Death By a Thousand Cuts

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Photo by Alfonso Scarpa on Unsplash

My husband parks the car in front of a bistro. The table in the bay window is full and the customers seated there look out briefly at our arrival then resume conversation. There is a bottle of wine in the center of their table. It is a small bistro with seating for less than twenty-five. Behind them is a short bar where I recognize the owner as she mixes someone’s drink: Brut sparkling wine, blood orange juice, a slice of lime and a twig of rosemary. They are serving only brunch today. I’m overcome with what I can only describe as grief and bow my head. My hair falls in front of my face, which contorts as I suppress the urge to cry.

I remember sitting at that bar, not too long ago, with my bag of books and journals. Sitting alone at a bar has never bothered me. I read. I write. I sip wine and feel … accomplished. Mysterious, even. No one around to bother me. No one here really knows me and it gives me a sense of freedom. Silly, but I admit it. I imagine that Hemingway used to do this in Paris at his favorite café in Montparnasse. I’ll jot down notes for my current novel, or ideas for the next novel, or simply listen to the clink of glassware and animated conversations of Sunday patrons. I will feel stylish in my black skinny jeans and Eileen Fisher boots as I drink a glass of Rosé. The bartender will ask if I would like another and I’ll say yes.

Those days are no more. I remind myself of Hemingway’s tragic ending, but this moment of weakness empties me and what fills the void is only a burgeoning maelstrom of despair and rage.

We are in the historical downtown of a quaint port city which is clearly struggling to rise out of a long economic decline. One street over, an entire block of abandoned storefronts is slowly being renovated as new retailers take up habitation. In the residential block, every other home is abandoned with many of the current residents unconcerned about upkeep or clutter. In the Albemarle Sound, dilapidated boat slips host a lone fishing trawler. But, here and there, are signs of the city coming back to life.

It has become our custom, while we wait for our teenage son to complete archery practice, to visit a local brewery. We are over forty minutes from home and this jaunt takes up the entirety of Sunday afternoons. In the past, I would stop at this very bistro while my husband and six-year-old walked ahead to our eventual destination. My husband thought I did this for the food, but, I did it for the drink––or two––which he (probably) did not know about. I ordered brunch to go. I’d bring crepes with eggs Benedict, Monte Cristo sandwiches, or french toast and omelets to the small brewery where they awaited, fittingly called Ghost Harbor Brewing Company. Here, I would get another drink as we ate. Or two.

My husband, who has over a hundred reviews on his Beer Connoisseur profile, animatedly claims every time we go: “This is a great brewery. No, I mean, it is really good!” (Thank goodness I don’t like beer or else today would be unbearable. As if I’m bearing it so well.)

The brewery is accessed through a renovated alley where the nearby restaurants have sectioned their seating with metal partitions, like you find at outdoor concerts, and multiple light strands are strung between the brick buildings. It is probably lovely at night. In the daylight, discarded cigarette butts litter the uneven bricks, of which a number have been overturned to show the brickmakers mark. Probably, the staff tries to sweep the butts up each night, but there are too many cracks and crannies.

Sometimes, there is a buffet set up with free finger food or soups, sandwiches or cupcakes. Their website encourages guests to bring in To Go orders, like I did. My son gets a free soda and popcorn and plays with their vast collection of board games. We always have a great afternoon, which makes today harder than I expected. I want to have a great afternoon. In addition to beer, which I don’t drink, the brewery makes a good mimosa. I’ve watched the bartender pour champagne into a goblet and splash it with orange juice. Just the way I like it.

Right now, grief has overtaken me. I want to cry, wail, punch my fists into the dashboard and I haven’t even gotten out of the car. My husband opens the driver side door, turns to me and asks, “Are you coming?”

“Mommy, are you getting out?” My son has already exited onto the empty street. He presses his palms and face to the glass, smashing his nose flat. His breath fogs the window and he blows his cheeks out, his lips expanding like gills. When he runs around the front of the car to urge my husband out, his fingerprints remain. I am stricken by the consequences of my actions. What have I done to his psyche?

My husband sees my face and quietly asks if I’m okay.

I do not answer right away. If I could, I would say, “No. I am not okay.”

I am angry with myself. Angry at my weakness. Angry at my lack of control and will power. Angry at the very real grief I feel. A crutch has been ripped from me, but it is worse than that. It is as if someone is dying––has died. I am angry that I feel this way. That I did this to myself. If only I had not

I look up at the people in the bistro window. They are laughing, sipping white wine from long-stemmed glasses. There is a woman now sitting at the bar, where I would be. My nerves are extended, stretched toward the bistro. There is an irresistable urge to walk in. Sit down. Order my Rosé. I want to enjoy the afternoon, too. Why can’t I have a mimosa or a glass of wine? Why can’t I? Why? Why?

