In New Mexico’s northern volcanic badlands, mesas rise, enormous and flat, from the desert’s endless stretches of caliche and scarcity. In my dreams I am still picking through that red, caking dirt after the late summer monsoons, when the swollen earth, dense with water, warms and contracts, like the exhale of air-filled lungs. I now live over a thousand miles north but am still haunted by how the movement of this colossal breath churns up new earth; dark and red as a kidney. How this expansion and contraction dredges up remnants from the underworld in the form of millions of ancient teeth that have been pushed up and scattered by the earth. Millions of years ago these fossils, these exquisitely miniature sea daggers, these tiny, serrated blades, fell from the mouths of hundreds of thousands of sharks that once swam here, when this desert was a sea.
I am still haunted by how the movement of this colossal breath churns up new earth; dark and red as a kidney.
I’ve seen these remnants myself. I’ve hunted them, pushing my fingers around rust colored sand and pebbles. Once found, I’ve brushed dirt off these ancient triangular forms. I’ve tested the sharpness of the fine, delicate ridges against my flesh and something about these still-sharp blades opened up a little space inside of me. I had never cared about deep time before, but now, with this new place to put my thoughts, I did. This was the moment I must point to when, a year and a half later, during a summer visit to Albuquerque with my children, I was struck with the urge to visit the Natural History Museum.
“You want to go to the museum?” my incredulous children asked. They were used to being taken to the museum by their father. I always declined their invitations. For me, the Natural History Museum felt like being trapped inside the intellectual musings of a fossil obsessed eight-year-old boy. Why, I always wondered, would I want to purposefully spend my time inside an institution of dull beiges?
“I thought you hated the Natural History Museum,” my daughter noted in that wry, middle-schooler tone she was working on.
“Right?” I asked. “I thought I did too.”
We walked inside the museum at 9 AM when the doors opened. The July morning was already oppressively hot, but walking into the air-conditioned, multi-story foyer cooled us instantly. My sister-in-law and my nephew were with us; they had an annual membership, and my kids and I followed them through the museum to a temporary exhibit of recent specimens discovered on BLM land in New Mexico. Everyone but me had seen the museum’s permanent collection countless times.
The temporary exhibit was housed in a large, black-walled room where the fossils were showcased in large, light-filled glass boxes. First, my attention was caught by a giant, empty tortoise shell and I read through the display’s small, printed description. The shell belonged to a species of land tortoise that had disappeared from New Mexico during an ice age over a million years ago. Next were the grand, elephant-like remains of a stegomastodon skull and, following that, a gargantuan bipedal bird with a bulbous, top-heavy beak, whose wings hung frail and tiny on either side, like some kind of unfair evolutional prank.
Next were the grand, elephant-like remains of a stegomastodon skull and, following that, a gargantuan bipedal bird with a bulbous, top-heavy beak, whose wings hung frail and tiny on either side, like some kind of unfair evolutional prank.
In another case were cartigelous, angular sea forms whose small, sharp remains were utterly unrecognizable, as though they had evolved from nothing; the remnants of some spontaneously emerging life. There was the skull of a cat, the first of its kind to travel to North America, whose Eurasian ancestors once walked over a frozen land bridge. Each display encased one bizarre creature after another, all seeming to have existed on a planet with a past I thought I knew, although I clearly knew nothing.
I decided to quit drinking on a January morning in 2018. It was a Saturday, and I had woken up at 6 AM to go for my ritual early run. As I passed through the kitchen I stopped for a moment to get a closer look at the fifth of decent vodka, the previous night’s entertainment, still sitting out on the counter. I had mixed it with a bit of St. Germain, an unusually flavored floral liqueur which had been holding my interest over the holidays. Initially, I had purchased the liqueur to add to the White Claws I was really into drinking at the time (or White Clam as I called it, since I only ever saw white women drinking them) because they were carbless, and more importantly, low alcohol. Too low in alcohol. It didn’t take long before I began adding St. Germain to my nightly White Claws, and then later, vodka, and later still, I ditched the White Claw altogether, only to circle back to my too-much-alcohol problem.
