The Great, Woo-Woo Crusade

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“The Year of Happiness.”

I know. Just reading it makes me want to barf a little bit, too. But, this is how it starts? Right?

As someone who has been perpetually on the dark side of things, the mere mention of Happiness is like being dragged out from a dark cellar into the light of a blazing sun and being screamed at in Chinese. Which is to say — I have no idea what’s happening.

But, it’s happening.

I’ve mentioned that I’m a self-help junkie. Books. Movies. Workbooks. Day planners. Online lectures and seminars. You name it — I’m into it. I’m not ashamed. Not to toot my own horn here, but, seriously, I’m post-doctorate-level-well-read in this genre. From the critically acclaimed to the absolute-worst-ever dreck, my self-helping skill spans oceans and continents. And yes, sometimes, I watch Oprah.

I’ve had many people poo-poo my love of the woo-woo. I’ve been slighted, both on social media and by “real life” peeps. I don’t care. Honestly, I’ve learned heaps about myself, and others, by burying myself in this kind of material. I’ve implemented changes in my own life, and, I’ve seen results.

So, the idea to devote the year to  “Choosing Happiness” didn’t just appear out of the ether. I figured out, long ago, there’s got to be something to this deliberate Happiness thing. But, until now, I didn’t see any way to implement it. Pure, unadulterated Happiness never made it into my self-help arsenal.

If I were so motivated, I could sink my whole life into analyzing my clinical depression. I could unpack the roots and effects of my alcoholism. I could self-help my way through a few more decades with all the crap I’ve stowed on deck. But, there’s an inherent dishonesty in avoiding it. — Happiness. — I kinda know that’s where the answers I’ve been seeking live. Yet, I’ve never really committed myself to getting there. I haven’t really made an effort to sell myself on the concept. And, if Happiness really is the Holy Grail of all this self-help questing, then — I guess it’s time for a Crusade.

That’s right. When I say I’m committing to a Year Of Happiness, I fucking mean it you guys.

That said, I realize, especially for a person like me, this endeavor is going to take organization and planning. Strategery. That’s where this blog steps in. This is the place where I’m going to splay Happiness out in my very own, Dexter-style kill-room and take it apart piece by piece. I’m going to figure out how everything works, and then, by God — I’m going to make it work for me.

Each of the next 12 months will examine a theme — not unlike the 12 Steps. (Apropos, I know.) And, each week, I plan on unpacking said themes and examining how they play into the Happy Factor.

More than anything else, I plan on using this space to eradicate all my well-rehearsed excuses.

*               *               *

Before I sobered up, I was convinced Happiness and sobriety were synonymous. I figured if I could just stop using, I’d finally arrive at Happiness. But, with 3 1/2+ years of sobriety — I know that isn’t true. However, I am sure both require the same caliber of commitment.

In that vein, April’s theme is Surrender. Is it cheesy? Maybe. But, it’s one of the most difficult and complex things you can do in your life. We surrender to people, places, concepts, laws, governments, feelings, faith, and ourselves — every single day. But, surrendering with intention is extremely difficult.

Surrender means starting where you are — details be damned.

And, surrendering to Happiness? For many of us, that means forfeiting all the baggage we’ve been lugging around. That’s hard. Surrendering to sobriety meant giving up an addiction — a torrid love affair. So too is the trade off (up) for Happiness. We get the good door prizes for our sacrifice.

This week, surrender feels like a lot of effort. Quieting the gloomy voice that’s constantly speaking to me is difficult — and, at times, it’s impossible. But, that’s what The Year of Happiness is all about. Being willing. Surrendering old stories and giving voice to new ones.

It’s crusade time. You in?

 

Photo courtesy of Ebay: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/GRAIL-CAT-spoof-funny-T-Shirt-Mens-6-sizes-8-colours-crusade-kitty-joke-/151276415654

 

 

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Outline Outlaws

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The only child of two juris doctors, some will say, I was born to be edited.

And, while my lineage might suggest otherwise — I, certainly, am no juris doctor.

I talk food over politics. In the course of our discourse, I am more likely to contribute a word of the four-letter variety than that of the SAT. I have more use for essential oils than I do for supreme court justices. And, I’ll take a trashy beach novel over legalese any day of the week.

For better or for worse — this is who I am.

But, how this came to be, I’ll never know. I remember spending long nights at my mother’s side, as she relentlessly scoured over my high school papers. Her red pen marked small notes in the margin. Misshapen circles ensconced periods at the ends of my sentences. She never provided answers — the circles were left there for me to ponder. And, it would eventually dawn on me, hours later, that semicolons were her preferred punctuation. I would return my pages to her bedside, having made the necessary changes, and a smile of approval would creep up the sides of her jaw.

