where we’re going we don’t need maps

I used to pour over map books the way one might over a really good book. I loved using the key and then snaking two fingers along the page until they met at the exactly right part of the grid.

Knowing how to get places was a matter of necessity in my line of work as a volunteer coordinator for a hospice in metropolitan DC. Sometimes hospice is an actual building where people go to die in peace, smaller and less clinical than a hospital. But usually hospice refers to services provided in a dying person’s home, which can be anywhere. I had to be able to explain to volunteers how to get there and often delivered medical supplies or sat with patients myself. The internet was around then but I didn’t have it. Portable, affordable phones with instant directions in a soothing female voice would have sounded like some serious Jetsons witchcraft. I kept a well worn ADC map book in my work bag and then picked up another for the county where we lived and kept doing this each time we moved until Jetsons witchcraft came true.

I miss those ADC map books. The last one I bought was eleven years ago at a Wawa up the road while we were looking for a place to live. It was kind of pricey but I knew we would use the hell out of it. That very first day I opened to the master map and saw that red star next to the name of one of my favorite breweries. It turned out they had a brewpub down the road from one house my husband I both liked. It wasn’t our dream home or anything. The kitchen had and still has faux butcher block countertops exactly like the ones from my childhood home. The carpet in the living room still smells faintly of cat piss when it rains. The back yard was a blank slate then, no landscaping whatsoever beyond a handful of mature maples scattered around. But the view, oh the view. Beyond the neighbor’s lot, we could see a skyline of trees, layered like a painting with hints of soft color at the spring to come. My husband and I both saw it and said the same thing: we could live here.

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a different, southern view

Before we made an offer, we decided it would be prudent to come back one more time and see the house again with fresh eyes. We lived hours away at the time and planned the trip around a visit to see family. I opened the map book and saw that red star next to the name of my favorite beer and said to my husband let’s check it out afterwards. This passed for high adventure in my mind and his too, I think.

If not for that ADC map book, we may have lived there years before finding that brewpub. It was buried in the middle of an industrial park, housed in an old Pepperidge Farm bakery. By the looks of it, not much had been done before moving in. The walls were bare except for a few beer banners and old black and white photographs of stout women in hair nets from its bakery days. There were long oak tables and farmhouse chairs and the wait staff was casual and friendly. They welcomed us for lunch even though we’d walked into some kind of staff chili cook-off. It felt as much like coming home as any new place can feel.

We made an offer on the house and came back to visit the brewpub many more times. The chili cook-off became an annual tradition, though I stopped going when I quit drinking. And also, I don’t really love chili. I mean, I make it a few times a year, but I never really get excited about eating it. Now, you give me a cupcake cook-off, I don’t think I would have missed a single year. This brewpub isn’t known for desserts but it does make a mean soft pretzel and their home-brewed root beer is also pretty great. But it took a long time sober to fully appreciate these other gifts.

Today I’m headed back for the first time in many years for another chili cook-off. A lot happened in the last eleven years. Although I no longer drink beer, a lot of people still do and business was so good they completely renovated the old bakery to the point where you have to close your eyes to imagine stout ladies in hair nets. They had enough left over to build two brand new brewpubs. The chili cook-off will be at one of those.

It’s not my favorite place to go because it smells like beer. They brew it there and that smell was pretty triggery in my early days of not-drinking. I smelled it and remembered bellying up to the bar by myself a few Friday afternoons to get the growler filled. I remember meeting my husband there a few times without the kids and feeling like we were getting away with something or the time I took my oldest kid on a Saturday afternoon and kept putting quarters in the claw machine until we won a stuffed purple gorilla in a bowler hat. None of these memories are particularly pleasant now and I don’t think they were then, either. I don’t want to discount everything that happened pre-sobriety, lumping it all together like one big mistake, but I was not at my best then. Some days I was a crackly shell of a woman.

