Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve--When the Bells Ring

When I was growing up my mother observed a tradition about the bells on New Years Eve. She would say to us, “Where you are when the bells ring on New Years Eve is where you will be for the rest of the coming year."

As a kid that meant that our house was clean, that our schoolwork was done and our rooms were “red up” (meaning straighten in Pittsburgh-speak). Later it meant that who you were with or how you were emotionally was how the future year would unfold, so we watched funny movies and went out at midnight to toast the New Year with the neighbors.

I carried this idea all of my life and New Years Eve has taken on great significance. One year when I knew that the relationship I was in would end soon I made sure that I was locked in my room alone at the very strike of midnight. Another year when I was trying to make my commitment to writing I made sure that I was at my typewriter and typing words when the bells rang in that New Year.

This year I will go with Susan to bring a meeting to a treatment center and then home to Dave for a late supper and a movie at home. I don’t know what this year will bring but the most important thing is that I will be sober and grateful when the bells ring tonight.

What I want most of all in this coming year is a life of greater recovery. I am grateful to be out of the woods.

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Revolution

Will you make a New Year’s revolution this week? I think they are better called revolutions than resolutions. To resolve sounds so rigid, so staid and stiff like a stick, “I resolve!”

But a revolution means turning. We turn things around, we turn things away, we turn things over. Yes we do, we turn them over again and again. That is our Third Step: “Made a decision to turn…”

So for 2014: What will you turn toward this year? And what will you turn away from?

My list includes turning toward: more fresh foods, more whole foods, more conscious eating, more God in my life, more yoga and meditation, more walking---especially the fast kind that makes me joyful and aerobic, more dance, more water, more art, more time with recovery friends, more quiet at home, more writing life, more teaching, more spiritual direction, and….

And I want to turn away from: fear, old schemas, shopping as a distraction, internet and social media, long to-do lists, sugar, scaring myself, judging others, interrupting my creative work, gossip, fear—yeah most of what I want to turn away from is based in fear ….

So maybe my revolution this year is about more faith and less fear, turning toward God and away from fear.

So will you start a revolution this year? What will youl turn away from? And what will you turn toward?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Bright Side of Alcoholism

Here's a little gift  to make you smile--I've just read about a new book which details the lives of several American writers who were alcoholic.  The book is called, "The Trip to Echo Spring" and it was written by Olivia Laing.

The review in today's Wall Street Journal is called "Writers on the Rocks"--a great title I think, and the reviewer, Henry Allen, opens with this line: "Strange how seldom we talk about the bright side of alcoholism, the glow."

He goes on to offer some wonderful quotes from America's best writers and drinkers--some of whom were able to describe alcoholism even as they were dying of it. He includes the great line from F. Scott Fitzgerald who famously said (and AA famously paraphrased), "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."

Olivia Laing, author of "The Trip to Echo Springs" is British, chose to write about American writers--all men and all alcoholic. She did not include any woman as subjects because, she says, it would "cut too close to the bone of her own family alcoholism."

This new book sounds like a great gift for writers, for recovering people and especially for recovering writers.

Here's the link to today's review of "The Trip to Echo Spring":


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Recovering Christmas

Christmas and long-term recovery: It changes every year. It involves negotiation and discernment. While some of the holiday habits are always black and white (alcohol) some are grey (food) and some are passionately colorful (relationships).

Holidays have changed so much over these recovering years. From white-knuckled not drinking, to staying away from places and people who drank, to staying away from all family—two years of not speaking to my family of origin while I did the heavy lifting work in Alanon. Then backing into the grey—seeing folks, learning not to lecture (and torture) them, bringing my own beverages and for some years even my own food.

The years of crying when my family sent gifts of alcohol and candy ignoring my abstinence and sobriety, and then years of just crying because I was watching them die—and not me. And then more years of laughing, sighing and just accepting.

Relationships on and off and on again. Marriage and divorce through the holidays. More addictions uncovered, dreaded, accepted, recovered. Crying over all that and then, much later, laughing too.

Now it’s clear that I don’t drink. Guests are welcome to bring their own booze if they take it when they leave. It’s not a temptation. Food is different. Less black and white but always awareness or awareness after the fact and honored in the breach. One cookie? Two? Candy? Well…. Some can stay in the house, some can’t even enter. I no longer demand that other people change their lives for my food plan.

Lots of prayer and an ongoing program. A wonderful sponsor, a recovering family of choice, a spiritual director, sober friends, Alanon friends, OA friends, wise friends who’ve never had any addictions. Lots of gratitude.

Now a new year doesn’t require big promises and big lists of Do’s and Don’ts. The only resolution is keep recovery first. I’m grateful and happy. Long-term recovery: It’s a wonderful life.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Beliefs and Fears

I have been thinking a lot about old beliefs and how they feed my fears. Yes, old childhood stuff—beliefs that I am not lovable, will be abandoned, am defective and that I must subjugate myself to redress all of the above. The schema—as they are called in cognitive therapy—do in fact, scheme. They conspire and work together. The fear of being unlovable is built on the belief of being defective, so how could you love me? Therefore you’ll abandon me. To try to prevent that I subjugate myself and then I get mad at you and then at me. It’s a not very merry Merry-Go-Round of bad beliefs and bad feelings.

To break the cycle I have to have new beliefs. We say “old tapes” but now I know they are so deeply imbedded that they are closer to subliminal messages. I can do the work of catching and changing those messages when I am aware of them but so often I seem to “come to” in the middle of being convinced that one of my fear thoughts is absolutely true. Somehting like,  “She doesn’t like me.”  “They don’t want to be friends with me”. Or the bottom-line  “I’ll be alone and sad.”

There is  a lot that I can do about this way of thinking but after that it really is God’s work. I think that’s what steps six and seven are about: Do what I can to change these underlying beliefs—they are after all what leads to lying, cheating, gossiping and being mean. But then I also need God to help me and to heal me and that is my ongoing prayer.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

In the Dark Street Shineth

Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Hanukah is done but Christmas is next week. We may complain about our errands and even about some of the folks on our list, but we do enjoy the festivity the holidays bring to our gray December days.

It’s no coincidence. The holidays that celebrate light, Hanukah and Christmas, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the religions of nature led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to run from the darkness.

We know that ancient man feared that the sun had died.  It was his terror that the heat and light were gone. To coax the sun god back our ancient relatives created rituals.  The Druids lit bonfires. Now we celebrate with candles and lights in our windows.

Spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The vehicle is mystery and a miracle, whether it’s oil that lasts eight days or the birth of a baby in a barn.

In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Weather is the least of it. We all have moments of darkness: our grief, fears and regrets. The darkness we fear most, of course, is the grave. We still think we can outrun it. So some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps or light boxes; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Like our ancestors we too want the sun to come back and give us life again. So we go to the stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings as we gather at the mall where we may find what passes for community.

But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is about distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and light candles and eat too much. And we complain. A lot. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.

We talk of holiday depression as if it’s somehow wrong or an aberration. But these holidays we’re celebrating, Hanukah and Christmas, are also about darkness. Sometimes we forget that. But it’s true: the flip side of each story is about the darkness at the edge of the light.

The words of this Christmas carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. Occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.

So maybe there is another way to experience this day. On this, the darkest night, what if we allowed the darkness and went toward it, daring ourselves to sit still before we light the candles or the tree. What if we sat a moment seeing the tree in darkness--and breathed. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Starting tomorrow our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.