I was both laying the foundation to change my life and becoming more and more ill from the tail end of this most recent phase of my life (which I absobloomin'lutely needed to change).
At this moment, it's a few minutes before 9 pm on the last night of a four week retreat in the mountains. I want to finish the laundry, go sit in the jacuzzi under the stars and maybe watch one more episode of Madame Secretary.
One of my several goals on this retreat was to start blogging again. I did post a couple of watercolors I made on my original blogger site that I've used primarily as a watercolor artist since 2006. Wow. That now seems like ages ago. So much has changed and changed again. What radical swings in the world!
It's vitally important to me to get this site up and running again. I think that I'll just paste here most of what I re-opened that blog with. Just a recounting of sorts. It both honors my limited time and last, unchecked goal.
Start where you are. That's Pema Chödrön's wise advice.
I'm in Asheville, North Carolina. I am sitting on the covered deck looking over the railing past the gurgling jacuzzi though the tall, delicate trees at the not so distant mountain top.
I've been planted in this comfy, heavy, sturdy armchair with my feet propped up on the square, heavy, sturdy ottoman since my arrival on 11 June. Just to be out in the fresh air, listening to bird song and allowing the days to pass has been enough to make this trip worthwhile. But the value of this long retreat is incalculable.
The last eighteen months of my life feel as though they've evaporated into thin air. Without going into details of why and how, late last November (2018), I started putting changes in motion. I made a radical decision about my finances, had eye surgery, and made long-range plans to end my weekly teaching job. The stress of my finances and teaching situation and my coping mechanisms were killing me. My primary coping mechanism would be alcohol. But more on that at a later date. Also, right, In October, I was pulled off my feet by a very strong dog and, for the first time in my life, was in excruciating lower back pain for many months. Almost forgot about that.
As a result of the lower back pain, I discovered that I have a herniated disk and osteoporosis. More on that at a later date, too.
I went through the lengthy, highly detailed process of addressing my finances in other words filing Chapter 7 and acting as my own attorney. When the last straw broke the proverbial camel's back at my long-term teaching job, I gave notice.
No sooner had I given notice than indoor chain smokers moved into the two apartments next to me.
I've lived in a relatively charming but poorly maintained 1940s garden apartment. The walls are paper thin, the roaches are indomitable but I've had the end unit of the best spot on the property, overlooking and partially sheltered by a grove of willow oak out front and a beautiful and productive garden that I've built out back. I appreciate most of my neighbors and have been centrally located in the absolute best neighborhood in town.
However, the city has changed dramatically in my six years here. Growth without planning. Clear-cutting lots, building new penitentiary style "luxury units" smack up to the edge of the sidewalks along two-lane roads never designed for the sudden influx of traffic. Plus, there's a new fire station catty-corner to my property that will undoubtedly withstand a tornado. Easy. I can only imagine the noise and energetic change when that thing is up and running.
I tried (really, really hard) to mitigate the second-hand smoke issue and after my doctor wrote a letter to the management describing the damage to my lungs, eyes and nasal passages, they kindly released me from all obligations to my lease and all the excellent references I might need.
With nothing and no one to hold me to this place that has presented me with a string of mighty challenges over the past six years, and no real idea of where I'd want to move or how I'd go about that, I thought, I would just like to house sit for a while.
So, after some research and work on the process, that's what I'm doing. Indefinitely. And this is my first stop.
I had no idea how burned out, weak, and ill I was until I arrived here. It took me about two weeks to just land and understand what condition I was in, to deal with the exceptionally neurotic (let's say) homeowner, to discover that I had an infection, and to completely let go of the alcohol.
I dealt with the homeowner, took antibiotics, daily jacuzzis, have stuck like glue to my morning yoga practice and meditation, and have taken the darling (very strong) dog for morning and late afternoon walks straight up the mountain road and then back down again with a round of fetch in between. I am also now on my twelfth day free of alcohol with (I am compelled to say) stretches of 3- to 6-days AF in the first two weeks.
In the last two weeks, I have made four pages of drawing and watercolor work, strung two necklaces of semi-precious healing stones, re-read a book (The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard), given notice at my apartment, started blogging again, and booked a few more housesitting situations. Check, check, and check (I am such a Virgo).
That's it in a nutshell. Except for a mysterious stretch of September into early October, I am booked for mostly long housesits through the end of November. I am also covered with bug bites but really don't care.
Wow. Well, that's a start. My goals were too many for what was really in order... a vacation retreat. The freelance life is stupidly stressful, risky, and fraught with uncertainty. I completely burned out. I lost my self. My soul. I am en route to rediscovering and honoring my soul.
For the public, I'm calling this my long-overdue sabbatical. At least, that's the elevator pitch.
It's dark now. The stars are out. I'm going to go gaze. Arcturus awaits.