I read two things so far this morning about facing triggers in sobriety. (They are not blogs, so I can’t link to them.) A friend wrote about knocking off early on a workday and, instead of heading to the bar, he went home and performed a delicate mechanical task he would have previously saved for Saturday and a delicately hungover state. This would have led to frustration and ultimately failure. The second thing I read was about someone reclaiming camping and late-night porch-sitting in sobriety. Both were examples of sober people going back to things they used to love while drinking but hid from for awhile. They figured they had to bury those old loves like we do when we’re newly sober. Since we’ve never lived a sober life before, we don’t know what it will be like. What we start to be able to imagine after a month or three or nine sober isn’t always great either. We don’t want constant reminders of what we’ve given up so sometimes we hide from things for awhile (and that’s okay).

A great things happens when we stick to the path we were meant for. It levels out and the brush clears and while the climb might still feel steep here and there, the views are spectacular. We find and take new paths and revisit old ones only to discover new joys. Some we put behind us forever. It’s important to listen and know when to do this, but also remember there are so many other paths. I kind of wish I’d kept my old ADC map book to snap a picture of how battered it got, the edges curled and worn from riding side saddle in the car all those years. Each memory is like a page, and I see how little I knew then and still now.

 

 

 

Unclench

I made a joke about having to go to see the dentist right after work, like which was a worse fate, but I wasn’t really dreading it. I’ve never had a root canal, crown or even a cavity. Every morning at breakfast, my brother and I dutifully chewed a tiny pastel pill that tasted like cherry or orange or lime. Our teeth later appeared mottled, tiny striations of white so bright they made the rest of our teeth look dingy, but the fluoride had done its job.

I used to see a different hygienist for years and we formed an easy rapport. We talked about our kids and their school, sports and summer camps, though I could tell she was on a different, more vigilant plain of motherhood. I nodded a lot, and not just because her fingers were in my mouth. She had mastered the art of asking questions and making interesting statements when I could respond.

This new hygienist is not like her, though she is also not really new. I saw her once years ago when my regular hygienist was on vacation and she complimented me on my teeth and said some people just have better spit. I had never considered superior spit or that I had it. I secretly wished she could be my regular hygienist and, years later, the heavens conspired to change work schedules and I got my wish.

My second visit to the complimentary hygienist was something of a let down. She did not compliment my spit and asked me at the end if I floss, which is the same as saying please start. The only other thing I remember is she told me her and her college-aged daughter do this record club where they listen to albums during the week and then discuss over coffee. I thought that was really neat. Also, she correctly identified The Eye in the Sky over the office intercom, though I wanted to call it The Eye of the Storm, and the only other time it sounded so sharp and clear was from the velour backseat of the family Datsun in 1982.

I have some secrets to share now regarding teeth. You might not have to floss if you use a sonic toothbrush, though you still probably should, but only once a week or month, maybe less, but you didn’t hear it from me. The dentist will still come in and comment how pink and healthy your gums are and he won’t say keep up the great work with flossing because he probably owns a sonic toothbrush too. You can get a decent rechargeable one on the internet for like $40.

Another thing I learned about teeth is they shift when we get older, but it’s not always permanent. I had finally accepted that I can no longer chew meat on the right side of my jaw because tiny pieces get painfully lodged in the gum, and the second hygienist told me this mysterious condition may reverse itself. She said sometimes our teeth shift because of trauma, and not from brushing too hard, like we used to think.  I imagine her pouring over dental journals at night in front of a fire.

Although I can’t ask what she means because tools and fingers cram my mouth, she tells me teeth grinding is one kind of trauma. We talk about how our natural state in waking is often a clenched jaw, her moving her lips to tell me while I nod from the chair. I remember a period some years back where I routinely clenched so hard I actually took notice. My shoulders and jaw muscles were so tightly coiled, I walked around with a vague but nonetheless real sense of foreboding that I could not place. I used to force myself to periodically relax the muscles in my face and then savored the flood of relief as my jaws floated back to their natural place. I hadn’t thought about that in ages and how I unconsciously wear myself down. Sometimes I need reminding.

