So it begins.

First a confession: I am intimidated by my last post.  While the idea of writing a racial autobiography seems both necessary and worthwhile, I have felt too scared to start.  This is in part, because I always envision new projects in very grandiose, earth moving terms.  I then become paralyzed by the shear scale, complexity and scope of the matter and within seconds of inception, a project is rendered impossible.  This is, of course,a symptom of alcoholic thinking and perfectionism.  Character defects are a real bitch.

Second, writing a racial autobiography would require talking to people, specifically talking to my family and talking about my family.  Without starting this investigation, I already know that the branches of my family tree and the spirals of our interconnected DNA bind me to a history of inherited white privilege and an ugly, unspoken legacy of addiction and alcoholism.  I can’t separate one from the other—the privilege on the outside and the turmoil on the inside.  Our familial connections—when view through this lens—are not pretty and hard, if not impossible, to talk about.  Of course, the purpose of writing a biography of racial privilege is not to bring forth the incredible resiliency, compassion and selflessness of the people that made me, but to see ourselves from a more distant place, a place of understanding how “we,” the white folks of my family, relate to the non-white “other,” that is out there in the world and to better understand how these threads of privilege, and the subtext of addiction, womanifest (I just made that up, turned manifest into womanifest. Ha.) 

Third,  I don’t actually think I can do this.  Just starting this task makes me realize how little I know about my own family tree.  Where were my grandparents born?  What’s my paternal grandmother’s maiden name?  I start free trail subscription to ancestry.com and go back 2 generations and am already lost.  I am clicking around old year books and census data retrieved by a pricey search engine and wondering if I am getting any closer or further away from the questions I wanted answered. 

I know I don’t really have the time and energy to map it all out.  I’d like to look at the whole legacy of my own inherited privilege—learn exactly who was bought and sold and my how my distant relatives benefitted from the transactions of powerful among white males, who inherited what from whom and which black body was labeled a commodity to sold, inherited, traded.  Whose labor was stolen? Which black and brown bodies were rendered invisible? Which tribe did they take from?

So, the truth is I won’t ever know the specific answers to these questions, because, well, fuck, I ain’t a historian and I have a job, small rented homestead and like to get 6-8 hours of sleep every night. I also realize there is a privilege in ever being able to ask these types of questions about my history and know that the answers are out there somewhere, that all of this is knowable even if it is beyond my reach. Being born with white skin means my records are traceable, that “my people” were the record keepers with the power to denote who was born when, who got what, the power to determine what was recorded and who was erased.  Once I start searching, my familial roads will be longer and easier to trace.  These roads won’t stop at a dead end where someone became a commodity, a dead end.  This is what it means to walk around in a white body, to have the bold of colonizers running through our veins, to watch 13th on Netflix and stare blankly into space knowing that what “my people” did to the “others” and wondering what it means now.

Knowing all this, what comes next for Crashley? 

At a minimum, I can commit to knowing more than about my family history (herstory, itstory, theystory, goofy pronouns) than I do now.  While I probably won’t be able to draw up the specific language from my great, great, great, great, great grandfathers will where he bequeaths native American’s land and African labor to my great, great, great grandfather,  I know that if I go far back enough this “stuff”, the historical records and sites where racial privilege is created and inherited, is out there—somewhere.  I think the “general knowing” its there will always have to be enough.  (Let’s face it, the number of grandparents we have increases exponentially, so all of us white folks, at least in some very distant ways are connected to this legacy.  This is the historical context in which we live today. It’s the air we breathe.)  Yet, for me, knowing even a little bit more about the specifics of how I came to be on this Earth will be valuable. 

Lastly, I probably wouldn’t have written this post today if it wasn’t for a woman I’ll call Mermaid.  So, I’ll end my post with an ode to Mermaid. 

My women’s AA group is diverse in many respects—age, spiritual orientation, sexual preference, number of years in sobriety—but we are mostly white women.  At most, maybe 2 or 3 back women will be the circle with us at a Friday night meeting. 

Mermaid is one of these black women.  She sat down right next to be last Friday at 5:53 pm—just a few minutes before the meeting began.  Mermaid is a contradiction, filled with beautiful tension that hangs all over her body.  She is put together—with eyelash extension and long, manicured fake nails—and disheveled at the same time walking tenderly on high heals, drawing on a notepad, hoping to listen and remain unseen.  She has dark skin, a rail thin body and a disarming, thick English accent— a voice that sounds so peculiar coming from a Black woman in America.  She embodies a quality I love about recovering alcoholics, our courageous ability to walk around the world in this broken-put-together way.

Mermaid asked me for the title of my blog a few weeks ago and actually started reading my posts!  When Mermaid plopped down next to me she said, “people tell me they are colorblind, and I am just like, ‘yeah, well what do you do at a stop sign?’ So, the things you are saying need to be said and if I say them, people will just tell me I am complaining or playing the race card.”

So, what Mermaid reminded me of was the importance of us white folks continuing to speak up about our own privilege—especially when it’s hard to see.  As allies, we need to continue talking openly about these things, especially with each other.

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I can here you thinking: “Wait a minute?  Is that Gizmo?”  No. It’s not.  It’s the newest addition to the Crashley Sugar homstead–PUMPKIN, an 8 week old red-tri Australian Shepherd.  My congratulations you have almost been sober for 1 year and you landed a new job present to myself (and Sugar).  Gizmo is an amazing big brother and puppies are definitely easier the second time around.  

Putting words to my whiteness

As an alcoholic, I am prone to obsessive thinking.  In fact, it’s my default mode. Whiteness is one of the things—–I obsess about . When left unchecked (which is most of the time minus the ten minutes I spend meditating every morning), my thoughts about white privilege just kind of swirl like angry gusts of wind and thunder that never produce rain—“Trump is a fucking racist pig. Here are 10 ways to be a white ally. Why can’t I manage to finish reading that book about race and environmental education? Cue footage of the latest, horrific police shooting or white supremacists mowing down protesters with their cars.” That’s a small window into the tempest that is the alcoholic, anxious mind of a white gal attempting to organize her thoughts about her experience of white privilege.

 

Admittedly, I have been scared to take on this topic—in part because it’s so vitriolic. There is this part of me that is afraid that I’ll say some ignorant shit and get slapped by some troller out there on the internet for being an ignorant ass. (But let’s face it, only about 20 people read this blog; so the risks of getting my feelings hurt by some stranger out there in internetland are quite low. Alas, we alcoholics also suffer from delusions of grandeur, so this threat has been real to me at times. So, now that I have confessed this, I will put my irrational fears aside and continue typing.)

 

I have avoided writing about my own whiteness, because there is also a part of me that prefers to traipse around the land of intellectual arguments while keeping my own privilege and experiences of race at a distance. This is, in fact, how I spent most of graduate studies—writing about all the racist shit that what was going on “out there” in the world, quoting scholars, reading bell hooks, Foucault, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, etc., talking about “historically situated” subjects, but never really telling my own story (and feeling slightly sheepish and half hearted, because of it.) Never really looking in the mirror and asking the question, “how has your melanin deficiency shaped you, Crashley?”

 

This type of critical, deeply personal reflection was perhaps never encouraged, because for the most part, the people who structured by post-high school studies were white dudes. White dudes who are into social justice like to hide behind their intellect. Hyper-intellectualization seems to be an easy way to side step conversations about our own racial experiences and still demonstrate that we “get it,” because we are able to drop the right names and concepts at the right times. It’s like we can prove that we “get” privilege if can nail down the right arguments, quote the right scholars or seamlessly slim in comments about the slave rebellion of 1833 while sipping a latte or slamming a beer.

 

But what about “us”? Not the big, capital letter, concept of Whiteness, but the whiteness you see staring back at you as you brush your teeth in the morning. The whiteness you slather sunscreen all over wondering if the chemicals in the lotion or the sunrays are worse for you. That reflection, the skin we live in, I think, can be harder to look at, harder to understand, harder to see, than the arguments eloquently espoused in a masters thesis.

 

So, other than the fact that seeing our own whiteness is hard and I like doing difficult things, here’s some of what is motivating to me to write about my whiteness right now.

 

First, as I read more Facebook posts about “how to be a white ally,” I find myself feeling unsatisfied with the way conversation is framed.  Much of the conversation focuses on specific strategies like “seek diverse media sources,” or “find white ally friends” or “education yourself on the history of race and oppression in America” and leaves out personal experience.  I am assuming that lots of white folks are readings these lists, because they are short and trend worthy and the topic of being a white ally is probably starting to resonate with more people given the whole Nazis carrying torches in the street thing.  I guess it’s my own naivete—and perhaps my alcoholic mind that always seeks an easy, immediate solution—that is expectantly clicking on a ten-point list hoping to feel like, “ahhh, yes, this is what I was missing all along. A ten point program that will finally help put my obsession with race and privilege at peace.”  Needless to say, that has not been my experience with the whole “be a white ally” conversation.

What I have been craving is not a list,  but a more nuanced look to how privilege and power derived from white skin shaped the trajectory of my life. I’d like to dive heard first into the complex, messy, irrational ways whiteness has shaped by own experience. So, I hope by embarking on this racial autobiographical blog posting adventure, I’ll be able to take an honest and transparent look at myself.

