My Plum and I love to play with bubbles, we make huge ones that float around us, giant rainbow colored orbs that shine with drippy soap as they are carried away on the breeze. Plum chases them, delights in bursting them with his stick or sword or ninja kick. Maybe he is on to something that I have forgotten: bubbles are beautiful but must be broken. I always secretly root for them to escape his reach, bypass the branches, I want them to pass freely into the sky. Sometimes bubbles enclose us, surround us in bands of bright colors reflecting the light, hiding the darkness all around.

The Sunday night book group at church is breaking my heart. I knew going into it that I would be vulnerable, that my heart would be on the line. The seriousness of the topic, how closely it fit my own reality, I knew it was dangerous. Still, I felt called, pushed, to sign my name on the clipboard, I felt prodded to buy the book and say I would join. “The New Jim Crow”  by Michelle Alexander is risky stuff, threatening our happy bubbles, perilous to our long-held beliefs. For those of us well acquainted with the criminal justice system, it is even more painful.

I finished grad school about 25 years ago, I haven’t read serious works since, not full books on social justice by intelligent authors. I read snippets, I follow news. I live life and experience events but have not stayed up on scholarly readings. This is my confessional, where I come clean about my own intelligent ignorance. Much like when my son showed signs of substance abuse but I knew that I had already covered all of those bases, I was too smart to let that happen in my own family, I missed what was in front of me. My knowledge was not sufficient to understand the greater issue, my response was not great enough to halt the problem. My bubble kept me from seeing what was really happening to/with my son, until it all burst, our life snagged on the jagged edges of addiction, destroyed by the criminal justice system once again.

Getting comfortable in our own bubbles is dangerous, as the current national situation can attest. The seriousness of the racial divide is irrefutable, once the bubble of denial is popped, the soul cleansing can begin. I don’t want to know what I am reading, I don’t want to be aware that politicians I have loved are complicit in this current divide. How much soap will it take to clean us all? Will we ever be washed free of this ugliness? I don’t have the answers to fix such a horrific systemic problem but I know the first step is breaking those bubbles, those beautiful alluring floating orbs that can calm my mind and distract me from what is true and what is real. Indeed, blisters are bubbles as well, patches of skin rubbed until the skin reacts angrily. A burn that shows the damage has occurred, attention is required. Bubbles, blisters, mass incarceration, racial caste.  My soul is aching and my memories are fresh. The first step in healing.


Family Fusion

The room was too tiny for all of us, squished together in the apartment living room and kitchen combination. Toys and gifts littered the floor, boxes of new cologne sets and bath products lined the steps up to the bedrooms. The countertops held vegetable trays and dips, desserts and bits of Legos, snowman napkins and plastic silverware. The kind of disaster that normally sends me into evacuation mode. A cluttering of all things holiday complete with grandparents, two uncles, the favorite grandchild, the Mama and the step-father. The assortment of people couldn’t have been more odd, as if they each were dressed for Independence Day or Halloween. But it was Christmas as a very blended family and it worked. A holiday with those who put aside bloodlines and chose each other.

Seven years ago my son was deep into his drug use, his girlfriend was riding along with him. They were never together sober. When they discovered she was pregnant, she moved in with us, we really didn’t know her but she had no other options. Thus began a long and often tortuous relationship with Mama. We have loved, battled, rescued, stepped away and jumped back in so many times that others question our sanity. It took a serious court proceeding over Plum’s custody for her to determine she was all in with her son, she has never looked back. What should have broken us completely was actually the ultimate glue, the deepest honesty brought us all together. No longer being careful to not hurt feelings or being afraid of the consequences, we had to act and tell the truth. She was forced to hear it and choose. She is a wonderful Mama to her son now, we are grandparents along side her. The process of letting go of our Plum, little by little and supporting her as his mother has been healthy for all of us, she leans on us more, rather than him doing the leaning.  Today she will deliver her second child, my bonus grandchild (thanks LuAnn for the terminology!), a child not in any way blood related and yet still somehow we will be gran and gramps. This is blending, we are choosing to stay in.