The vodka bottle contained about a splash worth of liquid. Half of the St. Germain remained. I did some mental calculations. Before last night both bottles had been unopened. I had been the only one to drink from either bottle. Nick stuck to beer, I could see his two cans in the recycling bin from where I stood. The other people living in my house were ten and seven so they weren’t considerations. Which left me. I had basically consumed a fifth of vodka plus a half bottle of liqueur on my own. This behavior wasn’t new for me, it was just newly reoccurring. I considered the idea that drinking this way was extravagant. I considered the significance of the fact that I was not hungover, not in the least. I didn’t feel amazing, just slightly sluggish in my head, yet capable of running five miles, which I did. And why not? I had done it before, even with a hangover.
During my run, as my legs cut through the cold morning air—my body slowly heating up through these repetitive movements, my mind slowly relaxing through my efforts—I revisited an idea. Maybe I could quit drinking forever? I was filled with a sense of optimism: put to use, my self-will could procure my freedom. I would become a serious person. To me, sobriety seemed as pious as priesthood. As a child, I fantasized about shipwrecks on uninhabited islands where I survived on my cunning and amused myself with books. Later, these fantasies morphed into anti-authoritarian martyrdoms that involved doing hard time in prison, although in these fantasies I never specified my trespass. I craved the combination of intensity and scholarship. Lock me up, but let me read.
On schedule, my brain presented me with The Problem. How does one vacation sober? Multiple bottles of a lovely Sauternes on a rooftop Parisian brasserie, sipped between bites of beef tartare; to follow, a double espresso and hours devoted to looking at art. So many London pubs and their gut bloating cask ales; a ferry taxi (with beers!) to Greenwich and meandering through the Royal Observatory. Drinking scotch from flasks under tall green trees. Drinking mescal close to the equator with tacos al pastor while sweat drips down my face, my bare thighs sticking to the plastic of a cheap chair. How does a person process the world’s beauty without consuming it? How do you fathom it sober?
But that day on my run, for the first time ever, I imagined an alien ability to travel and not drink. It was only a glimpse. Hands folded, head down, like a pilgrim. I saw what might be possible.
When I got back from my run, I told Nick my decision. My words emerged muted, an attempt at meekness, to best telegraph the feeling that I was about to commit to the impossible. I imagined my declaration was a shock, seemingly coming from nowhere. My husband listened with a well-practiced patience and continued emptying the dishwasher. The empty bottle of vodka was nowhere in sight.
“Ok,” he said, nesting a white porcelain bowl inside another just like it, on a shelf amongst our other bowls. “But you know you say this every year.” I didn’t respond. I had no memory of this. That was January 6th; my first day of sobriety.
In the initial days of my sobriety I sensed a future ripe with failure. I kept wondering if I was going to wake up and change my mind. Self-imposed humiliation was a good bet for me. I now understand this is a normal question for someone with a long history of not following through on their commitments.
The pondering of whether or not I actually had an issue with alcohol or if I was just being dramatic consumed my thoughts day in and day out. On the occasions I reached the conclusion that I did not have a problem I followed that thought through. I could continue my drinking, continue sitting on my couch alone with my vodka wondering why it was taking so long to be rich, famous, and wise; continue visiting breweries in the middle of the day where the bartenders knew me by name; continue taking beers into the shower with me after long mountain runs. I would continue to drink slowly; reverentially, for I was the queen of self-control.
But not drinking meant I might not do those things. Instead, I might do something else. Instead of always being dumbstruck with fear, I could learn how to compost what was fetid and rotten into something fertile and rich, as though it were my job, as though I was as useful and transformative as a worm, blindly tunneling its way through the underworld.
My dad is also an alcoholic and you might say I am a lucky girl. He sobered up years before me, and because of this luck, even though I had become uncomfortable within groups, an unsocialized dog weary of the pack, I knew to reach out to a sober community just like my dad had done. I preferred the Sunday morning closed meeting off Zuni, where a handful of Albuquerque’s transient population was forced to attend as part of their treatment at the State-run halfway house next door. They shuffled in and out wearing pajamas and slippers, sipping coffee and smoking. I loved what the old timers, the ones with long term sobriety, would tell us; that ours was a spiritual malady. That selfishness was curable, that the newcomer, who had earned the right to nothing, was the most important person in the room.