Lately, I feel like I have gotten some small cues from the universe that it is time to take on this topic. One reason is because I am bored as shit at work and need something for my monkey mind to focus on, so I don’t self destruct. Also some wise voices that have thought about this shit for wayyyy longer than I have are pushing me to just start writing my story.

Specifically, there are three quotes from racial justice thinkers that have deeply resonated with me and pushed me to start writing..

First, a professor I know from graduate school recently posted about developing a Critical white Consciousness (CwC). Her post outlined eight ideas for white folks, like me, to consider. She wrote about CwC in a way that didn’t feel like a didactic set of commandments, but rather, a set of principles that can help white people learn how to live in their own skin in a way that feels authentic and honest.

 

While her whole list is worth reading, here are her first two points:

 

  1. Equity starts with autobiography. If we are to interact authentically with people who are often different from us, we must actively reflect on our own stories, biases, privileges, and assumptions. As much as we might not want to admit it, we are the embodiment of our ancestors; the blood on their hands in the name of Americanization, settler colonialism, and whiteness runs through our veins.

 

  1. As genuine allies, we cannot scapegoat racism by denying or hiding from our identities. To consider even a slight possibility that we can be colorblind in a racialized society is like claiming a fish in an aquarium might not be wet. It is what it is—we are all wet—so let’s deal with ourselves with integrity and empathy. And when these dynamics get intense or the information is too much to bear, try not to get defensive, for it is the surest way to miss the lesson.

 

So, what this professor has shown me is that justice starts with understanding our own whiteness. And not in a way that dismissively acknowledges the existence of soooo many white people at a rally or event or in some distant, sterilized or intellectual way, but in a way that acknowledges our own, imperfect, limited and complicit ways we understand ourselves. This type of autobiographical understanding demands we go beyond the general and dive deeply into the specifics. So, hence, the autobiographical blogging adventure will help me tell my own, messy, vulnerable story.

 

Second, Ta-Nahesis Coates once again shook the world with this incisive, in-depth and extremely dense critique of the First White President, Donald Trump.  Everyone who thinks about race posted that shit on Facebook. His brilliant piece ended with this thought—aimed specifically at white journalist and political analyst who had failed to see Trump’s ideology and tactics as white supremacy. He writes: The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.

 

White folks can’t name what white folks don’t see. So if we, white folks, can’t name the way whiteness had shaped our own lives; then can we ever really claim to see it somewhere else?  Like while we are waiting in line at the grocery store or cringing as we walk past the black homeless man talking to himself? So, I think as allies, we start by making our own whiteness visible—first to ourselves and then to others.

 

Third, one of my sponsors in AA is an elderly, alcoholic Catholic nun. Her presence and words are the antithesis of overly neurotic, hyperactive brain. We were having dinner last night to celebrate Sugar and my nuptials. I started waxing on about Coates work and race and all the other links and articles I had read that week while bored at work. I was spinning around in circles in my head and she said something that cut through the noise. “We have to listen. We want to understand these things.”

Ahhh yes.  We have to want to listen.  That’s it.  I want to write a racial autobiography, so I can listen to myself, because I never really have.

The things I thought about writing.

I didn’t write a blog post last month. There is a whole litany of excuses I could hide behind for not coming to the page and sending something new out into the world: I started a new job, volunteered for a service position for my AA group, my soon to be mother in law was in town, the pile of dirty laundry kept growing, the weeds needed whacking, the dog needed walking.  But the truth is I thought about writing everyday.   The desire to write nipped my ankles, pulled my sleeve, and instead of coming to the page and writing some words, I just thought about writing.  I thought about it a lot. 

Alcoholics have a special ability to overcomplicate things, to overthink simple tasks, to get lost in hum of neurosis and become paralyzed by the little bit of nothing that grow into huge insurmountable somethings.  Alcoholism coupled with workaholism makes for some real mental gymnastics when I think about writing blog posts.  I always want to make some grand conceptual connections or metaphors, and then I get stuck.  Nothing is ever “finished” in my head.   I ride my bike around the city trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to come up with “something.”  So, I have to learn how to keep it simple.  I am working on this.

So, instead of writing about a grand “something,” this month, I want to write about all the things I have thought about writing, and didn’t.

———

I thought about closure and writing about saying goodbye to my two schizophrenic siblings. 

The broken record addiction, relapse and recovery kept spinning over the last two months.  My sister got out of the hospital, had a psychotic break, ran away from home, and disappeared for several days on the streets of Berkeley.  My mom, dad and I panicked.  We feared that she wasn’t safe, that she would get hurt again by someone roaming the streets up there in the Bay.  This incident pushed some dominoes of our shared family trauma, and we all started falling over, reliving the horror of how this all began.  We couldn’t believe that after 10 years of trying to support her, of opening our veins, sacrificing our time, emotions and relationships with each other, that we had ended up right where we started.

I had a long text message exchange with my father while this all went down.  He was too upset to talk, yet wanted to know if I could help my sister, so we spent about an hour exchanging ideas and emotions in little blurbs on our smartphones.  I felt somehow grateful to actually be communicating with my dad.  We don’t talk often, so it was nice to talk about something, to have a shared connection.    

Both my parents were ready to say, “we can’t do this anymore,” which seems to be part of the routine, one of the mental exercises we go through when exhaustion and disbelief overcome.  It’s one of tracks that plays on the skipping CD of addiction, recovery, compliance, and relapse.  This time, a part of my brain really believed that “this is it. This is how it all ends for my sister.”  I felt gutted and relieved at the same time.  The selfish part of me thought maybe it was my turn to get some attention, peace and normalcy.

Giving up isn’t a truth.  It’s just a well worn mental path we travel as we make sense of crazy, because there is no such things as “being done” with your family. 

A few weeks ago, just days after she was released from the hospital, my sister smoked weed, started having delusional thoughts about someone filing her apartment with noxious gas, so she jumped out of a two story window.  She landed with bare feet on a concrete sidewalk and fractured both her heels.  Hospitals, drugs, a plastic boot holding your foot still.  There are no services for homeless, mentally ill people, so she’s at my parents house again.  The record skips, heels break, systems fail, and the vinyl bumps right along.

In recovery, we don’t give up on people.  We have hope.  The sun rises tomorrow and you get another chance.  These sayings are meant to provide some solace, some kind of anchor, something to provide clarity when the water is all muddy. 

In recovery, we have boundaries.  We don’t enable self-destructive behavior.  We cut people off when they chose addiction over love, family, friends or stability. 

You inhale all these truths and have no idea what to do next.

I thought I was going to write about the families I found living in sheds and cars  and how I stopped sleeping and got drunker and drunker and drunker.

I thought about writing about the family that asked me to take their four kids if they were deported.  I thought about the “official document” I frantically typed on school district letterhead addressed to “Immigrations and Customs Enforcement,” as parents waited nervously in our crowded lobby.  My palms were drenched in sweat.  I gleaned my wild thoughts in search of bureaucratic terms that might make sense in an “official, legal document.”   The letter stated that Crashley Brakes needed to be contacted immediately if these two parents were deported, and that she would be granted full custody of their, infant 4 year old, 6 year old and 11 year old.  I spent days and nights wondering how I would take care of 4 children.  I called law offices and learned about how to get temporary power of attorney to care of children whose parents are deported.

I haven’t figured out to how to tell these stories—how to shed some light on the families I met, the stories I heard, the people I miss.  I think about it all the time.  But I guess this paragraph is a start.

I thought I’d write about Charlottesville.  I checked out this weekend.  I was in the woods this weekend looking for a spot to get married.  I didn’t see any headlines until I got to work on Monday.  The headlines are perpetually disturbing in Trump’s America, so we pick and chose what we get really upset about.  The image of the car driving into the peaceful anti-racist protesters ripped a hole in my mind.   I sat in front of my computer, “working,” distracted and disturbed for most of the day.

I wanted to write  about what this moment in time demands of us, us meaning us white people.   I thought I would write about what kind of white people we need to be right here and right now.  

I think about whiteness all the time.  I always want to write about it.  I am just not sure where my thoughts fit within the current dialogue around whiteness.  There is this trend of “listing ways to be a white ally” or people of color, articulately and accurately, calling out whiteness for what it is—a mechanism that has systematically and intentionally annihilated the black body and mind.  There are reminders that us, white women, are complicit and have always supported white supremacy through the accident of being born with white bodies.  I am not sure what I think or where I fit within this conversation.  I am not sure what I want or need to say.  But I think about writing about whiteness.  I think about it a lot. 

Workaholism

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes her work… It destroys the fruitfulness of her…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

-Thomas Merton posted by Parker Palmer on On Being.*

——

Every addiction has an origin story.  In recovery, we spend a lot of time telling stories, mapping out where addictive patterns start and end.  As we tell these stories, we learn that addictions do not exist in silos.  Rather, they are all tangled together in a messy web.  One addiction feeds another, one stops and another begins.   Alcoholism, workaholism, codependency, over eating, over exercising, narcotics, the list goes on.

For me, workaholism and alcoholism are so closely linked that they feel like one body, one place.  Both spring from a deep sense of unworthiness that fuels the need to try to prove something or save something or always do something.  It also comes from the love and passion for life—of wanting everything at the same time, of being full of vision and powerful ideas irrespective of the limited resources and time we have.  These two poles, of unworthiness and of a deep love for life, are what gave birth to my burn-out and addictions. 

