Tuesday, March 31, 2009


This morning, once again, I read in my daily meditation book about surrender. And I think, yes, that’s it. Surrender. On another page in another book I read that one becomes a true servant of God by, yes, surrendering. And I think, yes, I do that. And then right there for that tiny hair’s breadth moment I think, I don’t really surrender do I? I say the words. I may even have the intention. But do I put it all—yes all—in God’s hands and then go live my life? Well, no. So I tried again this time naming the things, people, relationships, concerns, worries that I want help with or that scare me. And I say out loud, “I am turning these over to you; I do not know what is right. Help me.”

Now it is the end of this day and it has been a decent day. A better day. Will all the things I listed turn out fine? Will he love me and she like me and they not blame me and enough money come to support the small nonprofit where I work? I don’t know. But I like surrender better than not surrendering. That’s a start.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Death in the Family

A member of my home group has died. Diagnosed with lung cancer a year ago, Tony made it this far. He died sober and we talk about that with respect and sometimes awe or pride. Would I drink if I had cancer? Would I use drugs if I was in great pain? The drug part is tricky. In cases of terminal illness the doctor’s orders are not always best for the patient. If we follow the guidelines of “using drugs as directed” it might not be the most sober thing to do. After all, doctors worry about terminally ill people becoming addicted. Crazy, I know, but it’s true.

But Tony has died and I will go to the memorial today. This is what we do in a family and AA is my family.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Flying Away

Time for vacation. Time for sun. Out of the Woods goes to Florida for a week. I have pasted program friend’s phone numbers into my calendar and made sure they are in my cell phone. I have the third and seventh step prayers on a bookmark and the St Francis prayer is in my cosmetic bag so I HAVE to read it each day. I’ll get to at least one meeting and I’ll write in my journal. One day at a time I’ll be sober on vacation.

This is the good life.

See ya back here in a week.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Balance is Overrated

Over and over, almost like a mantra, so many of us are saying “I need to balance my life.” Toward that end we fill our calendars outside of work with quality time with loved ones, and commitments –sometimes against the grain—to meditate or do yoga, to take classes or to volunteer. So many of us find ourselves doing little bits of lots of things and not feeling good about much of what we do.

Do you also have the nagging feeling that you can't quite get this "life balance” thing to balance? Maybe that’s because it doesn’t. I realized this week that “Balance my life” is just another item on the big to-do list in my head, and it’s another thing nagging at me that I should do.

Well, I quit. Balance is overrated.

Think about it. People we admire, those who have made a difference or a contribution or who have a clear vocation lead remarkably unbalanced lives. Consider the greats in any field: Einstein? No balance at all; he was actually quite a weird guy. Thomas Edison? He never left the lab. Ditto for Marie Curie. Venus and Serena Williams? Tiger Woods? For serious athletes their entire family has to live on a tilt-a-whirl.

It’s true for creative types too. Emily Dickinson? Edna St. Vincent Millay? We love their poems, but look at their lives. And statesmen? Saints? You get the idea.

So who cooked up this idea that we have to have to have our fingers in so many pies in order to have a good life? Probably writers whose own lives are notoriously out of balance. But they make it sound so simple and so wise to have a balanced life that we race around weighing and measuring to make sure we have equal parts of work, home, family, social, spiritual and civic in our lives.

The theologian Fredrick Buechner—who had a seriously unbalanced life—defines true vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Now it doesn’t make sense that deep gladness will come from ticking off a long to-do list or that the world’s deep need is met by doing tiny bits of this and that like rote do-gooders. But the idea of balance so appeals that we run faster and faster to balance our social and emotional portfolios; we take yoga and meditate, try to eat well, call friends, see the latest play, buy if not read the latest bestseller, attend the school play and send emails from the car and leave voice mail at midnight.

How much energy we waste striving to balance our lives. What if we celebrated a tilting life, one in which we gave a primary commitment to kids or a job we love or making art or seeking spirit? We do have to make choices but they are not for all time. I don’t think it’s balance that we really want at all. What we want is to feel good and to have peace, and that mostly comes from feeling well used by life. That doesn’t happen when we are running around doing little bits of many things.

Here’s a radical idea as we move into spring: Give up balance; don’t go to any store, party, or event unless you really want to. Give self-improvement a break. Read what you like even if it’s not “good” books, and choose the couch over the gym, and the woods over the party if that is what your soul craves.

