Tonight I snuck out for a cigarette after the city was quiet. I love cities at night, being a former New Yorker, where we never sleep. Edinburgh sleeps, softly. And in my view, cobblestones reflected moonlight and lamps, silvered and shimmered. The soft play of light and shadow on the stone of buildings, of marble and rock, entranced me.
I could see the line where the road construction crew had carefully hewn out the stones with a micro-bulldozer (built on a trail gator frame, I think; it alone was something to see). The crew carefully removed the old cobblestones and stacked them in order along the trench where they installed new fiber optic cable in bright purple pipe. And after the new had come, the internet speed for the neighborhood increased, the workers replaced the stones. They are in just the same order as before, with new mortar in between.
These cobblestones stand out in the moonlight, a bright line across the street because the new mortar hasn’t yet accumulated its patina of city grit. I want to be like those cobblestones, blending the new and keeping the best of the old as I grow.
Sobriety feels like that sometimes. A struggle, with bulldozers digging up layers of Self, uncovering ages old mess and restructuring it, making it better. I’m still me—just like the beautiful moonlit street—but better.
The story is written on my heart and in the soft lines on my face. I endured. I had help. I got better.
Hope. Hope and moonlight dance on the medieval stones, still set in the road. With shiny new fiber optic cable beneath.
About a day and a half ago I came out with what happened to me in academia with this tweet:
I am overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of support.My heart hurts for everyone who has said “me too, my advisor and department did the same thing to me.”
I have been applauded for my bravery, but I need everyone to know that I am not Wonderwoman. I am not a lone superhero. I am the opposite: a gratefully recovering alcoholic battling an anxiety disorder every day, with the help of a tightly knit community.
Some days this year, I have been too anxious to get out of bed. Too terrified to write a word on a piece that is under contract, and almost finished. There are days I have had to work to brush my teeth and put on yoga pants and breathe.
It is only the unflagging support and unconditional love of my family and friends that gets me through. My tribe is my strength. The genetic luck of the draw landed me with parents who love and support me unconditionally; I am incredibly grateful, but I know that I am the beneficiary of random, unearned privilege.
My friends are great listeners, good people, and they have been by my side for years. In just one little example, when my father had a heart attack earlier this year, my babyhood best friend was there. This man, with whom I once flopped on blankets in his mother’s garden in the eighties, who took me to my prom when a high school boyfriend flaked out, who married the girl of his dreams (and I knew she was perfect because she was the first human to talk him into eating both asparagus and sushi), drove to the regional trauma center in the middle of the night to be there when the chopper arrived with Daddy, so he wouldn’t be alone. Mom and I and friends arrived an hour later, by car.
This network, these people, are my strength. My god is my strength. I am just an extremely lucky woman who gets to be “brave” because I am surrounded by so much love and help.
To all of the women who said “me too,” I hear you. I see you. I am grateful for you. And you are not alone. The system needs fixing and we will all fight for you. For me. For us. For love that crosses boundaries, and makes all things new.
So, I was texting, late at night. I got condolences from my third-favorite ex boyfriend,who had seen my tweet about a family elder’s passing on. By mutual agreement, third-favorite ex-boyfriend and I have friendzoned each other. He is a part of my tribe; some people just are. They become a part of our story, our heart, and whatever wacky things happen just don’t matter as much as the good stuff. Like a condolence text that turned into a conversation about some idiot that I am literally never talking to again, and perked me up greatly.
“And you still hang out with ME,” third-favorite ex-boyfriend observed, cannily, of the idiot in question. “What in the HELL did he do?!”
Third-favorite ex-boyfriend has a way with words. He is dreadfully, brilliantly funny in the very worst and best ways. I adore him for it. He has a way of snapping me out of my funks and making me laugh and live in the present moment. And he was the first man to cheer me after I pretty much got dumped right before the actual altar.
This week, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the past, about the ghosts in my head.
“You love that dead man more than me,” my altar-dumping ex-fiancé informed me at the beginning of the end of our relationship, when I fell into a deep depression upon the death of another of my tribe, whom I loved dearly, with all my heart. How could anyone not love a man who was one with nature, who knew every rock and tree and spider and violet in the woods, who trekked through raging snowstorms to save egomaniac tourist hikers from themselves whenever he got a call from the forest service. He was a man who always showed up, loved, and cared. He died too young when cancer ate him up. I did love that dead man more than my ex-fiancé, and another dead man, too—one he didn’t know about, my very first crush, whom I knew all my life, and dated, and who died in college.
