Saturday, September 25, 2010

Creative Girls

Something that comes up after we have been in recovery for a while is our creative longings or aspirations. Maybe we always wanted to write a book—but instead we just bored everyone at the bar. Or maybe we kept buying art supplies and not using them, or we wanted to buy art supplies but we drank that money instead.

I think that under a lot of addiction there is art and creativity trying to surface but shoved back by substances and shame. But then, a few years into recovery, we take a baby step of telling a sponsor, “Well, I always wanted to write, dance, act, make jewelry, design my own sweaters or make sculpture.” We laugh when we say it, as if, “Isn’t that the dumbest thing?” but if we are lucky—and this is why we have them—our sponsor or other women in recovery say, “So try it.”

You know these stories from the rooms: The lawyer becomes a painter, the doctor starts dancing, the mom writes a memoir—and sells it. Part of our recovery from substance abuse also means recovering our dreams. For many of us doing something creative was a dream.

I’ve found a wonderful book to help recover and take action toward those dreams. I’m reading “Creative Girl: The Ultimate Guide for Turning Talent and Creativity into a Real Career.” This paperback/workbook is by Katharine Sise who is a jeweler, designer, fiction and nonfiction writer. She has lived the slog from secret wishes to trying several kinds of creative work to making it happen. And the best part: making it happen imperfectly!

This is not one of those “Do these three things and you can quit your job and dance with Alvin Ailey” kind of books. She talks about money and fear and holding a job to support your creative work, and fear, and starting, and starting over, and yeah, the fear --and the joy.

I don’t know this woman but she feels like someone I could have a cup of coffee with and be very comfortable talking about wanting to write and what gets in the way. This book has exercises to do—or not do. And great takeaways like the “ten minute rule”—if you are procrastinating on a creative task set a timer and just do it for ten minutes. (A common fear is getting started.)

Ours is a program of action and Sise’s book may be a helpful guide to taking a next creative step.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Concept Four is Participation

After my AA wake-up call this summer, I am continuing to learn about the Concepts that are part of our program. Listening to women who practice the Concepts as well as the Steps and Traditions has given me some new ideas about best practices in my daily life.

Concept Four is an example. It is about participation. In our organization it means everyone has an opportunity to participate and it asks that solutions can be arrived at by participation rather than rule or rote. I can practice Concept Four in my life by asking: Am I participating? Am I part of the solution—rather than the problem? Or rather than being a smarty-pants about any problem and going on about the right thing to do—am I doing what needs to be done? It also suggests that I can gain enhanced recovery by participating in meetings (raise my hand), participating in service (make coffee or at least help clean up), participating in 12 step work (this does slip away when we have been around a while).

The concept of participation applies in my family and relationship life as well. I find myself grumbling—to myself—that I want more romance. So am I participating in making that? Am I participating in stabilizing the family finances? Am I participating actively in making my relationship feel safe?

The wonder is that recovery keeps unfolding. Three months ago I knew nothing about the Concepts of AA and now I have new language and new ideas to help me become “Happy, Joyous and Free.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Diva in Recovery

I’m giving a retreat tonight on DIVA’s in recovery. At the Dominican Retreat Center in Niskayuna NY DIVA means “Divinely Inspired Victorious Alcoholics”.

This will be a chance for a group of recovering woman from AA, Al-anon and OA to meet and talk and think and write about our insides and our outsides and the feminine side of things in recovery.

It could seem a frivolous topic except that it’s not. We are in recovery because of the discontinuity of our insides and our outsides and because of the things that happened to us as girls and women. Is there a woman with no food, body or image issues? Do we bring them into recovery? Yes.

Here’s the shorthand version of how I see the before and after:

We cared too much about how we looked

We got drunk and looked like crap

We got into recovery and bought new clothes to look better

We gave it all up again trying to not care and wanting to be “better” than that.

Then we came back again to caring how we look—and how we feel.

As healthy women we can have a healthy relationship with how we look

It’s a cultural issue and an alcoholic issue.

The addict’s favorite word is “more”

More booze, more pills, more food, more exercise, more money, more shoes, more clothes.

When I believe that I’m enough then and only then will I have enough of anything.

It goes back and forth: we don’t think we are worth anything so we either: look like crap don’t take care of our bodies OR coming from the same place we do everything to our outsides--obsess about our weight, match our shoes to our undies and we match our barrettes to our bra. We fix our make up four times a day and we peek into every reflective surface because we are not sure we really exist. We fear that there is nothing of value inside.