I know why, of course. One glass will inevitably lead to another and that to another. Maybe not right away. Maybe not today. Maybe not for several weeks and maybe not even for a few months. But … Eventually.

Eventually, I come back around to an all too familiar regret. I think I could do no worse than I did before; that I learned my lesson. But, this is a lie I’ve told myself. I now know there is always something worse. I think I have hit rock bottom, but I take another drink––just one, or maybe just two, I think––and there it is. I’m two bottles down, searching for my next drink and my next and catapulting myself into a dark play in which my body is merely a puppet pulled on mechanical strings. I find a new bottom.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you. Maybe you know of someone or, maybe, you know from experience. I am an alcoholic. My husband knows it. I know it. I accept it. By now, all three of my children know it––even my youngest, though he couldn’t possibly understand, yet. I know it like I know I’ll die someday. It is certain. You don’t know when or how. You prefer not to think about it, to not look too closely at it, though it is always there with you. Your impending death.

But not today, I pray. Please, God. Not today. My husband and my family deserve to have me present in their lives. Fully present. I deserve to be present in my own life. I deserve happiness. Not this roller coaster ride I’ve hopped on as I literally poison myself to death. It is, I’m told, a death by a thousand cuts.

In the car, I gather myself (which is exactly what it feels like–picking up pieces of me) and I tell him I’ll be fine, that I’m going to walk a few blocks to the coffee shop and will meet them at the brewery. He doesn’t look at me with pity, for which I am grateful.

The walk clears my head. It is sunny and the light is warm on my face, but still winter and the wind is cool. I’m glad for my long coat, but I have to concentrate not to trip. I am not wearing shoes for walking and my boots click against the sidewalk, the heels catching in the cracks if I’m not careful.

I’ve quit drinking for the third time in my life, but it is the first time I understand, truly, that I can never drink again. Not. One. Drink. Before, I quit to cut back, recognizing that my wine consumption was out of control. The second time was to take a break, hoping a few months sobriety would heal whatever twisted broken thing inside of me created this havoc. But this time––this time I know I need to find a new way to live. Or, I may die.

There is a point in my binges where my husband says I simply take a nose dive. One minute I’m fine, the next I’m a raving, raging lunatic. I don’t know who that person is or how to tell when I’m about to go over that cliff. Either aspect is frightening beyond words. Alcohol, which I relied on for so long to aid me in social situations, stressful situations, happy situations … It no longer serves me. Instead, I find myself serving it.

I have tried to manage it. My doctor gave me medication to assist with relapse, which does help some as long as I take it. At first, I didn’t believe I was an alcoholic because I don’t go through withdrawals. I don’t drink all day. Surely, I had only developed a bad habit? But when the mere idea of quitting made me panic and actually drink more, when I tried day after day after day to only have one glass out of that bottle, or leave one glass in the bottle, and I failed, I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t know what to do about it and I was afraid to say anything to anyone. It has taken me years to open up to even my family or closest friends. The words lodge in my throat.

By the time I walk the four blocks to the coffee shop, get my drink and walk back, my son and husband are several words into a Scrabble game and I’m calmer. I grab a plate of pretzel and cheese. It is better to stay away from the brunch café. I know my triggers. I open my laptop and try to concentrate on my book. This past year has been my most sober year in over ten years and––surprise?––my most productive.

I can sense you wonder why torture myself by visiting the brewery in the first place? What kind of ass is my husband? I could have saved myself the grief to begin with. I could have stayed home. Part of it is guilt, of course. I don’t want to upset my family’s routine, though my husband will support me in whatever I ask. I insisted I do this today. Despite his prolific beer tasting profile, he is not a drinker. He is happy with a glass of beer once a week. He’s been working on that profile for several years. But, the other part is that I don’t drink beer (unless it is all that’s left in the house) and saying no to the first drink has never been my problem. While some people may have to avoid any situation involving alcohol, I don’t. I can turn away from the mimosa and the Bloody Mary’s because they tend to give me heartburn. (Another side effect of alcoholism: a burned out esophagus and irritable gut.) Anyway, I can’t stick my head in the sand. Learning to say no is one of the new areas in my life I need to navigate. When everyone at the table has a glass of wine, I’ll have to be comfortable with my sparkling water. I have to learn to trust myself in situations I would normally have gulped down liquid courage or tried to dull my emotions. It is a terrifying feeling, not having the alcohol to lean on in this way, but also exhilarating.

