Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Participating in meetings over the last few weeks, I’ve been struck with our various responses to this holiday season - some gleeful, some sad, some mourning past and present losses, some grateful, or for me, a combination of all of the above. Makes sense - we move through this life with varied experiences, before and after sobriety. I’m fortunate - holidays were always pleasant growing up. Even in Dad's drinking years, Christmas morning saw the folks up and ready to supervise and enjoy the exchange of gifts, even if sometimes we got pencils and notebook paper tied with a bow (I still feel a surge of pleasure at fresh paper and sharpened pencils).  But as I grew up, and especially after leaving home, Christmas often felt a little empty, like there should be more - not necessarily more gifts, but more something -togetherness, maybe? Fun? A Hallmark moment? And then, as time has marched on, a mix of gratitude and melancholy for holidays past, and my people who have passed. Christmas was my mother’s holiday - a big family party, decorations, good food. I miss her, especially at this time of year. I can acknowledge that longing for what it is, appreciate the love I’ve shared with family over the years, and say a prayer for those, and to those, who are no longer here. Prayer and meditation are my saving grace, always, but during this dark time of the calendar for sure.

In a meeting last weekend, someone said that we don’t get “spiritual retirement.” I can’t say to myself, “Gee, I’ve prayed nearly every day for the past 31.9 years, so I can probably stop now.” The Big Book, and practical experience, tells me that we have a “daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”  Kind of like eating right, or my workout regimen. I can’t half-ass my recovery and expect consistent results. If I pray, only when I "need" it, or skip my other maintenance activities, be that step work, sponsorship, meditation, or meetings, I’m leaving myself open to the “strange mental twist” that convinces me I don’t really need to take care of myself. That strange mental twist can convince me that two or three cookies would be ok, cheating on sleep is fine just this week, I can run tomorrow or the next day instead, I don’t really need to pick up the phone, maybe I'll just have one, but it's prescribed...

Sometimes, when talking to newcomers, I find myself worrying that we present recovery as drudgery, hard work, requiring daily effort. It is work. It is work to break old habits of sloth and giving in to impulses that we know will bring sorrow. It is work to show up, to speak up, to try something new. The dictionary defines work as: activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result. I've found that recovery “work” produces, if not joy every single day, a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of belonging,  a sense of purpose that I was never, ever able to find in the bottle or the bag. 

And so often, the "work" feels like an honor, whether it is through the look of gratitude in the newcomer's eyes when I reach out my hand, or when my spouse volunteers to stay up all night to keep the doors open for a marathon meeting on Christmas Eve. We keep what we have by giving it away - through a phone call, a smile, a ride to a meeting.  Those of us with long term recovery are the very fortunate ones, and we keep what we have by giving it away, in whatever form that may take on any given day.

So wherever the holidays find you this year, best wishes. Best wishes, and thank you for sharing the journey. A shout out to my readers in Dubai, Mexico, Seattle, Newport, Long Beach, and those in between. While I often only hear from you peripherally, or via word-of-mouth, I appreciate knowing you are out there and that we can share these few moments of reflection each week.   Happy new year to all...

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Solstice reflections

I'll be participating in a women's meeting on Solstice this week, the general theme being a reflection on the year past and the identification of anything (trait, habit, old idea) that we want to leave in the old year, along what we may want to manifest in the new.

I've reviewed my journal, noting the high points and the low - wrestling this defect or that, loss and laughter and love, and wonder at both nature's beauty and her wrath. Overall, on a personal level, it's been a good year as I've fully stepped in to being alive and in recovery longer than I was alive under the influence of alcoholism (the family illness and my own).

In years gone by, thoughts of what to let go of would've come unbidden - sometimes I felt like a walking, talking defect of character. I still have "stuff," for sure. For example, I want to increase my mindfulness of my relationship to time - my self-imposed sense of time-urgency that can cause me to feel overwhelmed. I also have a writing project that I want to complete in the new year, and I'm moving closer to retirement. But, or rather, "and" I have moved - I have been moved to a place of quiet contentment, towards myself and my circumstances. The full title of my blog is "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" Well, what if "now what?" isn't the question after all. What if "now what?" is simply "now?"

