Zen and the art of chandelier repair

One cat lay quietly nearby with zen-like stillness while I meditated this morning. The other cat jumped up on a table and lunged at a dangly snowman ornament hanging from a chandelier directly above my meditation spot. His aim is good, though he lacks thumbs, and this is the only thing that saved him and me, not to mention the poor chandelier. I broke pose to scoop him up and scold and nuzzle his so-soft head.

It’s not like he’d roused me from a state of nirvana. I’d been thinking “wow, 10 minutes is soooo long.” While I was periodically remembering to return to the breath, I hadn’t practiced meditation since last spring and my mind was an unruly mess. To call it monkey chatter would imply a massive hall of laryngytic monkeys. These monkeys were howling.

This meditation thing is going to take time and practice.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Jenna from Drinking to Distraction recently sent a copy of her new book by the same name. Jenna’s was one of the first blogs I followed sober, and what drew me to her then was her openness about staying sober without the 12 steps. Her approach feels holistic and her bottom high, and both of these things appealed to me then and now. In fact, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout much of her 82-page book.

It was a light and thoroughly satisfying read. She touched on all the struggles I remember about identifying as an alcoholic in the first place. She perfectly described those early firsts of sobriety – the tense family gatherings, the awkward dinners with old party friends, the dry dates. She wrote with raw honesty and self-awareness in a way that at times reminded me of Caroline Knapp, the highest compliment I could pay.

Her story was about the common struggles we all go through once we give up drinking. The initial obsession…the turn to other less punishing distractions which eventually assume addictive proportions…and, best of all, the gradual turnaround and healing that comes with time and consistently healthier decisions. It’s uncanny how similar the process and payoff is no matter your background or bottom, and reading Jenna’s book made me feel a little less alone. That is always a beautiful thing.

Back to meditation. Jenna touches on the ways meditation freed her from some of that oh-so-familiar worry and pain we feel when we give up the drink but are left with ourselves. She describes the discomfort and challenges of meditation in the beginning, and also the rewards that come with continued practice.

As we say in recovery (and at many a 12 step meeting), I want what she has. She inspired me to try meditation again and this morning I jumped back in. And the cat jumped in the chandelier. This should be pretty fun.

Zen Cat.
Zen Cat.
Chandelier Cat (but I probably didn't need to tell you that).
Chandelier Cat (but I probably didn’t need to tell you that).

Footprints

I’ve never been a god person, but recovery has a way of prying up one corner of the brain and wiggling its way in via cliches. First it was coffee and cigarettes. Then it was sugar and running. Now I’m trying on god like a pair of new shoes I’m not at all sure I need.

Except they don’t feel new, really. The god I know feels inviting and comfortable and not vengeful or prissy. If he were a person, he’d eat hot dogs.

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Last night I dreamt I was jogging along a beach, but found I’d gone further than I’d intended. I saw footprints of others who’d kept going and saw paradise in the distance, but worried it was too dangerous. Because this was my dream, afterall, I thought “and anyway, I forgot my camera…I’ll come back another time”.

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In real life, this rock tumbled in like cool rocks occasionally do. The first time I held it in my hand, I saw two footprints. One is shorter and rounder while the other is longer and stronger. Together they make a solid pair.

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The rock is a smooth talisman I can stroke in my palm, the size of a small egg. I worry the roughness of my fingers will scratch it, but every time I hold it up to the light, I see it’s stronger than I realized.

Bright vs Blurred Lines

I read this yesterday and it perfectly sums up why moderate drinking doesn’t work for me but abstinence does.

“Bright lines…are clear, simple, unambiguous rules. You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime.”

For those of us who feel bad because our enthusiasm for alcohol means we don’t get to have any at all, maybe we should instead feel pride at our adept ability to overstep perceived peccadilloes, which is also a real mouthful.

If only we could apply bright lines to the gray areas of life, such as eating or relationships or productivity. I can’t realistically apply the bright line “no more snacks for you, chow hound!” though I could make a rule limiting what I allow myself to eat in the afternoons, ie “only fruit or green juice or small tubes of cardboard”. I could do that. I might. Who knows.

Too many rules leech at the balance between clean living and wanting to live in the first place. I am reminded of trying to put the octopus to bed. I remind myself I am sober, and this is the muscliest tentacle of all that gives strength to even think about dealing with the wispier ones.

I am reminded sometimes the heart just wants what the heart wants, and anyway, our fun-loving vices could always be worse.

I am a little sorry for the last link, so let’s cleanse the palate with this remix (thanks Joe! xoxo) featuring Fat Albert and the son of Alan Thicke, two important staples from childhood.

Ode to daydreaming

The three things that come to mind with Miss Sklar’s 6th grade language arts class are Mike Neiman, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Miss Sklar herself.

Miss Sklar was kind and obese and had bold taste in perfume and lipstick. Her nose upturned almost to the degree of a pig snout, which is what Mike Neiman mostly focused on behind her back because he had the IQ of a farm animal himself.

Mike sat in front of me, so when he turned around to show those girlishly long lashes and oversized chiclet teeth, I smiled small and tight and held my breath. Sometimes he made fun of my nose. Other times he focused his laser wit on what I was wearing, like my sheep sweater (now who’s the farm animal?). Normally I hate to throw people under the bus, but his quiet ridicule of Miss Sklar took some of the heat off of me.