My mother touted the merits of a well assembled outline. “If it’s any good, it’s harder to write than the actual paper,” she told me. “You have to decide what you want to say. Tell your reader, point by point, what you are going to do. And, then, you have to go about doing just that — with the proper citation!”

I sat at the dining room table, hovering over my stark canvas — an expository Alcatraz — a blank sheet of loose leaf paper. In those fruitless hours, I hated my mother for every moment that she had committed to my education.

An outline? What a fucking drag.

I was far too distracted for that kind of thing. I was meant to ramble. Free writing journals like W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne. Run on sentences like Hubert Selby, Jr. Did J.D. Salinger make outlines? Kurt Vonnegut? John Updike? No. No, of course not. Writing was too much an act of the heart for such things.

Back then, I thought that being a good writer meant, without exception, you were an outline outlaw. — But, I wrote them anyway. For my mother. — And, as a result, every paper I turned in was a well comprised, point oriented, thoroughly convincing manifesto. To this day, I have never written for an editor that has surpassed her level of bad-assery.

While I set plans into motion, for whatever-the-hell-it-is I’m doing with my life, I keep returning to my mother’s advice. — Assemble a proper outline. — Even now, it seems a heartless chore. But, something urges me on. I still struggle to find some kind of framework.  The thing that tells me, point by point, what I am going to do. Placing me firmly in the reality I so often find myself skirting.

Back here, in this place I thought I’d left, I stand side by side with the thoughtful child I once was — outlaws seeking structure. Back in this writer’s house. My mother’s manila folders stacked on the dining room table, pregnant with white paper. My father’s den, a museum of dusty books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. If ever there were a place to make edits — to begin to write myself again — this is it.

With some effort, pieces slowly come together. Points and arguments. Opinions and footnotes. I learn how to write what’s coming next.

And, when I’m not sure how to punctuate my sentences, I just walk down the hall and run the pages by my live-in editor, clad in her full-length nightgown, red pen at-the-ready.

 

 

 

Drawing: Pete Scully; Materials: “Pens”; http://petescully.com/materials/

 

Dots

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When you go to school to become a writer, they don’t teach you to write. — They teach you to read.

The voices. The colors. The timbres. Each writer’s words ring out their peerless note — dissonance or harmony — no two stories are the same.

Every writer has her unique fingerprint — even in her plagiarisms.

In high school they instruct you — The beginning! The middle! The end! The kind of storytelling that has somehow been distilled down to a series of predictable climaxes — each is noted on a three foot by three foot chalkboard. Written carefully in smudgy, cursive letters. All of which — have no meaning.

If you learned to read properly, you already know this three-pronged formula is a useless chore. — A map that leads you nowhere and discovers nothing.

If you learned to read properly, you already know that each story is just one dot on an infinite timeline. And, in the futile hunt to uncover everything, the writer’s unrepeatable dot marks, without knowing it, the unexampled treasures that she alone has illuminated.

No beginning. No middle. No end. — Just moments. — Dots.

This weekend, I packed up the last six years. Books in boxes, old notes and bills, yellowed rolling papers, dried up pens, and renegade Christmas ornaments. So many dots. Too many dots. Wonderful and tragic dots.

One, I set aside. A single page, tucked carefully away, hidden neatly in between the pages of my copy of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. — an entry, torn from my journal. I unfold it, only days away from turning six years old, it reads:

July 30th, 2009

       It’s hot in Brooklyn. I’ve been sitting in front of the box fan, watching TV and wondering if I’ll miss the heat and humidity of New York when we get to Portland. — If we get to Portland.

      Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible for me to get anywhere at all, because I’ve been sitting on a couch, somewhere in this city, just waiting for something to happen to me.

     Three months until we leave this place. Home. Family. Friends. All for the wild frontier — The West. Ninety days to see what needs to be seen — To say goodbye. To worry. To plan. To Dream.

       But, I try not to worry. Because, on most days, I’d like to be anywhere but here.

I read it twice. Then three times. And then, for that girl, I weep. Six years ago — and I still remember how she thought this place could save her. How saying goodbye would hurt her. How her story, six years later, would read exactly the same way, but, — she — she is impossibly different.

Today, I cannot be mistaken for that girl. I know now that — it’s true — this place did save me. And, even in the sanctity of being saved, I will still choose to leave it behind — my savior. I return to a different place, revisit another dot. An old dot that, now, I can finally allow to be new. A story I know well, but, I’ve yet to write.

In my living room, I see it written on a piece of paper. — How I’ve learned to read here. I embrace the moments where Oregon has made me into something that New York City never could have — Beautiful. Seen. Heard. The words may read the same way, but, there is a new heart here. I read it — the story that was written for his heart — before I knew my own. Before I discovered my seperate pieces. My own, little dots — strewn wildly across the Oregon dirt. The seeds I once placed in someone else’s hands for planting. — But now it’s my harvest. — I’ve grown my own fruit.

