Every year I write a “gratitude” post that usually focuses on those I love, my family, my clean time, my writing, work, and what had transpired over the previous year that got me here—all of which I am extremely grateful for. But with this unpredictable insane year I don’t even know where, or what, or how to start. Everything “good” has been so overshadowed by all the madness and turmoil that has been transpiring all around me. It has been a year so rife with political upheaval, a deadly pandemic, and a shit ton of grief, loss, death, and economic hardships, that I have had to dig deep to find the really cool and wonderful things that have occurred. Yet what’s even more disturbing is I’m holding on to a sense that acknowledging anything that was good is unwarranted. Or I shouldn’t because others have it worse. Or in some misplaced solidarity in that we’re all passengers on this same leaky boat either sailing into the unknown of what this new year will bring, or sinking into a cesspool of hopelessness.
Um, yeah, see what I mean?
I guess what I’m really trying to say (albeit very clumsily) is that I’m totally conflicted. On the one hand I should acknowledge and embrace everything that in a “normal” year would fall under the “being grateful” banner. On the other I’m not sure that we’re ever going to see or experience another normal year and even though there is some form of light on this very dark horizon, I’m having difficulty seeing the glass, let alone caring, if it’s half full or just goddamn half empty.
After experiencing everything this four year rightwing dictatorship nightmare had to offer it still doesn’t feel like I’ll ever be calm again. I’m always waiting for that next horrible thing, that next atrocity, and that next… does it really matter? Embracing an overwhelming sense of impending doom is something I’ve lived with all my life. But now it has moved in and is sitting on my couch.
I know I should be grateful that I don’t have covid. And for the most part my family and friends are safe. I’m not homeless. I’m not in jail. I’m not strung-out, deranged, or suicidal. But I just can’t muster up a sense of security or anything even close to inner peace. It’s hard not to think that it’s all going to get worse.
And then I look back at what transpired and realize just how much has changed; the losses, the achievements, the beauty, the horrors, and all that other stuff in between. If there’s one thing that’s constant, it’s change, and trying desperately to keep things the same isn’t how it works. Yet letting go of the past has proven difficult. So let me just try and put it all down into words and go from there.
Right before the pandemic I lost my father to cancer. He had been sick. I should have seen it coming. But as a son you just don’t think your larger than life father is ever going to go away. When I was young he told me he was going to live forever. And I believed him. But then a few years ago, on one of my visits back East, we were navigating the frozen winter streets of Somerville and I noticed he wasn’t as agile or strong as he had been. I saw my father as the eighty-year-old man he was and I had the first glimpse that our time was finite. Yet I still held on to him saying he would live forever… And then he didn’t.
A week before my father died Jenn lost her mother. We were devastated as the gaps in our collective families began to appear. We felt like orphans. Then the pandemic hit. There wouldn’t be any ceremony or funerals (still haven’t been). We put our grief away and put on masks. But the reality took awhile to sink in. We both experienced those fleeting moments when the urge to call, or visit, or share something hits, and then the realization that you can’t and never will, seeps in and it hurts. While simultaneously plagued with the thoughts, I should have done more, been there more, visited more, called more, more, more, more…
So what’s left to do? Well, you trudge on because life doesn’t stop. But there’s a pandemic out there trying to kill you and half the population is so ignorant they’re ignoring it. Hoping it will just go away. So you shelter in place. Stay at home. Lose your job. Lose money. Lose your mind. Every day there’s more bullshit on the news. More lies, more hate. More, more, more…
In response I retreated inside, saw people less, avoided public places, and embraced zoom for work and teaching. I got quiet. I started reading more. I watched too much TV. I cooked more. Jenn and I fixed all those things that needed fixing around the house. We redid the living room into a place we would actually use. And as the days turned into months Jenn started reaching out to her family and friends with whatever means she could: Zoom, FaceTime, phone calls. While I retreated further away. Telling myself it’s okay. I have no problem isolating. I’d say things like, “You know my life really hasn’t change that much with quarantine. Except now I don’t have to make excuses as to why I’m not coming to your social event.” I also say that writing isn’t a group sport. Yet the reality is I spend a lot of time alone in my head.
