Less Clearly Defined

She found herself tapping her fingers to the click-click-click of the blinker. She looked up, startled. The green light swung gently on its wire. The sky was a charcoal smudge, not ominous as much as declarative. As if affirming her assessment, a large rain drop met the windshield with a splash. A horn sounded behind her. She glanced in her rearview mirror. A line of cars wound down the road. A red and white pickup truck behind her inched closer, nudging her forward.

She made the left turn. But only because that was the direction her blinker guided her. Not until she saw her house, purple with green trim, in the distance did she begin to make sense of where she was. She pulled into her driveway. She got out and opened the hatchback. She pulled two grocery bags from the back, wrestling to maintain control of the bags and close the hatchback. Victorious, she headed to the front door.

“Charlie!”she grinned, as the small, white wire-haired dog bounded into her legs as soon as the door cracked open. She put the bags on the floor and knelt down to pet Charlie. Only when she scooped up the dog and held him while he licked her face did she remember.

I am Eustice Walker.

She fed Charlie and put away the groceries. She went to put the milk on the shelf and almost knocked over a glass of orange juice. Where had that come from? Eustice shook her head, hoping to cipher the glass of orange juice occupying her refrigerator. Since she was a kid, Eustice had avoided orange juice. The pulp rendered it viscous and repulsive. But now, there it blithely sat, mocking her with its presence.

Eustice had no idea how the orange juice had manifested itself in her refrigerator.

She sighed and moved to put the granola bars on the shelf in the pantry. Except there was no room. Another box of granola bars already occupied the space. She looked down at the box in her hand. Chocolate sea salt. Eustice detested chocolate sea salt. She was certain that snacks should be either salty or sweet, not a strange amalgamation of both. Yet here she stood, holding a box of chocolate sea salt granola bars.

She shivered. She put the box on the counter. She grabbed a piece of paper from the magnetic pad hanging on the refrigerator. Images of Magritte’s art appeared on each sheet, a gift from her a friend who understood Eustice’s love of the absurd. Quickly she frowned. She supposed that she loved the absurd in abstract. Because when the absurd was purchasing chocolate sea salt granola bars, she wasn’t sure she loved it at all. In fact, she was quite sure she did not.

On the piece of paper, over Magritte’s The Great War, Eustice carefully penned the following:

Kindly find a different spot for your granola bars. I was here first. In fact, this is my house. And please develop a more refined palate—at least when it comes to granola bars.

She signed her name and stuck the note on top of the box of granola bars. Then she slumped down onto the floor and let Charlie climb up in her lap. The strange food loitering about the kitchen didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she had no idea who was leaving it there.

Eustice gently set Charlie aside and stood up. She felt an intense urge to struggle against … something, something amorphous, ill-defined. She could pinpoint with certainty the vague sense of malaise settling over her. She traversed a path toward the bathroom, side-stepping a pile of clothes. She glanced at them. Aqua pants. Her favorite purple tunic. A white and pale pink checked scarf. Her high top sneakers had been haphazardly discarded by the wall, one tumbling over the other in a state of disarray that she could not abide for more than a few seconds. She went over and aligned the shoes with the baseboard, one next to the other, toes just touching the wood. She straightened them. But she did not put them away. Why should she? She hadn’t left them there.

Eustice stepped up to the sink. She stared at herself. She’d always been fascinated by the face in the mirror–so familiar and, simultaneously, so foreign. Almost as if her reflection didn’t match who she felt herself to be, deep down, at an elemental level. She looked interesting, if not a bit bookish. Her strawberry blonde hair, which she’d gone to herculean lengths to tame that morning, now made a rather half-hearted attempt to say back in a ponytail. Her tortoise shell glasses took up considerable real estate on her face, but she loved them in part because they provided a shield, a barrier between her and the world. She stared intently into her eyes. Hazel. Lightly lashed. She wondered if people could read her when they looked into her eyes. She always felt so transparent, exposed, out in the world. But now, when Eustice studied herself in the mirror, she looked guarded, perhaps even mysterious. On second thought, her freckles probably relegated her to something closer to quotidian. But, at the very least, today she looked…complicated.

Eustice made her way into her bedroom, Charlie close at her heels. She looked at the bed, carefully made, with the navy blue quilt folded down just so. She saw her favorite sheets peeking out from underneath—white with tiny red rosebuds scattered across the fabric. The orderliness of the room settled her. She removed her shoes and lined them up parallel to each other by foot of the bed. She lay down on top of the quilt, resting her head on a navy blue shammed pillow. Although she found it markedly less comfortable than the red rosebuded pillow laying beneath it, Eustice couldn’t bear to disturb the fragile sense of propriety that her room offered. To be frank, this room, with its predictability, grounded her. That was too precious a commodity to unravel with the peeling back of a sheet and the tossing of a pillow. Besides, she’d only be here for a few minutes.

Eustice opened her eyes. A cold dread spread slowly through her. How long had she been lying here? What day was it? Where was she meant to be right now? She drew in a deep breath, as her mind raced to right itself. It was obviously morning. The light was too weak and fragile to be evening. The sun was waking up with a yawn, not flaming out at day’s end. She sat up. She felt something pinch the skin just under her waistband. She reached and scratched the spot absently. Her hand froze, only for a moment, then grabbed at the tag her fingers rested on. She pulled it out, fighting a quick slide into complete panic. She examined the tag as best she could, her neck craning up and back in an effort to read the words and numbers that staggered in and out of her vision. She recognized the name of the store printed on the tag. It was an upscale boutique downtown. A boutique she’d never been in. She tugged the tag out a bit further and felt her mouth go dry. $150 might be the standard price for couture. But for Eustice, who prided herself on the collection of classic, vintage clothes she’d culled from thrift stores across the city, $150 bordered on the obscene.

