The Cult of Andy

The last time I tried meditating, I gave up after the cat tried to swing trapeze-style from a chandelier above my head. I assume that’s what happened anyway because I heard a loud clatter and opened my eyes in time to find the chandelier swinging wildly and the cat on the floor beside me, licking one paw. 

I didn’t feel very good at meditating, and thought perhaps it was not for someone with nosy cats who is already pinched for alone time. Besides, lots of things can be meditative, like running or walking and reading and definitely writing. Being outdoors with nothing to do besides take in the sights, sounds and smells reliably takes me to a peaceful place.

Eventually the call to meditation came again, this time for my nine-year old daughter, Audrey. We’d come back from a week at the beach and too-close sleeping quarters, and being the youngest and no doubt a bit spoiled, she had trouble being back in her own room and bed. One night we heard her crying and went in to her room to find her near inconsolable. Her fears were vague but horrifying, like losing her favorite people to illness, accidents, etc. These thoughts were sudden, unwelcome visitors that snuck in and grew so big and scary they took up her mind. 

At first, we tried practical things, like reading something fun before bed or remembering positive things from the day once the worries crept in. We tried a sleep mask and then a night light and then the sleep mask and night light together. Some nights we’d hear her crying and go in to soothe and other times find tissues tucked under her pillow the next morning and know she’d quietly cried herself to sleep. One morning I woke to the idea that meditating before bedtime might help.

Not being an expert in meditation, I downloaded an app with a free 10-day program narrated by a man with a perfectly placid British accent. He introduced himself as Andy and I pictured him round and doughy with downy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The app doesn’t show what he looks like, though does feature blissful looking cartoon monsters wearing headphones. One blue monster looked especially engaging so we decided that was Andy. A week or so later, Audrey and I googled Andy to find he’s quite buff, completely bald and a former monk turned multi-millionaire. Oh, and he’s human.

Now, in full disclosure, Audrey and I meditate a bit differently than you’re supposed to. We don’t sit upright in a chair or on the floor, but lay down on my bed with pillows under our heads and, sometimes, Audrey prefers to be under her favorite fleece blanket. I know what you’re thinking, but I have only fallen asleep twice. Usually I follow Andy’s instructions to breathe slowly through the nose, filling the chest, and then exhaling gently through the mouth. Andy tells us to count each inhale and exhale until we reach ten and then start over, and this turns out to be the most helpfully concrete instruction I’ve heard on how to meditate. Andy makes meditation not only easier but something we both start looking forward to.

One evening I’m on the couch with Joe watching Season 3 of Bloodlines, which is the antithesis of meditation, but I digress, when Audrey appears and tells me she wants to meditate. I look at the TV and the clock and wrinkle my nose and say “How about tomorrow night?” She leans her face in real close, a little wild-eyed, and says “I need Andy tonight” and it sends a chill up my spine. We go upstairs to meditate and chandelier-swinging cat watches through narrowed eyes from the foot of the bed.

Soon we go on vacation again, this time sleeping in more rooms, though Audrey shares one with her older sister and so is not alone at night. Between that and sun-soaked days of swimming for so long Joe jokes we should wring her out like a washcloth before coming home, she sleeps like a baby every night. We all do. But like all good stories, this vacation too must come to an end.

Once home, Audrey asks to meditate to Andy again and we do. This time our timing is poor and we start around the same time Joe gets home from work. He enters the bedroom to change and finds us laying flat atop the bedcovers, my arms folded across my chest like someone laid out in a casket and Audrey’s loose at her side, our eyes closed tight like children pretending to sleep. The cat watches judgmentally from the floor this time. There’s an awkward moment between when I stop counting breaths and start explaining what we’re doing. Joe nods in understanding and I close my eyes and try not to wait for the jingle of his belt being hung up in the closet and then the soft clop-clunk of the door closing.

Andy tells us it’s okay to notice sounds going on around us. Sometimes he gives us permission to let our minds think about whatever it wants to think about, but in these moments I can’t think of anything and feel disappointed at my lack of imagination.