Mama married a young man who has taken in not only her but her child, my Plum. Plum celebrated the union, asked if he could then call him “Dad.” While my heart broke just a little, I knew this man would not abandon Plum, he would be present daily to play games and nightly to see him off to bed. He would make sure money was in the lunch account, that rough play on the floor occurred. He would make fart jokes and tell Plum to respect his mother. We have embraced this young man, he comes to our house and reaches right into the candy bowl, walks freely upstairs to Plum’s room to play Lego. They join us for dinner, he texts me with questions about the pregnancy. He is my bonus son. More than that, his parents have taken in my Plum, they treat him as one of their own grandchildren.  Special nights out, amazing gifts, time to play, complete grandma duties. I love that they love him. They have chosen to blend, to combine and accept the wholeness of who to love with all of their love. I was honored to help plan the wedding with Plum’s new grandma, to coordinate decorations and food, the glueing of the new us. We found there was space for all of us to be, an expansion of family, no bloodlines needed. Fully blending.

This child needs all the love that can be poured into him. His father has checked out, his aunt disappeared. His paternal grandfather is just as he was with his own children, absent.   Yet a new family has assembled who will worry less about roles and bloodlines and past hurts to create new memories, to allow room for all who want to love on Plum and  celebrate this new baby. So we found space in the tiny apartment for all of us to sit and eat and play and chatter, a regular holiday scene with unusual players. We have labored hard to get to this point, the ability to rejoice without worry, nurture without scorekeeping, clean up without judgment. We found harmony.

While my heart was saddened that Arrow could not choose to see his son yesterday, not even on a special day, I knew it was for the best. Plum didn’t seem to notice his absence, even sadder still. Addiction does that to families, teaches you not to count on the one using. Without sobriety, my son is unable to see truth, accept humility, be the man I know he can be. The monster is raging within him, taken over again. Soon he will have a second child, just a matter of months, God only knows if he will be able to care for that one, create a family. Just as we could never have predicted the blending that has resulted in the beautiful holiday we just celebrated and the wonderful everyday we live out now with Mama, we have no idea what 2017 holds. I pray that next year more of our bloodline is present in whatever space we all occupy, more combining of love and trust and noise to round out our family scene. Maybe Arrow will be swept up in another grouping, a different merging of those who are unanchored and now finding connection. If so, I pray they share as much joy as we did last night.

Addiction has ravaged our family, caused my Arrow to retreat again from his son. The ugly truth is also the blessed honesty, Plum doesn’t notice. He is surrounded by a mixture of people who embrace him, his normal is somewhat crazy maybe to anyone who would ask to chart the family tree. Just as in a tiny stable so long ago, crowded and messy and noisy, we all came together to be with this child on Christmas. Those who missed it may still be traveling, searching for the star to guide their way. May they all find it, may it lead them to the Christ child who will surely lead them home, back to the tiny places that hold what is most dear.

Begin at the Beginning

Al Anon meetings were my after-school activities as a child, the place we went as a family to see friends, race around the old couches, drink soda from the can and eat cookies while the adults talked. Each of my siblings and I had scouts or sports but none lasted with the dedication of Al Anon, none involved full family participation. We were a family that knew alcoholism, we excelled in drinking and enabling and secret fights and covering up. I learned early the language of “elephant in the room” and “just for today.” I remember holding sweaty hands with other kids who attended, playtime drawn to a close as we rejoined our parents or grandparents and formed a circle to recite the Serenity Prayer. Knowing those words were important, help some special meaning to everyone in the room, I learned them early, I spoke with determination. Only later as I became a parent of an addict myself have I come to discover the true power and puzzle in these words.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Twenty-seven words, my own mission statement. While friends tell of a favorite hymn, wistful eyes recalling Sundays at church singing with the whole family filling the pew, I have this prayer. Like a lullaby sung to send me off to slumber, this is my song. I have signs and plaques around my house in case I ever forget, I guess.  Still, the meaning escapes me, I can’t live it out on a daily basis. How can something so fixed into my DNA still be such a conundrum?

