The Saint of Stenton Avenue is Missing

Every Friday morning except for last week, the Saint of Stenton Avenue stands in front of Martin Luther King High School. I have no idea what her name is but this is what I’ve come to call her. She is of a certain age, most likely retired. She is well-dressed and always wears a hat. Not a regular hat; a church lady hat. She takes her role seriously.

The Saint is sometimes on the eastbound side of Stenton, sometimes on the west. But she is always there on Fridays holding up her cross equipped with a big, bright, blinking orange LED light. She makes the sign of the cross over and over probably hundreds of times but the only one that matters to me is the one directed at me as I drive into work. And she wasn’t there last Friday.

I have a regular spiritual practice and a relationship with a god of my understanding but am not a regular church-goer. After many years of attending as a member of my church choirs, I just stopped. I am now a “Chreaster”, or CEO (Christmas and Easter only).

I am not a hypocrite or a heathen although I have not always lived my life in a manner consistent with the moral high ground. And I swear a lot – but not as much as I used to so I’m taking that as a win. But I do have a firm belief that there is someone/something else in charge and I pray daily (sometimes more). It brings me great relief.

I also believe that my higher power sends me signs in different forms; people, pets, warm sun, the ocean, the smell of autumn, good food. And The Saint of Stenton Avenue is one of those signs. I don’t know what blessings she bestows; safe travel on Philadelphia’s roads (much needed), peace (ditto), eternal life. The blessing I receive is to treat others kindly, to enter into my work with joy (some days this is very hard), and to know that someone or something is watching over me. On Fridays, it is The Saint.

So, when I don’t see The Saint, I worry. First that she is okay, and second, that in the absence of her blessing, will I be okay? I choose to believe that where ever she is, The Saint is sending out her blessings to all, most importantly to me. Because I really need them.

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For the love of November

I love November but it seems all too short. I feel like we lose the first few days in the aftermath of Halloween as if the energy put into the holiday robs us of them. Then we ramp up to Thanksgiving, followed by the aptly named Black Friday, that dubious exercise we’ve fooled ourselves into believing will a) stimulate the economy, and b) provide us the best sale prices EVER. (Wait a week or two, they will get even sales-ier.)

In the blink of an eye, we’ve jettisoned November like a bad cup of coffee we couldn’t wait to finish but desperately needed to get through to reach “the holidays”. Bye November.

I want to savor November. I love the way the word feels in my mouth. It’s the only month with a v in it; it lends it a resonance, our teeth humming just inside our bottom lip rolling into that deep emmm then the “ber”. I know you’re saying it right now.

Living on the east coast and having lived in New England for many years, I appreciate the variety of temperate days, a few rainy ones, sometimes a morning frost, and many clear, crisp days where the colors of autumn seem to jump off the trees. And the smells. The leaves, or more correctly the process of their decomposition, create the earthy, musty, fungal, harvest smells I associate with the waning days of autumn. They are complemented by the occasional smell of burning leaves or a far-off wood stove, evoking visions of quiet nights settling in with a dog and a good book, maybe a family member or two: definitely at least one dog.

Please remember November, enjoy it, honor it, savor it. Between the sugar fest of Halloween and the food fest that is Thanksgiving, appreciate the smell as you take the first deep breath when you go outside. Take an afternoon walk and look up at the trees and the sky. On the best days, the sky is so blue, the name of the color does not do it justice. The next events on the calendar will wait for you; they like November too.

All the straws and the broken camel

“The straw that broke the camel’s back”, is trite, and in my experience, highly inaccurate. I discuss this periodically with my therapist and I think I’ve swayed her to my thinking. I believe that the straws hang out on the side somewhere, waiting for their other straw friends to show up, and when there’s a bunch of straws, they all jump on at once.

Recently, I went through a period of anniversaries. Not the good kind, not the cake and balloons and go out for a fancy dinner kind. These were definitely the, “oh shit today is that day” kind. I hate to admit that it caught me surprise. I tend to be a planner but had been in head down, running straight ahead, get ‘er done mode so had not been paying attention to the calendar other than to show up for meetings when the little Outlook “pling” told me where and when I needed to be.