She felt an urge—or was it more like a pull?—to pounce out of bed and leap over to the mirror. She wanted to move. She felt wild inside. Chaotic. In short, she felt entirely unlike herself. But years of self-control and measured responses quickly subjugated these queer impulses. She climbed out of bed with almost imperceptible motion, as not to wake Charlie who slept snuggled against her in a ball. The rhythmic sound of his breathing soothed her. She walked slowly to the mirror, head down. When she arrived directly in front of the mirror—she knew she had reached the spot because she could see the legs of the antique vanity that she’d painstakingly restored—she looked up slowly.

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent. Eustice took note of the green metallic eyeshadow smudged across her eyelids. She approved of the color, which complemented her hazel eyes, if not the heavy-handed application. Eustice turned her head slowly, side to side, examining herself. Geometric golden earrings jingled softly as she swung her head. A new addition, she noted. As was the army green jacket. She crossed her fingers that it wasn’t a boutique purchase, as she ran her hands over the fabric searching for tags. But this jacket seemed to be vintage. Hopefully from a thrift store. She made a note to check her credit card for unauthorized purchases.

Eustice stood back and examined herself in the mirror again. She felt elated and terrified. Her reflection mocked her uncertainty with a smirk. She reached up reflexively and touched her necklace. It was still there. She breathed a sigh of relief. She’d worn this necklace–a tiny golden puzzle piece with her name written in script across it–every single day since she entered the world. A thought flittered across Eustice’s brain and made her heart pound. Her stomach clenched. Trembling, she made her way over to her desk. She regarded the small, lavender box sitting neatly on the corner of the desk. She hesitated. Then she inhaled sharply and slowly removed the lid. Once satisfied that the contents of the box were in order, Eustice put her hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths. Distracted, she rubbed the charm on her necklace, as she had innumerable times before, and resolved to move on with her day. She turned on the shower and let the room fill with steam. Then she shed last night’s costume, scrubbed away the makeup, and emerged from the shower wholly herself again.

Eustice put Charlie in the passenger seat of her silver, economy sedan. She had been only 13 when, on a bright Spring morning, her father presented this car to her mother. He’d led her outside by the hand, counted to three, and stripped away the blindfold with a flourish. She remembered precisely how her mother looked, receiving such a tremendous gift—a gift her father purchased by toiling at odd jobs in secret for two years: she squealed, then covered Eustice’s father in kisses, tears streaking her cheeks. Her excitement felt electric.

She was dead one week later.

Her mother’s sudden death changed Eustice. She immediately took up the mantle of responsibility, cooking, cleaning, ensuring the house ran impeccably, efficiently. Eustice focused on her studies with laser precision, earning top honors every semester from the time of her mother’s passing to the day she finished graduate school. Eustice could not—would not–tolerate messiness, not even in grief. She demanded perfection from herself and from others in her orbit, personal or professional. While, admittedly, this practice netted Eustice relatively few friends, she judged them to be of a superior caliber. In Eustice’s estimation, she had achieved the markers of success and stability: a slow and steady rise in position at work and the purchase of her own home. Yet… she battled a persistent, nagging belief that she needed to pay penance for her mother’s early demise.

Eustice shook herself free from these thoughts. She found them oppressive, dark, and superstitious. She rolled the window down slightly for Charlie and tuned in to talk radio. She wound through the streets toward her childhood home. The neighborhood, once a solidly working-class neighborhood, had shifted in recent years. Rusted-out cars and broken toys littered the once painstakingly manicured lawns. The street where Eustice rode her bike until the streetlights beckoned her home was now a haunting row of derelict and decrepit houses. Eustice fought back tears. What did it matter now anyway?

Her car rolled to a stop on the same driveway where she’d learned to roller skate–in a rainbow tank top, hot pink shorts, and cumulous cloud knee socks–at seven years old. She cut the engine, scooped Charlie out of the seat, and walked determinedly toward the front door. She pushed her key into the lock and turned it halfway to the right, the way she’d done thousands—maybe even tens of thousands—of times before. She stepped into the cool foyer. Eustice called out for her father. Then she stopped. She inhaled sharply, then let out a jagged sob. Of course he didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer her calls anymore. She, Eustice Walker, was an orphan now. That word, orphan, broke her and sent sobs ricocheting off the empty walls. The house looked orphaned, too, ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

Eustice stifled her sobs and took a deep, shaky breath. This wouldn’t do. Losing control couldn’t alter her reality. They were both gone, her parents. All there was to do was move forward. She’d only come to do one final walk through before handing the keys to the real estate agent. Methodically, Eustice combed through every inch of the house. She walked through each room, checking behind doors and in closets for scraps of her parents’ lives left behind. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to Eustice for these artifacts to find their way into someone else’s hands. No, Eustice was their family’s historian; she was, herself, a living artifact. She intended to be a good steward of every piece of their legacy, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

She pulled down the attic ladder. Almost imperceptibly, Eustice shivered. She hadn’t been in the attic since the day she’d found her mother there, unresponsive. For a moment, she didn’t know if she could force her legs to do the work required to climb the ladder. Even on her rather limited budget, Eustice had hired movers to clean out the attic for her. They stacked the attic’s contents in the kitchen, where she’d sorted the crush of mementos, memories, and prosaic junk. But now she was pressed up against the final moments in her childhood home, the house where she’d last seen her mother alive. Eustice knew it was her responsibility–her sacred duty if she was being gut-wrenchingly honest—to venture into the attic and ensure no scrap of her parents’ life was left forsaken. Warily, she placed her right foot on the ladder and pulled herself up a rung. Her heart thudded; her breaths sounded short and shallow. She willed herself into a (slightly) calmer state and continued up the ladder, rung by rung.

She reached the apex and extended a shaking hand toward the attic door. It creaked open. Eustice squinted into the glare of sunlight and dust. She drew a breath in and shuddered. It smelled exactly like she remembered. Seventeen years compressed into one second. Grief rendered time meaningless. Eustice simultaneously existed in the moment of loss and somewhere on the eternal grief continuum. She glanced around the attic quickly, scanning for missed boxes and, seeing none, was about to make her way back down the ladder. But she saw something. Or, at least, she thought she saw something. She couldn’t be sure. But her uncertainty fixed her tightly to the attic ladder.

