Wednesday, May 26, 2010

With Gratitude (from the Prison)

I stopped by my local Al-Anon information center to pick up prison books today. The woman who works there was glad I did because it cleared up a mystery. She had been receiving anonymous checks from different parts of the country requesting that they be used for copies of "Courage to Change" for the prison program.

When I first checked with her (before I posted about the books), there were four books. Today there were nine.

Those of you who heeded the call, I thank you. Your donations will make a difference in someone's life.

The Trouble With Paradise

Lately, I’ve been thinking that my recovery has been going pretty well. My daily gratitude list is long. My inventory of fears is short. Most days, I feel happy and serene. And that’s the problem.

It’s a problem because when things start to go too well, I begin to struggle with humility. Once again I begin to think I’m pretty smart, that I have all the answers. I forget that I didn’t get here under my own power.

I came into this program utterly defeated. Life had humbled me. And that was a blessing. Because only then was I willing to try a new way. Being humbled made me teachable.

I heard someone say once that humility is like a mirage. It shimmers off in the distance. As soon as we think we have reached it, we put out our hand to touch it, and it dissolves before our eyes.

It’s been like that for me.

That same person told a story about a pastor of a church who had been declared the most humble pastor in the country by a selection committee that had combed every corner of the land. The congregation was so excited that it had buttons printed up that said “most humble pastor in the country.”

Sadly, the congregation had to fire the pastor when he showed up the next Sunday wearing the button.

And that’s the problem with humility. As soon as I say I have it, that’s pride and ego speaking. The mirage floats away.

I can only keep working on my intention by reminding myself that I only get a daily reprieve based on my spiritual condition, and by realizing that life will not always feel this way.

I will fall off the beam.

This is not projecting. It’s acceptance. I’ve seen it happen to people with many years in the program. And I’ve watched them climb back up using the tools of the program.

When my sponsor presented me with my chip on my last Al-Anon birthday, she said, “If you talk to Kathy, there’s a serenity about her. Maybe that’s the gift of this age.

“Don’t get used to it.”

I wonder if those times we fall off the beam serve the same purpose as the brokenness so many of us feel when we come into these rooms. It reminds us that we are not in charge. That we do not have all the answers. That we don’t do this under our own power.

Until then, the best way I know to find humility is to get on my knees each morning in prayer. Just the act of prayer is an act of humility, because when I pray to God, I admit that I am not God.

And I pray in the position of humility because thoughts follow actions. If I accept the position of humility often enough, long enough, sincerely enough, the feeling will follow.

One day at a time.

Hubby and I are off to the land later today. I hope you all enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. I’ll drop by when we return.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

There are certain places I’ve felt instantly, viscerally at home. That’s how I felt about New England and the small town where I lived. Other places took a while. The deep South was a culture shock to a girl who had grown up in L.A. And the sprawling metropolitan desert city I now inhabit? Well let’s just say it had to grow on me.

The thing is, it has. It’s where I belong.

Today, I also feel that way about my Al-Anon home group. I feel a part of things. I feel accepted. I feel loved. But I didn’t always. It wasn’t the group I wanted to make my home group. It was too far away and too late. I wanted to make a different group my home group. One that was closer and earlier and that I loved immediately and with all my heart.

But God had other plans. I couldn’t attend that group regularly. Taking service commitments would have been problematic. But Monday night? I’m almost always home on a Monday night. And over time, God firmly planted me there.

Looking around the room last night, I realized that I couldn’t leave the group if I wanted to. Scattered about the room, I saw most of my little Al-Anon family, five of my six sponsees. They are there every week. The only one who doesn’t attend this meeting lives out of town. So now I’m like a potted plant, and the thing is I’m thriving where I’ve been planted.

That was in keeping with the topic of last night’s meeting. It was yesterday’s reading from “Courage to Change.” It begins:

“In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. Of the two, the last is much the worse.’

Translation: My will gets me into trouble…. Maybe that’s why not one of the steps talks about carrying out my will.”

The rest of the reading was about learning to let go of self-will and instead seeking the guidance of a Higher Power.

I can relate to this on so many levels. I’ve been trying to impose my will for as long as I’ve drawn breath. In the AA Big Book, that’s referred to as “self-will run riot.”

But today, I can also see how it’s only gotten me into trouble.

Here’s something I came across on a website about Al-Anon. I was directed there by a blogger, but I can’t remember which one, it’s been so long ago.

This quote from a psychologist who specializes in addiction got my attention:

“I do not insist that the patient or I make a clear connection between the patient’s complaints and the presence of alcoholism. I suggest the patient use AlAnon as part of the diagnostic process and I use the familiar recommendation that the person may decide after attending six meetings whether the program seems to be useful.

“Frequently the most useful information emerges from the patient’s reactions to the AlAnon meetings. A feeling of not belonging is usually connected to the sense of estrangement that is common among alcoholic families. If the patient felt burdened by listening to others at a meeting, it is a telltale sign that this person assumes overwhelming responsibility for someone else’s behavior.”

In other words, feeling you don’t belong is a good sign that you do. Hence the recommendation to attend six meetings.

It reminded me of something I heard someone say at a meeting recently. She said Al-Anon had taught her that the right thing to do was often exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do, or did instinctively.

For me, this means that my will and God’s plans are seldom the same. So I don’t use my feelings as a guide as much as I used to. I didn’t “want” to make my Monday night my home group. But God seemed to have other ideas. The circumstances in my life kept pointing me in that direction. So I stayed.

Today I know that God’s surprises always work out better than my plans. I also know that God always wins. Acceptance just makes it easier for me.