Only the good die young. I suppose this means my ex-fiancé and Keith Richards will inherit the earth some day, along with the cockroaches, long after the zombie apocalypse. I’m sure they’ll have a great time singing together and blathering on about all the fun times they had when the world was still lit by electric lights and humanity. But I’m being a bitch now, and I digress.
This is the third anniversary of the week I would have been married. But the ex-fiancé called off the wedding and said that he couldn’t say for certain he would ever marry me. So I took my toys and left, so to speak, and expressed upon facebook my wish that he would get hit by a bus. (That was not appropriate. I see that now; it was the wounded pride and the copious French wine talking…)
But I never acknowledged the pain he said he felt upon what (for him, anyway) appeared to be my surprise exit. I see that now. And I acknowledge and release it, the last link to that relationship, that relationship in which I did enjoy many moments, in which I did grow.
So I’m sober now. And it’s also, more importantly, the first anniversary of my godbrother’s death. The timing contorted my feelings. Enmeshed in the strangeness, the emotional discomfort of both anniversaries, I was confusing the grief over my godbrother’s dying too young with the memory of the loss of the marriage and the life I once thought I wanted.
I haven’t wanted that life with the ex-fiancé since I got sober. Many merlot-soaked moons ago, all I wanted was to be rescued from the academic gulag, and the ex-fiancé seemed like the perfect fairy-tale pumpkin coach out, across the ocean, into my old home, the music business. But he wasn’t a fairy-tale hero; he was just a guy with strengths and flaws, like anyone else.
It turned out, I had to save myself—or really, let God do it, which is sort of the same thing, but better.
So, now I can’t remember the exact date of the cancelled wedding. I do remember that my fabulous former girlfriend purposefully helped me turn that dark anniversary into a new experience: a river-tubing trip through the North Carolina mountains. So that date was reborn, and she helped me heal.
But I am going to put flowers on my godbrother’s grave this week. And I will carry my godbrother with me, the memory in my heart, always. He wouldn’t want me to weep for him, but to celebrate his life, the glorious moments, the lakeside laughs. His effervescent smile.
And so I remember: all love that is true endures—whether it is for family, or friends, or a favorite tree, or even my third-favorite ex-boyfriend. We carry the real love of our tribe in our hearts forever, no matter how long or short the duration, never mind whether it was familial, platonic, or amorous.
“I carry your heart with me. I carry it in my heart.” – E. E. Cummings
I’m still reading Furiously Happy. It rocks. You gotta read it–or at least this excerpt. Elegant words reminding us that our issues, disorders, our STUFF–be it alcohol recovery, anxiety, depression, or whatever you’re dealing with–can be a source of hope.
There is light in the dark, and those of us who experience intense pain can also feel immeasurable joy.
I took the Sunday. To actually rest. I lazed about in my pajamas and binge watched and wrote and recharged my batteries. I yoga’d some kinks out of my shoulders and I ate chocolate chips and kettle-cooked potato chips together with coffee.
Supreme laziness? Maybe that’s what it looks like. But it’s more like the hummingbird image in this puddle of rain and oil and tricks of the light: junk food and yoga and rest and cuddling my dog and deep breaths and Netflix were more than the sum of their parts, and I feel ready to take on the week and soar, for the first time in a long time, I’m EXCITED about Monday.
The best part is: I DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR CHILLING. There were a million things I could have been doing (I’m pointedly not saying “should have” here). But I needed to recharge my batteries so I can begin the week fresh, ready to take on all the challenges and adventures that come.
The more we value our time, resources, energy–ourselves–the better we can complete the tasks set before us and accomplish our goals. But it’s true.
I’m re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s You are here. Page 39 popped out at me this morning; he’s talking about the beauty of being still and fully present for the moment. And how freeing that is.
I like to make a practice of reading something positive in the morning to set my day off on the right tone. It helps to get me in a place of, hopefully, presence and stillness. The more I practice, the more it works. Like playing the piano, or doing yoga. Mentioning yoga, I’d better get on my yoga flow before work.
But after the coffee. Always, after the coffee and the books.