I did notice, however, that I was not feeling great. Marginally ill-tempered, impatient, and physically exhausted, I was craving anything with salt or sugar and harboring a number of gastrointestinal maladies which I will NOT describe.

I work in higher education. The start of the academic year usually brings a burst of energy and excitement, greeting new students who infuse life into our campus which had seemed all but drained by the restrictions set upon us by COVID. This year, however, I entered with caution, afraid that if I were too enthusiastic, too optimistic, that something would snatch it away, and crush my soul. Hypervigilance is exhausting.

I had been looking forward to my upcoming visit with friends to spend some desparately needed time at the beach. Unfortunately, one of them was quite ill and my travel plans were thwarted. I was so disappointed and really feeling quite sorry for myself. I did eventually remember that my friend was sick so reshuffled my priorities, and my sympathies, in the appropriate order.

Last Friday, September 10th, I wrote my bi-weekly missive to my staff reflecting on the 20th anniversary of September 11th, and the loss of my high school friend and fellow theatre nerd Paul Keating, a NYC firefighter who went into work on his day off and lost his life saving others. I thought about his family and how difficult a day it must be for them. I was definitely in my feelings at this point.

After hitting send, I checked Facebook and those feelings were shattered into a million shards of pain and shame. One of my sisters posted a memorial for the anniversary of my mother’s death that day, 8 years earlier. I felt the sting of embarrassment that I had not remembered unbidden by the cue, and the pain of the loss. The date also drew my thoughts to the anniversary of my final divorce decree, which was 5 days prior to my mother’s death; those dates linked by sheer happenstance.

Did I mention a recent medication change that was not working out well for me?

So there they are, the straws. And they did not come one-by-one. They ganged up on me and BOOM! – broken camel! We can manage life’s challenges in small doses, one straw at a time, but life doesn’t always work that way. So how did I help the camel recover?

I found the courage to ask for the help I needed.I shared my straws, my pain, with friends who listen without judgement, without the need to fix me, or tell me what to do, but just sit with me in my pain, to be with me until I feel better. I am also fortunate to have resources, health insurance, and the good sense to use them.

May your straws be few and well-spaced.

The Elevator*

Imagine you’re 14 years old. You are with the kids from the neighborhood, maybe where you went to school. You have known each other a long time but you still feel awkward and different. You’re fat or have glasses or a speech impediment or weird clothes or a weird family or you’re really, really smart. Maybe you have secrets you are never supposed to tell. Maybe all of those things. All you know is that you do not fit in.

Now you all find yourself at the top of the highest building you can imagine. The view of the sky, the horizon, the landscape, are amazing, beautiful, full of promise. Your friends are happy, taking in the sights, talking excitedly about the day. You are fidgety, impatient, bored. You want to get on to the next adventure.

You try to get everyone the elevator on this top floor. “This will be awesome”, you tell them as you hand out beers as they get on. Some decide not to get on, content where they are, with what they have.

You notice there are no buttons in the elevator, no emergency stop: just a huge red down arrow and more beer, wine and alcohol than you can imagine. Every time empty one another one appears. The anticipation of where this elevator will take you is building.

The arrow turns green and it begins to descend. Your stomach does a little “flip” with the drop of a few floors. You are excited by the sudden but unfamiliar sensation. Your friends gasp, the look of fear evident. Several people throw up. The elevator stops and some get out: they’re not up for this unpredictable ride to nowhere.

You keep drinking. The door closes to continue the down. This time the drop is faster and longer. It feels like a rocket ship to center Earth. You grip the handrails to keep the momentum from hurtling you towards the ceiling. Your adrenaline surges: you are laughing with the thrill of it.

There are only a handful of you left. Another tremendous drop and a jolting stop throws someone to the floor, another person falls into a group in the corner, someone is unconscious on the floor. They are out as soon as the doors open. Now it’s only you and your best drinking buddy. Just before the doors close, she wobbles through them unsteadily, first walking then crawling. As she turns around, you see her expression turn from fear to relief.

The doors close again. You are in an endless plummet. The green arrow is blinking faster and faster with the speed of descent. You close your eyes. Your feeling of excitement has become abject fear. When you open your eyes, the elevator car has shrunken and become dark and cold.

