Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Paying Attention

 Speaking of aging, I learned that my first husband's cousin is turning 75 next month. I saw him two years ago and was surprised that the handsome guy I'd known after high school was now a gray-haired, slightly stooped older man. In my mind, he and his girlfriend were forever super-cool, a few years older than my then-boyfriend and I, with an apartment in the posh west hills and a party every Friday night. Sometimes I'd wake up in my own bed on Saturday, head throbbing and not at all clear about how I'd gotten there. I like to say I wasn't a blackout drinker, but not knowing how one got home might qualify...

How grateful am I to be fully present today, to know where I am when I wake up, and who it is next to me. Other than one incident of food poisoning, I don't think I've vomited in over 35 years (which used to be a regular occurrence) and I never have to spend half the day on the couch drinking 7-Up, lulled in and out of sleep by daytime TV. I haven't thrown a dish or slapped anyone for decades. And I don't ever need to drive with one hand over an eye to try to keep the lane lines straight. 

It has been a long time since my last drink. I know I'm not immune, regularly hearing folks talk about the intrusive thought that whispers, "Maybe I'm not really an alcoholic," or "I'd sure like to run away from these intense feelings." I don't spend a lot of time contemplating recovery - these days it is simply the way I live - but I do pay attention in meetings to those who are brave enough to tell the rest of us when the disease comes knocking. 

I get a daily email from Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation), one among several sources, both secular and traditional, that I look to for inspiration.  (I was sad to learn that AA Agnostica has stopped their regular posts). He recently addressed recovery, saying that "personal authenticity isn't how intensely we can express our feelings, but how honestly we can look at where they're coming from." Isn't that the truth, and "hello inventory!" For so much of life, well into recovery, my emotions were BIG, sometimes overwhelming. Remember the old recovery saying - Don't bother looking for your feelings, they'll find you? I was always a feeler, but as I navigated life sans substances, I had to remind myself over and over again, "feelings aren't facts, feelings aren't facts" when it seemed they'd come in on a hurricane. 

In treatment it was suggested we come at life with a balance between thoughts and emotions - too much one or the other could lead to regrettable or impulsive decisions. I can think my way into a knot, and conversely, can feel my way into a puddle or a rage, but listening to my heart, my gut, seems to hold that magic of stability, emotions that point the way with a dose of logic.

I'm taking a road trip over the upcoming weekend, helping a friend move from 150 miles north of me to 500 miles south. I enjoy the open road, even if merely the "super-slab" of Interstate-5 with an assortment of snacks, and either good tunes or maybe an AA speaker on the stereo, passing fields and towns and time in conversation. With the wonder of zoom, distance isn't the deterrent to connection it once might've been, though somewhere in a box are letters and postcards my friend and I have exchanged over the years, not to mention an email folder, and the long string of texts. Friends warrant attention, and some get more than others. The raucous, group-oriented gatherings of earlier years (potlucks and dances, volleyball games and picnics) have given way to a movie here and there, a dinner date or coffee, or the occasional hike. A group I've known since grade and high school now meets once a month at a nearby restaurant, our equivalent of old codgers at the barbershop. As life, via both aging and the worldwide pandemic, has slowed down a bit, I want to be sure I don't slide into isolation mode. It's always a fine line for me between over and under scheduling. What is right today

Do you notice when the dis-ease comes whispering in its various forms? Do you pay attention when others share their experience with relapse, or a near slip? Who do you count among close friends today? Do they know that?

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See the Feb 4 post for a sample of the 78-page workbook, "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" available as hard copy (mailed) or PDF (emailed - ideal for those of outside the U.S.). Portland Area Intergroup also has a supply available, 825 NE 20th Ave.  Click on the words  ViewWEB VERSION at the bottom of this page, if you don't see the purchase link in the upper right corner.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Away or here...

There is no such place as "away"

The above was spelled out in Scrabble blocks as part of a collage at an art installation in New Mexico, where I certainly felt "away" - away from the verdant Pacific Northwest, away from my spouse, away from my daily routines. But is "away" really away?

The statement made me think of the AA saying, "Wherever you go, there you are," the fact that I can't escape who I am, no matter the setting. That truth came home to me in an uncomfortable way years ago when I realized the same concerns I had at my new job had followed me from the old. Maybe it wasn't all those other people. Maybe at least some of it was me. 

