I used to drive by the houses of the boys I had crushes on, and the houses of all their friends, and–one desperate night–the pizza place where my crush’s girlfriend’s friend worked as a server. Once I got stuck parked in the dark pool between two street lights watching in horror as my crush pressed his girlfriend up against her car in an extended make-out session in the middle of the street. Once on a drive-by past my crush’s friend’s house I hit the curb the curb and got a flat. I had to walk to his house and ask for help changing the tire. “What were you even doing here?” he asked. “This is a gated neighborhood.” Thank god my parents moved a few years back. Now I can visit them without the crush of memories that comes from driving by the high school where I spent two years trying to fit in and my final year nodding off on opiates, from driving by the portrait studio where I worked for two summers cold-calling strangers to book sessions and once called the police to report a sexual assault, from driving by the houses of all the people who never loved me the way I wanted them to. So eager was I to escape the memories that take hold when I set foot in my hometown that I took myself out of state entirely. It wasn’t far enough to stop the drive-bys. I still cruise around those places, those days, dredging up the person I am in the rubble of the person I was.
A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?
At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.
I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.
I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.
My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.
I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?
I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days? Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.
This one hurts. My siblings are ridiculous. Talented. Intelligent. Hilarious. Successful. Good looking. Kind. Fundamentally GOOD people. They were my world when we were growing up. Who needs friends when you have siblings? Who needs neighbors? Who needs allies or even enemies? We were each other’s everythings. I’m not saying I didn’t literally, physically sit on top of my brother when he challenged my authority when mom left me in charge. I’m not saying I wasn’t a big bitch to my little sister. I’m not saying I didn’t overlook my littlest brothers when I when I was a teenager. I’m not saying I call them all the time now. We are spread too far and all of us too thin. What I’m saying, and what I never expected, is that over the years every complicated memory and twisty thread of emotion coalesced into thick rope of love and pride. I think of my siblings and it is all GOOD.
It hurts because my daughter is an only child.
Last summer I bought a stand up paddleboard. It didn’t arrive until almost the end of the season. I waited too long and everything was backordered. I got the hang of standing up on the board pretty quickly when I tried it a few years ago; it was the learning curve for introducing a new element into my life that made me hit the brakes. There was so much to research. Inflatable versus fiberglass, for example. Hand pumps versus car. I would need a life jacket and maybe a wetsuit. I needed to figure out how to transport and store the beast, where I could launch legally, and how to get a permit and a parking pass. By the time the SUP shipped to my house and I’d practiced inflating it in the living room and made a trip to the beach office in the middle of the workday, I was this close to be over the whole endeavor. My husband suggested I watch a few videos of people paddling so I could learn the technique before I got on the water, but I was already on information overload. I couldn’t take in a single other new thing. I went out on a Sunday afternoon, nabbed the last available parking spot, and realized I’d left behind the SUP’s detachable fin. I tried again on a Wednesday morning. I was on the water before the sun peeked up over the horizon. I splashed down into the water three times in a row before managing to stand up successfully. I paddled around for over an hour. I watched the sun come up, a ball of fire in the sky. I felt the water splash around my ankles. I heard dragonflies buzz around my head and swatted them away. I swear I saw a fish jump. Later, I’d figure out I’d been holding the paddle backward, that my posture was all wrong, and not care. The learning was in the doing and I had all the time in the world.
Some topics are too big. I can’t tell you about a time I slept outside without telling you about every time I slept outside. In Utah, we set up the big tent in our backyard and a windstorm whipped it around so hard that we ran inside, scared. In the morning, the tent was gone. The Grand Canyon was colder than we thought and our gear was flimsy but there was nowhere to go. We zipped our sleeping bags together for warmth. Somehow, Lake Powell was hotter than we ever imagined. We peed in a pit toilet set inside a canvas shelter. I saw an ancient, scaled lizard. Our dad burned his eyeballs. We went back in bikinis in high school and I burned everything else. We went to Pinetop with a tent but no flashlights and no food. No campfires allowed. The forest was already burning and ash rained down. We went to Michigan with everything a family could need. We even had a plastic carton for eggs. We watched the sun set on the water. We ate beautiful food. We read in hammocks and played on the beach. We made our daughter’s whole life. We went back again and again and again.