Watching a 17 year old girl and a 19 year old boy get ready for a day out over the weekend made me think of how my priorities have shifted. Leaving home used to require full make-up and the right ensemble. These days, my main concern is whether or not my shoes are comfortable. (I recall a rare flash of foresight in my 20's, wondering when I'd make the shift from cute shoes to sensible - it wasn't soon enough.)

As I write this, I'm glancing at Celebration of Life programs for two of my three friends who died this fall, propped up on my bedroom altar. Last Solstice, no one would've predicted that this year would be the last for them. Seeing their photos during my morning prayer and meditation time reminds me that life is short. Perhaps that is what I want to manifest in the new year - a heightened awareness of the precious nature of life and relationships.

We are in the darkest week, here in the northern hemisphere. How will you welcome back the light? How will you be the light for others?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I attended a memorial service last week - a lovely tribute to someone I've known for a long time. After, across a platter of cold cuts, I complimented the woman who sang, telling her that she'd moved me to tears. Beautiful music, sung from the heart, does that to me, especially in a place of reflection on a life cut short. I must've said something else to her regarding Spirit, because in a later conversation, she paused, and asked, "You've mentioned God a couple of times now - are you a believer?" To myself, I said, "Oh crap - here comes the pitch," but to her, I explained that my path to spirituality had come through my involvement with 12 Step programs. She replied something to the effect of, "That's a nice start."  My AA/Alanon hackles stood up as I politely backed out of the conversation.

I doubt that she meant anything other than sincerely wanting to share the joy and peace she has gained from her path, though what I initially heard was, "12 Steps don't really count." How many times have we heard, "Oh, you still go to those meetings?" or "I don't go anymore because I'm back in church," with the implication that our 12 Step programs are religion-lite, or something to be graduated from and done with. I suppose it is a matter of perspective.

A speaker I listen to frequently says that AA isn't a program for getting sober, explaining that if you aren't already at least dry, the Steps will mean little. The literature tells us that the purpose of the book "is to enable you to find a Power Greater than yourself that will solve your problem." (Big Book, p. 45) Taken at face value, that could mean that finding a Higher Power will solve your drink problem, period. Taken over the course of time, I read it as meaning that the whole point of 12 step programs is to develop a living, breathing, developing, conscious relationship with a God of my understanding. Yes, that relationship that felt so new at the beginning did grant me the strength and spiritual space to maintain my new-found abstinence, one day at a time. But, as time has gone on, conscious contact has developed into the prime directive of all my affairs, not simply my alcoholism.

Because of a schedule shift, I attended a meeting over the weekend that I've only been to a few times, a meeting that begins with 15 minutes of silent meditation. I tried to talk myself out of it, thinking of the laundry, the cooking, the blah-blah-blah that needed doing. But, I wasn't going to make my Sunday home group, and I always remember the wise words of a friend - if I only go to one meeting a week, and miss that, I've gone 2 weeks without a meeting. AA works for me, on so many levels. I don't want to be one of the ones who simply drifts away because life is good, so I went. I went, and heard just what I needed to hear about the spiritual path, the many roads to God (or not god), our incredible good fortune to be alive and sober on a cold winter morning.

At first glance, I may not seem to be a particularly spiritual person, as I drop the "f-bomb" perhaps several times in the course of a conversation, but that's what I've always appreciated about AA - for many of us, God is right here in the trenches with us. I don't raise my hand to Jesus, or pray towards Mecca, or keep Kosher. I don't follow the particular tenets of any one sect, growing up in a non-practicing house of an Episcopalian who was angry at God and a Christian Scientist who smoked and drank. In my home, thanks to my dear Mother, God was a Loving and forgiving presence. Yes, there were rules, but less about vices than about doing unto others as you would have done unto you. I'm grateful that I didn't have "God as Punisher" to wade through once I got sober. It was confusing at first, this "God as I understand God," but over time, that non-understanding has grown into a comfortable and comforting relationship.

