Archive for alcoholism

Days: Fifteen Years Sober

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by sethdellinger

Prologue

There were chandeliers.  I had rarely been around chandeliers, and even then, never so many, never so shiny.  In fact, nearly everything was shiny—the centerpieces, the candle holders, the forks and knives had glints and sparkles.  Light seemed to reflect and refract from everywhere all at once, off of balloons and from under tables, men’s wingtip shoes had tiny stars in them, large wire-rimmed glasses on women’s faces beamed chandelier light into my eyes.  The whole ballroom was like a universe.

I should have expected to be dazzled at the first wedding I ever attended.  I’d seen depictions of weddings in some movies, sure, but being only eight or nine years old, I didn’t have a lot to go on.  I knew there would be a ceremony, and they’d kiss, and then I heard we threw rice at them, oddly enough.  I must have expected there to be a party afterward, but if I did, I certainly had no idea what to expect from it.  And all this shininess—I hadn’t been prepared for that.

My cousins were there—some that I liked and some that I didn’t, but we all kept playing together, regardless.  That’s what you do with cousins when you’re a kid, after all—you play with them no matter how much you like them.  Once the pomp and trope of the adult rituals during the reception began to wear thin for us (how many times does an eight-year-old think it’s interesting to watch two grown-ups kiss? Just because someone tapped their glass?) we found our way to each other and began exploring.  We found an elevator in the lobby that we rode up and down and up and down, getting off on random floors, running to the ends of the halls.  We made a game where you tried to touch the wall at the end of the hall and get back to the elevator before the doors closed.  It wasn’t easy.  We also devised a contest to see who could, when controlling the floor buttons, go longest without the doors opening to let a stranger onto the elevator.  Again and again we were tempted to press the Emergency Stop button, but we never did.  Eventually, an employee caught onto the fact that some kids were playing fast and loose with their elevator and we got yelled at and told to stop, and, feeling like we’d just been dressed down by a Supreme Court justice, we ran out of the elevator, through the lobby, and back into the ballroom.

We played under vacant tables.  We made forts under there by using spare tablecloths and draping them over the chairs.  We moved the large potted plants out a few feet from the walls and hid behind them until grown-ups gave us weird looks.  We took M&Ms out of our gift baskets and threw them long distances into each other’s mouths.  By and large, nobody was watching us.  The adults were having a grand old time and we were left to play, to run around.  It was a unique environment for us.  Dressed in our little spiffy clothes—suspenders, skirts, ties—we felt like miniature grown-ups, doing our kid things under the shiny lights.

Occasionally, the action in the grown-up world would halt briefly while they did another of their inexplicable rituals—shoving cake at each other, somebody’s dad dancing with somebody else, and on and on.  At one point, everyone stopped what they were doing for the throwing of the bouquet, which did not sound remotely interesting to me, but my cousins ran to the crowd to watch.  I was thirsty and a little tired, so I made my way back to my family’s table to regroup and hydrate.

Nobody was there, as they were off watching something happen to a bouquet.  I pulled myself up to the table, the empty food plates still scattered around, and my mother’s purse hanging on the side of her chair, and more M&Ms in clear mason jars.  I found my Sprite and gulped it down.  It was nice to have a moment alone.  Then my eye fell upon it: the champagne flute.  Full, bubbles creeping up the sides, mysterious presences.  I glanced around and verified I was unwatched.  I took the glass, using both hands to steady it, and brought it to my lips, surprised by the blast of carbon dioxide as the carbonation hit my nose.  I barely tasted anything as I downed the beverage in one quick movement.  I sat back in my chair, looked around myself again to see if I had been observed.  In a moment, the warmth hit my stomach.  A smile crept at my lips.

 

Days of Nothing

 

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

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In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die, would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

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I don’t really remember how it happened, but I know for a fact that once, stone drunk, I found myself walking down the Carlisle Pike in the middle of night, just past the 81 North entrance ramp, headed away from Carlisle. I had just past the entrance ramp when I saw a tractor-trailer pulled over on the side of the road, presumably for the driver to sleep there for the night. None of the lights were on and the engine was off. I thought to myself, ‘I could just roll underneath a truck right there and sleep for the night. I could just lay under there, be sheltered from view and the wind, look up at the underside of that trailer, let this drunkenness and tiredness wash over me, and sleep there for the night.’ And I did roll under that truck, and I looked at the underside of it. I put my hands behind my head and stretched out in the gravel parking lot. I laid there for a little while, I have no idea how long, but even in my drunken stupor, and as low as I was in every aspect of life at that moment, even I knew this was a bad idea. I rolled back out and kept on walking, and I have no idea where I went.