I carried my lunch to school in a square plastic box a few years after the other kids had switched to brown paper bags or hot lunch. My mom would make my lunch until I was a senior in high school and skipped lunch altogether so I could get out of school early. It was important to her. Her mom died when she was eleven and making lunches for his three girls was one of the many mom-tasks my grandpa took on after his wife died. My mom got a stepmom when she was sixteen and the stepmom accused my grandpa of spoiling his daughters. With the homemade lunches into their teens, you see. So you see why I couldn’t ask for the $2 to buy a hamburger or a sloppy joe or a crunchy taco from Taco Bell (because there was a Taco Bell inside my high school cafeteria). You see why I couldn’t complain about the warm mayonnaise or the stinky tuna or the slimy carrots or the brown apples the smushed bread or the thermos that smelled like old milk. You see why I couldn’t say anything about the days she wrapped everything in tinfoil because we were out of plastic baggies. You see why I couldn’t ask her to stop tucking little notes into the side of my lunchbox or drawing smiley faces on paper napkins. I wouldn’t have wanted her to stop anyway. The notes made me go all warm inside. Warm like the rest of the lunch, baking in a box in the Arizona sun.
When I was three and rocking a mop of Shirley Temple curls, I grabbed a round brush and tried to pull it through my hair. It stuck fast. Lesson learned! My hair was not and never would be straight, shiny, glossy, or easily managed. That was far from the whole lesson though, because what I left out is that when this happened I was at the mall with my mom and we didn’t own the round brush and when my mom tried to pull it out of my hair it was really stuck and I went red all over and kicked and screamed and cried and my mom had to haul me out of there with the brush still stuck to my head. I remember sitting on a bench, watching shoppers walk by with their bags and paper cups of Orange Julius and heaving those heavy post-tantrum sobs, and the stinging in my scalp while my mom tried to work it out. Lesson learned! My feelings were not and never would be quiet, polite, sensible, or easily managed. I stayed afraid of round brushes for years, and to this day don’t trust a complicated hair tool.
I’ve been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to extricate myself from social media all year. My time on the apps is down to spot checks a couple times a day. Lately, every time I pop on, my feeds look different than they used to. They are flooded with messages of gratitude from the great many of my friends who, I guess, apparently, are still Mormon. It’s weird. I thought everybody left, but I guess they were just being quiet, or I wasn’t paying attention. I’m guessing the church told its members to #givethanks publicly this year. I want to roll my eyes, but in truth it’s been moving, illuminating, and uplifting to see so many people I don’t much hear from pouring their hearts out about their parents and children and partners and friends, about hospitals and health care workers and miracle cures, about pets and careers and cities and hobbies and art. I don’t pay much attention to what the church does since I left but it’s nice to see something that comes off as inspired. The last thing like that happened when I was still a member was the big move to embrace refugees five years ago or so. That was something, wasn’t it, for an inherently conservative religion on the cusp of Trump’s ascendance? It’s sort of funny, now, to see inspiration strike on social media, but then again, here we are.
What would I share if I were the type to participate in a hashtag challenge?
Today, my list looks like this: I am grateful for my husband. To have a companion, a partner, a friend, a champion, a co-pilot, and a co-parent right now is everything. It’s how I make it through. To have a lover is next level. That’s how I keep going.
I am grateful for my daughter. How she found her way into our family and fit right in feels like nothing short of a miracle. How she keeps on growing, changing, and becoming who she is in the midst of this long pause on the scariest scene in the movie is a gift I am privileged to witness.
I am grateful for my parents. They had a thousand opportunities to get it wrong but somehow they did everything right and raised a pack of kids who are all wildly different and weirdly the same. We like ourselves and each other and the world.
