Over on Instagram, I often pair a very short story with my photos, and I thought I’d share a couple of them (and a life update, of sorts) here. If you’re on IG, feel free to follow along.
Guys, I’m interrupting the fall of democracy for a selfish reason. Today, I’ve been clean and sober for one year.
Considering I was quarantined for three months and haven’t been to an in-person recovery meeting since February, and also the cascading chaos of world-jarring events that we’re all navigating—well, I’m happy I made it this far.
Once upon a time I had many more sober years under my belt, and this one year took about three to finish, but life sometimes has other plans. I mean, look around. But the cool thing about rough times is that with some luck they can make you kinder and easier to cry and immune to bullshit and hopefully a little more useful to the people around you who may not be having, like, the best year of their lives.
As any sober person can tell you, none of this was accomplished through willpower. I don’t know why I got to a year when others didn’t. I have more resources than some and so much comes down to just plain luck, or grace, or the severity of one’s defeat. Sobriety is more than just getting by without drugs or booze. It’s closer to Dorothy opening the door to Munchkinland. And finding some traveling companions who pull you out of the wreckage of your own personal tornado.
Thank you especially Bill W., Peter, Charlie, Court and John, Todd, Patrick, Becca, Maura, Phil, David and many others, including some cool folks on here. I didn’t do this alone.
Thank you, Agnes—you endured all of it with me. I’ve tried to be your rock and you gave me a reason to go on. The world is scary and heartbreaking right now but also sort of beautiful, seeing so many people work so hard, in the face of great cruelty, to take care of each other. If you need to talk to someone about addiction, reach out to me and I’ll try in a very imperfect way to listen.
I pass my neighbors in the lot behind my building, a converted factory with 50 units. We come and go, sometimes stopping for a quick chat. I know the smokers better than the others. They’re fond of my dog. One of them drove me to the tow lot on New Year’s Day when I forgot to move my car during snow plowing.
Many of the dogs in the building have cranky temperaments, so their owners and I avoid each other, fiddle with face masks, nod across the distance. I mouth, “Hello” to the deaf woman who lives beside me. I can often hear her through the walls as she scolds the new puppy.
It’s a subsidized building, all of our incomes falling below a specific annual salary per occupant, a communal detail that you don’t normally know about your neighbors. Working folks, folks on disability, young families. The full racial spectrum. A few odd, lone souls like me, climbing out of some recent wreckage that we keep to ourselves.
My salary is a bit higher now, but they let me stay. I don’t know how many of my neighbors lost their jobs in the pandemic, though fewer cars swap spots during the day, and the property manager thanks me for my rent checks with a new intensity. The caretaker, who’s repaired my sink and AC and conducts inspections while I’m at work, has a personal relationship with my dog, developed over visits I’ve never seen.
One smoker likes to tease me about all the food I must eat when she sees me lumbering past with six full grocery bags dangling from my fists every weekend. A father of two tells me, “God Bless,” every time we pass. The small girls who used to fawn over Agnes are a bit older now and have turned awkward, as if we no longer know each other.
I never thought I’d still be here, back when I’d moved in, the first building in the valley that would let me keep my dog. Three and a half years have passed and almost every day I wonder, as I make my way through the lot, how I ended up here, as if I’ve forgotten how my life had fallen apart. And the two-bricks-forward, one-brick-back pace of my reconstruction, and how I’d miss these people—in a small, sharp way—should I ever leave.
The first boy I ever fell in love with lived in Nicaragua. I met Alfredo on a high school exchange trip when I was all of 15. We’d talk together in my broken Spanish late into the night after our families had gone to sleep.
One night I sat in the courtyard as he stood in front of me, telling me about being chased by a bull in a nearby field, and I struggled to grasp his words and he leaned forward, put his hands on my knees and rested his weight there, slowing his words for me, and the crucifix slipped out of his collar and caught the streetlight. I fell in love with him in that moment, in the way that a scared, closeted 15-year-old boy could fall in unrequited love with a boy whose culture had different norms for affection between men.
I never told him I loved him, though we exchanged letters after I returned to Minneapolis, where I marched in protests against the Contra War, getting clubbed in the gut by a cop and arrested at the age of 17. I was driven, for the first time in my life, by concern for the welfare of people outside of myself. For that boy and my host family and the other people I’d met, none of whom supported the U.S.-funded Contras waging war in their country and killing their sons, brothers and husbands.
I was saving my money for a return trip when I received word that Alfredo had been drafted into the war, his truck had been ambushed by the Contras, and he’d been killed. I may have been too young for my activism to survive that blow. I just felt hopeless futility. That I could march and protest and write essays and educate my peers but, in the face of well-funded and corrupt power, none of it would matter.
I still have that ambivalence, a calibrated sense of injustice in the world around me, dampened by paralyzed cynicism. And maybe, if I took that feeling and multiplied it by a factor I’m not equipped to calculate, it would be similar to that sense of exhausted, trampled outrage that a good chunk of this country feels on a daily basis. That trip was the best thing I ever did with my young life. It gave me a lens I still use to understand the world that continues to break my heart and stir my hope.
[A longer version of this piece appeared in War, Literature and the Arts. You can read it here.]