Eustice dreaded the emotional work of turning around to investigate the—what was it? A piece of paper? But she knew herself. She’d be mired in a torrent of regret if she left anything behind. So much of them had already been lost. Everything mattered. Even a discarded receipt told a story. So did the a long-forgotten grocery list. These were fragments of their story, a testament to what she’d lost. She collected these artifacts with fervor. Eustice forced herself to climb back into the attic. She walked breathlessly over to the place where she’d found her mother, crumpled on the floor. It was in that exact spot that the paper had settled.

Eustice picked it up gingerly. She moved as if she was afraid to disturb her mother’s spirit. Which felt absurd. Eustice prided herself on her realistic views regarding religion. Namely, she was an atheist. She did not believe in an afterlife. Or spirits. But she did believe in knowledge and history, and that’s why she was here. She picked up the piece of paper and turned it over. It was black and white, with two prominent white blurs. It took Eustice a moment to realize she was looking at a sonogram. Her mother’s name was at the top. Eustice looked at the date printed in the margin. She frowned, folded the paper, and placed it carefully in her back pocket for safekeeping.

Eustice heard a low whooshing noise. In and out. In and out. She felt soothed, lulled by the noise. She felt herself receding, fading. Eustice heard the whoosh-whooshing again. But this time she was able to fight her way through, back toward consciousness. It wasn’t daylight. But the lucent moon reflected against the ocean. Eustice sat up with a start and flung her hands out to the side. She heard a snuffle, just as her hand brushed Charlie’s soft fur. Eustice sighed and stretched back out on the sand. The unseasonably warm ocean breeze settled her, as Eustice tried her best to fill the gap between her parents’ attic and waking on the beach. She looked down at her watch, but instead found only her naked wrist. She laughed. None of this was funny, of course. Losing large chunks of time hardly qualified as laughable. But it was excruciatingly absurd. Eustice–who valued routine, order, and precision above all else–now found herself on a beach, in the middle of the night, miles and miles away from home, with no watch. She laughed again. Charlie stirred next to her. She gathered him in her arms and stood up to begin the odyssey back home from wherever she was.

Osipidy Beach. 280 miles from home. That’s where she’d woken up. Uncovering her exact location didn’t require much sleuthing. She’d just followed the shoreline north until she ran into a sign that declared Osipidy Beach to be “The Place Families Find Themselves.” Eustice thought that sentiment odd. She assumed the sign-makers intended for families to discover their most essential selves in the throes of this striking coastal tableau. Eustice, on the other hand, wondered how many families ended up here just the way she did—with no forethought, no planning, no real desire to be here at all. Regardless, the families at Osipidy Beach probably at least knew howthey had arrived here, if not why. Even that was a mystery to Eustice.

She turned to look back at the ocean. The waves pounded rhythmically. The lights from the sleepy beach town did nothing to disturb the brilliance of the stars or the moon’s luminescence. Eustice felt infinitesimal, insignificant. She also felt universal, infinite. She felt both exquisitely, without conflict. She sat back down on the sand and took in the landscape.

Stay.  

Had Eustice heard that? Or had she just felt it so strongly that it seemed audible? An undeniable pull to stay overwhelmed her. She needed this place right now. She knew it deep in her bones. Eustice, who believed in facts, science, and concrete knowledge, intuited that she needed to stay. Right where she was. On this beach. She shifted slightly to make herself—and Charlie—more comfortable. As she burrowed a little deeper into the sand, something crinkled. Slid her hand into her back pocket and pulled out the paper she’d retrieved from her parents’ attic. She ran her fingers over the image, brushed the paper against her lips, and stuck it back in her pocket. She laid back in the sand, pulled Charlie close to her, and let the ocean coax her back to sleep.

Eustice woke up to the smell of bacon. She opened her eyes, expecting the weak light that crept into her bedroom each morning. Instead, she saw a sky aflame with oranges, yellows and pinks. The sun marched a slow, steady path higher into the sky. Eustice watched the sun rise until it hung contentedly in the sky. She felt a sharp pang of hunger and turned her attention to breakfast. Following the smell of bacon and something sweet, like maple syrup, she stumbled onto a little hut on the beach. She walked up to the service window and leaned her head partway inside. “Got a menu?” she called to no one in particular. Typically reserved and ever-mindful of decorum, Eustice couldn’t seem to control her volume or her hunger.

“On the chalkboard,” a cheerful, disembodied voice called back.

Eustice stepped back, then laughed. The entire front of the building was a chalkboard. The menu wove its way around the facade. She saw, to her surprise, that in addition to the typical breakfast fare, this little beach hut served two different kind of veggie omelets. When she got up to the window, Eustice, a vegetarian for the last 15 years, ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with a side of sausage. She sat down at the picnic table and devoured her breakfast, stopping only long enough to give Charlie one of the sausage links. She went back to the counter and ordered pancakes and coffee.

She paused briefly in front of the table that held the different varieties of sweeteners and creams for the coffee. She eschewed the powdered creamer, and instead chose whole milk. She contemplated the Stevia for a moment before grabbing two packs of raw sugar. After she’d assembled her coffee, she took a tentative sip. Then another. Eustice, avid tea drinker, sat down with her inaugural cup of coffee and stared at the ocean. She felt the picture in her back pocket crinkle as she shifted.

Stay.  

Eustice stayed at the beach for 3 days. Some locals proffered a tent and taught her to cook over a campfire. She expanded her palate, sampling local seafood, as well as a preponderance of local fruits and vegetables. She wandered the beach all day in a violet two-piece bathing suit (she’d never worn one) and cut off shorts. The ocean air made her hair curly and windswept. Her cheeks were sunburned. She was dirty. She hadn’t had a real shower in days. But there were no more blackouts. No more missing time.

