Grace

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

I spent the better part of yesterday morning reading an old journal/sketchbook, one that I started shortly before my husband Thomas and I decided to make a real go for it. The journal included my final ill-fated premarital love attempts, lots of entries about my anguished relationship with alcohol, and anxiety-riddled entries about my capacity for long-term commitment to Thomas.

Usually I don’t read old journals. It’s cringy to encounter older versions of me. Julia Cameron of the infamous Morning Pages in The Artist’s Way advises against it, too. Giving ourselves a space to dump stuff and then move on is an act of grace, and the formula has served me well through decades of personal writing.

I don’t know why I picked up this old sketchbook and started thumbing through the pages–maybe because it was a sketchbook, and I’d forgotten that I’d used it as a journal too. The writings and drawings stop just before the wedding, as if I could no longer narrate the enormity of what I’d gotten myself into. That break in the words, in the careful accounting of fears and doubts and dreams, seems symbolic, whether intended or not. Marriage is a threshold-crossing whose new territory reveals itself slowly. Anything I would have written then, with the full weight of certainty I’m sure, would be questionable now in the light of experience. And that too is a kind of grace.

What I read in those pages was a woman I know well, a woman who had tasted the peace and beauty of belonging to herself but kept losing it, again and again, and looking outside of herself to find home.

I lost myself primarily in two ways–through addiction to alcohol, which dominated my life, and through misguided decisions about men. Each provided a cover for the other; when I was with someone new, I drank from giddy excitement, and when it ended, I drank because I was disappointed and alone. The more I was alone, the more I looked for the next potential spouse, and the more I drank, and on it went.

In the journal were moments of clarity, a week or two where I stopped drinking, stopped dating, and just lived inside myself in a way that fit. But I didn’t know how to stay. I didn’t know how to stay sober, and I didn’t know that in a healthy relationship, I could stay with both myself and the other person.

The woman in the journal kept reaching for something and someone to call home. She wanted ease and connection and safety, and a space to be herself. She wanted to experience enchantment in the ordinary–a fresh tube of paint, a tree losing leaves, the smell of rain, coffee. But the choices she made interfered. The wine wasn’t real enchantment, wasn’t real peace. The adrenaline-soaked romances weren’t real love or connection. She was trying so hard though, so hard. And I’m pleased to say I read her struggle with more compassion than judgement.

This year with Thomas, living at his Dad’s house, has been all about making a home within. In this place that isn’t our forever-home, I finally quit drinking, and discovered that home is as much a place inside as it is an ideal external environment. I’ve seen my husband in a new light too, what he is for me, how his presence and love have provided something stable and solid, the gentle background support to grow in ways I’ve wanted to for many years. And slowly, the enchantment has returned, in the quiet morning hours, the slow bike ride to work in chilly air, the coffee, the turn to each other at the end of our hardest days when we say, “There’s no one I’d rather endure this with than you.”

***

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time worrying about death. My efforts to comfort myself led me to read many books, and books led me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. In it, he offered the simple principle, “When conditions are sufficient, things manifest.” I reflect on this as I am now three months pregnant–yes, that’s right, three months pregnant–and our house nears completion, and seven months have passed since my last drink. I reflect on this as I no longer want to run away from my marriage every time things get hard, and I no longer experience intimate relationship as a loss of some vital part of myself.

There’s a pop culture notion that many students I counsel bring in with them, “No one can love you until you love yourself.” I think this is bullshit. I think we need both kinds of love. Sometimes the love another person gives us heals us, helps us learn to love ourselves. Maybe we’ve created a world of false dichotomies. Maybe it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. I both love Thomas and love myself. I am part of a couple and I’m an individual. Home is both inside and outside. I hope to be both a mother and an artist. I both tried hard to get pregnant and it just happened.

***

For now, my studio is all packed up and waiting arrival at its new home. I wake in the night anxious that I’m not painting right now, not creating even though I have some downtime from work. And then I remember, oh wait, I am creating. I’m creating this.

 

 

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