It was late afternoon, but felt later, what with an overcast sky and a sunset several hours before a typical dinner time. We were the only two in the cafe; a regular haunt of mine. The service was cheerful, if mildly incompetent (a combination I will always happily choose over the reverse). After a long discussion about sobriety and relationships and life and character defects and what it's like to stay sober -- not dry, but sober -- as the days pass and pass and pass, the Skateboard Pup and I sat in companionable silence. On opposite sides of the little table our chairs were at an angle, facing both each other and the window. For my part I was watching drops from the fitfull rain we were having trace their zigzag progress down the plate glass, thinking of nothing really, content in the moment, grateful to remember to be in the moment. As for the Pup, I imagine he was staring through time rather than through the window; his view a more personal one than that of the sidewalk outside.
The minutes stretched, in the magical elastic way they can, bringing a feeling of rest rather than restlessness. As we sat I felt myself become aware of the sitting, of the moment, and I practiced feeling the air slowly fill my lungs and gently releasing it back to the atmosphere around me. The only real noise was the muffled swish and rumble from the traffic on the boulevard we could see through the window, beyond our little bubble.
Eventually the Skateboard Pup called us back to order with a deep breath, his long exhalation gently ending the silent, reflective spell. I looked at him and thought how much he's changed since I first met him, but also how young he sometimes still seemed to me; a comment on how I see myself as much -- if not more than -- how I see him.
Skateboard Pup: Tell me again about Crazy Town.
Mr. SponsorPants: Crazy Town?
SkatePup: Yeah. How you feel about yourself and where you are in Crazy Town and that thing about judging yourself and all.
I smiled and chuckled a little.
Mr. SponsorPants: Tell you a story?
He returned the smile, and added a small shrug.
SkatePup: Yeah. Something like that. I remember it from what you've said before but... I want to hear you say it again. Refresh my memory.
I come from a long line of raconteurs. Mostly Irish and German on both sides. I suspect all the way back up my family tree we never met a drink or a potato we didn't like. My father, in particular, was a marvelous speaker, and whatever facility I might have with words and stories I often think that I both come by it honestly and yet don't quite hold a candle to him -- but that's as much the way sons remember their dead fathers with love as it is anything else I suppose. All of which is to say you only have to ask me once to recount a tale, even if I know you've heard it before -- though I may demure at first, either out of courtesy or passive-aggressive insecurity -- either way, don't worry, I'll talk.
Mr. SP: It's not a story. It just came to me as a way to... forgive myself I guess. Or at least put things in context when I think about where I am versus where I'd like to be.
SkatePup: Okay. I know. Whatever. But like I said, refresh my memory.
Mr. SP: Well, if I look at being healthy about something as a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the absolutely most healthy a fallible human being might be on a particular issue...
SkatePup: Uh huh.
Mr. SP: ... and 1 being really, deeply sick or dysfunctional on an issue... anything from our addiction as a whole or maybe our more insidious and pervasive character defects like...
SkatePup: Like procrastination.
Mr. SP: Yes, like procrastination, or judgement, or struggling with ego or whatever. Wait. Why did you say 'procrastination' first and look at me that way?
I was just playing, and he knew it.
SkatePup: What way?
Mr. SP: That way. That way.
SkatePup: No reason.
Mr. SP: Uh huh.
SkatePup: Go on please.
I feigned grouchiness, and 'harumphed' a little.
Mr. SP: Allright. Allright. Don't pester me. Where was I?
Mr. SP: ANYWAY, as I was saying, a scale of 1 to 10. On some issues, when I came to AA, I probably clocked in at... let me see now, remembering that 10 is the healthiest a fallible human could possible be on that issue...
I pretended to do math in the air for a moment.
Mr. SP: I guess on some issues when I showed up I clocked in at... oh, probably negative three hundred and seventy four.
The SkatePup, in the spirit of our banter and my telling, gave a long, low whistle.
SkatePup: That's pretty precise, that number.
I turned up my nose and sniffed, speaking next from an imaginary, lofty height.
Mr. SP: I have become quite skilled over the years at self examination.
The Pup appeared comically doubtful.
SkatePup: Really? Are you sure?
Mr. SP: Shall I finish this or not?
He bowed his head and made a placating swoop with his hand.
SkatePup: Please, please go on.
Mr. SP: Where was I?
I gave him a flat look.
Mr. SP: ANYWAY, today on some of those same issues I clock in at probably...