In Oregon, I learn to read again. — To read myself. — I connect my dots. I learn to hold these new things — My love. My loss. My beauty. My strength. My pain. My sobriety. — like my children, to my breast. I shoulder their weight and carry them back to where I started. And I begin again.

I see them. They mark my own timeline. — My unrepeatable dots. — A goodbye. A worry. A plan. A Dream.

Each one on its own.

Each one, a place I call home.

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

(A very special thanks to the beautiful and talented Allison Webber for inviting me to be part of her photo series: The Personal Beauty Project. A series that empowers women, allowing them to be seen in the way that they see themselves. These images capture not only my spirit, but, the spirit of my Oregon. As I return to the East Coast, I am able to take these images with me. Images that, for me, represent so much of what and who I have become as a result of being part of this magical place. I encourage you all to enjoy Allison’s work at her aforementioned website.)

Preamble Ramble

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Sobriety is varying states of unrest.

Some weeks, I’m bubbling over, some weeks — I’m tapped.

I pull up the chair to sit at this table. I open my computer. And, I stare at the screen — into all your faces.

I’m processing this story. Always.

Every week I feel like I’m in a dark room where the photos just soak forever. Nothing develops. But, still, I want to tell you everything.

There are a lot of these Goddamned pictures. So many stories. And, the plot can go a lot of ways while you’re waiting for things to come into focus. Stories get restless and start to write themselves. There are an estimated five billion hopeful story lines going full tilt right now. Some intersect, and some, escape, wild, out on their own. And, many of them, I can tell you with absolute certainty — hopeful or not — won’t end well. It’s funny, my best moments, my best stories in sobriety are the ones where I don’t feel sober at all. Right now — I’m running on fumes.

We all get high on stuff. Sometimes it’s legal, sometimes it not. I’m not sure what I’m high on this week. Fear. Excitement. Sadness. Loss. Epic confusion. I’m riding the wave and there aren’t too many cohesive thoughts. But, I’m enjoying being lost in this emotional blur which is decidedly better than just — being lost.

I stop here, every week, and disclose the state of my union, or, should I say, the non-state of my disarray. I like to stare into your computer eyes and let you know things. Like — I’m coming up on some cord cutting, and, I need to test the waters before I start hacking. There are still secrets that I have to keep from you. Maybe I’m high on that.

But, I can tell you this — I have plans for a little summer series. Stories. True stories. Portland stories. Expect those in the coming weeks.

Cord-cutting-cathartic-cross-bearing-down-on-this-12-bridge-city stories. Love. Love stories. Love that lived and died. In a bottle. In a pipe. In a needle. In a heart. In a city. — This city.

So, tune in next week.

Summer’s heating up.

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

The Great Squirrel Chase

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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

A Mass In The Trees

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In bed, my eyes open and look upward. The world is white and dry like the paint that coats the ceiling. I turn my whole head to look at the bedside clock instead of moving each eyeball in its socket. 6:48AM. The world is still lighting up and the overcast hue of a Portland morning bleeds out from behind the red bed sheet that has served as my curtain for almost a year. I lay there, unmoving, until 7:02AM, when something shifts. My foot, or my thigh, I can’t remember. My own body, now separate from my head, pulled its legs from between the sheets. Stepped into dirty jeans, piled on the floor beside the bed. The pants rose up around my ankles without obvious help from my hands.

I stare into my mirrored face in the bathroom. Flecks of make-up and dust surround my reflected portrait. I look tired. Old. Worried. I think I need saving. I need a blessing. I need someone to hold their hand out over me and make me well. A brush to paint over the dark circles of my eyes and make me appear fresh and young. I need a priest.

As a child there was a magic in the church. The clergy. I still remember the robe, a long green smock with gold threads, that Father Kraus used to wear as he billowed back and forth across the altar of St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn Heights. My mother singing out in the folk choir as I sat in the front right pew, on my knees, waiting. Not for salvation or peace, but to be heard. The smell of something ancient and holy. The hollow cold of the marble and stone. Each face, frozen, in its station of the cross. Back then, I believed in something. I’m not sure it was Jesus, but that church, in it’s ethereal enormity, made me feel as if I were part of something larger than my body, two arms, two legs, and a head. I prayed. I knelt at the statue of Holy Mary, her eyes cast to the floor, just to the left of the lamb that bowed at her feet. Mother of God.