 

peeping tom

 

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our old mall

Last summer I took my girls and grandmother to see a movie near one of my old apartments. The area had changed, and not for the better. My husband, Joe, and I only lived there a little while. He wasn’t even my husband then. We got married while we lived there, though obviously not in the apartment with its papasan chair and the security bar across half the sliding glass door. The apartment complex installed it after the peeping tom incident as a sort of half-assed but well meaning gesture. Joe had already been sleeping with an aluminum baseball bat on his side of the bed since I met him.

We were supposed to get a second level apartment overlooking the woods, but the rental office called and told us something came up. Would we be okay with a ground level unit overlooking the pool? I was disappointed losing the woods but they gave us an extra bedroom and knocked $20 off our rent and we signed the lease and moved in, joking that maybe it would be like living on the deck of the Love Boat. It was January then, and the pool and grounds were covered in snow.

The Blizzard of ’96 dumped 2 feet of snow and Joe dug his car out with a neighbor’s shovel so we could drive to the store to buy a shovel. He was from the midwest and still gets excited by snow. His eyes brighten and he gets a little color in his cheeks. As I recall, the store was out of shovels so we drove to another store that had shovels and board games. We bought trivial pursuit and monopoly and invited a neighbor over who was irritatingly better at both. I hate monopoly even when I don’t get my ass handed to me.  Still, it passed the time.

We hung a bird feeder just outside the sliding glass door so the cats would have something to look at. Joe went out one day to fill the feeder and noticed foot steps in the snow leading to the side of our building. There was a weird cut out area with a retaining wall behind it, a blind spot of privacy, and it was right next to our bedroom window. The foot steps stopped there.

We didn’t think much of it then. Maybe we assumed it was from maintenance guys. We kept the blinds down in our bedroom as a general rule, but it’s safe to say my attention to detail wasn’t great then. Spring came and the only action we saw outside was an upstairs neighbor who sometimes brought his cat down on a harness leash. The cat always got down low to the ground and refused to budge. The neighbor would scoop the cat up in his arms and carry it back upstairs and eventually stopped trying. Inside, the board games went on a shelf in the closet and we favored more outdoor activities like drinking in bars.

One night Joe and I got home late and I went into the bedroom to change. He was in the other room listening to music on the stereo. This part will sound funny, but I decided to try on an old fashioned pajama set his mother sent me in the mail. Why did she send me that? Did she send me other funny clothes? I only remember I was a little drunk and thought trying it on would be hilarious. It was mint green and had a short-sleeved button up jacket. There may have been fur trim on the collar but now it sounds like I’m making stuff up.

I was admiring myself in the mirror when I saw something shift by the window. The blinds were closed but they weren’t down all the way. This is what I meant by attention to detail. I’d left about a 2-inch gap between the bottom of the blind and the window sill. I bent down to look and saw someone looking back and I screamed.

Joe grabbed his baseball bat and ran outside. I could not go anywhere in my mint green pajama set with matching (possibly fur trimmed) jacket so I called the police. Joe ran up the hill with his bat and onto the street. There were two ways to go and he went left and saw a young guy walking alone in shorts and a wife-beater tee. Joe ran up with his bat and the guy stopped and threw his hands up like what the hell? The guy seemed a little out of breath and nervous, but Joe was a big guy with a bat. The cops happened by in a patrol car and got out with their  notepad, which is maybe something they don’t do anymore. They asked the guy in the wife-beater tee some questions and then they let him go. They told Joe and his bat to go back home and lock the doors and keep the blinds closed.

The rental office sent someone out the next day to install a security bar on the sliding glass door, which, for the record, wasn’t anywhere near the bedroom window. I put the stupid mint green pajama set back in its box, and it didn’t make the move when we broke our lease  to go south. It wasn’t the peeping tom that did it, but a better job and opportunity. The rental office threatened to sue, but they never did.