Below is a story about where my addiction to work began.  It’s about my freshman year of college when I was forced to spend 12 hours a week locked in basement with a bunch of sweaty jocks.   I hope this post helps me understand myself and my story a little better.  I know I am not alone in my struggles with frenzy and overwork, so I made my first “blog list” about women workaholics to try to start pointing out the things we have in common.  I, of course, always want to know what you think, so write me if something resonates.        

——

I run my fingers along the cold concrete blocks.  Rows of perfect rectangles stacked on top of each other form the walls of a cold, damp basement corridor.  A careless coat of thick gray paint covers the walls.  Drops of dried paint gather in between the blocks—thick and overcast, the color of a dreary day, suspended in time.

I pick at these paint globs with my finger nail as I stand in a single file line.  I look down at my dirt stained legs, sweaty tube socks are crinkled around my ankles, the studs of my cleats clink like ice falling into a glass as each stud hits the concrete floor.  I balance a soccer ball between my elbow and hip.  I grip the strap of my backpack and shimmy my shoulders to adjust the weight.  I turn back to the wall and keep picking at the paint absentmindedly.  The mind rests on small things, tiny globs of paint, when it needs to escape.  My feet step forward robotically, pausing each time someone has to “sign in.”  I find a new block to chip away at as I wait my turn. 

In front me stands a rectangular figure, a block of a human standing over 6 feet tall with shoulders blocking my view.  A loose, off-white jersey bunches up around his arm pits, long dark navy shorts hang down past his knees.  Calves as thick as tree trunks poke out of his shorts.  I smell mildew, sweat and unwashed clothes.  Fuck.  A hockey player, I think to myself as I wait in line.  I had to sit next to hockey player in study hall or, as we affectionately called it, “jock jail” yesterday.  My body remembers that stale stench seemed hermetically sealed to their bodies, trapped in their pores like a walls of an ice skating rink.  I cringe.

I approach the sign in desk.  A smiley blonde field hockey player wearing a slick, polyester skirt points to the row where I would have to sign my name.  I scribble on the line, making sure the letters are just legible enough to read.  My eyes dart around the basement room.  A row of cubicles lines the back wall those desks with the wood all around the used for standardized testing. I see an empty cubicle in the corner.  It looks like a place to hide, so I dart across room and claim it as mine.

I pull out the chair, plop down and let cool plastic hold my weight.  I sigh and let go for minute.  I place my backpack on the floor and spread my books out over the white linoleum desk.  I scan the walls of the cubicle trying to settle into my space.  The word FUCK is chiseled into the wooden wall.  Random words, initials and doodles are etched all over the desk top. 

  People graffiti desks in college? Seriously? I wondered.  I was a freshwoman still trying to discern the differences between high school and college, trying to get comfortable in the space between my expectations and my reality.

Shouldn’t college graffiti be more a little more imaginative than the word FUCK?  Or was unimaginative graffiti reserved for just us “jocks” trapped in the stale, basement “jock jail” scribbling random profanities and carving initials into wood as a small act of protest?  Or did some local high school donate their used desks to the poor souls whose SATs scores were less than stellar, yet possessed “special athletic talent”?

I shut down those thoughts and I open my Introduction to Logic textbook.  I just bought the soft cover book two weeks ago and it’s spine was already well worn.  Notes lined the pages.  You could write in the books in college.  The books were yours to keep.  I start hammering out proofs, drawing symbols that look like hieroglyphics, constructing arguments, playing with the building blocks of rationality.  My first philosophy test is this week.  I needed to be ready.  Everyone in the class was talking about how hard Professor Lenke’s tests were.  

I glance up at the clock–three more hours in this basement.  That’s just enough time to finish three problem sets before I have to walk across campus, alone in the dark, sleep for 6 hours and do this all over again. Tomorrow would look a lot like today.  Alarm goes off at 6:30am.  Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Legs ache. Lungs burn. Sweat.  Push.  Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.                

Jock jail was a “special place,” a special basement reserved for students who were admitted to college due to their athletic abilities rather than their academic prowess. Our admission was contingent upon agreeing to spend time in a dingy basement studying together, because our GPAs or SATs scores were lower than the rest of the schools.  We had to spend 12 hours a week here.  The sign-in sheet was reviewed by our coaches daily. If you wanted to get out of jock jail, you had to get at least a 3.0 the first semester of your freshman year.  So, I drilled on.  Problem set after problem set determined to prove that I deserved to be at that college.

In school, I never felt smart.  A leader?  Definitely.  A hardworking, responsible student?  Yes.  Smart? Definitely not.  Standardized test score constantly filtered me into remedial classes and low performing student groups.  I got into gifted programs and honors English and History classes mostly because my mom was a fierce advocate and demanded that the administration let me in. 

This felt like my big secret.  It made me feel undeserving as I sat in class full of over-achieving, smart students.  When would someone find out that I was a phony?  That I didn’t actually deserve to the there, at that desk, with these smart students?     

Jock jail was a continuation of this legacy of intellectual unworthiness.  Sitting in that basement cubicle, I knew that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else at my college. I also knew I was capable of working really, really hard.  If I worked really hard, people would notice me, acknowledge me, reward me. 

So, that’s what I did.  I worked.  A lot.  Alarm goes off at 6:30am.  Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Leg ache. Lungs burn. Sweat.  Push.  Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.

Everyone has an internal rhythm–a beat that moves them through the world.  Sitting in that cubicle in jock jail freshman year,  I started to tick a little faster.  It was like something had pushed the metronome inside me and it just started swinging, back and forth,back and forth.  Ticking. Tocking. Ticking. Tocking.  And all I could do was try to keep up with my own pace.

I earned a 3.6 that semester, made the dean’s list, was recommended for the honors program due to my worth ethic, and got out of jock jail. 

The next semester the metronome slowed down a bit.  I enrolled in some elective courses and took a deep dive in Eastern Philosophy.  I started to feel a sense of openness that college brings.  I traded in my cleats for Birkenstocks and got a tattoo of a Bodhi leaf on on my foot.  

Just as I started slowing down, the US bombed Iraq.  I remember sitting on the floor of my college dorm watching the first bombs fall on our tiny low-definition color T.V.  Now, we were at war. I felt like it was my full time job to try to stop it.  Protests, marches, classes, the constantly wondering why I had to spend time chasing a soccer ball around just to feel like I deserved to be at college.  

The metronome starting swinging faster again.  My tempo started picking up.  And once again, I was off. 

———-

This sense of needing to prove something, of working to help “solve social injustices,” and of never really being able to slow down started up again in graduate school.  It was also right around the time my sister got really sick.  Stepping on a university campus, I was once again filled with a sense of inadequacy.   This sense of unworthiness coupled with the collapse of my family started an inner frenzy that has followed me for the past 8 years.

While recovery has helped me calm down, quit drinking, figure out who I am on the inside,  I still feel a nagging, albeit less pungent, sense of needing to “do something”: find the next job, house, baby, marriage, recipe, etc.  And I am not the only one who feels this way.   

Overworked and overwhelmed is the new normal—especially for the women in my life.  My tribe of women, most whom are in there mid thirties, seem to be squeezed ever so tightly.  Call a friend for coffee and she’ll perhaps schedule you for 3 weeks out.  Ask a friend how she is and there is a the inevitable response: “I’m good.  So busy.  Every weekend this summer is already booked!” 

How did we get here—to this place of nonstop busyness?  What do we do now?  Below are a few of the things I think we—the overworked women of the the world—have in common.  So, here is a little bit of what I see:   

1.  We want everything at the same time.   I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a tribe of women who are big dreamers, doers, idealists.  We love life and we want so much of it that we can’t let anything go.  Our visions are larger than a 24 hour day will allow.  But this doesn’t stop us for trying to do it all. We have the baby, we take the trip, we swipe right, we start the farm, we teach the class, we show up for the big events in each others lives, the birthdays, weddings, etc. we go, go, go and go. 

Why?  Because it hurts our soul to think about giving up any one of these things.  We love everything and are mad to do it all.  Yet, this constant going, the constant expending comes at cost. Intangible things, moments, thoughts, the inner wisdom that makes work fruitful, slips away, and I think we all feel it–even though we can’t quite name it or hold it.  It’s a nebulous inertia of disconnection, discontent.   

2.   Healthcare.  Fucking healthcare.  This is the not so invisible force that guides so many of the decisions women (and men) have to make.  We’d like to work less, to pursue some non-traditional, creative paths.  We’d prefer to be making podcasts than writing reports about nitrogen.  Yet, we can’t.  Want to work part-time?  Make sure you don’t get sick or pregnant. Want to start that amazing organization you always dreamed of?  Good luck bringing in enough capital to provide health insurance for you and your family and your employees.  Want to take some time off to work on your farm or write that book?  I hope your partner has a job in finance. (S/He probably doesn’t.)   

