Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Small Stuff

Last spring, right around the time school let out (May-ish, when the air is warm but not yet humid, and everyone wants to have class outside (even the adults, locked in their offices of glass and steel and climate-controlled windows that won't open), and the kids are all just itching for the final bell to ring and free them from the prison that is school) last spring,  I got The Call.  It was not a Divine Call to join some religious order or nunnery. Wrong religion, wrong calling.  It was the dreaded Call From School.  My son, far from being sick, far from being awarded some educational accolade or middle school equivalent of a Nobel Peace prize, was being awarded a detention.  Dammit.

My son-- bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart-- my son lied.  He lied about where he was, when he was, and just what the hell he was doing.  He was supposed to be at an after school club.  He was supposed to be finishing up some homework.  What he got was caught.  What he got was in trouble.  What he got was a two day (two days!) detention in the Vice Principal's office. 

My rational brain keeps sending me soothing messages: "He's thirteen.  He'll get it together.  You weren't an angel at his age.  Look where you are now."

My lizard brain has a salamander basking on a rock in the hot sun, flicking its long, poison-tipped tongue, and whispering seductively in my ear: "Duuuuuuuuuuuct tape. Ssssstrap him to the chairrr and let him sssssssufferrrrrr,  Then ssssssell him" Visions of torture and retribution dance through my head.

Oh great. Turns out, I'm a pacifist with violent tendencies.

My first impulse was to reach for my well-used, dog-eared copy of The Rule Book: A Parent’s Handy Dandy Guide to Raising Perfect Children.

Oh wait— there is no such book. Or, if there is, I must have been out grabbing a cup of coffee when They (the omnipotent, omnipresent They)— I was out when all the other parents were getting their copies. As an added bonus, I had apparently also been absent the day They handed out The Single Parent’s Guide as part of the divorce settlement. I was on my own, flying solo. 


Ah— the joys of parenting.  Single parenting at that.  It hits me oddly, that giddy, terrifying, swoopy, bottom-dropping-out feeling, all sideways and slanted and so totally unexpected. They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you makes you stronger. Right. At this point, I am Atlas, and all I want to do is shrug.  I know, I know: it’s really no big deal. He’s thirteen. It’s a detention, not hard time on a chain gang. But, well— it’s a detention. It’s one more thing I have to deal with, in a long line of stuff I have to deal with.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my son: fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. There is nothing I would not do for him. But these moments, where I am so certain that I’ve committed some grievous parenting error, provided him with more than sufficient fodder for future therapy sessions, in which I will have the starring role as Ghengis Khan, Machiavelli and Medea all rolled into one. these are the moments I would gladly trade. These are the times I want to call for a timeout. The Universe is less than obliging.

This isn’t big stuff. Hell, the big stuff is easy. I am the Fixer of Broken Things. So I fix. I act. I do. You shoulder the big stuff because you can’t do anything less. I never realized that it would be the small moments that would trip me up, leave me clueless and frustrated and slightly panicked. You find out the hard way, when it’s 10:00 and you realize you’ve run out of cream for tomorrow’s coffee. It’s that chasm of infinite guilt as you send your kid off to school with that nasty, nagging cough because you have a meeting that you just can’t miss, not today. It’s not signing up for Little League because you work and who the hell calls a practice at 4:00 in the afternoon for God’s sake, and hearing your son say, as you drive past the ball field, in that voice that’s way too mature: “It’s ok, Mommy. Maybe next year.” It’s going it alone, again, ever and always, as you try to navigate through all the lonely, silent days. It’s the easy stuff, the quiet stuff that makes it hard to breathe sometimes.

This is the part, neither big nor easy, but certainly breathless and definitely painful, where I admit that I have no idea what I'm doing. And I'm afraid that I will screw up my kid. Have screwed up my kid. That I'm doing my best, dammit, and am terrified that my best just isn't good enough. This is the part where I say my ego was bruised, and what the hell kind of mother could I possibly be to letsego matter when it comes to her kid? This is the part where I admit, through gritted teeth, that I am more annoyed with the fact that I believed him, rather than the fact that he lied at all.

This is the whispery, secret and ashamed part, where I admit that I had a part to play in this. Not the lying part, but the part that led up to that, kinda-sorta. The part that I knew he was struggling, treading water and not doing a good job at that, and I? I turned a blind eye to it. Ok, if not blind, then at least half-closed and squinty. Because there was the job thing and the bills-to-pay thing and the this-that-and-the-other-thing thing that was really important and had to be done right now and I promise I'll notice you later. And help you later. And teach you. Later.

Later. Ha! He's thirteen: there is no "later."

And I knew that. I knew that he needed me now, and prayed that later would be good enough. Hooray me.

And then I remember: it is a detention, nothing more. Time served, punishment meted. Small stuff.

