Extravagant Promises

In what Alcoholics Anonymous folks call “The Big Book (1945),” there is a lovely passage about how life changes in recovery. These changes are referred to by AAs as “the promises.” One of the promises is that “we will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” You really don’t need to be an alcoholic to get a leg up on this.

Of “the promises,” The Big Book says, “Are these extravagant promises? We think not.” The purpose of this statement is to reassure people in recovery that recovery itself is not extravagant, i.e., not beyond the bounds of reason or of what is deserved. That it is possible.

But recovery is in fact extravagant, in the very best sense of the word. In the same sense that Sacha Scoblic uses the word “lush” to describe her sobriety (her pun very much intended). Any life not deadened by apathy or constrained by fear is lush, luscious, extravagant.

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A Series of Open Windows

Being in early recovery from hard or traumatic things leaves you with a thin skin. The good thing about that is that it makes it easier for the miracles to enter.

1.

I was sitting on a bench last week waiting for a bus and next to me was an older man who, in a superficial sweep of his appearance, I assessed as either homeless or slightly mentally ill.  After exchanging the regular bus stop pleasantries (is the Grey West late again today? Do you think it’s going to rain?), he asked me what I did and I asked him what he did. He told me that he had gotten his GED and was planning to go to our local community college to study real estate.

sunmoonThen he told me that he was waiting for his woman, whom he loved, but she didn’t treat him right. “She’s out running the streets and she has other men in the house when I’m not there. I love her but I don’t think she’s going to change.”  They’d been together four years. I agreed that it wasn’t likely that she would change. He was thinking about ending things with her in December because he didn’t want to start a new year with her. Then he said, “I just don’t think you can love something and hurt it at the same time. That’s like living in daylight and in darkness.”

2.

copyright Daniel Ischenko

copyright Daniel Ischenko

A beautiful young woman spent the last several years drinking 2-3 pints of vodka a day until she realized that she was going to die if she didn’t stop. She also believed that it was possible that she would die if she did stop. Now, 18 months after her last drink, she is so radiant that it’s almost hard to make direct eye contact with her. She works as a gardener, and I believe it’s possible that her own energy causes plants to shoot up right out of the ground. She told me that even when it feels like she is living hand to mouth, her life now feels like “a series of open windows. Even when I see a door closing, the next window is already opening for me.”

3.

I recently had to disclose something about a very bad relationship decision that I made to a lovely, gracious woman who is 30 years older than me. I would have strongly preferred not to discuss this with her but I’m supposed to be honest whenever possible these days, and I really had no choice. As she sat sipping iced tea on my couch, I started in on a somewhat sanitized version of the not healthy relationship decision, then she stopped me with a gentle wave of her hand. “Oh, you don’t have to explain that to me, dear. I made the same mistake with my divorce accountant. And I didn’t even like him.”

People and their stories are the windows that open ahead of me; one small miracle at a time, we remember that we are on our way home, and are in very good company.

An excerpt from the song, “Everything is Holy Now” by Peter Mayer. Listen here. 

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now

cardinal

 

 

 

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Keeping the Faith

“Recovery” is such a deceptively comforting word.

It is: “the regaining of or possibility of regaining something lost or taken away.

It is also: “the restoration or return to any former or better state or condition.

__________

Recovery is where you go after the trauma has occurred.

But it’s not always clear what happens when you get there.

__________

Someone once said that we are all in recovery from something.

The poet Wendell Berry wrote that we turn towards our addictions, whatever they may be, because we have lost one another.

But we also turn towards addictions because we have lost ourselves. And the only way to recover is in the company of others.

__________

To recover in the company of others requires tremendous compassion for brokenness because the secret no one tells you, the paradox you have to learn on your own is this: no one is coming to rescue you, everyone is broken, no one has the answers, no one really ever gets it right, and it is only by sharing your deepest vulnerabilities and accepting those of others will you ever become stronger. Your brokenness joined with theirs; that’s what gets you both closer to home.

