Learning to Surf

When I was in my early twenties, I spent five months backpacking around Australia.  It was liberating and freeing in more ways than I can count.  I experienced so many exhilarating firsts on that trip: snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef (breathtaking)…boating in a crocodile-infested river (nerve-wracking)…bantering with rough-edged Aussie men in the outback (empowering)…climbing Ayers Rock/Uluru (there are no words)…I felt like I left home a safety-choosing girl and returned home an adventure-seeking woman.

Even having dipped my toe into outdoor adventure, there is one thing I regret not trying while in “Oz”:  surfing. While my friend and travel companion grabbed a board and paddled out, I watched from my safe perch in the sand.  No crashing and burning for this chick.  Sitting on the warm, solid beach felt much friendlier- and safer- than challenging a 4-ft. wave (as non-threatening as that wave might be).

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the ocean.  I could watch it- and all of its chameleon moods- for hours.  I used to body surf and boogie board without trepidation, but one nasty wipeout wiped out my confidence.  Where I used to swim, I now wade.  Where comfort once reigned, fear now dominates.

What’s ironic is that, since I was a young adolescent, I’ve been fascinated by big-wave surfing.  I remember a trip to Hawaii when I was in ninth grade; I bought a postcard of a guy surfing a beautiful 35-foot wave.  I put it on the front of my English binder and kept it there all year.  I was magnetized- and mesmerized- by that image.  And I still am.

During the past few years, I’ve watched numerous YouTube surfing videos, read articles about the sport and listened to interviews.  One surfer really stuck out to me:  Greg Long.  He’s graceful to watch as he glides down a wave’s face; but more important, he is soulful and exudes wisdom, courage and a sense of knowing that is hard to describe.

I sought out his wisdom tonight as I have been feeling scared about choosing sobriety for life (there’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous coined the phrase, “One day at a time”).  Thinking about potentially living 70 more years without a drop of alcohol is very hard to get my head around.  Tonight I needed to symbolically rub shoulders with people like Greg, who, as author Susan Jeffers puts it: “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

In a brief video for Tracks Magazine, Greg shares:

“The bigger and heavier the wave, the greater the physical and mental challenge it is to ride.  And, subsequently, it provided a much more profound sense of accomplishment, exhilaration and adventure.  I’ve always felt that the fundamental purpose in life is to seek and explore our greatest potential as human beings…to continually challenge ourselves to grow physically, mentally, spiritually.  So, for me, entering the ocean during its most majestic display of natural energy, and riding those waves…that became the arena for my own personal journey of self discovery.”

Well said.

I, too, am on a personal journey of self discovery.  I don’t surf waves- and maybe I never will.  But, like big-wave riders, I want to face my fears.  It is beyond scary/uncomfortable/awkward/crappy at times.  Most days, it certainly doesn’t feel soft or easy or gentle.  But I am committed to doing it.

So, I will continue to look to big-wave surfers for strength.  I mean, if they can stare down a massive wall of water, I can stare down a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Or so I hope.

This One’s for the Girls

Girls’ nights.  I have always loved hosting them.  There is something so cool- and soulful- about having a group of friends over for dinner and good, long talks.  My ladies’ nights used to entail alcohol of many varieties.  First up was a specific cocktail (e.g. cosmos back in the Sex and the City days).  Of course, if that wasn’t your style, alternatives were offered.  Many beverages- whatever the concoction- were consumed.  Then, it was wine with dinner.  Again, multiple bottles downed.  Finally, it was after-dinner drinks: a motley crew of port, Bailey’s, a random beer or two, and whatever wine was left.  I almost feel guilty saying it now, but we, with our beverages of choice, had a blast.

I haven’t hosted a girls’ night since I started down this sober path.  For one, I don’t know what it’s like to host an event that doesn’t include these elements:  the welcoming, come-in-and-imbibe, cocktail hour…then the transition to wine selected specifically for the dishes served…finally the vino (or port, or Bailey’s…) chosen for, well, just continuing to drink- until people crashed at my place, were picked up by generous (and sometimes irritated) partners, or drove home (e.g. the preggo ones).