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Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

 

Days of Something

 

Just a few months after getting sober, I found myself living back in Pennsylvania, after a short stint in New Jersey.  I had moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare bedroom. I got my old job back, the same job cooking greasy diner food for a company that kept giving me chances.  I would come home everyday and see some of my friends there, hanging around this house I had moved into. Sometimes playing music, or fiddling with the communal telescope, or playing board games.   A few weeks into this living arrangement, I decided that I was going to go out that night by myself.  I ended up going to a movie, “Million Dollar Baby”, and it was a good movie, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll start watching good movies.’  I walked out of the theater, and it was a late showing, and it was winter, so it was dark and frigid everywhere, and I was the only one in the parking lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t a slave to anything like I had been before. Nothing drove me to a bar or a convenience store to get a fix. Nothing told me I had to be somewhere that I could fall asleep anytime soon. I didn’t have to work in the morning. I didn’t have anybody who knew where I was or was expecting me somewhere. I walked across the frigid parking lot to the adjacent Walmart, bought a Butterfinger candy bar and a Red Bull, walked back to my car, and drove into the countryside, smoking cigarettes, laughing my ass off at freedom.

 

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Philadelphia is a great city, but there’s nothing special about it in the winter. It becomes winter just like every place else becomes the winter: slowly, and then all at once. My first winter in the city was also the first winter I’d spent anywhere without a car. During the summer I had learned to get around by riding my bike and walking, and was just getting pretty good at it when the gradual winter hit all of a sudden. It was cold and it was windy, but didn’t snow for the first few months, and then one day, a day that I also happened to have off work, the sky opened up and dumped down about eight inches. It was a very different experience than my previous winters elsewhere, where you might go outside and walk around, do some shoveling, maybe go see a few of the local landmarks covered in the fluffy cliches. In a densely packed urban area that stretches out for miles and miles in any direction, and where local landmarks are a dime a dozen but breathtaking beauty might be a little scarce, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with myself, other than sit on my couch and watch Netflix. Eventually I decided to just bundle up, put on some heavy shoes (since I never really am in the habit of keeping boots around) and venture out into the snow and see what happened. I started walking through the streets of my South Philly neighborhood, unplowed, unshoveled, the houses squished up against each other like sandwich bread, snow building up in the trashy pedestrian alleys between them, choking the tops of open the trash cans, pawprints sometimes the only sign anyone had been down a sidewalk.  And I kept walking and walking, taking note how it was different than my previous experience, and also ways in which it was similar, compare and contrast, compare and contrast, that is essentially how I Live every moment of my life. One experience must always be similar or different from previous ones; otherwise, how do you measure anything?  Eventually the neighborhood started to change as I kept walking, buildings got farther apart, the roads got wider, the streets were starting to be plowed, cars started moving around, the city seemed to wake up. I started passing people on the street and there was an air of conviviality, of shared experience. Everyone was saying hello, commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.  Eventually I realized I was closer to Independence Mall, which is the cluster of extremely significant historical sites in the city, than I was to home, so I just kept on walking. I arrived behind Independence Hall probably an hour and a half after leaving my house, still trudging through almost a foot of snow, surprised to see that there were a few people milling around, but only a few, much less than the hundreds and hundreds that crammed into this park in the summer months. I circled the building, taking note of what the roof looked like covered in snow, imagining it would have looked the same to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson when it snowed in the late 1700s. I crossed Chestnut Street, which is directly in front of Independence Hall, my feet not quite hitting the cobblestones, but still feeling the unevenness of the walk, as the snow impacted into the cracks around the cobblestones, as it surely has done to other foot travelers for centuries. I trudged across the open space in front of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell to my left, taking note that it was still open, the Park Service still there and operating, but I didn’t see a soul in line to see the famed bell. I kept on going, heading towards the visitor center, with its bright glass interiors, newly built restrooms, shiny gift shop and concession stand. I often used to stop at the visitor center in the summer, as I was riding my bike around the city, for its quick and easy access to a restroom and bottled water.  As I swung open the heavy glass and stainless steel doors, it was clear to me that everyone inside the visitor center was surprised to see me, not because of anything about me, but simply because I was a human being. I was literally the only non-employee in this entire visitor center. It’s amazing what snow does to history tourism. Despite the fact that it was winter and snowing, I was sweating greatly, and was glad of the opportunity to take my coat off, breathe a little bit, stomp the snow out of every crease and crevice. I was thirsty and hungry, as I didn’t leave the house with the intention to walk halfway across the city, so I went straight to the concession stand, got me a bottle of water, a hot coffee, and some sort of breakfast sandwich.  I sat alone in the bright, metal cafeteria, my belly growing content as I fed it.  I took note that outside, it had begun snowing again, and heavier this time.  It was quiet in the visitor center.  I was far from home.

 