__________

Recovery is not about returning to a former state of grace or wholeness. It is the possibility of growing into something completely new, which is equal parts terror and exhilaration. Recovery is not about going back to get something you lost. It is going forward to find that which has thus far eluded you–the ability to live as a human being among other human beings.

__________

glassheartThe wreckage of your life may never become whole. But when you pick up one of your broken pieces and offer it to someone else who is missing just that piece, it will become beautiful. And it will move both of you forward towards healing.

__________

You will recover if you tell people who love you about your most regrettable acts, and they tell you about theirs. You will recover when you let the love in their eyes, their hands, or simply their presence, their breath, penetrate the deepest part of you so you know, really know, that you are not alone, that you are good enough. And good enough is good enough.

__________

From Rumi:

I’ve broken through to longing
Now, filled with a grief I have
Felt before, but never like this.
The center leads to love.
Soul opens the creation core.
Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

nest

Growth can happen anywhere

 

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Never Again and Forever After

Twelve days ago, on Good Friday, my life fell spectacularly, publicly, heartbreakingly apart. After all of these past months of struggle, fighting and turmoil, everything in me gave up. I caused a terrible car accident in which, by the grace of God no one was hurt. But the aftermath, the wreckage has been incalculable.

brokenI ended up in the ER tonight because I have not been able to eat or drink anything for twelve days, despite the significant steps I’ve taken to start to rebuild whatever my new life will look like. My body just told me that it was simply not going to continue this way and it didn’t.

At the hospital, they were perfunctorily kind, suggesting that I perhaps try relaxation exercises, and brought in a very nice young man who asked me if I was considering harming myself. Since I believe that my life, and more importantly, my reactions to my life, to years of  deep misery had already done enough harm, I said “No.”

So they gave me some fluids, checked my blood work, watched as I shook, vomited up the water I couldn’t keep down, and then eventually sent me home. Lying there waiting to leave, I alternated between being terrified that this was actually what it looked and felt like when someone was truly cracking up, and then offering exactly what I was in those moments to God.

I thought that I had surrendered to God, but then I remembered that last night, my prayer was not to surrender but to want to want to surrender. I believed I had done this, but I hadn’t, until tonight. I surrendered because I had no choice, and a deep sense of giving in and giving up came over me.

Not of giving up my life, but giving up, entirely and completely, the struggle.  In that moment, in repeating to myself, over and over, “I’m done. I’m done,” I knew that I wasn’t done with my life. I was done with the misery of a life I’ve been living for such a long, long time. A river began to flow through me.

On the way home, I made a fierce commitment and that is this: “I will fight as hard as it takes for as long as it takes to recover.” Recovery of body, mind and spirit. That I never again want to live a life of relentless, undignified, useless suffering. And that no one and nothing was going to take anything else away from me. Or rather, that I was not going to let myself give any part of myself away. That I would fight for the life that God means for me to live, no matter what.

If you are struggling, remember this: Blessed be the warriors who are given the privilege of following this path, blessed be the suffering that leads us somewhere, especially somewhere bigger, greater and more meaningful. Blessed be.

See below, from Anne Frank, “As long as this exists…”


As long as this exists…

Anne Frank

“‘As long as this exists,’ I thought, ‘and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.’ The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”

Love always,

Leslie

stripped

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More on Alligators and Unwilling Self-Exposure

One thing most women of a certain age know is that the search for a bathing suit requires extensive online research (going to an actual shopping establishment is torturous and laughable), along with a potential bank loan to finance the cost of the suit. You have to pay for coverage, slimming and enhancement, and no price is too high.

alligator1A year or two ago, when I knew I had to deal head-on with the burdensome weight problems caused by my anti-nervous-breakdown pills, I suffered through the purchase of two bathing suits. Or bathing costumes, really. They cost approximately $8,000 each. When I went down to visit my parents in FL last month, I knew I’d need the bathing suits because my son would want to go in the water and I would, against all my desperate longings, have to accompany him.

