I performed a magic trick this weekend, a stunning illusion, a prestige.
I cleaned my garage without throwing anything away, no mirrors, no fancy camera angles, no trapdoors. I rearranged trash, in other words, which sounds like performance art and maybe that’s what it was.
But we can now park at least one car in there. Applause applause. If you live in an area where the weather outside is frightful, sometimes, and you’re fortunate enough to have a garage, you should really take advantage of that.
For the past months, though, we’ve been tossing stuff in there. Lots of old carpet, for one thing. Lots of cardboard boxes that need to be broken down and recycled. A godawful number of old printers, really disturbing. And of course the demon children of suburbia, the barely-used exercise equipment.
None of this is important, just a chore, overdue. I needed to organize anyway, in preparation for a massive dump run that keeps getting postponed. I just needed to commit to a few hours and to load up my iPod, dress warmly and hope my neighbors weren’t feeling talkative. All of this worked out.
It did strike me, though, that this is something I’ve learned lately. Not cleaning; I could always do that. Not working hard, or working long, or working at dull things; this is actually sort of a characteristic of mine, kind of a plodding.
What I’ve learned to do, though, is develop a concrete sense of the future. A sense that a small step has potential, and in fact is just full of potential energy. Sort of an exercise in temporal physics. Do it today, do it tomorrow, and in six months there might be surprises.
I didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when I could fantasize about the future, sure, the way we all do. I’ll go on a diet next week. I’ll start that next summer. I’ll sign up in the fall.
I’ll stop drinking tomorrow. You know.
And I can tell you when I noticed the change. It was the summer of 2007, and I was doing a lot of yard work. A lot of mowing, a lot of weeding, a lot of time spent in maintenance, something I was practicing at that point in my life.
I looked at this one section of my yard, right by the walkway, always an issue. It sloped down, it never grew much grass, it was a pain to mow and it looked ugly. In the past, I could easily imagine it the way I wished it could be. I could see the order past the chaos; I just couldn’t see the steps.
This time, though, I just stuck a shovel in. Just to see. The ground wasn’t all that hard. So I dug a little.
And I kept digging, and eventually I had a flower bed, and had it all level and barked up and planted five tiny rose bushes, which are now five three-feet-high rose bushes and will be bigger next spring. It’s not Better Homes and Gardens. It’s just better, and I did it one step at a time, imagine that.
None of this is noble. I live every day with visible reminders of neglect, mistakes, lack of will and maintenance. And the pitfalls of too much space; less room, and if you tear up a carpet you need to have a plan for it, you can’t just toss it in the garage and hope the carpet elves take care of it for you.
And I’m not going to 12-step through this, although that’s certainly on my mind, yawn.
But there were cuckoo birds in my head for a long time, distorting my vision of what would happen, and as I move through my fifth year away from the broken glass I’ve learned to force the perspective, see the steps singly and not think too much of the future.
When my daughter arrived from the airport and saw our new guest room in the basement, she made murmuring sounds of approval and Julie said, “I just didn’t think your dad could do it.”
We all laughed at that; she didn’t mean ME, of course, she didn’t doubt my willingness, she just thought it was a big, maybe impossible job given time constraints, etc.
Not that I would blame her.
It just occurred to me that this was a mode, now, something I’ve gotten used to. And now maybe I will 12-step, just a bit.
Saying “I’ll stop drinking tomorrow” is maybe not so useful but it’s all about hope; I think sometimes in recovery circles we don’t give hope enough credit, even foolish hope.
But learning to say, I won’t drink today, and maybe that will make tomorrow easier, is more than just a good idea. It’s an exercise in will, and concreteness, and in focus. Pick up the pieces, one by one, give yourself an inch at a time, and surprise: You might be able to park your car in it.