One night I ask Audrey if she wants to meditate and she says she does not. She says the bedtime worries are just as bad as before and she doesn’t think meditation is working. I ask her if she wants to talk instead and she does, but her face kind of crumbles and she needs a hug more than anything.

We talk about readjusting to spacious sleeping quarters and how the double-grandpa bed from Willy Wonka might seem cozy but probably none of them were sideways sleepers or blanket hogs like in our family. We talk about how when we try to not think about something, that’s pretty much the only thing we seem to be able to think about. We talk about habits and phases and how it feels like something bad will keep happening forever, but that rarely proves to be the case.

I remember Andy pointedly telling us that meditation isn’t about controlling our thoughts but learning to simply notice them and then going back to the breath. I tell Audrey she won’t still be having these thoughts every night by the time she graduates college because anything beyond is probably too far off to imagine. It’s a phase, triggered somehow by the fun closeness of a family trip and sleeping on a lumpy, unsupportive mattress I wouldn’t wish on anyone past 40.

She doesn’t know yet that all but the most supportive mattresses will turn on you one day and that the people you love most will die, but somehow it’s all okay, even when it’s not. She may have thoughts she doesn’t have much control over but that won’t make them come true and they don’t even necessarily mean anything except that she has an active imagination. Worry is the yin to imagination’s yang.

She can still remind herself where she is and that she’s safe. She can focus on the soft weight of her heels against cool summer sheets and count her breath by tens and maybe come to believe that.

***

Audrey asks me if I can start putting notes in her lunch bag for camp. I used to do it during the school year, eventually creating a series of illustrated notes we were both proud of, including one about a rotten pumpkin who entered a beauty contest (I want to write children’s books so bad). It’s collaborative because Audrey gives me ideas of things to write about or draw when we both get bored with the “hey, hope you’re having a great day” notes. This time I ask for ideas and she suggests creating a series around blue monster Andy (as opposed to buff human one).

I sit at the kitchen island and crank out a couple, losing myself in an almost meditative state. I’m no artist but it still feels good to channel frustration and pain into something I can share with her. I’m including one below, meant to be read in a gentle british accent.

The Day the Circus Died

In February my husband and I took the kids to the circus. Maybe it’s more honest to say I took myself to the circus and let the family tag along because I’m pretty sure I was the most excited to be there. I grew weepy when they dimmed the arena lights and started the countdown because I knew this was going to be my last circus. Pretty soon it’s going to be everybody’s last circus because Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey is breaking down the tent for the last time later this month.

It left me a little maudlin, this idea of broken tradition and unemployed acrobats and tigers, so I wrote a short story about a future where the circus lives on and Jersey Devil Press ran it in their May edition, dedicated to “the allure of possibilities.”

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Click the image above to read the story

If you missed the last circus in your town, don’t despair because you can watch the very last one – ever – live online on May 21…go here for details.

Ghost of Christmas cats

We liked to say we saved Holly from the life of a junkyard cat. My mom answered an ad for “FREE KITTENS!” and scoped her out a few days before Christmas inside a brick duplex in a rundown part of town while I waited, ignorant, in the car. I had a perfect view of the junkyard across the street and found myself wondering what if I were the sort of kid who didn’t follow orders. What if I opened the door and took off? I imagined peering inside old wrecks, wandering the neat paths I could see from inside the car, palming small things I found on the ground. I didn’t even know about Holly at the time, but maybe we didn’t save her from a bad life at all.

Both parents managed to keep her a secret until Christmas morning. My brother and I had just finished opening presents when mom walked over with a big box and set it down with a weird smile. We knew something big was happening. My brother lifted the lid and then…nothing. It was an empty box. Weird. No wait! A very small head popped up and my brother reared back like he’d been bitten. That’s how we met Holly, the Christmas cat.

