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.
In early recovery, there’s a ton of focus on staying in the moment. This is absolutely correct—because sometimes we really do have to keep it in the day. In the beginning, the battle is staying sober. One day, one hour, even one breath at a time. Whatever it takes, to put the very first thing first: sobriety.
Like the unbreakable Kimmy, sometimes we just have to make through it ten seconds at a time!
And it works. The neurons calm. We get our ninety day chips and clutch them to our hearts like they’re the Hope Diamond, keep them on us like an amulet, and feel like we’ve won a Nobel Prize. Because that ninety day chip, that six month chip, that one month chip—they’re really that precious. We earned them with our blood, sweat, and tears.
Then there comes a time, when the neurons fire properly, finally the cravings go away, the miracle comes—even after the Pink Cloud has faded. And we are really getting WELL!!!
I’m there. I’m really, truly recovering. The first three years are still a part of early recovery, because we’re straightening out the wrinkles (or tearing down the concrete walls) in our lives and hearts.
And I’ve started thinking, coming up on my two year sobriety date, the next right thing is planning more for the future. Taking the skills and dreams I have and putting them together, working hard, and GETTING THE THINGS DONE.
Even something as simple as enjoying making a smoothie, feeling the textures of soft green baby spinach and cool ice, berry juice on my fingers, can be magical. I know I’m putting things into my body that heal, that give me energy to do the work, the writing, the moving on.
So I’m still keeping it in the day. But in the day, I’m looking forward, and working to get where I want to be.
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 am now home early with my leg propped up on three pillows because of The Curious Incident of The Toe at the Coffee Shop. I shall explain.
First off, I am a firm believer that every coffee shop needs a kooky punk girl to add character–and I am that girl. I have taken the purple ombre hair and run with it. Full-on black liquid liner and wild red lips are my thing, today with tight buns on each side of the top of my head. It goes with the black uniform, it’s a good look for me, and whenever high school acquaintances come through the line, it totally camouflages the fact that I am a 35 year old nearly-phd’d writer serving coffee in her hometown.
I wore makeup I bought in Brooklyn, New York, and shoes I took with me to the Amazon jungle. I carry my travels—my life in the world—with me always.
Today, carrying recycling boxes, I managed to split my toenail open kicking the shop door. It bled everywhere; my sandal looked like a prop from a zombie film. The first aid-kit, however, was well stocked, and I fixed it. My boss worried over my injury, like I was an actual human. I assured her I was fine.
Somehow, I feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s the purple hair, or the fact that I’ve always wanted to work in a coffee shop, or the fact that I am earning money from a community hub, doing work that makes people happy, instead of slaving away for indentured servant wages in the academic gulag. But I am free.
I played a video game tonight, with money earned from tips. It was silly, frivolous. But it made me HAPPY. The endorphins were pumping. The colors and dazzling stars and movement did their job—way to go, programmers! And as I sit here with my toe split in half, healing after being propped up all day, in my high school bedroom, with my pink lava lamp on, I realize. This is actually pretty good.
The best part? I didn’t have to go corporate: I get to be a writer.
I have always wanted to work in a coffee shop—not a Starbucks, but a weird little place with its own drinks and a community. Today felt like a scene from Mystic Pizza. Three girls, in a little shop with an owner who cares about her product and her people, filing orders. Granted, one was in high school, one was in her twenties, and I’m the 35-year-old, purple-haired writer. But there was a camaraderie untainted by competition. Working beside each other, earning our keep, laughing and sharing makeup tips (and tip money), I realize: there is a whole world out there where your coworkers aren’t at each other’s throats. Small businesses are fun. Not only are they a brave last stand against corporate America, but they’re the heart of communities—from the Brooklyn neighborhood restaurant to the coffee shop in a tiny town, population 2,192 (or so I last I heard from the mayor, via Daddy).
The academic gulag isn’t like that. You compete with your best friends for the same national fellowships—and the same company-store-wage, resume-line, in-house indentures. Why? All to earn another resume bullet, so you can win more fellowships, get your credentials stamped, and continue competing with the same winners for the same jobs. Academia is a tiny world.
But the real world is huge.
And there is better coffee.
Take heart, have faith, and create the life you want. Namaste, darlings!
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.
Sometimes we don’t have flowers. Sometimes we have weeds. But there is beauty even in that, in the work of weeding, hands in the earth, knowing that hard times are the fallow fields preparing us for tomorrow’s beautiful growth.
So we accept what we cannot change. This ALLOWS us the mental space and the time to work on what we actually can. The serenity prayer is simple, freeing, and actually pretty deep. When we make space in our heads by giving to God what we can’t change–accepting, surrendering to our Higher Power’s higher will–we have a lot more time and emotional energy to change the variables under our control. God’s got this–but we are her hands.
“The zombie apocalypse is a lot like rehab, kid. You just take it one day at a time and do the next indicated thing.” -Doc, Z Nation, S1:E2
I love zombies. Or rather, I love the ethical questions in The Walking Dead, the silly camp in Evil Dead, the ridiculously delightful mashup of horror genre cliches in Z Nation… but there’s more to it.
We can look at the Zombie Apocalypse as metaphor: surrender to the reality of the situation and then fight like hell to change what you can. And let The god of your understanding take care of the rest.
And if you’re interested in a great read on zombies from one truly badass scholar, check out Kelly Baker’s Zombie book! It rocks. I endorse.
And as always, keep it in the day, and let tomorrow handle itself.
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