Category Archives: Sobriety

Where Our Wild Things Are

That February was cold and clear, a month of little snow and many blue-sky days. The year was 2008; I was thirteen months sober. I had taken the last ferry on the last Friday in January from the mainland to the Island in an act of bravery or insanity or cruelty, depending on what story I tell myself now. 

Officially I needed a rest; unofficially I needed a month or two away from my husband — space and time and water between us. But there was nothing official or unofficial about the way I felt: sad, scared, and completely confused about who Susie was. Early sobriety had made one thing clear: I wasn’t who I thought I was. But who was I? 

The crossing was a bit rough that Friday night. The boat lumbered through the swells, rolling slowly from side to side while I holed up in my red Honda, packed to the gills with books and whatnots and a Raggedy Ann, crying my eyes out, wondering what I had done.

From the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, I made my way to Oak Bluffs along dark roads I’d never driven to a rental I’d never seen, but for a small photo on the internet. I was to let myself in; there would be no key. Once there, inside the cozy cottage furnished with comfortable old furniture, I was relieved. I unpacked. I tucked myself into a strange bed up the loft stairs under the eaves, and wondered, now what? 

In the morning, I drove to Lambert’s Cove beach, where I’d once been taken by friends on a visit to Martha’s Vineyard years before. I remembered the name, and fumbled with my folding map to find it. There I found a sandy path strewn with pine needles leading up and over an impressive range of dunes and down to a pretty shoreline stretching this way and that, the sparkle of sunlight on the water forcing me to squint for focus. 

Without warning I began to cry again. There was nothing I could do but walk and walk, stooping for shells and rocks, tracing the trail of foam left behind by spent waves returning to wherever they came from. Water. Walking. Brilliant sunshine. I felt better.

The next day I ventured further “up” Island thanks to my crumpled map. I parked at the trailhead of Menemsha Hills Reservation and began walking through the woods. This was not the beach, nor was it familiar terrain. I was leery of this strange world of twisted trees, bare-limbed and wallpapered with lichen. It seemed as if they were in an active battle with the elements and that they might come alive to skirmish at any minute. 

I followed the path, at times a staircase of thick knobby tree roots, at times a black ribbon of dirt composted from ages of decay, uphill, left and right, right and left, finally taking a short spur to a clearing and a lookout, where Vineyard Sound lay blazing blue below me, the ellipses of the Elizabeth Islands punctuating the horizon.

Back on the path, I found myself descending through thicker, mossier, messier growth, over the occasional crumbling stone wall and certainly, I thought, on a journey to the bottom of the world. Or at least Middle Earth. The path got steeper and sandier and harder to navigate. When would I get to the end? How much further did I have to go? When would the water come back into view? This was scary. Very scary. Yet also very beautiful. And very quiet. I thought to turn back but I pushed on. At last, my reward was a rocky beach at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase. If one wanted to be alone with oneself, this was, without doubt, the place to do it.

The walking went on like this for days, over wind-scraped dunes pricked with bayberry and beach plum, along rocky, sandy paths pocked by deer hooves and rabbit paws, into the deepest part of the thickest woods. I rubbed up against my fear, exposed my vulnerability, stripped down the layers of veneer that had built up between me and the natural world during too many years in an office, in the suburbs, in somebody else’s shoes. 

In the woods, where I feared the wild things were, I discovered that the fear was inside me all along. I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at first, but it was almost as if a powerful spirit surrounded me when I was completely exposed to the wind and the sun and the whispers in the woods. It was like becoming a part of something bigger while becoming smaller at the same time, and feeling good about that. 

I am still walking, thirteen years later. Still on this Island. Still heading out every day during this pandemic to expose myself to the healing power of nature. It is a lifesaver.

