I was in the middle of my dorveiller last night, awakening at midnight for a spell before retiring to second sleep. As it was 12 and yesterday a fade-away, I thought to the morning ahead before realizing the day’s significance, which is twofold. There, wrapped in my Grandma’s quilt with my lemongrass tealights effusing their citrus, I remarked that this is my first Valentine’s Day in twenty-six years where Jenny is not (expressly) my valentine. It is also the ninetieth day of my third? fourth? but most successful attempt at sobriety. Alki wisdom says Day 90 is the bellwether day for continuing sobriety, the day we have it somewhat figured out. I don’t know about that, about having things figured out, but I do know what Valentine’s Day is. It remains, perhaps counterintuitively now, my favorite holiday.
A cartoon this morning interpreted the arrow through the heart as a ‘vital organ being wounded’ and a bouquet for what it is: truncated and dying flowers. The comic IS accurate, perhaps cynical. One can also say that Valentine’s Day is the day that Captain Cook was stabbed in the heart and neck by Hawaiian tribesman, else the day that seven of George “Bugs” Moran’s made men were massacred in Chicago’s North Side. I don’t celebrate those things, though Cook was an Imperialist and the Capone-killed mafiosos were murdering criminals. This is the dark side of the holiday; the holiday is about love. Before the protestations of commercialism with its glut of red-sequin candy boxes, before the trite aphorism ‘Everyday is Valentine’s Day’ gets uttered (which I happen to believe), may it be realized that February 14 is earmarked to celebrate the greatest human emotion of all; that we red-letter such a day is no less than a grand acknowledgment of our synaptic firings and coursing bloods and breathless esprits acting in great concordance.
There are seven types of love (according to the Greeks), so Valentine’s Day is necessarily a multifaceted celebration. I’ve written about them before but to recount: there is philitia, intimate and authentic love; eros, romantic and/or sexual love; ludus, flirtatious or playful love; pragma, committed and compassionate love; philautia, self-love; storge, unconditional and familial love; and—most importantly—agape love, which is love of everybody. May you have experienced all seven at some point, or aspire to. I have, of course—and through the span of twenty-six years—shared most these with Jenny. I usually bar philautia love, for it is love of self, but today, the ninetieth day of my sobriety, I change my perspective: to engage in philautia love is to engender all the rest.
In January, I admitted to Jenny that my thoughts had grown explicably dark, that suddenly alone, I had morbid ideations. I know how much drink it would take to kill a person, and I had a loathsome and terminal thirst. This is not to say I was suffering from cravings—haven’t had but one in ninety days—but rather that I was abstracting my death by Erlenmeyer milliliter. I figured it would take four fifths of vodka and, if need be, a saccharin chaser of ethyl glycol. Thankfully—and though any therapist worth their mettle would raise a flag and an eyebrow at me having elaborated the ‘hows’ of my undoing—the thoughts were fleeting, if specific. I later told Jenny that I was failing the Mirror Test—the ability to still love oneself in the mirror—and that I was necessarily going through a self-loathing phase, that I had lost touch with anything philautia. “Does it get better?” I asked her, and she assured me, yes, it does. She had a head start on the grieving cycle, so, as I do, I chose to believe her.
Time will heal, the cliché says, but what the cliché doesn’t elaborate is the outright Hell one has to go through before a wound begins its hemostasis. Blood seeps, sometimes flows, and without seeming remedy. Add alcohol to the mix, rather the sudden lack of it, and Hell is realized in its iciness, like in Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’: one is like ‘a straw in glass’, frozen and refractively distorted. For me, I thawed sometime in late January, after a spate of false starts, but I was finally able to pass the Mirror Test again. I wrote and cooked my way out of it, doing two things I truly love to do, so as to fill the hours and melt the ice till it became flow. Ice cubes liquesced in glass; right angles softened. A turning point: I offered my friend Billie, who I have great philitia love for, a plate of food after some failed attempts, and he finally accepted. “Know why I didn’t take food from you until now?” he asked. I mumbled something about being ships passing in the night, but he replied, “No—I couldn’t take your food because your heart wasn’t in it.” Billie is a keen reader of the spirit. “Game sees game,” he famously says. It should be said, Billie was also the one who preemptively warned me of the Hell to come in late December. I believed him then as I believed Jenny in January.
Throughout these months, one thing was constant aside from my imperishable love and equally keening sense of loss: the calendar page. At Amethyst, the manager strikes each day off the calendar with a pen, veritably erasing another twenty-four. Or, to look at it in a different way—if we’re to twist the kaleidoscope—to mark the GAIN of another twenty-four. Another day of sobriety, which is the point of being in a sober living residence, or, to use a more dated term, a ‘halfway house’. I’ve always disliked the term ‘halfway house’—halfway to what? Are we half-people? Half-dead? Maybe, but in sobriety we choose to act contrary to our diagnoses, our proclivities, which would otherwise have us–and have had us–acting contrary to our values. The point of the Twelve Steps (and I still don’t know in what capacity I will work them if formally) is to recognize one’s defects, work with a Higher Power to innervate personal growth (and, trust me, a Higher Power can just be mathematical as in yourself plus one [a friend, the Book, the Spirit, God, whatever]), and to make amends where amends are due. To, lastly, practice these principles in all our affairs. That’s it. You don’t have to be a Believer, though it’s hotly contested in some circles of Twelve Step programs (of which there are many: I belong to two groups—it’s not just AA we’re talking about). This is all to say, a sober living residence is, if anything a SAFE place, to engender the process of returning to full self from some halfway, else rock-bottom, point. The return to self through acceptance and contrition–the Lazarus miracle coupled with some Psalm 51 (David forever the poet)—is the ultimate act of philautia love.