Second, I haven’t hosted a girls’ night because, unfortunately, I allowed myself to drift away from several of the close friendships I used to treasure.  That’s the shady thing about problematic drinking: it encourages you to choose it over the people who were once the priority in your life.  I’m just now starting to reconnect and mend those friendships.

I was reflecting today on how important and valuable women’s groups/circles/tribes are.  I truly believe women need women (and guys need guys).  There’s just something we give to/get from our sisters that is different from what we give to/get from men.  Both are so important and valuable; we just need to make space for each of them in our lives.

I had the opportunity to learn about the power of women’s “tribes” when I lived in Austin, TX.  After a series of almost miraculous events, I stumbled upon what was to be my yoga community and second home.  In one of my regular classes, I met a woman who is a business coach, consultant and author.  Her name is Renée Trudeau, and she is awesome.  As a graduate student on a low budget, I was able to obtain a scholarship to one of her women’s retreats.  At this event, she spoke about the importance of sisterhood and tribes.  Here’s a sample (from her website) of the type of info she shared:

“What does sisterhood mean to me?  It’s a way of being with other women—both young and old— where I:

  • Hold the highest and best for them and see them as their “future selves”—especially when they’re going through a rough time
  • Encourage vulnerability and authenticity in our relationship and communication (I’m a “get real or go home,” kind of woman!)
  • Practice forgiveness (with myself) and have the humility and courage to initiate tough, but necessary conversations when appropriate
  • Truly accept them exactly where they are right now and mean it when I say, “come as you are”
  • Allow my sisters and myself to show up in our relationship “warts and all,” and fully exhale (unbuttoning the top button of my jeans helps here!)
  • Derive joy and exhilaration from sharing my sisters’ wisdom/gifts with others and delight in seeing them shine big and bright
  • State my needs AND ask them on a regular basis, “How can I support you?” and really mean it!
  • Freely share my successes and don’t feel I need to shrink or dim my presence when I’m with them
  • Enjoy reciprocity—giving and receiving in equal measure and serving my sisters in a way that “feeds me rather than drains me”
  • Invite in a level of intimacy—with a chosen few—that allows me to share the deepest parts of myself
  • Am willing to lovingly acknowledge what’s not being said or seen—even at the cost of having someone not like me
  • See their innate worthiness and remind them that ‘their ordinary self is enough’.”

WOW…YES.

I want to be that kind of friend and have that kind of friend.  And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to experience both.  For those in recovery, I know we can shed the dark layers that prevent us from offering this soul-level support to others (As the Chinese proverb promises, “When sleeping women wake, mountains move”- and we have definitely been in hibernation).  As for my former and current friends- and soul sisters I’ve yet to meet- I vow to do my very best to be a great tribe member.

Who’ll have me?

This Glorious, Messy Life

My maternal grandmother used to have a small sign hanging in her kitchen.  I can’t remember the exact wording, but the general gist was: A happy home is a messy home.  It had a picture of a woman sweeping a pile of dirt under a rug.  Every time I saw it, I smiled (secretly thinking I would never let my house get that messy).

Today I was reminded of it when I went to a friend’s place for tea.  We have known each other for over 25 years, and she’s more like a sister than a buddy.  I consider her- and her awesome Aussie husband and two beautiful, spirited daughters- my extended family.  So, needless to say, they are used to it when I show up makeup-free, with wet hair.  Sometimes still in pajamas.  Here I am in all of my un-glory.  No apologies.  Thank god for friends like that.

As we were chatting, my friend commented on how their place looked like a bomb site.  Her husband astutely noted, “Yep, that’s life.  Life is messy.”

Touche, sir.