On the fourth day, she bought a bus ticket back home. Not because she wanted to. But there were loose ends, affairs that needed to be reconciled. One couldn’t just hide out on the beach forever. Time to go home. To be responsible. Time to be Eustice again.

As she boarded the bus, Eustice felt an immediate longing for the ocean. She disregarded it. She was, in fact, beginning to examine her behavior over the past few days with a certain disdain. She’d been forced to board Charlie at a local veterinarian’s office. Eustice felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she lied to the vet: her friends unexpectedly abandoned her and she needed to return home via bus to collect her car. The vet graciously accepted her lie. Now Eustice had a modest goal: travel home, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. As she boarded, Eustice became keenly aware that she smelled …. earthy. The lingering smell of campfire mingled with the ocean salt. Eustice felt the contempt of her fellow riders. She attempted to run her fingers through her hair but found her fingers mired in tangles generated by days of salt and wind. Eustice felt the sting of shame as she sunk down into her seat. Mercifully, the steady movement of the bus lulled her to sleep.

Eustice slept so soundly that the bus driver had to shake her awake after all the other passengers had disembarked. She peered out the window as she gathered the few things she’d brought with her—the bikini that now seemed immodest and juvenile, the shell necklace that she’d strung on the beach. She felt ridiculous. What was it that people said? You can’t run from yourself? Wasn’t that precisely the foolishness that had consumed the last four days?  Eustice gathered herself with fresh resolve. As reached into her back pocket to look for her wallet, her fingers brushed the picture that she’d kept on her person the entire trip. She wasn’t quite sure why, other than in was part of the history she felt so ardent about preserving. She shrugged her way out of these troublesome thoughts and stepped off the bus.

No.

This time, Eustice ignored the voice or feeling or whatever force seemed to be pulling her back to the bus and away from her home. She pressed forward. Her motions slowed. She felt like she was pushing through viscous air. She pressed on toward home. Clearly, she was exhausted. She walked the few blocks from the bus stop fighting a growing dread. Finally, she stood in front of the purple house with the green trim. She’d painted the house purple the same day her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first irrational decision she’d made. She’d stood in the hardware store, looking at paint samples. She had a neutral yellow in her hand. But she felt drawn to the purple. She saw her hand reach toward it. And then it was done. She bought the purple paint, chose the green trim against her better judgement, and then she had a purple house. At first she was ashamed of her house. Every time she pulled up in her silver, economy sedan, she felt her cheeks burn. Who was she, Eustice Walker, to choose a color so bold? But now, seeing the unapologetic purple gleam in the sunshine, the purple felt right.

She unlocked the door and went in the house. The spaces she loved—her reading nook, her bookshelves teeming with classic novels, her rigid orderliness—felt confining. Eustice climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She pushed open the door. Clothes littered the floor, as if someone had tried them on, found them wanting, and dropped them right there, moving on. The shoe rack sat empty, discarded by its inhabitants in favor of helter-skelter accumulation on the closet floor. Eustice experienced, like a distant memory, the urge to tidy the room. But this chaos somehow made her feel more balanced, more sure. So she stepped over piles of clothes and made her way to the small, lavender box.

She pulled the picture out of her back pocket. Folding it and unfolding it for days on end left it a bit worse for the wear. But now she could see the images more clearly. There were two. Feet touching. Her hand went to the puzzle piece around her neck. With her free hand, she reached out to the box. She opened it carefully. Inside lay a tiny, perfect puzzle piece with a name written in script across it. She closed the box, lay the picture next to it. She made her way to her bed, fell down face first, and drifted off to sleep.

She awoke with a start, sure it had happened again. She blinked heavily, last night’s mascara sticking slightly. She looked down at her feet. Purple suede boots. She felt the initial trill of terror. Or was it excitement? She bounded out of bed and ran over to the mirror. She looked at herself. Her curls bounced wildly. Her hazel eyes stared back. She broke her own gaze and  scurried around the room, gathering the odd assortment of clothes, make-up and earrings that had made their way into her house during the last few months. She threw them all into a bag and tossed it by the door. She began the laborious task of straightening her room, hanging all the clothes on hangers, lining the shoes up meticulously on the shoe rack. She organized the vanity and made the bed. She arranged the pillows. Satisfied that all was in order once again, she stepped back and admired the sparse decor, the orderliness that bespoke a life completely under control. A measured, responsible life.

She made her way to the vanity and picked up the picture that lay next to the lavender box. She pressed it to her forehead for a moment before folding it and putting it in her back pocket. She opened the lavender box and took out the puzzle piece. It felt almost weightless in her hand. Made for an infant, it was delicate. The perfect match to the one she wore. She took off her necklace and removed her puzzle piece. She fit them together. Eustice and Amelia. She took the sonogram back out of her pocket. Eustice and Amelia. Tears stung her eyes. She picked up the puzzle piece and strung it back on her necklace.

She turned and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind her, leaving an orderly room, a clearly defined life, and a tiny golden puzzle piece with Eustice written in script.

Whose Script Is This?

We become the story that we tell ourselves. 

From the time we’re born, people that we love–and even complete strangers–feed us a script about who we are. We see foremost what they call forward. We become what they nurture–and we learn to hide (or feel shame) about what they dismiss. We keep this script close, reverting back to it when we feel off-base.

But, sometimes, the script is a lie.

When I walked up into Alcoholics Anonymous in my cowboy boots, feeling mighty superior, I had my script firmly in hand. I was a smart, sensitive, tragic victim. The world simply couldn’t understand someone as deeply empathic and intuitive as I was. So, I drank to shield myself from the tragedy of the every day as it unfolded around me.

You can imagine how quickly the A.A.ers called bullshit on that.

