Blogging is dead (for me). I’m moving my updates about recovery/life to a newsletter format. It’s free. Please subscribe. You can also read it online (pretty much like a blog). I wrote a new post about sobriety at 90 days here.
In July 2021, I have a dream. I’m eight months into a relapse and it’s not going the way I wanted it to. I went back out because I wanted to feel part of, but the weed is making me feel depressed and disconnected, and I’m having trouble controlling the booze. I’d had close to five years of sobriety before, enough time to know that life for me is better without drugs and alcohol. I’m starting to miss how good it used to feel. I’m starting to want to go back. There’s one place I absolutely do not want to go, though, and that’s back to Alcoholics Anonymous. I may be flailing emotionally, but I’m not out of control. Things really aren’t that bad.
In the dream, I’m at a conference at a Marriott-like hotel. Somehow I know it has the impersonal feeling of a budget corporate hotel convention center, though I haven’t seen inside. I’m walking around the grounds, which instead of pools and golf courses feature an open air market. Most of the tables are lined with cheap convention schwag. Keychains, water bottles, and pens emblazoned with names and catchphrases that are simultaneously impossibly catchy and so interchangeable it is impossible to tell what services the vendor provides. McCaffey. McKesson. Blue Peak. Blue Wolf. Pinnacle. Navigant. Solutions for You. Outwit Complexity. Intelligence that Works. Knowledge, Experience, Trust.
I don’t want to be here. I’m under the impression that I’m here to enroll in a master’s program but that can’t be because I already have a master’s degree. Dream-me has a master’s, I mean. In waking life, I have an advanced degree, but it’s a JD not a master’s. I realize the distinction doesn’t matter in the dream or the real world.
In the dream, things are glitching. Something isn’t right. There’s a serious disconnect. I’m supposed to be working toward my second degree but I really don’t want to do that because I already did that. I took the classes. I passed the exams. I earned the grades. My career is underway. Just look around! I’m here at the conference! There are so many sessions to attend! So many vinyl stickers to scoop up and slip into nylon bags! Going back to school feels like it will be a tremendous waste of time.
Though, come to think of it, I don’t really want to attend the conference either. The sessions are starting, but they feel extraneous. I’m looking for an AA meeting. I know there’s one happening around here somewhere. They have them at conferences, you know. Just look for Friends of Bill on the agenda. I make my way to a stall set up at the end of the sidewalk. The vendors are hawking t-shirts. It looks like a merch table at a concert, or like a Hot Topic. The meeting is starting but they are making me buy a shirt first. Weird, but fine, whatever. Someone puts an Alice Cooper t-shirt in my hands. I know it doesn’t really matter, I just need to get a shirt and get through the door, but I’m irritated. This isn’t the shirt I want at all. Alice Cooper doesn’t reflect my personality or musical taste. I’m not going to put this on. I start digging through fabric piled up on the table and then flipping through hangers until I find one that says Sex Pistols. This. This is the shirt I’m going to go with. Now I’m ready to go to the meeting, finally. I wake up before I make it through the door.
I wake up with one thought on my mind, and immediately check my phone to see if I’m right. Alice Cooper has been sober for over three decades. Sid Vicious famously overdosed on heroin and died.
Last week I went back to Arizona to see my family. Fucking finally. This trip was supposed to happen over the holidays, but my whole family in AZ, seriously, the lot of them, tested positive for COVID less than twenty-four hours before we were supposed to fly out. We had already checked-in for the flight and pulled the suitcases up out of the garage. It was so disappointing. My husband and I debated for an hour whether there was some way, any way, some sort of hidden loophole, that would let us see them them, but if there’s one thing that’s clear two years into pandemic living, it’s that you can’t fly to the COVID. My daughter sobbed for hours. Not too long ago, I would have cried too, but my own tears don’t flow like they used to since I started taking an SSRI in October. These days, my intense emotions manifest more often as exhaustion. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year at home. I’d already taken the time off of work and I slept in every day. We played a lot of video games on the Nintendo Switch my husband managed to snag at the last minute from a GameStop at the mall.