I gave her that name. No one else remembers it that way, just like they don’t remember that I’m the one who named our first boat TipOver I. There never was a TipOver II and TipOver I was kind of a dud, a glorified dinghy with a sail that went missing after bored neighborhood kids took her for a joy ride one summer night (though how joyful could it have been?). Maybe she tipped over that night in the river – fingers crossed – but after that she just hung upside down in the garage.

The thing I remember about Holly that first Christmas is my mom letting her lick runny egg yolk from a pie tin. We had to put her in the basement before we left for my grandparents’ house and the longest Christmas dinner in the history of Christmas dinners.

Every night at bedtime my parents made Holly go in the basement. She wasn’t happy about it and I wasn’t either, but my mom pointed out a nest she’d made in a corner of the basement from old rugs and a purple shawl someone spent a lot of time knitting and no one ever wore. My first instinct was to fluff up the shawl and make the nest neater, but my mom said cats preferred things a little messy.

Holly was allowed to go outside, but the garbage trucks scared her so bad she scratched a cat-size hole at the bottom of the screen to get back inside. My parents flipped the screen upside down and she made a new hole on the other end. She was a fastidious cat and bathed at least daily. She was white with grey striped spots and the face of a tabby. As she got older she got kind of fat, something I now realize happens more or less naturally to all of us.

Here’s where I want to say something hard that I’m not proud of. Once or twice I put a barrette on the end of Holly’s tail to see what she would do. It was one of those cheap, brightly colored plastic barrettes you might see if you happen to look down in a Walmart parking lot. I was old enough to know better and I didn’t dress her in doll clothes or anything like that. It wasn’t innocent on my part. Holly yelped and writhed as soon as I snapped it on and until I took it off.

All I can think of now is that I felt very small then. I used to play school with my stuffed animals and everything would be going swimmingly – Henry the Dog always acing lessons, clearly the teacher’s pet but well earned – and then something would come over me like a flipped switch. I’d tell Wile E. Coyote or Generic Fair Donkey he was an idiot or flatulent or a flatulent idiot. I’d feel cruelty flood my brain, an awful but irresistible release, followed by remorse and lingering fear about who I really was.

Mostly I was sweet to Holly and if she remembered the barrette incident(s?), she didn’t bring it up. By the time I was a teenager, she was well into adulthood and my parents had long since ditched the work of rounding her up every night for the basement. She was free to roam and spent a lot of time in my room. When I left the country for awhile after high school, my parents made a point to tell me she still went in my room every night looking for me, a sharp dagger to my heart.

One of the last times I remember seeing Holly was when I came back drunk from a wedding and sobbed on her fur because I missed her so much but mostly because I was drunk. When my dad called me at college to say Holly was sick and they were putting her to sleep, I had just gotten back from the gym and sobbed again.

I remember Holly’s personality better than a cat my husband and I had for many more years who was just as sweet and personable. It bothers me that I can’t remember more about this other cat. If I concentrate, I can clearly picture both of them, separately, walking towards me with the faint crunch crunch of paws against carpet like boots on freshly fallen snow.

Occasionally I used to pick up Holly and try to get her to look at herself in the mirror. I read once that cats are smart enough to know their reflection is not another cat, but they also show little recognition or interest in their own image. They do not appear to possess vanity or even curiosity in this regard. When I used to look at Holly’s reflection in the mirror, I noticed a dark patch around one of her eyes that I never saw any other time. I didn’t like this dark patch and thought it made her look kind of ugly, but every once in awhile I held her up and looked at it anyway.

Note: neither one of these cats is Holly, but in order to find a picture of her, I’d have to start rooting around the bedroom in the dark for old photo albums and my husband would look madder than these two. I moved on from barrettes to bow ties and Unicorn Horn for Cats but please note these were seasonal/one-time indulgences. 


This was a little freewrite exercise in response to Christy’s December writing challenge, which you can find HERE. Anyone can participate. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

Aunt Millie – a writing prompt from Christy Anna Beguins

The piece below is something I wrote for Christy Anna Beguin’s November writing prompt. Anyone is free to join and you can find the prompts for this month and how to submit here. Any excuse to write, you know?