As a takeoff on the old TV commercial, "Calgon, take me away!" I sometimes want to be transported to some mythical, stress-free paradise, which, for me could be a forest or a metropolis. As I walked (and walked and walked) the Denver airport, killing time until my connecting flight home, I imagined boarding the plane to London, or maybe Wichita, and what life might be like there - "life" or at least a vacation. As much as I enjoy travel, I'm a bit of a homebody. I wouldn't mind moving away for awhile, as long as I could come back, but I'm curious about lives in other places. What's "away" to me is "here" to someone else.

Even on vacations, I am who I am with my morning tea and journal, reading before bed, more attuned to sunrise than sunset. The cup of tea might be in a paper cup or hotel lobby, but I tend to take my habits with me - not necessarily a bad thing, but an observation. The ability to observe might be one of the gifts of long-term recovery, of aging, of settling in to what matters and what doesn't. It's taken me literal decades to be able to call on the "pause," and I don't always, but when I am able to step even a few inches back from my reactive self, I can observe, and better determine if my response to a situation is valid or some old idea play-acting as truth. 

Paul McCartney just turned 80. Freaking 80 years old. As I walk or s-l-o-w jog through my neighborhood, or giggle with women I've known since I was a kid, I can lose sight of the passage of time. But then my mom's cousin turns 93 and I think of all she's experienced in life, or a rock star turns 80 and I think of all that's happened in my life in the years since I first screamed at The Beatles in front of the television set. A friend turns 70 next week and I think of the hours we've spent pounding the pavement, stopping at my mom's for a bathroom break. We're still at it, though older and slower, and no mom to give us a cookie for sustenance.  Richard Rohr wrote that "None of the outer trappings will last," whether looks or fitness, abilities or clear eyesight, parents or movie stars. Dreams die or fade away; people die, as will I. Interests change, as do the seasons. Getting comfortable with these realities seems to be the task of this phase of my development (and maybe it always was, though my resistance got in the way). Not being one who's celebrated change in the past, I find myself trying on this new way of being, this curiosity about what's next, be that in the garden, my daily calendar or the smile-lines I see on my face and the faces of those I love.

What doesn't change are the inner trappings, my morals and values, which were there all along, obscured by addictions and insecurities. I am grateful that the principles of the program don't change either and provide an anchor no matter what else might be going on inside, or in the world. My perception of, and application of the principles may evolve, but truth is truth. Integrity is integrity. Honesty is honesty. And, self-reflection as part of  "pause when agitated or doubtful" is a way to practice my values. 

Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest after a wet and cool spring. As I marked the Solstice yesterday, I took time to reflect on the six months of the year gone by, as well as those ahead. Our calendars and clocks are human-contrived, but the seasons are eternal. One day at a time, I will continue those habits and routines that bring me comfort, whether here or away, while observing and being willing to let go of that which no longer serves. I will relax into the season as it appears, not as I wish it were (cooler, hotter, more this, less that). I will "focus on that which abides," (from The Book of Runes, R. Blum) 

 Thinking of the "outer trappings" of your life, which are transient? What values and beliefs anchor you to the here and now? How will you be present in the season just upon us?

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See the Feb 4 post for a sample of the 78-page workbook, "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" available as hard copy (mailed) or PDF (emailed - ideal for those outside the U.S.). Portland Area Intergroup also has a supply available at 825 NE 20th Ave, suite 200.  Go to the WEB VERSION of this page, if you don't see the purchase link in the upper right corner

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Change of place, change of pace

 Two summers ago, we had a couple of huge trees removed from the backyard, trees that essentially shaded the entire area. This spring, the rose bush that hadn't bloomed in the entire 18 years I've lived here has flowered, and the rhododendron has bloomed for the first time. Let there be light! 

This made me think of how we awaken to life in program, from shivering denizens to happy, joyous and free. I think of myself, and all those I've watched come in - how we go from a whirling dervish of emotions to getting jobs, and then better jobs, maybe going to college, becoming parents, hiking mountains, being of service. 

Under the dark canopy of alcoholism, either our own or the family's, survival takes precedence over thriving. Those familiar survival mechanisms followed me into sobriety because they're what I knew. Little by little I grew up and grew into who I was supposed to be all along, able to release most of the fears and the resulting behaviors that held me back. 

I attend several meetings with women in long term recovery (20+ years) and a recurring theme is self-acceptance, the recognition that we are human, and thus make mistakes from time to time. That doesn't make us bad or defective, though that is often the internal message. Sometimes "working a program" can feel like so-much naval gazing or self-flagellation, which goes back to the "me, me, me" barometer I mentioned after my 5th Step. There comes a point, I think and I hope, where it is OK to simply be. Not rest on my laurels or disregard how I move through the world, but to drop the rock of thinking myself a project to be fixed, or finished.