They immediately started asking me to find my part in my own pain. I resisted mightily. For real. I thought I was exempt from the basic truths that, in every situation, we have choices. Often we don’t choose what happens to us. But we do get to choose how we deal with it. We get to write our own story.

But writing your own story is hard.

It means excavating psychic pain, long buried, to figure out what really happened… and to examine how your beliefs, attitudes, and/or resentments (mix & match any of these!) play into how you experience that pain now. Shiiiiiiiit. And then there’s the whole “making a list of people you’ve harmed”…. which really could be its own level of hell.

BUT.

In doing all that–in laying out my own pain & the pain I’d caused others–I could see patterns in my behaviors and beliefs. I found triggers that I could then defuse. And I could speak it all… and begin to let it go.

None of us get to re-write our past. In fact, I’ve long stopped wishing that I could. What’s way more important to me is writing my future. In order to do that, I have to create my own script about who I am. And that is the work of every day.

For a long time, my script read that I was a tragic fuck-up with lots of potential.

I mean, if you’ve got dramatic flair, you can be good at playing that part. But, ultimately, it’s not very fulfilling.

As I re-frame my story, I don’t see wasted years. I see an illness that drove my life to a standstill. I see the ravages of unchecked mental health issues. I see darkness—that, ultimately, I emerged from. I don’t see a fuck-up. I see a warrior.

I have to check my script every day, to make sure I have the right one. There are moments when I remember vividly–too vividly–the pain I caused people I loved and the agony I put myself through. And the old script plays. I have to check it. Stop it in it’s tracks. I do not have to be that person any more. Full stop.

I get to write my story. And it’s compassion, and love, and rising up from the wreckage… It’s being worthy and loved simply because. It’s being real and loving hard and not letting fear shut me down. It’s being fully alive and watching my real story unfold. 

Adventures in Florida

Simon, Jane, and I flew down to Florida this weekend to visit these folks:

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They’re my bonus family (aka in-laws). Jane’s aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents… all present and accounted for! I love that Jane is a product of this large, boisterous group of charming, quirky people. They’re not all often in the same place–but, man, when they are, they do it up. Jane got to go tubing (behind the boat) twice. Squirt guns? Of course there were squirt guns, too! She drove the golf cart (well, kinda sorta–but still!). She built things in the woodshop. She also shot her first arrow. Because nothing says “I’m living my best childhood” like bows & arrows.

While she was living it up at Camp Kellogg, I snuck out for a run. Florida is a special kind of hot–like melt-your-skin-off-your-body hot. The thermometer said it was 83 degrees. But I think it’s a lying bastard. It was SO HOT and humid, that I could barely breathe. At 9 a.m. But I did get this shot on my run:

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Florida’s no one-trick pony, y’all.

Florida summer running is humbling, for sure. But all the years I put in running in Florida (with it’s year-round scorching weather) sure do make summer running in Atlanta seem like a breeze.

A weather-related flight-fiasco kept us in Florida last night, unexpectedly–which I’m sure was a good, teachable moment for Jane about rolling with changes-in-plan, especially when traveling. Problem was, no one felt like teaching her a damn thing. We felt like going home. But that was a no-go. So we rallied and were back at the airport by 5:15 this morning. With our 7 year old. Our lovely, chatty, question-asking 7 year old.

I’m not sure if it was lack of sleep, a driving desire to be home in Atlanta, or just plain old gratitude—but the flight this morning felt nothing short of mesmerizing. The take-off especially felt magical. How could it be that one moment we were on the ground– then rising through the sky, just as the sun came up?

And when I saw Atlanta finally come into view, I felt that same thrill that I always have when I see the skyline:

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Florida is home to so many people I love. But Atlanta has my heart… and always has. I am so thankful to be back home–where I belong.

Tetherball & Sprinklers…And a Black Eye

Whap! The ball flew up at a 45-degree angle, then caught at the end of the tether before it came whizzing back around at me. I was ready. I’d perfected my tetherball stance this summer.

Whack! I smacked it hard. With my face.

“Oooff!” I yelled, covering my eye. Lights zipped back and forth underneath my eyelid like fireworks.

Percy came running over. I could tell right away he was trying not to laugh. Which really got me steamed.

“What the heck, Perc?” I shouted at him. I knew he didn’t mean it. But, gah, I hate to be laughed at.

“I… didn’t… mean… it… Stella,” it took him forever to get it out already between all his laughing.

“Whatever,” I said, still mad. “Let’s just finish playing. I’m gonna smoke you.”

“That black eye you’re gonna have is gonna have your mom smokin’ mad for sure,” Perc said, looking maybe a little more sorry than before.

“Oh for real?!?” I said, quietly, gently touching my eye. My mom was always on and on about me acting more like a girl. Trying to explain to her that there are all kinds of girls that act all kinds of ways had gotten me nowhere quick. Now I was going to have to explain a black eye? At least I hadn’t gotten it fighting. Whew. She’da really lost it them. I’d probably have to wear a dress and bows for the rest of the summer if that had happened.

“Maybe my mom’s got a steak we could put on it,” Percy said, grabbing his canteen and knapsack off the ground. “And I know she’s got popsicles, either way.” Percy looked real hopeful, but probably more about the popsicles than fixing my busted eye.

“Okay…” I said slowly, throwing him off the scent of my next move. “Race you there!” I took off running. Poor Perc was never gonna catch up. I was faster than him, even when I didn’t get a good head start.

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

We ate our popsicles in a hurry. It was hot. And we wanted to go play in the sprinklers, which Percy’s mom always let us do. My mom woulda had a conniption, not so much because of the sprinklers but because I just stripped down to my underwear & ran around like that. I mean, I don’t carry around a bathing suit everywhere I go. And besides, people wanna make a big deal of stuff, but it’s not like I have boobs or anything like that. I’m 9, for the Pete’s sake. Besides, if boys don’t have to wear shirts, girls shouldn’t either. What’s fair’s fair.