Back at'cha real soon.
At the moment, I'm teaching a class called Introduction to Astrology and the Tarot.
This afternoon, we were going over the cards in the Minor Arcana and their traditional meanings. As we touched on Pamela Coleman Smith's Four of Swords from the Waite-Ryder deck whose standard meaning indicates rest (possibly after suffering). The setting is a church and the hands of the resting knight are in prayer pose. Today, I looked closely at the stained glass window, perhaps for the first time.
The window shows either Christ or some other spiritual being blessing a kneeling supplicant. This window and image are rarely described in interpretations of this card.
Fresh on yesterday's post about relaxation, I was keen on the image in the window and intuitively (but, of course) arrived at my own interpretation (which is exactly how the Tarot should work).
In the Four of Swords we have a figure at rest above what is commonly called the "Sword of Truth" with three additional swords hanging at rest on the background wall. Taking into account the stained glass window image, I realized that this image is the archetype of turning a problem (or our suffering) over to a higher power.
To me, this card clearly describes the mechanics of asking the universe for help and then resting with the sure knowledge that help is on the way.
Most things are beyond our control. Why not ask the universe for help, hang up your swords and surrender to a snooze on the Sword of Truth?
Just before my big fall in 2010, against my better wishes I started taking Effexor for depression. Big mistake. Big mistake because it led to me picking up a drink again for the first time in seven years. Big mistake because picking up a drink led to a series of really bad decisions that sent my life tumbling in more ways than there's room to describe here.
One thing I really liked about that drug, though. I felt relaxed in a way that I could never remember having felt before. I thought, Is this how normal people feel? I could get used to this. Caveat: when I realized what the drug was doing to me, I went off it and that was like putting myself through electroshock therapy and that convinced me to never, ever go on another psychotropic drug again.
But back to that experience of relaxation... I bring it up because that's the way I've felt all weekend. It worries me. Not because of the aforementioned experience. Because feeling relaxed actually concerns me.
I think that it works like this. I am responsible for everything. If I don't do it, it won't get done. If I don't hustle, I won't make moola. If I don't make moola, I'll land on the streets. If I relax for a moment, the whole world will fall apart. More, but you get the idea.
Yes, I know this is ridiculous but this is how I feel most of the time. Also, I'll drink coffee to rev myself up because, hey, if I'm not revved up, how am I going to do everything that needs to be done? I am actually addicted/allergic to coffee and it wreaks havoc with my skin, eyes and energy. The complexities of addiction are almost endless.
But this leads me to a key ingredient of sobriety. Also a key to the anxiety that is one cause of wanting to go unconscious with drink.
Thomas Merton once said that
"Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity."
So, for me, thinking that I have to get everything done on my own, by myself and all of the anxiety that creates within me means that I don't trust in god (or the universe or the great creator or what have you) to take care of all things beyond my control. And almost all of everything is beyond my control. Except for example the cat hair collecting in a dust bunny on the floor. I could sweep that up.
If I quit trying so damned hard to solve every problem or to go unconscious in some way because I'm out of my mind with trying to figure out solutions and let god or the universe in on the game, wow, solutions, people, miracles, opportunities beyond my wildest ken might arise in response to my saying, hey, god... I have no idea what to do here, why don't you work it out? Yes that's one sentence. William Faulkner.
Therefore, my lack of trust in god creates my anxiety. I've become accustomed to feeling anxious (big-time, long-term). My anxiety has, in the past, caused me to drink. I am not used to feeling relaxed. Feeling relaxed makes me nervous. That's an oxymoron if I've every read one.
And, the basic key to quitting drinking via the A.A. program is to turn my will and my life over to the care of the god of my understanding. I don't buy everything in the program but I do think there's a lot to be said for that particular practice.
It's interesting that the same issue (not trusting) that made me anxious, set me up for drinking, and is the solution (trusting) for both anxiety and drinking. I think there's a scientific term for that sort of dynamic.
My job right now is to practice trusting the universe, the great creator, the all almighty that cannot be named to take the wheel. This is not a foreign concept to me. I just need to put it front and center as a practice.
All of that is just to say that I've felt remarkably relaxed this weekend. This feeling of relaxation concerns me a bit but that may just be habit. Probably is.
Great. Another habit!
Just like that, my mood can change. Usually after a good night's sleep, or even a nap, my curmudgeonliness can flip to joy and easy smiles.
The weather around my parts changed yesterday. It has been too hot and humid way past summer. Finally, the weather broke and cooled off and dried up. Thank god.
The weather affects our moods so dramatically. I don't mind rain. In fact, I like it. I like a good storm, too. Sunlight is delightful. Even heat for a little while. But incessant heat and humidity day after day, month after month was beyond oppressive. I can't take it anymore.