James Baldwin wrote, "If you don't live the only life you have, you won't live some other life - you won't live any life at all." I can reflect on that when I'm feeling hurried, or like there's too much to do (which is really just a figment of my imagination). As one of my Alanon readers says, "What is urgent is rarely important, and what is important is rarely urgent." Important is noticing how the garden is growing, and taking time to scratch the cat behind her ears. Important is laughing with friends, whether our team wins the game or not. Important is acknowledging the young woman my step-daughter has become, and honoring her proud father on his contributions to her growth. Getting here or there can feel urgent, can pretend to be important, but what I've found, over time, is that whatever truly needs to get done, gets done. Vacuuming is nice, but there is no housekeeping police. If I keep my focus on what is in front of me, which may very well be the vacuum cleaner, or perhaps reading a book, I have a better chance of living in the eternal now, one foot in front of the other, taking time to breathe.

I've been attending a lot of meetings lately, adding in a daily Step Group that has been thought provoking. But added to my usual evening meetings means a lot of meetings, and I found myself questioning how I'm spending my time, as in thinking I should be more productive. I recognize that I continue to be in transition, not only from going to work regularly, but from the mental structure that tells me I need to do something with my time. I have entered a different stage of life, and I don't exactly know what that looks like. I know what it looked like for my mom. I know (from the outside) what it looks like for some of the super-agers I read about, but what does it look like for me?

As so often happens, just when I was feeling like the ground is moving under my feet, I heard several people share that they've never been this particular age, with these specific circumstances. Of course it feels like I've never been here before because I've never been here before! When I'm feeling reasonably centered I can relax into that not-knowing. As always, the answers lie within (though often, the road map comes from listening to others). 

I had a dream recently where the house I lived in while skidding towards hitting bottom was being dismantled, having fallen into disrepair. In the dream, I was telling someone, room by room, how beautiful the house had once been, while realizing "that was then, this is now." I've read that a dream about a living space, past or present, can be related to our inner life and emotions. If that is the case, what is being dismantled within me? What used to fit, but does no longer? Might that be related to my ideas about productivity and how I'm "supposed" to spend my time?

This past weekend, we attended my step-daughter's college graduation ceremony. Talk about a beautiful blossoming! She was nine when we met and has grown into a lovely and accomplished young woman. Having decided somewhere along the line to not have children, she has been one of those life gifts I hadn't known I'd wanted. I'm very grateful, and excited to see where her next adventures lead, reflecting on my own life at 22 when I was headed for divorce. Different times, way different circumstances.

I'm visiting a good friend in the Land of Enchantment (New Mexico) this week,  so posting early. I love the damp green of home, but love the stark, arid beauty of the southwest. I appreciate the opportunity that a change of place offers to slow down the usual rapid pace of my thinking mind. 

Early Step work rightly focused on areas needing correcting, but today likely includes more in the "plus" column. How do you notice when you are thinking of yourself as a project needing to be fixed? How do you honor transitions, large and small, that you may be facing today? What old ideas are in need of dismantling? What can you celebrate today?

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See the Feb 4 post for a sample of the 78-page workbook, "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" available as hard copy (mailed) or PDF (emailed - ideal  for those of you outside  the U.S.). Portland Area Intergroup also has a supply available.  Go to the WEB VERSION of this page, if you don't see the purchase link in the upper right corner

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Routines vs ruts...

We've recently modified our subscription to the print version of the local paper as prices have gone up once more. I get it, and am no longer able to justify the expense. That being said, I'm not crazy about the digital age. I followed family tradition and subscribed as soon as I moved out to that apartment with the shag carpet I wrote about last week. Many things have changed in my life and in the world since, but the paper hitting the door in the mornings has been a constant during times of hangovers or grief, joyousness and workday rush. I know that the past was nowhere near perfect, but sometimes I long for kids on bikes with paper routes versus pre-dawn delivery people careening through the neighborhoods in beat-up cars. I think of the days when there were just four or five TV stations, and we all heard the same news at night. Again, I know there was a lot wrong, a lot unsaid and unreported back then, and, there was a certain frame of reference, before any niche or rabbit hole could masquerade as fact. Yes, I'm aware I verge on being a cranky old lady. I knew I was getting old when some of my sentences began, "Why, I remember when..." whether that is nostalgia for the meetings-after-the-meeting we used to laugh our way through, to thinking of neighborhood places that are no more. And time marches on, with or without my permission, in print or online or somewhere in the cloud.