Stop and look into the world’s deep need that’s in your community. Find the source of your deep gladness that runs near by. Allow yourself to lose your balance. And just fall in.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ebby Thatcher

March 21 1966 Ebby Thatcher died in Ballston Spa, New York. Ebby was the man who Bill Wilson called his sponsor because it was Ebby who came to Bill in his Brooklyn kitchen November 1934 and told how he had stopped drinking.

We know this as a central part of “Bill’s Story” on pages 8 to 14 in The Big Book. On page 11, Bill writes:

“But my friend sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed.”

Ebby stayed sober for a few years and then drank again. He sobered up with the new program—it had morphed from the Oxford Group to become AA. In and out he went—struggling with jobs and relationships. In the last few years of his life Ebby lived with a community of AA people in Ballston Spa who ensured that he did not drink, so that he would be able to die not drinking.

I celebrate Ebby because it is clear that he was used by God. Not to be an AA star like Bill, but to carry the message and be a cog in the wheel. The consequences for his own life are not the stuff that any of us in sobriety wish for but we owe this deep debt to Ebby T. for getting Bill Wilson sober. And the rest is our history.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March Madness

I talk to a male friend today who asks me, “What do you do to relax?” And I don’t have an easy or obvious answer. He tells me that when he plays golf or fishes or watches basketball he thinks of nothing else. Ditto when he is chopping wood or taking a long walk. I realize that my mind is always going and few things give me real respite from my thoughts.

This becomes a challenge: What do I do and what can I do to truly relax? Not yoga to get in shape or walking to get an aerobic benefit but what activity that is not improving any part of me: mind or body or intellect?

What do you do to relax? Really relax.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Amateur Night

Saint Patrick’s Day, like New Year’s Eve, is often called amateur night. On this night people who don’t have drinking problems—and those who do—tend to drink too much. There are more DWI’s and more fights and more screaming at boyfriends and tomorrow I imagine that there will be more waking up with headaches, scraped knees and yes, with strangers.

Aren’t you glad you don’t drink?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thomas Merton Prayer

Thomas Merton wrote this prayer:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadows of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

What I love about this prayer and perhaps what I cling to is the line: “Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” It reminds me that we sometimes hear in meetings, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” And maybe it’s also true that God’s will for me is none of my business. Maybe in the greater scheme of things (God’s will) I’m one of the “Don’t” examples. Kind of like in the back of Glamour Magazine where they show the “DO” and “Don’t” examples of what to wear. The “Don’t” examples also help us. Maybe God needs a certain number of “Don’t” people and I’m one of them? But like Merton I’ll keep trying to get it right, but others may be thinking, “What the F….?”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rachel at the Wedding

I saw this 2008 movie last night. Anne Hathaway as recovering addict. The cast is amazing, every actor superb. But looking at what our addiction does to other people and what early recovery’s self-centered fear looks like and does…yikes. And I say this all the while hoping that the self-centered fear of later recovery is somehow a better version. Oh me, Oh my. Humbling.

Friday, March 13, 2009


No other word will do.
For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving andbeing loved by a good woman.
Eleven years ago he was told he had six months to liveat the rate he was going.
And he was going nowhere but down.
So he changed his ways somehow. He quit drinking!
And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minuteof it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and building up inside his head.
"Don't weep for me,"he said to his friends.
"I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone expected.
Pure gravy. And don't forget it."

---Raymond Carver

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conversations at Lunch

Over the years I’ve worked in places where groups of women lunch together. At these meals of leftovers and micro waved diet food we’ve talked about diets, men, marriage, kids, men, sex (sort of), shopping, men and yes, men.

Some of the highlights that I remember from those meals in Baltimore, DC and New York:

“You never know what is inside someone else’s marriage.”


“I have never found anything in a man’s wallet, dresser or medicine cabinet that made me happy.”

And when we talked about shopping and the inevitable, “Have you ever sneaked a purchase into your house”? question arose, we all copped to having done that: We’d tried
Packages compressed; Packages left in the trunk till “he” leaves for work; New shoes without the box carried in like they are the old shoes; Clothes worn home from the mall so there are no bags, etc.

But my favorite is still this: As many of us were confessing to “How I get my new clothes into the house”, Norma said indignantly “I never hide anything from Ralph.” As she was our biggest shopper and a fan of expensive goods we looked askance. She said, “NO, I just take a red pen with me when I shop.” Now, we looked horrified. “NO”, she said again, “I don’t cheat the stores I just mark down all the prices when I get to the car. I make markdowns on top of markdowns. I show Ralph my new clothes and the price tags: a $500 dress marked down three times, and I “got it” for $75. He thinks I’m the most amazing bargain shopper and he brags to his friends.”