All of this time, I have looked at my problem as a battle of wills between me and a beast I need to slay, as if this thing is not a part of me, but something separate. That is wrong. I understand now that to overcome this, I have to go deeper. I have to look inward, where I was once afraid to look, and take a measure. I need to examine repressed feelings. It is time to face them, acknowledge them, and let them go.

I’ve jumped off that cliff so many times, each time surprised and relieved when I opened my eyes the following day to still be here. Why do I repeatedly hurl myself headlong toward catastrophe, when I have lived a blessed life? Why do I waste what I have been given? I thought the only thing at the bottom––the true bottom––was tragedy. But what I am discovering is this so-called beast I’ve been fighting is nothing more than a confused and frightened little girl. A very young girl, traumatized by events at a very young age that have different meaning for me now, seem lesser and easily dismissed as I look through the lens of my older Self. I didn’t know––couldn’t know––that she was stuck there, that I had drowned her out as I grew older. I silenced her and then, when she tried to speak, drowned her in red wine.

This process of recovery is also, it seems, a process of discovery. I am finding out who I am, peeling back layers to reveal a sacred being that does not want to be numbed, drowned or otherwise hidden. That person at the bottom of a wine bottle is not me, but is a reflection of me or, rather, a shadow of some former version of me; a shadow I’ve cast out of a dark place. Though I’ve made forward movement toward the light, I am still looking back at the shadow. I am looking to the past and not to the future.

This is my turning point. This is me, turning toward the light. I will no longer stand looking down at my shadow or cower as it cuts me down, drink by drink. I will gently say good-bye to the lost child and let her finally rest, so that I may be the strong, creative, and courageous woman I am meant to be. And have been all along.

Book Review: Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi (Translated from the French by Tina Kover for Europa editions)

Book Review: Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi (Translated from the French by Tina Kover for Europa editions)

Every now and then, I pick up a book I can’t breeze through over a weekend. I love those books: those witty, lovely beach reads. But, sometimes––sometimes, I crave a novel that makes me pause, makes me think, perhaps makes me look at my own prejudices with a bit of vinegary honesty. And, if the writing draws me in, makes me want to stay awhile … well, I stay awhile.

Disoriental is a book I read slowly over several weeks, partly to absorb the immense amount of information thrown at me––a veritable zeitgeist of historical, political and cultural data presented in an often disorienting way––and partly because Djavadi’s prose is so arresting, I found myself rereading sentences and passages for pleasure. Such as this one:

  But the regret remains, sometimes howling in your gut––regret at having left opportunities hanging, like threads on an article of old clothing, but on which you should never, ever pull.

Or, this one:

  During that year, Darius taught me to: play backgammon, fill his pipe with tobacco, shine shoes, use a dictionary, remember street names, make an omelette, cut articles out of the newspaper, watch a boxing match with Muhammad Ali, open Havez’s Divan, recite Persian poetry, take an interest in History, identify the flags of various countries, shovel snow off the balcony, love Harold Lloyd and westerns, tell the violin from the cello, speak as familiarly about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as if they were my friends, start the car, shift gears, and check the tire pressure before we got on the road to Mazandaran.

  And then summer ended.

It is with this sort of dizzying narrative that we follow the story of the Sadr family––and of Kamiâ Sadr, born “different” than her sisters––as they fight, hide and flee during the fight for freedom and democracy. She struggles to find herself, growing up in the shadow of her parents and Iranian revolutionaries, Darius and Sara, who valiantly oppose one oppressive regime after another until, finally, they are forced to flee their homeland. As a young woman, Kamiâ ponders her tragic and convoluted family history, while sitting in a doctor’s office in Paris, playing a waiting game where everyone, as Dr. Sues once told us, is just waiting. In Kamiâ’s case, she is waiting to learn whether or not she will soon become a parent. Written in first person point of view, Djavadi often brings you, the reader, directly into the story, as if we are waiting with her.

  But just be patient a little longer, dear Reader, and I will reveal to you what no Sadr has ever known.

This is a head-whipping tale spanning a turbulent century, of a people and of a time that had only ever touched my peripheral thought with fleeting strokes. Though this is a novel, it follows events in Iran’s history, sometimes feeling more like memoir than fiction. Many of the villains are all too real and recognized. The author, who is a screenwriter and lives in Paris, states in her biography that, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, she fled Iran, then only eleven years old, crossing the Kurdistan mountains on horseback with her mother and sister. In this novel, Djavadi reveals, in excruciating and alluring detail, the harrowing cost of speaking out, the truth of having one’s country and one’s identity ripped from them, of drifting in a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, of having desires and dreams seemingly abhorrent to the rest of the world, of losing all hope and of losing––and then finding––oneself.

