Big Dipper above as I walk to the trash can by the road. A bag of cat shit in hand. But the sky—full-blown with sparkling pinholes of light—gets me right for the day.
This is an opportunity.
Be mindful. Aware. Listen more today than you did yesterday. Learn.
They know not what they do. Though they should.
Common sense. Think before you speak. Be kind. Courageous. Do what you say you’re going to do.
I said I’d stop drinking alcohol a year ago today. I did it. Doing that—ceasing the act—was easy. Everything that comes along with getting back to basics, facing life as it is and not how you want it to be—that’s not so easy.
But, most often, it’s not the act that’s the culprit. It’s everything else that’s been put in play—some of it your own doing, some of it innate—and that, deciphering the narrative you’ve created, that’s the hard part. The sobering part, if you will.
Once you start taking a hard look at yourself, measuring your decisions, weighing consequences, it’s easy to not drink. It’s easy to turn the other cheek. It’s easy to believe in others, and most of all, it’s easy to believe in you. And once you get on that path of believing in yourself, you pick up steam day by day, and become, in a way, unstoppable.
There are endless opportunities to live a better life. To get happy. Sure, there are moments that are still utter shit. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You don’t learn much when everything’s roses.
And there’ll be days…days when you’re teetering on that familiar edge, wondering if you’re gonna make it. Doubting yourself and your ability to help create conditions that foster safety, comfort, and good for your family—for your wife and kids. But clarity will come and balance will be restored with strange, everyday, magical moments.
Like stepping outside on an early Wednesday morning. Feeling the cold. Letting that clean air into your lungs, into your blood, and looking up. At all those stars. So bright, patient, and knowing.
I like waking to different days. Routine kills me. Too much of the same and I drink vodka earlier each day. Too much making ends meet and I scroll channels long after my family finds peace in sleep and dream, and I end up eating bean and cheese burritos, with the dog next to me, sighing, as she waits for me to put her to bed.
Self-destruction helps, but is rarely prescribed. Sure, I sleep little. Fight to lose the weight. Forget whatever it was I said to or heard from my wife yesterday, the day before, five minutes ago, but it’s cyclical and necessary. My routine for breaking routine.
A late night devoted to slowing the synapses leads to a reset that usually yields a morning of perspective. A new day, like this morning. My brother-in-law with fresh trout. He fished all day, all night, and was willing to share his bounty. His experience.
And as I cut giant fillets into individual portions, I tried to remember being a man in a boat, floating over waves, happy, because I was unaware of the possibilities above and below me.
Food affects mood. So does sleep. Not doing what we want, or being what we’re meant to be. That kills us too.
But all of us are dying.
The sun’s gonna eat us alive in 6.5 billion years. Or maybe tonight, in dreams. I suppose that’s when Jesus will walk again. Or ride in on a Brontosaurus. He and Donald Trump. Maybe Jane Fonda. Twisted Uncle Ted. Drunken sister, Sarah. And J.J. from Good Times. I hope to meet Eddie Vedder then. He and Hemingway drinking wine. Vedder calling Papa a misogynist. Papa standing up, ready to fight, when Gandhi steps in.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
We’ll all come together again. Just wait and see. After all, that’s what we do.
For another day. Another moment. Another chance. Because they keep coming. We put off the changes, don’t take advantage of opportunities, and don’t live up to our potential because we’re under the impression that there’ll be another day.
And if not, that’s okay. We’ve done what we were supposed to do. It was fate. It’s been predetermined. Even if we fight, pushing headfirst into battle, that’s the way it was meant to be.
So say we the sheep. Not of the United States, China, The Bahamas, or whatever boundary we choose to define ourselves. But of the world.
Whatever happened to raging against machines, warm-bodied love in the morning, and skipping stones to see how many times an object can defy gravity?
Why don’t we run like we did when we were kids? Barefoot through the grass, sun blessing us with light and heat and freckles, fast and free into days without end.
Bodies in motion staying in motion at constant velocity with no concern for acts made by external forces.
In the kitchen. Taxes on my mind. Knowing I need to get them done because if done right, we’ll get money back. We need this money to live this life we’re living. I understand that the sum of your belongings means nothing. But once you accumulate and have, you expect. It’s ridiculousness at its best.
So, I’m making French Press coffee from beans I’ve just ground. Starbucks French Roast. And I’m falling into the pit of guilt. It’s not the guilt’s fault. See, I do this often. Every day. Many times each day. Instead of enjoying an experience, like a silky, smooth cup of coffee, I start thinking of the people waking up on the street. In the cold. People with real problems, like aching, starving bellies. Pain that they can’t get prescribed away. Humans, that for one reason or another, have chosen the street. Their decision-making may have not been well-informed and certainly could have been affected by mental illness, substance abuse, lack of education, disease, and general hopelessness. Or sometimes, people just get a bad shake. They are, of course, without choice. Surviving by sheer will.
