Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summer light

It was dark when I drove home the other day. Not all that unusual, but I could swear that it was still light at that same time just a few days prior to that. And a week or two before that, the sun still blazed as I drove home. The sky was not fringed in purple and rose-gold; rather, the coming night only slowly leached it of color, turning the pale blue into pearl grey and white. Now the sky was a study in blue and black, with just the barest hint of scarlet at the very edge of the west.

It is amazing to me how much I measure the turning of the year by the stream of light. The year, or course, begins to die at the height of summer. Leave it to me to find the nugget of doom even amid the hazy, lazy, hot and humid ease of summer.

As a kid, summer was endless. It stretched before us like a river, wide and deep, glinting in sunlight, pockets of green shade and never-silent, a burbling chatter that fills up all the empty space. We wheeled and floated through time, all sticky with sweat and watermelon juice and neighborhood grit. It was glorious and forever. Friendships grew thick and fast as weeds, a promise of permanence to outlast the heat of summer, to withstand the coming of crisp air and shortened days.

Summer was long days of heat that built slowly and inexorably, until it felt as if your lungs would spontaneously combust. Summer was fireworks and fireflies, a cacophony of light and sound. It was crickets and grasshoppers and tar that stuck to your shoes, gooey strands of black that formed a tenuous bridge between the road and the soles of your shoes. It was the gathering heaviness of ozone just before a thunderstorm, when the air is alive with static and wind and the heavens open with a whoosh and a rush of rain, when the temperature drops in an instant, from stifling to a delicious coolness.

And we were invincible then, in those eternal days of summer: invincible, untouchable, immortal. We were lords of summer, lords of earth and air, of backyards and hidden creeks and fields of weeds and cracked concrete. Time was measured in light and sound in those days: Out of the house when the sky was still pale and liquid blue, and the dew bent the grass and caught the sun in rainbow crystals, returning only when we heard the clarion call of a mom or a sibling calling us in for dinner. And as soon as we had inhaled that meal--- of meat and potatoes, certainly, and salad was iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers and home-made Thousand Island dressing--- red-fringed pink stuff made from ketchup and Miracle Whip--- never mayo, thank you very much--- after dinner was Kick the Can or Hounds and Hares or Elimination Frisbee, some game that brought the entire cadre of neighborhood kids together in a burst of competition and speed, and we would run and hide and throw and sweat and yell until it was too dark to see, until the crickets and mosquitoes and frogs and kids created a symphony of noise, and someone-- some mom, some dad, someone left behind the glory of summer, would call us in that one final time. And we came, reluctant, dragging, tired and spent, begging for just a few more minutes, a little bit longer, a little more time, pleasepleaseplease, just five minutes more, pleeeeease! We never did get a reprieve. We never got that extra five minutes. But we never stopped asking either. Every night was the first night, the first time, and possibilities were endless and hope tangible.

And so, even in that summery land of forever, days end, night comes. Like a thief, darkness steals the light in unnoticeable snatches, and a curtain of silvery moonlight fills the sky where once the sun king reigned. We drive home in darkness. In the morning, dew laden fields become mist-shrouded, God’s breath lightly blanketing the dry gold reeds that turn slowly to russet and then dull brown. And suddenly, where once we leapt from sleep-tangled sheets to escape into the summer sun, we hunker down under blankets to steal five more minutes of sleep, of warmth, before school, before work, before growing up.

When did summer become finite? When did night linger in my window just long enough for me to wake in darkness? When did driving with headlights ablaze take precedence over running madly and with stealth, under cover of darkness, to free my captive teammates from their prison in some neighborhood garage? What day, what time, what moment? I remember that hope of five minutes more, that mental stretch to claim eternity, that I-almost-have-it, I-can-almost-touch-it thing. I remember it lasting forever, but I cannot pinpoint when it was gone, and I wait impatiently for December 22, for when the light begins to linger a little longer, arrive a little sooner every day.