“She could start an argument in an empty house,” goes one Southern expression, and that about describes Aunt Millie to a tee. Once, she even wore pajamas to dinner because she couldn’t admit she had incorrectly mistaken them for a silky pantsuit. Earl and I could tell right away when we arrived to pick her up for her big birthday dinner.

“Why on earth aren’t you dressed yet?” I asked. Earl examined an invisible spot on the rug.

“This is what I’m wearing,” Millie said. “Frank sent me this beautiful silk set all the way from San Franciso.” She twirled around like that would fool anyone.

“Lands sake, Millie,” I said.  “Those are pajamas!”

Millie stopped twirling and stuck out her chin and said “You’re a fool, Dottie. Now let’s get to dinner.”

The pajamas were right pretty, cloudy pink satin with silk rosebuds at the collar. They were pajamas just the same. Millie held her head high at the Chinese restaurant and ignored stares or pretended everyone was admiring her high fashion. The embarrassment at having to eat with someone in their pajamas was almost unbearable, but at least I  had a story to tell. Millie may have been the most difficult person I knew, but she was always entertaining.

Last summer a bus filled with mental patients coming back from heaven knows where tipped right over on Millie’s front lawn. Her neighbor said one of the patients attacked the driver and he lost control, but I heard he fell asleep and given the hour, it seems more likely. When Earl and I turned on the late news, the last thing we expected to see was Millie in the background, arms waving and hair curlers askew and, come to think of it, in a familiar pink satin bathrobe her brother Frank sent over last birthday. If you’d seen the news, you might have guessed Millie tipped the bus over herself, but it turned out she was giving the officer an earful because the bus happened to crush one of her flower beds. Thank goodness no one was seriously hurt, but can you imagine her making all that fuss over flowers? Oh Millie.

Thanksgiving sure will be quiet this year without her. Her daughter, Sandra, found her the day after Halloween splayed face down near the sugar maple, a fallen ladder and rake. Mind you, all the leaves weren’t down yet, so we could only guess Millie climbed up to shake them down herself. She broke her neck and would have gone quick, the doctor said. Sandra just said “Huh” and looked at the doctor and then at Earl and me like she knew it was too soon to appear relieved.

In another lifetime, Millie was married to a sweet man named Hank who was so young then, he was really more a boy. Millie and Hank, they were quite a pair. I have a distinct memory of them walking arm in arm at the Clay County Fair, Millie’s head thrown back and her laughter not quite as braying as usual. Hank was the only one who softened Millie, but then he went off to war months before Sandra was born and never came back. I was closer to Millie’s age than Sandra’s, so I remember Millie’s heartbreak and how we hoped she’d find someone else, and then how Millie it was of her that she didn’t even try.

After Millie’s funeral, Sandra found a stack of letters from Hank while we were going through her personal belongings to see who wanted what. I joked we should burn them, that Millie would never want us reading those, but Sandra and Earl thought different and insisted I take them home for safekeeping.

I couldn’t help myself, drawn like a bug to the porch light, and that night I sat at the kitchen table and read and cried well past midnight. Hank was still doting at the start, but his last couple letters mentioned some English woman he’d met wherever he was. He was in love, apparently. His last note, dated a week before his ship went down, made reference to Millie’s “hard head and even harder heart” which is an apt description as any, but in the closing paragraph he asked her to please send more candy and gum. And I guess that’s how it was with Millie. You could never please her, but she never expected you to. All those years and we never realized it was really her putting up with us.

I told Earl about Hank’s letters and his mouth dropped but he didn’t say a word. Tomorrow we’ll use Millie’s good turkey platter and set a place for her at the table. I asked Sandra to bring a salad and not dessert since last time she brought some awful gelatin mess. Millie jabbed it with her finger so that it wobbled and shook and said “Oh look, even dessert can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous it looks.” Sandra was crestfallen but it perked me right up. Earl better not be his mopey, lost self he’s been lately. This is a holiday and no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Millie wouldn’t have wanted that.