Sometimes that just means doing what’s in front of me, asking for the next right action, until God puts something else there. Then I work on that. I don’t see these unplanned interruptions as unwelcome intrusions anymore. I see then as welcome guidance, and I embrace them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fear? So what?

This was a line in a book I just finished. I don't remember the context. Only the line. It's a great one. And it's just how I feel about fear today.

Before Al-Anon, I had a hard time identifying my feelings. Today, I can identify them as well as what's behind them. Usually, if I drill down far enough, I'll hit a well of fear. And then I can let it go.

"That's just fear," I can tell myself.

In this program, I've heard fear referred to as

False
Expectations
Appear
Real

I like this, because I've found that many of my fears are irrational, and most of the things I feared never happened.

In my fourth step inventory, I identified my fears. Through meditation, I got to know them well. Like the Wizard of Oz, I pulled back the curtain to find a homely little man.

"That's what I've been afraid of all this time?" I wanted to laugh.

Fear lost its power over me.

Now when fear wells up, I can face it down.

"I know you," I tell it. "You don't scare me."

Mostly. And on my best days.

Of course, there are days when I am more fearful than others. And as an Al-Anon, I do have fears that are not irrational. Like the fact that my daughter could die from this disease.

But I'm powerless over that. I can turn it over to God. I can pray for acceptance. I can live my life.

Free of fear.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sages of the Funny Pages


Every now and then, I come across a cartoon that really speaks to my recovery.

Early in my recovery it was something in the comic strip, "Get Fuzzy." "Get Fuzzy" is about a comic strip writer and his two pets, a not-too-bright dog named Satchel and an malicious cat named Bucky. My husband and I read it because it reminds us of our own pets.

Anyway, for some reason I didn't cut out the strip that day, but I did write out this line and put it in my copy of the Al-Anon daily reader "One Day at a Time."

"I don't feel it's healthy to keep your faults bottled up inside me." --Bucky Kat

I wrote this down because that's, in essence, what I did. I took on things that did not belong to me, and made them mine.

I saw this cartoon in the paper yesterday.

The crab is saying "Ariel!! What did your father tell you about working with humans?"

Ariel answers, "But they really need my help!"

Meanwhile, oil billows out below and the caption reads "The failure of plan ABCDEFGHIJKLM, with all but the last letter crossed out.

I was Ariel, with my hardhat and my wrench and my toolbox naiively rushing out to fix a problem that was beyond my ability to solve.

The caption could have represented all the "fixes" I did that failed to resolve anything.

Ice crystals always developed in my concrete box.

Today's Reminder in ODAT once again tells me "I will apply the wisdom of the First Step (admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable) not only to my relations with the alcoholic, but to all the people and happenings in my life. I will not attempt to manage or control what is clearly beyond my powers; I will dedicate myself to managing my own life, and only mine."

Today, I still have my toolbox. But I've replaced the tools with those I've acquired in Al-Anon. And the only person I use them on is myself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Needed: Courage to Change

One of my favorite things about Al-Anon is the Just for Todays.

Since my first Al-Anon meeting, I have thought they contained the recipe for a good life.

The only thing was, how could anyone possibly do those all those things every day? I mean, spending "a quiet half-hour all myself" to relax sounds like heaven. But some days I could barely manage to get dinner on the table, nevermind a quiet half hour.

Then there was this one:

"Just for Today, I will do someone a good turn and not get found out."

That was the one I couldn't get my head around. I wasn't that creative. How could I think of something like that to do every day?

Then, at a meeting, the woman who was delivering a greeting for the newcomers talked about the Just for Todays. She said the suggestion she had been given was to focus on just one of those Just for Todays each day.

"Some days, it's all I can do just to 'be courteous and criticize not one bit,'" I remember her saying.

I was grateful for that bit of advice. But I confess it allowed me to pick and choose the Just for Todays I liked the best.

Doing someone a good turn and not get found out still bedevils me.

If it bedevils you, too, I can offer a suggestion.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know of the Al-Anon service work that I do in the state prison, and you no doubt remember that the meeting I attend struggles with attendance. But that's not the case with all the meetings.

There are six different facilities in the prison, and each of them has an Al-Anon program. Some of them are quite large and growing. The prison coordinator, who is my Al-Anon partner at the meeting I attend, told me they are struggling to fill the demand for books.

At this point, the prison has only authorized the book "Courage to Change."

When they attend Al-Anon meetings, inmates bring an attendance sheet that is signed by the Al-Anon volunteers at the meeting. Once they have attended six meetings, they are given a book.

The only problem is that there haven't been enough book donations to cover the number of inmates who have earned them.

The prison coordinator, who lives in a different district closer to the prison, asked me to coordinate a donation effort in my district. I'm doing that.

But I thought I'd also bring my appeal here.

If you're looking for a way to be of service, that won't cost you much in time or money but that could make a big difference in someone's life, I'd ask you to consider the donation of a new or used "Courage to Change."

My local Al-Anon information center stores the books for the prison program. If you are interested in helping, I'd ask that you send a copy of "Courage to Change" or a check for $12 with a note that you'd like to purchase a copy of "Courage to Change" for the prison. In either case, please be sure to clearly indicate that you intend your donation for the prison program.

Here's the address:

East Valley Al-Anon Information Center 1320E Broadway Rd, Ste #109, Mesa AZ 85204

Thank you.

Hubby and I are off on assignment later today and will be gone for a few days. I hope you all stay well. I'll drop by for a visit when we return.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Having recently had my birthday, I’m in the process of a new fourth step.

In my line of sponsorship, we do a new fourth step every year, once we finish working the steps.

The first is a narrative fourth step. The second is an AA-style inventory taken straight out of the Big Book. Every year after that, we begin “peeling the onion,” as my sponsor puts it, by taking a focused topic and doing an inventory on that topic.