For all that it can be sad and lonely and silent, it is small stuff.  Painful and prickly and breathtaking-- but small stuff nonetheless.  He is resilient, that boy of mine.  He is bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart.  He pushes at the boundaries to find his limits (and mine).  He's learning to taste the choices he makes, and savor how they feel against his skin.  He is becoming his own, which is, really, the whole point. 
This is small stuff, and these are small moments.  He lied. It's a detention. We survived the storm (even as I brace for the next one).  But for all that, I get friends who remind me to breathe.  They drown out the seductive song of that damned basking salamander and tell me that the small stuff is just that: small.  They tell me that even the big stuff is small. 
In the midst this, I have found a few small truths:  Parenting is tough (single or paired or in whatever village-shaped iteration one has cadged together to get through these moments).  I screw up, make mistakes, doubt and wonder and panic and dither.  I love my son.  Fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. I love him even when he lies, even when he gets caught.  And for all that I screw up and doubt and dither, my son knows that.  Above all else, he knows that he is loved. 
The trick, I think, is to breathe long enough to gather in all these moments– not just the minor panic and small fears, but the triumphs and joys, and-- most of all-- love, so that we can find that what we get, what we really get when all is said and done, is a life.  Far from perfect, far from solitary.  We get a life filled with everything and then some.  And then I remember that it is all small stuff and I am filled.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Holiness of Separation

As a kid, Shabbat meant brisket. I loved that. Every once in a while, my mother would get inspired and feel the need to… cook? No, she always cooked in those days. It wasn’t until many years later that dinner was more likely to be ordered than made.

But every so often, as a kid, dinner wasn’t just thrown together from whatever was in the refrigerator. Candles were lit. There was no real ritual there, and the melody we used was likely to be the one from Chanukah (because that’s the only one I knew, and I was the designated candle-lighter/singer in those days), but those thick, squat white candles that came in boxes of 48 would be given a place of honor on the stove – just in case, because you didn’t want them to fall over in whatever tumult might arise after dinner.

My bubbie (z”l), who was either prophet or witch, said to my mother in that distinct and scratchy-voiced Yiddish accent, ”You’re going to burn the house down with those Shabbes candles,” and sure enough, the candles did fall over the next time we lit them. They did a slow burn on the harvest gold Formica countertop, leaving an oddly shaped, flaky mark the size of an orange, or maybe a baseball, as a permanent reminder of her powers – which we kids were never quite certain were always used for good, even though she was our bubbie. Maybe it had something to do with the eyes, or the accent, or her refusal to talk about her life in the before – when she lived in Poland, or Russia, or whichever principality claimed the shtetl that was a pawn in skirmishes far removed from the realities of shtetl life, but seemed to impact illusory allegiances and political borders.

I am almost convinced that it was because of my bubbies that we celebrated Shabbat at all. And because of their bubbies. And theirs. And theirs again, down a long, dusty and twisted road of generations, a collection of bubbies stretching back a few millennia. It is a small taste of infinity, a forever line, connected by flame and sweet wine, by twisted bread and a thousand generations, all of whom danced on the head of that same sacred pin: a pause, an inward sigh of breath, just as Friday’s sun kisses the western horizon. They gather us all in, just as they gather in the light around them, their hands circling over and around the candles they light to usher in Shabbat. Those flames flicker and stretch and reach upwards – to God, to heaven, to separation.

One heartbeat to the next. One moment from the next. An endless next, that leads us all to that sacred space: Shabbat.

They kept it, watched over it, guarded it, remembered it – that liminal moment of joy. And in their watching, in their remembrance, they passed it on, one to the next – one heartbeat, one moment, one candle flame, one breath. Down and down, their fingers wove a prayer, and they gathered us all in. They knew, every one of them, as they stood on the threshold of that endless moment, knew and understood the holiness of separation.

It was not the brisket that made it Shabbat when I was a growing up. What mattered was the separation – the fact that my mother knew, somewhere in her heart and hands, to gather us in and surround a moment. And that moment was separate from, distinct and different from, all the other moments that led up to it. It was space, not time. It was holy, and it was Shabbat.

And for that moment, that breath, that heartbeat, we all of us danced on the head of that pin.

And today? No brisket. But there are candles and flowers, sweet wine and twisted bread. As my hands pass over the small flames, I chant an ancient blessing in an ancient language, gathering in the light, gathering in family and those I hold dear, gathering in hope. I watch, from one moment to the next, and remember, from one heartbeat to the next, and welcome in Shabbat, giving thanks for the holiness of separation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Simple Stories: in honor of a couple of decades sober

You'd think that after 20 years, this would be easy.

Well, maybe not you, but I did.  I thought that after 20 years it would be easy to tell the story of these past 20 years.  I am, after all, a writer.  I do the words.  That's my thing.  More than most other things, I know how to tell the stories-- some filled with wonder and light, some much harder, all twisty and dark-cornered, with frayed threads, but which, with infinite and practiced patience, can be woven together into a threadbare whole until a new story can be found.  Sometimes wonder, sometimes hard and tinged with light.

