Plenty to be grateful for

To call Kristi Gray my friend feels like a misnomer. We share more than one secret connection, and I know God has bound us together for the rest of our lives. I couldn’t be more thankful for her. Kristi, you matter to me.

When I first saw my friend Bethany’s request for people to submit posts on gratitude for her blog during the month of November, I quickly skipped over it thinking, I have nothing to be grateful for this year.  It’s been nothing but hard.  But then as the days grew closer to November, I began to be hit with a flood of emotions, including, yes, lots of gratitude.

Fifteen years ago this week, I was on a spiral downwards.  I had just moved to Washington, D.C., three months prior, and I was in a dark, dark place.  My drinking led to blackouts, which led to waking up in strange places with strange people.  I was putting myself in more and more dangerous situations.  I had managed to lose all the friends I had in a short period of time.  My parents were no longer speaking to me.  I was alone, miserable, hated myself, wanted to die and couldn’t imagine life without alcohol because then I would have to feel all these feelings I was desperately trying to push down and hide.  On November 4, 2001, in the middle of a drink, I was struck with the thought that if I continue drinking, I am going to die, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to die anymore.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

That night I walked into a meeting of people who had managed not to take a drink for weeks, months, and even years, and I desperately wanted what they had.  They offered me a solution and walked with me through the fear and the pain and the tears and all those feelings that I didn’t want to feel.  I began to slowly experience peace and contentment and God’s presence in my life.   And I haven’t had to be alone again ever since that day.  How can I say I have nothing to be grateful for?

Fourteen years from the day I put down that drink, I began walking through perhaps the most difficult year of my life.  At the beginning of this year, I was enveloped in a darkness I didn’t think I could ever crawl out of, and worst of all, I had lost all hope.  I have been through lots of painful, dark times in my life, but I had never experienced this level of pain.  I didn’t know what to do, so I just did what I’ve been taught to do by my many mentors in life and that is to keep walking through it, hang on, and don’t give up.  My wallpaper on my phone says “Never Give Up” as a constant reminder to myself to keep going no matter what.   And I know God didn’t give up on me because He has been continuously sending me angels to guide me through this dark, difficult year.  The most amazing, beautiful people have showed up on this journey to help guide the way and help me face those parts of me I had been unwilling to face.

Just a few weeks ago, with the help of a wonderful mentor God recently placed in my life, I was able to start removing some of those things that had been blocking me from God and from others, and finally, finally the light started to come in and the darkness began to lift.  I woke up today with a smile on my face, excited to start my day, and I felt happy for the first time in a very long time.  I think I called everyone I knew to tell them I was happy! I didn’t know if I would ever feel peace and contentment and God’s presence again, and now, 15 years after I felt it for the first time, I am feeling all of those things on a deeper level than I’ve ever experienced.  On November 5, 2016, I will wake up 15 years sober, and I will wake up in the sunlight and will know that God is with me and is taking care of me and that all will be okay.

How can I say I have nothing to be grateful for?  I’ve been given my life back, not once, but twice.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

I’d rather be wrong

Recently, one of my friends reached out to me to inform me that she’d been viciously attacked by her boyfriend (now ex). She described the bruises, and she admitted she felt scared for her life.

“You were right about him.”

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

In the pit of my gut, I winced.

There was a time when I reveled in being right… being right during factual debates, being right at work, being right regarding hot, controversial topics, and being right about you, your life, and your decisions. I thought I knew best for everyone and made sure they knew it.

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve hesitantly accepted that I don’t even know what’s best for myself. I’m rarely right. But for years, I lived in denial, made terrible choices which affected many people, and suffered. I’ve stopped playing God and have turned my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him.

A childhood friend killed herself a few years ago after battling depression and enduring domestic abuse. Two years before, I’d reached out to share my experience with similar problems and offered the solutions which had worked for me.

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. I’m just worried about him.”

Another childhood friend died last year in a sketchy incident involving drugs. One year prior, I’d hugged him desperately in tears at a funeral. I begged him to get himself into a 12-step recovery program. I told him I thought he might not make it otherwise.

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m doing fine. I haven’t done anything in months.” Alcohol emanated from his pores.

A woman I know and love came to me and shared about her marital struggles. I shared my experience and encouraged her to seek help and concoct a plan for starting a new life for herself. She stayed for another year. Her eyes are still dead.

Being right is the worst feeling in the world now.

If there’s any time I’d prefer to be wrong, it’s when I’m watching someone I love die. But recovery tells me the path to serenity is simple, but not easy. I wish there were an easier, softer way. But I haven’t found one.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

I want to see people I love live. I want them to feel deep-down, unshakable peace and serenity. I want them to laugh. I want them to sleep at night. I want them to focus on the solution and not the problem.