In the meantime, I pull the blankets over my head while my windows frame a purple sky, claiming my five minutes more before turning on a light.

Monday, August 3, 2009


I am coming up on an anniversary this week. On Saturday (the good lord willing and the creek don't rise), I will not have had a drink in seventeen years. There are drinks that hadn't been invented yet when I stopped. In all this time, I have fallen in love, fallen out of love, gotten married, gotten divorced, had cats, given up cats, had a baby and watched him grow. People have lived and died and wandered in and out of my life. I have done the same in many of theirs. I have moved: physically, spiritually, emotionally. I have been lost and found and left and recovered. I am not the same person I was.

My God! Seventeen years. Had you asked me, as I sat on that beat up old couch in that beat up old AA club, crying and tense and scared and lost--- had you asked me then if this is where my life would be, now--- I would have thought you were crazy. I couldn't see where my life would have been in seventeen minutes, let alone seventeen years. While I may have understood all the words you used individually, I would not have had any clue when you strung them together into a cohesive statement like "where do you think you will be, what will your life be like in a decade and a half or so?"

Of course, I may just have thrown up at that point, whether from fear or being hung over. Take your pick; I think I've finally realized, after all this time, that there is little difference between the two.

Seriously: it's taken almost seventeen years to learn that fear is just like a hangover. Or, at least, fear is what drove me to crawl inside a bottle and set up camp there for a few thousand years. Fear wrapped its icy fingers around my heart at a young age: fear of failing, fear of success. Fear of being alone or unloved or wrong or not enough or too much. I was so sure that everyone got The Rule Book (at birth, or maybe earlier), and so knew, effortlessly, everything that I didn't. And that lack of knowledge was going to kill me. Or expose me for the fraud that I was--- which was a fate worse than death.

The first time I drank, it was as if I could breathe for the first time in my life. I felt that vodka (mixed with grape kool-aid, a combination I learned (that very day) to stay away from) burn a trail of fire down my pre-teen throat and I knew I was home. Finally. The noise stopped. The fear was driven to the smallest corners of my head, held at bay by that burning, heady liquid. And I felt dizzy and free and I loved it all. And I wanted it. More. And again. Just as intense. Just as powerful. Just as liberating.

And I spent the next couple of decades chasing that same thing. Not surprisingly, I never find it. Not for lack of trying, mind you. It seems, though, that the harder I chased, the more elusive it became. And one day, just about seventeen years ago, I realized the chase was done. I was done.

And here is where I get stuck. How to explain the glory and the struggle and the raw and the sacred of the last seventeen years? It has been all those things and more. I have embraced my life, cursed it, prayed for a soft landing and a softer heart. I have found God, lost friends, restored my credit and ravished it all over again. I paid rent, mostly on time. I paid my mortgage, mostly on time. I paid off debt and created a whole new pile of bills. I finally realized nobody wants my money; they all just want theirs. I learned to feel: to laugh and cry and fear and love. My God! I learned how to love! To open my heart and allow myself to be vulnerable and open and trust. And still I have been hurt. And still I have hurt. I am intense and impatient and naive. I have looked for redemption and I have found forgiveness.

I stumble and I doubt and I struggle. But I have learned to dance along the edge of my pain, put one foot in front of the other. I remember to breathe, even when I am most afraid. I sing, even when I am most lost.

I have learned that it is not what I pray that is important; it is that I pray that amuses God and makes him (her?) laugh. And I pray, every day. I talk to God, and yell and whine and demand and plead and, softly, in the small of night, when it is dark and lonely and cold (because it can still be all of those things, and more), when I can taste the ghost of liquid fire again, when my fear coils like a lover around me and whispers my secret shame--- I find God all over again, and I remember to ask for help, and I find some small measure of grace.

I have been given such gifts! And so I laugh, in the midst of my fear. And so I love, in the heart of my solitude. And so I live, in the hope of joy.