It’s possible my lack of emotional response was not entirely due to the meds. It’s possible that after two years of tragedy, I recognize missing out on a family holiday for what it is: not that big a deal. At least my family’s still alive. Not for any great amount of trying on their part. When they all came down with COVID, it came out that adults in my family had passed on vaccinating large swaths of their eligible children, and not one single member of my family (aside from my husband and myself) had gone in for a booster. It’s hard to cry over disappointments that don’t rise to the level of tragedy, especially if they were preventable.
It’s also possible that after two years of tragedy, I no longer recognize trauma with a “little t”. So we haven’t seen my husband’s family in over three years. So my parents are getting old. So my grandma’s hearing is so bad we can barely talk on the phone. So my conversations with my brother are reduced to arguments about the vaccine. So my daughter is growing up without her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. So whatever sense of community we once had fell apart and all of us (husband, daughter, me) are still trying to figure out how to cope with the social-emotional fallout of isolation. Maybe these are all tragedies and I’m too tired to cry.
We finally made it back to Arizona as a family last week. The two year anniversary of shut down came and went while we were out of state. When I realized we’d missed the date, I couldn’t believe it. How could my body let me move on without acknowledging everything we’ve lost? Well it didn’t. I came back to this space to write about our most recent trip to Arizona, but the only words I could find were for the trip we didn’t take.
…Picking the fattest green crystal off your altar and carrying it around in your pocket after your inner cynic tells you to put it back because isn’t that a bit much?
…Wearing your favorite creamy eye shadow even though the bottle is getting low and your inner scrimper tells you to save it because it’s not like you’re seeing anyone today anyway.
…Going for a walk when the sun comes out in the afternoon even though you still have work to do and your inner perfectionist tells you to stay in your chair until you’ve finished because if you don’t do it all you might lose it all.
…Making yourself another cup of tea with cream and sugar immediately after finishing your first even though your inner ascetic is confused because you just had tea.
…Wearing the jeans that make your ass look thick even though your inner introvert says go with the same baggy courderoys you wore every day last year because who’s looking at you anyway?
…Taking a shower with someone else and letting them have a turn in the hot water even though your inner hedonist is telling you to stay until the water runs cold because what if there’s not enough for both of you?
…Opening your wallet in front of someone asking for your help on the street even though your inner skeptic is telling you to keep walking because what if it’s a scam?
…Scrolling past job postings on LinkedIn and house listings on Zillow even though your inner opportunist is scared because what if you miss the next great thing?
…Making your toast with egg and avocado and queso fresco and pepitas even though your inner regulator is judging because isn’t that a bit rich, for lunch?
…Walking away from a fight even though inner jerkstore is dying because you’re right and you need to show them all.
…Taking a day off even though your inner capitalist is freaking out because you are only as valuable as what you produce.
…Saying what you really think even though your inner people pleaser is scared because what if they don’t like me?
…Singing loudly in public even though your inner conformist is embarrassed because why are you so weird?
…Following your creative impulses when they lead in unexpected directions (to the canvas, the sketchpad) even though your inner critic is afraid your inspiration will dry up and you’ll never write anything meaningful again.
…Writing a bullshit, new-agey listicle and publishing it on your blog because actually it’s not bullshit at all.
It’s early November, and I find myself with nothing to do on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day. After a couple of weeks of gray days and temperatures dipping down into the forties, the sun is out and the air feels as warm as the leaves coloring the trees and crunching under feet. It is a golden afternoon, drenched in goodness. I already spent time outside sitting and sipping coffee and chatting with folks after church while kids ran around on the lawn, but it is too nice to go back inside. I decide to visit the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I haven’t been since last year when it opened back up in the middle of that first pandemic summer.
In July 2020, I was desperate to visit the Gardens–one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural attractions–to get out of the house and give my daughter something nice to do, yes, but also to remind myself that there was still something worthwhile to be found in large cities. On the whole, the trip was disappointing. It was a muggy Midwestern summer day, air so heavy we could hardly breathe through our cloth masks, and my chest tightened every time my daughter asked if she could pull hers down. The paths were crawling with people, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance, and my anxiety spiked every time she strayed near another family. I was not worried about us getting sick, only about doing something wrong. Year 1 of COVID was a hard time to be a people-pleasing perfectionist because everybody seemed to want something different and the rules were never clear. The day was so at odds with what it means to be in nature that I didn’t go back to the Gardens for over a year.
