“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.” Carl Gustav Jung

I had no story before addiction.

I’ve never been addicted to heroin or drink. My habit has been idealism. I’ve ridden on high horses more times than I care to admit. I’ve been quixotic and delusional. The other day I remembered a student of mine that I had tried to fix. His parents (from where I sat on my high horse) were neglectful. My student read who I was and got all of the mileage out of my “heroism.” In the end his parents may have been rotten, but the kid knew how to get out of schoolwork with only the hint of a tear and sad tale.

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Like Edgar, I lug a knapsack of desperation and doom into every new relationship, but my addiction is a little more hidden to the untrained eye. I’ve heard it said that addiction is seeking escape by means of a lesser god. My addiction is my attachment to being a god. All delusion. Addicted men adore me. Maybe I will be the god to replace the god that is killing them. I’ve never felt like a martyr. I am more a shadow. I can hide behind the BIG stories of a mate’s chaos. I can feel maybe a little more perfect — but this too is chasing a first high with decreasing returns.

My very first boyfriend, John, still haunts me at times. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. I saw a picture in my friend’s eighth grade yearbook when I was fifteen and spent the entire summer before high school imagining his perfection, staring at his beauty. Out of all the boys on those pages I was drawn instantly to the boy destined to overdose more than anyone else in our high school. I have a sixth sense about those things, though I was obviously innocent of any self-awareness at the time.

It’s no surprise then that my first novel is about addiction and the main character’s name is John Weldon. But would it surprise you that, as I wrote the pages, I had no inkling that I was idealizing all of the addicts I have ever loved? The idea of a strong female heroine irritated me back then. I didn’t like the idea of it at all. I could not relate. Katherine Weldon was the shadow I needed her to be. She was truth for me. She still is sometimes.

Rest assured that the ending of The House on Tenafly Road is idealized

Top 3 Civil War Soldier Memoirs

My mother named me after a popular cheerleader from her high school days, but I discovered recently that I shared the name Adrienne with a patron saint of the military. This may explain why I’ve always been so drawn to soldiers’ stories. I bet there’s some deep psychological need lurking beneath this life-long interest, but I want to keep this post light for a change.

A jaunty, devil-may-care spirit runs through these three memoirs/diaries bringing to life the everyday happenings and mishaps of a soldier of the Civil War period. All three feature illustrations done by the soldiers themselves (in the case of the first two) or by a veteran (the last). Today we take for granted the ability to capture life’s visuals so easily. So many soldiers struggled to put into words their experiences, but not these three. The ordinary details of life in the Union Army burst from every page of these books, but what I find most appealing is how modern they all seem.

In between battles, the men and boys find ways to enjoy the grand adventure of their lives. They do what young people do; they get drunk, play games, seek the attention of the opposite sex and complain about their superiors. I suppose the men who crumbled under the enormous strain or did not find ways to make the best of things would hardly be the ones to write memoirs.

EYE OF THE STORM by Robert Knox Sneden

Sneden joined the army in the summer of 1861 and saw a few small engagments before being given the coveted position of mapmaker in the Potomac Army. His illustrations are beautiful and intricate in detail. They’re so quaint that even his illustrations of ANDERSONVILLE PRISON can’t help be a little pretty. The harrowing account of his time there sets the record straight. He gives daily weather reports and other details a research nerd like me really appreciates.

GONE FOR A SOLDIER by Private Alfred Bellard

As a New Jersey native I found Bellard’s stories especially appealing. I knew exactly where he was running off to every time he took leave while waiting to be sent South. His illustrations of bloody battle wounds and falls from wagons make up for in enthusiasm and candor what they may lack in accomplished artistry. His stories never shy away from the trouble the boys get themselves into when looking for a good time. Bellard’s openness is extremely endearing.

HARDTACK & COFFEE by John D. Billings

This one’s not quite a memoir, but it has the same spirit as the other two. Billings wrote this charming book to answer the many questions he often received from young people about the details of soldierly life during the war. What was it like sleeping in a tent with other men? (disgusting when the men did not share common hygiene practices). There are so many amusing anecdotes mixed in with great detail of army life. Billings almost makes being a soldier look like a lot of fun. The illustrations by fellow veteran Charles W. Reed add to the sense of merriment throughout the book.

How about you Civil War buffs? Any favorite memoirs from the time period? Let me know in the comments.

We are not God; seek higher.

I put my question to the earth, and it replied, "I am not he";
I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same.
I questioned the sea and the deep,
and the teeming live creatures that crawl,
and they replied,
"We are not God; seek higher."
I questioned the gusty winds,
and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me,
"Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God."
To the sky I put my question, to the sun, moon, stars,
but they denied me: "We are not the God you seek."
And to all things  which stood around the portals of my flesh I said,
"tell me of my God.
You are not he, but tell me something of him."
They lifted their mighty voices and cried,
"He made us."
My questioning was my attentive spirit,
and their reply, their beauty.