And that’s only the beginning. I’ll find one of these folks in my head. See them, hear them, feel them, and wonder, how can I help? What am I able to do from my place here on the 45th parallel to get the war vet to the soup kitchen and a counselor? How do I help the opiate addicted illegal immigrant and her three young boys out of the car their living in and into a home? And what about the old man living in his shack out in the sticks with no running water, no phone, no electricity? He can’t walk anymore. He finds it impossible to do much of anything. He sits in his chair, looking out over his frozen front yard toward the road where his mailbox used to be. It’s gone, he thinks. The snowplow that came through last week blasted through it, sending his disability check flying off into February, only to be buried out there somewhere with another layer of snow. Not that it matters. He can’t get to town to cash it, anyhow.
I sip the coffee. Damn, it is good.
I check my watch. An Apple watch, of course. Those are the gifts we give each other. Obnoxious. Does anybody really need to have the world strapped to their wrist? But it is telling me to get moving. Yesterday, I smashed my move goal. Burned just over 1,600 calories. Jogging, walking, elliptical, and free weights. And I’m shameful. How stupid is that? I’m ashamed that I’m able to do these things, look out for my health.
And I love the watch.
I head down to the basement. Get here to these keys. This computer works well. It’s taken the thoughts from inside of me and saved them for the past five years. That’s the typical age when one should consider replacing a laptop. I admit it. I’ve been looking at the 16” MacBook Pro.
Wasn’t it an apple that supposedly got all of us into this?
I’ve been abusing these keys for about twenty minutes. I’m at that point where I know I could go for hours—probably write The Great American Novel—but it’s here again. The pit. My daughter has friends over. Two of them. They slept over last night. It was my wife’s idea. She’s up there now, sipping tea. Touching her iPad Pro. Playing Candy Crush or shopping for clothes for our Spring Break trip. We’re going to Jamaica. But, I’m not up there, you see. Those little girls are chatting, munching cereal, slurping milk. There’s nothing I can do up there. I have nothing to offer, but I’m supposed to be up there. My wife may not actually think this, but that’s what the pit is telling me. I shouldn’t be down here writing, cleaning out the noggin’, getting myself centered, doing what I love—stringing words together. I should be up there.
And once I’m up there, doing whatever it is I can to help—putting away dishes, vacuuming, sitting on the couch and watching TV, just BEING there—the pit will remind me of what I committed to years ago, when I was just a kid.
I’m going to be a writer, I said.
But it will have to wait. At least until the taxes are done.
Thinking about stupid shit. Like buying a new computer. The price of XRP. Why I feel guilty all the time—about wanting to drink wine, eat chocolate and meat—and how even though I’ve lost over 50 pounds in a year, I still am not happy with my body.
In the meantime, Australia is burning to the ground.
Kids are starving.
Animals are freezing in this cold.
And there are people that can’t read, don’t have a roof over their heads, and no food to eat. And here I am, alone at the kitchen table surrounded by art on the walls, books on the shelves, electronic devices in drawers on counters and on end tables. We’re a spoiled bunch, us living here on White Street.
We have earned it.
That’s what I like to think.
I have sacrificed. But probably not to the degree necessary to receive the great fortune we have. I have worked—hard, since I was fourteen. From writing sports articles for The Alpena News to stocking shelves at Fishers Big Wheel, I made sure to pull my weight. And over the years, the heavier I got, the harder it was to pull it.
I remember working the gun counter at Dunham’s when Johnnie Slampsaw came in. He wanted to buy a shotgun. I showed him a Mossberg pump. A .20 gauge, I believe. He had a couple young kids with him. They were dicking around by the clay pigeons. Messing with a tree stand. They were with him, but I wasn’t sure they were his.
He didn’t recognize me. He looked hollow. Felt empty. Like he did back in grade school. He was one of those kids that felt paper thin. He was scrappy. A fighter. He was emotional too. But I never felt much from him. He got into trouble a lot. Even years later at Thunder Bay Junior High. Doing the wrong things to get attention. And then, there he was. Years later. Looking worn out and run down. I remember during our conversation I said his name, Johnnie. That took him back. Now, as I remember it, I think he was filling out a form to purchase the gun. He had a question about something on the form, kept looking back at those kids, and was flustered. That’s when I said his name, Johnnie. I can’t recall why or in what context, but it made him stop and look at me as if I’d just slapped him.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“I went to school with you,” I said. “It’s me, KJ Stevens.”
He paused. Mustered up a look of disgust.
“You got fat.”
“Yeah, thanks. College. Beer. Some weights.”