By its nature, life is messy.  Addiction compounds that.  While in the throes of alcoholism, we tend to make a lot of messes.  And not the healthy, welcome kind.  I’ve certainly done so.  After creating so much mess, in isolation, we need guidance from the greater community on how to clean it up.

Recently, I’ve been trolling the Web, looking for encouraging and inspirational advice from seasoned recovering alcoholics.  I (very fortunately) stumbled upon this beauty:  an absolutely wonderful TED talk by writer Glennon Doyle Melton.  Gift yourself, and watch the 17-minute clip.  It might change your life.

On the subject of messes, addiction, and dishonesty, she makes an insightful reflection:

“The thing is that people are truth tellers.  We are born to make our unknown know.  And we will find somewhere to do it.  So, in private, with the booze, or the over-shopping, or the alcohol or the food, we tell the truth…Because we don’t feel safe telling that truth in the real world, we make our own little world and that’s addiction…And, so what happens is, all of us end up living in these little, teeny, controllable, predictable, dark worlds instead of all together in the big, bright messy one…We need more messy, honest, fully human beings who will volunteer to tell the truth about who they are – who will live shamelessly out in the scary, messy world.”

So, let’s embrace- and let loose- our beautifully messy selves and lives.

I wanna let my freak flag fly.

Our (Gezellig) Little Yellow House

For several years of my childhood, my family lived in a small abode in the Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle.  We fondly called it our “little yellow house.”  I loved that house for so many reasons.  It had personality, character, and, as my dad called them- “hidey-holes” (special, secret places to hang out and explore).  My parents’ bedroom was in the attic; I would sneak up there during the day to play with my dolls and My Little Pony horses because the room had so many cool nooks and crannies.  There’s something about old houses with creaky hardwood floors that court the imagination.

Today, I drove by that house.  Every once in a while, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I make a drive-by just to revisit favorite memories:  friends daring each other to run through neighbors’ backyards and jump their fences without getting caught…my mom making Thanksgiving pumpkin pie in our tiny, crackerbox kitchen…birthday BBQ parties (with homemade chocolate cake!) in the backyard…walking to Greenlake to splash around in the kiddie pool (even though I was too old for that)…

As always happens when I pass our old home, I hear Crosby, Stills and Nash serenading it:  Our house…is a very, very, very fine house…And a fine little yellow house it is.

I got to thinking about what makes a house special…what truly makes a home a home.  The Dutch word gezellig came to mind.  My mom is Dutch, and she taught us, through example, the meaning of this wonderful word.  The closest translation in English is cozy.  But that doesn’t quite do it justice.

My mom made our home gezellig in so many ways:  homemade spaghetti and other favorites served after baseball/volleyball/soccer/basketball/softball/dance practice…daily after-school tea and cookies…warm hugs that always reached your heart…fires in the fireplace…candles lit on grey Seattle winter days…genuine words of encouragement when our self-esteem took a beating…She taught us to bake.  She helped us with homework.  She watched Disney Channel shows with us (Avonlea, anyone?).  She supported and encouraged our opinions and freedom.  AND, she worked as a nurse (a brilliant, well-loved one, I might add).  I can’t think of a better role model for children, especially daughters.

Today, I thought about how much I want to give that to a family of my own.  I want to envelope my kids in love and acceptance- and call them on their crap when needed.  I want to cook, bake, explore, create, laugh, watch, and adventure with my family.  I want to be an awesome wife and amazing mom.  I want to create a home that’s gezellig.  I can’t think of a greater gift to give my peeps.

Theoretically, I could have all of this by now.  But I don’t (heavy drinking tends to put your life on hold).  And, Sarah Hepola’s words echo in my mind:

“One June morning, exactly two years ago, I woke up near dawn and understood that if I kept drinking, I would not get the things I wanted most.  I knew that I could keep drinking for the rest of my life.  And it’s not that I would die, exactly, it’s that I would die inside.”