I want gratitude to overwhelm them and cause them to weep without shame every single day.

It’s not for those who need it. It’s for those who want it.

And God, I want it.

Counterweight

I pulled into the driveway of my close friend’s small brick house one autumn afternoon, the air thick and humid, stuck in transition from summer heat. She wasn’t home, but her neighbors’ kids ran and yelled at one another in the front yard next door, enjoying their first few moments of freedom after school.

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I jiggled the doorknob and prayed it would open. It turned without hesitation—I exhaled and let myself in. I could have imagined it, but a strange hush filled the rooms as I determinedly made my way to her bedroom, contrasting with the intermittent boom firing in my chest.

The handgun lay exactly where she’d told me I might find it. My hands shook as I dismantled the weapon; I felt silly for this. You’ve killed a deer, for Pete’s sake, Bethany. This is just a handgun.

But I’ve never dismantled a handgun at my friend’s home and held it for safekeeping after she placed it next to her own head the night before, contemplating pulling the trigger.

One small handgun never felt so heavy in my hands.

It was just one moment in one afternoon, in response to one action taken in one moment on one evening, yet the impact of hearing Dickinson’s carriage wheels screeching to a halt has not yet faded. I will never know why my friend chose not to pull that trigger, but thank God she didn’t.

This week, the Ozarks were hit with a line of thunderstorms I’d categorize as a deluge. I waded to my car in my rain boots after a meeting and drove home at 7:30 in the darkness, listening to Iron & Wine’s Trapeze Singer.  Another dear soul I love deeply and had to release came to mind, and I literally could not breathe. This was a problem since I was in the process of operating a vehicle in the midst of a downpour. I nearly stopped driving and clutched my chest, tears falling. I’m sure I was making what my friend Tara calls “the ugly cry face,” but I couldn’t help it. For a few seconds, the grief of losing someone invaluable overwhelmed me.

282244_518566098082_1117807_nA few days ago while the sun rose and glistened across the horizon, I stood in my backyard, which is nestled deep in the woods, and I noticed the spindly spider webs connecting trees on the hillside waving and dancing in the wind, the dew on each silk thread reflecting light with every tiny movement. Dry leaves fell among them and rustled through the recently raked yard.

I thought about grabbing my camera and attempting to capture this beautiful moment, but I knew it would be in vain. Even the best photographs are poor mirrors of our experiences; life is meant to be lived.

As painful as it is to grieve, to remember, to work through and process trauma, to watch people suffer, and to suffer myself, I don’t want to stop living. I never want to lose the chance to experience beauty that can’t be captured.

Those brief, beautiful moments are enough to serve as a counterweight for me, and I’m grateful for that.

One of my favorite poems, which resonates with me, is “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

“… What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string
is beyond me.  Maybe the hills
grew weary &  leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.”

 

The golden ticket essay

*One of my students, Jared Tickner, in Comp II this semester gave me permission to share this essay with all of you. This is his first essay for the semester; I read it after reading a stack of other essays that were good essays but didn’t quite measure up in one way or another. Some of the essays contained interesting content and fit the assignment criteria (write a 2-3 page essay explaining your core beliefs and how those beliefs impact your daily choices) but fell short in the grammar, style, and mechanics departments, or were more polished grammatically but somewhat boring or unorganized. I kept looking for my “golden ticket” essay–a real winner in each category. 

Then I read the opening line of Jared’s essay. I was hooked. I literally stepped out into the hallway and did a happy dance and announced that I’d found my golden ticket. I’m sure my fellow faculty members were thrilled by my discovery :). The essay isn’t flawless, but it’s beautifully written and impacted me upon reading it. 

Thankfully Jared agreed to allow me to share this essay with all of you. Thank you, Jared, for your honesty and the sharing of your gift of writing. As my former professor (and wonderful poet), Andrea Hollander, used to always say, “Keep writing!”

 

I saw my first murder when I was four years old. I don’t remember much about my childhood, but I remember that. I grew up in a town of 100,000 people in central California. My family tree is not one that would be considered ideal. I come from a long line of addicts and abusers. I am the only male in my immediate family who has not been to prison; therefore, I never had any good examples when I was growing up. I did, however, have plenty of bad examples. I never noticed just how abnormal my life was when I was a child. I never expected or strived to be different from anybody else, but what I’ve come to understand is that I am not ashamed by anything that I have done or anything that I have been witness to. The events of my past have shaped me into the man who I am today. I am not proud of some of the things that I have done in order to survive, but I am not ashamed of any of my actions either. I was physically abused by my father, and I watched my brothers quite literally attempt to kill each other.