Which has me looking at those places where I say, "But I've always done it this way." As a supervisor in the workplace, staff saying, "We've always done this," was a signal that a program or a process might be stuck. "Just because" has never been a great reason to do anything but how often do I think that way? I take the paper because I've always taken the paper. I go to this meeting because I always go to this meeting. I don't do this but I do that. It's my on-going rub between comforting routine and stultifying rut, and how to know the difference. A clue would be that "But I've always..." statement. 

Some routine borders on tradition. A friend and I always pick peaches in July. My maternal lineage makes jam in August. I turn on Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving. I run or walk the Holiday Half in December, rain or shine. As far as routines, I start the day with tea, journal and daily readers, and end it reading in bed. Our cat lives by routine, letting us know when it's time to get up, or when she is supposed to go out for her daily prowl around the backyard.

Some routines border on ridiculous. I'm not sure if I've told this story here, though I certainly have in my Alanon meeting. When my husband moved in, about a year after we started dating, the place we consistently bumped into each other was the very small kitchen. He kept asking me to move my teapot off the front burner so he wouldn't inadvertently get burned while making his daily coffee. But that's the burner I use, so just be a little more careful, dear, being a wee bit territorial over how it's always been. At some point, after one more minor kerfuffle over the darned teapot, it struck me that there is a second large burner on the back of the stove, completely out of the way. Good grief. Just move the darned teapot, Jeanine, and let go of this particular territorial battle. 

After last week's post, a friend told me that they've used "character aspect" instead of "character defect" for years. I like how that takes into account that I have a personality, a character that is sometimes adorable and sometimes annoying and sometimes simply neutral. Being rigid about the teapot was, obviously, annoying. The good news about long term recovery is that I can usually see my foibles sooner than I would've in the past, when I might've gone to the mats over a cup of hot water. 

Things change, whether friendships or meetings, my body (boy howdy) and its capabilities, how I like to spend my time, and yes, technology at the speed of light. I'm a paper calendar kind of gal, with appointments and dates scribbled in or neatly written, preferring the tether to an actual piece of paper rather than the "cloud." (What, exactly, is "the cloud" and what happens to my pictures, my music, my notes if the cloud evaporates??). Maybe it's ok to live with one foot the world of photo albums and CD music, and one in the ether world of online banking and zoom meetings and all the other things I don't really understand.  One day at a time, I will try to stay teachable and open-minded while doing what works for me (If it's not broke, don't fix it!)

What would you describe as traditions, routines and/or ruts in your life? Are you adaptable? To what degree? Do you welcome change? What areas of your life would you prefer stay just as they are?

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See the Feb 4 post for a sample of the 78-page workbook, "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" available as hard copy (mailed) or PDF (emailed - ideal  for those of you outside  the U.S.). Portland Area Intergroup also has a supply available.  Go to the WEB VERSION of this page, if you don't see the purchase link in the upper right corner

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Steps 6 & 7

In September 1973, my young husband and I moved into an apartment that was as new as our marriage - we were the first to inhabit the 2-bedroom unit that had green shag carpet and avocado countertops. The after-party from our little reception at Mom and Dad's was the first of many, many parties in those rooms - drunken revelries into the wee hours, weekend dance parties ending at an all-night Chinese place, my brother and I getting stoned and making pizza while said husband was off playing cards. We were friends with Harry and Camille, and Floyd and his roommate in our corner of the complex, hanging out on the little deck during summer, BBQ grill going or a pot of gumbo on the stove, with a wide range of comings and goings. It was great, and my drinking wasn't much different than any of our friends at that point. A few years into that marriage there was a fire in the complex and a young woman was killed. I still recall the eerie sound of dripping water from the fire hoses, and creaking rafters as the building cooled and we tried to sleep. It was a long night.

We moved soon after, to a nice house on a nice street, doing our part to portray the American Dream. But by then, my drinking had increased in intensity, I'd had one affair and was headed for another, my husband was compulsively gambling (though for small stakes) while engaging in his own side-relationship and the marriage was on the rocks, just waiting for the tipping point that would end it. But even given the pain of those last months, whenever I've gone by the old apartment, my memories have been fond, thinking of how eight or twelve of us would dance the Hustle (now called the Electric Slide), or create a gymnastics pyramid in the front room while stoned. And then, this year, there was another fire that took more lives and gutted the entire complex. The site was shut down, what remained of the building bulldozed and now I drive by an empty lot, a hole where once up to 25 people cooked and slept and loved and danced, went to work and came home, did laundry and washed their cars.