3. Brilliant. Educated. Disillusioned. We’ve earned masters degrees and done some commendable stuff.  As our careers move forward and now, we find ourselves stuck.  After being in the professional working world for over a decade, most of us women in our mid thirties have had experiences in multiple organizations and sectors.  We dabbled in higher education and research, spent a few years working for that nonprofit, tried our hand at lobbying or worked for the government agency.  At this point, it would be nice if one of these sectors “stuck,”  if one of these 9-5 health insurance providing gigs would be a little more satisfying or at least, take up less of our time.  But, for many of us, we leave the office every day feeling compromised, conflicted and drained. The reason we started doing the work in the first place, to save the farmland or the children or (insert mission here) just doesn’t stack up against the incredible inefficiencies or horrid office culture or blood sucking boss that we encounter at our 9-5.

4.   We are all trying to find another job.  The disillusionment we feel with our current 9-5 leads has 2 outcomes: 1) we are all looking for another job, yet all of these “other jobs” suck.  We spend countless hours of “free time” scanning indeed.com, looking for an affordable way out, yet it’s increasingly hard to find.

For us, the ambitious, over working types, “big jobs” often sound really enticing—leading large teams, writing, publishing, setting strategic direction, managing big budgets, etc.  But we aren’t there yet.  We simply don’t have the years of experience in part, because we move around so much and also, because we are in a sort of in-between phase in our careers.  We aren’t executive directors, but this middle management program coordination is not quite enough  So, we keep looking, searching, applying, pouring energy into cover letters and resumes. 

2)  For those of us that aren’t looking for a new job, we are busy “hiding out.”  We are trying to get yet another degree or certification that will lead to this imaginary dream job.  Or we immerse ourselves in the academia and intellectualism, forever the graduate student pursuing the PhD, because we are scared of what’s “out there”.  Either way, going to school, furthering our education, provides a sort of temporary respite.  Yet, it also makes us feel stuck.      

5.  California: We love you and we can’t afford you.  My tribe of women all live in the great republic of California—where civil liberties are preserved, where Jerry Brown launches his own damn satellites, where innovation, possibility and technology fuel the world, where diversity reigns and immigrants make our state what it is today.  As I ride my bike past the Capitol on the way to this coffee shop, I feel an intangible sense of pride and belonging.  My state feels like a stronghold of sensibility in a world that is unrecognizable.     

My tribe of women loves California and we are racing to keep up, to try to stay here, raise a family here or buy a home here or just rent a tiny fucking apartment.  Some of us got lucky.  Our families have been here for years, so we already own homes. We come from wealth or we married into it, so we managed to buy a house or piece of land. 

For the rest of us, the teachers who came from a middle class background or transplants trying to make it “on our own,”  we are racing to try to keep up—to save money, to pay down our debts, to try to get a toehold on a real estate market that is unpredictable and skyrocketing.  That sense of anxiety, the fear of having to leave here, never really leaves us. It tosses and turns within us. 

6.  We are active, but are we still activists?  My tribe is of woman is driven by big questions: are we, in fact, living an honest and good life?  Are we doing the most we can with our privilege to create a more just and equitable society?  Are we showing up in the right ways for the right people? Are we, in fact, doing everything we can at this critical moment in history where so much is at stake?

These questions roll around in our heads though I am not sure we are talking to each other about them.  Right now, these questions are making us uneasy.  With all of this moving forward, with all of this frenzy, it’s easy to lose sight of what drives us, what brought us together as friends and comadres in the first place, of the vision we had for who we might me and how we might show up in the world for each other and for others.  These questions are indispensable and are also a double edged sword the constant questioning and wondering, makes us overcommit, feel inadequate and take on more.  That is, if we aren’t careful.

Right now, I am trying to stay rooted in the belief that self-care is, in fact, a radical, political act.  As a person that is prone to movement, to activism and overwork, this is an incredible challenge.  I am trying to believe that recovering, slowing down and finding the “inner wisdom that makes work fruitful” is the most important thing I can do right now.  It’s a nebulous space, indeed.  One that makes me feel whole at times and also incredibly uncomfortable and anxious. 

I have been thinking of getting a new tattoo: Easy does it.  I can see the cursive words running down my forearm when I think about it.  It’s one of those sayings people in AA hold dear.  But for now, I will continue the hard work of doing nothing. The hard work of learning how to rest.  Rest here, dear Crashley.  Rest here.        

resthere.jpg* Photo and quote stolen from Parker Palmer, who stole it fro Thomas Merton and posted it on the amazing On Being blog.  See: https://onbeing.org/blog/the-modern-violence-of-over-work/

And, of course, Momo, post neutering.  What a handsome boy!

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There is no script for this.

This is a post about what its like to be 6 months sober and feel emotionally wrecked. Happy Birthday Crashley.  Here’s to dealing with tough shit and not drinking or smoking to push it all away.  

——

There is no script for this,” my mom said.   She repeated this phrase three times during our ten minute conversation.  My mother’s mind seems to working like a broken record.  Skipping, turning and always ending up at the same: “There is no script for this.  I did everything I can and I can’t do anymore,” she says chocking back tears.

I was calling to tell my mom that I had been in a relatively serious car accident.  We got rear ended, Sugar’s face hit the steering wheel, his teeth went through his lip, our puppy was flung from his crate in the back seat and hit the dashboard, bouncing like a rubberband.  He landed in my lap and started licking my face as though nothing happened.  Our car was totaled.  Police and firemen were assholes primarily concerned with filling out reports rather than actually helping us. 

The morning after, blood stains and broken nerves remained.  I called my mom, because Sugar kept asking, “Have you called your parents yet?”  So, I call.    

I also become a broken record.  “I am sorry, Mom.  I know you are upset.  I am so sorry.  You did do everything you could and you are a good parent.”   My mom cries, babbles, her mind turns, spins and repeats: “I can’t do this anymore.”

  I feel my chest tightening.  I need to get off the phone.  There is an ambient anxiety, a low buzzing tension, that has been hanging in the air since the accident.  I can only reassure some else for so long before I start to feel shakey.  AA is teaching me about boundaries.  I am learning how to draw lines with compassion.  I feel all clumsy and awkward when I try to set boundaries, but I am working on it.  “I was just calling to tell you about the car accident, because I guess that’s what people do.  The tell their parents when they get in car wrecks,”  I say, stuffing down rising anger and sadness.  There is not script for this,”  she replies in broken sobs.  She repeated, for the fifth time, that we needed to get a rental car from the insurance company.  I somehow managed to get off the phone without screaming or crying.    

There is no script for this.  I have been thinking these words a lot over the past few days, wondering about what this phrase actually means.  When addiction, alcoholism and mental illness sit at the center of your life, this is how life feels—like a giant map with no legend or north star, no predetermined trails or well worn roads.  For those of us affected by this “double whammy”—addiction and mental illness—there is no script.  We are constantly improvising—faced with situations that are unimaginable to most.  In our world, things are always breaking, falling apart.  We find ourselves on our knees  picking pieces off the kitchen floor, gluing them back together, knowing they will probably break again, knowing the pieces won’t ever quite fit together, knowing that there will be new scars, knowing that we will find ourselves here again—on our knees, staring at kitchen floor, a dust pan in one hand, broken pieces falling into a black, plastic trash can.     

  Mental illness and addiction have been sitting at the center of my life since I was 15.  This past week—the birthday week, the 6 month sober anniversary—has been a week of shattering.  My brother relapsed and went on an aggressive 1.5 month drinking binge.  He was missing for almost 2 weeks.  My sister had a psychotic episode, was assaulted outside of a gas station where she was begging strangers for cigarettes and ended up in the hospital on 5250, because she threatened to kill someone.  They don’t live in my town, so I heard this news over the phone, mostly through disturbing voicemails left at strange hours.

I don’t have the heart to delete the messages from my family, but I also know better than to listen to voicemails by myself anymore. I sit down on the couch next to Sugar, put on speaker phone, press play and listen to my brothers angry, drunk diatribe about how my sister is a whore and got picked up by police at a gas station.  I can hear the booze in his voice.  “That can’t be true.  He is just drunk and out of his mind,”  I say to Sugar—shutting off that little voice in my head that is saying, “but maybe it is true.  Maybe that did really happen.”  I forward the voicemail to my parents with an FYI.  I make banana pancakes for breakfast.  I say nothing else about it, because there is no script for this. 

In addition to quitting my job and moving, a big part of my recovery has been practicing yoga and meditation.  There is a Buddhist meditation practice called Tonglen.  I watch a 4 minute YouTube video about Tonglen when I am feeling overwhelmed with the state of the world.  Now is definitely one of those times. Shining through the tiny box on my computer screen,  I listen as Pema Chodron, a beloved monk and healer, describe the purpose of Tonglen.  We do Tonglen for a world that is falling apart,” she says calmly.  “On the in-breath, you breathe in whatever particular area, group of people, country or even one particular person, is hurting.  You breathe in their pain.  On the out breath, you breathe out the hope that their hearts and minds will feel big enough, so they can live with their pain.”*

I did Tonglen for my family everyday this week.  I did Tonglen for my sister.  Every time my butt hit meditation cushion—tears free flowed down my face—boiling hot rivers.  A burning so hot and expansive filled my chest.  I sat there with the pain, with that incredibly discomfort, because that’s what my sister has to do.  They won’t let her out of that psychiatric ward for two weeks.  She, too, is locked up—trapped by her own mind and the stark white walls of the psych ward.  So, I must sit here, on this cushion, in this fire, and let this wildfire of pain scorch my insides, because it’s the only thing I can do.      