I was fifteen years old the first time that I realized that I was destined to be a failure in life. My father had come to visit me for the first time in five years (he had been in prison). I was excited because I was old enough to attempt to get into his head and try to understand why he made the decisions that he had. I had gone through a multitude of questions that day while I was waiting for him to come over. When he finally showed up, he said hello to me and then ignored me for the rest of the time that he was there. My father chose to sit outside with my half-brother and talk to him. I could not understand why he didn’t want me, why he chose my brother who wasn’t even his biological son. I had never felt more unimportant in my life, and it made me angry. I decided on that day that I was going to accomplish everything in life that he wanted and failed at. That was the day that I began to live my life for all of the wrong reasons. That was the day that I chose to let my inner rage control me, instead of me controlling my inner rage.

In November of 2005, I lost my ability to know love. That month, my grandmother died, and I felt my sense of normalcy die with her. My grandmother is the women who truly raised me. I lived with my mother, but I spent all day with my grandmother. My brother was born with a very rare bone disease in his left leg, and he had to have it amputated when he was eight years old. My mother spent the majority of her time in San Francisco with him. When she wasn’t at the hospital with him, she was at work. When my brother was a teenager and into his early twenties, he made life hell for all of us. He had been addicted to morphine since he was eight years old and spent the majority of his time fighting, drinking, doing drugs or stealing my mother’s car. Due to his misgivings, he received all of the attention which I perceived as love. The only person who ever showed me unconditional love was my grandmother, and once she passed away, I felt alone. At this point, I felt wronged by my family. I had never been in trouble; I had never done a fifth of the things my brothers did, and yet all of the love went to them. I now understand that my mother did the best she could, but at that time, it just made me hate the world. My trust issues come from this time in my life. I felt that I couldn’t trust those closest to me because I was not appreciated. I had nobody left to turn to for help, so I turned to prescription pills.

Being addicted to pain pills is what changed my life. I was numbed to all of the outside world. I did not care about anything, and it was amazing. All of that changed on January 9, 2008. My fiancé at the time left me and took my one year-old son across the country. It was the first time I openly wept since I was a toddler. As my depression grew, I sank deeper and deeper into my vice until one day I put a loaded nine millimeter pistol into my mouth and pulled the trigger.

It did not fire. Something greater kept me alive that day, and I started to realize that I have a purpose in this life. I dropped the gun and cried even harder. I then looked in the mirror and decided I was no longer going to accept the stigma that comes with my last name. I stopped taking the pills, I stopped drowning in self-pity, and I started looking for my purpose in life. The thing I believe in is that nothing can guide me down a path that I don’t want to walk. I am the creator of my own destiny, and I refuse to accept anything but redemption and success.

The most influential and guiding force in my life is my past. I am now able to reflect on the way I grew up and let all of the hate go. I am a better man than my father, and I have the ability to raise my children to better understand their emotions. My goal in life is to give my children every opportunity I had to sacrifice for. They will not grow up in a home where they are scared to go to sleep at night. My greatest fear is that my children will grow to be like me and not want to look at themselves in the mirror. That is a fear that will not come to fruition. I am no longer going to be part of a broken chain. I am starting a new chain with my family, and I will be the strongest link. I will raise my children to be confident and curious.

They will be loved, and they will know it.

–By Jared Tickner

 

Day 14: Dear students

*It’s Day 14 of the Dear Gratitude project. Today, I’m sharing a letter to my students. There is no way I could ever thank each of them individually for all they’ve added to my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach today, and I look forward to teaching for years to come, hopefully!*

Dear students,

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Thank you for teaching me. At Youth Home, you taught me that playing softball and Skip Bo is more therapeutic than sitting around in a circle and rehashing your childhood trauma. At Arkansas Baptist High School, you taught me that sometimes, my initial judgments are dead wrong. I remember thinking that you, the girl in my English class with long, dark hair and glasses who sat quietly in the back of the room, were surely naïve. I later learned that you were struggling with trying to end an illicit relationship. And the boy with red hair and sullen attitude who drew pictures of poop for me—you taught me that bad kids might require more work, but they’re often more fun to teach.

Thank you for making me laugh and helping me relax. When I walked into my classroom and saw one of you hanging out the window chasing after sneakers tossed outside by another boy, I threw my hands up and laughed (before meting out necessary detention duty). When I tried to punish one of you, a troublemaker and rebel with absolutely no cause, by commanding you to pull your desk to the front of the classroom next to mine, you smiled and were genuinely excited about the opportunity to sit next to me and tell me stories. I had to smile back. When I showed up to class the first day this semester, one of you mentioned that I bore a scary resemblance to Velma from Scooby Doo. You proceeded to ask me to incorporate the phrase “Jenkies!” into my lectures. I had much more fun lecturing that day than I would have otherwise.