Winner of six awards, including the Prix du Style, Disoriental should be on your reading list. With its crash course in Persian history and defiance of prejudices, it shakes an angry fist at the soul crushing cycle of tyranny. Disoriental is a great book club book, as it serves to remind us how fragile and fleeting freedom and democracy truly are.

If I Were a Book, On What Shelf Would I Belong?

Photo by Aleksei I on Unsplash

It is easy and natural to put labels on things. I didn’t say it was right, okay? Just natural. Our society categorizes everything: food, devices, books. People.

Someone asks, “What do you like to do?”

You answer, “I do yoga. I like to hike and kayak and I am training for a marathon in six months.” Bam. You are now labeled: athletic. Maybe even “outdoorsy”. While everyone is unique, I can easily place you in the sphere of personalities. Forget that it takes you all six hours to run that marathon and you hated every minute of it or you may only hike once every two to three years; you have given me enough information to categorize you. You probably did that on purpose.

When someone asks you what kinds of books you read, what do you say? Cozy mysteries? Historical Romance? Hardboiled? Or are you the kind of person who doesn’t read books? Publishers categorize books so they can be placed on the right shelf and found by someone who will want to read it.

As a novelist, I am often asked what genre I write.

This is difficult for me to answer and it should not be. If I’m honest––and let’s be honest here––it is probably the reason I’ve gone unpublished for ten years. (That and what some in the industry refer to as a fear of completion) It is as difficult a question for me to answer as when someone asks where I am from. To this, I tend to go into “flight” mode and my response becomes overly complex and includes unnecessary backstory. I feel like I must explain because no one will get me. As if the inquirer cares. They just asked where I am from.

I begin something like this: “Well, you see, I was born in Mississippi––that’s where all my relatives live––but graduated high school in Minnesota. And, now, my immediate family lives in Georgia, so when I say I’m going back home … Oh, and Oklahoma, where my dad is from, is in there somewhere … he was kind of a drifter.”

Yikes. It is painful for me to listen to myself. I wince and wish I could pick one stupid state and leave it at that. Who. Freaking. Cares? So I moved around all of the time. Lot’s of people do. Why do I feel this explanation is necessary? In the words of music artist, Pink, “It’s bad when you annoy yourself.”

I blame it on never fitting in, I guess. I never had a clique or close friends––a lot of times the drifting apart was due to moving around, especially after adulthood. It took me a long time to understand that, subconsciously, I really desired my own place in the history of the world; a place I come from. A “people” as my mother would call her family in Mississippi. Most of my life, I’ve been sort of alone, drifting like a spore on the wind, never landing in a good spot. I meet people easily, but never quite connect.

I won’t bore you with the details of my awkward, often erratic coming of age. In summary, I was poor, often the “new girl”, painfully shy and, once we settled in rural Minnesota, preferred to stay silent rather than draw attention to my deep southern drawl. I stuck my nose in books to avoid people and to escape reality. I read everything I could get my hands on. At the age of nine, I started writing short stories and bad poetry and knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to write books.

I did not know I would struggle with what book to write. What story did I want to tell? Where do I belong? Am I a romance writer? A mystery writer? Young adult? Middle school? Dare I venture into the world of literary fiction? Should I write commercial? Write what is trending? What kind of writer do I want to be? Do I write for myself or do I write for others? This may be my existential crisis. It has hindered my progress for so long now, it is hard not to feel like I am the hero in some adventure who actually refused to answer the call. I mean, I know that is a part of the Hero’s Journey, as it were, but will I turn away from what my soul has called me to do?

Sounds contrived, I’m sure. Sounds a little like I’m a total head case. But, I’m not alone in that burning desire to write a book. The desire is too strong. I trudge forward, writing another Chapter One, or another short story without ending, and struggle to write a book I want to write. What book? What book?

The popular adage write what you read or write the book you want to read doesn’t hold much water for me. I read everything: romance, memoir, historical, high-fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult, thriller, literary; you name it. If it grabs my attention, I will read it. Struggling to find a genre I want to write is a pitfall of having eclectic reading tastes.

From a character exercise in a creative writing class, a novel emerged unlike anything I’d ever written before and, honestly, unlike books I normally read. I gave two years to this manuscript until, one day, I ask myself, “Do I have another one of those in me? Do I want to be placed on the shelf with action/thrillers?”