I forgot the suits at home. Mostly because I packed at 4:00 in the morning on the day of the flight, and my head wasn’t quite right. But I arrived in Naples with a dilemma. I needed a suit, but was highly unwilling to pay the exorbitant fee one involves, nor could I face the trying-on process.  So my mother, who accused me of forgetting my bathing suits at home on purpose, which was ridiculous because they are worth more to me than gold, frog-marched me into Wal-Mart with the sole purpose of acquiring a bathing garment, along with, I desperately hoped, a large cover-up.

The first cover-up met with maternal disapproval: “That looks like a shroud!” “Perfect,” I thought, and tossed it into the cart. As far as the bathing garments…suffice to say that when you are looking for something well-cut and flattering, Wal-Mart is the last place you should even consider going. Unless you are a 16 year-old size 2, it’s best to interpret the old person’s greeting at the door as, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

When it was time to go to the water park, I lathered Gabe up and then retired to the bathroom to squeeze, yank and shove myself into the horrible Wal-Mart bathing garment. On went the shroudish cover-up. And then, in the car, the final humiliation came.

I was wearing sunblock, but as I had not been exposed to sunlight for six Midwestern winter months, I was looking forward to “getting some sun.” “You need a hat, ” my parents said. “The sun is very strong, you need something to keep the sun off your head and face.”

“Absolutely not,” was my first thought, as I have a number of gorgeous and exotic beach hats at home. I could see nothing like them within reach. But no sooner could I turn around when a white GOLF visor was being shoved on my head. A golf visor. A white one. Not even black. I felt like a land manatee in a bad disguise.

When we got to the water park, I slunk into the water with Gabe, and it was actually quite fun, the playfulness, the pleasure he was experiencing. However, out of the corner of my eye I was stealthily watching my father, who seemed to want to capture these moments on film, and I knew without question that if I saw him even reach for his iPhone, I would slap it out of his hand in a heartbeat, right into the 4-foot deep kiddie pool.

alligator2There were no alligators at the water park, but their repulsive, fearless presence from the day before haunted me. People In Florida say, “They are more afraid of you then you are of them. No. No, they are not. (click to watch).

Now, the thing about alligators is that they give occasion to experience a deep, primal fear. Alligators can and will come after you. The bad thoughts in your head about the size of your stomach or thighs will come after you too. But they don’t have to kill you. The time that I spent in the water with Gabe made me feel light and free and playful. My body felt like my body again.

Alligators are a constant reminder of the predatory nature of depression and desperate, panic-ridden thinking. It’s said in research literature about self-development, fear, and growth, that the worst decisions we can make come from the “reptilian” part of our brains. That is our basest level, the one most preoccupied with self-preservation. The poet John Donne said that “When a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package.”

My parents, who are tremendously great sports, got in the water also, especially my Dad who took Gabe down the waterslide tons of times. We all went on the lazy river, which was very relaxing, except for the weird 20 year olds with multiple tattoos whose tubes kept bumping into mine. (At public pools is that you are practically naked at very close proximity to total strangers and this is not okay with me.)

Dad1I had been feeling quite down earlier in the day. Having to “be on,” i.e. go to a water park dressed as an entirely unfamiliar version of myself seemed almost beyond my comprehension and my psychological capacities. But it turned out fine. Seeing Gabe smile and play, and feeling the love and effort of my parents was a type of buoyancy. As I said, my dad went down the water slide over and over with Gabe while I stood on and watched with pleasure and gratitude (and fear of the trips to the chiropractor if I myself went down.)

If love alone could cure any of life’s problems, I would be running marathons and writing novels. But swimming in the kiddie pool with my son was a triumph of love and fortitude that was made possible by the steadfast presence of my parents.