Thank you for reminding me that I’m not perfect. When I gave you a handout with a typo on it, and then counted off for the same errors in your essays, you called me on it and accepted my apology (along with corrected scores, of course). Thank you for asking me really difficult questions that I could never anticipate. You force me to go home and reread the textbook and to dig through every nook and cranny of every piece of literature before presenting it in the classroom. You keep me humble and remind me that six years of studying English doesn’t give me all the answers.

Thank you for owning up to your mistakes. When you, the vivacious and tender-hearted 16 year-old girl who’d plagiarized her entire paper, admitted to plagiarizing and begged for a second chance, I believed that your generation might not be so misguided after all. When you begin whining about how difficult it’s been to prepare your speech, and then admit that you stayed up all night playing video games, I’m relieved by your honesty.

Thank you for refusing to own up to your mistakes. When you, the boy with the big blue eyes who seemed to be on a mission to make my life miserable that year, stood in front of me and denied using SparkNotes, even though I held an identical copy of your paper (printed out from SparkNotes) in my hands, I felt incredibly disappointed and angered. But I learned, from you and others who made similar choices, that I couldn’t control you, and that was okay. I had to let you learn from your mistakes, whether you admitted them or not. And when I saw you 10 years later, same blue eyes minus the negative attitude, you told me you were sorry for being such a turd. That apology meant more to me than if you’d admitted to cheating way back when.

Thank you for persevering. I have watched you, my sole student from Central America, go to the writing lab over and over and over again to earn points missed due to grammatical errors. This boosts my spirit. You embody the American dream. You remind me that no matter where my students start, they can improve and become better writers than native English speakers who don’t put forth the same effort. Thank you, single moms in my English Composition class, for staying up late to write your essays and for showing up to class even though you have difficulty juggling class with bottles and sniffles. You remind me of my mom and her amazing journey through college as a single mom of four young daughters.

Thank you for hating English. Thank you, boy who never makes eye contact with me and who dons a baseball cap to class every single day, for sighing in disgust when asked if you enjoyed reading the poem “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa. Thank you, boy with curly blonde hair who complains that reading interferes with your fishing time, for reminding me that not everyone in the world enjoys the arts and humanities as much as I do. All of you who hate to read and write push me to find ways to make learning more interesting and engaging.

Thank you for loving to write. When you, the quietest student in class, submitted a personal narrative essay about owning your first car, I was blown away by your innate ability to write well. You incorporated allusions I’d never fathomed. I am grateful for my own professors who saw raw talent in me and encouraged me to keep writing. I am motivated to do the same for you.

Thank you for making me feel younger and for simultaneously reminding me how old I really am. Thanks, APPLE students, for laughing at my dance moves in the van on field trips. Thanks, college students, for complimenting me on my hipster dress and boots combo and, on the same day, for staring at me blankly when I asked all of you if you remember Milli Vanilli or not. Thank you for assuming that I use Snapchat. I’d never heard of it. Thanks for being surprised that I do not own a smart phone. Thank you for referring to me as “an old English teacher.” I view all of you the same way I view my former stepdaughter, Liz. Seeing the gigantic oyster of a world splayed in front of you reminds me that, though I may be 15 years older than you, I’m not too old to have more adventures, to travel the world again, or to try something new.

Thank you for showing me who you are. Thank you, Jewish student whom I have not heard from in over a decade, for explaining your beliefs to me and accepting our differences of opinion so deftly. Thank you, sweet student with bipolar disorder, for opening up to me and letting me be part of the path that healed you. Thank you, gay student who needed guidance, for allowing me to listen to you. You had no idea that you were allowing me to make a living amends to my friend who I’d responded to so horribly years before in a similar situation. Thank you, turtle-loving girl, for visiting me repeatedly and serving as a ray of sunshine during a truly dark time in my life. Thank you, my Andrew who was taken from this world much too soon, for explaining to me why dead white men were your heroes. As a young, troubled black man, I’m still astonished at your ability to put your own pain aside long enough to care for others and to lead your peers. Thank you, nerdy gamer boy, for confiding in me last week about trying to kill yourself in high school. You broke my heart. But when I listened to you explain the importance of communication, and the reasons you now refuse to sit around texting, I felt surprised and proud of you. When you talked about how much joy you feel when you volunteer at church, I understood that you are no longer an empty shell of a person. And please don’t worry about only having two dates thus far—someday, women will appreciate your interest in having real conversations, and your luck will turn around.

Thank you for proving to me that there’s still some good in the world.

Thank you for giving me hope.

Thank you for teaching me more than I could ever teach you.