Your heart is beating out of your chest, your head is pounding, you squirm to find a position to relieve your anxiety and pain, you are asking yourself why you are still on this DAMN ELEVATOR! Now you are screaming into the abyss: “STOP! STOP! STOP! LET ME OUT! I AM DONE!”

A soft light comes on in the elevator. It comes to a slow, soft stop. The doors open to a set of ascending stairs. You begin to climb, unsteadily at first. You can hear voices upstairs: they sound happy, they’re laughing. You stumble and suddenly someone comes to help you. You shake them off and stumble again. They reach out a hand and smile. This time you accept the help and begin to climb out of the darkness. You know you can’t do this alone.

* The title, The Elevator, is inspired by my friend Paul Churchill and his Recovery Elevator podcast, which I have been binge-listening for the past several weeks. Paul is committed not only to his own recovery, but to being of service to others and helping them with theirs. The RE podcast quickly became one of my tools to maintain my sobriety and the people around the country who I have met, personally and virtually, through Paul, inspire and motivate everyday to continue living a life of sobriety. Thank you Paul.

 

So, I did a thing…

…or more accurately, I stopped doing a thing. Three years, two months and twenty days ago I quit drinking. I mentioned it in yesterday’s “the right shoes” post but kind of buried the headline. Ok, I DID bury the headline.

There was no cataclysmic moment of reckoning, no lightning strike, no “come to (enter name of deity of your choice), no intervention, no job loss, no family drama: I was just tired. Tired and ashamed.

Now I have been tired many times: too much work, not enough sleep, long drives, boring meetings, vacation recovery, etc. But this was the tired of a person who had no energy, no hope, no joy, and no long-range outlook, sunny or otherwise. Everyday was an effort. I often wished I would just go to sleep and never wake up.

During the day someone always pissed me off, pushed my buttons, hurt my feelings, talked down to me. And so, I would plan to drink at them. That would show them, although they would never know. I would plan my box-o-wine stop at one of the three stores on my one and a quarter mile “commute” home. I rotated my stores, so people didn’t think I was an alcoholic because, you know, I was and I am. Towards the end, just thinking about and planning my drinking made me excited and lifted my mood.

My paranoia about drinking didn’t stop at the store. I often worried that the recycling guys knew I was an alcoholic because of how many bottles and boxes I went through each week. Of course, among the thousands of homes where they stopped to collect each week, I knew they were really only thinking about mine. (Oddly, when I stopped drinking, I thought they would notice that too and know I was an alcoholic.)

And then there was the shame. Someone once told me the difference between guilt and shame: guilt is how you feel about something you did, and shame is how feel about who you are. Yes, it was shame. I was a highly accomplished, well-educated and respected member of both my professional and local communities. I participated, I volunteered, I worked, I traveled, I had friends and hobbies and for a long time I was invited to things.

But as my disease progressed, invitations were few and far between. I didn’t care, I just drank at home, a lot. One of those many mornings that I regretfully woke up, I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I stepped closer to the huge well-lit bathroom mirror to look into my own eyes: they were hollow, I was hollow.

Through a series of what I thought were coincidences, I ran into a friend who had recently gotten sober after a relapse of several years. I told her I was thinking about quitting.

She offered to meet me the following Monday at a meeting. And that Monday afternoon, she was there. And that was the beginning of a journey of recovery that has changed my life in ways I couldn’t imagine.

I stopped doing a thing, so I could do, and enjoy, everything else. I stopped doing a thing so I could have a life and I do.

I can’t go, I don’t have the right shoes

I can come up with a million perfectly valid reasons (excuses) not to try something new or go somewhere different. It might be not having the right shoes or the right clothes; not knowing what to bring or who else will be there, and if they’ll like me. Then, of course, there is thinking I’ll probably be the oldest, fattest, weirdest, loudest, (feel free to insert your insecurity here) person there.