THE CONFESSIONS 
Saint Augustine

The Saints have so much to teach us. I’m grateful for my stint in the Protestant churches, but they get it wrong by lowercasing the saints. There seems to be a decidedly self-focused take on a personal relationship with Jesus and the Bible. At first I found this refreshing. I did not like knowing that there were people who were “better” or further along spiritually. I loved the devotionals that coached one to “listen to one’s inner voice.” That came in quite handy at times — especially when I wanted to do something a bit un-saintly.

Stripped down to my personal relationship with God, within a white-washed church building devoid of elevating beauty, and listening (half-listening) to a witty pastor’s weekly take on a Bible passage, I often left church thinking I could definitely do this whole thing at home by the fire with my dogs. People sang rousing sort-of modern tunes with guitar hooks borrowed from the latest pop-rock songs on secular radio and raised their hands above their heads caught up in a personal thing with God, I guess, but I was never feeling “it” that strongly.

Zack’s not going to church.

I made a few really good friends attending those churches and know for a fact that, in many ways, they are far further along the spiritual path in thought and action than I am, but there really was no point (as far as I could see) in showing up. The table was just that. A table with cubed rye bread and grape juice. Sometimes I went to church hungry and vied for the biggest cut of bread and gulped down the sickly sweet juice with a less than reverent relish.

Maybe it’s just that simple isn’t always best. Where in creation is there any simple? Are sunsets simple? How about kittens? A pomegranate? Melancholy (or for that matter any personal feeling I happen to be having at this moment)?

If simplicity were the greatest good then we would never get past basic multiplication in third grade. The early church, despite the seeming simplicity of the Nativity scene, came out of the Jewish Temple with an insanely rich and complex tradition — a tradition thrown away or underexamined by my Protestant friends. Oh, so much they miss!

When I briefly became a missionary (for about two seconds), I stood with the others, inside a Catholic Church in a Nicaraguan town square, as if the group of us were heroes penetrating Hell. My fellow missionaries murmured about Catholics worshiping images of saints and even worse, the Virgin Mary. As a cradle Catholic I knew this was an untrue over-simplification and misunderstanding, but at the time I deferred to them because it suited me.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
Romans 11:33

Catholics don’t worship the Saints. The Saints are beautiful creatures, like eagles and elephants, who point us to the Creator. When artists and writers create beauty, they too, point to some longing for eternity; a longing for truth, goodness and beauty that comes to us now only fleetingly: When we stand watching waves lash the shore. When a person halts traffic to let a raccoon and her babies cross the road. When we stand in a cathedral contemplating the talents of the hundreds of creators it took to bring Heaven down to mingle with the frail beings on earth.

The BIG Saints tap into that something deep, eternal and essential. You don’t even have to be Catholic to accept this. We have no problem capitalizing our own names or applauding the idols that our secularized society puts before us.

The Saints are beautiful creations. They are a treasure to embrace for the richness of their wisdom and experience. I will not deprive myself of them any longer:

But what am I loving when I love you? Not beauty of body nor transient grace, not this fair light which is now so friendly to my eyes, not melodious song in all its lovely harmonies, not the sweet fragrance of flowers or ointments or spices, not manna or honey, not limbs that draw me to carnal embrace: none of these do I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a kind of light, a kind of voice, a certain fragrance, a food and an embrace, when I love my God: a light, voice, fragrance, food and embrace for my inmost self, where something limited to no place shines into my mind, where something not snatched away by passing time sings to me, where something no breath blows away yeilds to me its scent, where there is a savor undiminished by famished eating, and where I am clasped in a union from which no satiety can tear me away. This is what I love, when I love my God.”

Saint Augustine

Monday Ponderings {December 6th}

Love this …

A.M. Pine - Hearth Ridge Reflections

But two ways are offered to our will – Toil with rare triumph, Ease with safe disgrace: – Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance! The man’s whole life precludes the single deed That shall decide if his inheritance Be with the sifted few of matchless breed, Or with the unmotivated herd that only sleep and feed.

~ Lowell, p.36, The Cloud of Witness, emphasis mine

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Sirach on Pride

What is too sublime for you, do not seek;

do not reach into things that are hidden from you.


What is committed to you, pay heed to;

what is hidden is not your concern.


In matters that are beyond you do not meddle,

when you have been shown more than you can understand.

SIRACH 3:21-23

Sometimes I get in way over my head. Everyone is suddenly a commentator or inquisitioner, all knowing and easily hoodwinked. We evangelize to each other offering theories and statistics — statistics that can seem to prove the opposite to opposing factions. I’ve never once won the day by being snarky to my children and try not to bring that side of myself to my interactions with friends online — though this has been tough. I’ve failed a few times to step back a second before diving into debates that are pointless.

When the proud are afflicted, there is no cure;

for they are offshoots of an evil plant.

SIRACH 28

For a long time now we’ve glorified self-esteem. As if having special feelings for ourselves would bring peace on Earth! The opposite is true. When we think our limited intellects are capable of digesting propaganda and at the same time able to realize our personal blindspots it’s called pride. Of course sometimes we might hit on a truth, but in this swirling new world of endless ideas and imagery we kid ourselves if we think we have all the answers — for ourselves or the people we judge without taking the time for backstory.