A number I don’t recognize shows up on my phone.  A nurse tells me my sister would like to speak with me.  My sister tells me the same horrific story I already heard from my brother’s  voicemail and my mom.  So, now, I know that all this horror, the assault, the trafficking, the relapse, is true.  “I am sorry you are hurting, dear,”  I say.  “I can’t take your pain away.  I wish I could.  But I can do Tonglen for you.  I can breathe in your pain and breathe out sending you space in your heart and mind, so you might endure.”  “Thank you so much, Crash,” she says.  “That’s the best thing you can do.  It’s better than any visitation or anything.”  I don’t if I will ever get my sister back.  It’s been almost 10 years since she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  But for now, I have this: a tragic, feeble breath that creates space for pain and a thank you from my sister.

There is no script for this.  I think about these words as I am driving to yoga class.  I take a right on North B street and see more homeless people than I can count.  It’s a scene that’s all too familiar.  Grocery carts, sleeping bags, drunk people screaming,  people with schizophrenia talking to themselves or trees or poles, a woman with dark weathered skin that is the color of dirt wearing a bikini and broken flip flops. 

But there is a script for this! I think angrily as I turn left onto E st.  This is what happens when we push people who are not like us away.  The people—the addicts, the mentally ill, the poor, the disabled, the “others”—this is what we do to people and it makes everything worse.  This is what happens when we push people away.  It’s the rule, not the exception, and there is a better way. (Building housing the homeless, educating people about mental illness and addiction, fighting stigma, providing people with a source of connection, engagement and purpose, believing that “the others” are also worthy.  These are all part of a better way.  But that’s a topic for another post.)

For the mean time, until we have the political will and the compassion in our hearts to build a more inclusive community and society,  some of us, the lucky ones, will find our way to Church basements,  we hold hands with courageous strangers,  we practice rigorous honesty and authenticity.  We tell our stories.  We listen deeply. We cry.  We let our hearts break wide open and we carry the weight of all this broken, unfixableness together.  We sit in the fire and bear witness to suffering.  Then we leave the Church basement and we will carry the weight together—anonymously.

There is a script for this.  And part of that script is that we have to believe that is possible to heal, no matter what has happened to us, no how far down the scale we have slipped.  And while each and everyone of us is responsible for our own healing, for patching up our wounds and ending the cycle of addiction, despair and trauma, we can’t do it alone.

So, I hope whoever is reading this post takes a chance at being vulnerable, at opening up, in some small way, to say the thing out loud to someone.  And if you do, I would love to hear about it!!  

—-

After the car accident, I walked two blocks to a tiny well lit strip mall with my puppy.  Sugar needs ice for his busted lip and forehead.  The only places that are open at this hour are a bar and a liquor store. Figures.  I ask a very friendly drunk woman to hold my dog while I run into the liquor store to get some ice.

I haven’t been to a liquor store is 6 months.  The me from 6 months ago would have grabbed a 6 pack of Sierra Nevada Torpedos and a 5 nips of whatever disgusting liquor was at the counter check out.  I rushed into the store, grabbed water, Aleve and a gigantic 10 lb. bag of ice.  I didn’t even think about drinking until I got to the checkout.  I saw those nips of booze that every liquor store display like candy.  I thought about how the old me used to pretend like I actually “just wanted to try” these tiny 1 oz bottles of whiskey.  I remember the stories I used to tell cashiers, because I felt ashamed for showing up everyday.  That night, the night when our car was totaled, Sugar busted his face and Gizmo flew through the air, I didn’t grab a 6 pack of Torpedos or nips of booze. For that I am very thankful, and somewhat proud of who I am becoming. 

  * Pema Chodron’s Tonglen meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwqlurCvXuM

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Gizmo, aka Moonbeam or Moonie, is a water dog.  We love you, Moonbeam!  (I don’t know why I call Gizmo Moonbeam.  I just started saying it and it stuck.)  Puppy psychobabble—where will it lead me next?

Restoring Sanity

Step 2: [We] [c]ame to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

Why movement activists need a higher Power:

“A very strong reason I am so attracted to the community at [Union Theological Seminary],” explained Michelle Alexander, “is that I believe the experience will enable me to clarify my spiritual beliefs, deepen my understanding of systematic theology, and expand my thinking about the possibilities for prophetic advocacy and movement-building across faiths, races, and cultures. I would like to imagine that a wide range of people of faith and conscience who sing songs from different keys may be able to join in a common chorus that shakes the foundations of our unjust political, legal and economics systems, and ushers in a new America.”

-Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, explaining her motivation for leaving her professorship at Ohio State University to take a position as a visiting professor at the Union Theological seminary.

Michelle Alexander is an amazing scholar, writer, thinker and feminist that has inspired pretty much all my work for the past 5 years.  Her quote above explains why movement activists need faith. In the eyes of a burned out activist and recovering alcoholic, her words help me understand the connection between my efforts to stay sane in the era of Donald Trump, and my attempts to find a higher power in Church basements with recovering alcoholic women. 

So, below is part of my story about finding a higher power—step 2 in the 12 steps of AA.  I hope this part of my journey allows me to find the inner strength needed to stay engaged in social justice work for the long haul and to push back against the inertia of cynicism and that ever tempting desire to throw up our hands and say, “fuck it.”    

So, thanks Michelle Alexander, for being such an amazing scholar and for making bold, inspiring moves.  You are giving me faith that I am on the right path.

Enjoy!

The bus chugs up an anonymous highway somewhere in the middle of Maine.   Town after monotonous town passes by.   The sky is bright white and gray.  An unremarkable and overwhelming light filters through the tall rectangular, dirt stained windows that line the side of the bus.  My forehead pushes against the cool glass. I squint to try to block out the light.  My eyes sting.  I wish that I had sunglasses or those oh-so adorably nerdy transition lens glasses to help dilute the potent dullness that surrounds me. 

It’s that in between time of year here in Maine—transition time.  Tight, angular buds line bare tree branches—latent energy waiting to burst,  fingers balled up in tight fists—silhouetted against the neon gray light.  There isn’t a cloud in the sky and I can’t see the sun.  The dreary anonymity of the landscape reminds me of my hometown in Upstate New York.   Growing up, I remember the grayness, the in-betweeness would drag on for months and months and months.  I always resented nameless, sameness of that place.  I text Sugar and tell him I miss the hot, diverse, grungy mess of our California hometown.  Exhausted and weary, I haven’t arrived and my heart misses my home. 

“Why did I take the red-eye from California to JFK to Maine?  Where exactly was I going?  I thought Punxsy lived on an island?   Why was I so far from the ocean?,” my thoughts start running around in circles as the bus moves closer to my final destination.  Out of nowhere, I am suddenly feeling panicked, worried that I missed my bus stop.   I throw my jet-black computer bag over my shoulder and move swiftly to the front seat.  “Did I miss the stop for Rockland?,”  I ask the driver, feeling like a kindergartener on my first day of school.  “No, ma’am.  Rockland’s the next town.  We’ll be there shortly.”  Relief.  I slip back in my seat next to a cooler full of plastic, single use water bottles.   

Punxsy is standing next to the curb as the bus pulls into the station.   She is bouncing up and down, unable to contain her excitement.  My heart expands and lifts as my mind recognizes her familiar face.  Her sloppy uneven curls hang frame her face as she smiles ear to ear.  Punxsy is both heavy and light at the same time, free and grounded.  I step off the bus precariously balancing my computer bag, purse and rolling suitcase on my arms.  Punxsy jumps forward to greet me.  She is holding a bouquet of white flowers that look like a cross between carnations and daisies. I am swallowed up by her pale green hunting jacket as she wraps her arms around me.  I stand on my toes and feel the bones of our chests press together.  This place feels so foreign to me and Punxsy feels like home.   

——

Punxsy is my soul sister.  We’ve been friends for over 10 years.  Knowing the a new job, a marriage, kids, houses and the many other all consuming joys of adulthood are in my not so distant future, I knew I had to make this journey.  Punxsy is also a seeking, adventurous soul whose expansive, positive energy would surely help me with step 2 of the AA program: figuring out how to believe in a higher power. 

Punxsy lives in  rustic, bare bones, feminine goddess cabin in the woods surrounded by bare deciduous trees.  She spends 6 months a year on an island off the coast working at a small start up experiential education facility.  She rents this small 600 square foot cabin where she lives alone.  “I was either gonna rent this place or place near by that didn’t have any running water,” she says as the gravel crunches under the wheels of her Subaru and the car halts to a stop. 

The cabin is a sanctuary filled with knick knacks, sea shells and mismatched thrift store furniture.  Everything feels sacred, yet entirely replaceable.  Posts and beams meet to form the steep A-line roof and hold in all the expansive, warm energy in place.

A framed photo of Punxsy sits on the shelf above her stove in her boxy little kitchen.   In the photo, her shoulders are covered by oversized, tan hunting coat.  A bulky brown sweater pokes up around her neckline.  A soft stubble of brown hair pokes through the taunt skin on her shaved head.  She smiles a sort of half smile, her lips parted slightly as though she is trying to say something.  Her eyes are heavy and faraway.  She is patient, calm and seeking.  She is a woman who shaved her head, so she could get closer to whatever it is she is looking for.  Her photo tells me that I have come to the right place and am on the right track. 