All those things sprang immediately to mind last August when my friend Kristin told me about a travel opportunity to Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks. I had been talking about how much I miss traveling. As a single person, the thought of creating a value-packed itinerary to see all the destination highlights seems daunting. Making schedules, lists, agendas, arrangements and “Plans B” are a significant part of my daily life. I don’t want planning a vacation to be another job.

I thought of going on one of those 10-day pre-planned trips, the ones you might see in AAA magazine, but the idea of traveling foreign lands with a busload of Royal Order of Jack-a-lope from Red Rover, Iowa or the Chartreuse Shoe Ladies of Couch Springs, Minnesota was, well, underwhelming. When it comes right down to it, I would still be traveling alone. Lots of pictures of me in front of very important landmarks alone, or with my new friends Myrtle and Buddy who I would never see again. So, the idea of traveling with at least one person I knew and enjoyed hanging out with was appealing.

And then there’s the drinking. I stopped drinking just over three years ago and I had no concept of a vacation without alcohol.

Every non-family vacation I had been on since the age of 16 involved copious quantities of alcohol and that’s the way I liked it. Most of my travel was to resort-y type destinations with pools and beaches and excursions to interesting places that consistently included breweries, wineries, and tequila-ries. My “right shoe” fears and insecurities disappeared quickly after the first drink so I could “enjoy” vacation. And by enjoy, I mean drinking during the day late into the night, waking up hungover and tired and doing it all again for the next 6 days. Sounds awesome right? It was exhausting, and painful, and sad.

Kristin’s trip to Southeast Asia was different. It was organized by Recovery Elevator (recoveryelevator.com), a group that brings, “like-minded individuals together…who seek a better life without alcohol through support and accountability.” Not only would someone else plan the trip and tell me what shoes to wear, but there would be NO drinking. That’s right, no happy hours, no distillery stops, no tastings, no bed spins, no hangover, no vomiting, no regrets, no shame.

I went on the trip and it was one of the best experiences of my life. You see, it was never about the shoes or the clothes or the age or the ability or the “fatness” for me; it was about the fear. It was always about the fear.

Try the new thing, take the trip. If you don’t have the right shoes, the ones you have will work or you’ll find the ones you need when you get there. And there might be some time to go barefoot.

Friends and Family Per Mile 2018

0A07C87D-3249-47DF-B173-B328450AF965Every summer I embark on what I refer to as a “friends and family per mile tour”. It is always by car and on the East Coast because, well, I can drive there. The usual destinations are Connecticut to visit one of my sisters, New Jersey, “the homeland”, to connect with long-time friends, or Rhode Island to my mother’s childhood summer home.

Some people would refer to this as a “road trip” but I associate “road trips” with buddy movies, adventures, misadventures and lots of drinking. Been there, done that – not anymore. I pack up my vehicle with books on Audible, podcasts, music and at least one four-legged friend in a very cushy dog-seat: and clothes, I do bring clothes. I’m also armed with my cell phone contact list, Facebook and a memory easily jogged by songs, smells, sights, and (road) signs. No, I cannot/will not cease alliterating! It was a gift from my mother so I’m keeping it. 🙂

The friends and family per mile tours started several years ago. The title is derived from the “friends and family plan” from the Verizon folks and “per mile” added because it just seems to fit. It is more accurately miles per friends/family but that just doesn’t sound right. Friends and family come first right?

This year I traveled dogless leaving “the boys” with an energetic early-rising friend. I logged 900 miles and 25 friends and family, some planned, some impromptu. That’s 36 miles/ff for those keeping track. Bonus new friends not included in original mileage.

But the data only tells a small part of the story. In more or less chronological order, those miles include “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” with the best little sister ever, 50 cent donut day, the beach, skipping rocks on the ocean, teaching a child how to skip rocks on the ocean, McDonald’s Play Place, finding a new binge-worthy Netflix show (Bloodline), breakfast with a beloved friend and mentor, iced tea with a longtime theatre pal, pop-up visits with some of my favorite people along Main St. in Keene, picking blueberries, feeding ducks, apple cider donuts (yes, more donuts), the arrival of another sister in Connecticut, making dinner for my sisters and family, driving to NYC, checking out pocket parks and little bookstores (Book Book and the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Book store), dinner with sisters and nephews, cupcakes at Mollie’s Cupcakes (all on Bleecker St.), seeing hometown friend and performer par excellence Michael James Leslie in Sweeney Todd, a restful morning and a safe and uneventful return to Philadelphia and my faithful companions, Dobbie and JohnnyB.

