Saturday, June 27, 2015

Freedom in Form--Or Why We Have a Program

We joke sometimes about all of the “suggestions” we are given in recovery. The steps are suggestions, and other advice like “Don’t drink, go to meetings and pray” are also suggestions. But we are also told, “Yes, these are merely suggestions but death is the consequence of not following them.”
It’s all about structure and form and order: All the things that alcoholics just naturally resist.
So today I read something great about the benefit of form and structure. I was doing some research on writing for a class I’ll be teaching soon and I discovered this gem that also applies to recovery.

This is from Stanley Fish in his book called, “How to Write a Sentence”. Fish says:
“A famous sonnet by William Wordsworth begins, ‘Nuns fret not their convent’s narrow room;/And hermits are contented with their cells;/and students with their pensive citadels.” Wordsworth’s point is that what nuns and hermits and students do is facilitated rather than hindered by the confines and formal structures they inhabit; because those structures constrain freedom (they remove, says Wordsworth, “the weight of too much liberty”), they enable movements in a defined space…and then every movement can carry a precise significance.”
Fish says, “This then is my theology: You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.”Following the “suggestions” of our program, working the steps, living within the traditions then also can set us free. It can be our theology too. In that way of thinking I’m very happy to be all tied up in recovery.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day on the Diving Board

He was there at the end of the diving board. He would tread water for hours watching while I practiced my dives. For years it was our Sunday afternoon ritual, and it began when I was 4 years old.  Daddy was there in the deep water, waiting for me. On those Sunday afternoons I believed that if he was there at the end of the board I could do anything

He would wait, treading water, out a ways from the board. He would look around and give me the sign that it was OK to dive. And I would stroll to the end of the board, tugging at my stretchy lavender swimsuit, and bounce in the air before I dove in. 

I would rise to the surface sputtering, and look for his face. He would hesitate a moment to let me right myself. I would cough and beam. He would grab the back of my suit and give me a push toward the side. “Swim to the ladder,” he would say. And he would stay out at the end of the board waiting. I remember

I remember the feeling as I paddled to the ladder. The world was perfect: I was diving in the deep end of the pool; there was no pain, and no evil in the world. There was no need or want in my life.  I was a perfect, grinning, sunburned, waterlogged four-year-old, in love with the world, herself and her daddy.

He died when I was 18. In the intervening years life happened to me and to Daddy.  By the time I was 13, he was traveling a lot, and when we did spend the occasional weekend together we did not speak of personal things. There were no talks about plans or dreams. As a teen-ager I felt awkward with my father so I would interview him about his job.  I know a lot about industrial engineering. It filled our time.

On a July evening, when he was 56, my father had a stroke and died.

Has it affected me? Of course. To have had that closeness and to lose it; to have had those timeless moments of being safe and special and then to lose him when I still needed to ask what happened.

It took years of my life, of other relationships, addictions and years in recovery for me to wrestle with those two men--the daddy who waited in the deep water and the man who left suddenly, without a word, when I was 18.

Somewhere inside, that four-year-old still wears her lavender bathing suit. She is at the end of a diving board and leaning forward to hear someone say, “You are so special.” “You can do it.”

I’ve learned a lot from listening to that little girl. I know that in romance we get some of that need met, but romance has its own path and after a while no one wants to admire us every day.  Another way to meet this need is with an affair.  Having an affair is a way a four-year-old can twirl in a 40 year-old body and hear again, “You are the only one.” 
In the first five years of recovery I practiced healthier solutions.  I practice in the mirror: “Diane, You are very special.” But all the praise and promises in the present cannot fill a hole that exists in the past. 

Later I learned to meet this need in a spiritual way. In the rooms I began to meet people who had a connection with their God or higher power that helped them to live believing that God smiles warmly on them.

So what is the gift from a father who left when we were both too young? It’s this: For a long time I resented the missing memories; no father-daughter chats, no drives to college, no adult conversations. But I have this other thing--a picture in my brain and in my heart of my father still there at the end of the board, smiling and waiting. 

Today I believe in a God who looks around my life and says, “Hold on a minute. We don’t want anyone to get hurt; then, “OK, go for it, I’m here.” I have a God at the end of my daily diving board that says to me, “Okay now, catch your breath. I’m here.”                                 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Practicing Discernment

One friend asks, “Should she change jobs?” Another thinks about changing her whole career. A coworker debates, “Should she buy a house or continue to rent?” Someone else talks about graduate school versus yoga teacher training. 

“A choice between goods” is one definition of discernment. Not right or wrong, good or bad, but a choice between goods.

But how do you “do” discernment? 

Years ago my spiritual director gave me this list of tools for discernment:

Sitting still
Asking God
Get quiet and listen for the subtle
Think and feel
Then use your gut, your courage and your integrity.

Another good discernment practice, if you have time, is this:
Fully describe option A to yourself: the graduate program, the classes, location, books, homework, money, and benefits, people. Declare (to yourself) that this is the choice you have made. Live as if that is the final choice—that and only that for two weeks. Pretend to yourself it’s a done deal and go about your life as if that is true. Pay attention to your body, energy, heart and head.