Doing this second inventory is interesting to me. Having a different format makes me think of things a little differently. Some things I hadn’t addressed directly and straightforwardly in my first fourth step, like my fears. Though they lingered on every page.

But what strikes me most about this time around is how much lighter it feels.

My first inventory felt like that kind of cleaning and organizing that requires months of work in little pieces, moving from room to room to decide what to keep, what to donate, what to throw away.

It felt overwhelming at times. So much had accumulated.

I felt like one of those garage renovation projects you see on TV, where a consultant comes in toting heavy equipment, armed with tips, hooks, plastic boxes and a label maker.

In the thick of things, it gets messy. Stuff is strewn in piles all over the driveway and lawn. It seems things will never get put back together. Then there’s the shot at the end: the floor is clean, the bikes and garden tools are neatly organized and hung up in their places, and the owner drives the car into the garage for the first time in years.

That’s what my first inventory felt like.

This time feels more like a good spring cleaning. There are a few cobwebs. The shelves have gotten dusty. I’ve let some of the junk mail pile up.

But it’s more like a Saturday job. Easily managed with a little help from Mr. Clean. It’s the kind of spring cleaning that makes you feel good, even as you’re doing it.

Then, at the end of the day, you collapse into a chair with your favorite tea, the scent of pine cleaner still in the air. The muscles might feel a little sore. But only a little, and in a good way.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thanks a Lot!

“Sponsorship is not placing someone in authority over you; it’s asking someone to hold you accountable.”

I got this definition from Mr. Sponsorpants, and I liked it so much, I wrote it down and taped it to my computer.

Funny thing is how well it works in reverse.

My sponsor used to tell me that one day I’d be blessed with a bug that was attracted to my light. That’s how she described her sponsees, as her little bugs.

I hoped so. I had no idea how well I’d be blessed.

Sponsorship is truly a case of getting back more than I give. It’s a case of getting back what I didn’t know I needed.

I thought about this weekend as I received a gratitude list from a sponsee.

I usually talk about gratitude early on with my sponsees under the category of recommended practices:

Attend two Al-Anon meetings and one open AA or NA meeting a week, pray on your knees at least once a day, read one of Al-Anon’s books of daily meditations each day and practice some form of gratitude every day.

I usually leave the gratitude part open ended. I suggest they might put their gratitude list in a prayer, write it in a journal, post it on the Internet, e-mail it to someone. “Try different things and do what works for you,” I say.

My own method has always been to pray my gratitude list first thing in the morning. I try to limit it to things I’m grateful for for the last 24 hours, to keep from repeating myself. I can always fall back on “that I have a roof over my head, that I have enough to eat, reliable transportation, my husband…” the things I’m grateful for every day. But I try to stretch myself.

It’s worked for me. The more I practice gratitude, the more grateful I become. I begin to see gratitude in everything.

Sometimes, with my sponsees, gratitude is prescriptive. If a sponsee is really down and can’t seem to see anything positive, I usually start asking questions about their gratitude practice.

One sponsee, in particular, was having a problem with her practice. She could never think of anything to put on the list beyond one thing, and it was the same thing every day.

“Is she e-mailing you her list?” my sponsor asked when I talked with her about it. “She needs to be accountable.”

And that’s how it started. She e-mailed me a list. I e-mailed one back.

I e-mailed my list to encourage her and to give her some examples. Perhaps she’d be inspired by something on my list and realize that she, too, was grateful for that.

Funny thing is, the exercise started to affect me in ways I hadn’t envisioned. I never thought I had a problem with gratitude, but sharing my list with someone else brought it to a whole new level.

Gratitude is an intimate thing. If you know what a person is grateful for on a daily basis, you truly know something about their heart. If you share your gratitude with someone else, you begin see the outlines of your own.

I found that the daily contact with my sponsee made me feel closer to her. I knew something about what was happening in her life each and every day. My heart expanded just a little.

So did my gratitude. I found myself noticing things as I went through the day. I was grateful for the bird singing outside my window, for the sharpness of my knife as it flawlessly sliced a tomato. I made mental notes for possible inclusion in my list. But when my sponsee's list came in, I found a whole new list emerged. It’s been fascinating.

So now, I encourage the practice with all my sponsees. With every list I receive, my gratitude expands exponentially.

So today, as I think of gratitude, I realize I am grateful for my sponsees. I'm greateful for their unexpected gifts. I'm grateful for the way they hold me accountable.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hope for Today

Up until now, I have studiously avoided Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” It was too much of a sensation. So, like most things that are wildly popular, I viewed it with suspicion. But my stepdaughter insisted, and finally gave me the book. Not to appear rude, I read it. Or I should say, I’m reading it.

Being a blog that chronicles one person's recovery in Al-Anon, I should say upfront that “Eat, Pray, Love” is not Al-Anon conference approved literature. But I found recovery on nearly every page.

That’s one of the blessings of the program, I think. You start to recognize recovery everywhere, even when it goes by another name.

Anyway, I wondered if my stepdaughter knew how well I’d relate to the tale. I don’t think I’m giving too much away. But if you are the last person in America who hasn’t read the book besides me and don’t want to know anything that might possibly spoil it for you, stop reading.

To recap: Woman in her 30s goes through a devastating divorce followed immediately by a passionate, doomed relationship, finds herself in her bathroom on her knees for the first time begging for God’s help. Until this moment, she doesn’t believe in God. She admits to control issues. The word “detachment” leaves her cold. Yet, completely broken, she embarks on a yearlong spiritual journey that includes an ashram in India.

It all sounded eerily familiar.