I hated myself for laughing at Mike laughing at her. Maybe that’s why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty struck home when we read it in Miss Sklar’s class. I identified with henpecked Walter and his helpless tendency to zone out and avoid.

For as long as I can remember, my progress reports at school always told the same story: Kristen has a tendency to daydream. Like it was a bad thing! Like reporting it to my parents would make them march off to the drugstore for a jar of Daydream Remedy. Some teachers moved my seat to the front of the class and one genius moved me to a far back corner, and not one of them gave me a pillow and set of colored pencils like I’d hoped. My grades never really suffered from daydreaming, nor did they improve regardless of where I sat.

What did I daydream about? I wish I could provide some Thurber worthy examples. Like maybe dazzling Amanda Johnson’s pool party, which I was not invited to in real life, by doing back handsprings off the diving board before saving a toddler who’d just fallen in. I think I probably daydreamed about boys a lot from 4th grade on. I think maybe I wished I wasn’t at school, but I doubt I dreamed about being home. Life was uncomfortable then, like it didn’t fit anywhere but in the quiet space inside my own head.

Let’s jump ahead to May 2012, ok? I know it seems a random, odd time, but my family and I were visiting New York City and happened across a film crew on 5th Avenue the first day of our trip and then again by Rockefeller Center the next day. From a distance, we saw Ben Stiller and another actor on a moving platform as they filmed a scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. For proof, I submit this terrible picture I took on my camera phone.

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Here is a better picture someone else took that I grabbed from the internet.

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Here is another picture that turned up when I googled ‘walter mitty stretch armstrong’ and one of many reasons why I will probably never break up with the internet. Even though it’s not always good to me, the internet just gets me.

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Now let’s jump back or forward or whichever direction time travel goes to this past weekend, when my family went to go see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at the movie theater. Movies sure take a long to come out, right? It was worth the wait, and we all enjoyed the movie a lot. I laughed…I cried in places I wouldn’t have if I’d just been watching at home…I thought ‘I am so going to blog about this.’ After we left the theater, I thought maybe I went a little overboard with the laughing and crying, but there is still something I want to share.

A recurring message in the movie is to live life fully by staying in the moment. Zoning out is but one of infinite ways to check out of the moment. Drinking is a big one. There is also food and sex and shopping or all three combined for the check-out trifecta.  There are newfangled smart phones and old fashioned standbys like sticking one’s nose in a book of Thurber short stories. One of my favorite ways to check out is to go to the movies. None of these are bad unless they’re bad, like drinking was for me. I think we know when they’re bad.

Just yesterday I read a line that trying to get all of one’s addictions under control is like trying to put an octopus to bed. You tuck in four tentacles on the one side and two more tug on your hair and tweak your nose. I’m not even going to tell you what the other two are doing. It reminds me of putting any kid under the age of 7 to bed, but the point is trying to control an octopus is exhausting and silly.

Listen to what the octopus is trying to tell you. Maybe it is thirsty and wants a Dixie cup of water. Maybe it wants one more story. Maybe it wants to tell you it loves you for the nineteenth time, and of course you should say it back because it may not be perfect, but it is your octopus. Maybe if you just listen and stay with it for a moment, your damn darling octopus will fall to sleep and give you some peace for the night.

Resolutions are just Words

I’m typing this out on my phone in a dark hotel room while my family still sleeps. Blackout curtains got nothing on a stubborn internal clock. It’s New Year’s Day! It’s time for Hope and hanging up new calendars and making lists of impossible dreams, if you’re into those sorts of things.

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fireworks, New Year’s Eve 2013

Some brilliant, practical people whose ideas I follow suggest staying away from New Years resolutions. We’re supposed to live in the moment – one day at a time – and not worry over future or past, they point out. Why pick 5 or even 10 lofty goals and spread your attention and chance of success so thin?

I know they’re right, but I’m still a sucker for New Years resolutions. I remember sitting at a friend’s typewriter the winter I turned 14, already well into my first tumble from addiction. Instead of giving up, I tapped out a list I didn’t save and don’t remember but don’t need to.

It said Hope.

Resolutions are about clean slates and fixing what’s broken, and they’re a little bit about not taking ourselves so seriously, I think, because we know they’re too big, like my kid’s impossibly long Christmas list this (last!) year.

This year I want to tackle sugar again. Last month I tackled it hard, but only to tie it up and keep it in my pantry. If that sounded creepy, it’s because sugar does that to me. I can’t leave it alone, it seems, but I’m getting somewhere in the process of understanding and respecting its power and my lack thereof.

I have other resolutions. Nothing typed out, but still rolling around like billowy clouds. Eat better. Spend less time on mindless time-sucks. Listen to more music. Get back to a regular schedule for exercise (December killed me). Play more games with my kids. Be a better mom.

If I were to pick just one word to encapsulate all these hopes, like some of the cool kids I follow, it would be nourish. It’s a dorky word, but so am I.

I’m going to start today by steering clear of sugar and going with my family to watch grown men (and women) dressed as babies (and other things) prance down the street in bitter cold. Stretch your imagination as far as it will go to see how the latter will nourish. It somehow does.

20140101-071014.jpg mummers parade, New Year’s Day 2013

Here’s to a happy new year and hopefully a good deal longer!

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