I am optimistic that things will be different in fall 2021. The Gardens has dropped the mask mandate for the outdoor parts and no longer requires members to book appointments ahead of time. Also, the Gardens are no longer the only place to go. Museums and shops and sports and concerts are all back. Surely, Chicagoans will be doing other things. Surely the Gardens’ nearly 400 acres and six miles of shoreline will offer something in the way of respite, of space.
I’m antsy on the drive up. I pass a cannabis dispensary in the northern suburbs, a shiny building with elegantly curved architectural details that emits distinct wellness vibes, the antithesis of the seedy unfinished warehouse-like space where I bought my weed during the six months or so I dabbled last year. The alluring storefront makes me want to go inside and it is such a gorgeous day, I can’t help but want to get high. People think it’s the bad days that trigger relapse but in my experience it’s the good ones that will get you. I’ve played the tape forward enough times to know that when I’m really in the shit, a drink or a drug is not going to help. When things are bad, I can’t afford to make them worse. Good days are another story. It’s that top-of-the-world feeling that’s dangerous because that’s when I feel invincible. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I doubled down on 12-step meetings. When he lost in 2020, I wanted to pop champagne. On perfect afternoons, all I want to do is get stoned.
On this day, I have a little more than 30 days clean, so I keep driving and don’t stop until I make it to the Gardens. The parking lot is jammed and so are the paths near the entrance. As usual, the crowds here blow my mind, in both size and constitution. People walk in packs. Every group seems to be at least three generations deep and speaking two languages. I stick headphones in my ears and try to focus on the plants. Happy families are my holy grail and my kryptonite. They remind me of everything I don’t have. To me, every couple walking hand-in-hand, every dad swinging a kid up on his back, looks intensely present and engaged in their lives. I wonder how many of them are sober. Most of them, if I had to guess. I wonder how they all manage it. I still want to get high. Later, I’ll mention this to my therapist and ask her how people get through their lives without wanting to change the way they feel. How do you know they don’t? she’ll volley back.
I’m not really afraid of COVID anymore, but I need to get away from all those happy-seeming people. I peel off from the crowd and find myself on an almost empty path that winds around the back edge of the Gardens. There is a chain of ponds to my left and the highway is to my right. Meadowlands unfurl up ahead. I pull the earbuds out. Ah. Quiet. For a minute anyway. My mind starts chattering right away. I can’t stop thinking about how much better this walk would be if I had something, anything, to enhance the experience. They sell wine in the cafe. Maybe I could knock back a couple of mini bottles and see the leaves through sauvignon blanc colored glasses. The wine is expensive, though, and the glasses are small. Maybe I’d better just hit up the liquor store on the way home.
I hate that I’m still thinking like this. It’s one of my greatest shames, being a sober person who still isn’t sure she wants to be sober. Everyone I know who got sober in a 12-step program swears the compulsion to drink just magically…lifts…like an elevator that only goes up. Everyone I know who got sober outside the rooms swears it’s easy because life really is that much better without booze. What is wrong with me that I still romanticize this thing that hurts me? I thought the problem was depression. I thought it was anxiety. I thought it was OCD. I thought it was bad habits I could unlearn. I thought it was addiction. I thought it was religious baggage. I thought it was childhood wounds. I put in the work, years of work, and my life is better for it but thinking about drinking is the thing I can’t let go.
In the back of the Gardens, I decide to dive headfirst into the thirst, into whatever the fuck is stopping me from being okay being with myself on this beautiful fucking day. I start muttering out loud to myself while I walk along staring at the ground. Ugh. Fine. Hi. Hello. Here I am. What do you want from me? What is this for? What am I supposed to take away from this? I’m here. I’m listening. I’m looking for answers. What I get is clear direction.
Look up. Keep moving.
I lift my head. The green meadow gave way to a dry grass prairie while my head was down and when I look up there’s a hill rising out of the earth in front of me. I want to race to the top but there’s no clear path so I stick to the trail I’m on. To the left I see a bridge that looks like it might lead back to the main part of the Gardens, but I’m not ready to go. The road I’m on looks like it will take me in a circle around the hill and I need to get a closer look. I can’t leave this hill alone. Eventually, an inclined trail curves out of the grass. It was impossible to see until I was on top of it. I climb to the top of the hill. Is this where I’ll find the answers I’m looking for? I drop to my knees and close my eyes as if to pray. I feel nothing, but hear the direction again as clear as day.
