Personal, Stories Told

The Christmas bellwether

This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.

I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.

What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.

I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.

But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.

Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home
Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.

By the next Christmas my church had invited me to live in its parsonage. I invited my parents and my brother to share Christmas there; it is where our family’s Christmas spaghetti tradition began. A year of rebuilding followed, of figuring out our new family ways, of making new traditions.

By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.

But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.

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Personal, Stories Told

Three hundred square feet

This is the second in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story once before, in November of 2009, but rewrote it for today.

She wanted me out, just for a month, just to clear our heads. Ten days later, the double-cross: don’t come back.

I ached over losing my family, but more urgently I needed out of an awful extended-stay hotel as it racked up debt on my credit card. Most of my paycheck kept my children in the home they knew; I had to live on what little remained. Affordable apartments were few, small, broken down, in bad neighborhoods. I chose the place closest to my children, especially tiny at just three hundred square feet.

Lease signed, key in hand, door open, six steps completed the tour across stained carpet, along the worn counters, past the gouged bathroom door. I startled at an electric roar; the heater had kicked on. I sat down on the Murphy bed and felt the springs in the thin mattress. I felt dizzy, nauseated. How could I be living in a place like this? Were my sons okay? What were they doing? Did they know what was happening? I wished I could see them. I didn’t want them to see this place.

I took a breath, and then another, and purposed to accept. I took it day by day, as I couldn’t imagine still living in this hole on the last day of my six-month lease. I didn’t know then that I’d renew twice: my wife filed for divorce but then refused to negotiate. Our case went to trial in a horribly backlogged court.

Three photographs capture almost everything:

apt3
apt2
apt1

I would come to terms with my marriage’s end here, in anguish and anger night after night. I wished I could hole up, cut out the world, let the pain rage until it was done with me. But I still had to work to pay for everything, be a father to my children, and do considerable preparation for the trial. I had never known such crippling stress. I hardly slept. I lost 20 pounds. Xanax kept me from stepping over the edge.

Thank God for friends and family who prayed for me and took my phone calls at all hours of the day. They propped me up, then built me up. I had compromised my integrity so often in the marriage, sometimes from my shortcomings and sometimes in desperation to keep my family together, that I had utterly lost myself. Slowly, inner strength returned.

I began the hard work of rebuilding. My little apartment became the safe place I needed to do the work.

That’s ironic, because the apartment complex wasn’t really a safe place. Two neighboring apartments saw a dozen visitors a day, eyes darting about nervously as they sought a fix. And it was whispered that a prostitution ring was being run out of some apartments in the back. Yet the drug dealers were respectful when we encountered each other at our cars (mine a cheap Toyota; theirs immaculate white Caddies loaded with gold trim). And one of the alleged prostitutes kept knocking on my door asking for money until I said, “Are you hungry? I’ll take you to the store and buy you whatever you need,” which chased her away for good. Word got around that I had cables, so I jump-started a bunch of hoopties. And I was awakened late one night to call an ambulance for an ailing neighbor who couldn’t afford a phone. This place knew the problems of poverty. But unless someone knocked, I never knew they were there. My room’s silence was broken only when a washing machine went off balance in the laundry room next door.

And so in that isolation I took inventory of myself. Not sleeping gave me time to do the work, and having no amenities and little money made it hard for me to distract myself or run away. I buckled down, took a hard look at how far out of true I had gone, and made slow but steady progress back to myself.

Me_In_Apt

I learned to accept the pain and let go of my marriage. I found ways to snatch a little serenity here and there. I started to manage the stress more effectively. I began to look forward to my future. And best of all, my sons and I forged tight new relationships. We used to fold up the Murphy bed and play a rough game on the floor where I’d get on my knees, the boys would try to run past me, and I’d reach out and tackle them on their way by. I can’t explain it, but that game was a tonic for us, singlehandedly building trust and good feelings.

I drive by a lot today; it’s on the way to the grocery store. My sons used to remark on our time there, about how they hated sleeping on bedrolls but loved to play our game on the floor, but the years have dimmed their memories. I thought I had left the apartment with more good memories than bad, and I felt grateful for my recovery there. Yet not long ago when I stumbled upon the photos I’ve shared here, deep echoes of pain flooded my mind and body, echoes that took days to subside. How crushing the stress. How close I came to breaking. I don’t know how I managed to function. I have no explanation other than I was in God’s hand.

I’ve shared very little here about my ten-year journey since the separation. My blog has mostly been about who I’ve become since those awful days — an expression of joy in having found myself again and regained my integrity. I hope this story provides context for the rest of what I write here.

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Personal

This cup is already broken

I first published this in 2010 but have been thinking of it recently as I’ve been upgrading some furnishings in my home.

This was my favorite mug.

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: “This cup is already broken.” It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

Stinging from the loss, I became even more parsimonious in using my possessions. At about this time I realized I drank more coffee at work than at home – and I resisted taking my mug to work for several years out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. I kept clothes, photographs, and some furniture, but most everything else went. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

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Personal

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented local potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my current job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I fill it with coffee, a puddle quickly forms wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: “This cup is already broken.” It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

Stinging from the loss, I became even more parsimonious in using my possessions. At about this time I realized I drank more coffee at work than at home – and I resisted taking my mug to work for several years out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It’s an event I’ve mentioned before, but I’ve yet to find the courage to tell the whole story. In short, I kept furniture, clothes, and photographs, but most everything else went. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums from my large collection that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank no fewer than 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

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