A Bartender’s Work

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On Sunday mornings, at twenty past eight, I walk to work in the dark. My good black boots with the pointed toes squeak on the hard-packed snow like pieces of styrofoam rubbed together. Outside of the bar I might pick up a few empty cigarette packages from the ground, sometimes a crushed beer can, evidence of the night before. I go inside and knock on the tavern door. The night cleaner lets me in. We chat about his evening, then he disappears to sleep. I take off my coat, turn up the lights. I count my float, take inventory of the cigarettes and the beer, wine and hard liquor we sell for offsales. I line the bottles up on the bar, the Christmas lights causing the amber coloured whiskey to glow. I load the hot dog machine, unlock the coolers, brew a pot of coffee, turn on the classic rock radio station. 9 a.m. I open the blinds, unlock the door.

Some mornings there is a rush of last night’s revelers: they belly up to the bar, order beer or coffee and Baileys. Their stories tumble out amid laughter, their eyes darting beneath heavy lids. They spend a few hours with me as they come down. Soon the stories slow, the eyes grow heavier. They wander home to bed or grab a half-sack of beer and head out to see if the party is still going.

Some mornings, for the first hour I sell only offsales. These folks move more slowly. Shaking hands pull out of coat pockets in a spill of crumpled bills and coin. I help them count out what they need, then pass the bottle across the bar to be tucked carefully inside their coats. Often I’ll see them again in the early afternoon.

There are quiet mornings when I get to chat with one or two people over coffee. Together we watch the light fill the sky, the details of the world coming into focus through the big windows in the front of the bar. We talk about the weather, or someone’s upcoming trip to Whitehorse, my kids or their grandkids. Rarely the talk forays into politics: it’s dangerous ground that we all generally try to avoid.

Always, they bring me their stories: of addiction, failed marriages, suicide, and very rarely, residential school. Stories of the old days. Of bush life, of hand-mining and shaft digging. They brag of being the best CAT operator in the territory, the best barmaid of their day. They share with me their journeys, both outside the territory, and in. Stories of last night’s party, last week’s canoe trip, Passions, heartbreak, dreams realized or not, birth, disease and death. We make our money on liquor sales but we trade in stories and I try my best to hold space for each one. To let each person tell their story as it needs to be told, whether it’s full of careful omission or gross embellishment. They all want to be heard, and that is the true work of the bartender.

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Wine Gets in the Way

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I went on a bit of a bender this weekend. Which, for me, is nowhere near as wild as it sounds. Friday night happy hour with a few friends, and then more wine at home after the kids were in bed. Saturday a complete write-off for me. And then Sunday, after my weekly bar shift, I had a few glasses at the bar and then another at home with dinner. Today, I can hardly keep my eyes open. My head feels foggy. Writing this post is excruciating; in fact, I’d like to not write it. But I wanted to write every day. I didn’t write yesterday because I was too busy pretending to be a woman with no responsibility. So here I am today, showing up even though it ain’t pretty.

I suppose this weekend was different because I didn’t feel like I was drinking to numb out the overwhelm of a day spent with kids. Although, in retrospect, given the number of times I turned to my friends and wailed “I wish I didn’t have to go home!” I actually was drinking to numb out. It just felt fun because I was in the company of other adults, somewhere other than in my own chaotic home. But at its root, it was still a means of escaping my reality.

I spend a lot of time contemplating my relationship to alcohol. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and it’s what killed him. I was given my first drink when I was thirteen: my grandma made me a screwdriver on Christmas Eve. Vodka and orange juice was my drink of choice throughout my teens. Like most people, alcohol emboldens me. It makes social situations easier. It makes me feel brave and like I can say or do all the things I usually am too restrained to act upon. And now that I have kids, it feels like something I’m sort of expected to do. My mommy juice at the end of the day. An easy ticket to unwind.

Except that, for me, it keeps me from doing the things that actually help me to unwind. Yesterday it kept me from writing. Saturday it kept me from doing…most things. It’s kept me from getting any exercise over the weekend, or from meditating or reading. I’d like to be the gal who can have a glass on occasion and then walk away. But it takes me a lot of mental effort to actually make that choice to walk away. I wonder, could I have had as much fun this weekend drinking soda water? And would the people around me have accepted my choice to just drink soda water? So often, I wonder if it’s best for me to just not drink at all, at least for now. What would that look like? How might my life change?

