Serenity and Living Sober

My HipstaPrint 4[2]Today is the birthday of one of my granddaughters, let’s call her Serenity.  She came along unexpectantly.  As she was raised in a single parent household, I had the opportunity to spend a good bit of time with her. I picked her up after daycare, routinely babysat, and developed a strong bond with her early on.  She has taught me a lot over the years:

  • I took her to the doctor for her one-year-old shots, which completely violated my rules of grandparenting – to cause no pain or displeasure.  When I handed her over to the doctor and she got stuck with the needles she looked at me like the traitor I was.  But I also found that a trip to Toys R Us after was able to resolve any long-term resentment.
  • I was raised in a violent household where physical abuse was the norm.  I recollect well as an 18-year-old entering college, while drinking beer in the university pool hall, a freshman psychology major informed me that I would of course abuse children too.  I was terrified of the possibility and it always stayed in the back of mind.  One day when Serenity was about two, as she took a nap, I stared at her and realized there was no way I could ever hit a child, and that fear was removed forever.
  • When Serenity was four, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  We got the call at the start of what I had earlier proclaimed to my wife would be our most fun vacation ever – taking backroads along the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota down to New Orleans.  After getting the news in Bemidji, Minnesota, our 24-hour drive back to Jackson, Mississippi was mostly silent.  When we got to the hospital the room was filled with family and friends.  Serenity asked me if I would take her out of the room so she could show me how she rode in the plastic cars through the hallways of children’s floor.  My job was to be certain to keep her IV stand in pace with the car as she sped around the corridor, ala the Flintstone’s foot power method.  After a couple of laps we stopped by her room and she parked the car.  She started to get out of her car, and with a somewhat embarrassed look, said her back hurt too much and she could not get up and asked if I would pick her up and carry her to her bed. That 30-seconds of time is forever etched in my brain.
  • For the next several years we spent a great deal more time together.  She often could not be in crowds depending on her “counts” of blood cells.  A favorite memory was that she was particularly fond of my focaccia bread that we would take out to the Natchez Trace Parkway and eat.  It was on the Natchez Trace that I rode my first “Century Ride” for some sort of cancer fundraiser in her honor.

Today Serenity turns 16, in remission from her leukemia.  We now live in different cities and see each other less, but still have a strong bond.

What does all of this have to do with recovery?

  • Were I not sober, I never would have had the wherewithal or likely even the desire to be a person in Serenity’s life.  I would still be racked by the conflicts of my own physical abuse as a child, waiting for that behavior to be unleashed at some point – it never has, and never will.
  • Were I not sober, I would have been to pre-occupied with my addiction to even be a presence in the life of someone else in need.
  • Were I not sober, I never would have met Serenity’s grandmother and mother, and become a part of that family.
  • Were I not sober, I would never have been trusted to have a child in the car with me.  Though I somehow avoided ever getting a DUI, I drove drunk on a very regular basis.
  • This list goes on.

Serenity is a true gift of my life in recovery for which I am grateful.

Centering Prayer & People & Recovery

Today I was sitting on a bench by the pond/lake up at Audubon Park in New Orleans.  There seemed a whole bunch more ducks than usual, making a lot of racket.  I was reading the Divine Dance by Richard Rohr for a book study with the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  I read a portion equating the Christian concept of the Trinity with the Indian concept of sat, chit, ananda.  I was struck by this is something to think about for a bit.  And I thought of the practice we do before the book study of centering prayer, which in my rather unsophisticated level, I equate to meditation of some sort.

So I set my cell phone alarm for 20 minutes, sat upright, eyes closed, and started with the inhale/exhale with the Indian words, and that was not quite working, so I reverted to the words I had used before our book study inhale/exhale – be/long – and that worked for a couple of minutes, and then I just focused on the birds and the ducks and swishing of water, and got into the zone, as it were, focusing on the squawks and the water swirling, and I came into the middle of it all with the sound completely surrounding me and the folks on walking/biking path maybe 20 feet behind me blended into an indistinct murmur and the it was all ducks and water coming from all sides – and then the cell phone alarm went off after the 20 minutes and brought me back. Bang.  I opened my eyes and adjusted to the light.