This meeting was held in a neighborhood dubbed “the war zone,” although the city was attempting to rebrand it as “the international zone.” This was where you went to get the good agua fresca. Where the pho was unrivaled but also a convenient meal you might eat while the restaurant owner ran a certified car emissions test on your Subaru in the parking lot. There were pawn shops, piñata shops where little, orange, crêpe paper Trumps dangled from the portico, spotty strip malls where businesses with handmade signage displayed cheaply built, second-hand wares in the parking lot.
I sought this area, this meeting, to stay connected to an underworld I sensed I belonged to, knowing that in some parallel universe, I walked along my own dirty street. I could feel this other person; I was tethered to her choices, to an outcome where fate hadn’t intervened. I needed to show up for her, not save her. Not save anyone. I needed to know love can thrive anywhere. That it can be given to anyone, freely. This meeting calmed me when nothing else would. I spent most of that first year in a recoil of fear, feeling like I had no skin, that I would always be so raw and exposed.
After two hours in the Natural History Museum my group was getting hungry, so we left and went to lunch. Afterwards I realized I wasn’t done yet. I wanted to go back. I asked if anyone wanted to go back with me, but no one did, so we parted ways.
The museum’s permanent exhibits were designed to take the visitor through time, starting eight billion years ago, when the earth formed after the Big Bang, to now-time, covering the main epochs and natural events throughout. I decided to start from the ending, the Anthropocene, and work my way backwards, to when time began.
Because I felt well versed in the Anthropocene, our current epoch—marked by unprecedented levels of carbon emissions, climate crisis and the dire potential of our petrochemical doom—I didn’t stick around too long. I knew this story; it only ends well if the collective lets go of the old myths of good guys and bad guys it tells about itself. Everyone likes to see themselves as the good guy, but I’ve found the truth is always more interesting.
I kept going. I entered a large room segmented into three sections, where each wall was lined with floor-to-ceiling murals of strange creatures standing in expansive, golden fields. The Grasslands. I peered closely at the painted, Late Miocene forms, illustrating what 10 million years ago would have looked like. A round, muscular, mouth-trunked elephant beast steps through thick grass. A grazing deer, crowned in a triple-horn of antlers with sharp, triangular tips pointing heavenward. Some other large-bodied, gothic figure, almost like a camel, but with a pointed, bifurcated horn growing from the tip of its nose.
Further along, more renderings of a fantastical past. Three-toed horses, enormous hogs lurking behind large trees at the edge of a flood plain. More hoofed mammals; brazen, ornate horns emerging from the most unusual places. Lush giant palms. Deep green ferns. Tall grasses. Coniferous trees.
I go further back, 45 million years ago, to the Late Eocene. Brimming green and thick, choking with life. Gnawing, rodent-like mammals proliferate amongst skulking, sharped-tooth cats and other seemingly recognizable, short-haired miniature brutes with mane and tail.
I slowly moved from one image to the next, wide-eyed with astonishment, remembering a time when I had walked through these rooms feeling nothing beyond a mild but distractible interest. But now I read every description, feverishly recording anything of interest in my notebook, my pages brimming with sketches and timelines of events I had never quite understood, but now seemed obvious, important even. I felt as though some recent capacity within me had emerged, like an empty bowl. All I had to do was fill it.
Everything made sense. The merging tectonic plates, and their formulations of mountains and volcanoes. How these new structures changed the world, and changed weather patterns by blocking moist streams of air from once-lush forests. How the erupting volcanoes—these porous, conical mouths to the underworld, roiling with a torrid, unimaginable heat—polluted the air for millions of insufferable years, and yet life hobbled along.
I stood in a stupor, taking in the details of our last great extinction, 66 million years ago when the Chicxulub meteor fell to earth, striking the Yucatan with such force that the ground rose up in a rippling shockwave of earth, rising higher than Everest. Dust and debris were kicked up and displaced as far out as the moons of Saturn, or so say the scientists who have dedicated their lives to this singular moment in time. Other bits of debris shot out into space and then arced back, re-entering the atmosphere in a reigning agony of fire, setting the world ablaze. One hundred years passed and still the atmosphere remained soot-filled and bleak.