I am grateful for my five siblings, who are, they would be embarrassed to know, my best friends. I am grateful for each of their partners for making my favorite people as happy as my partner makes me.
I am grateful for a big ol’ family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of them seemingly on Facebook loving everything I do from afar. I feel it.
I am grateful for the family I married into, another gift, one I never even knew to expect and don’t deserve. They are shiny, solid in-law gold, loving and fun, warm and generous and wide-open. I didn’t know that could happen.
I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had, for the opportunity to have been so many versions of myself to have collected so many weird and wonderful people along the way. To the Mormons and Methodists and atheists and exes; to the scholars and students and teachers and profs; to the fighters and feminists; to the progressives and socialists and centrists and liberals and dems; to the mathematicians and doctors and scientists and engineers; to the lawyers and law students and project assistants and paralegals and all the big law refugees; to the artists; to the druggies and drunks, sober and not; to the readers and writers; to the runners and yogis; to the Highland Hawks and the Arizona Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines; to neighbors and friends in every place I’ve ever lived; to anyone who no longer or never did fit into one of these categories but for whom I’ve somehow ended up in your orbit anyway: I am grateful for you. You have mattered to me and you matter in a much larger sense. Thank you for being you. I know it’s not easy.
When I was a baby lawyer I made a friend who made music for people at death’s door.
I felt a kinship because the guidance counselor who discouraged me from applying anywhere but State U told me that was a job for someone who liked music
and I guess I looked like someone who liked music.
My new friend told me she was in a crafting group for girls.
Like a book club with glue!
Newly domestic, rolling napkins and making placards for our first Thanksgiving dinner for two, I asked if I could join.
She cocked her head and smiled, quizzically,
a crafty beaver,
and my friend who was not a friend asked,
But what would you make?
Bitch, I don’t know. A painting? A song? A pile of tiny clay foods?
A poem? A collage? A bracelet made of plastic beads?
A book? A blog? A life? A love?
It took ten years and tens of thousands of words to see she was the one
without any imagination.
On March 5, 2020, my brain was waging an internal war against my feet over whether or not I should go to an AA meeting. My feet, which had been reliably carrying me to and from the meetings that have kept me sober for the last four years, knew the drill. When the clock hits quarter to noon, they stand up and march me to the nearest church basement, where I sit my ass in a chair. That day, my brain, wily and willful, was whispering that I didn’t need to go to meetings anymore. I’d read the big book cover to cover and worked the steps with a sponsor. I had better things to do with the next hour than sit in a small stifling room listening to the same people rambling about the same problems I’ve heard hundreds of times before. I’m good. I’ve got this.
Lucky for me, my feet are smarter than my brain, and they walked me out the door. I was ten minutes late to the meeting, but I caught the end of the speaker and when it was my turn to share, I did. I don’t remember what I said. I know I hoped my words were helpful to someone else–there was a newcomer in the room that day–but it’s more likely they were most helpful to me. They always are. I do remember that there was only one other woman there, and that I hung onto her every word. I always do. After the meeting, the woman came up to me and asked me if I would be willing to share my story at a meeting that Saturday. I said yes, even though it meant rearranging my Saturday schedule and texting my husband to make sure he be on bedtime duty for our daughter. I always say yes. I know I left the meeting feeling better than when I went in. That always happens. I went back to work at peace, my mind and body no longer at war, my heart recommitted to the way of life that saved my life. I think this is what people mean when they talk about serenity.