Sitting next to me now on the bench was a young African-American woman – early 20s.  I don’t know when she sat down in the 20-minute period.  It seemed odd.  There were lots of other benches along the pond that were empty.  She had on a pink biker’s helmet with her bike pulled along the side of the bench.  My bike was in front of me.  She was fidgeting in her backpack, pulling out stuff, putting it back, then she got out her cellphone and started taking pictures, stretching out to the right and so I thought perhaps she sat down to photograph the ducks, but then I saw her reflection in the cell phone and realized she was taking a selfie and then thought perhaps she was stretching to such an angle to get the 64-year old white dude sitting prone on the bench into the frame, for some study in contrast.

I reached down and pulled the Divine Dance back out of my backpack.  I broke the conversational ice and said something like “lots of ducks here today” to which she replied “Yeah, I don’t know why, maybe because of the rain yesterday” to which I said “so do you come here to watch the ducks” to which she said “well I really just stopped here for a rest from biking.”  And then the conversation took off – so she is a Biology senior at Loyola on the other side of the Park.  She had an old clunky bike but a friend gave her the one she had now which was good and she wanted to ride more.  She was from the Virgin Islands and we talked about that and how she can vote in Presidential elections because she has lived as a student in New Orleans for the past 4 years.  I asked her questions about the logistics on voting and the status of the Virgin Islands as a U.S. Territory, and she replied as she could, and then on a couple of points she did not know, smiled and said that was a good question.  I raised the possibility that she could have a couple hundred of her friends from the Virgin Islands come to the New Orleans, register to vote, and she could then get elected to some local council position, which she thought about for a second, before she got my sense of humor.

She then introduced herself as Revel and I said my name is Robert.

We then went from my poor aptitude for natural sciences and how I had used my 5th grade “All About” books so that I could understand college genetics which led to discussing Young Adult Novels and I could not think of the title of a particular book I had really liked in the YA genre, but she offered that by just doing keyword searches in Google I could probably find it, and I did Made You Up by Francesca Zappia and she made a note in her cell phone because it sounded interesting.  We talked about what she was going to do when she graduated, how she enjoyed doing service work.  She then asked if I came here often to which I said I either come here or go to the Fly when I have our dog because she would not be able to deal with all the people at the Park, plus there are benches at the Fly to sit and watch the sunset on the Mississippi.  She then asked where the Fly was that she had heard about it, and it was on her bucket list to go to before she left New Orleans, and I explained it was only on the other side of Magazine St. between the River and the Zoo.  I thought to say, I could take you up there now as it is less than a 10-minute ride, but thought better of it, for some reason.

Our conversation went on about as long as the centering prayer had.  She then got back on her bike and headed toward Loyola, said she hoped to see me around the park again – and have a Happy New Year, to which I replied in kind.

What does this have to do with recovery?

  • I find that I really am interested in things outside of myself and enjoy engaging in conversations with others.  Everything from an extensive conversation with our nextdoor neighbor on her cat that disappeared for a couple of days and came back with a clipped ear and whether that was a sign some animal rights do-gooder had the quasi-feral cat spade as a clipped ear is supposed to be a sign of same – to a convo at the P.O. with the fellow there on why he put different size stamps for the same amount on two packages I brought in that weighed the same and he smiled and explained that to me and seemed to enjoy that I was interested in a humorous sort of “this guy has a lot of time on his hands to worry about that” and he smiled too.
  • I had finished up writing a report I had struggled with for quite a while earlier in the day and rewarded myself with the afternoon off and a bike ride – instead of a 6-pack of Dixie (do they even make that anymore?) which would have led to much more.
  • In my life today, I read not just to get data in my head, but to have good things to think about and mediate on.

All of which led to a fine Friday the 13th afternoon in New Orleans, for which I am grateful.

 

 

 

Giving & Receiving in Recovery

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Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The above words are commonly attributed to the 13th century Christian, Francis of Assisi though circumstantially, the attribution does not hold up.