Open your eyes. Get up. Keep moving.
I bat my eyes open and take in the view. The acreage spills out around me, fields and forests and marshes and meadows and rocks and rivers and prairies and ponds and gardens and greenhouses all lined up in a row. I see a fuzzy caterpillar inching across the path. I examine it, take a video to show my daughter later. I see a family climbing up a trail I must have missed when I first laid eyes on the hill. They’ll be up here with me if I don’t get going. I pick my way down the hill like a mountain goat. The road up close is rockier than I thought. I end up in front of the bridge I saw before. I’m ready to cross. I end up following not far behind a mom and her young son. I try to lose them but the path takes us around in a little loop and I’m stuck moving at their slow pace. It’s a small island covered with the same prairie grasses I’ve been in for forty minutes. There’s nothing new for me here. I cross back over the bridge and get back on the path I was on before. I’m sure it will loop me back the main entrance. Instead it dumps me out in front of a chain link fence blocking off the staff entrance to the Gardens, a muddy bank, and a row of low office buildings. I’m lost. I heed the instruction I got before and turn around, get a move on. It takes me longer than I expect to find my way back.
By the time I’m back in my car, I don’t want to get high. What I’m thinking about is how drinking is like the little hill that I couldn’t help but climb, the bridge I needed to cross, the island that was smaller than I thought, the lonely path that dead-ended at an ugly, muddy fence. At every turn, the message for me was the same: keep moving. I could keep drinking and drugging, but I’m starting to see that I’ve exhausted my supply. It’s not the booze I’m missing, anyway. It’s the road not taken. I can’t tear my eyes away from all the little detours that might take me to the life I imagine other people are living. But getting stuck behind slow walkers on that that grassy little island in the Gardens reminded me that I’ve already been down that road, many times. Every time I drank over the last year, the last decade, it was variations on the same theme. A few minutes, maybe an hour, of flushed fun before it turned into too much or not enough. Keep moving. There’s nothing new for you here.
Every time I close my eyes and veer off road in pursuit of the fantasy that things will be different this time, I take my self out my real life. And the thing is, my life is good. I’m not trying to escape it so much as trying to live another one in parallel. But I’m starting to see that I can’t squeeze another life into the margins without shaving down the edges of the one I have. I can’t layer a new life on top without burying the one I’m living. I can’t move forward if I keep doubling back.
It’s true that sometimes this life feels too small for me, that I’m still suffering from the disease of more. I’m still working out whether this is a treatable affliction or just the human condition. In any case, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for retreading old ground.
It’s early November, and I find myself on a surprisingly, stunningly perfect fall day.
Everyone needs a low stakes hobby. Lately, mine is painting. I’ve always only ever dabbled in the arts. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite ways to pass the time was playing “artist” with my sister. We’d pool our supplies and churn out piece after piece until we had a gallery-worthy collection. We usually trashed them before the day was out because the game was more about the process than the finished product. Mostly, I used markers and oil pastels to make abstract works like I imagined on the walls in art museums. I didn’t paint because I didn’t own paints. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I took myself in college. My family wasn’t anti-art. My parents gave me supplies and enrolled me in classes. They are both creative, expressive people. My dad was a teacher by day but a musician at heart. He played the guitar like a man obsessed, in seemingly every spare moment. My mom loved to dance. However, other than an intricate sketch of the La’ie Hawai’i Temple by one of their old friends that hung in a place of honor in every home we lived, they weren’t much for the visual arts. Most of the pieces we had came from Deseret Book or the portrait studio at Sears. So, I muddled along, doodling in my notebooks, bringing home lumpy mugs, and taking pictures of clouds with a cheap point and shoot. I taught myself to paint with acrylics after my parents to busted me with weed and grounded me for the summer. I started decoupaging furniture around the same time. When I moved out, I obsessively colored and collaged while stoned. I didn’t keep a thing.