Percy and I chased each other round and round until I finally called Uncle because I couldn’t catch my breath. I flopped down on the wet grass, with the sprinklers still going, and closed my eyes. The thing about being with Percy was that I could just be. If I wanted to close my eyes, I did. Just like that. He never asked what I was doing or why. I like that in a person. People should just let other people be sometimes.

After I’d caught my breath, I sat up and took in my surroundings. Judging by the sun, it was already late afternoon. I might as well go home and face the music about this stupid black eye. With any luck, Mom would be over being mad by dusk, when I was supposed to meet Perc at the hidden hammock to catch fireflies. If she was still mad, I’d have to climb out my bedroom window and shimmy down the tree outside my window. I mean, I’m all up for tree climbing adventures, but sometimes it’s just easier to walk out the front door, you know?

Perc & I went inside so I could dry off. I put back on my clothes (minus my underwear, cuz it was wet from the sprinklers) and towel dried my hair. Percy’s mom helped me squeeze out the ends real good so I wouldn’t be dripping all over the floor when I walked into my house. My mom’s real particular about that kind of stuff.

When I got home, I took a little pause on the front porch before heading inside. I took a deep breath and pushed open the front door real slow. I really wanted to make it upstairs without Mom seeing my black eye. I tiptoed up the stairs. Just when I thought the coast was clear, I heard Mom call out, “Stella Louise? Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said as cheerful as I could muster, still hoping to avoid the Black Eye Talk.

“Well, come on in here. I want to hear about your day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled. Mom hated it when I mumbled, but she was gonna hate this black eye even more.

It took her all of two seconds to let loose. “Stella Louise! What happened to your eye?!” I knew enough to know she didn’t really want an answer, so I let her keep going. “How many times have I told you that you need to get some decorum, young lady? I mean, Lord have mercy. How many times can you get a black eye? Or get stitches? I mean, when I was your age, I was playing hopscotch every afternoon, neat and clean as can be. But you? You’re all a mess! And what happened to your hair?”

“Hopscotch?” I said hopefully.

“Get on out of here, young lady! You go upstairs, take a bath, and run a comb through your hair. I want you to look presentable by the time your father comes home for dinner. And don’t ask me about going back out tonight. No, ma’am. Don’t you dare.”

I sighed and trudged up the stairs. Looked like I’d be shimmying down that tree after all. No matter, though. Percy’d be happy to see me, even if I’d likely show up wearing some stupid dress.

Photo by Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash

#SummerRunning

I’m really FEELING running right now. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes I trudge through a run because I know I’ll feel better later (running is a central part of my mental health maintenance routine). But, for the past few weeks, I’ve woken up excited about each new running adventure.

I blame this guy:

I mean, come on! Adventure! Fun! And he always seems so genuinely thrilled to be running. So, I got kinda thrilled, too.

I’ve been exploring Kirkwood, Edgewood, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, and a little bit of Decatur. It’s Georgia hot out there, which means that by the time I start running at 9 a.m., it’s already 80 some-odd degrees. That frees me up to not worry about my time and just enjoy the run. And I have! Like, for real.

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My 4 big takeaways over the last few weeks:

  1. Things are rarely what they seem. The hill that looms so large… once I start climbing it, doesn’t seem so bad. The air that feels cooler because of the cloud cover is going to produce inescapable sticky-hot humidity that will ultimately slow me down. I’ve stopped trying to anticipate the future–even the next few minutes–and just go with what is.
  2. There’s an adventure waiting–but you have to look for it. I found a forest in Kirkwood! And a completely shaded, lovely trail… that’d I’d been by a million times but simply never turned the corner to explore it.
  3. It’s easier to enjoy the moment with no agenda. There’s a time & a place for plans (and training). But just being… taking things as they are, walking when I need to, stopping to take pictures makes running so much more exciting and enjoyable. No expectations. It’s really lovely.
  4. Make time for what matters. I rarely feel so enamored with running. So I don’t often devote this much time to it. But, lately, it helps me feel grounded, connected to myself. Making the time to do this for myself makes me a better mother, partner, writer.

Running… it’s how I’ve spent my summer so far. What’s your summer been about?

I KNOW It’s Okay Not to be Okay… but

In my 20s, I suffered from a serious bout of situational depression. I write frequently about the drinking I did to muddle through my depression, but not a lot about depression itself.

That’s because it scares me.

Although I’d struggled with depression before (from about 8 onward into college), I’d never been completely knocked on my ass by it. But, at 26, I found myself in such a dark, hopeless place that I couldn’t find a reason to put one foot in front of the other. So, often I didn’t. I drank until I blacked out. I missed work incessantly. I would come to in a complete panic–which immediately shifted into despair over the shitshow that was my life. I had people that loved me. I knew I did. But I couldn’t feel that love. I couldn’t feel anything.

Somehow, I managed to take baby steps toward getting better. I started doing yoga, alone in my bedroom. Sometimes, I managed to take my Boxer, Jezebel, for a walk. I took antidepressants prescribed by my doctor–but they didn’t work so well coupled with 12 Bud Lites a night. I could see a glimmer of hope that things wouldn’t always be so dark. But many, many days were still consumed by a sorrow I can only liken to grief. It was all-consuming. And so very, very painful. 94596518_97728a25d5_o

It took one of the worst, most painful events of my life to make me realize that I wanted to live. I’m not sure how or why, but that trauma jolted me. It brought me from darkness back toward the light. It gave me the will to fight. Day by day, I rediscovered joy. And purpose. It was like I’d been rebooted or something. Miraculous, really.

BUT…

Every time I wake up feeling blue, every time I feel listless and uninterested, every time I feel deeply sad–I’m afraid it’s back. Intellectually, I know it’s okay not to be okay. But I struggle–not with letting people know how I feel. I mean, I’m kind of an open book here. But with actually sitting with my feelings. I fight against feeling the entire spectrum of human emotion–which sometimes includes intense sadness or–gasp!–ennui.