I did more imaginary math, muttering to myself things like "...times seven... carry the one..."
Mr. SP: ...probably negative four.
The SkatePup gave another, if quieter whistle. I smiled but became a little serious, for this was the heart of what had been troubling him when he came and sat down and started sharing what was going on with him lately.
Mr. SP: So, if 1 to 10 is my healthy scale, and I clock in at negative four now, I must remind myself that I am no longer the Mayor of Crazy Town, as perhaps I was on this particular issue -- whatever it might be -- and instead now I am sitting at the bus station on the outskirts of town, my little bag packed and my ticket out firmly clutched in my hand. Negative four isn't even on the healthy scale, but compared to how I was when I showed up it represents enormous, miraculous progress. It represents willingness and hard work and Divine Help. I have a ways to go, but it is not nearly so far as the distance I've travelled in recovery.
He sat, and I let him take that in, because even though it was not the first time I'd shared this thought with him, sometimes it takes several applications --and a few bumps and bruises in sobriety -- to open ears, mind AND heart. Especially when it comes to our own progress and challenge.
SkatePup: So then, I suppose on most stuff I'm at...
I held up my hand.
Mr. SP: Don't make up a number right now. Just... just look more at how far you've come rather than how much farther you think you need to go. You're willing to do the work. You've had a spiritual awakening as the result of the 12 Steps. I think for the rest of this 24 hours you can give yourself some props. But tomorrow...
He knows me well by now, and smiled and laughed when he interrupted.
SkatePup: ...tomorrow it's back to prayer and meditation and inventories and work -- no, not work, "opportunities" -- with my Great Spiritual Teachers.
This time of year prompts perhaps a bit more reflection than usual -- which, if you're an alcoholic, is certainly saying something, as we generally need no serious prompting to "reflect" on ourselves.
While I've written before about how Big Chuck Bukowski's writing resonates with me (no surprise, as in a few fundamental ways we're not that different), this sentiment of his is both right enough in its way yet also sadly incomplete.
As I look back it's important to remind myself that what tasted like defeat was often a Divine Course Correction which served me far, far better than my original, limited vision for who, how and where I should strive to be.
It's important to remind myself that my job is to try, to do, to throw myself into the process, and to then accept that whatever results is the Universe working on my behalf.
And it's equally important to ignore the immediate cynical, mocking thoughts which spring up in response to such an idea. Why shouldn't I believe the Universe is working on my behalf? At one time it was certainly easy enough to believe that it was working against me, or that there was nothing at all to believe in.
"Why?" and "But what about..." I give full weight to; but "Why not?" and more positive "what abouts" I dismiss as unrealistic? That's just self indulgent bullshit. Wallowing in negativity as a way to avoid taking responsibility or action.
And it's as easy to use this same dark, biased lens to view (and review) my journey.
It's important to remind myself that reflection in small doses is fine and right as the year winds down, but maudlin self obsession and obsessive self pity, while as comfortable -- and comforting -- as my favorite bar stool, is not actually a line of thought which goes anywhere. In fact, it's not a line at all. It's a circle. A snake eating its own tail.
(Is it too clever to add that in a case like this it is, in fact, more apt to say 'an alcoholic eating its own tale?')
Chuck's spot on about one thing though: Getting "from there to here" is a journey worthy of amazement.
And worthy of something else (which I fear, given what we can glean about him from his writing and life he may have had in short supply):
Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.
In our own woundedness, we can become sources of life for others.
The real "work" of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me. To gently push aside and silence the many voices that question my goodness and to trust that I will hear the voice of blessing -- that demands real effort.
Dare to love and to be a real friend. The love you give and receive is a reality that will lead you closer and closer to God as well as those whom God has given you to love.
Gratitude goes beyond the 'mine' and 'thine' and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
And just one more...
Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence -- priceless and irreplaceable.
Sometimes my "old" prayers seem stale, and when that is the case, I think back on what the Big Book says about the 3rd Step Prayer: "...the wording was, of course, quite optional..." and it goes on to suggest that the feeling and intent is far more powerful than just saying words.
I have had good success via the "just do it anyway" school of prayer -- that is, just say the damn prayer for a while and see what happens, see how you feel, see what it might grow to mean to you -- but I've also had success with the simple and direct "just say how you feel" school of prayer, too.
Ultimately I remind myself that there is no "wrong" way to pray -- it's just that at various times in my spiritual journey some types of prayers have resonated more powerfully for me than others.