Except I was in my 40s. Relationship #1 wasn’t a marriage, but close. But there was a tumultuous, doomed rebound relationship, utter brokenness, the desire for answers, and new and sudden belief in God that surprised no one more than me.

Also, while there wasn’t an Ashram in India, there was a fitness spa in Mexico, which, like Gilbert’s journey was financed by a writing assignment. And that’s where my nascent spiritual journey grew legs.

Interestingly, I was attending Al-Anon meetings at the suggestion of a friend. I loved Al-Anon, but I didn’t have an active alcoholic in my life at the time and I hadn’t yet realized that that my problems in relationships had everything to do with the disease of alcoholism.

So I didn’t get a sponsor or work the steps, and I ultimately quit going.

But at this fitness spa, I found beautiful gardens a la “Eat, Pray, Love.” I ate a healthful diet, took daily classes in Yoga and meditation. Participated in a writing workshop. In the evenings, I sat on my casita’s beautiful patio and pondered my life.

It lasted only three days, but I took those new practices home with me. I took more classes in Yoga and meditation. Began to pray regularly, on my knees. Though I wasn’t yet working a program, I read a book about relationships and took the suggestions.

I was willing to try a new way.

Looking back on it now, I see that book as being filled with Al-Anon principles. Listen without interrupting. Don’t jump in to help unless you’re asked. If you are asked for your opinion, give it honestly. If not, keep your mouth shut.

It was the beginning.

And, yes. Like Gilbert, at the end of my nearly yearlong journey I met the man with whom I've been happily married for nearly eight years.

It took another crisis a few years later to bring me to Al-Anon, this time with my daughter. And this time it was obvious that my problem concerned substance abuse. I finally knew I was in the right place.

But before Al-Anon, there were all these other things. The world is full of recovery, when we look.

For all I know, “Eat, Pray, Love” may have inspired a whole movement of spiritual journeys. You never know how seeds get planted, where they will lead, or how they grow.

Sometimes, they even lead into the rooms of Al-Anon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Fear Factor, Part 2

In Al-Anon, we’re taught to get out of God’s way.

What I have come to take as an article of faith is that my alcoholic has her own God and that God is not me. That my daughter’s God has her just where he needs her. That whatever God has arranged in her life is ultimately for her benefit. When I got involved, trying to “help,” I was just getting in God’s way.

When I first came to Al-Anon, I grabbed onto the slogan “Let Go and Let God” like a lifeline. I couldn’t imagine letting go of my daughter to fall into a pit. But I could release her to a loving God. I imagined wrapping her up in a warm, soft blanket and handing her over.

And for the most part, with time and practice, I found peace.

But sometimes fear creeps in. Even now.

When I came into Al-Anon, I thought my daughter surely had reached bottom. Then I watched her situation degrade until it seemed quite dire.

I started to wonder if I shouldn’t be doing something. I began to question whether it was right to do nothing. This is, after all, the worst economy since the Great Depression. Maybe it wasn’t entirely her fault. Maybe she just needed a little help.

Then I remembered all that had come before. All the help she had. All the choices she made. I couldn’t deny that she was where she was as a result of her choices. I also couldn’t deny that every time I “fixed” a crisis, she created another. This wasn’t something I could fix.

In the past month or so, I’ve been aware of a growing anxiety, which is just another name for fear. I believe, absolutely, that fear is simply a lack of faith. So I didn’t work on fear. I worked on faith.

I spent more and more time on my knees. I prayed every prayer I knew: the Lord’s Prayer, the long version of the Serenity Prayer, the prayers for step 3 and 7. The Prayer of St. Frances. The Acceptance Prayer.

I prayed prayers of my own composition. Not for anything specific. I prayed for God’s guidance. I prayed to know his will for me. I prayed the courage to carry that out, whatever it was. I prayed his will be done for my daughter. That he wrap her in His Grace and Mercy.

I got serious about meditation. I took more and longer meditation breaks. I intensified my gratitude practice by moving in from prayers to paper and sharing it with others. I took a daily fear inventory. I wrote my letters to God, per the daily inventory handed down through my line of sponsorship.

Then one day, a woman I hadn’t seen in a while rolled into my Wednesday Al-Anon meeting late. She was pushing a double stroller with two sleeping toddlers. Her hair was tied back carelessly and she wore no makeup. She looked tired. She was a little distracted, making sure the kids were tucked in and comfortable.

This woman is my age, and as far as I knew didn’t have any kids that age, so I imagined that these were her grandkids. When we broke up into groups, she was in mine. She shared that her daughter had overdosed and died just before Thanksgiving. So now she was raising these kids.

She said she was grateful for the Al-Anon program because without it, she never would have had the courage to face this situation.

“I knew people died from this disease,” she said. “I used to say that to other people: People die. But I never thought it would be my daughter."

As she spoke, there was a peacefulness about her. There was acceptance.

As I mentioned, this woman is my age. She also has my name. Her qualifier is her daughter. None of this was lost on me.

I went home and prayed for acceptance.

Then I got a call today from my daughter. She’s in a long-term residential program that provides housing, support in looking for work, and drug and alcohol treatment. She’s been sober for 50 days. Completely sober. No drugs, no alcohol, no psychiatric meds.

"It's been a long time since I've been sober," she admitted.

She has completed parenting classes and is attending the facility's drug and alcohol classes every day in addition to AA and NA meetings. She told me she’s “into it.”

I wanted to cry right there on the phone. Of course, I got down on my knees to send up a prayer of thanks.

I always tell my sponsees that this program is to teach us to be happy whether the alcoholic is drinking or not. Often when we get out of the way, our loves ones find recovery. Sometimes they don’t. We are powerless either way. That's between our loved ones and God.