 

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via Pinterest 

The Urn

Dear Sylvester Westerlutz,

I hope I have the right person. Your last name is a bit unusual and I found you on google. I’m trying to locate the owner of an urn I stumbled upon while fly fishing in Saddlebag Creek this week. The trout are real specimens this spring…I can’t remember them this big and feisty before. But anyway I noticed something shiny near the edge of the creek and dug out what appears to be an urn with your last name on it. And so I’m wondering if maybe you lost an urn?

Yours truly,
Frank Everhart


Dear Frank

Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to hear fishing is going well this spring. You are correct that it is my urn, though incorrect that I “lost” it. I don’t know how it wound up in Saddlebag Creek as my wife and I last saw it pretty far upstream at Sawbill Creek and that was five winters ago. First we’d meant to sprinkle the ashes in the creek, but I only brought a swiss army tool that proved useless. (Urns are very hard to open.) Then we tried to bury the urn, but the ground was pretty frozen and we hadn’t brought a shovel. I guess we weren’t thinking too clearly. Finally, in a fit of what I now recognize to be temper, I chucked my mother’s urn in the creek. It made a satisfying splash I can still hear in my head. I’m sorry you found her and have to deal with her now. She always was a difficult person. She never could just let things be.

Best,
Sylvester Westerlutz


Dear Sylvester,

I see, or at least I think I do. My own mother is still alive but I don’t think I’ll share this story with her. Or maybe I will. In any event, what shall I do with your mother? Would you like her back?

Frank


Frank,

Throwing Mom in Sawbill Creek was one of the most liberating moments of my life. Prior to that, we’d tried burying her in the backyard next to the birdbath but then the window blind flapped up in the middle of the night and scared the living daylights out of my wife. She insisted it was Mom’s way of telling us she wasn’t happy with her placement, so we moved her over by the hemlock and then it died within the year. It was such a beautiful tree too, such a shame. Then we dug her up and polished the urn and put her on the mantel and that winter the woodstove caught fire and we lost pretty much everything. You might not be able to tell, but even the urn got pretty scorched. We had finally settled with the insurance company and closed on a new place to live when we took the urn down to Sawbill. It was meant to be a final act of closure and honestly, I hadn’t thought of that moment in years. I am not at all sure what to tell you do with Mom. I wonder if you might be able to put her back. I am sorry you have to deal with this.

Sylvester


Dear Sylvester,

I decided to do what you suggested and return your mother to Saddlebag Creek. I brought along my fishing gear and did notice the trout weren’t biting quite like they were last time, though that was probably just coincidence. I dug a pocket in the mud and rocks and sunk your mother’s urn in real good. I don’t think she’ll be going anywhere. The sky had been gray but right at that moment the sun poked through and I thought that was a good sign. It started raining on the way home and I did get a flat tire, but no worries, I had a spare and anyway, it had been awhile since I’d had the practice. I should get cleaned up because it’s Purse Night at bingo and Mother doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I wish you and the wife all the best.

Yours truly,

Frank Everhart

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Dag life

At the winter dance I won a prize for Best American Accent, though mine was the only one in the room. Being hammered on Passion Pop, a sickeningly sweet drink I luckily could not find when I returned to the US, added showers of confetti and glitter to the memory I’m sure were not there.

 

The prize was a gift certificate for a clothing shop in town catering to women over 70 or anyone in need of obscenely large packages of tube socks. Someone called it a “dag” shop and I figured out what that meant without google, which had not been invented anyway. You could buy lace trimmed handkerchiefs and bobbie pins or those slippery, translucent scarves to cover hair curlers, but I had a dickens of a time finding something, anything, to buy with my major award.