That’s part of the path to growth and recovery for women: we learn to take care of ourselves or we learn to let go. Or both. The pendulum swings side to side, care too much, don’t care at all.

Some women find a middle and stay there. I had to find the middle by taking the wide and wild swings of the pendulum—going side to side and then trying to just slow down the pendulum so the outer edges are not so extreme.

We can be stylish and spiritual; chic and caring, selfless and selfish. We can be sober and be Diva’s in recovery.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What a Concept! The Learning Continues...

Learning continues well out of the woods. This summer, at the International Convention, I was introduced to AA’s Concepts. These were written in 1962 to guide the leadership and the AA organization. That makes sense. What I did not know is that some groups actually study the concepts (and the legacies) along with the Traditions. People in 12 step recovery find additional layers of personal growth and improved relationships—in all parts of their lives—from study of the Concepts. Who knew? Well, maybe you did. Now I am reminded that I have still more learning to keep me coming back.

Here is the short version of the Concepts. In future posts I’ll tell you what I am learning from women in other parts of the country who use these in their personal recovery.


1. Final responsibility and ultimate authority for A.A. world services should always reside in the collective conscience of our whole fellowship.

2. The General Service Conference of A.A. has become, for nearly every practical purpose, the active voice and the effective conscience of our whole Society in its world affairs.

3. To insure effective leadership, we should endow each element of A.A.—the Conference, the General Service Board and its service corporations, staffs, committees, and executives—with a traditional “Right of Decision.”

4. At all responsible levels, we ought to maintain a traditional “Right of Participation,” allowing a voting representation in reasonable proportion to the responsibility that each must discharge.

5. Throughout our structure, a traditional “Right of Appeal” ought to prevail, so that minority opinion will be heard and personal grievances receive careful consideration.

6. The Conference recognizes that the chief initiative and active responsibility in most world service matters should be exercised by trustee members of the Conference acting as the General Service Board.

7. The Charter and Bylaws of the General Service Board are legal instruments, empowering the trustees to manage and conduct world service affairs. The Conference Charter is not a legal document; it relies upon tradition and the A.A. purse for final effectiveness.

8. The trustees are the principal planners and administrators of overall policy and finance. They have custodial oversight of the separately incorporated and constantly active services, exercising this through their ability to elect all the directors of these entities.

9. Good service leadership at all levels is indispensable for our future functioning and safety. Primary world service leadership, once exercised by the founders, must necessarily be assumed by the trustees.

10. Every service responsibility should be matched by an equal service authority, with the scope of such authority well defined.

11. The trustees should always have the best possible committees, corporate service directors, executives, staffs, and consultants. Composition, qualifications, induction procedures, and rights and duties will always be matters of serious concern.

12. The Conference shall observe the spirit of A.A. tradition, taking care that it never becomes the seat of perilous wealth or power; that sufficient operating funds and reserve be its prudent financial principle; that it place none of its members in a position of unqualified authority over others; that it reach all important decisions by discussion, vote, and, whenever possible, by substantial unanimity; that its actions never be personally punitive nor an incitement to public controversy; that it never perform acts of government, and that, like the Society it serves, it will always remain democratic in thought and action.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Forgiveness is Letting Go of Hope

I’m reading and writing a lot about forgiveness this week. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor, will be visiting Albany next week and I had a chance to talk with her after viewing the documentary called, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele”. The film details Kor’s life as a survivor of the twin experiments by Mengele at Auschwitz. The story is her decision and process of forgiveness.

In AA we learn a lot about making amends and the downside of holding onto resentments and most of us try to let go of past grievances even as we hope to be forgiven for the things we did that surely make us real tests of forgiveness for others.

Here is just one of many great things I’ve read this week on the topic of forgiveness:

“Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.” --from novelist Gina Berriault.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Death Weeps

September 12 2001

Even the dead weep at a time like this.
All those on the other side, making preparations to welcome such a large group.
Death is going door to door in New York City walking past doormen, going up dark stairways, down halls and taking the train to Long Island and Connecticut and getting off at little Cheeveresque stations in the suburbs.
Death nears exhaustion, leaning in one more doorway, waiting for the buzzer to be answered. Hesitating, sighing, tired.
She has tears in her eyes as she visits another house, and another and another.
At night death goes down to the site and sits on the rubble wishing it wasn’t true.
Some of the dogs come and sniff at death, then back up and give her a funny look.
Even death is too tired to be moved.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Happy New Year!

