Closing Time

Two and a half years ago, in this bar, I told my good friend Jack about how I was struggling to continue in a marriage that was emotionally abusive and psychologically destructive. He wasn’t the first person to tell me I needed to end it (not by a long shot), and in fact, he (and everyone else) had been telling me that for years, but this time he helped me to see what I needed to do in order to escape with as much of my dignity and integrity intact as possible, even though I couldn’t figure out exactly how to pull the trigger. Then I drank too much and went to sleep.

The next day, my wife told me she and her kids were moving and that we were going to file for divorce. Sometimes problems handle themselves.

While I still ended up having to do a lot of work to extricate myself from that relationship successfully, the more removed from it I become, the easier it is to look back on it with clarity and self compassion. And, like this empty, closed bar, my life has moved on to be something better than it once was.

Mom

My mom passed away peacefully on Saturday, January 27th, 2018, after nearly a decade of slowly fading from some form of progressive dementia.

When people have asked how I or members of my family are handling it, there’s a part of all of us, I think, that say something about how it is a blessing in some form, given how difficult simple activities of life had become for her.  But even blessings are hard sometimes.  Mom was only 68 years old, and started showing at least beginning signs of this in her 50’s, although we didn’t notice it at the time.

One of the cruelest parts of the decline process (and there are many) was the loss of verbal skill and understanding. Mom taught me many things.  I often find myself repeating pieces of simple wisdom she imparted to me, such as “it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” or “your problem, Pete, is that you think you have to understand everything.” Mom was a reference librarian, but even before that had been a voracious reader and thinker. Mom loved words.  She enjoyed laughing at clever phrasing in books, smiling at Dad’s frequent puns, and nodding in quiet agreement as sermons were preached or scripture was read.  And her love of the Word was something she passed on easily to those she interacted with, whether it was through praying with students or friends, or teaching her children to memorize the Scriptures for themselves. The verse I still remember her teaching me most vividly – one that has repeatedly served me well throughout life – is Proverbs 15:1, which reminds us (in the King James version) that “a soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.” I remember this most vividly, I suppose, because it wasn’t just words for mom.  Many teachers and professors have made me memorize facts, figures, history, and even Scripture throughout my life, but mom taught me to memorize Scripture because it was life – and she lived this passage, and so many others like it – in a way that was impossible to ignore, and impossible to not respect, regardless of one’s faith persuasion. And as I think back on her life, and on the many things she taught me from an early age, particularly about words, and the Word, my Christian faith tradition also reminds me that death, even death through slow decline, does not have the final word.

Thanks be to God.

not forgetting

July 18, 2017

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
Joan Didion

I’ve been asked a few times about whether I miss drinking, and it prompted me to look back on the older pics on my Instagram feed. In a few instances, I can look back and see memories of times spent with friends, of moments of quiet reverie, of enjoyment and fun, but I also see a lot of that “unattractive company” that Didion describes, and maybe that is part of what keeps me from wanting to drink again.

But I haven’t deleted those pics, because I don’t want to forget where I’ve come from. Instead, I want to continue to come to terms with that person and make right what can be made right. The idea of “forgiving myself” has always perplexed me a bit, which was hammered home during my fourth step, when my sponsor pointed out that “there’s one person notably absent from your list, and that’s Pete.” Part of making things right with Pete is clearly acknowledging everything Pete went through, without justification, rationalization, or overdramatization. Glad to be where I am today, but I got here because I was once there.

dissociation

July 18, 2017

The first person I knew who was open about her experience of dissociation due to trauma was a friend in college. She’d experienced some form of abuse from a relative as a child, and in an attempt at self-protection, her childlike mind had created a narrative that those things happening to her had actually happened to a different little girl who had just told her about those tragic experiences. I’ve had a heart for people who have experienced such trauma since, even if I didn’t always understand their thought processes entirely.

I don’t begin with that to suggest that I’ve gone through something of that magnitude – only to illustrate the degree to which the human mind is a truly amazing thing. Tonight, as I was driving back downtown for yoga class, I passed a brewery I used to frequent, and instead of thinking about how great it would be to stop in, I had the strange feeling that my experiences there had actually belonged to someone else, that some other guy named Pete had sat in the beer hall, raised a toast to his second marriage finally ending at the bar, or experienced heartbreak to the soundtrack of clinking glasses and heavy metal. It feels the farthest thing from who I am becoming now – not in an angry revenge seeking way, or a mournful memory driven way, but more of a confusing identity seeking way. Who was I then? Why did I do those things? What was I thinking?