I want to live.  I want to live sober.  And, I want to lead- and share- a life that’s…gezellig.

(Thank you for showing me the way, mom.  I love you!)

Retiring…to Something Beautiful

Today was my dad’s official last day of work. He has served as a corporate attorney and partner at the same law firm for nearly 40 years.  Talk about commitment- and loyalty.

Can you imagine the feeling?  Your alarm clock wakes you up for work…for the last time.  You drink your coffee and eat your standard pre-work breakfast…for the last time.  You make the commute, park in your usual spot, hop in the elevator and ascend to the 18th floor, and engage in a typical work day…for the last time.

In a matter of 24 hours, everything changes.  Suddenly, the majority of the waking hours of your day are no longer consumed by professional demands.  An alarm clock ceases to be necessary- except when needed to catch a flight to Maui…or London…or Denver…or wherever your heart desires.  Your days transition from being highly structured to open, flexible and…free!

While there is much to gain, there is also much that’s being lost- or, at least, released.  No more lunch runs with your co-workers.  No more popping in to your friends’ offices for a quick hello- or to discuss a client/case.  No more gazing (daydreaming/vacation planning?) out of your office windows, appreciating your well-earned view of Puget Sound and Pike Place Market.  Heck, no more driving into the parking garage that’s been housing your car during work hours for decades.

Grief…Gain…Loss…Elation…Fear…Freedom…

Two sides of the same coin.  It’s like Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is on repeat in the background: Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day…

I can’t begin to imagine how retiring after four decades of work feels.  I can’t begin to imagine how it is when a significant part of your identity (e.g. lawyer) becomes something you discuss in past tense.  And I can’t begin to know what it’s like to enter a very different phase of life from the ones you’ve previously experienced.

What I can imagine is this:  He will wake up every day with an interest in engaging with life (no lounging in a La-Z-Boy for this guy).  He will learn new things- whether they be languages, suitcase packing tips, tricks to playing Words With Friends, or cooking new dishes- and will, therefore, keep his mind sharp.  He will put his health first; he will take care of his body and allow his love of tennis to drive many a day’s agenda.  And, he will play:  He will travel with my mom, take interesting classes, coach my siblings and I on the perfect volley, and get behind the wheel of many a golf cart.  He will LIVE.

So, with both a happy and heavy heart, I congratulate my dad on this amazing rite of passage.  As I retire from my infamous drinking career, my dad is retiring from his illustrious legal career.  We are at very different- yet slightly similar- crossroads: both losing something we have loved and gaining something beautiful in its place.

I know these will be great, rich years for him, and I offer one reminder:

“Retirement means no pressure, no stress, no heartache…unless you play golf.” – Gene Perret

(Love you, Dad!)

Spider in my Glass

Last year could be defined as my year of waffling:  Give up alcohol for good?  Continue drinking and try (without success) to control my consumption?  Each day, I would find myself bouncing back and forth: one foot in sobriety and one foot in alcoholism. This volleying went on for many, many months.  It was exhausting.

Then something very unexpected rattled me.  I was living alone at the time and had become accustomed to keeping company with Louis Martini (cabernet) in the evenings.  One night, after pulling the cork, I placed the bottle and an empty wine glass on my coffee table.  I went to use the restroom, and, in the two minutes I was gone, a big black spider had crawled into my glass.

O.M.G.

I believe the Universe speaks to us in symbols and signs, and this was a very clear sign.  The message that immediately popped into my mind was:  WARNING.  It was as if that spider had paid me a visit to let me know that, should I continue to drink as I had been doing, things would not end well.  It literally sat in my glass, preventing me from pouring the wine (a great bottle, I might add).

After setting my little friend free, I hopped on my laptop to research the symbolism of spiders.  Different cultures hold varying beliefs about these creatures.  A few interpretations struck a chord with me:  A spider’s presence can symbolize one’s fear.  They may appear to remind an individual of the darker, shadow aspects of their personality or life that need to come into the light.  Spiders frequently represent female creative energy, especially in regard to writing.

