Tuesday 22 July 2014

Disturbing the peace: Listening to all my voices

One of my favourite poems is Adam Zagajewski's "Ode to Plurality."*  It starts like this:

"I don't understand it all and I am
even glad that the world like a restless
ocean exceeds my ability
to understand the essence of water, rain,
of plunging into Baker's Pond, near
the Bohemian-German border, in
September, 1980, a detail without any special
meaning, the deep Germanic pond."

It's a masterful work. Zagajewski oscillates between the specific details of lived experience and different ways of knowing, the whole time singing the beauty and wonder of the world and the strange truth that philosophy doesn't trump poetry and poetry doesn't trump family stories and none of it trumps life in all its messy glory. Here's a little more:

"You, singular soul, stand before
this abundance. Two eyes, two hands,
ten inventive fingers, and
only one ego, the wedge of an orange,
the youngest of sisters, And the pleasure of
hearing doesn't destroy the pleasure of
seeing, though that flurry of freedom disturbs
the peace of the other gentle senses."

(OK, now I want to point out every line in the poem and just say, "Look. See? Don't you love it?" And then we can all cry and be happy together in poetry for a while.)

One of the things I treasure about being a part of the sober blogging community is the sense of belonging I sometimes feel here. For me, I think it's an important part of how I managed to quit drinking and stick with that until it became clear to me that it's a better way for me to live. I'm not used to feeling like I'm part of something, and I'm not sure I know how to do it. Because belonging means we're all here, and we're all different, and we won't all agree. There isn't a lot of explicit disagreement in this online world, in part I think because the point of being here is to belong to a group of people who are trying to find a way to live without alcohol, in a world where alcohol is very much the norm. But sometimes I worry that belonging means I'm editing away my own truth so as not to offend, and that won't work in the long run.

I thought about this when I wrote my last post. I had a hard time writing about my reaction to supposedly "alcohol-free" wine, which is really very low alcohol wine. For me, sharing a bottle means having the lion's share--I even outdrink my partner when we drink fizzy water. (I really am thirsty!) That means I inadvertently had about the equivalent of half an ounce of actual wine, and I reacted. I admitted to feeling a tad more-ish, even though the wine wasn't good. I already said that.

But I didn't say everything. I left out part of the story, because I wasn't comfortable talking about it. Sitting at the table, just finished dinner, talking to my partner, and having had what it turned out was a little bit of alcohol but not knowing that yet, my whole being was awash in a moment of sweet happiness. I felt like I belonged to the world and the world was good. Remembering that feeling now, I can't help but cry. All this talk about getting sober being a better way to live is good and true. But I need to admit this, in case I haven't before, because it's also true: when I gave up alcohol, I gave up something that could, at times, be lovely. I had forgotten about that.

To me, it's more helpful to know that. Now, at almost seven months sober, it can seem irrational to me that I would every have spent as much time and money and energy drinking. The other day, steeped in that warm, happy feeling, I recognized it, and I knew, "This is, in part, why I drank." It wasn't just the more-ishness that told me there had to be alcohol in that wine. It was that feeling.

I'm not making a case for drinking. Those days are over. I can't hold onto that moment anyway. One taste of it and I get that old hankering for more, and then I drink too much, and we all know how that goes. In fact, my reaction helped me see how powerful addiction is, and why I can't slither out of calling my problem addiction, as much as I guess I was still kind of hoping I could. When the tiniest bit lands me right smack in the middle of a home I thought I'd left behind forever, that's a dangerous substance for me.

This isn't a completely unfamiliar sensation. I'm from Newfoundland, a place I love, but I can't live there. In ways I have trouble explaining, it doesn't suit me. Despite that, for years as soon as I'd hear a certain song or even a turn of phrase, or see a picture of the rocks, or smell the salt air, I used to be wracked with homesickness. I longed to be home. But when I've tried to move back, even after years away, I feel myself slipping into a way of being that doesn't leave room for the person I've become. Whatever it is I miss about where I come from, I can't quite grasp it when I'm there.

And I think that's what drinking is like for me now. I can't go back. But I won't lie: there is a certain sweet happiness that I felt the other day that reminds me that alcohol wasn't all bad. It's just that that happiness is too fleeting for me to grasp. There's nowhere back to go.

Drinking isn't a simple problem, and getting sober isn't a story with clean lines. I guess today I needed to talk about the messier parts again, because they are part of me, too. That Zagajewski poem I love so much ends like this: "A poem grows/ on contradiction but can't cover it." I expect being a person is always going to mean being messy and contradictory. There's no hiding that. There's just life, in all it's messy glory, and us living it.

Wishing you all peace and joy to you all, and finding other ways to live those sweet happy moments.


*(Originally published in English in his book, Tremor (1985), I read it in Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002, p. 95). I can't find an online copy to link to, and too long to insert in a blog post, but if you do want to read it let me know and I'll type it out and send you a copy.)