Perhaps I’ll never have answers to those questions. The most peace I’ve had in years has come from accepting that my present moment is all I have, and that living now is more than enough. And so, as I focused on last week during yoga: “right now…it’s like this.”

the gift of desperation and me

August 15, 2017

Every time I practice yoga, I’m reminded of all the days my life fell apart. All the vulnerability of the curtains thrown back, my heart exposed like a miniature Saint Sebastian lodged in my chest, arrows multiplying and ripping through it. And perhaps worst of all was knowing that despite all of my confusion and protestation and screaming searing anger, in the end, I’d brought almost all of this on myself in one way or another.
I knew better than to have one of everything and then another round.
I knew better than to invite emotional vampires into my life.
I knew better than to distrust my instincts about whether I was being told the truth.
I knew better than to stay in situations that would lead to heartbreak.
But I did all of those things anyway.

I’ve heard longtime recovering alcoholics talk a lot about being given the “gift of desperation,” and it’s a funny thing, but I know that gift now, maybe a few years later than I should have. It is cold and hard, like the floor, but it is firm and solid, like the truth, and although it is truly an empty place, it provides a foundation and a space within which to not only recover, but to actually reconstruct. And that is where I have found life, and love, and strength, and faith, and without any sense of emotional masochism, I am endlessly thankful for the gracious gift of desperation, for without it, I would have never had a glimpse of what I might become – someone I am absolutely crazy about being.

you can’t keep what you hold on to

August 18, 2017

In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s tempting, sometimes, to take the things I’ve been given in life and build a fortress with a moat (dragon included, because dragons are awesome) around them in an attempt to keep it all for myself. There’s a sort of logic to this protectionism of the soul that I think we all feel sometimes, perhaps from the natural world. For example, if I have enough air and water and food I get to keep living longer than if someone takes those things from me. The difficult thing to remember is that life isn’t just material, and that there is a lot to it that we only sometimes get glimpses of. Sunrises. Sunsets. Children laughing. Embraces. Piercing conversations. Forgiveness lived out. A cup of coffee. Whether in these moments and things or others, every now and then the flimsy veneer of the material world gets peeled back, and (if we are paying attention) we can see how much utter abundance we live in, and how much we can very easily give away to others.

And the sacred upside down backwards crazy wonder in all of it is this: when you give your life away, you get it back, plus more. There’s a mystery to this that I won’t even pretend to understand, but having found it to be true, I have to tell you about it. You only keep what you give away, and you absolutely lose what you cling to. This isn’t some “prosperity gospel” name it and claim it and pray a Jabez prayer over everything you want. I think we’ve all been disappointed like that. It’s about seeing what you have and then being so damn grateful for it that everything in your heart overflows and pours into someone else’s place of need, and then seeing how you blessed them and being so grateful for the chance to help that your heart overflows again…you get the picture.

We often say “thank God it’s Friday,” and rightly so, but every day is a good one to be grateful.

Happy Birthday: I was going to drink anyway.

November 17, 2017

When you make the same choices over and over again for a long time and then stop, it’s kind of jarring. For example, I used to send this meme to my friends on their birthdays, and for the last seven plus months, every time a friend has had a birthday, this comes to mind. Those things just don’t work anymore.
I see it in all kinds of situations. It’s like the Big Book says: “A business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret. If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values. We did exactly the same thing with our lives. We took stock honestly.”

As my sponsor has reminded me repeatedly, this isn’t about thinking our way into some revelation. It’s about discarding things that don’t work and don’t serve us well. I have been amazed at how quickly my life gets better after I dispose of anger or resentment without regret. I have a friend who seems bent on living his life angry, and he’s had some legitimately terrible things happen to him, but when I look at my own life and think about how thoroughly hateful and bitter I spent so much of it, I see absolutely no way that holding on to anger has served me well. More often than not, anger just compounds every problem I’ve had.