Pre-pandemic I’d written three books and held off trying to get them published, as I just didn’t want to deal with the publishing industry (I know that you’ve all heard me whine about this already). But quarantine has somewhat changed that (more time on my hands, maybe?). I’m sending stuff out now, getting rejections, and drowning in the lack of response from publishers and agents. It’s entirely possible my books suck. I’ve never really written anything mainstream. I’m probably not what agents and publishers see as someone whose work is going to make them money (it is a business after all). It’s also conceivable that my voice isn’t what needs to be heard right now. The resounding silence that passes for rejection these days makes it’s hard not to feel that I am late to the party.
On the flip side, and very thankfully so, I’ve also been involved in two really brilliant projects.
PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program tapped me to write the memoir nonfiction chapter for their updated PEN America Prison Writing Handbook. Which was not only an incredible honor, but it also fits right in with being on the board of Natashia Deon’s REDEEMED and advocating for prison reform.
Also, and just as equally cool; James Brown and I are writing a book on using creative writing as a tool for getting clean and sober—titled, Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives. I’m super proud of this project and it too fits in with my recovery, work, community, career, and writing. I’m honored to be collaborating with Jim as his The Los Angeles Diaries was a major inspiration when I first started writing. You hang around long enough sometimes you do get invited to the party.
On November 3rd over half of America voted Trump out of office. I’m more that grateful I’ll never have to hear or see that worthless piece of shit ever again—except to watch him get convicted of treason. But I think this whole mess is far from over. And it too will get a lot worse before it gets better. My apologies if that sounds too dark and foreboding. But the fact that 74 million did vote for him sadly says a lot more about America and where we stand as a nation.
On January 6th I received the first shot of the Moderna vaccine. In another 4 weeks I’ll get the second and [hopefully] be immunized from Covid-19. This too I am grateful for. It’s not often to receive an acknowledgement like this for working in the recovery and mental health community.
On January 8th I reached the milestone of 20 years clean and sober. Which is like crazy. Like in a good way. If there has been one constant in my life these past twenty years it’s that I’ve been able to stay off drugs and alcohol—even when the world is going to shit. Not once in all this recent chaos have I even considered that getting loaded would make it better. Because I know it wouldn’t. I’m totally grateful for everyone in my life. I appreciate every one of you. You all make this a better place to be—even if I never call. The reality is I couldn’t stay drug free without you and your support.
I am also grateful that all of our families are still healthy; my mom, sisters, brothers and sisters in law, nieces, nephews, grand nieces, and all the extended family—because over time, and especially this year, I’ve once again been shown that “family” is what really matters—big hugs, and much love to you all.
Especially my immediate family; Jenn and I recently realized that we’ve been together nine years and married for four (we’re both terrible with remembering dates). We’ve been getting to spend a lot of time together with this quarantine and in a good way. We’ve made an amazing life for ourselves, and our two ungrateful cats, and even though this year has been hard, we’ve been there for each other and made it through. I feel grateful for having picked the right person to spend the rest of my life with.
Still everyday is a throw of the dice as to what new hurt, dilemma, or atrocity we’re going to be forced to recon with. Jenn has been out of work since the pandemic hit (restaurants are non-existent). My hours have been cut back to worse than part time. Six weeks ago I got hit with a particularly debilitating laryngitis and haven’t been able to talk, like literally (although I’m sure there are some folks that are grateful for that). Consequently I haven’t been able to work and there’s no money coming in. Now I worry about finances. I’m stressed about the immediate future. It can get depressing. It can feel dark. I feel like a failure. Like I’m no longer relevant (if I ever was). And with no voice I can’t even scream in frustration. Yet this too shall pass. Right?
Now before anyone calls the authorities to administer a wellness check on my behalf, let me just say that this post wasn’t a thinly veiled cry for help. I’m just relating what I am feeling today, right now. There are days that are dark and everything looks bleak. And there are days that are all good and everything around me is amazing. These opposites balance each other out. And… here comes the gratitude in all that (what, did you think I wasn’t going to wrap it all up in a bow?), today I get to feel all of those feelings. Life is no longer one big opiated numb. It’s not a flat-line experience. It’s joy and sorrow. And I’m cool with that.
2021 better not suck.