I quit making art when I quit getting high. Painting, poetry, writing songs, almost all of it fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just wasn’t inclined toward it. Or maybe I forgot how to access the more abstract parts of myself. Cleaning up kicked off years of sprinting toward the life I thought I wanted. Graduating from college with a double degree. Law school at a top ranked university. Prestigious job. Married by twenty-five. An updated apartment in the city that turned into a house in the suburbs. A baby by twenty-seven and plans for more. I didn’t have time for art. I was too busy making my life. I never stopped writing of course, but I hardly thought of myself as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that becoming a lawyer, a wife, and a mom meant sacrificing any other identities I might once have had.
Time slowed back down when my daughter and I crawled out of the baby stage. Do you know how long a weekend is with a toddler? Together, we discovered that art projects were the most effective way to while away a Saturday afternoon. I started taking her to the Art Institute in the morning and when we got home I’d pull out a box of acrylics and let her go to town on canvases if we had them, plain printer paper if we didn’t. It would have been cheaper to use washable paints for kids but I didn’t know those existed. We ruined a lot of clothes. The navy sweatshirt I’m wearing as I write this is flecked in yellow all over the front and there’s a splotch of red on the sleeves that looks like ketchup, or blood. Our dining table is permanently discolored with streaks of shimmer copper and purple glitter. I should care but it’s gorgeous. Besides paints, we used crayons and markers and gel pens and colored pencils and stencils and stamps and construction paper and cardboard and magazines and scissors and tape and pipe cleaners and modeling clay and Shrinky-Dinks and watercolors. It was play in its purest form, for both of us. When my daughter was done with a project, I’d dutifully put away the supplies and not think about art again until the next time we went to the museum or happened upon a long stretch of time. I proudly displayed my daughter’s work on shelves and walls. I put mine in drawers. Most everything we made disappeared eventually. Chalk on the sidewalk, play-dough creations, dried flower bouquets, scribbled pictures on the back of restaurant menus–most of it wasn’t made to last and the things that might have (paintings, drawings, constructing paper crafts) there was too much of. I couldn’t possibly keep it all.
My relationship to art changed again in the pandemic. First, Robert gave me a set of watercolors. I’d seen them at a bespoke art supply store in Andersonville and practically drooled over the little lumps of pigment wrapped up in muslin cloth. They were too beautiful for words. Also, too expensive, and wholly impractical. I eagerly accepted the shop owner’s offer of a demonstration. I had to see how these paints–practically works of art themselves–worked. “Are you artists?” the shopkeeper asked as my daughter tested out pens and I took a pause from grazing my fingers over everything in the store to watch her work. The knocked me outside the flow of typical shopping banter. I didn’t know what to say. We, my daughter and I, weren’t artists like the shopkeeper was an artist, but I wanted us to be. Yes and no felt like equally dishonest answers, but the yes inside of me thrummed more loudly. “Well, we make art every day. So, I guess we’re artists.” When, six months later I unwrapped a set of paints from my husband for my birthday, complete with water brushes and a ceramic dish and thick, pulpy paper, I felt like I’d been waiting for them my whole life.
Shortly after my birthday, I ordered a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I decided to buy this book. I certainly was not trying to become a painter. I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I’d been blogging sporadically for over ten years, and hacking away at a memoir for what felt like the same length of time though in reality it was only months. My best guess is that I hoped that the book would unlock in me the discipline and consistency to become a real writer–that is, a writer whose words people want to read. The Artist’s Way is structured as a twelve-week course. You read a chapter a week, work through exercises, and respond to prompts in a journal. You start writing morning pages every day on waking. You take yourself on weekly artists’ dates. Sometimes the work was incredible exciting. I could feel my mind expanding and my creativity pulsing in the center of my chest. Other times it felt like homework. By the time I reached the end of the book, the words were pouring out of me. I was also painting and drawing and dancing and singing and playing guitar, often with my daughter, but equally as often on my own, after she went to bed or while she lingered over dinner or played with her dad. The biggest change was that I no longer had any qualms about calling myself an artist. I figured out that it didn’t matter if anyone read my words. It didn’t matter if I never finished my book. What makes me a writer is the fact that I write. What makes me an artist is the act of sitting down and making art. Art is process of trying again and again to transform my experiences and the world around me into something lasting that can be experienced my someone other than me. All I had to do to be an artist was to show up and lay claim.