About a month before we moved out, we got married at an old mansion down the road. The night before the wedding, we threw a party for out of town guests. My sister was still in middle school and stayed with us that night, and I remember feeling protective of her. I drank, but not as much as I would have had she not been there. Joe and his friends drank freely and hopped the fence to the pool area and threw all the lounge chairs into the water. We all went to bed too late and the next morning I felt more hungover than I should have.

Our wedding day started out drizzly and gray. When we stood together by the purple flowering tree at the mansion and were married by mere words, the sun broke through a little. By the end of the reception, it was a perfectly sunny day. In a book someone gave me before the wedding, I read that the weather on your wedding day is supposed to forecast how your marriage will be. I know better now, that it doesn’t work like that. I also know the sunny parts are half due to luck and other things we don’t control, and the rest is up to us.

 

 

 

 

The Doctor’s House

When a good sale came along in November, I remembered how cold it felt during lunch time walks last winter and bought a down parka with fur trimmed hood. I vowed to keep walking at lunch, not every day, but enough that I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

Then I had the parka going on two months and many days were as bitter cold as the parka was cozy warm, but still I hadn’t taken it for a lunch time walk. It wasn’t a conscious decision but more a reluctance to challenge myself because life felt hard enough already. I stand by that break, but maybe I forgot a little how good walking makes me feel. When I was ready, the reminders were there.

First I read a post by Michelle about how changing your scenery changes your perspective. She also mentioned wishing her eyes could take pictures, a thought I’ve had many times. When I go for walks, I often take pictures. The park where I walk is 700 acres with a dozen abandoned structures in varying states of decomposition. A creek cuts through woods and active farmland and there’s even a trout hatchery and bird blind by a secluded pond. It’s hard not to take pictures, and some even turn out.

The other thing that pushed me to get out and finally test the new parka was my husband saying he was planning to walk at lunch on the coldest day of the week like it was no big deal. He made me realize I could do it too.

I am happy to report the parka held up really well. I love any chance to wear the hood because it’s snug and I can slip it on like a wig and pretend to have another hair color for awhile. I like not dyeing my hair anymore and don’t ever want to go back, but sometimes grey feels dreary and pulling a crazy hood on fixes that somehow.

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A big fluffy hood can also be disorienting. It muffles sound and blocks peripheral vision. I like to feel on my toes in a park with miles of winding trail where some days you can walk a half hour without seeing anyone. I took the hood off while stopping to take pictures in front of the Doctor’s House.

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Out of all the abandoned structures that dot the park, The Doctor’s House feels the creepiest. The first time I set out to find it, I had a map and was so excited and walked right up by the bilco doors to get a closeup of the crumbling stucco. I swore I heard tinny music that was probably not my phone playing music from the muffled recess of my pocket, though the thought is comforting now. I got my pictures and got the hell out and didn’t go back for awhile.

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The other day there were lots of walkers out, so I went by again and stopped to take a few pictures, including the one above. Though it was a split second before my mind processed crumbling porch post, I saw her. A girl. I quickly looked back at the house and chuckled to myself and got the hell out of there to visit another creepy, but more lonely, house.

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I wanted to write a story about the Doctor’s House since I saw its name on a wooden sign at a crossroads in the park. It seems like the kind of story that would write itself, but so far my ideas aren’t very good.  I know it has its own story and while I haven’t been able to figure out what that is, that’s what keeps me coming back.

Today I went to a different part of the park and caught a squirrel trying to drag a corn husk up a tree. I tried to take a picture but it didn’t turn out and my attention flustered him so much he dropped the corn. Other squirrels chittered and skittered in nearby trees and I felt bad and moved on.

Now that I’ve seen every landmark on the map of the seven hundred acre wood, I can go back and spend more time in between. The camera will always be in my pocket but I won’t always use it. I still remember perfectly well what that squirrel looked like dragging his bright yellow husk up the tree, which would have been like you or I trying to lug an overstuffed armchair up a flight of stairs.

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taken in spring, see the yellow wildflowers in the background?