairs at empty desks. “The students are taking clients in the clinic today,” Carlee told me, pulling her cardigan tightly around her tiny frame. “And, it’s a good thing! It’s darn chilly up here!”

Carlee is the type of woman you’d expect to say “Darn chilly.” She is peppy, and, her breed of chameleon is chipper and bright. She is wiry, I suspect, because she is designed to pounce on you with unsolicited positivity and cheer at well-timed intervals. Her eyes are an icy blue, and they actually look at you, really look at you, when she is talking. “I hope I’m not going too fast,” she said, “I get kinda excited to show people around the new building. I graduated in 2008. And, I still can’t get over this new space!” Her tiny, one-inch heels click-clacked across the the top of the linoleum stairwell. “Let’s head back down to the clinic. Then, we can chat in my office.” Her eyes sparkled when they met mine, as if to hypnotize me, before she ushered me, with her twiggy arm, toward the stairs.

I watched the students in the clinic. Some were much younger than me, some, much older. They wore scrub-like uniforms with white, slip-on shoes. It was very clean and quiet. I found the whole scene very calming, custom-made for my OCD-like tendencies, tending toward cleanliness and the minimalist. I thought about one of the instructors from the the beauty school I worked for in Portland — Erica. — I recall her flawless skin and her immaculate attention to detail. For Erica, aesthetics were about so much more than appearances. They were about order. Beauty was her way of commanding the universe. And, there, standing beside Carlee, I felt bad for having thought Erica was an emotionless stickler. I see now, this kind of order, this clean and untouched universe, kept her sane.

Back in Carlee’s office, she sat behind her desk gathering materials to place in a white folder for my consideration. Tuition information. Financial aid applications. Course outlines. Scheduling options. And, should I decide to apply, a form to be completed by the person of my choice, serving as my letter of recommendation. She handed me the folder, closed, and looked at me, I mean, really looked. She was like a beautiful, delicately styled, praying mantis. I was not sure if she was going to hop across the desk and eat me, or gaze upon me with her big, icy eyes until I said something. And, then, I felt my color change right in front of her — I became, suddenly, a deep, peaceful, navy blue — a perfect match to the freshly painted, silky walls of her tiny office.

“Carlee, can I be honest with you about something?” Carlee tilted her head to the right, looking at me as if the answer to my question was obvious. “Of course,” she said.

“I’m thirty-two. And, I’m not sure if I’m going to apply for this program. But, I can tell you, I really like it here. The thing is, I’m a NYU graduate. And, that probably sounds like a snobby thing for me to say. But, when I think about investing in attending this program, I think, maybe, I’m too old or too something — like this is a non-sequitur — I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think I am. But, it would be a huge shift for me. And, I just wonder if you’ve had a student or students here that, maybe, sound like me. Because, I’d like to know that I’m not crazy for thinking about doing this. And, it’d be nice to hear it from someone who isn’t, you know, related to me.”

Carlee paused. She laced her manicured fingers together over a stack of manila folders that sat in front of her on the desk. She leaned in a bit, like she was going to tell me a secret, but, instead of talking, her eyes met mine and softened. Now, she appeared more like a lean giraffe than an insect, her neck craning, gracefully toward me. Her swooping curls, tumbled forward from behind her ears and fluttered gracefully at the sides of her cheeks.

“Sarah, I know you probably think I’m here to sell you a seat in this class. And, technically, I am. But, the truth is, whether you apply or not, whether you enroll or not, or whether you walk out this door never to return again — or not — this class will be filled. And, I want you to be here because you want to be here. And, that’s up to you. You’ve got lots of time to think about that. But, here’s my answer to your question. I graduated from this institute in 2008. I was thirty-four. And, when I got here, all I knew was — it sounded good. It sounded like something different. It sounded like something fun. And, it sounded like changing. Changing my life. And, since then, I’ve worked in this amazing industry, and now, I’m the director of this school. I love it here. I enroll girls who are eighteen and I enroll women in their sixties. And, there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: You’re never too old to want something new, to do something new, to be someone new. It’s great that you have an undergraduate degree. Really, I think that’s great. But, do you think it’s great? Because, if not, you’re never too old to learn something new. — And, if you want to do that here, we’d love to have you.”

In the parking lot, I sat in the idling car and I drank the cold, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that I’d left in cup-holder to the left of the wheel. The little, plastic, Oregon license-plate-key-chain that reads “SARAH” dangled from the rear-view mirror where I’d hung it the day I drove out of Oregon for the last time. My eyes welled up with tears as I stared down at my shiny, white folder. Filled with clean, white pages, begging for navy blue ink.

The truth is, we can’t know what color we’ll turn next. We can only know that we’re changing. Learning. Painting legs and toes and torsos — with every, beautiful step.

ARTWORK: “Chameleon 2” By Tilen Ti

(www.etsy.com/shop/tilentiart)

Going Postal: Christmas Edition

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Before pulling into the parking lot of Dennis’ Seven Dees Garden Center on Powell Boulevard, I stopped at the liquor store and got a big bottle of Jim Beam White Label.