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Barbie is 50 Today

I was eight years old when I first met Barbie and I wanted a life just like hers. She had a boyfriend, Ken; a best friend Midge; and a lot of clothes. From Barbie I learned a sartorial approach to life: You need only to have the right outfit and the life to go with it will appear. Buy a poofy dress and you get a date for the prom; plan a trousseau and marriage will follow; buy the right suit and a career would materialize. But in a few weeks Barbie is going to turn 50 and I don’t think she’s prepared. Most women know that a closet full of cute outfits --or even a dream house-- isn’t enough for this time of life. So here are some things I’d offer Barbie for 50.

The first thing she needs is a new best friend. In the 1960’s Midge was the perfect friend for a pretty girl: friendly, loyal and slightly less attractive. Barbie now needs friends with flesh on their hips and shoulders she can cry on. In our 50’s we cry for each other, pray for each other and show up when the bad stuff happens.

This leads to another essential for Mid-Life Barbie. Mattel could offer, “Barbie’s 12 Step Program”. Every woman eventually needs a support group. But which program for Barbie? Clearly she has a compulsive shopping problem. But it’s also possible that Overeaters Anonymous would be her group. That’s for anyone with an eating –over or under--disorder. Maybe AA? I’ve never seen Barbie drunk but she does have a lot of cocktail dresses. Al-anon might help too. Barbie was always kind of rigid and she could never settle on a career. She’s tried to be so many different things at the same time; she’s like a chameleon on plaid. Al-anon, with its focus on setting limits and saying no could help with that. could help with that. This package could come with accessories like a tiny coffee pot and ten folding chairs. It will be easy for Barbie to fit in; she doesn’t have a last name anyway.

Even though dating was Barbie’s main preoccupation she’s always had a job. She was a nurse, a doctor, even an astronaut but like most women I know Barbie is still trying to decide what to be when she grows up. But at this important birthday I have to tell Barbie that there is another kind of work coming her way. In her 50’s it’s time for community service. At this age it’s no longer about adding to the resume. She won’t need to buy new clothes for this; there is no “Barbie’s Day at the Food Pantry” ensemble. Service looks and feels good all by itself.

What else would I include in my toast to Barbie’s birthday? I’d thank her for her fashion guidance. Barbie taught me about matching purses and shoes--even if the shoes were kind of slutty, but I’ve learned some things of my own about putting yourself together after 50: Barb, the good stuff is not in your closet. At our age it’s the heartbreaks and the losses and the mistakes that make you an original. I’m not talking about any pastel faux pas here; I’m talking horrid, messy, head-shaking mistakes. Those, when worn with a little self-forgiveness and a lot of gratitude, are what become the finest accessories for a woman in her 50’s.

Granted, this may be asking a lot of a former fashion doll. But Barbie has hung in there for 50 years. She has knees that bend now. And she’ll need them. It isn’t easy being plastic.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Lois Wilson and Alanon

March 4th is a special day to millions of people in 12 step programs. It is the birthday of Lois Wilson who might, with great affection, be called the most famous co-dependent. She was the wife of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It was Ebby T., son of a prominent Albany family, who first “carried the message” to a very deteriorated Bill Wilson. The message Ebby brought to Bill and Lois was that he had gotten sober through the help of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement. The six steps of reformation in the Oxford Group were the forerunner of today’s 12 steps.

At Ebby’s urging Lois and Bill began to attend Oxford Group meetings and a few months later, on a trip to Akron, Bill reached out to members there and met Dr. Bob Smith. From the date of their meeting--one drinker helping another--we date the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Those early meetings were held in private homes. Wives accompanied their husbands and took charge of the refreshments. While the men coached each other through confession and repentance in the parlor, the wives sat in the kitchen, confessing their own frustrations as they discovered the common impact that alcohol had on their families. To her dismay, Lois later wrote, Bill’s sobriety didn’t bring the happiness she expected. While he was drinking, Lois had played a central if troubled role in Bill’s life. Now, as he recovered she felt less important. This resentment over Bill finally achieving sobriety without her help troubled Lois. She and other wives, who had lived on the edge emotionally and financially, realized that the 12 steps “could also work for the wives”.

Every organization has history and myth. History tells us that the very first meetings in which the wives of alcoholics began to study the 12 steps began in San Francisco, but the myth, always more powerful, says that Lois Wilson began the program in New York.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. All over the country, as AA grew, it was women who often were first to seek help for their families. Lois and other wives offered support and promoted a spiritual program. At conventions Lois took the podium to tell her side of the Wilson family story, sharing with humor the lengths she went to control Bill’s drinking and the humiliation she endured as she realized she could not.