Over Thanksgiving I realized that one of the harsh opinions I shared with a family member may have actually hurt her though I hadn’t meant for her to take it personally. My first thought was that she was being ridiculously sensitive and basically stupid. Now I love this person, but that’s where my mind went. I knew in order to save the holiday I had to address the situation with her — I did it grudgingly. She had to be convinced to answer my call. Yet when we spoke it became impossible to remain unmoved. The voice on the other end of the phone was human, familiar. She was making her best effort too. We didn’t try to convince each other of anything. We agreed to disagree on some pretty significant issues.

When she forgave me there was a little part of me that felt annoyed that she didn’t ask me for forgiveness — that pride again. We promised to go for lunch after the holidays. We said we loved each other.

Pride is a horrible affliction. It’s more contageous than any virus, more repulsive than the worst politician because we all have it. There is no cure, only home remedies that sometimes allow for hurts to scab over.

I love the internet. I love pretty pictures and captivating stories. But I also feel drawn to controversy and foul play. Even though it’s not the end of the year yet, I’m resolving to leave alone online debating. Unless I can be face-to-face or at least hear the voice of a real human over the phone I’m going to keep snarky commentary to myself.

The kindness people have done crosses their paths later on;

should they stumble, they will find support.

SIRACH 31
How everyone feels when you’re being snarky …

I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it.

A loyal friend is like a safe shelter; find one, and you have found a treasure. Nothing else is as valuable; there is no way of putting a price on it.  A loyal friend is like a medicine that keeps you in good health. Sirach 6:14-16

There is nothing like the thrill of opening the mailbox and finding a handwritten letter inside. I strongly believe in genetic memory. Even before our letters drew us closer, I felt an immediate knowing, a bond on a deeper level than made any sense with my distant cousin, Peter.

I met Peter for the first time two years ago when I was researching our shared ancestors. He’s an older gentleman (just turned 88 this past May). Peter drove us through the valley and up onto the hills now covered with state forest that once belonged to our ancestors. His wife, Grace, and daughter, Patti, brought along a picnic of homemade potato salad, sandwiches and cookies. We sat chatting beneath dappled August sunlight by the pond it is my dream to someday own.

McKenzie, my daughter, was along and was most grateful for the cookies and the way she was treated like instant family. After only a few hours touring the haunts of our forebears we said goodbye. A few months later I sent Peter and his wife a card to let them know I was thinking of them. Peter responded with a letter and we’ve been happily corresponding ever since.

At first I wondered was it just that as a writer I was enjoying his letters because of his answers to questions I had about our shared homeland, but it wasn’t that. Once last winter Peter’s daughter called to ask me how I was doing. It was unusual because we had hardly spoken after the picnic.

“I’m well. How are you?” I asked. “Is everything okay with your parents?”

“Oh, yes. The reason I’m calling is because Dad asked me to. He’s worried since he hasn’t received a letter in the last few weeks.”

No longer did I have to worry if my questions had been too intrusive or my letters too rambling. He liked receiving them as much as I did receiving his.

When he told me things about his childhood I would realize that I had already focused on those same themes and come to the same conclusions about our shared relations from the past while writing the story about my 3x greatgrandfather and his 2x great grandmother (my 3x great aunt). The dynamics Peter talked about between himself and his father were almost identical to the ones I imagined when writing about his great grandfather and his sons. Somehow our letters and my writing were tapping into the same magic!

This last summer McKenzie and I went to the family reunion in the same valley by the pond and I was thrilled when I saw Peter and Grace arrive dressed in their Sunday best — overdressed — but perfect to me. He tipped his straw fedora and his wife gave me a hug. It felt like all we did was eat that day. First at the reunion and then when Peter and McKenzie conspired to keep the day going with dinner out.

It was late when we said our goodbyes. Peter and Grace have a caretaker of sorts. A somewhat pushy lady with a good heart but lacking in sentimentality.

“Give me your email and cell phone number so Peter has it,” she said in her no-nonsense way.

Peter had sent McKenzie a few letters too but she’d lost interest in writing replies. “I can’t read your handwriting,” she said, much to my annoyance.

He laughed good-naturedly, but the caretaker jumped in.

“Okay, from now on you can tell me what to write and I’ll type it into an email,” she said to Peter.

Peter looked as crestfallen as I felt for a moment.

“I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it,” he said.

. I couldn’t let this happen no matter how well-meaning the caretaker.

“Peter, this doesn’t let you off the hook with me,” I said. “I love your handwritten letters and I can read them just fine.” The very idea of an intermediary!

He clasped my hands in his. “I love them too. I won’t stop. I promise,” he said mirroring my own devotion.

True friendships are so rare. Finally I am old enough not to take them for granted.

On the drive home the next day I received a text from an unknown number. “Are you home yet?”

At the next stop I answered. “Who is this?” though I was pretty sure I knew.

“It’s Peter.”

It’s never too late to make friends and write letters.

Anyone out there still have pen pals?