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This day started very early. I woke up around 4am not knowing what I was going to do with the day, but knowing that I wanted to wake up early enough to have a really thorough day, if you know what I mean. I was living by myself in Erie Pennsylvania, in an apartment, one bedroom, on the second level of an old house that was nearing dilapidation, but still teetering on the edge of respectability. It was smack-dab in the middle of summer, and waking up at 4am, the whole apartment was already laden with a heat, an oppressive second floor apartment kind of heat; a thin layer of sweat somehow on everything you looked at. I rolled out of bed, made myself a latte on my proudly-acquired home espresso machine, and set about pondering what to do with such a lengthy, summery kind of day all to myself.  I took a long, overly hot shower while the local morning news played on the television which I had crammed into my tiny bathroom. I stayed in the shower for the whole newscast, mind mostly blank. After the shower, while air drying mostly to cool off, I randomly selected a DVD from my bloated collection, and came up with “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, a movie that I don’t know how it ended up in my collection and no longer resides there, but at the time, a mindless comedy seemed just the ticket. I laid on my couch and let the Steve Carell comedy wash over me. Having gotten up so early that an immense amount of day still laid stretched out before me, even after my lengthy ablutions. What to do? Living by one’s self for so long, and so far from everyone you know, turns days and 31316_1458245861882_8379455_nmornings into quiet studies of one’s inner mechanics, and if you linger too long without plans, your cogs and belts begin to make a lot of noise. Suddenly it hit me: Niagara Falls. I’d been living relatively close to Niagara Falls for almost a year at this point, and it was always something bouncing around the periphery of what I wanted to do, but I never quite made it there, never quite made that my actual plan. Almost the moment that it struck me, I bounded off the couch, went to my computer to MapQuest the directions, threw on some clothes and some essentials into a backpack, and I was out the door.  I don’t remember much about the drive, although certainly there had to be a drive. It was close but not incredibly close, probably something like an hour and 15 minutes. A decent trip, but then again, much closer than almost anyone else in the world lives to such landmark. I remember having trouble figuring out where to park when I got close to it, the town itself surrounding it not exactly being incredibly helpful with instructions.  Finally I did get my car parked, and walked across a large grassy mall, the sound of the falls quite distinct, just like you expect the sound of Niagara Falls to be: thunderous, droning, like a white noise that comes from within.  I remember hearing the falls, I remember a large grassy area you had to walk across to get to it, but I don’t remember actually arriving at the falls.  In fact, the order of what I did that day and the specifics of how I did it, are lost in the labyrinth of my brain. I did the touristy things, I rode the boat, I walked up and down the path alongside the falls, I wore the poncho they provide you. I took selfies on the boat, all by myself, surrounded by revelers and families and church groups. After doing the requisite attractions, I found myself walking around the grounds, reading the historical markers, interpreting the interpretive maps. I noticed that there was a small landmass called Goat Island, out of the middle of the river, one of the features that gives the Falls that look, where it is divided occasionally, not one big solid Falls. It was accessible quite easily via a pedestrian bridge across the river, so I went out there, reading the Wikipedia entry on my phone as I went, the long and somewhat interesting history of the island, its ownership and various names. I arrived on the island to find a sweltering patch of grass, the heat dense with liquid, the roar of the falls now like a white noise outside myself, like a curtain descending. The island itself was no larger than a small park, and trees lined the northern edge, so that one couldn’t actually see the land fall away at the end.  I had the island entirely to myself. Of course the only thing to do on an island like that is to walk toward the edge. Walking through the grass I was assaulted by bugs everywhere, insects nipping at my legs, bouncing off my knees like miniature Kamikazes. The closer and closer I got to the river, the more amazed I was that there were no protections of any kind in place. One expects to find some sort of railing here, some warning signs, maybe even Park Rangers or something. But no, the island just walks right up to the river, and right up to the falls, anyone with dark designs would be in no way dissuaded.  The design of the island makes it challenging to walk right up to the falls, but instead it is very easy to sit at a clearing about twenty yards away from the actual precipice. I took my backpack off and sat in the grass, and looked out across the Niagara River, just beginning to get a real good head of steam up, just beginning to get its little whitecaps and wavelets, the water not knowing it was about to fly.  The heat washed over me, the insect buzzing began to mesh with the white noise of the falls, it all became a hot buzzing constant, I laid my head on the grass and sunk in, sunk down into the dirt, I was so far from home, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was, or maybe even who I was.

 

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“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for something or someone to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun!”

‘Time’, by Pink Floyd

 

Days of Everything

 

It was a cold night, but not too cold, which was fortunate, because we had to park very far away from the arena. I unbuckled Boy from his car seat and heaved him into the air, bringing him next to my cheek to give him a kiss in the crisp evening air. “This soccer game?” He asked. “Yes,” I told him. “This is the big building I told you about.” I sat him down and stuck out my hand for him to grab, as we strolled quickly through the immense parking lot together. He had lots of questions. He kept calling it football, which was interesting, I thought, since most of the world referred to soccer as football, but he couldn’t possibly know that, could he? Most of his questions weren’t really about the sport we were about to go watch, but the building it was in. How could a building be so big that you could play soccer inside of it? How tall was it, was it taller than the telephone poles? Taller than our house? Will there be snacks? Soft pretzels? I’ve become accustomed to the constant barrage of questions at this point, pulling from deep within me a patience I honestly did not think I possessed.  Not that this patience is without limits—but at any rate, I seem to have more than I thought.  I suspect a toddler will prove this to be true of most anyone.

I was surprised by the patience he displayed as we waited in a long line to buy tickets. It seems every day, he is making leaps and bounds, growing in things like patience, understanding, and empathy. Which is not to say he’s still not a little ball of emotions that doesn’t know how to act, just maybe a little less so than a few months ago or a year ago. He’s becoming much more of a companion as opposed to a force of nature to wrangle and watch. While for the most part, time with Boy is still all about teaching, there are moments now of truly just being.  And “just being” with a little guy like boy is more magic than I’m accustomed to.