If it sounds like I’m beating my own head against a brick wall, I am. I should have finished the book. Maybe I’m good at action/thrillers. I don’t know. I don’t know because I quit. I moved on to a young adult story with witches and ancient evil things. I didn’t finish that one either.

The list of genres out there are vast and sometimes confounding, with subgenres off shooting subgenres, like those in the fantasy and science fiction realms: like Steampunk, Wierd West, Urban Fantasy. Ever heard of Dinosaur Erotica? No? Please don’t type that in to your Google search. You will regret it. My point is that writing for these very specific subgenres has a certain appeal to me. If I have instructions to follow, I proceed with more confidence. I’ve been that way about most things in my life. I’m not a rule breaker or an adventuress charting her own course. Yes, the audience is probably smaller when you write in a subgenre, but they know where to find you in the bookstore. Young Adult Dystopian Society? Hey, maybe you’ll get a movie deal. Alternative History? Sounds like fun. I love history and I get to rewrite it?

If you know what genre you write in, you can join writing organizations like Romance Writers of America or Mystery Writers of America. You meet other writers like you. These communities are vital for networking. I’ve struggled to find writing groups that I belong in.

I have a plethora of unfinished manuscripts in a variety of genres I tried my hand at. My indecision has a decade old history. I envy novelists who are confident of their place in the world of fiction, who know what label to put on their books. Who know what shelf they belong on. Or even what shelf they want to be on. People would ask me what I write and my answer usually varied with whatever genre I happen to be working on in that moment; the same pained uneasiness of explaining my origins churning unpleasantly inside me, because I want to have a place on the shelf. Any place.

When I set out on this adventure ten years ago, I thought I’d try my hand at romance writing, because, well, that should be easy, right? No. No. No. The book I wrote, called Tequila Sunsets, did not fit into romance’s rigid rules (I’ve been told they’ve relaxed a bit in that regard). Also, it was bad. Really bad. I stuck my head in the sand. The love story is not my story. I’m not even good at telling a story! After realizing I wasn’t some genius at writing novels, I put Tequila Sunsets under my bed, in a box, never to be touched again, and set out to learn the craft of writing full of purpose and intent. Now, I see that is the correct path. No one writes a first draft and gets it published.

At some point, I realized all my start/stopping of novels was not going to get me anywhere and I sat down to take stock of what I had done. A surprising thing slowly became clear to me. I noticed similar themes in some of my works and realized that the first story I tried to tell in Tequila Sunsets was still trying to get told. The settings changed. The character’s ages and names changed, occupations changed, families, etc., even the inciting event changed. However, if I stripped down the story to its basic elements, it went something like this: A young woman struggles to find fulfillment in work and love, while two men rival for her affection. One breaks her heart. One shows her that pursuing her dreams will give her the greatest joy. Her emotional journey drives the plot.

Sounds so exciting, right? On a positive side note, I discovered the emotional journey driving the story places my novel nicely into the women’s fiction category. Is it possible I have found a shelf to sit on? Where do booksellers even put women’s fiction? Or, is it just––(gasp)––fiction. My characters don’t always have happy endings. They aren’t always good people. The conclusion doesn’t always tie up nicely or in a manner expected.

I wish I could remember who said this––Stephen King?–– but there are two types of writers: those who write for other people and those who write for themselves. I find myself doing better in the latter category. This is the book I must write, apparently, or remain locked in a cycle of incompletion. Hopefully, it isn’t the only book I have in me. I don’t want to tell the same story over and over and over again.

Only recently have I understood that I need to stop fretting over choosing a genre to write in and simply write the book. Already, I’ve gone farther on this current WIP, In Her Clutch (Working Title), than on any other novel, being in the third draft as I write this blog post. I’ve had moments where I worried if anyone would ever read it, want to read, have anything good to say about it at all. I have to turn that nagging self-doubt off. Keep my nose on my page and see this novel to the end. Once I’ve finished the revision process, then I’ll figure out how to pitch it to an appropriate agent.

At that point, I can start the process all over again with a new novel idea. Or, maybe an old idea I abandoned. I’ve got plenty of those.

There are aspects intrinsic to my character that make things unnecessarily difficult. So, if I were a book, on what shelf would I sit?

Personally, I feel somewhere between Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, and The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger. But, since this is real life and authors are categorize alphabetically, I’d naturally be placed in the Fiction section––in the A’s––somewhere between Hiro Arikawa, (The Traveling Cat Chronicles) and Kate Atkinson (Life after Life). And, you know, that’s pretty accurate, too.