As Bill W. took on the role of father of AA, it added a nice symmetry to have Lois as the mother of Al-Anon. Positioning Lois atop the recovery pantheon was strategic; She was a doctor’s daughter, with a college education. Lois gave a respectable face to a problem that was shameful and secretive.

In 1957 Al-Anon gained broad public recognition when Lois Wilson appeared on the Loretta Young television show bringing the problem of alcoholism and its impact on the family directly into America’s living rooms.

But there is always danger when one is placed on a pedestal. Lois was criticized because she couldn’t do in her own home what she advocated for others: setting limits on bad behavior. While Bill did stay sober for many years he was also a chronic womanizer. The fact of his adultery was made public when in his will, he left part of the royalties from “the Big Book”, AA’s text, to his last mistress.

It may be that in this very personal and painful way Lois Wilson left us her finest legacy of recovery. Al-Anon with its mission of respectability for families affected by alcoholism, has today more than 30,000 groups in 100 countries. She also, by her graceful life and the imperfection in her marriage, gave us an embodiment of AA’s slogan, “Progress not perfection”. Thank you Lois.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A Legion of Demons

I met with a spiritual director yesterday and talked with her about the ways that my old beliefs and negative thoughts torment me. For days I have been thinking about the story in Mark 5: 8 -16 where Jesus heals the “demoniac”. Isn’t that a great word?

Jesus speaks directly to the “demons” in the possessed man. “What is your name?” Jesus asks and the answer comes, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

Now that is a case for Jesus as Psychotherapist I think. The legion of demons tormenting this man has to be old beliefs, schema, voices. The story says that the man is tied in chains and I understand that feeling when these old beliefs are hell bent on convincing me of my defectiveness and my deprivation.

But what is startling on re-reading this story is that Jesus does not talk to the man but he talks to the “demons” directly. The demons and Jesus have a conversation about what to do; where they can go, how to make this work. Jesus bypasses the man and goes right to Legion. What does that suggest in terms of steps 6 and 7? In terms of healing? In terms of being restored to sanity? And most powerfully, in terms of respecting the old parts of ourselves that once existed to help us but that now tie us up in chains?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A Woman Dies

Monday was snowy and there were a number of car accidents. News reports told of one fatality as “a woman was killed…” in an accident near my office. All day at work we commented on the sad accident in which “a woman” died.

This afternoon I was at a doctor’s appointment and ran into a friend from AA who said, “Did you hear that Peg died?”


In a car accident.

“A Woman” became Peg. A tragedy for a stranger became a sadness for our AA community. A woman making a new life with humor, faith and polish died in her car hurrying on her way to somewhere.

Again the lesson: You have today. Today. Now. With or with people liking you, with or with out the right job, with or with out the relationship or the shoes. And Peg really liked shoes.

Monday, March 02, 2009

I Can Fly

In last week’s New Yorker magazine there was a great cartoon by Farley Katz.

The illustration shows a man on an island—stereotypical cartoon island... a patch of land and one palm tree surrounded by water. The man is wearing a cape, a shirt with a lightening bolt and boots—super hero ensemble—and he’s sitting hugging his knees.
The caption says, “Oh my God—I just remembered I can fly.”

Funny yes, but this brought tears to my eyes. This is the illustration of recovery. All these years feeling stranded on the tiny remote island of fear, addiction, abandonment, and held there by inner voices that hold me captive, and then it comes to me; I’m recovering, I have resources, I have new ideas, I have new beliefs, I have different voices and “Oh my God—I just remembered I can fly.”

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Tenth Step Axiom

The tenth step axiom, from the “Twelve and Twelve” book goes like this:

“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.”

This has caused much wordy debate in 12 step rooms. “What me?” “Did I cause my childhood abuse?” “Is it my fault that my husband cheats?” and on and on.

Of course that’s not what the “axiom” is about.
And of course it’s not a unique idea to AA or Bill Wilson.

Here is the same idea from the ancient writer and philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

“If you are distressed by anything external, it is not the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

There is nothing new under the sun.

Now, studying Cognitive Therapy, I see the same idea. When I am hurt, distressed, slighted, unworthy I am able to ask myself, what schema or old belief IN ME am I replaying or clinging to—even unknowingly. I am –Thank you to the annoying Carl Rogers, as well—distressing myself. And I can change my mind. Not easy but I can. And I can change my beliefs—also not easy at all. But it can be done.

When I am disturbed there is something in me contributing to that. At worst I am causing it, at best I am collaborating. And the power to change that is in me.