I accepted the fact that my daughter might always be in the category of “sometimes they don’t.” She still might not. I can’t have any expectations. I only know that this felt like an answer to my prayers.

My fear inventory will be blissfully empty today.

But I know that I only get a daily reprieve based on my spiritual condition. So I will continue to flex those faith and gratitude muscles. I will work on acceptance. No matter what happens.

Hubby and I are off to the land today. I’ll check in with everyone on our return. Meanwhile, take care.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life is Good


There’s something about waking up to a nice surprise that sets the tone for the day. So I’m grateful this morning to Shen of Reunited Selves for the honor of this “Life is Good” award. Thank you, Shen.

The award requires that I answer a few questions and pass the award along to other bloggers, so here goes:


1. What would you perfect day consist of?

A quiet, early morning spent in unhurried prayer and meditation. A bit of time spent writing and checking in on blogging friends. Curling up on a comfortable chair in the back yard with a good book. Some time spent with people I enjoy, particularly if it involves good food that I don’t have to cook and dishes that I don’t have to wash, followed by a good night’s sleep in the arms of my husband.

2. How would you describe yourself if you were an item of clothing?

Hmmm. I’ve thought of what kind of a tree or bird I might be, but never an article of clothing. Probably a little, loose-fitting sundress—light, comfortable and informal, meant to wear with flip-flops.

3. What hobbies are you currently working on?

Hobbies? Hey, I’m an Al-Anon. The quiet, serious, haven’t-got-time for hobbies type. So the hobby question remains a stumper, and reminds me that God is not finished with me yet. But here are some things I enjoy: being in nature, walking, reading, writing, meditation and prayer, going to meetings, blogging. If any of those things qualify as hobbies, then they are mine.

4. Walking in the woods in wellies or bare foot on the beach?

Not sure I can answer this. These are two of my favorite things, and they represent two parts of my character.

I grew up in Southern California and joined the Navy because it would mean I always lived near water (though it turns out you can be in the Navy and live nowhere near the ocean). To me, the affect of the ocean is meditative. It also makes me feel small. I am reminded how large and unknowable the world is.

On the other hand, I love the woods at an immediate, primal level. I moved to New England and felt I had found my true “home.” I spent hours in the woods and felt peace there, along with moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Where the ocean felt vast and unapproachable, the forest was personal and close.

5. Have you ever hugged or sang to a tree?

Um. No. Sorry. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love trees.

6. Growing your own veggies or nipping to the supermarket?

One of the fondest memories of my childhood was the year my mother planted a vegetable garden. I don’t remember all we had, but I do remember that we grew corn, tomatoes, squash and green beans. The corn grew in rows along the side of the house, and the other vegetables grew in the flower bed. One night, my mom made dinner of nothing but vegetables. Typical kid, I didn’t even like vegetables, but that was one of the best meals in my memory.

In New Hampshire, I had a vegetable garden and I loved it. Every afternoon, my daughter and I would go out into the garden and pick whatever was ripe, and that’s what we’d have for dinner. My daughter used to eat the green beans raw before we even got to the house.

These days, I don’t really have a spot for a garden. I miss it. But my stepdaughter grows vegetables and shares the bounty with us.

7. Have you found anyone exciting in your family tree?

My grandfather (not by blood, but the only grandfather I knew) was a famous bowler. Hank Marino was inducted into the Bowling Hall of Fame and named the best bowler of the first half of the century.

He came to this country from Sicily when he was 11 and didn’t speak English. He earned enough money working as a barber to open his own shop at age 16. He started bowling because a customer of his owned a bowling alley and Grampy thought it only right to return his patronage. He was entirely self-taught.

About 1940, he built a bowling alley in Santa Monica with two partners, one of whom was the silent film star Harold Lloyd. The fa├žade is considered historic from the standpoint of architecture and has been preserved, though the building was first converted to retail space and then to condos.

Grampy had two sons, who never met until his funeral. Oddly, he called them both “Buddy.”

8. Slap up meal in a posh restaurant or fish 'n' chips from the wrapper?

I love a fine meal, but my most memorable food memories involve humble meals. Top of my list was a Maine restaurant I used to always visit on drives up the coast. You could buy a whole lobster for $6. It was served on a paper place with a garden salad and a baked potato, and diners ate on picnic tables.

A close second were the seasonal drive-up restaurants in New England and the northeast, particularly a place called Jumpin Jacks, in Scotia, New York, where my daughter and I used to get grilled cheese sandwiches and root beer floats.

Also, the little mom and pop ice cream places that were all over New England that made their own ice cream on site. One in Jaffrey, New Hampshire comes to mind.

9. Which element do you most resonate with, Earth, Air, Fire or water?

Water. I am drawn to water of all types: ocean, ponds, lakes, rivers. If there is even a little trickle in the creeks on our land, I like to sit where I can hear it to meditate.

10. Do you believe in fairies?

I don’t know much about fairies, but I do believe in angels. I think angels are those people you have fleeting, unexpected encounters with who give you what you most need at the moment you most need it. Then you never see them again.

Now, I’d like to pass this award on to bloggers who remind me that life is, indeed, good. If you don’t accept awards, please know that my heart is in the right place.

Akannie at Elegant Blessings, because her blog always leaves me feeling that life is good.

Louisey at Letting Go: Recovery in the Sunlight, because she writes so beautifully that even ordinary and difficult things strike me as lovely.

Tammy at Finally Free, who inspires me regularly with utter joyfulness in her faith.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fear and Loathing

I was glad to see two more inmates at our prison meeting last night. That made three, so there were at least more inmates than Al-Anon volunteers.

It was a good meeting.

Last month, my Al-Anon partner decided it might help to turn control of the meeting over to the inmates. So she gave a folder to the one inmate who attended our last meeting and that inmate seems to have taken her responsibility seriously.