When I stared freaking out earlier this week, I got scared. Scared because something that looked perfect wound up not being perfect at all. Scared because I started getting all in my head about what I lacked–instead of celebrating what I have. Scared because I felt down.

But, for real, it’s okay to be down because a big client fell through. It’s okay to be bummed that I haven’t published that book (that’s sitting in my computer, just waiting for an agent). It’s okay to be frustrated at the messy house, the sassy kid, the barking dog.

It’s okay.

I am okay.

 

 

Oh…FREAK OUT!

Yesterday, I had a pretty big mind-explosion moment that got me stuck in the super-helpful & ego-building WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?? cycle.

I’d been working up to this freak-out for a good week or so. I could feel it. For days, I didn’t sleep well. I’d wake up to find myself sweaty and panicked. And, let me just tell you, there ain’t shit going on over here. I mean, no one is trying to take my kid away from me. I know where I am going to sleep tonight. I have enough food to eat. Everything I’m dealing with is completely middle class, privileged mid-life crisis type stuff. Unfortunately, recognizing where my plight lies in the spectrum of human suffering doesn’t make this particular point in time any less frustrating or agonizing.

So what put me in a tailspin?

Losing something I never actually had in the first place. 

Two weeks ago, a former client called with a project that would’ve spanned over the course of a year–and would’ve significantly added to our income. Significantly. The client & I discussed pricing and timeframe. They suggested some light reading (think more like reading the operating manual to a Boeing 747) to catch me up on the industry. I was just waiting for confirmation on due dates and the topic for the first written piece.

Then. The client backed out. At the last minute.

And I was crushed. 

I spent most of yesterday wondering why I ever thought I could be in business for myself–and what I was doing wrong, exactly–and simultaneously reminding myself that I never actually had the gig in the first place.

I had the promise of something. Not the thing itself.

It wasn’t like the client looked at a draft & was like “GOOD GOD, WOMAN, THIS IS THE EPITOME OF SUCKITUDE.” They just went in another direction on a staffing level.

Once I simmered down a smidge, I began to think about what the Universe might be trying to show me. It’s hard for me to be still & listen lately. My mind whirs incessantly. So, looking for insight was a challenge–to say the least. But what I finally got around to admitting was that this particular job (or I guess the promise of this job) didn’t light me up like some of my other work does. It was absolutely the right thing to take it when it was offered. But now that the offer was no longer on the table, I began to think about what this might free me up to do.

And there’s this project… oh, how I am ON FIRE with excitement about this project. I’d be supporting a friend in her own passion project–one that I believe in so wholeheartedly that it’s hard for me to contain my enthusiasm when I talk about it. But supporting her in a real and meaningful way involves researching and writing grants–which is a helluva lot of work. But it’s work that can literally change the world–and it’s work that is part of who I am as a person.

So maybe, I realized, this was why I got a no when I wanted a yes. Maybe it was so I could say yes to the work the Universe is calling me to.

Maybe. Either way, today feels less like a crisis and more like an opportunity. Which, I’m gonna just go ahead & call a win.

Late Night Cuban Coffee

Dani tapped her fingers on the counter, waiting for the guy who was supposed to be taking her order to stop flirting with the waitress long enough to do his job. She’s way out of his league, anyway,Dani thought absently, pulling her hair back into a quick bun on the top of her head. Some people chewed their nails when they were nervous. Dani put her hair in a bun. Then took it back down. Then put it up again. It was her biggest tell, not that she had a great poker face anyway. But what did it matter? No one knew her well enough to know her tells anyway.

When Flirtypants finally wandered over to Dani, she gave him her best aloof glare. She’d been practicing it in the mirror for the last 200 miles. She thought she had it down pretty good. But instead of being stunned by her iciness, he smiled.

Huh. Need to work on the glare, I guess. She noticed a scar above his top lip. Probably had it since he was a kid,she thought. As she continued to examine his face, she accidently found herself staring into his eyes. Damn it, she thought. He looked at her curiously. In this intense way that made her feel seen. She wasn’t used to being seen, not really.

It didn’t matter anyway. In 10 minutes, she and mom would be out of here. Headed west on Highway 58. Toward whatever it was that kept drawing mom in. Or was she running away from something? Dani honestly didn’t know. It’d been a year. Always on the move in their beat-up RV. One campground after another.

This boy behind the counter was just one in a long line of people that she shouldn’t bother getting attached to. She fixed her gaze back on him and stared him down. He looked away first. Dani felt pleased for a second. Powerful.

“What can I get you?” he asked, wiping the counter while he spoke to her.

“A Cuban coffee.”

“It’s 10 p.m.” the boy pointed out, sensibly. And maybe a little bit intrigued.

“It’s for my mom. We’re on a road trip,” she lied. Not about the coffee. The coffee was for her mom. But a road trip was too sunny a name for what they were doing. This was more like an epic quest. And it was getting exhausting.

“Cool,” the boy said, looking more interested than Dani wanted him to. Now there were going to be a million questions about where she and mom were going and what they were doing. And Dani hated, more than anything, to admit that she had no idea what was going on, where they were going, and that she didn’t know how to get mom to stop moving long enough to figure out the truth.

“Yeah,” Dani said, dismissing him with an eye roll. “Whatever.”

Dani drummed on the counter while the boy painstakingly made the Cuban coffee. It wasn’t that she wanted to get out of there. Or maybe she did. Was forgetting how to be a regular person that had regular conversations with people? Ugh. She felt fidgety inside, like she was waiting for something to happen all the time.

The boy slid the coffee toward her. He nodded. “Have a good trip.”

Dani wasn’t exactly sure why, but she reached out and touched his hand. “Thank you,” she said, earnestly.

“For what?” he asked, surprised by her sudden intensity.

“For giving a shit,” she said. “A lot of people don’t, you know.”