The new year has never entered with champagne and icy roads, nor begun in silver lame and silly hats. Though you may have spent many a January saying new years words, you know as well as I that the real new year begins now, as it always has, the day after Labor Day. It does not matter that it is hot outside or that you are still putting on shorts when you come home from work. The new year begins as it did for 12 critical years. It begins with back to school.

And it does not matter how long it has been since you went to school, or if you have kids of your own going off to school. You know in your bones that the new year begins now. And how could it not? For 12 most important years you went off on that first Tuesday in September to try out the new identity you had forged over the summer. Was your look changed this year? Had you let your hair grow long? Or cut it short? Would they recognize you right away? Would everyone sense the new sophistication gained at summer camp in New Jersey, or two weeks visiting your sister in L.A.? Yeah, you were that same old kid when you left on the last day of school in June, but every year in the fall there was a new you and it debuted the day after Labor Day.

Every September you promised yourself you'd be more popular, more friendly, more outgoing. Or you promised you'd play around less, make new friends, hang out with the good kids.

If it was a year of changing schools then there was more newness and more opportunity to be a new you. That was the beauty of the beginning of September. Every single year you could return from summer and try out a new identity. You could be a scholar this year after a past as the class clown. Or you could be the friendly one after years as the grind and curve setter. The opportunity to redo your image came every year the day after Labor Day. And it still does.

January is not the right time for New Years resolutions. How could it be? You've been too busy with the holidays and it's cold and yucky out, and you are broke from gift giving. How are you really going to create a new body or mind or personality in the middle of all that?

September is the time to not only promise yourself a new exercise program, but to start it. It's still light after work and it's not cold in the morning. You really can go exercise. September is the time to start a diet that will stick. You are coming off a summer of fresh foods, and you are not bloated by 30 days of holiday treats and booze. As for a new look; who can afford one in January? You've worn your name off all your plastic just trying to get through the holidays.

No, the new look and image you have been promising yourself comes in September just as it did when you were a kid. Remember how it worked in Junior High? You decided to wear a tie and tweed because that summer you discovered poetry (or an older girl who liked poets). Or you promised yourself that you would set your hair in a smooth flip every morning to look like those girls in the magazines.

In September you could try out in public all those looks you had been practicing in the mirror behind your bedroom door.

So what if the good intentions only lasted a few weeks. Some part of it always stuck, some part of the new you was the real you and real change and that's how you moved on.

And you still can. The chnages happens now—today. Buy some new sox and a red plaid shirt. This is the time to be kinder, nicer, smarter, to listen more, eat less and to hang out with the good kids. The trees remind us how it's done; try some new colors, shed the old layers. It's September. Happy New Year!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bread and Roses

"Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies; Give us bread, but give us roses". — James Oppenheimer

In 1912, thousands of immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. went on strike protesting grim working conditions and a cut in their wages. The strikers, mostly women and girls, had a solidarity that crossed ethnic lines and that endured in the face of violence.

The writer James Oppenheimer was in Lawrence that winter and penned his famous “Bread and Roses” poem after seeing mill girls carrying a banner that read, “We want bread, and roses too.”

That well-worded demand still resonates. That our workplaces should allow for both good wages and a high quality of life is something we can thank the labor movement for.

For most of us Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer. Most see this holiday as a celebration of not working rather than a day to acknowledge the labor movement and its contributions.

It wasn’t always so. For a long time in this country Labor Day was passionate holiday, a day of speeches, rallies and remembrance.

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the city retained just enough civic and social memory to experience Labor Day as a sacred holiday. There were memories of lives lost in the plants and mines, and lives saved by safety rules and union working conditions. Labor history and its emotions are fully embedded in my family psyche.

My family never would have come to America if not for the steel strikes that lured starving Polish workers to industrial cities with promises of jobs, food, survival. But the jobs they came to take were other men’s jobs, other immigrants who beat them here by a few years and who were striking the mills.

My Pittsburgh family was in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville. Five brothers and one sister. There was no need to talk about a “work ethic”. My father went to work at 14, his brothers at 14, 15, even Joe, the “baby” was working and putting his earnings on the kitchen table to support the family. These uncles were such hard working men. It was fear and survival and a crazy hope that their own kids would get high school diplomas and maybe—crazy idea—some college—so they would not have to do the physical work their fathers did.

