Chapter One: Life 101

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” (Catherine Aird)

“And He had to pass through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink…’ The Samaritan woman therefore said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink?…’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ And she said to Him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water?…’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty, nor come all the way here to draw.’ (John 4:4-15)

Years ago I had a flip-page calendar aptly entitled “Sniglets.” These were made-up words that appropriately described everyday things in our lives for which we had no name or description. For example, “Discombeebopulate: to turn down the music while driving, searching for a specific address;” or “Furnadent: the little indentations in the carpet that show you where to place the furniture after vacuuming;” or “Carperpetuation: when you vacuum fruitlessly over a piece of fuzz several times and then pick it up in your fingers and toss it down again to give the vacuum one more chance.” I can even remember these: “Accordionated: the ability to fold a roadmap while driving,” and “Musquirt: that yellow watery stuff that shoots out of the mustard jug ahead of the mustard.” But my favorite “Sniglet” of all time was simply this: “Re: the middle stuff in an OREO cookie.” I kept it thumb-tacked to the bulletin board in my classroom for years. It was only recently, however, that I found myself relating to it.

I am Re. I am sandwiched between a ten-year-old daughter, Olivia Grace (whom we often just call “O”) and a mid-60s-year-old mother, Virginia Ann and father, Dale. It’s funny that they were Mom and Dad for 35 years, and then the moment Olivia was born, they became Opa and Grandy even to me. So you see, I am truly a Re, sandwiched between two O’s. The generations on either side of me seem to mirror one another in their fastidiousness about their hair and clothing, their beautiful friends and people they just seem to collect at church and in girl scouts and civic groups, like charms on mom’s old bracelet, or gems on her new one. Me, well, I have certainly collected my share and then some of friends and beloveds, but have dutifully lost them one by one as I would have lost the charms and gems, if I’d had any to lose. I am not a collector, as is my mother, of the perfect table placements for each major and even some minor holidays, and the exact matching shade of shoe for each handbag and suit. I am not a packrat, as is my daughter, of every painting her hands have ever blended and every doll she has ever left naked beneath her bed. I am very neat, though. If I made only $200 per month I would gladly spend $100 of it on a house cleaner.

I was popular in school, with my peers, my teachers, the administrators, and my friends’ parents. I earned good grades. I earned leadership scholarships all through college and graduate schools. I was even the homecoming queen at Arizona State University my senior year, much to the pride of my sorority sisters and my father. I was the third Delta Gamma in as many years to achieve that honor, (though I think there was a Kappa in the middle as well) and the second generation of women in my family to carry home that crown. Anyway, my life was easy, though I never realized it until it wasn’t easy any longer.

Today I don’t think of myself as the near-PhD that I am, or the Master of Counseling or Education or English that technically, I still am. I don’t even carry the MS (short for multiple sclerosis) that forever changed my outlook and life about seven years ago and used to tag alongside my identity like another set of credentials. I don’t define myself as the teacher or professor I was for over 16 years. Today I think not so much of my vocation, but of my avocation of the past 25 years or so and see myself for what I really am: a drug addict. Today I don’t have to swallow or snort or smoke or shoot-up a drug to know who I am. Regarding today, I am grateful and I am clean. I intend to be so tomorrow as well. Hey, my best group meets on Friday nights and tomorrow is Friday. Besides, if I slip up, the O’s on both sides of me will call each other and begin living together again and I will be left once more, all alone in my misery and emptiness and pain. I will NOT choose to allow anyone in, including the house cleaner, so my surroundings will not fit neatly into my motif. Blood will be splattered on my clothing and sheets, carpet and tile, and in a few weeks mysteriously show up in spots on the ceiling, the light switches, the mirrors, and the doorknobs INSIDE. I won’t notice it for days, maybe even weeks.

The only staples in my refrigerator will be orange soda and pomegranate juice, which I will beg my sister or a neighbor to buy for me next time she goes to the market and then just set by my door (where I’ll have taped a terribly hand-written check reimbursing and compensating said person). Today, that is not a place I choose to live. Today, that is not a place I choose to die.

I no longer have to step into that swamp to know that the alligators are still there, hungry, hidden beneath the otherwise unbroken surface, their teeth are razor sharp and they feed on the arms and legs of the sad, broken people who continue to reach into those waters, skimming for comfort or peace or at least an end to their pain. This I know as well as my name; I carry the scars. I have survived more alligator bites than I can describe. I AM the Velveteen Rabbit; my skin has all been worn (not loved) off. I doubt I will ever wear short sleeves again, and I live in Phoenix where 123 degrees is normal in summer and summer seems to last four or five months of the year.

It is almost impossible to know where to begin to tell my story. I could start, I suppose, with the separate yet related births of two babies, thirty-four and a half years apart. We were both big, robust baby girls who looked at birth, I am told, very much alike. I guess the biggest difference between my daughter and myself is that I began life with a mother almost as young and innocent as I was myself, at the time. Olivia began her life with me, a mother who has been, at times, too well loved, too well educated, too well accepted, and most certainly, too badly addicted to elicit simple description.

I remember having an insatiable curiosity about life all through my childhood, even reaching into my college years. If you were my teacher or the parent of one of my friends, I felt truly blessed to know you and have moments of your time and attention. It has sometimes surprised my parents that I have remembered things one or the other of them said or sang over forty-five years ago, but I can still hear their voices in my head as clearly as I did then, whether they meant each little word they uttered or not. I was a good student, and that fact made me a careful one. Probably because it carved out a definition of myself that made sense to me at the time and I did not want to alter it by failing to pay attention one afternoon or simply not caring so much the next morning. So each spelling bee counted with me, each touch of the volleyball, each column of figures.

T.S. Eliot once wrote of his character J. Alfred Prufrock that he had, “measured out his life with coffee spoons.” That was me, to the grain, and I suppose such a structure, like a house of cards, is bound some day to collapse. At any rate, I did. And this is my story, though my living to tell it is, I believe you will agree, quite remarkable.