Sunday 20 July 2014

The large print giveth, the small print taketh away*

The other night I tried alcohol-free wine for the first time, and I wanted to write about it because my reaction surprised me.

To back up: I haven't had alcohol for almost 7 months. I don't have cravings, and the occasional pull to drink feels mostly like a fleeting nostalgia--I don't pay it much heed, and it passes quickly.

But I had heard people talk about alcohol-free wine, and I wondered whether it was any good. I also wanted to see whether sharing a bottle of it would have any of what I remember as the pleasure of sharing a bottle of wine--the romance of sitting at a lovely dinner sipping wine and talking, not the guzzling wine alone late into the evening thing, which I'm glad to be done with. (I know the wine and romance thing is a big myth, but myths aren't all bad, and I was curious.)

My partner--who still drinks, though not a lot--was game to try it. We settled on a Spanish cava-style bottle that said "alcohol free" and "0.0%" on the label, and we kept our hopes in check. As it turned out, the fake wine wasn't very good. It was way too sweet, a bit like the Baby Duck my family used to drink at Christmas when I was a kid. But as it was a fizzy wine, once it was opened it wouldn't keep, so we drank it, easily agreeing that our usual soda/lemon/bitters concoction was much better. It was an experiment we wouldn't repeat.

But here's the weird part. As I was sipping the the last little bit, I felt a little strange. First I tried to dismiss it as my imagination. Then I started to wonder whether there was something about the moment that really was like drinking wine, in a way that was somehow different from our usual drinking sparkling water out of wine glasses. But it didn't make sense to me, and my partner wasn't getting it. And then I started to sense an all too familiar feeling--I was happy and relaxed, and I knew I'd have a little more after all if there was any left in the bottle. So I looked at the label again, and yes, it said 0.0% alcohol, but on the back of the bottle, in very small print, it also said, "Contains less than 0.4% alcohol." That's not quite zero. Even with the tiny amount of alcohol in that "alcohol-free" wine, it seems I could feel it.

I'm so absolutely surprised! I would have scoffed at the idea that such a tiny amount of alcohol would cause any reaction. I've had desserts with a drop of booze in them, and I use bitters in my fizzy water and cook with wine all the time. I'm no purist. But this was different. And I didn't like it. I was horrified that, even while agreeing that it didn't taste good, I was starting to get a little inkling of wanting more. It was just a trace of that old familiar feeling, but it was there, and I want absolutely nothing to do with that, ever again. I'm not much given to certainties, but I'm sure about that!

This was a valuable lesson to me. I know lots of people who quit the booze drink alcohol-free drinks, and I think we're all going to react differently to them, so I don't expect everyone would feel the same. And yes, someone might say, maybe it wasn't the trace amount of alcohol that affected me. Maybe it was psychological. I don't know. Alcohol is a powerful drug, but minds are powerful, too. I don't much care which it is. I won't try that again. And I'll be careful to read the fine print next time I see something that claims to be free!

Peace and love and sparkly days to you all.( *And thanks to Tom Waits for my post title. Peace and love to you too, Tom!)

Saturday 5 July 2014

Bike rides, bridges, and that bouillabaisse recipe.

I love summer. The other day my partner and I spent the whole afternoon out cycling. We dug out the bike map and traced out a route to somewhere we'd never been, and then spent the next day riding. The ride took us along a city bike route that's partly separated from traffic, with plenty of little parks and stretches of green space where lots of people were out walking in the sun or heading to the mall, doing whatever it is normal people do in the city on a Thursday afternoon. Then we found our way onto three bridges to get across the Fraser River, first to the eastern tip of Lulu Island and then Annacis Island, and then the big stretch of Fraser River that's spanned by the Alex Fraser Bridge. Here's a pic of that bridge, just to show I'm not talking about crossing a wee footpath!

(I'm not sure the protocol for borrowing public photos, but here's a link to some more photos by this fabulous photographer, unbanhunter on Panoramio.)

The bridge is just over 2.5 kilometres long--one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in North America-- and when big trucks roar along it, which they do, the floor shakes in a way that feels like a small earthquake. The cycle route is a narrow track that I'm pleased to say is separated by a high barrier from those six lanes of roaring traffic. Still, riding along it feels a bit like flying over water and a bit like being shaken in some giant industrial machine. All the way across I alternated between being amazed at the views and delighted to be part of a species that had built such a fantastic structure! Watching the wide expanse of the Fraser River rushing along below, it was impossible not to be a bit nervous, but mostly I felt lucky to be alive and part of the whole big ongoing life project.