 

Dag was an affectionately insulting term I learned while living in Australia. It refers to someone or something that is unapologetically unfashionable and is maybe the American equivalent of Dork, though it derives from Daglock, or the dung-cake lock of wool around the hindquarters of a sheep, which we call Dingleberry over here, though not often. Language is heady, complicated business.

 

I fell in with a crowd that may have been described as dags, mild misfits less concerned about social status than I was accustomed to. I was recruited by the leader in the restroom in a case of mistaken identity (naturally). My doppelganger lives in Australia, you see, and the leader splashed sink water over the stall door thinking I was her and then recoiled in horror when she realized I was the new exchange student. And so she apologized and we became fast friends and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch. Come to think of it, I also met my best friend from elementary school in eerily similar circumstances, so restrooms might just be where I make meaningful connections.

I spent the next six months feeling loved and accepted by a group of three girls and two boys. Sleepovers were always co-ed and we stayed up late watching Friday night videos, a novelty since I had grown up with MTV and took them for granted. They took me to my first concert in Sydney – Roxcette – though I didn’t care one way or another about the music. I remember my Australian friends as fresh faced and funny, innocent in many ways my American friends and I were not. I was tight lipped about my own past because it felt good to start over and be someone I should have been all along.

Although it had been sweltering July when I left the US, the east coast of Australia was in its own mild state of winter. I remember boarding the plane in a sweater and jeans and not believing they would be necessary. Everything was a mild shock to the system once I got off that plane.The house where I lived smelled like the strange, sweet oils and soaps my host mother used. A new cat curled up on my bed every night. Just beyond the house was a quaint town center with a cricket pitch and of course the dag shop and a chemist where I was forced to choose from an unfamiliar, exciting array of shampoos. The first time I ordered a hamburger I wasn’t sure I would like it with fried egg and beets, but oh I did. I took tea with my milk and sugar instead of coffee. My world had turned upside down and I fell madly in love.

What I probably fell in love with was my old self in new surroundings. As an American, I was a curiosity to others, a novelty, but to myself I was the only familiar thing around. I became my own source of comfort and expanded to become gregarious and chaste and found these traits suited me. When I returned to the US, I wondered for a long time if I wasn’t born on the wrong side of the planet. Had my doppelganger been unhappy in Australia? I found myself wishing I’d thought to ask her. We could have worked something out before my visa expired.

In recovery speak, they call that pulling a geographic. It’s when you hit the reset button by fleeing your current surroundings and it’s not supposed to work, but it did for me that one time. Of course, it didn’t really because I had to return home. The other kind of reset is much harder and takes time, often decades, and sometimes tedious effort.  Many, many years later I feel it from sobriety and middle age, a deepening comfort and sense that all we really need to do is click our heels to come home.

 

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Me in one of the shirts I picked out at the dag shop. I still miss that damn cat.

Enough hats for everyone – revisiting 52 days sober and my old blog

Two years before I started this blog, I had another one called Enough Hats for Everyone. The name came from an overheard phrase at the beach. A frazzled mom hollered it at her ten kabillion children, who were all clamoring for boogie boards and attention and, it would seem, hats, which admittedly doesn’t sound like any kids I know. But my husband was there and he remembers it too. We were in our early to mid 20s and I remember being brutally hungover that afternoon. My hangovers were legendary, if only in my own mind because I kept them to myself as much as I could. Hey, those hangovers were a big part of why I quit and saved me a lot of future suffering, so I’m eternally grateful. 

Anyway, I stopped posting on the old blog in April of 2012 and took it down a few years ago but never deleted it. I thought it would be fun to post something I wrote when I was less than two months sober. It was the first mention I could find about not drinking. It was interesting to read the numbered list of things I’d learned so early in sobriety. Number 1 and 5 are still totally true. Number 3 is fortunately not an issue except for the rare occasion when I miss drinking. Number 4 surprised me because I don’t quite remember it that way, but maybe I was just pleasantly surprised sober sex was possible. 

