You are what you practice most.Richard Carlson
I am learning to paddle board. I have to admit, I’m becoming a little obsessed. I was nervous at first because I was afraid I would be terrible at it, and for a long time I wouldn’t try new things if I didn’t think I’d be able to do them perfectly. That impossible standard prevented me from having adventures, finding new passions, pursuing new careers. That fear caused me to live really small for a really long time.
I’ve gone a couple of times now, and the more I do it, the more I love it. I still haven’t fallen, though. Shane told me last weekend I needed to “learn how to fall.” I very patiently explained to him that I have no intention of falling. He out-patiented me by not responding. What can I say? As my friend Maysha would say, God’s still workin’ on me.
He’s right, of course. It’s not so much that I need to practice so I know what to do when the unforeseen occurs- although I do. It’s more that I need to approach paddle boarding as a practice. The whole thing is a practice. A practice in balance, in navigation, in endurance, in mindfulness.
Every single important thing in my life is a practice. There are about a half a dozen things I try to do every day to take care of myself, stay present, and show up for life. Some of them have evolved over time, the way rituals do. I do most of them imperfectly, but I try to be consistent.
As it turns out, I am very much a creature of habit.
Breath and prayer
I try to begin each morning in prayer. When I first open my eyes, I take a long deep breath in through my nose and let it out slowly through my mouth. I do this three times to make sure I’m centered and in my body. As I exhale the third breath I say, “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.” When I get out of bed, I kneel on the floor, bend forward, and touch my forehead to the ground. I give thanks for all the gifts I have been given, for everything that has been taken away, and everything that remains. Then I sit up and we check in, God and I. I have a list of names I say every morning and every night. I offer them up with love and a prayer for healing – whatever that looks like. No cherished outcomes. No deciding what and how it should play out. Just the same six names. Every day. For a long time now. The last part of my prayer practice is a mantra I adopted from my beautiful friend, Rachel Macy Stafford. Before I get up off the floor I make a promise to myself and to the world: “Only love today.”
Coffee and forgiveness
Most mornings, I pour my coffee and spend a few quiet minutes with Scout, because pre-dawn is her magical time. She is her best self before the sun comes up and all of her (many) nemeses walk by our door and incite violence in her heart. I rub her velvety ears and sniff the top of her head, which inexplicably smells like popcorn and fresh air. She is not a cuddly dog by nature, but for a short time before sunrise, she will curl up next to me on the couch and permit affection. While I am drinking my strong, nearly perfect coffee and petting Scout, I forgive. I sit in the quiet and see what, if anything, has its hooks in me. I check for resentment. I use to think resentment was just about anger, but the word resentment actually means ‘to feel again.’ What is over, but still causing me sadness, worry, anger, jealousy? Once I’ve identified it, I forgive. Myself and others. I used to think forgiveness was one and done, but now I understand it’s a practice. As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, forgiveness is bolt-cutters. You release yourself from being connected to the thing causing you pain. It doesn’t undo the harm, it severs your connection to it.
Dog and the city
Then Scout and I usually go for a walk- sometimes short, sometimes longer. We take communion with our city as it yawns and stretches its way into busyness. We walk through the park and up and down the quiet streets. The squirrels are mostly sleeping, but Scout does her due diligence. While we don’t encounter many people, when we do cross paths with someone I try to really see them. I walk through the city green and side step the bottles and cans. I see my sisters and brothers on benches and in doorways. I have my phone handy because a big part of writing is not actually writing. It’s walking and cooking and showering and dancing and driving and watching British cooking shows – so I am constantly dictating notes into my phone as I take notice of life unfolding.
Pen and paper
I mean, not really. But fingers and keyboard sounds less poetic. In any case, I write. Sometimes with intention – a particular chapter or post. Sometimes I free-write. I used to think I needed to have things figured out before I wrote about them, now I know the fact that it’s the other way around is what makes me a writer. I write my way into understanding. I write it down because I can’t not write. I used to write first thing in the morning – at 4:30 a.m. During the pandemic when I was working such long and stressful hours, that became impossible. I’m healthy enough today to honor what my body needs more often. Not perfectly, but better. Now I try for the morning, but if I can’t do it then I fit it in somewhere. Even if it’s just a few lines, shoehorned into my day. I’ve learned not to let perfect be the enemy of good.
Chords and lyrics
I listen to music every day. Music is like oxygen to me. I could no more survive without music than I could without air to breathe. Songs sustain me and break and heal my heart daily. I have a few songs that are almost always part of my day. One of them is Into the Mystic by Van Morrison. Another one is Polaroids by Shawn Colvin. Also, Closer to Fine by the Indigo Girls and I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash. I don’t know what it is about those songs, but they crack me wide open – and wide open is how I choose to live, today.
Love and fear
The last thing is really something I don’t do, when I think about it:
Every day, I don’t drink. No matter what.