A few months after finishing up the Artist’s Way the afterglow wore off and the well of words dried up. I was going through something. Often, struggle and pain are what I write about write about, but this struggle wasn’t generative. Often, writing helps me process difficult emotions, but this time I wasn’t finding any answers on the page. Trying to write was like chasing the monkeys around in my mind. It was painful to see my neuroses and unresolved issues all splayed out on the page day after day. There was no clearing out, only adding to the noise. And then there as this: I didn’t trust myself to say what was true. So I stopped writing and got to work on healing instead. I’ll write about what I mean by “healing”–what I was healing from and how I did it–at some point but I’m not a wellness influencer yet and this post is about art, so for now we’re going to leave it at that. My blogs, Instagram captions, my many Google docs stood silent. My works in progress, my beautiful drafts, refused to budge. This time, I didn’t stop calling myself a writer, or an artist. Like a lot of people battling through pandemic-induced burnout, this is was a year about accepting and respecting my limitations. Taking vacation doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, just like being done having babies doesn’t make me any less of a mom. Even people with dream jobs take vacations, sabbaticals, breaks. Artists aren’t machines. Our gifts don’t exist for us to churn out content on demand. We have to make art, like everything else, in a sustainable way if we want to do it for the long haul.
The result of the healing work I’ve done this year, which is still very much in process, is that my mind is quieter. Meditation and therapy and exercise work wonders; so does an SSRI. In this quieter phase, the words are not spinning out of my brain at the pace they once did. Where writing was a compulsion, it’s now a choice. If writing was emergency medicine, now it’s play. In the space that remains is a primal urge to record the world in a new way. In my work, I want to see more of the world and less of me in it. I want to never forget the things I am lucky enough to have seen. The curve of the angels wing. The angle of the downtown buildings in a 4 PM winter sheen. The depth of the evergreen against the powder blue brick of the abandoned church on Oak Street. The stark raving beauty of a dog running free on an abandoned beach. Every type of fruit cut cleanly in half. The gas station sign I saw some fifteen years ago and never got out of my head.
A few weeks ago, I pulled my paints out and haven’t been able to stop. I’m watching tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. I’m keeping a list of things I want to paint. I’m daydreaming about what I could do with better brushes, what could happen if I kept this up for a year. I fall asleep thinking about lines on the page. When I finish a picture, I’m giddy like a kid and want to show it off. I need someone to frame my work or hang it on the fridge for me, though, because I can’t do it myself. I went on a painting bender after Thanksgiving and wanted to share my work on Instagram, but when I went to post something stopped me. Shame, I think. Only a moment before, my paintings were beloved masterpieces. I couldn’t believe how much better I’d gotten in a year. But when I thought of sharing them with anyone else, they seemed painfully amateur. Clicking on a hashtag filled my screen with stunning images and suddenly I felt disappointed and embarrassed that I put so much time and excitement into a hobby that yields only mediocre results. I had to tell myself that the finished paintings were not the point. The point was how much I enjoyed making them. But also, I really liked the finished paintings. I had to remind myself of that.
I closed Instagram that day, actually deleted the app off my phone altogether, but I keep revisiting the idea of sharing my art. I know there’s something of value here. It’s not the finished work. It’s the idea that a mom can have a hobby that’s not exercise or drinking wine. It’s the idea that a lawyer can have a hobby that doesn’t come with a networking benefit. It’s the idea that person can try something new and be bad at it. It’s the idea that showing up makes you better. It’s the idea a serious adult has time to play. It’s the idea that the things that moved you as a child never stop moving you. It’s the idea that you can bring things you love back into your life. It’s the idea that there are things out there that can light you up and get you out of bed in the morning that aren’t drugs and don’t depend on other people and you might not even know about them yet. It’s the idea that you can give yourself beautiful things. It’s the idea that you can make a beautiful life.
Maybe being an artist is not about the art you make or about the process. Maybe it’s a way of seeing and being in the world. Maybe art is about how we live. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe our hobbies are not so low stakes after all.
I thought my story was about meeting my star-crossed lover, falling in love young, and getting married against the odds.
I thought my story was about becoming a Mormon feminist, working inside the system, and being the change I wanted to see.
I thought my story was about being a working mom, defying expectations, and making an unjust world work for me.
I thought my story was leaving the Mormon church, breaking my own heart, and voting with my feet.
I thought my story was about getting sober, doing the unexpected and impossible-seeming thing, and getting free.