Finally, tickets procured, we entered the concourse, looking for our section. I hadn’t studied the arena map extensively, and had chosen seats in the section on the complete opposite side of the concourse, so we had to walk past countless souvenir stands and snack bars, him wanting desperately to stop at each, and also wanting to enter into each section as we passed, with me constantly trying to tell him that it wasn’t much farther, not much farther. But through it all, he didn’t freak out or melt down or cry, just implored me strongly. Finally we came upon our entrance to the arena, and I picked him up because I knew the stairs were going to be steep and he was probably going to be shocked by the sight of walking into the big room. Carrying him on my side, we entered the arena proper, and although an indoor soccer field lacks the nebulous breathtaking quality of a baseball field, the sudden shock of green and the expanse of a sudden cavernous room had its desired effect on the countencance of Boy, which is to say, it produced a certain amount of awe. After pausing to allow him to soak it in, we climbed up the steep steps, to find our seats. We were all alone in our section, something I had to ask the ticket man to do, in case it did not go very well. Boy was beyond excited to sit here. He was very into his seat, enamored with the idea that the number on it matched  the number on his ticket, and in this enormous room, this seat was his and his alone. He was not restless as I had feared, his eyes trained on the action on the field. I would steal sidelong glances at him, see his eyes glued to the action, his head swiveling as the ball bounced back and forth, his complete concentration and immersion something only possible in the earliest years of life, and during a first exposure to things; the sights and sounds meshing with dawning understanding, realization writ large across his face. He would sometimes stop his concentration to ask questions about the goalies, which he called The Goal Guys, their different colored jerseys causing him no end of confusion. Later, as he was able to again float back into our world, he would watch me for cues whenever the arena sound system would play the tropes of modern sporting events: the “Charge!” song, the “De-Fense!” chant, and on and on. He saw and understood there was an audience participation element and he wanted to learn.  I would raise my fist and yell “Charge!”, glancing over to see him mimic it, his tiny voice bursting forth its own “Charge!”  This moment, especially, nearly crippled me with emotion.

He paid close attention to the game and stayed quite interested for well over an hour and a half when he started to fall asleep on my shoulder. I told him I thought it was time to go, and he protested quite strongly, saying he didn’t want to miss anything. And I kept giving in, saying we could stay, and then he kept falling asleep again, until eventually I picked him up, went up the stairs to the upper concourse, and told him he should get down and walk around and look at all the empty chairs, all the sections without anybody in them. The arena was quite empty, in fact, especially once one got up to the upper reaches. We got to a very high section, a corner section so high up you could almost touch the roof in a few of the spots, and as we emerged into it, it became clear that it had not even been cleaned out or looked at after the preceding weekend’s Motocross event in the arena. Everywhere there was trash, even half-eaten food and some beer cans on their sides. It was an astonishing array of trash and smells to walk into amid what appeared to be an otherwise normal arena. It was immediately too late for me to backtrack and take him out of this section, he was much too interested in the hows or whys this could have happened. I explained as best I could that they assumed they would not sell any tickets in this section for the soccer game, so they must be waiting to clean up from the Motocross. He did not want to walk around the section, but he also didn’t want to leave. I picked him up and we watched the soccer from way high up near the ceiling, looking down on all that old trash and beer cans, until he looked at me and told me he was ready to go home. I felt that I had a companion here, a little guy who I could teach and learn from, who was now going to be interested in things, who was present with me.

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It wasn’t too long ago that we had a little get-together for Boy’s birthday. My Love’s father was there—and let me tell you, I like Love’s father so much it’s nearly criminal–as well as both of my parents and my paternal grandmother. My parents have been divorced for quite a few years, and yet they get along like the best of friends, and there was my dad’s mother, chatting it up with his ex-wife, all while boy ran around and told everyone he loves them all the time, and climbed on everybody, and climbed on me, while I held Loves hand, while the room was full of talk and laughter, while there was warmth everywhere, and everywhere I looked there was future, future, future.

 

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My love and I put on our light spring jackets and walked into the crisp evening. Just the two of us, we interlocked our hands, and headed down the street toward Midtown. It is one of the benefits of living where we do, that usually, given the right weather and the right child care situation, we can walk to some of the places that we like to spend time together. This night it was simple: we were going out to eat. It was one of the last walkable nights of the year, and we knew it. The cold was setting in, soon we would be driving everywhere and stuck inside like prisoners.  So tonight, we knew, was a walking night.

There was a very popular and artsy restaurant in the middle of Midtown, which somehow we still had not made it to. Recently they had started serving a very popular veggie burger, that all of our friends were talking about, and we still hadn’t tried. It had been on our list for weeks.