So choices change, friendships change, life changes. If it is working, it stays. If it isn’t, it goes. No regrets. Maybe I won’t be as funny on your birthday this time around. Maybe I’ll not be the life of your holiday party this year. But I also won’t black out and wake up with regrets, and you won’t hate me for ruining the occasion.

I’ve got plans.

September 5, 2017

Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great…
…what usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well.
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 73.

People talk about Plan B a lot when they are in the midst of change. Plan B is reserved for when Plan A, that idealized perfect version of things, doesn’t work out. Sometimes Plan B is seen as a lifeline, whether it’s a way out of a difficult marriage or job, but more often it is a resolution that things are never going to go the way you planned, and you’re forever off the course you charted on a map you may not have anymore. And God forbid that Plan B doesn’t work out, because Plan C (if Plan C has even been conceptualized) casts doubt on your ability to make plans at all.

There’s nothing wrong with making plans. If everything we did was on impulse, we’d have a very disordered world. However, I’m starting to think that we would do well to look at parts of life like relationships and work in terms of possibilities rather than plans. We talk about “getting our hopes up,” but this is code for “having to settle for Plan B,” where Plan B isn’t as good as Plan A. The fact is, B may be better than A, and C might turn out to be the best ever. My plan A was to be a pastor. Plan B was to become a therapist. Plan C was to eventually open a small brewery with some friends. Did I want to admit that I was an alcoholic and out of control, and that Plan C was going to eventually destroy me? Of course not. But life has become amazing.

What would happen if, instead of planning for a certain outcome and then accepting only that outcome as the source of our happiness, we actually got our hopes up and then chased those hopes instead of making plans? Maybe that would look more like living, instead of planning and directing.

Labor Day

September 4, 2017

I used to love “free” holidays like Labor Day, because they meant an extra night of drinking and an extra day of being lazy because I felt like a pile of death. I’ve been trying all day to remember the last time I just enjoyed myself without a drink in hand on one of these days, and I just can’t. If you’d suggested such even six months ago, I would have laughed at the idea and called it pointless. A year ago, I would have laughed even harder and insisted that you probably needed a drink so you would be more fun.

Because that was the point, right? To have fun? I’ve been thinking back on what my life was like a year ago, and it’s just killing me. I went to a huge Oktoberfest-style party at a large local brewery and sat and drank beer all day (scroll down if you’re curious. I left the pics up to remind me to not go back to that life again), and then went home with an undiagnosed broken heart.

Life felt so confusing then. I can’t get over how clear and simple and unconfusing life is in sobriety, but there it is. And it’s better. It’s ALL better. I have tons of time, way better sleep, loads more money, all kinds of renewed interests, a renewed faith in God, better friendships, better relationships with my kids, better health, and…oh…the FOOD. Food has never been this interesting and good and life giving! Food was previously “that stuff you eat so you don’t get drunk too quickly and/or become less drunk.” But food has become so much more.

And music. Music. My guitar greets me with the forgiving embrace of a long lost lover every time I pay attention to her, and she calms me like she did before I left her to try to drink myself into oblivion. She shows me grace.

I don’t deserve any of it. I really don’t. But I love life more and more all the time.

honesty

November 28, 2017

When I was dishonest, it gave people power over me.

The irony, of course, is that most people (myself included) are dishonest to try to maintain power, usually the power that comes with a positive image or perception by others, but in doing so, we actually forfeit that power to the person or people we lie to, because we have to live with an awareness that the relationship will always be contingent on the truth never becoming known accurately, if at all.
But when I tell the truth, I actually have real power. I have the power of solid reality. I don’t walk in fear that I’ll be found out as a fraud, or that a secret will be revealed and I’ll be discredited. I just get to be myself, perfectly imperfect, and I have peace, because I don’t have to scramble to frantically cover anything up. When my life is consistent with reality – and perhaps more significantly, when I just try to do the right thing without worrying about the consequences, even if it makes me vulnerable (as in making amends for being profoundly self centered and admitting when I am wrong), I get the peace and power and serenity that I never ever got by lying, whether the lie was about how great I wanted you to think I am or about how I wasn’t truly responsible for something I had done. Life is a lot easier and less messy when I just do the right thing and keep telling the truth.