I'm often struck by empty spaces where homes used to be. We see it here in Portland where old houses are demolished to make way for mini-mansions, and certainly saw it in Detroit, with empty lots in-between derelict buildings. I think about all the living in those places that are now simply open air, although in my way of thinking, those spaces aren't really empty, carrying the energy of what once was.

In a very roundabout way, this can lead me to think about Steps 6 and 7, where we take a look at our so-called character defects, and where many voice fears that if they let go of these characteristics, there will be nothing left. I don't believe that the removal of a defect, the correction of maladaptive behavior, leaves a vacant lot in the soul. The literature tells us that "nature abhors a vacuum." Ideally, when I release a piece of myself that isn't working, I have the opportunity to be refilled with a more positive aspect - often simply the other end of the continuum from what was causing me, or others, distress. 

As my husband prepared to give a share on Steps 6 & 7, we've been talking about what it means to become entirely ready, and what happens when we "ask." I hear a lot about the wording of these Steps. Notwithstanding the God/HP stuff, many replace "defect" with "defense" or take out "good and bad" from the 7th Step prayer, rationalizing that we are hard enough on ourselves without the label of "defect." I can agree with those arguments in principle, but also try to move beyond surface definitions of the language. For me, it goes back to uncovering the "exact nature of my wrongs," the root defect of character that leads to the defensive behavior. For example, I long thought that fear was a defect, when in actuality, fear is simply a human emotion, quite helpful in caveman days and sometimes now. It is the defenses that fear triggers that I hope to have "removed" in 6/7, which simply (but not easily) means gaining awareness of what I'm doing so I can choose a different response. Fears can lead me to efforts at control, people-pleasing, seduction, lying, cheating, stealing, etc. Yes, I must stop the acting out, and I need to examine root causes and conditions in order to heal from the inside out. As was pointed out during a 5th Step this week, my fears manifest because I'm propelled by self-reliance.  Lila R says that most alcoholics suffer from the "defect" of believing we aren't ok, that we're not "enough," which can lead to all sorts of compensatory emotions - anger, self-pity, self-righteousness, blame... If I'm truly, truly allowing Step 7 to work in my life, it becomes a matter of being aware of the thought patterns that trigger old ideas, telling me I'll lose something I have or not get something I want (12x12 p.76).  As my sponsor reminded me, my defenses come from a place of me, me, me. My first reaction was, "Oh no, that doesn't fit - you don't understand," but of course she's right. I don't know that anyone, outside a monastery or mountain top, is completely altruistic, but I can certainly use me, me, me as a yardstick to measure where I'm focused. Have I lost sight of my powerlessness? Am I lusting after a particular outcome? Am I pointing one finger at you and three back at myself? Have I forgotten that I'm really OK as is? Always, the opportunities to go deeper are there, if I allow myself to get still and pay attention to what's really going on inside rather than what can feel like the white-noise of my busy mind.

In the one-day-at-a-time department, I'm reminded this week how quickly things can turn, learning of two people who were professionally scammed out of money and another who's life changed drastically due to a tick bite, not to mention the horrors in Buffalo and Uvalde. One day we walk around like we know what we're doing and the next, tragedy strikes or we make an impulsive decision that turns out to be the very wrong one. One day we're sailing along and the next we're barely treading water. The literature says recovery allows us to "match calamity with serenity," to which I would say, "Maybe, by degrees." I can be grateful that the terrible things I hear about didn't happen to me without smugly thinking they never will, while not giving in to fears and not leaving the house, or locking the children away. This is a strange and often violent world we live in, especially here in the US. My task, which sometimes feels impossible, is to strive towards serenity in my own life, while doing my best to be part of the solution in the greater world - one day at a time, one choice at a time.. 

What old ideas are you aware of this week? Can you gently accept your humanness at the same time you notice what you might want to do differently next time? What are ways that you honor your memories without getting stuck in the past? If one of our primary purposes as recovering people is to be of service, how does that play out for you today, in or out of the rooms? 

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See the Feb 4 post for a sample of the 78-page workbook, "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" available as hard copy (mailed) or PDF (emailed - ideal for those of you outside the U.S.). Portland Area Intergroup also has a supply available.  Go to the WEB VERSION of this page, if you don't see the purchase link in the upper right corner