As hard as it can be to even, as Andrew Solomon, author of Depression: the Noonday Demon, says, to take the concept of other people’s suffering on board when one is in its depths, I truly believe that is the only way out. Being aware that there is pain in the world, and that our own suffering gives us something to offer back to others in the “same boat” (or the same inner tube) is what helps us pull each other out. It brings us back to life.Gabepool

 

 

 

The Green Alligator
By Sidi J. Mahtrow

There’s a green alligator.
Lying on the bank out of the water,
His (or her) hide, a bilious green
And as it dries has a certain sheen.

Some would say that’s most un-natural
But I reply that’s colors, factual.
Brought about by being in a water that’s
Filled with chlorophyll bearing plants
And as the gator swims along,
He can’t help but being tagged upon
By those single celled organisms that live there
In the primordial soup we all share.

‘Haps, this is his way
Of disguise from his prey,
But I prefer to believe
He’d much rather have a reprieve
From the pollution
In his watery bouillon
That coats everything large and small
From snout to tail and all.

But as he sleeps along the shore,
Covered by this slime and more,
I wonder if evolution will raise her head
And make all alligators green instead.
Then no one will notice this one apart
From others with the same colorant.

Regardless, it’s best to avoid the alligator, green
Lurking there, grey-black, or some shade in between.
He knows not why you’re there,
But for him, maybe you’ll become the daily fare.

One agator, Two agator, Three
Green alligators neath the tree,

Slipping, sliding, slopping,
Never stopping,
Green gators neath the tree.

Mouth open, teeth, a showing,
Just a grinnin
Green gators neath the tree.

Hides a glowing green
Doesn’t seem so mean,
Green gators neath the tree.

Into the water he’s a slippin
Just a dippin
One green gator’s not neath the tree.

Silent swimmin, easy going
Eyes and nose only showing
Green gator’s gettin close to me.

One agator, Two agator, Three
He’s after m….

Welcome to Florida!

Sidi J. Mahtrow

 

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Time to Come Back

Hello and a joyful spring to any and all who still have even a thread of interest in this blog. I’ve been gone for a long, long time, but think of you often. I hope you will forgive the absence.

http://www.forestwander.comIs it spring where you are? Maple trees are budding here, crocuses and daffodils are blooming and I saw my first real dogwood yesterday, making a sparse but valiant showing.

If you listen to pop radio, you may be hearing Kelly Clarkson’s, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and even if you don’t listen to pop radio, you know the expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is a good song to work out to; it is not, on any level, a good belief to live by.

Something that can kill you but doesn’t actually makes you weaker. A broken bone is weaker even after the regrowth; past injuries leave scar tissue and must be treated tenderly so as not to reopen or reaggravate wounds. Catastrophic illness makes you more susceptible to infection. Deep psychological pain, even though it can be and is survivable, does not ever truly leave your psyche. You are not made stronger.

This is good news.

Weakness terrifies all of us, but it is, without question what makes us most human, more tender, more vulnerable. My friend Ann says (I’m paraphrasing), “You’ve joined the club. It’s a weird club.”

My friend Mary tells me, after visiting a dying friend, “There is so much pain in the world. The most we have is leaning on each other.”

Mary’s heart is so open that when I am with her sometimes I feel like I am standing in it. Her tolerance for other people’s pain is a tangible, living thing.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey flanked by illiterate fisherman. He was not stronger than thepalms army of soldiers who greeted him. I’m struck again and again at how the language of the Gospels is filled with words like “passion,” “desire,” and “longing.” When do we lose this connection (if in fact we do lose it?) When do we forget that the ache, the suffering, the longing for respite in the face of tremendous suffering…the blood and body passion for life is everything that brings us closer to others, to God?

This is not original thinking; none of this is. But today I am having lunch with two dear friends, one who has survived colon cancer, and is now celebrating her last round of chemo for pancreatic cancer, and another who is living with the constant sorrow of losing her brother. And we will be laughing, joyful. Whatever pain each of us is carrying will be shared, even for a moment, even if we don’t talk about any of it. We don’t have to. We’re in the club.