Giving yourself to a higher power is part of the 12 step process.  It’s step 2 and 3.  Listening to all the stories in AA meetings,  it’s clear that if I am going to heal and stay sober, I needed get serious about this “higher power” thing.  Until now, my forays into defining a higher power have been mostly intellectual and quite shallow.  I meditated here and there, dabbled in Buddhism, fervently rejected Christianity and mostly hid beneath the cloak of agnostic and atheist intellectual superiority. 

Growing up, I was the only agnostic kid in my school filled with hard-core, born-again Christians.  I remember coming home to my mom in tears and telling her that a kid at school told me she was going to Hell, because we didn’t go to Church or believe in God.  “You are not going to Hell.  You are staying right here with me.  Those people are snakes in the grass.  SNAKES IN THE GRASS.  You can’t trust them and don’t listen to them,”  my mom told me as she wiped the tears from my cheeks.

So, from then on, I believed it was better to rebel than believe in anything.   In fourth grade, I sat outside the classroom while all the students said the pledge of allegiance, because I didn’t want to say the words under God.  As a senior, I remember calling out my AP English teacher for only assigning readings with Catholic or Christian allegories.

But things are different now.  I am over my hang-ups and feeling quite well…desperate.  I want to find this higher power thing.  I want to nail it down, to feel it. I know I need help and guidance. I need someone to hold up a flashlight and help me find my path.  Luckily, these “flashlight holders” are built into the AA program.  They are called sponsors.

My AA sponsors, who refer to themselves as my AA Grandmas, have been coaching me through the 12 steps.  My sponsors have been best friends for 30 years and come as a sort of “package deal.”  One is a sweet woman who is so incredibly sincere and eager to help alcoholics.  She speaks about this concept of “rigorous honesty” and I want to understand it like she does.  My other sponsor is a nun, a Catholic sister of social service, who spent 20 years as active alcoholic and homeless advocate in the convent.  She told me she spent most of her life “going through motions” defined by the Catholic Church, mouthing words, reciting Bible verse and never really feeling must of anything.  Over 20 years in a convent and no contact with a higher power?  So, she joined AA and did a “30 in 30”—attening 30 AA meetings in 30 days.  At the end of the month, she realized that her higher power was love and she surrendered her life to love.  She is old now, maybe in her mid-eighties now and has been attending AA meetings for 28 years.

Part of my plan for finding my higher power was taking Punxsy to an AA meeting.  We search the Maine AA’s website and found a Friday night and found a “Women’s Serenity Group” meeting.  “Perfect,” I thought to myself. My meeting back home would be taking place at the exact same time.  The part of my brain and soul believed this coincidence was some sort of sign.  An excited, anticipating energy floods my body and says, “yes, it’s working, this is way it’s supposed to happen!” 

Before the meeting, Punxsy and I sat down at a cafe and drank spicy chai tea.  Our hair was wind blown.   Our skin was covered in a thin layer of salt that hangs in the cold coastal Maine air.  “So, tell me what I should expect at this meeting,”  Punxsy asks as her leans forward in her chair, crouching over steaming cup.  I give Punxsy the cliff notes, a rundown of the play by play outlined in AA facilitator’s binder.  “It’s an open meeting.  Anyone’s allowed to come.  Don’t worry.  Women love to see new people at meetings.”   A nervous and excited energy floods over us.  We’re expecting something big to happen. 

As we drive to the meeting, I text my sponsors and let them know I am heading to a women’s serenity group meeting in Maine.  I want them to know that I am doing the work, that I am on track and it’s all going according to plan.

Punxsy and I spend the next 30 minutes driving in circles around tiny, anonymous residential streets.  We pull up to the building where the meeting is supposed to be held.  It’s 6:24 and the meeting was supposed to start at 6:30.  The building is dark, there are no cars in the parking lot.  Everything feels still.  We both know no one is there, but I get out of the car and knock on the large glass door anyways.  I slide back in the passenger seat, shoulders slumped, feeling defeated.

Our type A personalities don’t want to accept that we won’t be going to a women’s meeting afterall, so we take action.  We call the AA hotline, YMCA and drive knock on the doors of all the surrounding buildings just so we can feel like we did everything we could try to make it happen.

It’s 6:42 and Punxsy and I are sitting in an empty parking lot filled with gray gravel in front of some random unimportant building in rural Maine.  The thick blanket of defeat suffocating our excitement.  Punxsy turns her head to me and says, “I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.”  The sincerity of her voice and gaze is overwhelming, so I block it out.  “Ahhh…it’s no big deal,” I say.

We drive back to the cabin feeling defeated and frustrated.  We yell random things like, “we don’t even have any more seltzer water!” and dance around our disappointment.  Inside, I feel heavy sadness.  I try to push the heaviness away, but it keep landing right in the pit of my stomach.  I stare out the window and wonder.

When we get back to the cabin, Punxsy starts making dinner.  We’re having pesto and fiddleheads, a special fern that is in season during this dreary in between time in Maine.  A warm light fills the kitchen.  I sit in a rickety thrift store chair watching Punxsy.  My stomach feels like it is filling with concrete.  My throat gets hot and tight.  The sadness swallows me up again.

Staying sober requires reaching out to your tribe of supporters when feeling overwhelmed rather than numbing out with booze.  This requires naming emotions—a skill I never really practiced until now.  My MO was always to stuff emotions way down deep and continue working to “make the world a better place” and then drinking or smoking to provide some instant relief.

I text my sponsors and tell them I feel frustrated and sad that we couldn’t find the meeting.  “Frustrated” and “sad” seeming like such oversimplifications.  The words hardly describe the mass of hot constricting energy that is filling up my chest.  But I force self to send the message and describe the situation simply.  Easy does it, Crashley.  Easy does it. 

“Just have your own meeting,” my sponsor texts me and back. “And be safe :).”   

You have to climb up a steep wooden ladder to get to “second floor” of the cabin.  Wrung by wrung, I climb the ladder and I grab my “Big Book,” the AA bible, from Punxsy’s loft.  I stand at the top of the ladder and force myself to take deep breaths. 

My feat land heavy on the cabin floor.  Punxsy still making dinner—bouncing around the kitchen, steam rising from a pot of boiling water,  blue flames heating a bright silver pot.  I sit down at the kitchen counter.  I want to tell Punxsy how upset I feel, but the words won’t come out.  Big, heavy tears fall down my face.

Since getting sober, I realize that sadness leaps out of me in these tidal waves, knocking down the walls that tried to hold it back.  The Universe seems to dealing out emotions in these very large unmanageable portions days.  Emotion hits me at the weirdest, unexpected times. 

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Punxsy, but I told her everything.  I told her I felt so sad, because I was looking forward to sharing the experience of a meeting with her.  I had been waiting two weeks to say certain things out loud to a group of strangers, to a circle of alcoholic woman, to my tribe. 

Specifically, I wanted to tell my tribe how much it hurt when I saw my exes “Save the Date” on her Punxsy’s refrigerator.  My ex, we’ll call him Crow, and I had dated for 7 years from the ages of 19-26. Crow and I were best friends, companions for a long time before my world started to unravel.  We grew up, traveled the world and adventured together. 

Crow and I broke up right when my started graduate school and my sister had her psychotic break.  I got the news about my sister while I was in NY at Crow’s sister’s wedding.  I was 3,547 miles from home.  I still remember the street corner I was standing and the sound of my mom’s stunned voice coming through the phone—my sister was in the hospital, there was a party, drugs and now she was in the hospital.  My mind froze and the world blurred to black and white and gray. 

My memories of this time when everything started falling apart are kind of blurry.  I remember stopped sleeping and Crow grew distant and so our relationship ended.  I hadn’t spoken to Crow in nearly 5 years.  He started dating a woman who looks just like me 5 months after we broke up and now they were getting married.   

Crow, like many people, still considered Punxsy a good friend, so he invited her to the wedding even though they hadn’t kept in close contact.  So, here I was, in a cabin in rural Maine, a piece of my past ripping into the present. 

Crow’s Save the Date announcement was a small half sheet of white paper.  The invitation read “OPEN BAR” in large white letters on the front.  There was a photo of Crow and his fiance holding half drunk pints of beer next to snowy mountain.

My mind told me it was proof that I was on the right path, that I had found the right person, that I was meant to be sober.   I believe this is true and I wanted to be at peace with the Save the Date, with Crow, his fiance and their big happy drunk wedding, but my heart felt something else. My heart said, “FUUUUCK YOU.”     

Feelings of sadness and loss about Crow had been rising up inside me in ways I hadn’t ever felt on this trip.  This was not part of my plan.  I didn’t want to deal with this right now. FUCK!  I felt so mad at him for leaving me when I needed him the most. I remember the woman I was back then—feeling so completely and utterly confused and alone visiting her sister in psychiatric wards and trying to be a “good graduate student,”  trying to hold it all together. I felt pissed that “normal” people could have “normal, happy, drunk weddings” and that instead I had a family life that was well, complicated, so complicated that the bringing together of people in a happy celebration is not something I am capable of imagining.  I have no reference point for normal. Sugar and I recently got engaged and when I think of the “my” wedding might look like, my mind literally goes blank. 