Father Kraus is dead and I am in Oregon. I walk out of my apartment and drive to morning mass at St. Ignatius on Powell Boulevard, which in stature, has only a fraction of St. Charles’ dignity. I haven’t been in a Catholic church in years. The light is yellow and everything is as gold as idols. Old biddies in beige shoes and nuns in habits chant the rosary and I don’t belong here. I could not belong here. I entered my pew and sat, eyes closed, and let the sound wash over me. A bell chimes. Enter the priest. His robes are purple and stiff, unlike Father Kraus’, who upon his entrances appeared a holy wizard. I allow the routine of the service return. The call and answers, the prayers, the kneeling, then standing, then kneeling, then standing, then kneeling, then standing again. I swallowed my communion, but, it didn’t taste the same. I genuflected leaving the pew and my knee hit the floor with force before reverence, there will be a bruise.

On the steps of St. Ignatius, I felt as empty upon my exit as I did when entering the heavy door into the stale, sour air. Outside again, new breath moved in my lungs and Oregon sky pulled me closer. There are mountains nearby.

At the trail head, leaves crunch under my feet. The trees arch around me like long arms, bending so slightly, to hold me to the path. A chilled gust of air moves their last leaves, ushering me forward. I walk in quiet, the sun burns off clouds and beams of light search for the ground through the canopy. Pine needles dance in circles as they fall to their soft beds, made of their fallen comrades. Fall color cascades. The earthen smell of damp moss reminds me of the wet cold smell of St. Charles. The landscape opens up as I near the clearing and the wind echos like my mother’s footsteps on the marble.

I walked for miles. And became a part of this church. Stopping at its stations to sit on stumps and draw air into nostrils, flaring and alive. At the top of Powell Butte, the sky is open. Mt. Hood is raised in the east like a statue. The sun cradles its peak like a halo, and a soft ring of clouds hangs at the crest, shrouding it in white and blue, like Holy Mary. A beam of sun cast to the Earth, just to the left of the lamb that bowed at her feet. Mother of God.

 

(A Mass In The Trees is an excerpt from my essay collection: The Ascent, And Other Essays.)

 

The Red Room

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I spent my lunch break in the self-help section at Powell’s City of Books.

And, I know. It’s bad. But, it’s how I roll when I’m in a rut.

In sobriety, I’ve learned pain is predictable. I know when it’s coming. And, I know what to expect. There are levels of rut. In 12-Step, when you’re still sweating alcohol and amphetamines, they tell you, “It will always be peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys.” — It’s mostly valleys.

So, back to the self-help section. I’m not entirely sure how I ended up there. I know I started in the Red Room — the travel writing section. I was reading David W. McFadden’s An Innocent In Ireland. It was really good, too. I was totally planning on buying it.

But, I was standing there next to this intellectual-type-guy with horn-rimmed glasses. He was paging through some book on Greece, and I found myself getting pissed off. Like, really pissed off. And, I had no reason to hate this guy. Absolutely. None. But, I absolutely did. He was breathing too loudly and he was turning the pages too recklessly. One moment, I’m in this pub in Ireland, and the next, I’m about to lose my shit — thinking, “Screw this fuckin’ guy, and, screw Mykonos!” At that point, I just couldn’t take it any longer. McFadden went back on the shelf. I’d come back for him later.

Next thing I knew, I was two rooms over — in the thick of it — Self-Help: General. I’m standing there reading Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life. And, fuuuuuuuucccckkk. It’s good. It’s Mykonos beaches good.

I’m on page twenty. And, I seriously I have to get back to work. But, with those twenty pages under my belt, I’m walking out of the store, then onto Eleventh Avenue, then up Flanders Street and — I’ve totally bought into it — Goddammit! — I CAN heal my life!

I can see it. This hysteria. It’s just the rut. A big, long valley. It’s the same place where I always get stuck. Post-break-up and pre-break-through. And, when I’m here — I read a self-help book. And, it’s bad. It’s awful. It’s a waste of ink and trees. And, as I’m reading it, I’m thinking, “God, I hate myself.” Because, I kinda do. — That’s how you end up in the self-help section.

But, then, it happens. — I help myself.

The thing is, there comes a point where we completely detach. Someone has to talk us into changing. And yes, sometimes it ends up being a hack who’s spiritual abundance is superseded by monetary gain. But, sometimes, hacks can make good points. I should know.

So, I do the rut-thing. I’m in bed, with the blinds closed, for days. I watch terrible rom-coms until I start to smell and the cat begins to pity me. Eventually, I convince myself to shower and take a walk. And, that’s when it happens.

I get back to dreaming. The sun kisses my vampire skin. I see the hot-pink flowers that don’t exist on the East Coast. There’s a calico cat rolling in a patch of long grass by the hippie-guy’s house. And — I’m here and I’m alive and I can change.

And, that’s how it happens.

Go to the Red Room. Meet McFadden for a pint. Escape the horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing- Grecian-jerk. Lose your place in time and space. And, return to consciousness with Louise Hay.

Twenty pages later. — No, I haven’t healed my life. But, I’ve helped myself.

And, that’s the hardest part. Helping your heart. Convincing yourself that you’re close.

That it’s coming. — A peak. — Change.