Philautia love, you’ll remember, is what I claim to be the engenderer of all other types of love. It’s a prosaism that ‘before one can love others, one has to first love themselves.’ Not inequitably, mind you—one can teeter into narcissistic gandering at one’s own reflection—still the Mirror Test must be passed. I remember staring hard at myself in the full-length looking glass of my spartan room, come late January, taking inventory both literal and figurative. Like an Alice, I almost wanted to pass through the mirror toward something Wonderland, where a backwards me existed, else something temporally distorted and prior to October 14th, the day Jenny left. But though glass is technically a slow-moving liquid, it resisted my touch—I couldn’t find passage–and I rested against it with an arm outstretched. I was very in the now; I looked myself in the eye and accepted it—whatever IT is–the way one does the fact of water, the product of melted ice, and felt thaw. Blood flowed, but not out. The spirit—which comes from the word sprit, or breath—saw rise, and my thoughts of glycol and firewater dissipated. There was something self-love in the moment; I didn’t forgive myself—not then, not yet—but I felt half-alive on my side of the mirror and not half-dead. And, though she wasn’t in the room, I felt great tenderness for Jenny. I have told her she did the right thing by leaving me, and that was really fucking hard to say, but for her it was an act of both storge and philautia love: it saved everyone involved, everyone including me.
Tenderness and time begets a timely tenderness. Jenny and I are at a Pax Hofmana as I call it, a time of no war, no strife. We’re in each other’s’ lives—there are the necessary boundaries—but there doesn’t exist stalagmites of ice separating us, nor hoarfrost decorating the underleaves. Aside from my early and ill-conceived resentments at having been abandoned—resentments I realized were ultimately deflective and undeserved, mea culpa—the fact of us has been what in November Jenny called our ‘time of being alone, together’. It’s as if we share one space while simultaneously standing at two physically disjoint points: a near Lynchian paradox of geography and self. I visit her apartment a few times a week. Sometimes I relieve her to parent the boys for a few hours, other time she’s stayed. I made her a fillet and a tartiflette for what could’ve been a Valentine’s dinner; we enjoyed the Super Bowl together yesterday with the kids and Jenny’s (and my) longtime friend Aurelia (Gidget). We remarked—the lot of us—that this was just like family. Correction, as Jenny said: “This is family.” Storges love. Jenny and I sat side by side on the couch and I was very aware of her presence though I didn’t upset things by wrapping an arm around her as she did Gidge. It didn’t matter: you know how you feel when there are electrons positively charged in between two peoples despite being inches apart? I felt that. It reminded me of when Jenny first visited me in my first detox. I wrote in ‘Bridge Over Dry Waters’:
“ I sat in my hospital bed regretting what I’d said to Jenn that morning. That I didn’t want to fucking be sober. We had sat in the courtyard on a bench next to the penniless fountain, the geometric fountain with its recycled water and white noise. It was a hands folded visit, though secretly we were both pawing the air as if testing the elements, deciphering the wind’s direction and the air’s particular viscosity. Still, we had a practiced geometry, and our bodies were touching in align, shoulder to knee, and again recombining at the feet. ‘I don’t want to fucking be sober’ was my way of saying, ‘I can handle this.’ The fountain with its lack of currency, the plastic wristband I wore, said otherwise. But it’s like the song says, before I die I want to make one lie come true.”
Jenn may have looked crestfallen as I expressed my great ambivalence; I didn’t check to see. I instead felt our bodies touch as once they did the night we almost kissed on the Spruce St. suspension bridge. I’ve since securely fastened my padlock to the bridge’s cable (author’s note: like the love locks at the Pont des Art), figuratively stenciled our initials, but bridgefall is always the threat. Cables can snap and pediments can fall.”
That was five years ago. In that time, we still have a practiced geometry, even if not touching at shoulders, hips, and feet; and—yes–we did have bridgefall. Still, the lovelock remains fastened, even as the suspension cables swing over the precipice of divorce. My tune has changed, too. I DO want to fucking be sober. Before I die may that one truth remain true.
And I texted Jenny this morning to wish her a Happy Valentine’s Day, that she was still my valentine despite everything. How can she not be? To be a valentine is to be a participant in any of the various forms of love, and she has my love in a multiplicity of ways. We are family, we are friends, we are a lot of things. Yesterday Jenn put her arms around me while I was making a bisque in her kitchen, and she said, ‘Thank you. This feels so normal,’ and I could only smile over the celeriac. We kissed politely and my heart felt pragma: COMmitted and COMpassionate love, ‘com-‘ being the prefix meaning—very importantly– ‘together’.
Why Valentine’s Day remains my favorite holiday.