It was a Tuesday. I was going to put up my Christmas tree. And, Goddammit, I was going to be drunk.

I threw the bottle, in it’s slim, brown, paper bag onto the passenger seat and drove down the road blasting a Nat King Cole Christmas album with the windows down. It was cold and my windshield was dirty. The Winter sun glinted in my eyes and I pulled down the sun visor as I turned off the road and into Dennis’ lot where three Mexican men were tying a tree to the top of a forest green Subaru.

Inside, twinkling lights were strung up under a white, plastic canopy that housed flocked, white Christmas trees, lined up by size, in tidy rows, as far as the eye could see. Red, glass ornaments reflected the glare of silver tinsel. Life-size Santas stood guard in every doorway. And, the woman who stood at the cashier’s counter wore a green sweater laced with cheap, golden threads and had glittery silver snowflakes dangling from her ear lobes. “Can you tell me where the Fraser firs are?” She looked up at me smiling her big, toothy, smoker’s smile, “How tall, hun?” She croaked. Unsure how to answer, I considered inquiring what height she thought might fill the loveless void my living room had become.

“I don’t know. Six feet?” I asked her, not really concerned with height, only with getting something to convince myself that the holiday season of 2011 was not, in fact, the fifth ring of hell. “Carlos!” she shouted across the store, “Can you take this little lady over to the Frasers? — Go over there with Carlos hun. He’ll help you.”

Carlos stood behind me while I pushed my way through branches and needles in an aisle at the far end of the lot. “You like that one? I can open it for you, so you can see it,” he said stepping forward. “That’s ok. I’ll take it. It’s fine.” He looked at me as if he understood why I was there — a look that acknowledged both my indifference and his pity for me. “Ok. No problem. Which car is yours?” He picked up the tree before I could answer. “Black Honda Civic. The one with the busted tail light.” He nodded, leading me down the aisle and back under the heated canopy. “Ok. You pay inside.” I handed him my car keys and walked back to the cashier with the white ticket Carlos had ripped from the top of the tree and handed to me.

I paid Sissy Snowflake sixty-five bucks for the tree and another twenty for my impulse buy: A big, red, light-globe that sat on the edge of her counter. “Happy Holidays, Hun,” she said handing me my change.

Carlos saw the bottle of Jim Beam poking out from the brown bag on the passenger seat. “You throwing a Christmas party?” He asked, smiling, as he tied the twine taunt around the roof of my car. “Yeah,” I said, “something like that,” handing him a ten dollar tip.

Back home, I pulled into our driveway which, now, was just my driveway. I looked at the tree strapped to the roof like a dead body and did everything I could to stop myself from breaking all the car’s windows. I held my bottle of bourbon, like the baby Jesus himself, and left the tree atop the Honda. — First things first.

In the kitchen, I didn’t even bother to pull down a glass. I opened the bottle, letting the click of the breaking, plastic seal sound the coming of my lord and savior: Jim Beam. I drank from the bottle in gulps. It burned the back of my throat and sent a shiver up my back that started in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks, and, the warm liquid sloshed in my empty stomach like an angry sea. I felt my cheeks flush red and, after a minute, I could breathe again.

I put on Frank Sinatra’s “Christmas Songs By Sinatra” and sat on the arm of the couch with my open bottle and my green, Rubbermaid Christmas bin at my feet. Inside the bin were smaller boxes of ornaments my mother had packed up for us before we moved, a tree skirt, old lights, stockings, and a Glade cinnamon-apple scented candle that we hadn’t finished burning the year before. I dug out the plush snowman with a hook at his feet and placed him on the fireplace mantle and hung my cat’s Christmas stocking. She sat watching me from her window perch in the sun, nonplussed.

When I was drunk enough, I decided to get the tree. Carlos had already put it in the stand, so, I just had to cut the twine and get the thing from the driveway, through the garage, and into the living room. It seemed easy enough, but when I got out to the car, the tree seemed bigger than when I had poked at it’s branches on the lot. I stood there for moment with my scissors, trying to figure out the best way to maneuver the sappy beast into the house. And, as I walked around the side of the car, snipping at the twine on the back, passenger side, the mailman turned the corner.

I’d seen him many times before. He’d always waved to me as he wheeled by during the Summer, while I sat on the back porch smoking cigarettes and drinking PBR. He was a fit, older guy with salt and pepper hair in a tight, military cut. Tall and lean, he walked quickly, and that day the dusty blue of his Postal Service uniform contrasted his red cheeks in the cold. He watched me fumble as he counted out my neighbor’s holiday cards and placed them in her slot. I struggled, sliding the tree off the driver’s side, almost falling. The plastic stand hit the asphalt, hard. It didn’t break, but, it startled me. “Godfuckingdamnit,” I spat out in frustration under my bourbon breath.

“Need a hand there?” The mailman asked in a warm, kind voice, as I dragged the stand over the gravel toward the garage. “No. That’s ok.” I said, tripping over the cement lip where the garage met the driveway. “Jesus. Fuck.”

“Here.” He said, walking toward me. “Let me help you there. You really need two people to do that job.”