I thought about our 12 Step programs as I completed a half marathon this weekend. At the front of the pack were the gazelles, those runners built for grace and speed, with people larger and slower as the minutes clicked by. And then, in the rear, me and my cohort - walking some, jogging some, greeting all of the volunteers and thanking the cops who were there to block off the streets. Kind of like AA, where we've got our well-heeled members and those who are on the streets or just a few rungs up, those who run marathons, those in wheelchairs, and those in-between - a veritable cross section. And each of us has our own definition of the Higher Power that keeps us coming back. Sure, there are parameters, and the program was started by a couple of Protestant men, but Bill W knew that we are a rebellious bunch, and intentionally did his best to remove dogma from the program's suggestions.

I thrive on conversation and exploration of the spiritual lessons we are presented with. I am comfortable in the glory where I find it, though obviously, bristling at any attempt, intended or otherwise, to imply that it isn't enough. The God of my understanding is huge, and all inclusive, and wears many faces or none at all. I am grateful for the freedom of expression I am allowed through our program.  (& a note to my atheist friends - I do know, by your example, that one can be devout and appreciate the sacred without believing in a god of any kind)

Has your relationship with a Higher Power of your understanding changed over time? How do you respond if someone challenges your practice?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I'm in a step group that has been meeting for 10 years. I've participated for the last 5, sometimes joyfully, sometimes through clenched teeth, but showing up. Showing up and reflecting on how the Step for that month has manifested in my life. This practice, and it is practice, keeps me in the literature and helps me focus on the spiritual principles of our program as I go about my daily routines (& the not so routines).

One of our members said, in our Sunday gathering, that during December, she asks, "How has my life changed over this year? How have I changed?" Tears of gratitude hit me as I thought of the ways I am different today. 

A few years ago I threatened to have "PAUSE" tattooed on my forearm, and now that ability, while not automatic all of the time, is a part of who I am. For decades I tortured myself with a running "what if?!" disaster scenario that played in my head like a bad movie (the fantasy disaster shifting only slightly depending on my outer circumstances). I have developed the discipline to change the channel when I feel my mind drifting to the comfort of the painfully familiar. Both these shifts are huge for me, and seem to have simply happened.

In actuality, the "simply happened" of the pause, and "changing the channel" have taken years of recovery work - inventories, therapy, prayers, exposing my defects to the cold light of day. I've learned to meditate, and have been doing so for over a year now. My morning 3rd Step prayers involve turning over specifics, which I've found very helpful. I've asked Higher Power for a new experience, and I am having one. In all things, thinking of Steps 6 & 7, all I can really do is prepare myself to be changed, and then the miracle of healing takes place, though rarely on my time schedule.

Awakenings to a new way of being sometimes hit with a "BLAM!" I can tell you exactly where I was, and the circumstances involved, when the knowledge that my father's depression and alcoholism had nothing to do with me traveled from my head (intellect) to my heart (knowing). I can describe who said what and when, the moment I realized that recovery was a way of life, not a temporary fix. But even what feels like a sudden "ah ha" has usually involved sometimes years of preparation, though I may not have always been aware of the forces at work below the surface.

So, yes, the ending of one year invites reflection - where did I start out, and where am I now? What do I feel good about, and what can I learn from in order to do differently next time? How have I applied the Steps - the "practiced the principles in all my affairs" aspect of Step 12? I will say, as I near my 32nd anniversary, that I am right where I need to be, or as a friend says, "I want what I have." And that, my friends, is the greatest gift of all.

Blessings to you during this season, whatever it is that you celebrate (or don't). May your year end reflections bring more smiles than tears.  Until next time...