The Great John Lennon once said: whatever gets you through the day. So go forth and you do you this morning. Even if it means making your silver fingernails look artier in the pic (but hey–I was in the moment 😉
Many people are emotionally reeling right now. In addition to the turmoil in the world, we all have our own stuff. My great-uncle passed away this weekend, and I loved him dearly. He was a hero of the Korean War, beloved by all, full of laughter and light and stories—and love. All he had seen, all he had experienced, made him more loving, more empathetic, and more compassionate. He cared deeply for all life. With my emotional red alert raised already by the refugee crisis, my uncle’s death was harder to process. This is normal; we’ve all got our “stuff.” And in times like these, what might have felt like ordinary obstacles can become full-on roadblocks, and traumas seemingly insurmountable.
Seeing refugee children torn from their parents’ arms and placed in cages and tent cities is terrifying. Perhaps it is even more frightening seeing people we know (or thought we knew) supporting this horrific violation of human rights.
When I taught the Holocaust, my students would ask me, “How could this happen?” There is no simple answer. Indifference, fear, hatred, and bigotry are the big ones. But the choice to be a bystander is in itself a choice. Do you look, and face the darkness, or do you turn away, barbecue something on the grill, change the tv channel? Do you believe the propaganda, because it’s easier than facing the darkness and then having to make the choice about actually doing something about it? Or do you find a way to stay kind, to stay aware, to stay good, and somehow remain sane despite all the madness around you?
These are hard questions. And I’ve thought about them for seventeen years. As a scholar of war and human rights, watching or reading the news is never simple.
Anxiety is running rampant in these dark times.
But there are some strategies I learned in my years studying the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide, that help me to stay sane.
The first is the most important. It’s about perspective. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard hundreds of hours of accounts of the worst violence, torture, and cruelty—what Victor Frankl described after the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Oprah (yes, Oprah, legit!) asked Tutu years ago how he handled it. Tutu said that most people are like vacuum cleaners; they suck all of horrible things they see inside of them and it just stays there. Tutu said that we have to be dishwashers: to witness, to help others be seen, to process their stories, and to clean them.
It’s hard to be a dishwasher. Reading concentration camp memoirs and stories from the Warsaw Ghetto and U.S. State Department documents turning refugees away, such as the story of the SS. St. Louis, in which refugees from the Holocaust were literally on the coast of the USA, yards away from safety, but were turned away. They died.
I fell into a deep depression the first time I was studying these things, and understandably so. But I had to learn that the act of witnessing, of listening, of not turning away, is itself a good deed. It’s the right thing to do. When we don’t turn away, we can educate others.
When we don’t turn away, we have to process the grief and the horror and the compassion fatigue. It’s hard, but it can be done.
Reading memoirs of trauma and violence can be overwhelming. But they can also be sources of hope—many authors stand out in this category, transmuting their experiences into stories that can uplift us after they make us cry. Organized by going backward in time, here are a few to get you started:
And seriously, laugh! No, really. Even fake laughter releases endorphins that are very real for your body. If you can’t make yourself laugh, take a gander at “laughter yoga.” Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time.
Call the people you love and tell them how much you love them.
Take a hot bath. Use candles. Add bath salts. Music helps too. Go wild. Add a boat like Chandler Bing from Friends if you need to make it feel more manly. (Actually, here’s a whole fun thread about Friends!)
Listen to slow, soft music that slows down your brain. Here’s Peaceful Piano on Spotify!
Take deeeeeeep breaths. In to the count of three, out for the count of five. This gets your body out of fight or flight mode, and lets it normalize itself. Let the Berkeley scientists teach you mindful breathing here.
Play: pick up an instrument, lift weights, play video games with your kids or friends, toss a ball for your dog, annoy your cat by removing them from whatever box they are currently sitting in and cuddle.
Get in touch with the Higher Power of your understanding and ask for help.
Work on mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite writer on this topic, and this is my favorite book of his. He even has a great quote on the magic of washing the dishes:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
And please remember: it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. Ask your loved ones for a little extra TLC or a hug. Talk to a trauma therapist. Send up a flare. Let someone see you, really see you—so they can know.
We are all in this together. Keep fighting the good fight and take care of yourselves. And love each other. Love each other fiercely, because life is short. But hang in there, because together, we dishwashers can help heal ourselves, hold each other up, and continue the great work of doing good wherever we can, however we are able