Since getting sober, memories are dropped from the sky and I have to look at them.  Feelings seem to pop of out of nowhere, materializing from thin air and wrapping around my heart and mind.  It’s like a benevolent, gentle and sometimes shocking force saying “Remember this? Now it’s time to deal.” 

Crow’s “OPEN BAR” Save the Date handing on Punxsy’s fridge in Maine was one of those “special deliveries.”  My tribe of female alcoholics would understand deeply what this message meant—what it looked like to my newly sober heart and mind, what it meant to think of happy families coming together.  I had pictured myself sharing this story with Punxsy and the other women alcoholics in Maine, but instead, I sat crying at her kitchen table.  The feeling stuck in my stomach, not sure where to go.  This is why I needed to go to a meeting in Maine with Punxsy.  This is why I sat at her table and felt completely lost.

“My sponsor said we should have our own meeting,”  I tell Punxsy as tears roll down my cheeks.    “Great!  I’m totally down. Let’s do it.”  Punxsy replies.  Her infectious enthusiasm truly knows no bounds.

Punxsy hands me a bowl of pesto pasta and fiddleheads and looks at me expectantly.  I wipe my nose and slip into the familiar skin of “meeting facilitator.”  I call the first meeting of the rustic, divine feminine goddess in Lincolnville, ME to order.  There are only two women at this meeting: Crashley and Punxsy, so assume the role of secretary and meeting chair. I open my Big Book and create a sign-in sheet on the first blank page. Punxsy and I write our names in blue ink.  I have her sign my book, because I know I will want to remember this forever.

I read the 12 steps and Punxsy reads the 12 traditions.  Hearing those familiar words read out loud fills me with a sense of ease.  The tightness in my chest softens.  The foreign becoming the familiar.  Punxsy would later tell me that this is the power of a ritual.  Rituals allow to connect and transcend to a familiar space.  An agnostic learning the power of ritual in a cabin in rural Maine.

Punxsy and I read about step 2 in the Big Book out loud to each other while eating fiddlehead ferns and pesto.  We pass the book back and forth taking turns reading each page and stuffing our faces with carbs.  I struggle sometimes with the language of the Big Book.  It was written in the 1930’s, so I disagree with the pronouns and the words and phrases often twist up my tongue, but tonight with Punxsy, it all seems to flow. 

The Big Book’s writing on step 2 discussed a newcomers reluctance to accepting a higher Power.  The chapter is a set of anecdotes that describe all the ways people resist accepting a higher power.  I can relate to anecdote about the “intellectual” that assumes a higher ground by arguing about the impacts religion has had on humanity as a whole and other oft-touted arguments.  A lack of humility and openness are what prevents the intellectual from accepting the existence of a higher power.  It keeps the intellectual stuck in the world of ideas unable to transcend.  “Yup,” I think as I read the words out loud. “That’s me and most of the people I know.”

After we finish reading, I assume the role of “meeting chair.”  At AA meetings, the meeting chair shares a personal story about a topic related to sobriety and then asks the group to share.  For the first time in my life, I talk out loud, unfiltered and honest, about my relationship to a higher power.  For the first time in my life, I feel ready to let go of my intellectual hang ups.  I am ready for help.  I don’t agree with the pronouns and all the He and the God and the whatever the fuck else is wrong with the text, but I also don’t care anymore.  I just want to change.  I want to have faith.  I want to believe in something.  I want to have a higher power that I can trust, name, feel, a force I can’t describe.  A high power that only belongs me.  I say all of this out loud to Punxsy.

Before I left for my Maine vision quest, my sponsor told me a story about a woman who handed her life over to a door knob.  A door knob opens.  A door knob closes. So, she put all her faith in a door knob.  I loved this simple metaphor.  I pictured a door knob coming to me in times of need.  I told Punxsy that there was a part of my that was waiting expectantly for something like this to happen.  An image to pop into my mind, a perfect metaphor, to reveal itself to me.  I was waiting for the sacred experience, but it just wasn’t happening. 

As I continued to ramble on about this “higher power,”  something started to click.  I read once about the power of a “still, small voice” in one of my favorite sobriety memoirs.*  This idea of a still small voice resonated with me.  It matched my experience.  There is a voice that comes into my head sometimes.  A still, small, soft, feminine voice.  It’s a voice I can trust.  It’s very steady, gentle and speaks truth.  When I am having trouble finding this voice, I always know where to look.  I find the voice in literature, in PodCasts, in the voices and experiences of my soul sisters.  The still small voice comes to life in the basements of Churches surrounded by women who daring to be unafraid, to speak truth.

I model the role of meeting chair by asking I ask for volunteers to speak and share their thoughts about their relationship to a higher power.  Punxsy raises her hand.  She’s really “in character” as a meeting participant.  I laugh and ask her to share.  She talks about many thing, but what sticks with me the most is her belief in the need to surrender.  “Thy will be done,” she says, the still, small voice speaking through her. 

Punxsy and I close the meeting by reading the 12 AA promises.  I search for “AA promises” and read from my brightly lit Iphone screen.

The AA promises:

1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed

before we are half way through.

2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.

4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.

5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience

can benefit others.

6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.

7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.

8. Self-seeking will slip away.

9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.

10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.

11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.

12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for

ourselves

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us –

sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

We hold hands across the kitchen table.  I recite the serenity prayer and Punxsy echoes the words back to me.  I raise our hands and say our customary closing “keep coming back it works” while bouncing our fists up and down to the rhythm of words.    

“Oh my god, you do a little cheer at the end?!?! That’s so fun!”  Punxsy says as she squeal with excitement.

Yup, Punxsy.  That’s what we do.  It’s so fun. 

  —- 

*Glennon Doyle Melton writes about the power of a still small voice in her book Love Warrior.

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Sugar holding our new baby duck, Batty.  NNNNNNN…DUCKY!

Post Trumpmatic Stress Disorder and Coming Together: Part 2

I glance up at the clock.  It’s a simple clock—black and white, round, powered by 1 or maybe 2 double A batteries contained in a little square, plastic box. The little hand is on the 7, the big hand is on the 6.  7:30.  The meeting is supposed to end now.  The energy starts moving, hips shift back and forth in creaking plastic chairs, knees bounce, eyes dart along the ground looking for half drank coffee cups and purses.  I glance around the circle searching for clues about what happens next.  “What now?  What happens to all of this energy?  Where does the honesty go?  How do you close after such an outpouring?”  My mind worried. 

I get anxious at the end of meetings.  I fear the idle standing around and lingering that inevitably happens.  Most of the meetings I have attended are professional, usually filled with education and other social service administrators all connected by a vague mission of “building healthy communities for our children.” Meeting after meeting ends and it’s time for “networking”—small, sterile conversations about our overly committed schedules, grants, job vacancies, new programs. When I was working, I would often make up excuses to leave meetings early just so that I could avoid this awful ritual.  Honest conversation sometimes happens in parking lots between like minded colleagues, but never inside the meeting.  Meetings are about politics.  Meetings are about everyone playing their part and representing their agency.        

At 7:32, we all stand up and hold hands.  Our beautiful blonde facilitator asks another woman, Amanda, if she would close the meeting.   Amanda is an attractive masculine woman standing across the circle from me.  She looks young, probably in her mid-thirties.  Her short hair cut is parted to the side and gelled perfectly back away from her sharp, angular face.  She wore dark blue denim jeans and a perfectly pressed button down shirt.  Her watch matched her belt buckle.   

Amanda nodded in agreement. She inhales so deeply she almost has to stand on her tippy toes.  “A moment of silence for those of us who are still suffering,” Amanda says as she exhales.  Everyone bows their head in unison. 

I immediately think of our beautiful blonde facilitator and her suffering.  She is standing next to me.  We are now holding hands, sweaty palms touching.  The “playbook,” the big white binder, sits on a chair next to her.  Less than a half an hour ago, she was in tears—the kind of tears that jump out in strong, sporadic bursts as you try to hold back, but can’t.  I instinctively put my hand on her shoulder as she cried.  Thinking now about the profile of her face and the way her whole body cringed with pain as she spoke makes my eyes water.   Today is her mom’s birthday.  Her mom is a drug addict and alcoholic, and has been battling the disease her whole life.  She talked about being sober for 1 year and running a marathon the day after St. Patrick’s Day last year.  I can relate to this type of running—the running you do when you are trying to get away from something.  I also signed up for a marathon right around the time my brother relapsed and started to feel really lonely in my small, white college town.  That was almost 1/2 my life ago now.   

My thoughts reconnect with the circle.  It seems obvious now that a moment of silence is the perfect way to move forward after an outpouring of honesty and sincerity amongst strangers.  To take a moment, to acknowledge the pain and suffering is there and to move forward together.  The acknowledgement lets everyone know that their pain is seen, felt, heard and is now held by us all. 