There are all kinds of things I could write about anonymously or with my name attached if I were a different sort of person. Maybe I will one day, maybe not. I recall the reason I started this blog is because most of the 30 or so readers of my old blog were not sober and I worried they would think less of me if they knew I had to stop drinking. I felt the need to separate what felt like two separate identities. And now, on this blog, I know I’m posting more than before and I know I’m all over the place in terms of sobriety and non-sobriety content, and I’m not sure what that’s all about. I know it’s hard to keep up with, and the frequency is likely just a phase (so bear with me or whatever, I won’t take it personally). I just know I love to write. I’ve always told other people to write about whatever they want to write about. If it moves you – if it’s in your heart – write about it. 

I never deleted my old blog because it meant a lot to me. I think I wrote some pretty funny stuff back then. I remember starting that blog because I was going through some personal stuff and while I wasn’t dealing directly with it in what I wrote about, it gave me a spark I didn’t know was there. And that is why a lot of us write and keep writing. 

 August 9, 2011

I haven’t had a drink since June 20, 2011. There’s no significance to this date, though it just struck me that I’ve been sober all summer. I’m incredibly relieved to tell you it’s been a really good summer so far. For those who know me socially, the not drinking thing may come as a surprise. Or maybe not.

I had my first drink in seventh grade at a sleepover. It was peppermint schnapps and it was only like two sips, but the way its slow burn crept up from my throat to my head felt like coming home. I had my first drunk in ninth grade and started one of those sobby, sad affairs until I discovered that beer was kinder than liquor. But two decades later, beer stopped being kind.

Here’s a tip: don’t drink when your life becomes stressful. Ha. That’s a good one, I know. Anyway, it’s hard to know which was the chicken and which was the egg.

Speaking of eggs, I can’t ignore genetics and my grandfather George, who drank himself to death in his 50s. The one time I met him he reeked of body odor and booze. The only thing I remember about him is his smell and how he pushed a set of closing elevator doors back open with both arms while exclaiming “I AM STRONG AS AN OX.” But they were the kind of elevator doors that would have opened for anyone – even me, an eight-year old kid.

George, in better days

Here are some things I learned, so far, in my summer of not drinking:

1.) I am much happier sober.

2.) It’s generally easy not to drink when I take it one day at a time.

 3.) But damn, seeing condensation on a pint glass triggers something in me, and probably always will.

4.) Sober sex is even better than drunk sex. (go on, try it some time)

5.) I feel just as creative and have as much fun as I did when I was drinking every day. This is the biggest relief of all. Ok, maybe #4 is.

I hope to be able to tell you what a sober fall is like too. I don’t take for granted that this is a gift I’ve been given, but that I have to work at it. Yes, I do AA meetings. The fellowship and support is an indescribable gift. If that sounds a little culty, so be it. Live and let live.

I’m happier and my kids have their mom 95% back and I’m much easier to live with now that I’m not struggling with crippling hangovers and an obsession the likes of which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

And hey, this isn’t a preachy post. I know lots of fine people who enjoy fine beers and other fermented and distilled beverages. I wish I could be like them sometimes, but I recognize that I am different.

It turns out Reading is a magical land

Lately I don’t look forward to the same family traditions like I used to. I didn’t used to be like this and find it’s a byproduct of sobriety. And so the thought of going to the same Oktoberfest that we’ve already been to 9 times in the last 10 years held as much appeal as a trip to the hardware store.

My family did not share the same epiphany that trying new things is more fun than sticking to what we already know we love. And so I met general resistance when we headed to the new-to-us Reading Liederkranz Oktoberfest celebration, which only grew when we had to park in a muddy field in the rain and catch a shuttle bus.

(Have you been on a school bus recently? And I mean one barreling down steep, wet hills or straining to climb them, always seemingly on the verge of losing control or tipping over? One of the many gifts of youth is we don’t appreciate the daily dangers we lived until much later.)