“I’ve got it! Jesus.” I shouted. The sound of my voice reverberated off the walls of the garage and out onto Cora Drive, hitting the street like a piece of metal. “I’ve fucking got it.”

“Alright lady. Fine.” He said, putting his hands up, conceding. “Just trying to help you. Jeez.” He walked back to his cart at my neighbor’s front door and wheeled it up to his little truck around the other side of the circle. And, I stood at the garage door, wondering who I’d become.

***          ***          ***

Later that night, after the sun had gone, the apartment was dark, save for the lights on the tree. After the mailman left, I’d struggled for another ten minutes, but managed to get the tree up the single step and into the living room where it sat, undecorated, while I wept between swigs of bourbon.

As my Sinatra album repeated for the fifth time, I strung up the lights. I hung my favorite childhood ornaments. And, as tears streamed from the corners of my eyes, I pulled out the little angel my mother had wrapped for me, specially, in paper towels, and placed her at the top. — She looked down on me softly as I sunk to the floor where I grabbed at the blue carpet beside my now near-empty bottle. Even in that, the saddest and most desperate of moments, my tree was absolutely beautiful. — A light in my darkest season.

Completely blotto, I held myself up at the kitchen counter and pulled out a notepad and a pen from the junk drawer and wrote a note to the mailman. I stumbled to the front door and clipped it to my mailbox outside.

THANKS FOR TRYING TO HELP ME WITH THE TREE. I’M SORRY. IT REALLY WAS A TWO PERSON JOB. BUT, IT’S BEEN A CRAP YEAR, AND I REALLY NEEDED TO DO IT MYSELF.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

SARAH

Not like a cut. Not any more.

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He didn’t love me. Not enough.

The first time I had the thought, and really acknowledged it, I was laying on the bed in his brother’s guest room.

I’d had that thought before. And, I’d had it many times after. But, that day, I remember, it was raining. I left the living room in tears, though, now, I can’t remember why. And, alone in that quiet room, I lay in our bed and I cried. I knew he wouldn’t come in to comfort me. I knew that for sure.

I have a vague recollection of the blanket being a blue plaid. Though, if I’m honest, I can’t really remember now. It’s funny what we’ll retain and what we’ll let go and what we’ll just overlook. Little details — and big ones. But, it had that smell. The smell that other people’s guest rooms have. Like the sheets have been washed, but, maybe a few weeks ago, an evening or two after the last occupant climbed out of them. It smelled like home, but, someone else’s home.

And that, I think, could sum Adam up. He was home. But, never my home.

On that rainy afternoon we were only two days into our cross-country trip, at our first stop on the way to our new hometown: Portland, Oregon. We’d packed up our Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment furiously the night before and left my mother and father standing at the curb of Nassau Avenue with boxes and bags to save for us and ship to us. We’d stuffed the car so full of our possessions, it literally burst at the seams. Weeks later, in California, we would blow a head gasket due to pulling all that weight, but, we’d driven on anyway, thinking it was a busted radiator cap until we took it in to the Honda dealership in Gresham, Oregon, the day after we checked in to our extended stay hotel.

Just two days into our trip, and only 6 hours from Brooklyn, I felt like we’d driven across the world. And, I knew. — I knew I’d made a mistake. But, there are some mistakes you have to keep a secret. There are some errors where you must hold your tongue. You must let them play out because — Maybe. Maybe it will be different than what you know it to be. Maybe it can all work out. Maybe.

He’d tried to leave me once before, back in New York City. But, I told him he had to stay. We’d figure it out. And he did. He stayed. He let the comfortable love we’d fallen into carry us across the distance that the love we’d lacked for ourselves couldn’t. We allowed something wrong to pose as if it were right, because, maybe we didn’t want to be alone and maybe we didn’t think we’d find anyone better. And still, even after all this time, I haven’t. I haven’t found anyone better.

Different, but, never better.

On his brother’s guest bed, I hugged a pillow to my chest. I could hear laughter in the living room, beer cans cracking open, the clink-clink-clink of the refrigerator door swinging shut. I remember hearing all that and wondering if he’d heard me crying.

He can’t blame me for wanting him to stay. And, I can’t blame him for wanting to leave. Time and space and everything that happened after him made blame useless. Now, it’s just hurt. Not like a cut, not any more. Like a bruise. Old, but tender to the touch. It still stains my arm a dark purple, and, I press it, hard, with the tips of my fingers, more often than I should. I know. — I know.

I think about it now, and, long before I’m sad or angry, I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t let him go the first time, when we’d stood arguing on 1st Avenue in the East Village. I just couldn’t let him go. And so, we got back on the L train and we made it work. Stupid love. But, the biggest I have ever known. The kind you know so well, you can remember every detail. — Each, like one of his socks strewn across our bedroom floor. After he left me, I found his socks for months. Under the bed, in the closet, beside the couch at the lip of the electric heater, and fallen between the washer and the dryer. I washed them all again and I wore them as if they were my own.