The thing about taking a somewhat lengthy walk with the person that you love is that it forces conversation you don’t normally have inside the house or perhaps in a moving car. You see things that you don’t normally see, are reminded of things you might only see or think of by yourself, you’re moving at an interesting pace, a different speed. I love holding hands and walking with my love. I love the way her hand feels, I love being connected to her physically in that way, I love being able to look at her face from the side so often. I love being able to point out things, and have her point out things to me, elements of our neighborhood that we only see when we are walking the dog by ourselves.  I love kissing her outside. Many people spend most of their lives in relationships and begin to take things like this for granted, maybe even very early on in life, they assume they will have a companion in this form. Having spent so long single, small things like holding hands, walking down the street, these things never seem anything other than magical to me. My love thrills me.  Literally every single thing about her. It’s electric.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves the only customers in the artsy eating establishment, it being only five o’clock. We were talking about the art on the wall, the interesting sculptures, the funny man who kept looking at us askance from inside the kitchen. We talked about the interesting ordering system the restaurant used, the haphazard way salt was placed on some of the tables but not others, we talked about our days, we held hands and looked at each other. Sometimes we didn’t say anything and that was lovely in its own way. When you know someone is your true partner, being in their presence is a constant salve.

The food came and it was delicious, just as delicious as everyone says it is was, and it was fantastic to share a meal with someone who shares so many of my worldviews, who has the compassion in the same places I do, love and freedom in the same proportions, to share a meal with a woman who has taught me so much. As I was finishing off my Diet Pepsi, stealing glances at this woman, I kept thinking some of the same thoughts I come back to all the time.  How I waited so long to find her.  How, when I did find her, I couldn’t and still can’t believe how perfect she is.  How my journey to find her wasn’t about me, or even the journey, but it was about her, about us.  How I still learn about her every day and she’s such a delicious mystery.  How she fits so well.  I looked at her as I sat there, finishing my Diet Pepsi, and I said to her the only thing one can say, given the unbearable weight of the world:  I can’t believe you’re finally here.

 

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The days, good or bad, really do just stretch out like deserts, uncountable deserts, again and again and again.  Some, you find, contain nothing: plodding marches under a bored sun.  But sometimes, they are filled up, filled with everything you ever dreamed, brazen neon signs of days, confetti and love love love.  I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to figure out how to keep them filled up.  I want the days of everything, forever.

Days of Nothing

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by sethdellinger

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

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In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die,  would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

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Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

It is possible to grow up and still let the juice run down your chin.

Posted in Memoir, real life with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by sethdellinger

Our culture is full of tales that suggest there is a prime way to live life; movies, music and books that implore you to chase your dreams, to leave the safe confines of your daily routine, to reach out and grab life by the whatevers, because, you know, you only live once.  It’s a moving, inspiring narrative.  The thing is, you see, in our society, typically when someone does that sort of thing, we all look at them like they’re crazy.  I can’t believe she just up and moved to New York—to be an actress!  She had a pretty good job here, too.  She’s nuts!

And so on.

This is not going to be a piece of writing where I tell you how you should be living.  For the most part, how you are living is between you and, possibly, those closest to you.  It’s got nothing to do with me.  They make so many movies etc suggesting you grab life by the armpits because those kinds of things make money.  People love to be told how they are pissing away their existence.  Why?  Because almost everyone is, in some way, convinced they actually are pissing away their existence.

It’s hard to know how to live your life, right?  By the time you get one thing figured out, one part of you fully colored in, you’ve changed in other ways, and now you’re chasing other ghosts, ironing out new parts of you, nursing new interests.  The songs tell you to chase your dream but very few of us have just one enormous dream.  Most of us are a collection of dozens of itsy bitsy dreams.  I don’t suggest driving your car off a cliff over an itsy bitsy dream.

All I’m personally concerned with is being passionate, living with vigor.  I keep changing, evolving; it’s like I’m in the center of an orchard that is spinning around me and I’m leaping at fruit as they fly past.  Even as I near my fortieth year, I find my changes accelerating: I would be unrecognizable even to my thirty-year-old self.  With so much swirling into and out of my crosshairs, it’s impossible to laser-focus on something.  What I need is passion for everything.  The racing heart, smelling the book, walking outside in the cold to take the photograph, the peach juice running down your chin, holding Her as tight as I can.  I don’t need to move to New York to be an actress to squeeze the juice out—but maybe you do, so maybe you should.

And maybe you’re OK with rote routine, eating your food and drinking your water just to stay alive as long as possible.  That’s fine, too.  Like I said, this isn’t a piece of writing to tell you how to live your life.  That’s got nothing to do with me, because nobody’s paying me to write this.

But me, I need passion.

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For a few years in my early twenties I was passionate about Alcoholics Anonymous.  I mean that’s who I was for a little while.  I thought it was the life for me.  After being tentative and gradually going into that world, I fully immersed myself once comfortable.  I would get phone calls late at night and go talk to a drunk in need.  I gave a talk to troubled teens attending an early intervention class at a local church.  Almost all of my friends were members of AA.  We went to meetings together, then went out for coffee afterward, then sometimes even back to an apartment or house for a movie night after the coffee.  We took road trips together to meetings and seminars.  At the time, I was still considered a “young person in sobriety” (I was 25-26) and my closest AA buddies and I went to the Pennsylvania Convention of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous (known as “Pennsypaa”).  We took over a hotel in downtown Baltimore (that’s right, it was in Baltimore–they like to make it a nice trip for everyone no matter where you live in the state) for three whole days.  That’s how passionate I was about Alcoholics Anonymous.  In addition to tons of panels and activities, there was also a room where they had round-the-clock meetings, one an hour, for the whole three days.  I made it my mission to do a stretch of 24 hours straight, but I think I only got 7 or 8 before I had to go sleep.  I had my favorite AA jokes (“They asked me to go to that meeting and give a talk on humility, but I said I’d only do it if enough people showed up”), I had my favorite chapters in the Big Book (“Us Agnostics”), and on and on.  It was my life and I thought it would always be.  It isn’t my life anymore, though.  It hasn’t been for a very long time.  Those guys I went to Baltimore with–there is only one of them I am still in touch with.  But that’s how it is supposed to be, back before social media changed our expectations; people, like passions, are allowed to come and go.  You can let them go.