I thought my story was about getting mentally well, untangling myself from the narratives that I wove into the fabric of my life after other people handed them to me.
I thought my story was about losing God and finding God and losing God and finding God in the places I never expected God to be.
I’ve lived other stories that I knew, even as I was going through them, were not for me: self-harm; bad men; infertility; pain upon pain upon pain.
My story is all of these things but none of these stories are all of me.
When you’re raised up on visions of the promised land, there are a couple of things you take for granted:
- The promised land is a place that exists and you can get to; and
- That you’ll know it when you arrive.
Leaving your childhood religion is an exercise in splitting. You want to smash the beliefs you once held dear; you need to keep them intact to hold on to a sense of self that’s no longer clear. You end up excising them from the body of your old belief system and grasping the quivering strands of what’s left. You relocate your vision of the promised land. You think it’s still there but you couldn’t find it on a map if you tried.
On Wednesdays, I take my daughter to choir practice. She’s in children’s choir at our church and they’re practicing for the annual Christmas pageant, which is in it’s 100th year. This week we are running late, so I pull up in front of the church and ask if she wants me to drop her off before looking for a place to park. She surprises me by saying yes. She’s never walked around the church by herself before. The staff has strict rules about parents signing their kids in and out of Sunday school and the building was locked down for the last year. I make her talk me through how she’ll get from the front door to the choir room and then let her go, watching from the car to make sure she doesn’t need help with the heavy hundred year old doors and, when she makes it inside, watching the top of her head through the window as she struggles with a second set of doors. She’s so big, I think. And she’s so little. With that, she opens the door to a new level of independence, for both of us.
I find a spot on the street, park the car, gather up my daughter’s hat and gloves, and make my way inside the church building. I offer a chipper hello to the gentleman who works the front desk during the week and he, per usual, buzzes me in without a word. I am still on the first floor when I hear the strains of Joy to the World floating down the stairs. I almost can’t believe it’s the children’s choir and not a recording of some different group altogether. They sound magnificent. And loud. The group doubled in size when we all came back after the pandemic and the kids are all almost two years older than the last time they sang together in person. The choir director is nothing short of a miracle worker. Last year, he stitched together a couple dozen videos to put together a surprisingly watchable virtual pageant. In person, he’s somehow coaxed them into not only singing all of the worlds but hitting most of the right notes.
I pick out my daughter’s voice as I make my way up the stairs and the tears come. I can’t believe we made it. I can’t believe we landed here. Nine years ago I was carrying her inside of me and coming to terms with the fact that I could not raise a daughter in the religion I grew up it, not as I knew it. Seven years ago I was driving my baby to churches all over the city wondering if we’d ever find one that worked for us. Six years ago I carried my toddler out of a chapel for what I swore was the last time. It was so scary. When I tried to picture life after Mormonism, I saw mists of darkness. I imagined my daughter lost and confused. I imagined myself miserable, knowing I’d made the worst mistake. I couldn’t imagine anything good or sweet. My imagination was lacking. The light was always waiting for us on the other side. I just needed to step into it.
These thoughts flash by in the time it takes to ascend two flights of stairs. The third floor is brightly lit against the early dusk outside. The choir lets loose with a series of glorious glorias. I duck my head into practice room to wave at my daughter and then I ease my body into a comfy chair in the room next door, where I will chat with the other choir parents. I think, after five years, I can call them friends.
I feel like I survived something. Like I fled a famished land, crossed a stormy sea, and abandoned a sinking ship to wash up here, in this ordinary life that feels extraordinary. I’ve been here for so long now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I’m already in the promised land.
Me: If we ever move into a bigger house, I want a studio. For my art.
Husband: What’s your art?
Me: What do you mean, what’s my art? I write, I paint, I play music.
Husband: I know, I know, I’m just wondering what do you consider to be your main art?
Me: My writing, duh.
Husband: Like, your books? The ones you haven’t written?
Me: Sure, those, and you know I am working on them, but I’m thinking more about my essays.
Husband: You mean your blog posts?
Me: Yes! The creative non-fiction I post on my blog.
Husband: Huh. I didn’t realize your blog posts were…art.
Me: That’s because you haven’t read them.
COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.
Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.
Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”
My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.
On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.