I’m sorry for things I said and didn’t say. I’m sorry for pushing him into the bathroom wall in anger. I’m sorry for embarrassing him in every one of my blackouts. And I am sorry, most of all, for the things I couldn’t remember. The words I said that he would speak with his eyes the next morning while he sat on the black couch, head in his hands. I knelt on the blue carpet and begged him to stay. And, all I could think while I was on my knees was how my mother once told me: “Never beg a man to do anything.” But, I did. And, I still don’t regret it.

Before he left, I drank to forget. To forget that he didn’t love me. Not enough. I drank to forget the words he never said, but, I wished he had. And, I drank to forget that I’d let it all happen. I drank to forget that rainy afternoon in his brother’s guest room. To forget that moment of knowing it was too late for us, but, knowing it was too late to turn back, too.

After he left, I drank to forget. To forget how much it hurt. To forget how empty everything felt. The living room, the kitchen, the bed, the car. I drank to forget the way I knew every piece of him. The curve of his wrist. The beds of his nails. The blue pools of his eyes. I drank to forget all that, and more still. But, it didn’t work. Even with a different man laying beside me, he always lay there with us. Like a ghost. And, eventually, I stopped wishing he would go. Sometimes I drank hoping that, maybe, he’d stay forever.

4 years sober, and, he still hasn’t left. The last time I saw his face it was February, 2012. But, in a strange way, I still see him everyday. I press the bruise and watch as it whitens at the edges. I still  feel it. So old. But, it still aches.

People tell me that — it’s over. That it isn’t worth the pain or the time or the regret. But, with all my wits about me now, for better or for worse, I’ll decide. I’ll decide what I want to keep and I’ll decide what I want to let go. And I’ll decide if when I told him that he would never find someone that could love him as much I as did, do, did, do, did, that I was right. Because, as cruel as it sounds, even now, it still feels true. It feels as true as the sickness that swells in the pit of my stomach when I wash my hands at my mother’s kitchen sink because the smell of her soap is the same smell that lingered in our kitchen the day he walked out of it.

I am so sorry.

I’m sorry for the things I said and didn’t say. I’m sorry for pushing you into the bathroom wall in anger. I’m sorry for embarrassing you in every one of my blackouts. And, I am sorry, most of all, for the things I can’t remember. The words I said, that you would speak with your eyes the next morning while you sat on the black couch, head in your hands.

But, I will never be sorry for how I knelt on the blue carpet and how I begged you to stay.

The Face Of The Hammer, The Head Of The Nail

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I leaned against the kitchen counter, exhausted. The taste of vomit, fresh in my mouth.

I had been arrested the night before and released from police holding at 5AM that morning.

The officer behind a slate colored, wire divider pushed a clear bag filled with my personal belongings through a long, rectangular slot. Inside, the necklace my father gave me for my 18th birthday, a silver pendant, had been placed carefully into a little, plastic bag, where it glinted in the florescent light. Next to it, lay the bright white laces of my shoes and the long white string from my hoodie, all of which the booking officer had carefully removed from my person while I stood, silently crying.

My phone. My wallet. My house keys. These were the possessions that I had with me. My property. As I ran my fingers along the outline of each item in the bag, I felt like a criminal.

Later, in my apartment, my eyes kept returning to the clear, plastic bag sitting on the edge of my small, dining room table. I kept weeping. Again and again. I lost count of the times I forced myself to cease my sobbing and regain composure.

I had taken a cab back to the apartment after walking out into the stark, empty street in downtown Portland.  Darkness permeated everything on that eeriest of mornings. The cold, punishing brick of the building from which I had just emerged, loomed behind me, threatening violence. I had only six hours before I had to return to that very street and appear in court for my arraignment. But, by that time, the city would be awake, lit by the winter sun and full of scurrying worker-bees. Now, it was just dark, silent, still.

My mouth felt dry and tasted of stale liquor. I could feel that my eyes were red and the cold stung my chapped, peeling lips. I remember wanting to die. Hoping to somehow be struck by lightening or to suffer a heart attack or be hit by a stray bullet. I wanted something big and powerful to sweep in and take me. Something to wake me from that heavy, dream-like haze.

In the cab home, I told myself: Sarah. This, is  a very human lesson.

If only humanity were a better teacher, then perhaps, I would have learned that lesson long before having to learn it the hard way. But, in that moment, I was too tired for regret. I focused only on staying awake long enough to get home. Long enough to get into bed and sleep, which seemed like the only plausible way to wake from that unending nightmare.

I did sleep, though, it was the restless kind with haunted dreams. I woke and, like a robot, dressed myself for court. I appeared before the judge, still unaware of myself. Floating in space. Lost. Alone. I had called Tony, my dear friend, dazed, and asked for a ride. My car had be seized. He drove me downtown to court, and, on the ride, we were both solemn. The sad look on my face upon climbing back into his car after court, where I’d been handed a stack of paperwork and been yelled at by a judge who had little pity for sad, drunken white girls, informed Tony that things hadn’t improved. On most days, he could make me laugh without any effort at all, but, on that day, he didn’t even try.

“You have to tell them,” he said as he ate from our shared plate of tater tots at DOTS. “You won’t be able to keep it a secret. They know you’ve had a rough time this year. They’ll get it. They’ll help you. You have to tell them.”