Today marks six years of me making the decision to not drink every day. This is the only practice I’ve done perfectly since I started it, which is good because this is the one that makes all the other things possible.
My friend Samm is an adorable, terrible joke telling, Applebees loving, heavily tattooed, knuckle-headed, surfing sage. Most of her sentences begin with the word, “like” and she calls me “dude,” more than you might expect. And in between ‘like’ and ‘dude,’ she says things like, “You can’t be spiritually shitfaced all the time” and “Dude, I’m, like, cautiously stoked.” She’s a little Yoda. I remember being in a meeting with her five years ago, before I really knew her. She was emotional about something and said, “I just really love, like, 75% of the people in this room.” I started laughing so hard I cried, and she has had me laughing ever since. She regularly assures me I’m in her top 3%, which I’m seriously considering adding to my resume. She said once that every morning she has one decision to make, and it is this: Love or fear? How is she going to choose to live today? I’m pretty sure that’s her making the same decision I make every morning not to drink, because that’s what my decision boils down to.
Am I going to live in love or am I going to live in fear?
Six years ago I woke up every morning, usually around 3 a.m., riddled with fear. I’d drink to try and go back to sleep, even though that seldom, if ever, worked. I would begin my day drenched in shame and promising that the next day would be different. There was zero enjoyment in drinking at the end. I hated it. I hated the way it made me feel and I hated what it was doing to the people I loved. I knew I was destroying my body, my relationships, my life – but the fear and grief and rage and uncertainty did not feel survivable. I was so terrified to feel those things that I’d inevitably return to the only thing that had ever worked, even though it had not worked in a very, very long time. Alcohol was my solution long before it was ever a problem.
The first drink I ever had, at the age of eleven, is the first time I remember feeling free. That might sound dramatic for someone so young, but I was an ancient ruin by the time I was nine. The alcohol hit my bloodstream, the fear fell away and I felt a rush of freedom. The insidious thing about addiction, though, is this: Whatever the thing you’re addicted to is, and it can be literally anything, ends up causing what it initially cured. I drank to connect to people and addiction led me to isolation and profound loneliness. I drank to feel free, and addiction enslaved me. I drank to feel unafraid, and addiction had me terrified every minute of every day.
Fear is why I drank, but only 100% of the time. Even when I drank during happy times, it was about escalating or prolonging that happiness for fear it would diminish or evaporate.
Today when I feel joy, I relax into it and soak it up, because I know it is temporary. Today, when I am undone with grief, I pray and wait for it to pass, because it will. I know it is temporary. If things are scary and uncertain, I breathe knowing there will be an answer, eventually. That in-between place is temporary. Everything, everything, everything is temporary. I let the feelings come, which is sometimes hard and always simple. My ability to be still and hold all things with an open hand is integral to my ability to remain sober. I once heard a woman in recovery say of those of us who practice sobriety,
We don’t drink and we don’t run.
When I get a promotion, I don’t drink. When I fall in love, I don’t drink. When my heart is broken, I don’t drink. When work is hard, I don’t drink. When work is fantastic, I don’t drink. When I’m worried about paying my bills, I don’t drink. When I have extra money in the bank, I don’t drink. When it’s a holiday, I don’t drink. When it’s a regular Tuesday, I don’t drink. When the weather is particularly good or the weather is particularly bad, I don’t drink. That may seem funny to people who’ve never struggled with addiction, but my fellow alcoholics understand. There’s nothing like a perfect summer evening or a terrible snowstorm for an excuse to open a bottle. Or ten.
When the world is on fire, I don’t drink. When there’s a global pandemic, I don’t drink. When my friends die, I don’t drink. When everything is terrifying or uncertain or amazing or boring, I don’t drink.
When I decide not to pick up that first drink, the entire world opens up to me. I have freedom and agency and I can make decisions. It’s the one decision that makes all the other decisions possible. When I drink, that’s all I can do. My world gets small and cold and dark and lonely and all of my other choices go away. The first drink guarantees the second. And after that? After that I have no idea. Maybe it’ll be okay that time. Maybe I’ll drive the wrong way down I-95 and kill someone. I genuinely have no idea which way it’ll go, and I have no control over it once I lift that first glass. If I know one thing for certain in this life, it is this: once alcohol is in my system, it does whatever the fuck it wants with me.
So, on this day, the only one that is guaranteed, I choose not to drink. No matter what. Not today and not for the past 2192 days.
And because I don’t drink, I get to choose.
So, I choose a clear head and an unashamed heart. I choose to notice my life and the lives of others. I choose friendship and love and connection. I choose freedom and accountability. I choose forgiveness and acceptance. I choose laughter and joy. I choose purpose and service and creativity. I choose to let life happen and feel all of it. I choose me. I choose never to betray myself again.
I choose love. Only love. Every day.