I have never seen this type of honesty and sincerity after a “cross sector collaborative meeting for youth violence prevention” though we are always talking about life and death.  Sure, there are times when speakers, mothers who have lost their children to the streets or youth themselves share their gut wrenching stories.  But these mothers and youth are representatives of something most people in the room don’t understand.   They are tokens.  Their audience of administrators listens sympathetically and thinks “that was a tragic story” while driving back to their air conditioned offices.  No one ever takes a moment to really stand there with our children, youth and mothers and hold their pain.  It’s not on the agenda.  It’s not a measurable outcome.  This is why I usually fear the end of meetings.   This circle of strangers is teaching how to handle the end of something meaningful with grace—how to look it in the eyes, hold it and feel the weight together. 

“Now we will recite the serenity prayer,” Amanda says.  A chorus of voices, heads bowed, murmurs this prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change,

the courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I mumble parts under my breath.   I can’t remember the exact order of these 3 short phrases though I have heard it many times before.  In fact, at the suggestion of my therapist, I printed the serenity prayer and posted it on the bulletin board in my office.  This was before I admitted I was an alcoholic and attributed all my problems to being overwhelmed with work.  Working with homeless and foster youth in very poor violent places, I was always trying to push boulders up mountains,  trying to fit grand visions into institutions that couldn’t hold them, and in turn, I felt very drained and frustrated.  So, I drank every night.  At least this is the story I told myself.  

    Everyone lifts their hands and says, “keep coming back it works.”   Our facilitator asks us to move the chairs back around the tables.   The energy dissipates quickly like a burst of wind after a door slams.  We are released.  We can let go.   

A woman, I’ll call her Angel, approaches me immediately after the circle disbands.  She looks both soft and tough kinda like Amanda.  Her hair is bright white, cropped short, perfectly parted and gelled.  She is wearing overalls, deck shoes and white collared shirt.  The back of her shirt is slightly see through.  Triangles of lace from her bra peak through the fabric on her back as she stretches to tie her shoe. Sexy, strong, I thought.  She is chewing a toothpick and looks me dead in the eyes as she walks towards me.

“Yeah, my mom didn’t talk me for like a year when I first came out as an alcoholic.  Don’t worry it will get better.  I’ve been sober for 27 years and my family is still fucked up.  My Dad’s 72 and smoking oxycontin with his 24 year old girlfriend.  Just crazy stuff,”  This is the first thing Angel says to me.  No small talk here.

  “It gets easier as you go along.  And then the really good things start happening, so make sure you come back.  It gets so much better. My mom is like that, ya know, spiritual and stuff, but she also didn’t want to admit she had a problem with drinking, so she didn’t accept it when I did.  It’s hard when you start getting sober, because you wanna go around being like “hey, this is best thing ever,” but not everyone is going to get it,” Angel continues. It gets better.  Those words stick with me.

I hustle quickly out the basement door.  “Good to see you Ashley!  We hope you come back next week,”  says a woman in her mid fifties as she hunches over to open the door to her Ford taurus.  I smile, thank her and shuffle my feet quickly to my car. 

My butt hits the driver’s seat.   I am stunned.   I inhale and exhale quickly.  I am on autopilot as I fumble around my purse trying to find my Iphone.  Who might understand what this feels like?   This sense of being completely naked, open, seen.  Candy would get it.  I tap the envelope icon on my phone and write a bewildered, short message to her:

Subject line: First Meeting

All women.  Lutheran church.  Amazing.  We’re coming together!

Sent from my iPhone

I hit send and think of Candy.  Candy is a tremendously kind, warrior woman who has been a best friend for over a decade.  I have seen Candy on mountaintops, completing her masters degree in education with a focus on social justice and science, and in gutters—crying wondering why she can’t love herself and find someone to love her.

Candy was the first person I reached out to when I realized I had a drinking problem.  Sitting on the couch, crying, drinking a pint glass of wine filled with ice cubes after working a 10 hour day, I held my phone in the crook of my neck and bumbled something like “I am a drunk!”  I slurped down a lukewarm watery wine mixture and felt completely unhinged.

  Candy is the type of person who really “get its”—not in an intellectual or sympathetic way, but in a deeply lived and felt sort of way.   She radiates a compassion and kindness that is palpable.  I feel it through the phone as we speak.   

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about that night.  Now, I realize that phone call was just about me making a confession to someone I loved.  To someone who I knew would “get it.” Candy didn’t try to give me advice, but rather, stayed with me, exactly where I was, acknowledging the hardship I faced, holding my hand as I looked up at a giant mountain I didn’t think I could climb.   

Candy is my only friend who is also an alcoholic. I remember Candy got sober for the first time after her 30th birthday.  She blacked out and said and did somethings she regretted.   So, she gave up alcohol—all alone surrounded by a community of hard drinkers.   That night as I confessed to her on my couch,  she told me a story about being three months sober, going on a booze cruise and drinking soda water surrounded by drunk people.  She stayed sober for 5 months that time.  I remember thinking “sober on a booze cruise, five fucking months without a drink?!?” as Candy spoke.  It all sounded miserable and impossible.

I am 4 months and 9 days sober now and I think I’ll make it to 5 months after all.

I have been to 4 women’s AA meetings since writing my previous post.   Everyday I wrestle with the energy I feel in those Church basements and and only beginning to understand how it is changing and healing me.   I try to hold it, the energy, the feeling I felt in that Safeway parking lot.   I’ve had a million ideas about what I would write about and now it’s all just slipping through my fingers as I try to put it into words.   Maybe this energy is the thing that Stardust is talking about when she talks about God—a force without form, so expansive, so large, so loving it can’t be held. 

I know this much.  What I am feeling is openness and beauty.  It’s strangers, women, coming together in Church basements for 28 years practicing rigorous honesty.  It’s the layers of addiction that wrap around people’s lives for generations.  It’s the grandma watching her 5 year old granddaughter chase her drunk mom around their trailer, and remembering when she was 5 and chasing her drunk mom taking on all those adult feelings when she was just a baby.  It’s the soft spoken, husky woman wearing the Raiders sweatshirt who has been sober for 4 years and suffers from chronic shoulder pain.  She cries as she tells us she has been in pain for years and has been too scared to take medication, because of the addiction.  It’s the unforeseen, uncontrollable tears that roll down my cheeks as Dorian tells me she would love to be a part of my support team and that I can call her anytime day or night.  I have spent less than 2 hours with this woman and I sense she really means what she said, so I cry.

So, how does all this alcoholism, pain, addiction and AA meetings connect to the orange guy?  The poor excuse for a person that is dismantling everything we love and cherish?   Movement activists talk about the power of love to bring our divided nation together.  Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March on Washington, suggests we should replace hope with radical love.   Van Jones, with his gorgeous brown skin and bald head, talked about the power of love to heal and bring us together.  He tells us only a “love army” will conquer trump.   Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “darkness can not drive out darkness only light can do that.  Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that.”  I always loved that quote.  As I watched the Women’s March on Washington live stream with Candy and Stardust cuddled on a couch at our Air BnB in Oakland,  I heard movement activist reminded us about love.  I wanted to believe it all.   I wanted to feel it, but now, I know I never really had.

Intellectually, I have always believed in the power of love.  Metaphysically and philosophically, it always made sense to me, the laws of attraction, the power of a positive vision and so on.   So, I have tried to practice love in my work and in my relationships, and mostly, I feel like I have failed.  I won millions of dollars in grants to transform the culture of schools and communities—only to have the entire operation co-opted by perverse political agendas.  I have scaled back and worked in small communities conducting a homeless census of farm worker families, sharing stories of families with infants and children living in shacks and paying $600 a month in rent, and trying to help men and women who can’t read or write in Spanish nonetheless English receive their “one time homeless emergency assistance” through social services.  This family has four children.  They were born here. They have rights.  They just can’t remember to save receipts, fill out forms or crawl blindly through this piecemeal, byzantine bureaucracy we call a safety net and they don’t deserve to be sleeping in sheds. (Thoughts of refugee mothers being torn away from their children at our southern border creep in. What about my undocumented friends?  What about these children? Images of an orange monster yelling about  Mexican rapists and murderers flood my mind.  Good thing I am not drinking right now!!) 

It’s not that all the work I have done is for nothing.  (I can hear you trying to reassure me through the computer screen!)  Conversations, ideas and attitudes slowly change.  People start to get organized and I felt, at times, happy to be apart of it all.  There were fleeting moments when I felt my heart open up and connect to something greater than me.  There was that time our parents showed up at our board meeting and cried because their children didn’t ever want summer school to end.  

Yet, if I am honest, I wasn’t ever able to do my work from a place of real love.  I was too frustrated, too sad, too pissed, too tired. I cared and felt too much.  I was insecure and sought approval from institutions and people in power.    I wanted to change things, to fix the unfixable.  So, years passed, grants came and went, programs started and stopped.  I wanted to do so much more than I was able.  I got tired, stopped sleeping, burned out, drank, clenched my teeth and kept sending emails and going to meetings and seeing kids and families and cried in bathrooms alone. 

This, to me, doesn’t sound a lot like radical love.  So, perhaps, what I am learning in those church basements is about what love looks like and feels like, love between strangers, love that doesn’t have a political affiliation, a love that overcomes addiction, a love that heals divides.     

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Meet the newest addition to the homestead.  Sugar and I have been affectionately calling this little fuzzhead Shit Foot or Caca Pie.  (That’s Spanish for Shit Foot.)  We call him this, because he always steps in his own poop (in case you needed someone to spell that our for you!)