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Like most of my blog entries lately, I’m just kind of thinking out loud here.  Don’t look too hard for an overarching theme or thesis.  As my birthday approaches I’m doing a little taking stock.  Certainly my life right now is the most amazing it’s ever been–it is not putting on a front to say that.  People think that if you say your life is amazing on the internet that you must be lying, but they think that because their lives are not amazing.  I assure you mine is.

No, I am not taking stock of my life in some way that implies it needs improved, but rather, to discern just how I have changed so much.  This is one of the more massive themes of all the blog entries I’ve ever written: how the old me becomes the new me becomes the old me becomes the new me and on and on and on.  And why do I think you’d want to read about this?  Why, because I assume the same thing is happening to you.

I suppose it’s possible this is not happening to you.  It’s possible the old you became the new you and then you stayed right there, and now you’re just you.  But again, that’s none of my business.

What I want to get at is, how much of those old me’s are still part of me?  Are there fundamental bits of Seth mixed up inside me, that have always been there and shall always remain?  Or do we change, piece by piece, insidiously, until the person we see in the mirror bears no relation to the people we were 10, 20 years ago?

Is there even a way to know the answer?

Sometimes I think the only thing in this world that cuts to any part of the truth of existence is music–music without words–and the only thing I can really create is words, but no music.  So there you have it.  Questions stacked on questions like mirrors looking into mirrors.

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I’ve seen Pearl Jam live 21 times.  Approximately.  It might be 17.  I know it is more than 15.  At some point in my life I knew that number very concretely.  That is how much has changed within me since I gave up the ghost on Pearl Jam.  For a very long stretch, the band was my life.  I bought everything you can possibly imagine–spending thousands of dollars on the band’s merchandise.  When they would tour, I would take vacations from work and follow them up and down the east coast, staying in hotels by myself in places as diverse as Jersey City to Virginia Beach.  I attended about 75% of those Pearl Jam shows all alone, and did not mind one bit.  I used to tell people I had to go to as many shows as possible because Pearl Jam concerts were “my church”.  Especially the long instrumental parts they would play in “Even Flow” and “rearviewmirror”; I would close my eyes during these times and replay my life up to that point, flipping through memory images, whatever came to mind and seemed significant, and then giving immense thanks that I had come through everything to be in a position to be standing there, right then, as this band was creating this music, and I had enough money to buy the poster and a t-shirt and my own hotel room.  When the band cycled back around to the climax of the song, I’d open my eyes, always tear-filled, and they’d pour down my cheeks, and I’d jump like a maniac as the music built to a catharsis, and I’d scream and pump my fists and let out my barbaric yawp.  It was my church.  I did that for a long time.  Seven or eight years.  But I don’t do that anymore.  I didn’t even look at the setlists for Pearl Jam’s last two tours.  I’m more of a Miles Davis kind of man now.

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People talk very poorly of “routine”.  They are afraid of falling into routine.  They think routine will just sap the authenticity directly out of your life.

Here is what they mean: they are afraid of getting old and having responsibilities.

Lord knows I was afraid of those things for a very long time.  I lived by myself for a decade and railed against the breakfast-nook-having, 401k-caring-about, child-rearing snoozevilles.  But guess what?  While I was living alone, bitching about all that, I still had a routine.  I may have been able to take road trips more often, stay out late, what-have-you, but ultimately, if what you fear is routine, then you are fucked, mister, because whoever you are and whatever you do, you are already in a routine.

I have a family now.  I am now living much closer to what some people would call a “normal adult life”, and yes, we have a routine.  Having a routine is how you make sure you get out the door in the morning (if that’s what you have to do), get food in your belly, pay the power company on time.  Having a routine and being in the flow of “normal” adult life doesn’t mean your passion has to be siphoned off.

But you gotta work at it.

The last thing I want, as I near forty and the changes inside me keep accelerating, is to live joylessly, simply existing, from one day to the next, sun up, sun down, alarm beeping, alarm beeping.  Luckily my partner is also a person with no interest in living an ordinary life, even if we do want to have breakfast nooks someday and pay attention to our 401ks.  Intense existence and successful adulthood, I think, are not mutually exclusive.

I want our family to be safe from harm but I don’t want to “be safe”.  I want desperately to reach further and further out of my comfort zones.  I want to do new stuff until the day I die.  I don’t want to only listen to the music I loved in high school.  The world is so damn huge.  We’re only here for a blink.

I have learned that it is possible to grow up and still let the juice run down your chin.