Alcohol has been beyond oppressive in my life, my body, mind and soul, too. I may not have control over the weather but I do have control over whether or not I will drink. Whatever it takes to get me to not pick up, I'll do it.
For some, it's doing the twelve steps and going to meetings. I think that the steps are great though I have a hard time with meetings and have had hard turns with sponsors. Of course, they've all only been people steering themselves away from alcohol and trying to help others do the same. There is nothing wrong with that. Me, I need a toolbox full of options.
I find that the main thing is to be with sober people. To be with people, period. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Isolation is death. Community is life.
Now this is tough when you're an oversensitive creature like myself who works independently for the most part and really needs downtime, alone.
But as with everything, we have to find a happy medium. One hot and humid day is balanced nicely by one that's cool and dry. One day of itchy mind and crawling skin is relieved by a good night's sleep and a relaxing day.
Variety makes the world turn. Day. Night. Light. Dark. Rain clouds. Sunny blue skies.
The trick is to ride the wave of weather, the emotional swings, and to appreciate the journey and find joy in being alive, breathing, and the wonder of it all.
Addiction is ridiculous.
Honestly, what is up with these substitutes I cave to? Full disclosure, I've been using cigarettes as a crutch to get me through early sobriety. I am so sensitive to cigarettes that I can only smoke two a day (three at the very most), not even the entire cigarette and I feel so toxed out, my brain is foggy and I my body feels heavy laden (with toxins). Yes, even the organic brand with no added chemicals (or so they say).
Thank god, I'm a lightweight. How people ever smoked a pack a day is beyond me. It's a cumulative effect and the more days I smoke, the worse my skin looks.
If I weren't so brain fogged, I would wax on about the hand to mouth routine and the stuff anything but alcohol into my pie hole to keep alcohol from going in. All of that habitual action is part of the addiction. I know that I'll drop the cigarettes very, very soon because I actually can't stand them.
That's what's so ridiculous about addiction. Why put something into your system that you know is bad for you and that you want to quit?
Of course there's loads of science now that answers just that very question. It's a battle between the lower brain, the body trained by the lower brain and the physical set of habits so strengthened by practice that they override the pre-frontal cortex. It's more complicated than that and involves dopamine, oxytocin, neurotransmitters and things like not bonding with mother right off the bat because of things we never had control over. Fascinating, complex, ridiculous, challenging.
Aside from nutritional support, comrades going through similar journeys, meditation, physical activity, development of self-awareness and other things, strengthening the pre-frontal cortex is where it's at.
The pre-frontal cortex is the seat of impulse control. Impulse control is the key and the trick is to put that pre-frontal cortex in charge of the body as in the hand reaching for the drink or the cigarette or the cookie.
That's the key but, of course, there's much more to it than that. The question is how badly do you want it? How strongly do you want to feel healthy and radiant? What are you willing to do to help your pre-frontal cortex win out over muscle memory? How long are you going to play the game of self-sabotage?
Those are questions you can sit with. I'm sitting with them, too.
Honestly, it's really great to have some project or to create some project for yourself in early sobriety. Work off your early days creatively.
I've had the fortune of a painting commission. I've been working at it for about four or five days interrupted by two teaching days. I think that it's complete now but I'm going to sleep on it.
I'm happy with it and grateful for the project. If you're in early sobriety and biting your nails or something, make a list of everything you could do. Draw, sing, make up a song, make up a dance, knit, leaf through a Martha Stewart Living magazine if your imagination is not in gear. Cook some great meal just for fun. Practice an instrument.
Get involved with a creative project for the sake of doing the thing not to be great at it. This is definitely not the time to be saying that you're no good at anything. Who cares? It takes a gazillion hours of practice to get good at something. Just start for the fun of it.
Pick up a pencil or pen and start making marks on a piece of paper. The marks don't have to look like anything at all. Start a doodle diary. There's an idea.
Watch your crazy thinking evaporate and your energy flow into making something. It's a good thing.
This morning I received word that my mother's last sibling passed away.
My tears flowed. Through two meditations. I looked at photos of my mother as a teen and somewhere near 70 years. When I could not stop crying, I called my best friend who was able to listen for a while. That helped tremendously.
It's the end of an era and really all that bound me to blood relatives except for blood. I cannot attend the services and the thought of seeing gangs of relatives, frankly, leaves me woozy. Especially so early in this phase of sobriety. No need to go into any further detail or explanation. This is neither the time nor the place.
Except to say that if felt good to cry, to let the water flow freely, to let myself feel released. Cleansing, detoxifying.
While preparing this post, I thought, my god, I don't want to go rummaging through a box of family photos and then thought of this song, The Parting Glass which is apt. I love the simple arrangement and especially the way Luke MacFarlane sings it.
Of all the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all
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