My gas tank is empty but my heart is full.

 

 

 

Real Life: the bully

I came across this essay I wrote in October 2014 while looking through my computer files in an effort to clear things out a bit. I don’t remember exactly what was happening in my life at the time although I believe it was health-related: 2014 was a banner year for that. I didn’t know it at the time but it was about the midpoint of 5 years of incredibly challenging, and sometimes dark, times

October 6, 2014

Reality barged into the remaining hours of my Zen-like vacation much the way a bully interrupts a child’s game of kickball turning it into dodge ball, or bombardment as I knew it growing up. The name conveys the game’s aggressive nature, bombardment with the weapon of choice or dodging same.

In this case, the weapon was the reality of everyday life. Not just the dirty dishes and the laundry and the housekeeping but the tragedies: a parent lost to death, a marriage lost to infidelity, a beloved pet lost to age and infirmity. As I write this I realize I could easily be talking about my own life over the last 2+ years but in this case the losses are those experienced by friends in the last 2 days.

My role, as it has been for most of my life, is to be the protector, the mediator, the consoler. I can’t stop this reality from forcing its way into the lives of those I care about but I can provide solace.  I can be a sounding board, a shoulder, a worry doll, an ear to hear the pain and heartache, to send it out and up, to relieve the heaviness of it so they can make space for peace and love.

The bully cannot be contained or punished into submission. It is unapologetic, unyielding and unkind, like the bullies we knew from our playground days. These bullies, these realities, cannot be avoided or cajoled; only confronted and managed. And they make us stronger in their wake.

Epiphany/epiphany/epiph: they’re all cool!

Today is Epiphany: “a manifestation, a striking appearance”. Most folks associate Epiphany with its religious context but there is more to it.

For those whose faith tradition is Christianity (in particular western Christianity which uses the Gregorian calendar; eastern Christianity uses the Julian calendar and celebrates on January 19th) it is the Feast of the Epiphany and the twelfth day of the liturgical Christmas season (your 12 lords a’ leaping should arrive any minute now). It is also called Three Kings Day or the Feast of the Magi, when Jesus became manifest to the gentiles.*

There are a number of traditions associated with the day. Since it is the end of the Christmas season, many folks take down their trees and decorations. You may also want to enjoy a king cake; a ring-shaped bread or pastry in which a small, plastic baby  Jesus is hidden. Baptisms and house blessings are common. In some cultures, children will leave their shoes outside the door to awaken to gifts and candy.*

In our more common usage, an epiphany is a revelation; discovery or clarity about something usually triggered by new information or deep thought. That is a pretty tall order for most of us just trying to get through the day. For me, “Deep Thoughts” are the business of Jack Handy of SNL fame. But I do periodically have what I refer to as “epiphs”, not necessarily groundbreaking moments of clarity or revelation, but certainly finding a new way of looking at something I’d not previously considered.

The challenge is staying open to the opportunity for epiphs or even full blown epiphanies. You see, I have a thinking problem. When my thinking or methods are challenged, the internal visceral response is typically something like, “Uhhhh, NO! You have no idea what you’re talking about. You cannot possibly know as much as I do about what dragons do on vacation (or whatever) so I am shutting you down, shutting you out, or shutting you up until you come back around to my way of thinking. ‘k?” No, not okay.

I wouldn’t typically say this outloud but my actions and overactive facial expressions are basically a visual interpretation of every negative thought marching through my head. So I have been practicing acknowledging that visceral impulse and then acting from a thoughtful, rational, compassionate place. I’ve found when I shut up long enough, I can sometimes actually learn something or at the very least not hurt someone who’s just trying to help. I’m not 100%; remember, I’m practicing.

So today, I will be open to new thoughts, ideas and information and create more opportunities for “epiphs” or perhaps even a full blown epiphany.

*THANK YOU GOOGLE AND WIKIPEDIA!

 

 

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