This “new” Oktoberfest turned out to be so much fun. 4 out of 4 family members said they would go back. And remember,  3 of us don’t drink so it was all about the food, music and people in lederhosen cracking whips on the dance floor. (We saw a slightly different version, but still, whips!)

On the way there, my husband noticed a sign for the Reading Pagoda, and we took a slight detour on the way home to check it out. Perched at the edge of Mt. Penn and lording 600 feet above the sprawl of Reading, Pennsylvania is a 7-story Japanese pagoda. Built in 1908 as a luxury resort, the original owner had to sell it when he ran out of money and the city denied him a liquor license. The next owner sold it to the city for $1, which is how much it costs now to climb 87 steps (verified by my kids) to the top for sweeping views of the city and closeups of Wawa and Chik-fil-a signs through the 25 cent tower viewer. That’s what my kids zeroed in on anyway.

At the top, we also found a Japanese bell cast in 1739 and inscribed with an end-of-time prophesy, as well as assorted memorabilia behind glass cases. It smelled old and familiar, like my grandparents’ basement before Sunday dinner. My husband said it smelled like “hot dog farts” which was probably more accurate since I did notice a woman eating a hot dog in the ground level cafe.

This is why I get tired of sticking to the same tried and true favorites. We’ve lived within an hour of Reading for the past decade and finally got there. We plan to head back soon, but next time we’ll try something new and that wasn’t even my idea.

 

A trio of treats before two

It wasn’t even 11am when we witnessed a grandfatherly type make a pass at a female clown. He asked what her name was and when she told him Sweet Heart he said “That’s a pretty name. Can you share some of that sweetness with me?”

“Right now I’m working,” she said, more resigned than annoyed, like it happens all the time, men hitting on her when she’s in mustard yellow ringlets, full clown makeup and shoes the size of Texas. Her words forced our attention to the agile flicks and twists of her hands as she pumped and threaded balloons into a skeleton before our eyes. We were well down the street of the festival before we noticed the skeleton only had one eye so we’ll never know why. Maybe he’s winking, I suggested.

The haircut place had its own fun.  I was buried in a garish children’s book about mummies and only put it back (sheepishly) once I realized my kid had been called minutes ago and I had no excuse to still be reading. Mummies are fascinating but eavesdropping is safer because you can pretend to be thinking about grown up things.

A guy in his 30s was in the chair closest to me with a young pink-haired stylist on one side and another woman, his girlfriend or wife, giving orders from behind. “Take a little more off the top, but not too flat” she instructed, while the man sat looking dim but content. I wondered if he was mute or foreign, but after the woman wandered off to talk to another stylist, he yelled across the room “Hon, how do I want my sideburns?”

I studied his haircut as surreptitiously as possible once the cape came off and he stood and fairly beamed. The cut suited him, if only because I’d  never seen anyone look as happy as I feel when I get a good haircut. He swaggered over to his lady and took a bite of the apple she’d been eating and they traded it back and forth for awhile. Once I saw a small child share an apple with a dog but that was kind of cute.

On the way home, we parked by a trail we hadn’t been to in ages and weren’t the only ones to neglect. Already narrow paths were eroding into the creek. I had to warn the kids not to fall in but they were busy jabbing each other with sticks. Several large trees had fallen across the trail at various points. I banged my shin hard climbing across one, not because the walk was cursed but because I was in jeans with a belly full of cheese curd from the festival.

We took the high trail by mistake and came out above the mysterious amphitheater and had to go the long way around a meadow of goldenrod and bees. We’ve always wondered about this amphitheater in the middle of the woods. Who dragged the lumber a mile from the trail head or maybe across a raging creek to build it? And why? Has it ever been used aside from mock pulpit lectures by power-hungry children on family hikes?

Sadly it’s in bad shape, and my shin too, though I managed a series of selfies.

 

The top photo is me not understanding how to work the timer. (My oldest daughter’s expression is my favorite part.) The middle picture is me not understanding mirror images and which side to sit on. Third time’s the charm!

 

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