He didn’t care that at one time we knew each other. That I saw him throw baby Killdeer against the side of the Maple Ride Elementary School gymnasium. Laughing, as they hit the pink bricks and were crushed and bled and died. Some of them sticking to the wall for a moment before they fell to the ground. The mother Killdeer behind us, running in circles, faking a broken wing. Him and Stan and Charlie and Wendell killing those baby birds. He didn’t care that I dated his sister for a recess. I thought I was loved. That I was a somebody. Afterall, we had exchanged notes. Stood near each other. And giggled. She was a year older. I was a quiet, nervous, self-conscious, wimpy little bitch. Just a kid full of my own issues, trying to make my way. He didn’t care about any of that then and he didn’t care about any of it now. He wanted to buy a shotgun and he wanted to get those kids out of the store and he probably wanted to shoot them. But he didn’t.
He shot himself.
In the face.
One of our schoolmates, Pete, was on the scene as a volunteer firefighter. He told me about Johnnie’s demise a few years after that meeting at Dunham’s.
It was a mess, he said.
Johnnie had gotten into drugs. Depression. Had probably been abused.
So, he did what any other pain-filled person would do when all they want is rest.
Johnnie didn’t have it like this.
Being a chubby husband with healthy, happy kids. A beautiful, smart, creative wife. Johnnie didn’t drink wine and feel guilty about it. He didn’t have three cats. A dog. A ferret. He wasn’t planning on taking his family to the Caribbean for Spring Break. Johnnie didn’t have any of this.
But maybe he could have.
If he would have toughed it out. Not gone the selfish, self-centered route.
Sure, I know it’s a sickness.
All of us do. Especially those of us that have been living with it. Thinking about it.
But we don’t do it. Because none of this is about us.
It’s about them. And when you get outside yourself and realize how important all of this is to everyone else, you don’t buy the shotgun. You don’t call an old schoolmate fat. You don’t go down that deep, dark hole that those before you dug.
Instead, you stay on top. And even if you fall below the surface awhile and get pulled into the darkness, you know that you must come up.
(Please note, this is a creative work. If you need help, please call 1-800-273-8255. Or reach out to family or friends. It’s bleak, but it isn’t worth shutting the light out.)
I know how deep it gets. A switch clicks. And there is no coming back from it.
Whatever IT is.
Could be chemicals. Or the devil. Or any combination of fears, ignorance, and neglect. But it is real.
I know because it has pulled many people into it.
The dark, sticky, sad, angry mess.
Where you can stay in bed for days and not give a shit.
When nobody understands how deep the rabbit hole gets.
And you find beauty and comfort in the darkest, most unfriendly places.
One night, I stopped a friend from pulling the trigger. It was accidental. I had just rented Conspiracy Theory and stopped by to return his Van Halen tape. When I walked into his house, he was sitting in the middle of the kitchen with his forehead resting on the barrel of a 12 gauge. He had his shoes off and his toe on the trigger.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
I didn’t know, so I said nothing. But I did walk over and smack him in the side of the head with an open hand, and then I took the gun.
He cried and hugged me and said he was sorry, but I knew he’d be back again.
And he did it. Finally. Eight years later. After his kids left to live with his ex-wife and her new husband.
I wonder if he waited, paused at the sound of a car coming down the road. If he hoped it was another accident in the making—a friend with a cassette tape and a Mel Gibson movie.
It comes suddenly. Ruthlessly.
One minute I’m wondering at the strength and balance of my twelve-year-old boy as he beats opponent after opponent on the soccer field. The next, I’m thinking about a friend I had in high school—an acquaintance really—that made an impact when nobody else could.
He had a full-time job. Drove a CJ-5. Was upbeat, friendly, and always out for fun. One time, he took me aside because he was concerned about how I was handling the break up with my long-time girlfriend. He asked if I was depressed. If I was going to make it. Offered to be there. Anytime. Anywhere. For me. He told me this under the bleachers at a high school football game. Both of us sipping Mohawk and Mountain Dew Big Gulps.
I would never have imagined that thirty years later he would give in. That his wife would find him hanging from the rafters of the garage. Twitching. Not strong enough to lift him up and save him.
Then again, there has always been devastation like this.
Three from elementary school, that I know of.
Two from high school.
One from college.
And two co-workers.
People so sad and disconnected that they took pills, fashioned nooses, and put guns to their heads. Not because life was bad, but because it was so good, and they never knew how to feel the way they were supposed to.
It’s hard to get up and just BE every day. To maintain the happiness, patience, and normality everyone expects. But it is doable. And it is possible.
Pull yourself out of the depths into the light, so you can see and breathe again.
Know how deep it gets. That the switch clicks. And that there’s no coming back from it.
Whatever IT is.
It could be the chemicals. Or the devil. Or any combination of fears, ignorance, and neglect. But it is real.
I know because time and time again it tries with all its might to pull me in, and down and under, but it never wins.