The eastern European immigrants arrived as strike breakers and they were despised. Yet they wanted exactly what men carrying the placards wanted: enough for their families. Later, after joining the union, they took their turn carrying signs, walking the line and paying their dues. I remember this. The whispers about meetings and strikes and yes, more fear. My father, his brothers, neighbor men. Scab was a really, really dirty word even though I didn’t know what it meant apart from skinned knees.

But that sense too that the union was a brotherhood. That I understood. I had all these uncles and two brothers of my own. When they were not beating me up they were protecting me. So maybe my child’s eye view of Labor’s brotherhood wasn’t so far off. My older sisters married men in unions: painter and teacher. Oh, Pittsburgh’s first teachers strike. The craziness, the debate and again, the fear.

I saw what the union did and what it meant: protection, benefits, work, paychecks. That small pile of money on the kitchen table lasted a little longer. We could—mostly—pay the bills.

But now we ask: Has organized labor gone too far at this point? Cost us too much?

Those arguments can be made. We all know of some ridiculous demand or workplace practice allowed only because of the union, but let’s remember the benefits that accrue to all of us because of the labor movement.

Even in non-union workplaces, the standard in the United States is five eight-hour work days per week. And, yes, it is a bumper sticker, but it’s also true: American labor brought us the weekend. A six and-a-half day workweek was the schedule for a long time.

In addition we can thank organized labor for rest rooms and smoke breaks and clean places to eat lunch. It won safety laws, paid vacations, sick leave, pension and insurance plans, policies and procedures that most of us take for granted.

The labor movement also brought us social reforms, such as child-labor regulation, advocacy for free public education and the concept of equal pay for equal work — that was part of the National Labor platform in 1868. We enjoy these gifts whether or not we belong to a union.

But one of the biggest contributions from organized labor that we don’t appreciate, because it’s so very close to us, is our middle class way of life. In large measure, organized labor’s efforts over decades established the American middle class. Decent wages and job security allowed workers to buy homes and cars and send their kids to college, which fueled our economy and what we now so easily disdain as middle-class life.

So this weekend, while you celebrate a day dedicated to working people by taking an extra day off, please take a moment to thank those girls in Lawrence, Mass., and even Jimmy Hoffa for a working life that includes both bread and roses.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Other Program

Here is one of those changes that happen when recovery becomes “out of the woods”: Many of us go to --or go back to –AlAnon.

It’s a funny thing about recovery in AA. In the early days we have to learn to be less selfish. We learn to actually consider the impact of our behavior on other people. We laugh at the Big Book story of the man who comes out of the storm cellar, surveys all the damage of his disease and declares, “Look Ma, ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing.” We laugh. Oh yeah, no one—especially those near and dear-- is applauding that we simply stopped drinking.

So we learn to listen, to consider the needs of others, to compromise.

But then if we keep at our recovery, we reach a point where we actually have to learn to be selfish again. You may hate that word and prefer “self-caring”, but really, it’s selfish and it’s a good thing. It’s almost like we have to go back over the old ground again and say, “So what do I want?” And, “What do I need—even if it makes someone else unhappy?”

And when we find that is hard to do or when we or someone near us—like a sponsor—notices that we are not putting our needs first—we are invited—or sent—to an AlAnon meeting.

Rules for beginners are the same: try six meetings, raise your hand and claim your seat, listen to the people with experience, read the literature and even do service. It’s hard to be a beginner again, but the payoff is that there is a real multiplier effect from working both programs.

It really is the best of both worlds: care for self and care for others. Detaching with love. Continuing to grow. One day at a time.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tiny Choices Big Life

“True life is lived when tiny choices are made”, Leo Tolstoy believed. I know this is my writing life, do one page, try one new thing, sometimes just open a new document or save a new file and the story, essay or book is begun. I know this from early recovery too: one call, one prayer, one meeting, all those scary baby steps add up.

But now again, tiny choices, baby steps toward the life I want. I want to feel more free so no makeup today or let the bed go unmade, or leave a dish in the sink. Harder still, go for a walk –a short one not a long one—sit down and read five pages of the novel I’m enjoying instead of making that important call.

For so long we learned to put others first and do the right thing one tiny step at a time. And now we have to learn—many of us—to reverse that—to put ourselves—so uncomfortable!--first one tiny step at a time.