She pushed the door open with her forearm and let it swing shut behind her. The warm, Florida breeze blew strands of her hair in front of her face. Dani hardly noticed. She barged through the door of the RV to find her mom inside, starting intently at a map. She shoved the coffee toward her.

“I’m going back to the diner to get my own coffee. And when I come back, we’re going to decide together where we’re going. Not just to pass through. But to stay. Because, if we don’t Mom, I’m going to forget how to be one of those people who actually gives a shit. And I can’t let that happen, Mom. I can’t.”

Without waiting for an answer, Dani jumped out of the RV and walked purposefully back toward the diner. She felt a tentative smile spring to her face. Maybe it’d work better than her glare. For now, at least.

 

 

Why I Never Want to Grab a Drink

I remember the moment the truth clicked for me: I can’t drink anymore. 

I don’t have a really good “rock bottom” story. I’d finished all my real theatrical drinking a few years before. By the time I reckoned with my alcoholism, I didn’t even want to drink any more. I’d exhausted myself with the constant hiding, the blame shifting, the lies I told myself–and whoever else needed telling. I was functioning fine, I suppose, but certainly not living my best life (unless my best life consisted of being able to pound back 12 Miller Lites in one sitting, but somehow I doubted it).

I’d long ceased fearing what I’d find when I finally sobered up. I just figured it had to be better than the shame I carried every day.

So I quit. October 13, 2008.

I’d rigged up this story in my head where I was this tragic character that needed saving. And so, I believed (deeply) that when I told people that I’d quit drinking they’d react with wonder at my stoic fortitude.

Yeah. No.

I’d gotten so good at hiding the ugly side of my drinking that no one really thought I needed to stop. Cut back, maybe. Stop? Well, that seemed a little dramatic. Now, if I’d had this bright idea about 5 years before, everyone that knew me would’ve been on board. Hell, they would’ve offered to drive me to a meeting, or rehab, or whatever it took to get me to pull my shit together. But now? Folks were kinda lukewarm about the whole idea.

My first act of resistance: Believing that I knew myself better than anyone else knew me.

I stuck with what I knew: I can’t drink anymore. 

So, I sat my ass in a Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Hated it pretty much from the start. But sometimes we do things we hate (just for a while) to get to a life we love.

I met a handful of people in those meetings that I still hold dear almost a decade later. People who knew how to live their lives with authenticity and unflinching honesty, and who were willing to teach me to do the same.

Was it easy? Fuck, no.

Every day, I’d wake up and calculate how many days it’d been since my last drink. At 30 days, I got a chip that marked “30 days of continuous sobriety–including nights and weekends” (those AA folks have a sense of humor–mostly). And I wondered, as I walked to the front to pick up my chip, if I’d spend the rest of my life counting days.

Good news: I have no idea how many days I’ve been sober. I stopped counting somewhere around 90 days. The days kept adding up, whether I counted them or not. Besides, I had work to do. They like to say in AA that “alcohol is just a symptom.” Which meant I was the problem. So, I had to figure myself out, if I wanted to stay sober.

And I did. From the very first day, I wanted to stay sober.

I put in two years of hard work to figure my shit out. (Getting sober isn’t for the faint-of-heart.) For me, staying sober is about accepting life without fear & resentment, about living into my truth, and about celebrating who I am. I surround myself with people who aren’t afraid to get real about themselves & this beautiful/awful/joyous/painful world we live in.

And I never stop being grateful for this second chance.

 

 

Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

My Kid’s a Nerd

My kid is a nerd. And she completely embraces her nerdiness.

How did she discover she was a nerd?

Well, I suspected she was a nerd from the first time she asked to do math problems at the breakfast table, using Playmobil people to add and subtract sums. But when I found her in her bedroom–where she’d been silent for almost an hour–doing math problems by herself for fun, well that cemented it for me.

She, however, didn’t know she was a nerd until one recent drive home from school. She was in the backseat, saying the same word over & over & over again–to annoy me, of course. And it was working. I finally got exasperated. “You’re such a…” I said. Then I paused for one frantic moment. Because “asshole” would’ve been my typical go-to for an adult. Not so much for a 7 year old. So “nerd.” Popped out.

She stopped being annoying and earnestly inquired: “Mommy, what’s a nerd?”

Oh boy.

I had to start by admitting I’d committed the terrible sin of using the word out of context (seriously, I was horrified. I am a writer. We do not use words out of context), but that a nerd was someone who loves books, math, science, and learning new things.

She lit up. “Oh, I AM a nerd!” she yelled gleefully (because 7 year olds do not speak. They yell. So much yelling)

She’s really embraced the whole nerd thing since then. Belle is her favorite princess because…. book nerd. She’s got a panda nerd necklace (he’s wearing taped glasses), which quickly became one of her favs. And, right now, she’s at Nerd Camp for a month (shout out to Atlanta Public Schools!), where she’s currently studying The Art & Science of Slime. Why does she love Nerd Camp so much? Because it’s just like school, she says exuberantly.

See? Nerd.

She comes from a long line of nerds. I’m one, for sure. But, as a kid, my shyness & self-doubt often got in the way of curiosity and scientific exploration. I liked to read. A lot. But I didn’t push myself to discover and learn the way Jane does.

She’s like a NEXT GENERATION NERD.

As she embraces her nerdiness, though, I’ve begun to point out that there’s more than one way to be smart. Together, she and I look for classmates and friends that display intelligence other than book smarts–emotional intelligence, curiosity, inventiveness, creativity, kindness…

She gets so excited when her friends excel–and not just in academics. She often comes home with reports about kids who are learning to manage their behaviors better and make good choices. She celebrates when classmates get rewarded for kindness or hard work. And she loves–maybe more than anything else–to tell me when one of her classmates went above & beyond to make someone feel special, included, or loved. And she almost always tears up when she’s telling me about it.

I love that she’s a nerd. And I’m proud of her for valuing her own intelligence. But I’m even more proud of her for recognizing that everyone is smart in their own way–and that we all have something of great value to contribute to this world.