Carrie Newcomer sings about living a “permeable life.”  Go and listen to her remind you that “there is room at the table for everyone.” Or perhaps read some Parker Palmer, especially the poignant and lovely, “Let Your Life Speak.”

Or maybe, best of all, go and find yourself one of those people in your life who’s part of your tribe. One of the weirdos who makes you feel less alone on the planet. Preferably someone who really makes you laugh. I’ve been making myself walk as often as I can lately (venturing outdoors, especially to do physical activity is an effort at the best of times, but it is a sacrilege to admit that because it is spring and one is supposed to love venturing outdoors.) But because we here in the Midwest haven’t seen the sun for about 6 months, and because I know I will feel hugely better if I walk, I do it.

And many people are coming out of their homes, blinking at the sunlight as if released from cave dwellings. I enjoy seeing this. As I was walking last week, an elderly woman on an enormous elderly person’s bike with huge tires rode past me, very slowly. She was smiling. She gave me a little first pump as she drifted by. “Good weather!” she shouted, in her elderly lady voice.

It made me happy that our paths crossed, so to speak, at that moment. But earlier in the day, something made me laugh, really hard. I’d recently been visiting my parents in Naples, FL, and they took my 8-year old son and me to the Everglades. I hate the Everglades. I hate strong sun and humidity. I hate tourists. I hate snakes, especially 20-foot pythons, and no, I do not wish to feel the python skin on display during the python naturalist talk. I hate alligators and alligators are everywhere in the Everglades, as bold and ugly as can be. People talk to them like they are cute little pets. They are not.

As I was recounting being in the Everglades to an acquaintance (by recounting I mean to say telling him that he should never, ever go to the Everglades because it is ugly and dangerous), he said, “Well, to me the whole point of becoming educated was so that I wouldn’t have to go outside.”

In that moment, I had met a member of my tribe. I laughed all day. It was breath. It was life. It was spring.

With much love and gratitude,

LC

To a Snake (by Jeffrey Harrison)

I knew you were not poisonous
when I saw you in the side garden;
even your name—milk snake—
sounds harmless, and yet your pattern
of copper splotches outlined in black
frightened me, and the way you were
curled in loops; and it offended me
that you were so close to the house
and clearly living underneath it
if not inside, in the cellar, where I
have found your torn shed skins.

You must have been frightened too
when I caught you in the webbing
of the lacrosse stick and flung you
into the woods, where you landed
dangling from a vine-covered branch,
shamelessly twisted. Now I
am the one who is ashamed, unable
to untangle my feelings,
braided into my DNA or buried
deep in the part of my brain
that is most like yours.

“To a Snake” by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014

 alligators

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An Imperfect Concord

“Somebody could walk into this room and say ‘your life is on fire. It’s all over the evening news, all about the fire in your life on the evening news…’” (Paul Simon, “Crazy Love, Vol. II”)

Words are like maps. You unfold them and they can take you to unexpected, delightful places. The word “imperfect,” for example, has etymological roots in areas ranging from law to botany to music. In music, one of the definitions of “imperfect” is: “a cadence ending on some chord other than the direct chord of the tonic, usually that of the dominant, and having the effect of a partial close or stop” (Oxford English Dictionary). I have no idea what this means, so I asked someone who does, and he told me to think of it as the combining of notes that are dissonant or inharmonious. “Is it a mistake or can it happen on purpose?” I asked. He sort of laughed and said, “It depends what effect you’re trying to have.”

The sound of a police siren or fire engine, especially the ones you hear in European cities (click to hear one) is an example of this kind of deliberate dissonance. It’s loud, irritating and disruptive, and it’s that way on purpose; its intent is to get your attention. Somewhere there is a problem, someone is in trouble, someone needs help. It might even be you. It might be your life that’s on fire.

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