I didn’t answer him because, I knew he was right. But, I couldn’t get the words out just yet. I couldn’t eat either, but Tony pushed the plate toward me and gestured at the tots. “Shitbird, you gotta eat.”

Later, alone in my apartment, leaning on the kitchen counter, the words finally started to bubble up in my throat, thick and sour, like witch’s brew. That’s when I vomited in the sink.

There was no way to explain it away. It could only be an admission. A confession. A plea for forgiveness.

Me: A drunk. A failure. And now, a criminal. Those are the words I wouldn’t speak, but, that would be silently woven into my careful explanation.

I walked over to the dining room table and pulled the small, clear plastic bag from inside the larger one. I hung my little pendant around my neck again, where it rested on my clavicle like a weight. I felt along its edges and in its grooves with the tip of my index finger and I tried to remember how things felt before everything happened. Hours ago. Days ago. Weeks ago. Months ago. Years ago. But — I can’t. And, in that moment, I knew, there would be parts of me that would never will feel the same, ever again.

It was too late to explain the means to my end. It was too many things. Too many moments. Too many people. Too many places. Too many drinks. Too many losses. Too many goodbyes. And in that moment, the face of the hammer and the head of the nail mattered not. Only the force of the blow.

I pressed the green “SEND” button at the base of my phone.

“Dad. Something bad happened. Do you have a minute? I have to tell you something.”

Notes In Her Kitchen

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When I arrive, she is standing slumped over a clipboard in her kitchen.

In an hour, the restaurant will be buzzing. Cooks, bartenders, servers. But, for now, it’s just the two of us, and, she hasn’t seen me yet. I’m standing, trying not to breathe, pressing my spine into the doorway, worried that she’ll smell the liquor on my breath.

Though, I know, even when she does, she won’t say anything. She keeps my secrets as well as I do.

 

I watch her for a minute. Scratching out her lists. Her notes. Counting heads. Imagining her plates. I know I have to tell her. But, something about the way she is standing begs me to wait until tomorrow. Something sad and tired in her movements, makes me hurt for her. We are both so tired. — Different things  have left us exhausted.

I decide to wait. It has to be the last thing she hears from me. Not the first. I can’t tell her. Not yet.

Her husband walks up behind me and startles me. He’s got a big plastic tub full of ice. “Hey you! Are you ready for today?!” He shouts, rocking his head back and forth like he’s at a metal show.

“Hell yeah!” I shout back, pumping my fist, as he walks past me into the main dining room. But, I’m not ready. And, before I can face them, I run back to the office and take a long swig out of the bottle of cheap vodka in my handbag.

It’s the hottest day of our Portland summer. We are all sweating, even in the air conditioning. And, when we walk out to the street to set up the restaurant’s booth for the street fair, it feels like walking into a stick of butter. Thick and oily. Even my cigarette smoke hangs in the air like a net. And, as we walk toward the shade of the tent, I have to talk myself out of dying. Not just for my own sake, but for hers.

***           ***           ***

As a drunk, there are moments that you know, without a doubt, that you have let yourself down. But, until that particular day, during that particular summer, I had never truly felt the weight of letting someone else down.

It wasn’t because of something I did or didn’t do. It wasn’t because of an unpaid invoice or because of the liquor that poured from the restaurant’s shelf into my glass. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hack the job, or the people, or the place. — It was because I couldn’t handle myself any longer. I couldn’t be available for all the things that I said I could be. But, how do I explain that to her? How do I explain that I’ve become unhinged? Every time I see her face, it kicks me in the gut. I couldn’t have known giving up on her would hurt like this — giving up on her dream would hurt like this.

She struggled with the blue awning at the left corner of the tent where we sat in the shade. It gave us little relief from the heat. She handed me her stainless steel coffee thermos. “Sare Bear — It’s time. Get me a vodka-soda.” We both laugh. But, my laugh is more an exclamation of my relief than my amusement. I’ve been drunk since this morning. But, now, I have her permission. Permission to forget the heat. — Permission to forget everything.

Under the tent, I sit next to her in a canvas folding chair and we drink our vodka-sodas from thermoses. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. But, the prep cooks keep delivering hotel pans of fried chicken and noodles for us to serve to people that aren’t there. “Fuck this shit! This is total bullshit. We’re not doing this next year,” she says surveying the near empty street. But, I know she’ll do it again next year — because she does what she has to do for her dream, even when she hates it. Even when the process pains her, she is the most utterly committed person I have ever met. I take a sip from my straw and watch her for my cues. I wait for a sign that I can read, because I have learned to read them all.

That’s the thing that kills me about it. I know her. I know when she says one thing and means another. I know when she’s playing it tough, but is headed for a breakdown in the office. I know when she’s going to smile kindly in someone’s face and tear them to shreds the second they walk out the door. I know that she is in love with her kitchen clipboard more than any of us humans. I know how this place tears her apart and lights her up in every minute she stands at her post in expo, looking out over the dining room like it’s the Serengeti, with a line of servers migrating across an empty floor. I know her. And, I know her kingdom is beautiful and tragic. And, there is so much of me that wants to stay.

