Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Eat Dessert First

I do not want to miss my own life. I do not want to keep putting off the good and the fun and the caring until I get my “work” all done. I do not want to keep thinking that I’ll do the things I love and make time for the people I love—later.

I do not want to be one of the women who refused dessert that night at dinner on the Titanic. And we are all on the Titanic.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Best Beach Book in the World

We are sliding into the final third of summer. From here we push on to the finish line at Labor Day. The wish lists we made in June weigh on us: the outings, the visitors, trips, chores, projects and for many the pile of books we promised we’d read this summer.

Each friend’s recommendation and each review adds another book to our pile. Our motivations are good; we want to grow and better understand ourselves and the world around us. The books pile up on the coffee table and the bed stand, and our library list is dog-eared and scribbled. Even worse there are new categories. There’s more “Chick Lit” and new graphic novels too, each offering more literary ways of seeing the world. Then, too, many of us have our ongoing side list of “issues” we’re working on: parenting or relationship skills. That comes with more books to read.

So, where to begin? You’d like a good novel and a romance and some history too. You want some help with the relationship thing, and, these days, you want a better understanding of politics and economics. But then there is also that stack of business books you saved all year; you want some new ideas about management and to think about work differently.

But with four weeks to go is it worth trying to dig into all that? Maybe you should just throw up your hands and go to the movies. There’s not going to be enough time to read it all anyway. So how to choose? I have the answer. There is one book that you can read now that will give you everything you’re wishing and hoping for. There is only one book you need for the boat and tote, the chaise lounge, the blanket or the bed.

Hands-down, the single best, summer book is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. With Tolstoy’s tale you get everything in one: romance, history, a relationship how-to book, and the best management advice you’ll ever read. Now, don’t balk at the bulk. Yes, it’s a big book but every kid you know has just knocked off the latest Harry Potter weighing in at 800-plus pages. If they can do it you can too. Besides by choosing Anna K. you only have to buy one book. Here’s why:

Anna K. is the best relationship book ever written. It’s got examples of how to make a marriage work and how to how to ruin one from the start. Worried about infidelity? This is the book that, well, wrote the book on that topic. Tolstoy shows how couples get into that terrain and how you can get back out. Robin Norwood’s famous, Women Who Love Too Much, doesn’t even come close to what Tolstoy writes about emotional dependency and the impact of addiction on a family.

As for new ideas about work: Tolstoy offers the most compelling and insightful analysis of why people work, and how to motivate them. Tom Peters has written half a dozen books trying to get at what Tolstoy packs into just a few scenes. Levin, Anna’s cousin, is the best management consultant you could hire; by showing us Levin in the field with his workers, Tolstoy articulates the subtleties of the relationship between worker and manager, and shows exactly how you can make a day’s work good or bad.

But, you may insist, fiction can’t help your real life. With all due respect, you’re wrong. When we read, “to escape”, it’s not from life but to life. Fiction gives us the assurance that the story that we love most—our own—is worthy.

Besides, if you finish Anna K. before August runs into Fall, there’s always Tolstoy’s other little book, War and Peace, which brings us right back to this day and our very, very real lives.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Driving in Fog

Good advice for fiction writers: One page at a time, one scene at a time. “But I can’t write a whole book.” Just do one page each day. “I can’t figure out the whole story”. Write like you are driving on a foggy night: you just keep driving as far as the headlights allow you to see. It can be nerve wracking but you’ll get there.

It’s the same in recovery. “How will I ever get a year? Five years?” One day at a time. "How will I ever get a degree, buy a house, move to California?” One step at a time. First buy the catalog, look at the ads, call a mover. One step. You can’t know the whole process but you can live and drive as far as your headlights will allow. Yes, this can be nerve wracking too. But we’re not alone and we are writing our own stories and we have the comfort and support of others who are also living one day at a time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Hamster Life

A cartoon this week showed the headline of a fake newspaper. It read:
“Hamster Found Dead: Police say he fell asleep at the wheel.”

That’s my life this week. Running, racing, hurrying, scurrying and all on my own self-made hamster wheel. Work, projects, people, self-care even begins to feel like pressure and yes, even recovery begins to feel like something to dash to and from and check off my list. (I just wrote “life” instead of “list). Freud? Yes. Thank you.

I am checking off my life like it’s a long list of things to do before I get to live.