The first half of the prayer talks about good and right things to aspire to sow.  But I have been thinking more about the “in giving that we receive” part.  And truly, without exception, when I take part in any “service” work in recovery, I am rewarded with a more meaningful existence.  I suspect this inherent desire to do service, to be a part of, to be in community with, or to share our experience, strength, and hope is something that is hard-wired into our True Selves.

Further, consider – when I deliver meals on wheels, serve food to the homeless, give money to a person in need, I always “feel better” after the fact.  My wife and I hosted a young woman from another country in our home for a couple of years while she was in graduate school.  Several of her family members attended her graduation.  They expressed very sincere and abundant thanks to us for hosting their daughter/niece/granddaughter.  I responded that I was very appreciative of their thanks, but needed to express my thanks to them for the opportunity to do the hosting and be in relationship.  I experience a similar sense of gratitude to the students I worked with over the years.

It is in giving that we receive.

I do not write this post to allege that I exude some sort of hyper level of altruism.  I don’t think that is the case.  I do believe that when we are mindful of “in giving that we receive” we recognize that basic truth.

The reciprocal situation is accepting from others so that they can experience the in “giving that we receive” as well.  My favorite Christmas card I received this year was from a man who “receives” where I go on Tuesday afternoons to help serve a meal and provide a night of shelter to homeless folks.  He handed me the card in an envelope.  Nothing was written on the card or the envelope.  When he gave me the card, he said, “This is not much but it is in the spirit of Christmas.”  I thanked him for the card.  I wondered if he was too rushed to sign the card.  I wondered if he had never received a Christmas card before and did not know that you were supposed to sign your name.  That is all pretty immaterial.  Accepting and thanking him for the card allowed him to be a part of the in “giving that we receive” equation.

The card sits on my desk today.

How do you take part on both sides of the “in giving we receive” equation?

On Success in Recovery

soberlivingIf I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this;  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards, of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.  If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.   – Thomas Merton, Love and Living, pp. 11-12

I like Thomas Merton a lot.  However, I both relate and take him with a grain of salt on the above quote.  I relate because like Merton and Augustine, I spent the first several decades of my existence living fully into practicing addictions – in my case drugs and alcohol.  By the time I hit early adulthood, I was completely fried and realized I simply would not be able to continue along that path, and opted for sobriety, as Merton and Augustine opted for a monastic environment.

For me, success then became measured by staying sober and that became rather rote after a while.  Next, I opted for education for a bunch of years to demonstrate my ability to further succeed, and escape having to deal with many life issues.  I knew how to do that.  Next, for some reason publishing a book seemed like a marker of success, but after doing that several times, that measure lost its luster.

For the past decade or so, the very concept of success has taken a back seat to my striving to live a life of meaning – with mixed success, as it were.  I find today that simply being on a path toward True Self seems to be a more worthy direction than past accolades.  The starting point for me on all of this is simply being on a recovery road.  An important piece of recovery is getting out of false self (ego/persona) and more aligned with True or Real Self that celebrates the potential of being a node on a luminous web of interconnectivity with all the world.

My resolution for the 2017 New Year is to be open to the possibilities that a True Self oriented life has to offer.  I know that resolve cannot be accomplished by making a list of measurable goals in my shiny new bullet journal, except to be following a recovery path.  As my short four months of retirement and living in a new city have shown, and abundantly so – had I made plans to measure my success this past September, I likely would have failed at what I expected to happen.  However, being open to possibilities led me on even more profound and meaningful directions than I could have predicted while on that six-hour drive south after my retirement party.  This experience is completely consistent with everything about my recovery over the years.  I can never stand in the present, look back five years into the past and say “I saw that coming.” In fact, what has always come has been far greater than what I could conjure in my head.  In this sense, success can mean just showing up and being ready.  I can’t wait to see where that leads me five years from now.  I don’t really have a clue at this point!

Literalism in Recovery

jeepcloseLiteralism is the lowest level of meaning.

Richard Rohr, p. 70 Immortal Diamond

In recovery, literalism is both a blessing and curse.  The blessing end comes in keeping me centered on the proven necessities for recovery.  For example, a very literal admission that I was “powerless over alcohol” and that my life had become “unmanageable” were key to beginning a recovery path.