In moments of great distress, I recall these words easier than my own name, clarity and truth abound. I see what I can change, I find courage, I gain wisdom. Having the crises that come with an addicted child, opportunities are unfortunately frequent to establish what is his to fix, what is mine. Knowing I cannot make my child not want to use drugs anymore than he can make me okay with it means we just have some boundaries to work out, some accepting to do.  Walking away from your kid when they are begging to go home, promising to never use again, leaving the rehab, listening to that locked door click, this is the stuff of courage. Figuring out when the problem is his and when I am able to help and that help is really helpful and not saving him from his own stuff, that is wisdom. I have grown skilled at applying this prayer to this limited situation. But what about the other 99% of my life? What about when the crisis is over?  Why didn’t we recite the prayer over dinner or talk about it when we weren’t in that meeting hall? Like holiday lights that shine brightly only one season a year, these words glow when in use but then collect dust in my soul attic, packed away until needed.

What if I began each morning pouring my coffee and praying for serenity, for courage, for wisdom? Would I struggle less, would I understand more? Maybe the words make no sense because I am stuck in my own wisdom, determined to solve my puzzles first. Bottom up rather than top down, who starts a puzzle that way? Using what works with all the sudoku, all the crosswords, I can’t choose the last clue, the middle. Begin at the beginning, serenity.


Chasing My High

I remember learning in the parent group while my son was in rehab the first time that the addict is forever chasing that first high. Nothing can compare with the initial use, the chemistry is forever altered, it requires ever more of the substance to achieve any pleasurable results. Yet the user knows how amazing it feels, remembers the euphoria. So the chase continues. I think holiday gatherings are much like this for me.

I love thanksgiving, I love cooking and decorating and filling my table with friends and family. I chase the high of gratitude filling the air like the sweet smell of marijuana at an outdoor concert. I just know if I provide the setting, put all the pieces in place, grace will overflow like wine from a shakily poured brown bottle in an alley. I expect card games after the meal, laughter rising up, children running amok, a party worthy of the noise control. I am chasing a high long gone. I cook for two days, plan much longer. I scour Pinterest for table doo-dads, I write on chalkboards. Like the heroin user setting up the needle, spoon, the rope to tie around my arm, my high begins with the process. The anticipation of what is to come generates energy, I barely sleep. Excitement builds, I know my high is coming. But just like the addict who is stuck remembering that one great time, I am forever disappointed. I know I am expecting too much, I want to recreate that one event or a compilation of wonderful thanksgivings without telling everyone their part in my play. Still, it is thanksgiving dammit. Where is the gratitude? Where is the grace? Why aren’t we playing cards? Why did no one write on the board or fill out their little cards at the table? I was left feeling like a drive through, albeit one with couches and a tv for everyone to pass out on after the meal. Coming right in time for the meal, leaving immediately after or taking a nap, not contributing to my high. I was left wanting.

It has taken me days to realize the pressure I put on everyone else to fill me with gratitude. I wanted everyone else to get me high, to load me up on this one day. Just as an addict is looking externally for fulfillment, I forgot that I am in charge of my own joy. I forgot that grace was still at our table, that I had indeed provided the setting for each person to dine but also to rest. The rush of their lives doesn’t allow for that, just stopping for a while was a gift, something I know they are grateful for, something they treasure about our closeness. Because the day didn’t go as I planned I lost sight of my own gratitude. I missed out on the real high of the day.