It was as if the spider was saying:  Own your drinking problem, air it out and bring it into the light by telling the truth about it.  Release alcohol from your life, but hold its lessons close so you can share them- weave them together with the written word.

That small, yet mighty, arachnid delivered a powerful message- and, since then, I have a deeper respect for animal totems.  Brilliant spiritual teacher and author, Sera Beak, explains their significance in ‘The Red Book’:

“Many cultures, such as those of the Native Americans, believe strongly in totems- that is, in animal spirits or nature beings that align with and assist humans.  Animals, even the mangier ones that roam the cities, have an extraordinary way of reflecting back to us what is happening in our lives and often offer symbolic support and guidance.”

I will never look at an irritating crow the same way again.  And, the next time I take a walk or go for a hike, I’ll remember the words of Ted Andrews: “Nature speaks to us if we listen.  Every animal has a story to tell.  Every flower blossoms with reminders to be creative, and every tree whispers with its rustling leaves the secrets of life.”

I’m all ears.

The Vulnerabilty of Comedy

I went to a women’s AA meeting today.  I love women’s meetings.  Mixed meetings are great as well, but there’s something special that percolates when a group of gals gather.  I’m sure it’s the same for guys.  Toward the end of the meeting, an ornery spitfire of a lady spoke up and had the entire room busting at the seams.  Laughter brings such a welcome release.

It got me thinking about a recent stand-up comedy show I attended.  The comic’s name is Jubal Flagg, and he is hilarious. He hails from L.A. but has made Seattle his current home (lucky us!).  His show was the first stand-up performance I’ve seen, and it exceeded my expectations in more ways than one.

While I sat in the audience, listening to his thoughtfully crafted jokes, it hit me that stand-up might be the most vulnerable of all art forms.  You have a comedian who has poured blood, sweat and tears into creating material- a 45-minute set, no less (that’s a hell of a lot of jokes).  Then he gets up onstage and delivers his “baby,” having no idea of how the audience will respond.  As anyone who has attended a live performance can attest, an audience is a living, breathing animal: its mood, interests and demands can flip on a dime.  Can you imagine the pressure and work that’s entailed in feeding that kind of beast?

Then you consider the comic’s props: he has none.  It’s just him, a microphone, and the clothes on his back.  There is no ornate set to distract the viewers.  There are no costume changes.  And, perhaps most important, there’s no mask. Nothing to hide behind or conceal the artist’s raw emotions and true self.

The word persona is the Greek term for “stage mask.”  Prior to the show, I think I expected to see Jubal’s persona.  I feared we might experience a watered-down, distant version of his authentic self- but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  I was struck by his openness, authenticity and vulnerability.  Here I am with no fucking armor or excuses.  Just him and his art.  Both real, accessible and raw.

In recovery, I’m more aware of the personas we use to protect our vulnerable underbelly.  We want to be truly seen by others, but we often don’t want to take on the risk that that entails.  Being seen requires being vulnerable.  And that’s terrifying.  It’s a beautiful paradox (described by Dr. Brené Brown):  Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.

Jubal allowed us to see him.  After the show, he took pictures with fans (he’s also the much-loved host of the top morning radio show in Seattle) and made a concerted effort to connect with folks.  When I walked up to him, I could feel his energy- just as it was onstage:  open, vulnerable, accessible and humble.  Talk about real.  It honestly blew me away.

Comedians are often associated with substance abuse.  Is it any wonder with a profession that requires so much vulnerability?  Comedy and numbing…using substances to escape the discomfort of “putting yourself out there.”  It’s a topic I’d like to explore further.  Maybe he’ll sit down with me and have coffee talk.  It’s an important subject to crack wide open.

In the meantime, if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see him live, treat yourself to tickets.  And take the time to shake his hand.  You’ll see your true self reflected in his eyes.