Apparently, on another Monday, the Al-Anon volunteers didn’t come, so she held the meeting herself, with one other inmate.

It’s a humble beginning. But it’s a beginning. And there’s nothing wrong with humble.

I thought last night’s meeting was a good one. There was discussion on a number of topics, but it seemed that the common thread was fear.

I have heard fear described as a primary emotion, and that strikes me as true.

When I have any number of other emotions—resentment, anger—fear is what’s really at the bottom of all of it.

It makes sense to me that the daily inventory that was handed down through my line of sponsorship involves writing five things I’m grateful for and five things I fear every day, because those are two of the biggest things I struggle with as an Al-Anon, and they work in opposition to each other.

What I’ve come to believe in this program is that fear is simply a lack of faith. Because if I believe that God is in charge, that he knows what’s best for me, and that he has arranged everything in my life for my benefit. More than that, if I believe that he has arranged everything in the lives of everyone I love in the same way… Then I cannot be in fear. The only possible response is gratitude.

So for me, fear and gratitude are opposites, and the key to both is faith.

Faith is the greatest gift I’ve received in this program.

Of course, I didn’t just tell myself that one day and believe it. I’ve found that faith and gratitude are like muscles. They get stronger the more they are exercised. So I exercise them daily. I exercise my gratitude muscle with daily prayers of gratitude and with a written gratitude list.

I exercise my faith on my knees and in meditation. I exercised my faith by behaving as if I believed these things, and I found one day that I did. Because the other thing that I learned in this program is that I have to take actions for the feelings to follow. First, I had to try. Then I believed.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dear Mom...

Happy Mother’s Day.

It’s hard to believe how much time has passed since you’ve been gone. Ten years this October. It’s gone by in a blink. So much has changed. I finally got married again. He’s a great guy. You’d really like him. We’ve been married going on eight years now. Can you believe it? I can’t.

We started dating as his own mother was dying of cancer. Maybe he sensed I understood what it was like to lose one’s mother. Even if—maybe especially if—that relationship was complicated. Theirs was. So was ours. But I don’t need to tell you that.

If I have any regrets where you are concerned, it would have to be that I never got to say my amends to you before you died.

I have to say “before you died,” because I did do an amends of sorts.

I had you in my closet, so my Al-Anon sponsor… Did I mentioned that I’ve been going to Al-Anon?… Anyway, my sponsor teased me that I wouldn’t have to do a graveside amends, but I had to take you out of the closet and integrate you into my life. She said I had always kept you in the closet, both in life and in death, and it was time to release you.

She was right, of course.

I was good at holding grudges, and I held mine against you for a long time. I never told you that. I tried my best on Mother’s Day’s and Christmases and other occasions, but I’m sure you knew. I withheld my love.

In your last years, I could see that you loved me, and that you were trying. I thought, “too little, too late.”

I wondered about our mother line. I was having trouble with my own daughter by then. I loved her—still love her—more than words can express, yet she seemed to hate me. I wondered if it were a curse of our family. That we were doomed to love our children and be hated in return.

I know you felt guilty when your own mother died because you weren’t sorry she was dead. You cried a lot about it. I didn’t know until after you had passed that you had refused to go to her funeral, but Uncle Bob insisted and paid for your ticket. Aunt Cleo told me that.

I called her to see if she could fill in some blanks. At some point, I realized I had all these questions, and no one to ask. I don’t even know how you met my dad or why you loved him. I tried to report my life as if I were doing research for a story. I remember you always called Bob and Cleo when you were upset. Or, as Cleo put it, when you were “in your cups.” I had no idea she was a teetotaler. And so judgmental! But there you are.

So you always talked to Bob, not Cleo. And now he’s dead, too.

So is your college roommate, Ann. I was sorry to hear that. She was so very kind to include us in all her family’s Thanksgivings.

So much is lost. I did find some things though. The letter you wrote to your friend, the attorney, to see if you might get custody of me back from Granny. You sounded so hopeful. I read that letter and wanted us to succeed. I believed we could!

There were some letters between you and Granny that told me a lot about both of you. And adoption papers from when Roly adopted me. I have to tell you, some of that stuff made my blood run cold. That a man with his arrest record could be considered a fit parent?

I can see how you could have been blinded by your feelings for him. But the courts? I have to say I just don’t get it. And, of course, I don’t need to remind you how that ended.

But why didn’t you say what happened to me when you divorced him. I know it was your back-up plan. I know that because you took me to court with you, just in case. But he had visitation rights. And he used them, at least once, when you weren’t home. When I saw that, I didn’t understand how you failed to protect me.

But then I got into Al-Anon and everything changed. When I did my fourth step, all those things were there, of course. But these things were overwhelmed by all the loving things you did for me. Even Roly. I could see all the ways he tried to be a loving father. It was only after his disease progressed that things got so bad.

Remember the trip to the Grand Canyon? And the trip we all took to Disneyland? I look at the picture of us in the teacups together. You looked so young in your cats’ eye glasses. We looked like any mother and daughter on the face of the planet. So utterly normal.

Or how about that check you sent me when I was having so much trouble with my daughter? I remember I stood at the mailbox and cried with gratitude.

Anyway, I understood, finally, that you were doing the best you could. I always thought of you as an alcoholic. What I didn’t see was that, even more, you were an untreated Al-Anon. You had been fighting for your life your whole life. You couldn’t give me what I needed because you were fighting to keep your head above water. Just as I did with my daughter.

I see that now. I see my part in everything. I know that I didn’t cause my daughter’s disease, can’t cure it, can’t control it. She comes by it honestly. It runs like a river through both sides of my family. In a way, she didn’t have a chance. But my disease affected her as she was growing up just as yours affected me. That was my part.