The leftovers are gone, the fine china stored again. My own nap has restored me. I have resisted putting up the Christmas decorations, something I usually do the weekend after the big turkey fest. Instead, I am reflecting on my own lack of thanks, my own need for others to fill me up. The pumpkins and gourds, the oranges and yellows have stayed put around the house until I achieve my own sobriety, until I can write on my own chalkboard. Reviewing the 12 steps is enlightening, reminding me that the hole I was trying to fill is God-sized.

Here are the 12 Steps as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I’m not sure which step I’m on, I know holidays are rough, I may slide back as Christmas looms and our household is rocky right now. I may try to force others into my mental images of great family gatherings in order to achieve my jolly, my merry. One day at a time, though. For now, it is enough that I know my high comes from the Most High, that there will never be a perfect gathering here on earth, certainly not around my dining room table. I think my sanity is being restored, I am grateful for that. To all who gathered here, I apologize for not finding your very presence to be enough. I am sorry for wanting more from you, adding strings you couldn’t see. That is my defect, please consider joining me for coffee and cookies and a chat and a nap if you need. I am thankful for all of you, I really am.


19 Years Ago

My brother gave up 19 years ago on this day. He had actually given in many years before, given in to alcohol and drug use, given in to stealing from family and abandoning his child, given in to a selfish life that promises everything and delivers nothing. He didn’t begin with those goals, no one does. He also didn’t grab the help that was offered, he didn’t fight for himself, for a life that included the ability to look others in the eye. He gave up on this day 19 years ago but it all began with his first beer, the first time he smoked a joint. I am not convinced how much choosing he did after that, I understand the genetic component. Sometimes it works that way for kids. Others can try it out and walk away. Some kids try it once, not believing the warnings, and find themselves on a path not glamorous or exciting, rather it includes such disillusionment that they themselves become the warnings. They are the mugshots, they are the newspaper obituaries.

When my Arrow was in rehab we heard the mantra that addiction leads to one or all of these three places: jails, institutions, death. We are thankful that we have only experienced the first two with our son, my brother lived out all three. I have many friends who visit the gravesite of their children, not so lucky as us. The substances my brother chose back then were not so lethal immediately, more of a slow destroyer. Today a first dabble can be the last. Terrifying.

I heard a story this week of a young man who dabbled and lost. A young man who did not fit any addiction profile, a guy with everything ahead of him. Well-loved, highly educated, active in sports, he made the choice to experiment. One time. That one attempt led to a bad trip which escalated quickly, he grabbed a gun from the family home and now his community mourns the loss of all that he could have been. They mourn the suddenness, they grieve the finality.  My heart is aching for this family and so many families across our nation. I wish I had some answers, some way to break the spell that drugs and alcohol have on our young people. I have nothing.

Nineteen years ago my brother closed himself in a garage and stopped fighting the demons that had taken over his life. He couldn’t find a way back to the person he wanted to be, he couldn’t find any way to transform his soul into something good when the last 2 and half decades had been so ugly. I can’t honestly say I would have been able to guide him back, I had taken his calls too many times and was too angry myself. Yet I still mourn the loss of him, the him he could have been if he hadn’t started using at age 12, the potential he never saw. I think that part is just a dream for me, wisps of fantasy that surround the memories of my brother. I no longer really know who he was, the real stories are just so horrible.

My Arrow sent me a picture this week of the rehab center he attended several times, said he drives by it everyday on his way to work. Today I am grateful for that, the gift of a route that takes him by what could be, what has been. Today I am beyond thankful that he is still  able to send me pictures. I am praying for all those who are not so blessed. I am praying for all those who are still in the struggle. I am praying especially for all those who think it is worth their lives to give any of it a try. I also am beseeching our God to show us a way out of this. To help us support those on the front lines, the counselors and providers, and to unite our country around the goal of saving our children.

What used to be a nasty little family secret now is so prevalent that it no longer shocks. That is shocking in itself.  I don’t have any other answers, I only have memories. I know that 19 years ago my brother gave up. There are many others that still have a chance.