Baltimore, 1998

Posted in Memoir, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 24, 2016 by sethdellinger

I suppose there’s always a lesson to be learned, whether in a filthy dive bar or over tea in a teahouse, whether in sweaty socks in a high school gym or walking onto stage in a vaunted theater, there’s always some lesson to be gleaned, whether it is for you or against you, whether it is exactly what you want to hear or it devastates you, it is going to be there, regardless.  Take, for example, standing on the balcony level of a thumping bar in Baltimore, peering down at the crowded dance floor below, my head already swirled with gin, watching three of my friends dance in a group, turning sluringly to the young girl next to me, who I’d never met or even spoken to before, Hey!  That one down there, with the orange hat?  Do you find him attractive?  Women are always into him instead of me, and when she grimaces and turns from me wordlessly, I amble over to the balcony bar, order a double of the top-shelf stuff, and settle into a corner table alone.  Even in my youth I saw this not as a lesson in the unfairness of having friends more desirable than yourself, or being a bad dancer or lacking social graces, but as a gut-punch reality check about a path I was trodding from which I could not return.  But what else did I know as the waitress lit the candle on my round table in the dark?  What did I know about anything?

Origin Story, or: Where I Started

Posted in Memoir, Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2016 by sethdellinger

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

Every Direction is North

Posted in Memoir, Prose with tags , , , , , , , on August 12, 2015 by sethdellinger

I haven’t written about my addiction or my recovery for quite some time now. There was a time when it was by far my favored topic, but having been sober for twelve years now, the immediacy of it has faded, and I started to run out of new ways to write about it. And also it just gradually became a part of who I was, I no longer had to think about not drinking or how strange my past had been, because sometimes the past gets so long ago, it’s like it happened to somebody else.

However, since moving to Harrisburg, a few things keep pushing it back to the front of mind. (if you aren’t familiar with my story. here’s what’s relevant to this post: the day before I got sober, the rehab I was in dropped me off at a homeless shelter in Harrisburg, I spent all day walking around the city, ended up drinking, then got sober for good the next day.  I wrote detailed posts about it.  Part one is here and part two is here.) Karla and I now live just a few blocks away from the Bethesda Mission, the homeless shelter I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in. I also frequently walk past the Midtown Tavern, the last bar in which I ordered a drink, the last place I relapsed. Looking back to the version of me from that day, to the me that walked around the city of Harrisburg, for hours and hours and hours, contemplating what to do with his life, and then  to the me now, it is just a boggling and staggering transition. When I put myself in the shoes of that man, that poor, sad 25-year-old man who saw no way out, who somehow thought that his life was over despite all the options still left open him, I feel as though I am peering into the window of another person’s mind; who was he? Where has he gone? He was so troubled but I love him.

We’ve lived here for about four months now, but it was just last week that I for the very first time rode my bike over to the Bethesda Mission. I stood on the sidewalk where I made a phone call to a cab company that would take me to Carlisle, where I would get a room at Motel Six and drink my very last beers. The payphone is gone, but I found the holes in the wall where it had been anchored, and I stood in that same spot, and I felt the weight of time coalesce around me. I walked out to the curb, where I had stood on a much colder day twelve years ago, and waited what seemed hours for a cab to come. I remember there’d been an older man standing there with me, although he wasn’t waiting for a cab, and we struck up a brief conversation, but I don’t remember anything about it now. I looked around me and tried to remember what has changed in the scenery. Were the buildings different then? In some ways it seems so recent, but only the most fragmented memories remain.

Life isn’t a Hallmark card, and things don’t always turn out great.  Happy endings are not only the exception; they’re downright rare.  I don’t believe in any overarching system that raises humans out of the dungheap of existence–we live brief painstaking lives and then are thrust into a meaningless void.  But while we’re here, strange and beautiful things are bound to happen.  Time plays jokes on us but then draws back curtains we didn’t even know were there.  Suddenly we are standing beside younger versions of ourselves, older versions of ourselves, our loved ones, suddenly everything converges and every direction is north.  If it means anything I don’t know what it is; time is a wisp, a phantom, an unseen train in the night: the steady conveyance.  Versions of ourselves form, drop off behind us, vanish like they never existed.  Who were they?  We’ll never know them.

I stood there on the curb by the homeless shelter and looked achingly toward the house I live in now, just blocks away.  Only two more hours until Karla and our boy get home, and I was desperate to see them.

I’m Not Me

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2014 by sethdellinger

My father was born into orchard country. Nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, near the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the South Mountain.  His youngest years were spent in rolling hills crowded by apple trees, which Mexican immigrants picked nearly year-round.  There were Mexican restaurants around unassuming bends in the country roads; I never saw them but I can imagine they might have looked out of place, if one stopped to think about them.  Dad told me a story once about a fancy-looking house that sat at the bottom of a gulley and was surrounded by Red Delicious trees.  I saw the house myself—it’s still there.  It looks like a small but stately plantation.  When Dad was a boy, the house had an in-ground swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days, and they’d let him and his friends swim there occasionally.  One Halloween, he was trick-or-treating and the family gave all the boys little pop guns—plastic guns that shot a cork out of a barrel.  He thought they must be rich.  He never forgot it.  He remembers it like it was yesterday.  My mother was born a mere 25 miles away, in a vanishingly small town surrounded by cow pastures, clumps of trees, and lean-to outbuildings.  Farm country.  In fact, she was born on a farm—a working farm, and she grew up doing the kinds of things you might imagine: collecting eggs from innocent chickens, watching her father and brothers shear sheep, waking up at the crack of dawn. Her dream as a little girl was to somehow, someway, move to the nearby small town and help her uncle run a pharmacy he owned there.  She pictured herself sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, maybe keeping the books.  To her, this was a version of glamour.  Her family would take in kids from “the city” who needed places to stay; Fresh Air Kids, they called them.  Sometimes my mom’s country family swelled to great numbers; a surprising-looking bunch, I’m sure.  My genes—whatever they are—are a swirl of them.  I’ve got orchards in my blood, and my skeleton is a farm.