You'd think, after 20 years-- of living this life and mending all these frayed and broken threads, of finding purpose and dancing with God, of unimaginable pain and unbounded joy-- of living this life, actually living a life filled to the very edges with life, with everything: love and anger and doubt and fear, failure and triumph, all the stuff of a life jammed together and barely contained-- you'd think...

So why isn't this easier?

Why is it so difficult to strip away the artifice and just tell the story, spare and unadorned and achingly simple?  Why can't I just say: There was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me.  And this is the story of how that all changed.

I was taught, early on in Alcoholics Anonymous, that when you tell your story, you say what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now.  Simple.

So, what was it like?  I like to believe that that's where the story takes a sharp left turn away from simple, passing complicated in a few easy strides, never looking back.  That's the story I tell myself.  I like the drama of that, the hint of darkness and the veiled promise of lurid disarray. As comfortably as I live in that drama, I remember what a friend told me one night, early in our sobriety, as we sat in my car under cover of a midnight sky, just learning the rules of friendship in a sober world.  I told him  my stories through the lens of my living chaos theory.  And my dear Jonathan, my new and newly sober friend, he listened, allowed me to rant, took my hand when I'd finished and said "Stacey; you're not as evil as you think you are."  I may have hated him in that moment.

That's the thing, really: I want complex.  I want drama and license and chaos.  But the simple story, the easy story is this: There was a time when I was empty, and in my emptiness, time stood still.  No light.  No sound.  Just an eternity of empty. Who needed chaos when I had despair?  Who needs hope when you can chase more-- more anything, take your pick: alcohol, drugs, sex, money.  Strange, but no matter how much I drank, the empty never got filled.  All the despair, all the hopelessness, untouched.  Untouchable.  An infinite void fed by subtraction stew.

And after twenty years of forever, twenty years of standing motionless on a roiling sea of empty, I was done.  That's the "what happened" part.  I was done: I got sober.  Easy-- got sober.  Ha!  Just don't drink, right?  Easy?  How the hell do I do that?.

They told me, those people in the rooms, from their vantage points of a decade, a year, a day, an hour of sobriety "Don't drink and go to meetings."  Don't drink?  What?  How do you not drink?  How do you not chase that thirty seconds, where you finally sit in your own skin without feeling the need to crawl out of it, that singular instant of time where all the noise in your head stops and you can breathe, really just breathe? Thirty seconds-- that's all you got, ever.  Thirty seconds, where you fit and the gears didn't grind against you and you could just be.   And God, what I wouldn't give-- what I didn't give-- to chase those thirty seconds, again and again, with every sip.  Don't drink?  How the hell do you do that?

And they all of them smiled, and they nodded, and they knew-- all of them, from their lofty vantage point of a decade or three, a day or two, an hour or so--- "Don't drink.  Go to meetings. It gets better.  Simple."

I used to not believe in miracles.  I used to believe that God, if God really existed, had set me up to fail my life.  I used to believe that I couldn't live a life without drinking.

It's amazing the changes that happen when you finally can't imagine having to take one more drink.  It's amazing how infinitesimally  the universe shifts when the pain of drinking becomes more than the fear of not.  How profoundly simple life became: don't drink.  Again and again, one second, one minute, an hour or three, and you just don't drink.  No matter how much the pain of sobriety threatens to swallow you whole; no matter how exposed and raw you feel-- every minute of every day, with not even an ounce of anything standing between you and the rest of the world; no matter how much you're tweaking and want to crawl inside that bottle. 

Again and again: don't drink, go to meetings, and the seconds crawl into minutes and stumble into days and bound into years and you suddenly have time.  And you breathe, finally breathe.  My God, you breathe and the air is cool and pure and fills your lungs like light.  You breathe, and  suddenly you have a life, that moves and leaps and dances.  And you look back, and it's twenty years later.  Twenty years, and you say: simple. 

And now?  Now I have a life.  A life by no means simple or easy; it wouldn't be mine if that were the case.  It is a complex and rich tapestry that is filled to its very edges with life-- with love and light and pain and hope.  There has been despair enough to fill a thousand lifetimes, and hope enough to bring me to a breathless stop.  I have been given gifts unimaginable.  I have sought redemption and been offered forgiveness.  I have learned to live with doubt, and revel in contradiction.  I live in the miracle of a day, a day that stretches before me with infinite possibility and endless hope, filled with simple stories waiting to be found and told and lived,   I have found a life that is mine, that moves and breathes and is filled with all the stuff of a life.  I have found God, and I allow God to be.  Just be, just as I believe God allows me to just be.  

There was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me.  And this is the story of how that all changed. This is the story of how it got better.  This is the story of how I came to believe that I was never empty.  This is the story of how I learned to breathe.


For all the blessings that fill me, for God's grace that lifts me, for all who teach me, simply, to live a sober life and hear God's voice, I give thanks, with humble and profound gratitude.