Whose life is this? The pain of long recovery is that I don’t even have the satisfaction of blaming someone lese. I make these choices. I choose this life. No victims only volunteers. Dam.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't Worry Be Happy

Last week I walked across the street to look through piles of phonograph records and bins of old dishes spread across our neighbor’s lawn. Their grown children were cleaning out the house and having a sale. Just weeks before we’d taken our own boxes of similar things to the thrift store and felt well pleased to have those odds and ends gone. Now we were looking through someone else’s stuff, and delighting in finding a “very useful” mixing bowl, and some “these could be handy” small wooden shelves.

The things that most often find their way back to our house are books, and I found myself sitting on the neighbor’s porch sifting through boxes of hardbacks and paperbacks. There were the usual yard sale staples: mysteries and romances and a big pile of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I have a fondness for those; I grew up with them and met many great authors in those striped, four-in-one hardbacks.

In my neighbor’s stash was something else that I recognized from childhood; a set of books by Dale Carnegie, the grand master of personal improvement. There was a copy of his famous, How to Make Friends and Influence People, but the book that I reached for was How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I asked a nearby teenager, “How much?” “Ten cents”, said the girl. I gave her a quarter and walked back to my porch to read the familiar text.

When I was a kid, Dale Carnegie’s books were on the top shelf of my father’s bookshelf. As a quintessential first-generation, self-improving, education-valuing, always striving, Depression survivor, my father read these books over and over. And, like the typical second-generation, take-achievement-for-granted, life-is-easier kids that we were, my brothers and I made fun of Dale Carnegie every chance we got.

I have to tell on myself now, though. I am my father’s daughter. His drive for self-improvement and habit of worry was passed to me by nature or nurture. Over the years I’ve spent thousands on classes, courses, workshops and retreats. I’ve tried every remedy and herb that promises peace. I even gave a huge wad of cash and an armload of flowers to get a secret mantra from Transcendental Meditation.

Now I laugh. I could have just looked at my father’s books. Opening How to Stop Worrying I skim the table of contents. The message—in stories and quotes-- is this: Change your thinking. Change your mind. Be in this day. Dale Carnegie seemed to know what the Beatles learned in India: Let it be. I flip to the title page and see that “Worry” was written in 1950, and my copy is from the 46th printing.

If Dale Carnegie wrote this today he’d be a guru and superstar; Oprah would have him on her show and he’d do the celebrity workshop circuit. I grin to imagine a scenario in which Dale Carnegie would be rumored to be the man that changed Madonna’s life. She’d wear a gold “DC” necklace instead of a red kabala string, and, when pushed, she’d whine that no one really understood her devotion to Dale.

Though he was successful in his day, Dale Carnegie wrote his books for the post-WWII, GI Bill, self-improving, house-buying, ladder-of-success fathers of the fifties. His was a male message since it was presumed that the man of the house was the one who was worrying about the bills and the bosses and how to pay for the babies. That too was my Dad.

My father is not around to thank today. He died before I started my own journey of self-improvement. So I’ll claim this musty book as a gift from my father’s spirit. There is nothing new under the sun. Be here now; live in this day; laugh at yourself and grow up.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


On this day in 980 BC the Law of Karma is discovered. At least that’s what it says in my Pilgrim Daily Calendar. It makes you wonder how a spiritual concept can be “discovered” but there it is.

Karma may be crudely translated as “what goes around comes around.” and is underlying “Do unto others.” But it’s also the motivation for recovery. Whether you believe in reincarnation—that the karma plays out over lifetimes or just effects how you live now, we know it’s part of the 12 step life.

We have the tenth step axiom: whenever I am upset I must look within, there is something in me; we have the psychological principle of projection: what I most hate in another person is almost always something I dislike and won’t face in myself.

The Course in Miracles says when we judge others we are always projecting our own fears, and real forgiveness is letting go of judgment.

All these ways over so many lifetimes of trying to understand what makes us tick and what makes us hurt. It’s not complicated. But it’s not easy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't be a Victim

Here is an exercise that I use in writing classes. It's a great daily practice and works especially well when I feel self-pity or that other people are responsible for my pain. It's called "Don't Be a Victim" and the exercise goes like this:

Complete each sentence in your notebook with your first thought.

I HAVE TO_____________________________

I CAN’T__________________________________

After you have done that then:
Then go back and cross out “Have” and replace it with “Choose”
Then go back and cross out “Can’t” and replace it with “Don’t want to ”.

Read them again.