But, I can’t. I can’t pull it off. Not in the way she deserves. I keep coming back to that promise I made. — I told her I could. — And. I. Can’t.

We press through the day, hot, tired, and drunk. My mind wanders. Floating in front of me like the little clouds of cigarette smoke. Her dreams. Her faith in this place. Her reckless abandon. Her laughter booming through the dining room. Her frustration, held back only by the sliding black door of the the tiny office. Her silhouette, forever bent over a clipboard full of lists. And me, with only one:

Drink. Drink with abandon. No matter who or what you abandon. Drink.

The sun sinks  and my heart with it. I sit alone in the office waiting for her to come back and meet me. My hidden-purse-bottle is empty now, and I bury it deep in the bottom of my bag. I’m still tired and hot and broken. And, I fold myself over my secondhand IKEA desk and weep into my folded elbows. She walks into the office and slides the door closed behind her, because — she knows.

And, she begins to cry too — before I’ve said anything at all.

***          ***          ***

We both sit at the bar with tear stained faces. “Connie, make us both something good,” she says to Conrad, the bartender who watches us lean into each other at the end of the bar. “I love you Sare Bear. And, I’m gonna miss your drunk ass,” she says looking at me and my puffy eyes. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out and  my eyes well up again. “Oh, get over it, Bitch!” she shouts at me as she pushes my shoulder playfully. Connie places two cocktail glasses in front of us. “Shooter boots too?” he asks, placing little, boot-shaped shot glasses in front of us and pouring out shots of whiskey before we can answer. She smiles at me in her wild way.

Our sentimental moment has passed, and now, like I’ve seen her do a million times before, without complaint, she will regroup and rebuild, as I crumble beside her.

***          ***          ***

When I picture her face, even now, I feel my heart drop into my stomach like a piece of lead. There isn’t a sufficient apology for walking out on her dream, even under the guise of making myself well again. It never seems enough. I read about her in the paper, online, and in magazines. I get a link about her on Facebook. She likes one of my Instagram photos. I send her a viral video of a pug I know she’ll love. But, my unspoken betrayal lurks. It stagnates, like a moat between us. What we shared, is gone.

To make myself feel better, I imagine going  back to the restaurant, early in the morning, before she or anyone else arrives. I creep into her kitchen, still clean, untouched from the night before. And, I slide a note onto her clipboard at her station before slipping out the door forever.

I imagine, when she finds my note, she whispers “Whatta bitch!” And then, she tapes it to the wall above her mise en place, next to all her other love notes and drawings. And, she even smiles a little before returning to her clipboard, where she begins today’s list with: “Cilantro.”

 

 

 

Be Heard, Not Seen

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It felt like a safe place to hide.

I sat in the small, sparsely filled room — joined only by a few old men and one middle aged woman. A younger man sat in front of the group, waiting to begin the meeting. He opened by reading from a laminated sheet that he held between his nicotine stained fingers. He would read from the very same script at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I would attend in that room. But, that day, it seemed like some kind of holy sermon, written that very morning. And, the words that escaped his mouth sounded like some foreign language I would never understand.

Earlier that morning, I had woken from a blackout. I paced around my apartment nervously. Something felt wrong. My skin crawled. I watched the clock.

The pub opened at noon on Sundays. While I was usually dressed and waiting to walk out my door at 11:55AM, I wasn’t on that Sunday. I felt like a bomb, waiting to explode. My heart tick-tocked in a strange rhythm. And, without any real reason, I was frightened.

I sat down nervously at my computer and, without knowing what I was doing, I Googled “AA Meetings in Portland, Oregon.” I was directed to a website that had listings for hundreds of meetings. It was nearing noon, and I saw one meeting, not far my apartment, was about to begin. Without showering or even brushing my teeth, I threw on my dirty jeans, an old t-shirt, and my heavy hoodie and stepped out into the mild, February air. I ran the entire way there. I stopped at the corner, and looked down at the address I had scratched out onto a crumpled Post-It note. I lit a cigarette and I wondered what the fuck I was doing. Who was I? I wasn’t an alcoholic. Right?  — I wasn’t so sure anymore. So, I stood on that corner and I waited for noon.

Halfway down the block, the young man, the old men and the one woman I would see later, inside the meeting room, stood around an old coffee can that sat at their feet on the sidewalk. They were all smoking cigarettes, too. They saw me on the corner, glancing down at them. Though I thought I was being covert, I know now that they could smell my fresh, alkie blood coming from a mile away. But, that day, — I was sure I was invisible.

If you were talk to me about it today, I would tell you that I have mixed feelings about 12-Step meetings. I would tell you that they have saved my life, and, that they have complicated and hindered my life on many occasions. But, I will never say that 12-Step is not a sacred space. It is. — Sacred. — 12-Step was the first place I became Visible in sobriety. It was the first place I stood up and acknowledged that, perhaps, my drinking and drug use were not as free and easy as I would have liked them to appear. AA was the first place where no one tried to change me. It was the first place where hundreds, literally hundreds, of people reached out their hands to help me. There was a time in AA that was, and will always remain, beautiful to me.

