Last week I told you about a time in my early 20s when I was so lonely I thought I might die.
After that kitchen epiphany, I tried for a few more months to try and squash everything down in my unhappy marriage and miserable job. But my soul finally roared up like an angry auntie and said, “Ok, ENOUGH,” and she then proceeded to catapult me out of that life in a most undignified fashion.
I fled all of it in humiliation— my job, my marriage, my church, my city. I burned all my bridges in one big burst of fiery flame, and I watched them burn with equal parts horror and relief.
And then I landed in a wet sodden heap on my brother’s doorstep.
Dan was a sophomore at the University of Chicago and he generously tucked me into the cocoon of the world he’d crafted for himself. I had stepped from the tight contortion of my pantyhose-cubicle life into another universe—into the sweet bubble of my little brother’s bohemian apartment.
I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, sheets tacked up over the windows. The apartment was as filthy as you’d expect a college boy’s apartment to be. (No offense, dear brother.) We ate ramen out of my parents’ old dishes from the 1970s.
And I was happier than I could remember ever being.
There were a group of us who used that apartment as home base: a ragamuffin group of lost souls who became the most unlikely of families. Our beverages of choice were Pabst beer or cheap gin mixed with frozen orange juice. There were guitars and cigarettes everywhere and none of us had jobs, or money, which meant that we had plenty of time to play cards, make up new drinking games, and think about the deep questions of the universe like whether or not we could scrounge up $5 apiece to go splurge on hot falafel sandwiches.
Being in Dan’s apartment was like inhabiting a Bob Dylan song. The edges were rough and reedy, and some of the transitions were uncomfortable, but the whole thing had a lot of soul. Even the inanimate objects became imbued with a kind of personality, like there was too much feeling for the puny little people to contain, and so it leaked out into all the appliances. The boom box, for instance, was a dilapidated thing that looked like it might have been extremely cool in the 80s, and yet it had a CD player in it that worked nearly all the time. The volume control, however, rarely worked at all, and it played at a constant high roar. Sometimes if we needed to create a quieter ambience than usual, we would set the boom box (we loved calling it a boom box—Hey, dude, like tear it up, yo) out on the porch. So far, none of the neighbors had complained.
My brother had brought a kotatsu table over from Japan, and we huddled around it on the bitter Chicago nights. A kotatsu is a low square table with a heater underneath it and a blanket that drapes around the sides to keep the heat in. We spent about 99% of our waking hours there. At least our legs and feet were toasty warm, though we still lit our cigarettes with icy fingers.
One night I was up late by myself sitting at the kotatsu, unraveling the mysteries of life in my journal, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a little white blur. I froze, slowly turned my head, and saw a tiny mouse nuzzling its way toward me. I was horrified. At least, I thought I was horrified. I should be horrified, right? Basic health codes and all that? But I was already so far outside my own rules that I shrugged. The baby mouse was super ridiculously cute. So I shared some of my chips with it instead.
We were all broke and young and living off our savings, getting wasted every night, laughing and singing, and it was all kind of a mess except for this one crucial, goddamn radiant thing: I never, ever, ever thought about killing myself again.
It turned out a little hedonism was good medicine for me. But the best medicine was in that band of raucous merry kindred spirits.
We were at the edge of Lake Michigan just before dawn. The cops were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the end of the world, the iceberg green of the sky curling into the blue skyline of ice. The lake was frozen into frothy white waves. I waited in the car, scribbling in my journal. The rest of our crew slipped and cavorted out on the ice, calling to each other, “Don’t fall in, kiddo, we won’t get to you in time.” The sky was shot through with indigo cloud lines. The deep colors broke me awake; in this strange city, in a car near beloved strangers, I was torn open with joy by the delphinium blue morning.
My people came rollicking back like puppies, and we zoomed away, caught and held in the small racing hub of warm metal. They cracked the windows, lit cigarettes and turned on tinny music against the quiet of the sunrise. I squirmed and concentrated to stay in the blue stillness.
This moment, now, this.
My hair whipping around my face was tinged purple. The words rolled in with the morning: nothing is in the way but your fear.
When I think back to that time of my life, I remember it with immense gratitude. Sure we were ragamuffins making mostly terrible life choices, but we were in it together. We had each other’s backs. We had our own little glow, part grime, mostly love.
Late at night when we were all tired and tipsy and too weary to be cool, we would listen to Leonard Cohen. We’d light up cigarettes, pour the cheapest gin our pooled change could buy, and all sing along throatily to “Famous Blue Raincoat.” It was so restful to stop being alert and ironic all the time and just be earnest. It was the closest to holy I had ever felt.
And sometimes, very very late at night, when the stars aligned and the spirit moved and the cigarette smoke swirled up in silent shamanic swoops, we sang Leonard’s secret ballad-which-shall-not-be-named-nor-used-in-Disney-movies, “Hallelujah.“
There could be no discussion about it.
A big deal must not be made.
Speaking would have broken the spell.
We might have been total heathens, but we recognized sacrament when we found it.
On this wintry October day, writing from so many years later, I am wishing you your own band of beloved ragamuffins, dearheart.
May you find the kindred spirits who look at your own particular mess and beauty and grin wide with delight.
And may you find sacrament everywhere, but especially around the kotatsu of your own heart.
P.S. I’ve been doing some deep pondering this month about what creates a healing, enlivening circle of people. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of some wonderful groups—like this one, that was so healing for me in my 20s, and more recently an out-of-this-world group of mamas in Portland. But sometimes we can’t quite find that community just yet where we live. Sometimes none of our friends or family or neighbors understand the trajectory we’re creating for ourselves. It can be so lonely when you’re in that place. So I am brewing up a way for us to be that community for each other no matter where we live. Kindred spirits sitting around a virtual kotatsu table? Yes please!!! So stay tuned— I’ll be sharing details about the EFBA Circle very soon, and it’s going to be all kinds of glow-y.