That weekend, on March 7, I went to the “Saturday Night Live” meeting at the Alano club in my town and shared my story. I marveled at how, after four years, I could still walk into a meeting I’d never been to before, sit down among people I’d never met, and feel right at home. This particular meeting was a riot. Ten minutes before it started, a few members got into a heated discussion about the wording of an announcement that had been added to the meeting script. The dispute had to do with whether the group should adhere to the tradition of holding hands during the prayer at the end of the meeting in light of the spreading coronavirus. The woman chairing the meeting was adamant that she would not be holding anyone’s hand, because she was had a compromised immune system, and she thought that the announcement did not adequately address her concerns. The man she was talking to was was equally adamant about…something…it was not entirely clear what, because the group ended up deciding to suspend hand holding until the pandemic subsided. I remember laughing about how alcoholics always seem to find a way to make things difficult, even when the right way to do things is obvious, and eminently reasonable, and everybody agrees. Somebody else recommended that we update our phone lists, in the event in-person meetings were also suspended. I nodded, but couldn’t fathom that actually happening, couldn’t imagine around a world in which in which the churches and hospitals and community centers closed their doors on sick and desperate people. No more meetings was, to my mind, unthinkable, an idea more shocking even than closing down public schools and postponing the Olympics.
Meetings are the lifeblood of sobriety for me and millions of other members of AA. “Meeting makers make it” is the aphorism I hear most often in the rooms, and the one I hate the most. I hate it because I don’t hear the hope it offers–with the help of the group, you can not drink one day at a time. I only ever hear the dark flipside–if you don’t go to enough meetings you won’t make it; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll drink; if you don’t go to meetings, you’ll die. This is AA law, based on the transitive property and the other big saying, the one that says, “to drink is to die.”
I hate the “meeting makers make it” mentality, too, because it’s imprecisem. How many meetings is enough meetings? How regularly do you have to go to be a regular? Three times a week? Five? Seven? Think you don’t have time for that kind of commitment? Old timers have a quick comeback for that excuse: “You had time to drink every day, didn’t you?” What if you didn’t drink every day? I didn’t. What if five meetings a week is fine, but you’re competitive, like me, and want to earn gold stars, on top of all your chips for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, a year?
Of course, the thing I hate the very most the claim that meetings will keep me sober is that I don’t know if it’s true. I prefer ideologies I can swallow whole can embrace or reject outright. Nuance, ambiguity, the entire notion of different strokes for different for folks–it’s all breeding ground for anxious overthinking, ruinous rumination. I know there are people who get and stay sober without AA–or rather, I know of such people. Am I one of those people? Or do I need the fellowship of the group of drunks? I have supporting both hypotheses. On the right, my angel-voiced better self reminds me: I tried for years to quit drinking on my own and couldn’t do it, but haven’t taken a drink since my first meeting in January 2016. On the left, my independent side tallies up all the days I’ve gone without a meeting and presents me with indisputable proof: I can survive long stretches of time. I can’t know if “meeting makers make it” or if “meeting dodgers don’t” because I’ve never had the chance to really test the theory. When I go more than a few days without a meeting, I get squirrely, and when I go more than two weeks–well, I don’t know. I’ve never gone more than two weeks. Before March 2020, whenever I got squirrely, I knew exactly where to go.
Three months ago, I couldn’t wrap my mind around a world with no meetings because, in the most fearful reaches of my mind, this was nothing short of a death sentence.
Getting back to the meeting on March 7, Saturday Night Live at the Alano club, once the issue of hand-holding was resolved, the meeting, as I mentioned, was a lot of fun. When I talk about my drinking sober outside the rooms, it sounds so serious, and so sad. Inside the rooms, people laugh at my stories about raiding the medicine cabinets in my dry Mormon household for cough syrup, my failed suicide attempt, and the insanity of my efforts to manage my addiction after I had a baby. Inside the rooms, my life feels normal, instead of like a sad morality tale. After the meeting, we went out for dinner to a restaurant where the servers knew we were coming, and had set up a long table in the middle of the dining room. Old timers regaled me with tales from their own drinking days, and stories about the history of group. I caught up with an old friend who I met early in sobriety. A few woman banded together to shield me from being thirteenth-stepped. I walked home late that night feeling happy, joyous, and free, recommitted to the people who saved my life. “I want to keep going to that meeting,” I told my husband, “and going out for fellowship after.”
Of course, you know the rest of the story. The next week, the Alano club shut its doors, along with every other meeting in town, and I haven’t been to an in-person meeting since.