But literalism can be a very limiting factor as well.  If I were to take the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as literal and dogma, I would binge on sugar, be opposed to having a sponsor, reject the 90 meetings in 90 days advice I received when I was discharged after 30 days of detox, and so forth – based on what the Big Book does or does not contain.  In not taking a literal and dogmatic approach, over the years I learned that contrary to the advice in the Big Book, sugar is just another alcoholic food for me, having a “sponsor” of some sort is critical to my staying on a good recovery path, and all of those post Big Book publication clichés of advice like 90 in 90 allow me a solid foundation on which to grow my recovery.

So, here is my heresy in 12-Step recovery – over the 30 plus years I have been sober from alcohol and drugs, and then later tobacco and now dealing with my eating disorder, I have at times gone at least several years, and maybe as many as 5 years without attending a 12-Step meeting.  About 10 years ago I got into a 2-3 meeting per week routine for nearly a decade.  Most recently my attendance is more sporadic.

However, since walking into a detox unit in 1984, every day I have been mindful and reflective that I am an alcoholic in recovery.  How that mindfulness is manifest has evolved considerably over the years.  For example, now in my less frantic pace of retirement, my morning practice includes a prayer to remain sober and aligned with my True Self for the day, writing my morning page reflection, posting a gratitude list, writing and mailing a thank you note to someone, reading a daily reflection, and in the evening writing a couple of paragraphs about some aspect of one of the 12 steps.

My bottom line is that today it works for me.  Tomorrow, maybe not.  I am fond of saying that I have no problem today that is not of my making.  I am grateful I accumulated a plethora of tools over the year from which I can pick and apply to a specific situation.  I am grateful too that over the past three decades I have always chosen one of those tools, or added a new one, to keep traveling down the recovery road.

Here is the interesting thing I have found – by not taking a rote and literal approach to recovery for the past three decades, my day-to-day existence aligns more closely with the 12-Steps today than in the past. For that, I am grateful.

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.

 

Asking the Why Question, Part 3

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My late buddy, Buddy.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous

When I got sober a bunch of years ago, the “God thing” was an obstacle to overcome, but I was willing and committed to addressing the issue head-on.  Over the years, I jettisoned the God of my youth for a spiritual path aligned to the basic approach of the 12 steps.  I have not opted for the secular sobriety route of God as a coffee cup, good orderly direction, or similar notions.  I strive for the conscious contact of “God as we understood Him” found in both the Third and Eleventh Steps.  While watching a video featuring Adam Hamilton, a pastor of The United Methodist Church, I was completely blown away to recognize that we each start our day in exactly the same way – simply praying to the “God as we understood” that God to direct our life toward his/her/its will for that day.

So here is where this “Why” question raises itself again for me.  I am not an intercessory prayer kind of guy and I really take this prayer business pretty seriously.  I see prayer as very much a commitment to action on my part and not simply some magical God thing.  Prayer is a commitment that I am going to do something about it and be in community with a True Self and get out of my ego-driven False Self.  I see no logic in praying to get a good grade on a test without studying for the test.  That would be just God magic.  Same thing if I prayed to remain sober but took no actions to accomplish same.

My intercessory prayers generally require action on my part.  The night I got sober, I was so wracked with spiritual, emotional, and physical chaos, I distinctly remember looking upward and saying something like “please remove the insanity in my head and the addiction in my body.” Then, as I was raised a Roman Catholic, I decided being on my knees might work better, so I dropped the tool I had in my hand – I didn’t want to be too obvious – knelt down to pick it up and repeated my prayer.  But sobriety has required me to take action and responsibility for recovery.

I don’t mean this all as some self-congratulatory reflection on my spiritual existence.  I still come back to the Why Me? and consider myself incredibly blessed in all aspects of my life.

But then . . . there was the time with intercessory prayer, I was in rural Peru, and got an email that said my favorite dog ever who had grown old was going down hill fast and had not stood up in two days.  I would not be back home for another 2 weeks.  I laid in my sleeping bag that night and asked for Buddy just to hold on until I got home.  The next day he was running around outside again, and lived for another six months.