AND YET only this week have I learned what might lie at the root of this drive to inhabit nature. A friend sent me this interview with British naturalist Michael McCarthy (author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy), who, in an effort to persuade us to find joy in the natural world, has written:  

 “The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” 

Among other illuminations, he cites an idea that comes from a field of study called evolutionary psychology which posits that we have a deep affinity for the wild held over from our ancient selves:    

“The core perception of evolutionary psychology is that the 50,000 generations that preceded us in the Pleistocene, which is the age of the Ice Ages, when we became what we are as part of the natural world — when we were wildlife, if you like — that those generations are more important for our psyches, even now, than the 500 generations of civilization which have followed the invention of farming about 12,000 years ago. So that there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues — it may lie underneath all the parts of civilization which we are so familiar with on a daily basis, but it has not gone; that we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.” 

McCarthy goes on to suggest that, “the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are.”


That’s a good place to stop and offer you further inspiration for finding joy (and perhaps a part of yourself) in nature:

Why I Wake Early: New Poems, Mary Oliver

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry

Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures, Anne Raver

The Rural Life and More Scenes From the Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg.


P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under this blog post, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

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I’ll Take an Order of Beauty and a Side of Color, Please. And a Better Night’s Sleep.

I am writing on four hours of sleep. I think I mentioned in passing that I was aiming to be honest with you, so let’s not waste any time. Here are three things not to do in the evening: Stay on your computer until 11:30 p.m. absorbing the screen’s blue light, which suppresses melatonin; eat a bowl of chocolate chips during this light show; and decide that climbing into bed and reading a riveting, gut-wrenching novel like Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife will lull you to sleep.

You might perhaps wind up like me, staying awake until 5 a.m. finishing said book.

I didn’t just stay awake; I also tip-toed downstairs to the comfy chair in the living room, where the dog was snoring on the couch and the Scotsman had turned the heat down to a level that would just barely keep pipes from freezing. At least I had a wool hat and a cheap throw. 

To improve on this situation, I then decided that drinking a cup of warm milk would be a good idea, because that’s what my grandmother Honey always did when she couldn’t sleep. But I couldn’t resist turning it into a big mug of hot cocoa (at least it was good quality cocoa!), which zeroed out any drowsy-making and put my bladder into overdrive as a bonus.  

Looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t a nip of scotch, neat — a frequent trick during the Before Times that I used to treat sleep disturbance caused by too many evening drinks. Catch the irony there? A vicious circle.

The point is, even though I may be sane, sober, and well-intended these days, I’m still stupid. And stubborn. You?

I listened to a great podcast this week, The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships. On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, the author of the widely read New York Times opinion piece, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In it I was reminded, with relief, of the importance of realizing how imperfect we all are so that we don’t experience the chronic delusion that everyone else’s relationships are better than ours. And more importantly, so we don’t set up ridiculous expectations of our partners. We’re all crazy in some way; if we’re going to make a go of it, we’ve got to accept each other’s craziness, starting with our own. 

I bring it up because it never hurts to take a gentle look at the crazy stuff to see if it’s really working for you. And because lately I’ve been thinking that my stubbornness – or insistence on doing (or not doing) things a certain way – can sometimes actually limit my imagination (as well as affect my sleep!).

For instance, how is it that I managed to grow things outdoors for so many years, across three seasons every year, without realizing I could (more or less) recreate the experience indoors in the winter?

It took a pandemic and hibernation to snap my longing (and need) for year-round beauty into focus. In this most wintry of winters, I finally embraced the house plant. Or, more accurately, plants in the house. It started with a collection of scented geraniums I rescued from outdoors — peppermint, orange, lemon, rose — each plant with its own seductive fragrance and uniquely beautiful leaves. Some leaves as soft as bunny ears. But then I bought real houseplants, too. A fern. A jade plant. Ivy. Two fancy rosemary topiaries.

I swear I’ve done nothing more than crowd them all near southern windows and water them sporadically. And I’ve been wildly rewarded. In the breakfast room, we have a sea of soft green leaves blanketing one wall like a living mural. In the bedroom, a tabletop collection of greenery that lights up in the mid-morning sun, casting cartoon shadows on the dog basking on the carpet below. 

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed wrote. I have loved that ever since I read it in a little book of hers called Brave Enough. (You need that book!). But I never stopped to think about how beauty really works. What is the real reason that I love flowers and foliage so much?