Teach yourself not to be a victim:

If you don’t like your life fix it.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself; it will destroy you.
Accept responsibility for your own life.
Stop lying to yourself.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Living Life on AA Terms

In today’s meeting we talked about what it means to “work the program”. Lots of ideas--go to meetings, be there for others, be there for yourself, work the steps and use the tools. Funny, no one said “don’t drink.” We take that for granted maybe? But what I liked most was the suggestion to ask: “How am I doing in my life?” And ask this like a daily inventory: How am I doing at work? At home? With friends? With God? What seems significant is that the question is NOT, How is my life going in these realms but how am I doing in them.

It reminds me of advice I heard years ago when sorting out what to do in difficult situations with others. My sponsor told me “You are the one with the 12 step program” So what others do doesn’t matter, I am the one who is applying these principles in my life and to my affairs. I am the one with the twelve-step program, so how am I doing in these parts of my life?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Negative Capability

Poet John Keats first used the term “negative capability” to describe the state and the process of being with the unknown. He valued this ability in writers and thinkers describing it like this, “that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.”

I think this is also something that we strive for in recovery and use less elegant language to describe. Being comfortably in the unknown, accepting doubts is not far from being in the day and the moment and being in the process of living life on life’s terms.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Happy Birthday AA

June 10th 1935. From that date—when one alcoholic reached out to help another alcoholic—we date the birth of our fellowship. From that rough beginning by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron has grown an international community and numerous step-children: OA, NA, DA, Al-Anon, CODA, ACOA and the list goes on as more people discover the basic wisdom of the 12 steps to address all kinds of life problems and addictions. Happy Birthday to AA and deep thanks to our founders.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Step Three

In Step Three we surrender. We turn our lives over to God. We take a leap of faith. Over the years when this becomes hard again—and it is an “again” process—I sometimes will watch the Harrison Ford movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Near the end of that movie Ford, as Indian Jones, has to leap into the void to cross over in search of the grail. He stands on the edge of a great crevasse and –what I love—he says “Oh shit” before he steps into what he believes is pure emptiness. And then the bridge appears.

Step Three is inspiring and uplifting—after the bridge appears. It is also “Oh shit”.

Monday, June 08, 2009

St. Teresa of Avila Prayer

Let nothing upset you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is changing;
God alone is changeless
Patience obtains the goal.
Who has God lacks nothing,
God alone fills all her needs.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Golf Lessons

I am learning to play golf and with this new hobby I am learning that I can borrow from the wisdom of AA:

One day at a time can become one shot or one hole at a time.
Keep your head down comes right from keep your head where your feet are.
Never Up never in aligns nicely with the first drink will get you drunk.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Dressing the Part

In early recovery I went shopping to buy new clothes just for meetings. It was going to be a new part of my life and I needed to have the right stuff. I had an idea that AA was kind of like Rotary or the Kiwanis: one dressed up, met folks, did service—got sober—and that there was probably an awards banquet at the end of the year. Being ambitious and self-serving I thought I needed to look good to be a member—I also figured that pretty quickly I’d figure out the hierarchy of this organization and become an officer. I knew that I couldn’t be quite that direct and out—that whole humility thing to master and be really good at—but I’d work that out.

The dressing part has come and gone over the years. By the end of year two my pendulum had swung the other way and I stopped coloring my hair and wearing make-up. Then a new sponsor said, “Recovery does not mean wearing sackcloth an ashes—go get some highlights.” And I was back.

Today, it’s true that when I am shopping and trying on clothes, I’ll think, “Where will I wear this?” Sometimes the answer is: “On weekends, for casual and to go to meetings.” AA is part of my life and part of my wardrobe.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What If?

All day today I am at my worst. Torturing myself with, “What if?”
What if I get fired? What if he loves someone else? What if she moves away? What if it’s bad news from the doctor? My imagination is experienced and powerful. I give my whole self to these questions that leave me in a puddle of anxiety and fear. I do the dialogue, sets and costumes and then I edit, edit, edit.

The energy that goes into this. The distraction from my own good life. The creativity misused.

Late in the day, as I tell a friend what I have been doing, she says, “Don’t try to stop this cold. You have too much of a habit and your ego just loves to make up these stories and deliver them to you. So work with it; ask your head to give you new versions of each story.”

So now, tired from a day of self-terrorizing I ask:

What if he proposes?
What if the MacArthur Foundation calls?
What if I have to give an award acceptance speech?
And yes:
What if I win the lottery?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Can You Say These Things?

I was wrong.

I don’t know.

I made a mistake.

I’m sorry.

It’s my fault.

You’re right.