After two weeks again fully commit yourself, but now to option B. Again, make full mental commitment—two whole weeks. Now what do you notice or sense in your body, mind, heart, energy? Write about what you notice and sense. What messages do you get?

Talk to people who have chosen either options –or similar ones—and then pray for a sign.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Searching for Thomas Merton in My Handbag

I have a favorite handbag that I’ve carried for years. It is perfect. It holds my files, journal, two kinds of pens, note cards, makeup and money. I love this bag. It cost less than $100. But when I go to New York City I fondle designer bags.  I pet the suede, calfskin and dyed canvas trimmed with leather. One of these bags costs as much as a car payment. But I want one. It’s lust. 

Then at home I look at the books piled on my coffee table, bedside table and desk. Books about personal growth and making a better life and having a spiritual connection and at the top of the pile: Thomas Merton—monk, philosopher, writer.  He had some things I want too: a life of contemplation, simplicity and, oh yes, renunciation.

How do I reconcile these competing and conflicting desires? What is a human to do?  Some of us are dashing around the mall wearing our name off our credit cards and others smugly announce they’re, “Making do with less” this year. I want both, always both.

Consumerism is based on the belief that problems have material solutions. We do it with bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger jobs. But we also do it by consuming more spirituality, trying more spiritual practices or teachers or even religion as “products” to fix our lives.  

Count me in: yoga mat, meditation pillow, charms, chimes, statues, wall hangings, a necklace—gold, expensive—to announce my belief in God. Even recovery jewelry. I buy more things to proclaim my belief in simplicity.

Yes, we all use consumption to create our identity. But it’s equally flawed to create a self-image based on refusing to participate in the dominant culture or by disdaining those who do.  The fundamental error is the same: whether we derive our identity from consuming or from not consuming we’re still focused on self.  Spiritual wanting is still wanting. 

How perfect that it’s a bag I’m craving now. I can look in my handbag—literally a sack to carry my identity—to see who I am. It holds my driver’s license, medical cards, reward
cards for the stores I shop—my cell phone address book displays the details of what and who matters. But I still think the outside of this bag—calfskin would be nice—will change the inner me.

As recovering women, we live at the intersection of spirituality and consumption. Could we choose peace in our hearts and at the mall? I am searching for Thomas Merton in my handbag and hoping for peace in my very human heart.

More on recovery, shopping and style in "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

So Sari--A New Me

After years in recovery—teamed with years in therapy-- you can begin to believe that you have a handle on yourself. You might start to think that you are onto your own tricks. And then...

Here is the latest peek at myself. I love handbags and about a month ago in a chic, high-end catalog I saw a tote bag that was described as being made from old Indian saris—those traditional long wrap dresses that Indian women wear. The photos showed the bags in vibrant colorful prints and each had a long leather strap that could be worn across the body.

They were only $98. Of course that’s over $100 with tax and delivery, but I had paid much more for other handbags and there was something about the soft fabric of the old saris; I mean it would have some other—older Indian—woman’s karma right? And for spring/summer I could envision this soft bag across my body with khaki skirts or jeans and sandals. A nice look.

So I ordered the bag. The website said it would take seven days. I told myself, “Expect it in ten. I was already trying hard to manage my desire. So I wait the week and three days. I pass up other purses when I shop, “Nope, the old sari bag, slouched just so across my body, with its soft silk and aged leather…I can feel it all –I was living that new bag and UPS hasn’t arrived yet.

But then it does. I come home to “the box”. It’s here! I’m excited. But then I open the box and there is a lumpy, kind of laundry-bag looking sack. It is made of old fabric yes, but the bag is huge and droopy, and the strap is cheap, shiny leather.  I sling it across my body and I recognize the look. I demonstrate for my husband: I bend and scoop, bend and scoop. It looks like the kind of cloth sling that women wore to work in the fields. This is not chic, not cool, not very nice. It has no Karma. I’m disappointed.

But it’s what happens next that surprises me. I know that I don’t want THIS bag, and I want my money back. That is clear. My husband says, “Send it back and get something you like.” Yes, of course. That makes sense, but something is holding me back. I try on the sari cloth bag again. I empty my current handbag and put all the contents into the new sari bag hoping that somehow having my things inside will transform this purse into MY purse. Nope. It just looks even droopier now--like an old laundry bag. 

So what’s holding me back? It’s not until I am filling out the return form and packing the sari bag in the return carton to that I realize what my trouble is. It’s not just the bag I have to return, it’s the new identity that I’d constructed in my head. In the ten short days from ordering the bag to receiving the bag I had created a new me to go with the bag: I was going to be causally chic, I was going to be the kind of woman who wore old sari cloth with khaki and denim and simple sandals, I was going to be the slightly bohemian, somewhat hippy-ish chick, that tossed a bag like this across her body and…and…

And what? Maybe I imagined that I’d laugh more, worry less, be more comfortable in my body. I’d sit in coffee shops and I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff.  I’d be at peace and love stillness and be relaxed. And I'd be wise. In my shoppers imagination this sari bag was going to bring that to me. In ten days I had created a new me and done a kind of geographic cure without even leaving my house.

And then the UPS man took my bag and delivered reality right back to me.