Sure, nurturing plants fills a need and assuages anxieties (not inconsequential). But there’s more. It turns out there’s a connection between our vision and areas of the brain where pleasure thrives. Beauty, and its sidekick color, can actually stimulate serotonin production.

Ah ha! No wonder, for one who runs a wee bit under the optimal serotonin levels during the winter (lightbox: check, vitamin D: check, omega 3 fish oil: check), the pleasure of seeing green every morning is so rewarding. The color green supposedly reminds our brains of peaceful and pastoral settings. The color pink (my favorite) is relaxing, blue (the color of our walls) calming. And while I don’t normally lean into yellow, it’s the color of happiness — which may account for the very cheering effect of some bright yellow (and red) tulips that wandered into our house last weekend.

My suggestion? Get thee to a florist, please, and purchase a plant, some flowers, a flowering plant, or a planting flower. That’s the good kind of crazy.

Have a beauty-filled day.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who emailed me last week or commented on the blog after the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I want to encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section below, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Read last week’s post: Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

Looking for new recipes? Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

You may be wondering why I picked now to reboot a blog that’s been dormant for a few years, and why there are no vegetable recipes or garden reports in your inbox.  The truth is, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman lit a fire under me with her poem, The Hill We Climb.

I was already headed toward reconnecting with you, what with this little pandemic and all. Since it began, I’ve found that writing is one of the best ways to quiet all the noise in my head. But I wanted to share more than recipes and garden tips with you.

And then I heard Amanda say these lines (many times, since I played the recording over and over again after the actual inauguration).

For there is always light,

if we’re brave enough to see it,

brave enough to be it.

Be the light! I love that idea, and I began to think about what it really meant to do that. To be kind, generous, supportive, positive, unselfish, enthusiastic, accepting, exemplary, visionary, honest, fair, passionate. A dozen people might come at it a dozen different ways.

But for me, I’ve been thinking it might mean sharing a little bit about how I find peace and serenity through creating — the cooking, the gardening, the flower arranging, the photographing, the meandering through the woods and over dunes. You see, I’ve been sober now for 14 years, long enough to be humbled by an impressive roster of missteps — and long enough to be honest with myself about what I need to get through the day (other than chocolate): Beauty, color, flavor, comfort, focus, activity, air, touch.

I’m also well-practiced at looking for light in the darkness. Believe me, Amanda is right; it takes courage. But looking for the light, then finding it, and finally, letting it radiate through you — that’s truth. And by truth I mean something possessed of much more energy than you might realize.

Years ago, reading a little book of essays called A Season for the Spirit by one Martin Smith, I learned that the original Greek word for truth is aletheia, which literally means “un-hiddenness.”

 “Truth is not a thing, it is rather an event. Truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open,” Martin wrote.

Think about that! Truth is the act of revealing ourselves — of actually being our real selves — and in turn becoming that bright light in the darkness. It’s hard — getting there, I mean. Annie Dillard wrote, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

But remember this, too: Darkness is a great place to visit, but don’t pack a suitcase – overnight stays are not advised. (That’s me channeling my favorite sober funny person-writer, Anne Lamott, who would totally say that.)

Come along with me into the light. I promise nerdy quotes, real-life stories (triumphs and debacles both), pretty photos (a LOT of flowers), book recs, music, kitchen wisdom, garden wisdom, and wisdom-wisdom. (That’s the stuff gathered from the universe of wise people — not me. I should come with a warning label.)

If you’d rather sit this one out, I totally understand and will not stick pins in a voodoo doll if I see your name fall off the subscriber list. (Though just thinking about that might keep you on.)

And by all means, to get your recipe fix, you should visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Here’s my reading suggestion for the week, an oldie but goodie: Ann Lamott’s Traveling Mercies.

Yes, the cosmos are from last summer, but they’re cheery, don’t you think? And pink. I plan to grow a couple dozen varieties this year, because, well, overdoing things is how I roll.


And here’s some feel-good music, just because I love these guys.