As a young child, I didn’t know much about my parents or where I’d come from. It wasn’t an issue I pondered.  I knew that I certainly felt like me.  I knew I liked to mostly not talk about what I felt inside.  I knew I liked drawing things, and that I sure did love the outdoors.  I liked playing with small boats in the bathtub, and Matchbox cars in the sandbox, and I hated going to sleep, and the dark scared me.  There were two neighbors who lived two doors down from us—at the time it felt far away, but it is literally just thirty yards, I just looked at it not six months ago—who must have been 50 years old at the time.  I considered them my best friends, although to them I must have seemed like a just occasional little person who happened by.  I liked talking to them and imagining what their grown-up lives were like inside that big red brick house—what the kitchen looked like, what they ate for dinner.  I miss them.  They’re dead now.

I was a fairly typical teenager. I was mostly about having fun; everything was a joke.  I could be cruel.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes and experimented with just about anything that could be experimented with.  I talked a lot.  I thought I was important and smart.  I hid secret desires and interests: poetry, philosophy, sexual confusion, the occult.  I got angry, I got sad, I read classic science fiction novels late at night in my bedroom with the door locked.  Women started to like me and it took me a long time to figure out what to do about it; when I did figure it out I tried very hard to be a “good guy” but still…I often failed.  I liked comic books, American Gladiators, and MTV.  Late in my teens I discovered Tumbling Run, a long hiking trail in the nearby Appalachians that follows a truly adorable stream, which is a trickle at the trail head and as you climb higher becomes a rushing set of falls and deep, clear pools.  I would hike it by myself, find perches away from the trail, pull out a notebook and write poems tailored after E.E. Cummings.  They were full of angst and love and fear.  I thought Tumbling Run would be like my Walden Pond, but mostly, I just forgot about it.

As a young man I encountered my problems: alcoholism and depression. But those weren’t the only defining elements of my life.  As I moved into adulthood I moved away from American Gladiators and even further from the tiny boats in the bathtub.  There were surface changes, like a deeper attraction to poetry and literature and “serious films”, but I changed for real, too.  I got angry.  Angry at everything.  I became of a mind that to judge everyone as harshly and vocally as possible was actually a good trait to have.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes, often two packs a day.  I was still funny, but now with more sarcasm and less joy.  I liked staying awake until the sunrise, never cleaning my car, and throbbing rock and roll.  I hated being alive.

After young adulthood up until this moment (what we shall refer to as life) I’ve just kept on changing.  There are always the obvious, cosmetic alterations: a sudden liking for big band music and Cary Grant films, corduroy jackets and Florsheim loafers, art museum memberships and mini-figurines of Felix Mendelssohn.  But also sea changes, but so fast; one moment I don’t want to talk to people at all, the next I enjoy the communion of strangers.  Seemingly one moment, an actual pastime of mine is driving my car through the country at night, the windows down, blasting music from my CD player, smoking cigarettes.  Last night I walked home through the city, listening to my music in my headphones, stopping to read the menu in a vegan restaurant. One moment I want to be single forever, the next I’m in love more than I ever have been.  A month or so ago, I made a short visit to the area I grew up in (somewhere between orchards and farms) and had breakfast with two of my oldest, dearest friends.  They looked the same as they always had, as I’m sure I did, and the little dirt-hole diner we ate in was the same as always, and the streets and parking lots were the same as they always were, when I was spending all my days there.  But having been largely gone from the area for four years, it all felt so different, so foreign.  Was that actually me that had lived here, had called these places home, these friends familiar?  Or was it a dream had by a being who calls himself me?  After breakfast one of the friends was driving me to my dad’s house, and as I climbed in his car,  I was thinking he has a car! (I no longer have a car).  I was nearly aghast (but without judgment) when I settled into the passenger seat and realized this was the car of a very serious cigarette smoker; ashes, crumpled empty packs everywhere, the stale pall of smoke infusing the upholstery.  And it looked like many cars I had in my day: old drink cups on the floor, change everywhere, ATM receipts and food wrappers.  I wasn’t grossed out; I felt oddly at home.  It had just been so long since that had been me.  It was like time travel.

If I’m able to look directly at the thought long enough, it becomes very clear that the notion of me doesn’t exist.  I’m a collection of moments, an intricate study in cause-and-effect.  I am the orchard, and the farm, and the boats in the bathtub, and the throbbing rock and roll, and walking home through the city last night.  I am time itself.  I’m not me.

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