Once we reached the far side, we found a small wooded path along an old rail line and we biked along there until we reached Mud Bay Park on the coast and then--after a quick lunch of havarti, salami, sliced peppers and local cherries--we rode along the Boundary Bay dyke trail for 15 or so kilometres. This last part if the ride was the point of the whole adventure, and it was well worth the effort of getting out there. We saw herons and eagles, and plenty of some sort of wee fast hunting birds. The route is flat, with farmland along one side and a long shallow bay stretching out along the other, with tufts of strange sea plants peeking up through the mud in the low tide, and Mount Baker in the distance on the American side of the water. Near the end of that trail, we joined up with the main road system and rode to the nearest urban centre, where we put our bikes on the bus to recross the river and come back home.

The day was marvellous, sun and wind and changing landscapes. We ended up with sunburned noses and tired legs, very happy to be home in time to make a quick dinner (more bouillabaisse!) before crashing into the deep sleep that's well earned after a full day outdoors.

Next day was another day off. We got up early for mushroom, chevre and sage omelets, then walked to a cafe for the Germany-France game (hooray Germany!), walked around the city going some errands, then to a wee bar for the Brasil-Columbia match (yea Brasil!) Later we came home and read for a while, then had a simple supper: pink salmon with fingerling potatoes and steamed green beans, with jicama salad to start, and blueberries and ice cream for dessert. It's blueberry season again! Hooray for blueberries!!!!!

That's a lot of words about some outdoor stuff and food, with no mention of alcohol. Because that's how it's been lately. Life is good, and drinking (or not drinking) takes up close to zero mental space. I've been spending lots of time doing things I love to do, and there are plenty of things to do. Even watching the World Cup at the local bars, it's been a no-brainer that I'm ordering a large bottle of San Pellegrino. Some people around me have had beer, and some haven't, and either way it hasn't mattered. The only time I've considered wine was once after thinking that the fizzy water was absolutely the right thing on a hot day, and then remembering how before I would have had beer or wine and then had that headachey tired feeling that I always had drinking in the daytime. 

It's been just about six months since I quit drinking this time around, which means out of the past year, I have been sober for ten of the twelve months. Time really does seem to make a difference. I'm not the same emotional mess I was in the first few months of this stretch this past winter. In fact, I don't think I've ever in my life felt this calm and happy. Now, I'm far more emotional than I used to be, but it's a different kind of emotional. Yesterday, when David Luis scored a lovely goal for Brasil, I was so moved by his reaction to it that I started to cry. My tears come easily, but they clear up easily, too, and that feels healthy to me. I'm still scared of lots of things, but it doesn't unseat me anymore. Thursday, I was once again scared by a couple of big dogs, but I called to the owners and asked them to leash the dogs, and when they did we were all very pleasant and civilized to each other about it, and I forgot about it almost immediately. In my drinking days, that kind of scary moment would unsettle me for the better part of the day.

And I still really do love sitting and sipping a pretty drink, but now it's lemon and bitters in sparkling water, or ginger juice in sparkling water, or a new favourite for me, holy basil tea. 

Life is good. There's lots of joy to share, and lots of good food and drink being shared along with that. I can't tell you how happy I am that I don't drink any more. I simply never would have believed what a relief it is to be done with it. Peace and joy to you, and happy outdoor days, and some yummy food too. xo


PS Here's a wee taste of the kind of thing I like to share, my bouillabaisse recipe as requested by Rebecca after my last post:

Chop an onion and cook it quietly for a few minutes in some sort of fat. (I use bacon fat because I like it, but olive oil with a little butter to make sure the oil doesn't smoke would be good, too. I cook the whole thing on electric stove set to 3, so that's the knob set to about 4:00 on a 12 hour dial.) While that's cooking, chop four or five big ripe tomatoes and a few cloves of garlic, and once the onions start to look translucent, add the tomatoes and the garlic to the pan. They will start to cook into a sauce pretty quickly, and then I add some white wine--not sure how much, maybe a few ounces or a half cup, maybe a little more, depends on how much liquid there is in the pan. And maybe now is the time to add a pinch or so of sea salt and some coarse black pepper, but later would work, too. Take a whole fennel bulb and chop off the stalks; I set these aside to use in a stew or something, because they are a bit woody for this delicate dish. Finely slice the fennel bulb top to bottom, so the strips are find of like noodles. I usually use around half a medium bulb, but it doesn't matter much how much you use. Add the chopped fennel to the pot and cook until it softens, just a few minutes or so. Then I add a handful of fresh thyme (though tarragon would work too) and around 250 grams of fish. (I buy chopped up fish ends for cheap from the local fish store, and that always includes some salmon, halibut, and ling cod, but you could just buy a couple of small pieces of two or three different kinds of fish and see how it goes. Shellfish would make it a more festive dish if there's some around and it's not too pricey.) The fish will cook super fast, and once that's done, put it in big wide bowls and eat it up happily. This amount serves two hungry people, so you could use a few more tomatoes and more fish and fennel to make enough to serve four, especially if you added a small salad or some antipasto to start. Happy cooking, and happy eating.