Back then, we mammals were diminutive, secretive little things, our bodies hairy, our births live. We skulked beneath the groundcover, hiding like addicts from yellow-eyed, fierce reptiles, waiting for some unlikely miracle—a beneficent disruption—that might grant us a different kind of life. Our opportunity came from the heavens in the form of this hot, fiery annihilation. 75 percent of life did not survive. The dinos whose bones had not hollowed; whose scales never elongated, never centralized into structures for dense rows of wispy side veins and barbs to emerge; who still moved their large, lumbering bodies clumsily; whose long, pointed teeth shone like polished daggers. They all died. They could never hear as well as we could. In the end, this is why they failed to live. But we prevailed. Eventually we thrived.
At my AA meetings I would say I am an alcoholic, but I didn’t have a reference or a history for this information at first. I relied on AA’s third tradition: The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
Partly, I didn’t believe I was interesting enough to be an alcoholic. Alcoholics to me seemed like dynamic, tragic creatures, who were incapable of the fortitude and self-control I prized in myself. My defect was a hard to detect architecture, a temple of stone cut walls choked in thick, jungle vines.
In time more will be revealed, they told me.
A memory surfaced. My first encounter with alcohol. Sitting outside on a cool evening with my dad, my skin golden from the California sunshine and he offers me a sip of his beer. The alcohol hit my tongue and I instantly liked it. That fuzzy haze, like a little cloud, a tiny fugue of anarchy, hovering at the roof of my mouth. I liked that too. It vibrated with an energy that matched something inside of me, the solution to an unworkable problem. This is how to be in the world. I was five.
In my youth I dreamed of motherhood. Every year on my birthday, as I blew out the candles on my cake, my wish was to be a good mother. I had a good mother, I could feel her bottomless love for me. I could already feel my bottomless love for my future children. My other future thoughts were never of a career, or marriage or college, although those did come. They were of the bars I would go to. When I was a teenager, I would sit in my mom’s Nissan Stanza and daydream about sitting on barstools and drinking whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. I thought everyone felt this way. That we were all just pretending to care about capitalism when what we really desired was uncut oblivion and songs in minor keys.
Later, when I was 14 and newly a freshman in high school, my older sister, my only sibling, died in a car accident. This became the central narrative of my life, from which many other narratives emerged. The fact that four others died in that accident. The fact that this tragedy divided the community into two factions; those who blamed the still-living, 16-year-old driver, and those who did not. Mine were the only parents of the dead children who did not. There was the fact of the media circus fanning the mob vitriol, wherein my parents—especially my mother, whom the media nicknamed the Good Mother—were repeatedly the headline stories in their papers and nightly news features. This went on for months. The community couldn’t heal. If you recognize the name of my high school then, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High, or maybe our location, in Parkland, Florida, you’ll know the community still hasn’t healed.
The centrality of my sister’s death has shifted in time. When I look back, I’m interested in my behavior. How I found the situation unfathomable. How I never cried or mourned my sister in any proper way. How I used the situation opportunistically: coming and going as I pleased, sometimes through my front door, sometimes out my bedroom window. I couldn’t be around my parents and their choking sorrow. I barely attended my classes. Instead I hunkered down in the school’s parking lot, lurking between cars, inhaling PCP-laced joints and whatever else anyone handed me, if I was there at all. That’s all I wanted to do and so I did it. I understand my behavior then is something I can no longer afford to avoid, but I also know I am lucky. Not everyone gets to see where they are the antagonist in the story, but maybe everyone should. Why else would you change?
Everyone pitied me. They bought me beer, Goldschläger, Tanqueray, Jim Beam, Cisco, Boone’s Farm, Absolute, 40s of Olde English, boxed wine, whatever I asked for. I drank it all. I drank it in strange apartments, with strange people, with friends. In cars, in my best friend’s pink bedroom, on golf courses in wealthy neighborhoods, by the beach, inside a beat-up van with no seats. My thirst was bottomless. I’m still thirsty.
Alcohol was my first love, the outer ring orbiting what I really desired. Not death exactly, but whatever lay right next to it, just within some morbid reach. At the end of my high-school freshman year, right before I moved, I went to a house party of a classmate whose parents were out of town. Throughout the night, I kept my eyes on a college-aged boy with long hair and a face uncomplicated by anything other than its own beauty. He sat on the couch talking to no one, as the rest of us drank around him, exhaling our skunkey plumes of smoke. Someone whispered to me this was his house, that he had returned early from his first year in college because one night on a dare, he had consumed fifty hits of acid. He never moved the whole night, remaining inchoate and simple-minded, as though his mind, reeling from its inflicted damage, could not trace even the most basic conversation.