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here: I’m examining my own experiences. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to stop drinking. I’m not trying to shame anyone. Drinking is getting in the way of my life, as I would like to be living it. It’s getting in the way of my efforts at happiness in such a way that it allows me to live briefly in an alternate reality: when I come back to the truth, though, it’s a let down. I can’t accept this life I’ve got if I’m constantly trying to escape it. Maybe there’s a way to make alcohol a part of it, but right now, I’m not so sure I’m capable of that.

Image via Flickr user Evan Wood.

The Stories We Tell

Less than two months ago, this is the story I told myself: you are a tired, overwhelmed mom. You don’t have time in the day to do things for yourself. Wine is your thing now: you live for that bottle of wine at the end of the day.

I let this story become fixed in my mind. I let it define me and shape my days. By 2 in the afternoon, I began to wonder: will I have a glass of wine tonight? Will I have the whole bottle? When can I have the first glass? Do we have wine? Should I get more wine? How much wine is too much? By 5 o’clock I was well into my first glass, and by 7 the bottle was empty. I’d get the kids to bed and fall asleep too, full of guilt. By midnight, I was wide awake, hungover, beating myself up.

This story became my truth, and I lived it almost daily. And because I believed it so completely, I let the important things that I’d worked so hard for slip away: a daily writing practice, exercise, connection with myself and my kids. We tell ourselves these stories, we let them become fixed, forgetting that a story has a life of its own. Stories change, can be reinterpreted, rewritten. The person I am today is not the person I was yesterday, is not the person she was a week ago, or even a moment ago. Everything about us is in constant flux, and so too are our stories. But we forget that and we get hung up on what might have been true for a moment, but is no longer true and no longer serving us.

What other untrue stories have I told myself throughout my life? And what have those stories held me back from? Stories about not being good enough. Stories about what people expect from me. Stories about what I can’t do. Stories about sex and love and friendship that kept me stuck in unhealthy patterns.

The stories I tell reach beyond myself. There is a story my partner and I sometimes share about the kids: they are out of control, they are monsters, they are unlikeable. We pass this story between us like a drug, feeding each others’ irritation, anger, dissatisfaction with life. And then this narrative bleeds into the way we interact with the kids, and they pick up the thread. Yesterday, coming down from a particularly difficult week, my oldest said of his explosive behaviour: “it’s just the way I am.” And this is how it starts: if you hear often enough that you are bad, that you are mean, that you are hurtful, you start to believe it, don’t you. Boys will be boys. Boys are aggressive. Boys fight, there’s nothing you can do about it.

I refuse to believe that story. When it ramps up in my mind, like on the difficult days, I tell myself a new story: a story about little brains still developing, about big scary feelings that are hard to deal with. Our stories aren’t so different, mine and my son’s. We are both trying to escape uncomfortable things, me with wine and screen time, he with hurtful words, spitting and slapping hands. We both need to rewrite our stories. I need to help him rewrite his, and to give him the language to do so.

Today, I tell myself a new story: you are capable. You are aware. There is a spaciousness in your day if you allow it. You are worthy of your own love and attention.

How might this new story change me, if I let it? How has it changed me already? I’ve stopped turning to a bottle of wine every night. See how I don’t need it. I’ve started to find my way back to healthier forms of self-care and I see and feel how they fill me up. I tune in to my body, now. I ask it: what do you need, right now? I see 10 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour open up and I fill it with what would feel best right then. I press on doing this, and I know that I’m not starting from nothing this time. I’ve already done this once before, and I know I can do it again. It’s easier, this time, to go back over and make the changes I need to make.

What stories do you tell yourself? Are you stuck in a narrative that’s no longer serving you? Maybe it’s time for a rewrite. What stories do you tell yourself about others, and how does it change the way you interact with them?

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful.  Going forward, I choose to use that power for good.

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Image via Flickr user Daniel X O’Neil