I have made my amends to her. But beyond that there’s little I can do. I have to leave her to the other alcoholics/addicts and tend to those I can help, other Al-Anons. There is something I’ve been considering as a living amends: becoming an Alateen sponsor. I can’t go back in time and help my daughter but maybe I can be a positive influence in someone else’s life. Isn’t that a nice idea? I’ve been praying about it.

Meanwhile, I said at the beginning of this letter that I have invited you into my life. You now reside in a lovely Indian pot in the middle of the living room. No one knows you are there, but I think of you at least a dozen times a day, each time I walk by. There is one more thing I plan to do. Remember that trip we were going to take to Michigan so I could see where you grew up? We’re going to do it. I’m going to take you there, then I’m going to set you free.

I love you. I can say that now and mean it, really mean it, from the bottom of my heart.

Love,

Me

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Admitted to Another Human Being...

Not long ago, my husband and I attended the wedding of a dear friend I have known for years but haven’t seen much since she moved to a different part of town.

My friend freely admits that she had no edit button. Whatever is in her head comes tumbling out with the force of a river.

She had had a few glasses of champagne when she cornered my husband.

“You know,” she said. “I used to tell Kathy everything. I told her all my secrets. You know what I got back?”

“No,” my husband said.

“Nothing,” she said. “She told me nothing.”

I was shocked. Was she right? This was one of my closest friends. She had been a bridesmaid at our wedding.

Yet when I thought back, I had to admit she was right.

I didn’t even talk about my secrets when I got together with my buddies from high school at our 30-year reunion. One told me about her drug addict ex-husband (my first love), and how people with guns came to the door looking for money. There was a story about sexual abuse of a daughter at the hands of her second husband. Another woman shared that her daughter had been arrested for meth and her grandchildren were in foster care.

Yet I shared nothing. Not even with these people, who had known me for most of my life, and who were sharing stories I could certainly relate to.

Why?

Because I didn’t want to let people get close enough to see what was inside. And that’s the beauty of the fifth step. I have to tell. I have to let someone in.

The fifth step reads: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

In a way, writing out my forth step was admitting the truth of my life to myself and God. Saying it out loud was the work of the fifth step.

As much as I’d learned about myself in writing out my fourth step, hearing my words out loud added a different dimension; like proofreading a paper by reading it out loud. Things your mind glossed over suddenly stand out.

But the real value in the fifth step, I think, is that things that are not apparent to me, because I’m too close, are crystal clear to someone else. It’s like getting a fresh set of eyes.

The other value, I think, is that at least one person on the planet—not coincidentally the one I call first for help or advice—knows just about everything about me. She knows my patterns, my self-deceptions, the way I try to wiggle out of owning what belongs to me. So she can see when I’m doing “it” again. Whatever “it” is. It makes me accountable.

And my secrets no longer seem so big or so awful. They are right sized. I can live with them. I can even share.

Hubby and I are off to the land. I'll be catching up on your blogs when we return. Meanwhile, take care.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When Someone Else is My Problem…

“Why should I pick up the phone and burden someone else with my troubles?” one woman asked in the middle of our last Big Book study. After all, the speaker reasoned, “I already know that I just need to get over myself.”

The speaker talked for several minutes about being raised to be self-sufficient and non-complaining. It was the way she was taught. She was 61 and had operated like this all of her life. Picking up the phone went against everything she had ever believed or known.

“Just like if someone asks how I am,” she continued. “What benefit is there in saying I’ve had a really crummy day?”

“You call someone to get it up and out,” our most senior member explained.

When something is in your head, it can grow and fester. You don’t tell anyone about it because you think it’s nothing. Then before you know it, it can grow into a huge resentment. It happens so gradually that you don’t realize how big it’s become until you can’t see around it.

It happened to her, she said. After seven years of recovery, a tiny resentment grew until it nearly knocked her out of the program.

The idea is to reason things out with someone else in the program, to vent to someone who understands—so you don’t have to vent to the person whose behavior is causing you grief.

We were still talking about that on the way home. My car mates thought it was important not to stuff feelings down. By why not address them to the source?

“Because when someone else is my problem, my problem is me,” I said.

“So are you taking responsibility for what happened?”

“No,” I said. “I’m only taking responsibility for my part.”

“Well, what about the other person?”

“I’m powerless over the other person,” I said. “I can’t control what they do or think. I can only control how I feel about it and the choices I make as a result.”

It felt confusion hanging in the silence that followed. I wanted to explain by way of example. Because I had my own resentment tale.

Before Al-Anon, a member of my husband’s family moved into town. She and I had always gotten along well, but when she was living just a couple of miles away, little things started to get under my skin. They seemed like no big deal. Bringing them up would sound petty. But they grew and festered. Just like the woman at the Big Book study, pretty soon my resentment got so big it was all I could see. Just the mention of this person got me agitated, and she was around almost constantly.

I started complaining to my husband, who was understandably distraught. Eventually, we agreed that I had to do something. I had to address this. Get it up and out.

I wrote down what I wanted to say, making it as kind as possible and making it about me, not her. I rehearsed it with my husband. We invited her to dinner.

After dinner, I swallowed hard and delivered my spiel. I thought it went very well. She seemed to take it well. New boundaries were set. Things got better.

Then I got into Al-Anon. The incident came up in my fourth step. Because I still harbored a resentment, this family member came up in my eighth step. I had a resentment, yes, I said, but I didn’t believe I owed this family member an amends. I had, after all, been gallant and noble in all my dealings with her, despite my feelings. We had to have that unfortunate conversation, but I delivered it as kindly as possible.