I only stared more. To me he looked serene and I found myself envying him, envying his incapacity. I wanted what he had; enough beauty to free me from wanting beauty. Enough oblivion to be mindless. I thought this was freedom.
Another recollection surfaces. A putrid, sour effluvium hovers in the air. I wake with my daughter sleeping peacefully in between my husband and myself and I wonder how she got there. A vague, blurry memory comes to mind of missing her, reaching into her crib to hold her, not understanding why she is crying. I bring her to bed with us. The warm desert sun streams through the windows, warming the pools of vomit on the floor, next to my side of the bed.
One hundred million years ago. North America splits from Europe and heads west. Seas form and disappear. Mountains rise and turn to dust. Flowers and insects find one another and form codependent bonds. Both multiply.
In the Jurassic period, vast desert dunes transform into salty lakes and then further, into tropical river floodplains roamed by dinosaurs, for this is their Golden Age.
Volcanoes erupt throughout the Triassic, when dinosaurs and mammals first appear. Their violent output changes the chemistry of the entire ocean. Lungfish suck air from muddy bogs. Phytosaurs, those useless meat-eaters, die out.
Further back, before Pangea broke apart, before dinosaurs and mammals, the ocean teemed with an abundance of fish, whose mucous-coated forms changed too gradually for time’s liking. Ammonites proliferated sea floors. Tiny tusked hippo-like reptiles nibbled from simple plants. The earth did what it always would do, which is to change the rules, and shift life into some new form. Or peril. Peril it is. Almost nothing survived the great extinction 250 million years ago. This was the Paleozoic, the age of the fishes.
Before the fish, life began in a warm, shallow sea edge, where a community of cells toiled in the sun, to alchemize light into food. Success. They respirate. One cell subsumed another. More. Bigger. They colonize. They colonize. They colonize. The labor of living became a divided task.
And before life, almost four billion years ago, the crust cooled and hardened over a red, hot earth of roiling, molten liquid. An outer shell so thin and frail, it barely coverd this raging violence. This was the first illusion of safety. A suggestion. The earth is impenetrable. You are impenetrable.
We moved out of South Florida my sophomore year in high school. My dad got a job transfer to Tennessee. It wasn’t until much later, when I was an adult, a mother, a homeowner, married, attending the 20-year memorial for my sister’s accident, that I understood my move—that beneficent disruption—had saved my life. So many of my friends and my sister’s friends in South Florida always seemed to be in and out of rehab. The ones still alive. So many have overdosed. Oxycontin was newly appearing in my high school right when we left.
When my sister’s best friend showed up at the memorial, I couldn’t even look at her. She stumbled along, her face grey-pallored and pock-marked with red, open sores. A death mask. I could barely even say hi to her. Once upon a time I was the wild one, but now the only difference between she and I is that I left and she stayed. I couldn’t look at her because I knew in some sliding door universe, I was seeing myself.
I didn’t decide to sober up in that moment, but I can’t discount the notion that a seed was planted that day. I called Nick and the kids that evening to say goodnight to them. My children were still so young then. Still so tender, needful and demanding. I never minded their intensity of need. I loved it. I loved its demands, its rigor, the life and death endurance it required. It was the only time in my life since the age of 14 that I didn’t want to be high because I was high already. I know I’ll never be as happy as when my children were newborns, when every second of my life was dictated by all the subtle ways I kept my babies alive. All the ways I got to be a good mother to them.
Come 4:50, the Natural History Museum began announcing it would be closing soon, and directing those of us who had not left yet to start making our way to the exit. I had spent the entire day reading each sign, making sense of each diagram, fitting everything into some previously nonexistent timeline in my mind.
My focus shocked me. Where had this new appreciation for deep time come from? In the past I would have only pantomimed this level of interest because I had no ability to understand how the past worked, no space to place it in my mind. No way to connect these cyclical punctuations of violence followed by long passages of quiet; some places more affected than others. There had only been room for the self; the self’s urgent needs. But that day in the museum, I saw how sobriety offered me a different way to be in the world, where I was not the sun, the center, the beginning, nor the ending. I was just another body, lumbering across this unfathomable and strange hardened crust, being told it was time to change.