At noon, the smoking club filed up the dilapidated, wooden staircase into the meeting room. I waited for them all to disappear, smoking my cigarette down to the filter, before walking the half block to the little, wooden house and up its little, wooden stairs — alone. I stepped into the strange, new room, full of strange new people with as much bravery as I could muster.

The small group of attendees turned to look at me as I opened the squeaky door and walked across the room, tenuously. I sat in a chair in the corner. It had metal armrests and it looked like, maybe, it was a re-purposed seat from an old movie theatre. The room felt ancient. It smelled of mildew and stale coffee. The walls were covered with water-stained, 12-Step slogan posters. — Easy Does It. Think…Think…Think. But For The Grace Of God. Live And Let Live. First Things First. Just For Today. — I didn’t know what to make of this strange, new world. But, to my surprise, it felt like I belonged there.

“Is anyone here for their first AA meeting ever?” The young man asked, looking up from his desk at the front of the room. The entirety of the small congregation turned their heads, slowly, to look at me. And, knowing I was caught, I timidly raised my hand to half-mast. The young man nodded at me kindly, — “Would you please tell us your name?”

“My name is Sarah. I don’t really know if I’m an alcoholic.”

The room sang out in a hoarse, smoker-croaked-chorus: “Welcome, Sarah!” The young man looked me right in the eye, and, in that moment, I felt him see into the depths of my broken soul. And, in front of all those strangers, I began to weep.

“Hello Sarah. You are welcome and wanted here.” He said, never breaking his gaze.

***          ***          ***

I wouldn’t get sober for another seven months. In fact, I left that very meeting, walked straight to the pub, and I drank Jim Beam until the bartender refused to serve me any more. Back then, it was all I could do to shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. And, I would let that sense of doom follow me around for many months more before I decided to look it in the eye.

In the beginning, sobriety required that I be Visible and Invisible, simultaneously. — If we want to find help, we need to be seen. But, until we are ready for it, we tend to hide. Sometimes, it is better to just be heard. 12-Step was the only place in my early sobriety that could cater to the dichotomous reality where I so desperately needed to exist. And, on that Sunday morning, I was heard, not seen. An anonymous alcoholic, I was welcomed without question. And, for the first time in a very long time — I got what I needed.

I was allowed to be whoever I needed to be. — And that Visibility was the first step, of many, in my long walk toward a freedom unlike any I have ever known.

 

 

Artwork: “Behind The Mask”, By: Anja; http://photoflake.deviantart.com/art/behind-the-mask-364066755

A Year Without Ghosts

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Resolve.

I scrawl a bunch of words on little slips of paper. Names. Places. Feelings. Each small note, something I want to leave behind. This year, along with the previous 7 years, are folded among them. I’ll burn them up before the year is out.

I’m not one for New Year’s celebrations or resolutions. However well intentioned, they are always laced with disappointment.

But, this year something is different. Tectonic plates have shifted. My position has been compromised and something needs to change. I’ve made mistakes — big ones — on a number of fronts. And, everything has culminated in a literal and figurative move — away from myself. I’ve failed myself. 2015 marks an algorithm I cannot decipher. An un-crackable code. A failure I cannot correct. There is no bandaging this. I can no longer reassemble my pieces and make some new, refurbished mosaic. — There is only leaving it behind.

“Goodbye” is much harder than “We’ll fix this.” It’s why I fight it. I stay in relationships, at jobs, in the company of toxic people — too long. Always avoiding goodbye. Harsh. Permanent. A boundary that cannot be breached. Cold turkey. The difference between resolve and resolution. It’s devastating.

I moved to Oregon in 2009 with incredible spirit and the promise of more to come. My love. My dreams. I became a pioneer of myself. Free. I moved in and out of my own independence with trepidation and joy. I was fearless in my own creation of myself. — I was to become the woman I had dreamed up on the floor of a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, while I was 25, sitting on a mattress without a box spring. And, it was a thrill.

But Oregon, with all it’s beauty and freedom — took everything back. Piece by piece. My spirit. My love. My dreams. First, untethered and so sure of myself, then, suddenly, a captive of something I could not see. With each passing year, I found myself battling new ghosts.

Lost there, in my beautiful city of beautiful bridges, I was a quiet wind that blew in-between the pines that wrap around Reed College. But, the rain and damp sank so far into my my bones, they began to rot. So, I took what I could salvage and I fled. Back to Brooklyn — a place I hardly recognize, save for these same ghosts who, now, haunt me on street corners and in subway cars.

I watch seasons bleed into one another from the window of my parent’s house. I try to remember what it was that girl sitting on the mattress wanted. I think of little else. But, the more I look for her — her dreams — the more bereft I become. She is lost.

Resolve is this — I am done looking for someone who is gone.

I write my own name on a scrap of paper and place it with the others. She’s not here anymore. And now, there is enough paper for a nice, slow burn. When it’s all ash, I’ll scatter it like the dead. Carbon for the Earth.