My sponsor was having none of it. I had to make an amends.

I didn’t agree, but did as I was told. I hadn’t gotten half-way though before this family member stopped me.

“You know me,” she said. “I’m like a duck. Things like that roll right off my back.”

Only she was crying as she said this and ran out of the room.

I was stunned. I had hurt her. I had no idea.

A few days later, I finished my amends. As is required of me, I listened to her response without comment. She brought up that conversation. Only she remembered it differently. My words sounded twisted around and decidedly unkind.

It didn’t matter that I felt she had taken what I said the wrong way. The point wasn't what I said. The point is that’s what she heard. I was filled with compassion. We hugged. It was the beginning of a new relationship for us.

The point, though, is that the problem was never with her. She triggered something inside me that made me react that way. The issues were mine to resolve.

“When someone else is my problem, my problem is with me.”

Today, I know there are tools I could use to cure my resentment. I could have resolved my problem with out involving the people I loved.
Instead, I caused harm to two key relationships in my life unnecessarily.

But when we know better, we do better.

Today, I try to remember to T.H.I.N.K. before I speak. I ask myself is what I’m about to say Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary and Kind.

I don’t usually have much trouble with THIK. It’s the Necessary part that gets me every time. Is what I want to say really necessary? Will it help or just make matters worse?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

At last night's Big Book study, we were reading the chapter titled "Into Action."

Laura, who is the senior member of our line of sponsorship, stopped the reader at the line on page 76: "Faith without works is dead."

"What does that mean to you?" she asked.

Many people talked about taking action, doing the next right thing, going to meetings, praying on their knees. The actions we are taught to take in recovery.

The way I've always understood the phrase is service. That we can't keep what we have unless we give it away.

"To me, this phrase is all about God and the rowboat," Laura said.

She imagined her life as rowing her way along in a rowboat, with God in the back guiding her. Sometimes the waters were smooth, sometimes they were choppy. Through it all she rowed. God was always there to tell her which way to turn.

Sometimes she asked God if she could steer.

"He's always willing to let me steer," she said. "But he never rows the boat. If I drop the oars, I'm dead in the water."

We have to keep rowing the boat, she said. If we're not sure what to do, we should do whatever is in front of us.

Laura talked about a woman who used to say that if the phone didn't ring, she'd make the bed, because that's what was in front of her. And if the phone still didn't ring, she'd take a shower. Then go to work. She'd just keep doing the next thing that was in front of her to do until God put something else in her path.

"If I keep taking the next right action, the path will be clear," Laura said. "I just have to keep taking action."

That's why she thought the title of the chapter was perfect, "Into Action." Because our recovery is all about the actions we take.

I couldn't help but remember what a friend who first introduced me to Al-Anon used to say: If you pray to God that you need a hole in the ground, you better bring along a shovel.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Forced Sterilization?

While my husband and I were on our trip recently, our host had the television tuned to a national news program. I don't remember which one. What I do remember was the topic: forced sterilization of drug addicts.

The advocate was someone who had adopted two or three kids of drug addicts. She felt right in her position because she had given these kids loving homes. Those who were critical, she said, had not done the same. She seemed to suggest that unless people had done so, they were in no position to criticize.

I'm not sure what to say about this, other than to note it here. On the one hand, it's true that addicts sometimes have lots of kids who end up in the foster care system. It does seem terribly unfair to these innocent kids.

But who am I to decide? I am not God.

I am grateful for those loving people who can give special needs kids a loving home. A very close friend adopted three special needs kids. A man in my Al-Anon home group adopted two. In both cases, there were drugs and alcohol involved. These aren't easy kids to raise. They need a lot of love to have a fighting chance. It takes a special kind of person.

I read a memoir about a girl who grew up in the foster care system. The title is "Three Little Words." It broke my heart.

Here's where my writerly instincts tell me I'm supposed to say something wise. Present a solution. Suggest some nugget of Al-Anon wisdom. But when I search my toolbox, I find I can offer nothing but prayers.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mileposts on the Road to Recovery

I shared last time that my sponsor said my marriage had improved since I’d been in Al-Anon.

I wonder if my husband, who is not my alcoholic, would agree entirely. Or if he misses the woman who agreed to his every whim and wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing him.

Three weeks ago, my husband sliced off a piece of his thumb with a table saw. Since then, he’s been somewhat handicapped, with this thumb in various states of bandages and splints.

Simple things are sometimes difficult. The other day, he fumbled with the buttons on his shirt and finally gave up in exasperation and asked for help.

“Geez, ” he said, standing in the closet with his shirt open and his arms at his sides. “Seems like there was a time I wouldn’t have to ask.”

I laughed.

“It’s my training,” I explained. “One of my character defects is jumping in to help when I haven’t been asked. I've been working hard to change that."

“Oh,” he said with a slight eye roll. “It's an Al-Anon thing.”

Which is the same thing he said when I let him drive 20 miles past his freeway exit because he was talking on his cellphone and ignored me when I asked if he had missed his turnoff.”

“I wish you had been more insistent,” he said, finally.

“I knew you’d figure it out,” I said.

On the other hand, I’m sure he doesn’t miss the money I spent on lawyers and counselors and various other remedies for my alcoholic. Nor does he miss my jumping on a plane at every new crisis, or brooding at home when I wasn’t there.

I’m sure he doesn’t miss the resentment I no doubt radiated when I agreed to things I didn’t want to do, just because he did.

I know I'm less judgmental. I'm more willing to listen to others without jumping in to "correct" them.

After only six months in Al-Anon, my husband looked at me over breakfast and said: “You’ve really changed.” And it seemed he meant it in a good way.

Speaking of mileposts, this is my 100th post. Who knew I had so much to say?