For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to it — The New Year. — One where I let go. Where I find the courage to say goodbye to that which anchors me in the past. Where I light the way of new dreams with the lessons learned in pursuit of old ones. Where I release the ghost of the girl I was and make room for the real woman I have become.

A New Year, where we find ourselves, always — alive — in the here and now.

 

 

Artwork: Cover art from Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now”

 

 

 

 

In-Between-Speed City

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I’m sick. Really sick. East-Coast-sick.

I haven’t had a cold-flu-bug like this in ages. Apparently everything was milder in Portland — including viral illness. — Meanwhile, back in New York…The weather. The people. The attitude. Not one thing is laid back. Not one. Even influenza cannot be bothered with a “mild” setting. Here — it’s all or nothing.

And, maybe that’s what I missed so much about this place. The limitless energy. New Yorker’s don’t have to gear up like we did back on the West Coast. Because, here, there is only one gear — Badass.

I remember when I first arrived in Portland, how people were taken aback by my candor. I said what was on my mind. To the point. I never pussyfooted around. That bothered a lot of people out West. They expected something more dilute and demure. They also thought that I walked too fast. And, even though we adjusted to each other, I missed New York City’s edge. Its speed. — Its sense of urgency. — There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.

I’m considering moving up to New England, or at the very least, a bit further out of the city — maybe the Hudson Valley. I need an in-between-speed city. As much as I love the hustle, I also feel worn down. I want something easier. Quieter. I try to plot it out sensibly. But it’s difficult. What criteria should be used when selecting a home? I evaluate how I arrived at all the places I’ve been and the things that made me want to stay or go. It seems easy. But, it isn’t really. There are a lot of variables. And, while nothing is permanent — it’s still a big decision. Place can be everything. Mean everything. Place can define you. And, place can make or break your sobriety. — I’m starting to feel that as I slip here in Brooklyn. — I have to be careful.

What does my heart say? I wait to feel the pull.

I know it will take a special place to set my heart ablaze again. I guess it’s just a matter of time.

So, in the interim, I nurse this badass-East-Coast-cold and I tell people it like it is and I walk to work at record speeds.

Because, time — I got.

 

 

 

 

As-Is, Oregonian

Oregonian

We don’t have to say goodbye. To the people. The places. The things.

We can just let them be. — Who they are. Where they are. As they are.

This is my big lesson in letting go. The one I needed to learn. My unavoidable and inevitable truth.

My mother and I pack up my apartment, and, I wish it were different. I wish that my last moments here, in this place, weren’t tip-toeing around my life’s possessions, all of which are strewn haphazardly across the floor. I wish that the big, black garbage bags — one for Goodwill and one for the dumpster — didn’t sit in the middle of my living room, slinking, dark portals to the sad and hopeless lost worlds that await my unwanted past. But we continue — dismantling this world as I know it, piece by piece.

It helps to remember that — I can come back. Maybe in 5 years. Maybe 10. On a plane, or, in a car. On another road trip — maybe with some new beau, or on business, or I don’t know — with a baby. I can’t know how I’ll return to this place. And, I think that’s the thing that scares and excites me the most. Who will I become without this place? Will I like her? Will I miss this woman I am now? Revile her?

Who can say what I’ll be when I return to Portland? I don’t know. — I can’t know. — What I’ll be wearing. What job I’ll have taken time off from to make the trip back. Until that moment, I will not know whether or not I’ve found the illusive thing I’ve always been seeking.

So, instead, I do it. I let go. — I make peace with what’s here. Now. — Who I am. Now.

The most difficult thing, is this: Letting go of everything. Allowing it all to just be — as is. Not knowing how my dreams will return to me, or, how I’ll return to them. In 12-Step, this is called — turning it over. And, it’s the thing that I have always wanted to do, but, never actually did. And, here I am, — allowing it. Placing it all into someone else’s hands, because I am tired of wringing my own.

No promises or commitments. Just time and space. A strange, uncertain portal to my destination — like the garbage bags, sitting in the middle of the living room floor.

But, that’s the way I want to tie it all up. My sobriety. My love. My city. — My letting go. Memorizing all the people, places, and things that held me together. Keeping them somewhere safe, as I turn, and walk the other way.

I will place all these moments into a cranial time capsule. I don’t know that it’s something that I want to write. It’s something I prefer to feel. And, feeling, that’s something I learned to do here — in Portland.

I tape up boxes. I clank through kitchen drawers and cupboards. I clear my cache. I pack up what I need and I throw the rest into the black-hole-garbage-bags in the middle of the living room floor. — I make room for new things. I convince myself to forget about the ways in which I’ll leave, and return, to this place.

In just hours, I will no longer be an Oregonian. And, maybe, I never was one. But, in order for me to leave — I have to believe: I was. I have to believe that in the same way this place made me who I am, it also allowed me to become what it is. Oregon is inside me now. An integral part. Maybe even the central part.

So, I don’t have to say goodbye. — Not even to myself. I can allow it all to just be. As is.

Me. My Oregon. My Portland.

The people. The places. The things. — Who they are. Where they are. As they are.

 

Photo: Allison Webber; http://www.allisonwebber.photography/