A good friend of mine grew up in a rough part of Chicago, and, at the time this little story took place, his mother still lived there.
On his sixth sober anniversary (he was well past that when he told me this story) he picked up his 6 year chip at his favorite meeting, and, feeling a wellspring of good spirit and love for the world, rushed over to his Mother's to show her his chip and tell her about how this marked six years of continuous sobriety for him -- a miracle! While they were not estranged, she was a tough, salty old broad, and not one for sentiment. Or demonstrations of affection. Or leaving the apartment.
He burst in and found her, there in her housecoat, smoking a cigarette and doing some ironing.
"Mom! Mom! Look at this! Look! I'm six years sober!"
According to him, she put down the iron, looked him up and down, took a drag on her cigarette and said,
"So's the cat."
All of which is to say that certain anniversaries, while important and personally significant, may not exactly wow some of the other people in our lives. Those others lack either the context or the interest to feel with quite the same degree of emotion something which might be important to us.
Or in this case, to me, actually.
Today, with this posting of April 24th, marks one year of blogging Mr. SponsorPants.
As I said in the title, I don't think they give chips for this.
A little more than a year ago I was having pretty bad time of it. I felt dry not sober, kind of burnt out on AA and sponsorship and sobriety and spirituality. I was sick of meetings and overwhelmed by what I felt were too many and too much of all things 12 Step. Now, this is a terrible, painful and dangerous state for a sober alcoholic. One of the things I was doing right, however, and something I think that probably saved my life, is that I was talking about this -- in meetings, with sponsees, with my sponsor... I got early on that contrary action was maybe one of the single most important tools to embrace: If you want to save face, open your mouth; if you want to skip the meeting, go to the meeting; if you want to isolate, invite people for fellowship ... you get the picture. So I wasn't hiding this state from anyone -- and certainly, when I shared about it, I felt some relief in the moment.
But in the big picture, I was feeling cynical and miserable. I was not, as they say, "walking in the sunlight of the spirit."
So, as is often the case, when in extreme pain I start demanding God help me. Humbly, of course:
"God, I humbly say that you better help me, damnit, because I'm in a lot of trouble here! I've been selling Your line of bullshit for 20 years now, and I am dried out and used up. Right now I feel like You're a joke and AA's maybe just a bunch of bullshit and that I've wasted a lot of my life -- hours and hours of it -- sitting with people and going through that damn book, listening to inventories, taking phone calls ... over and over and over. Going to meetings and all those damn commitments over and over and over. I remember feeling differently, but I only remember it with my head, not with my heart. I don't believe what I remember is true anymore -- so you better do something right now. Or else!"
Like I said, humble. (My God's pretty big, He can take it.)
Very shortly after I was screaming at praying to God, I was invited to a 12 Step Retreat up in the mountains at a Benedictine Monastery famous for its breathtaking views, gorgeous architecture and serene vibe. It was a Men's Stag Sober Retreat, and as is sometimes the case with these things, there was a registration fee, to cover the cost of food and the use of the facility. Money was especially tight for me at that time, but my spot was paid for with an almost last minute cancellation by someone else, who forfeited their refund and allowed their registration to be used as a scholarship -- hence my invitation to fill the slot at no cost. And a friend of mine who was going offered to pick me up at my place and drive us up.
So of course my initial reaction was, "Blech! Are you kidding? I am so sick of these guys and sharing and blah blah meetings and stuff, and now you want me to be stuck on the top of a damn mountain for a weekend and do nothing but that? Blech!"
Yeah, let's review, shall we?
I tell God I'm in deep spiritual trouble and I demand God help me, and then the phone rings and I get a free, all-expenses-paid spiritual retreat at a gorgeous monastery in the mountains, with -- literally -- door-to-door car service.
And my first reaction to this is "blech."
At the time I didn't even connect the screaming praying for help with this falling into my lap! As the literature says, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. And, occasionally with me, personally, it's not only sometimes slowly, but afflicted by blindness, ignorance, bias, impaired hearing and spoiled, stubborn self-obsession, too.
My reaction was "blech" but my mouth said, "Sure, yeah, I'll go." More than 20 years of saying yes is a hard habit to break. (Thank God.)
So up we go into the mountains, and as promised, the monastery was amazing, the monks ... um, monkish ... and the gardens ... wow. They seemed both wild and tended, with little statues and benches and such in hidden corners. As I meandered through them I kept expecting to stumble across either Mother Theresa or Jane Austen.
(Sidebar: One of the rules of the monastery was that you went "into silence" from 10pm at night -- or maybe it was 11, I'm not sure -- till the next morning when they rang the bell signaling the end of breakfast. They didn't force this on guests, of course, but it was the "way" and people were asked and encouraged to observe this practice. Thus, first thing in the morning, you roll out of bed: No talking. Silence. Silence while you get your coffee, silence while you have your breakfast ... no one's opinions, false cheer, baggage, blather, is voiced while you greet the day and center yourself. Then they ring the bell, and it's talky-time as normal. It is my humble opinion that should countries adopt this as a national policy, we would see world peace within the week.)
The Saturday afternoon of the Retreat some people went hiking, a few drove down into town to shop (Philistines!) and I ... I decided to walk the Labyrinth.
In the entrance hall of the monastery was literature about the founding of the building itself, the Benedictine Order, and the gardens. Among these was a sign and a brochure about a Labyrinth somewhere on the grounds. It went on to describe who put it together, what it was about, and the purpose of a Labyrinth against a spiritual backdrop such as this.
In short, walking a Labyrinth is a form of walking prayer and meditation. On the walk in you ask God (or the universe, or Whomever) your question, or offer your petition, and in the center you sit, and reflect, and then on the way out you try to listen for an answer. Many people write their Need out and leave it at the center, symbolizing their faith in leaving the petition with a Higher Power. Some bring a token with them too, something symbolic, and may take a token back out, though not one of the tokens left by others. That part confused me, but also pleased me, since the Monastery didn't really have a gift shop, and I always like a souvenir. (And I thought they were really missing out on that -- selling those robes would be a cash cow, let me tell you. Move over Snuggie, it's the Benedictine Body Muff!) The confusing part was how to determine what was an appropriate token to maybe take with you -- I'd seen enough episodes of "The Twilight Zone" to know what would happen if you took the wrong token or something. Baaaaad mojo.
So off to Walk The Labyrinth (it had capitol letters in my mind) I went, my prayer written out and my token to leave in my pocket. Not having seen it I pictured a lush maze, sort of like the one in "The Shining" -- all eight foot hedges and pristine gravel to crunch under foot as I Thought my demand question. (Another capitol letter, as I was planning on thinking very loudly).
On the way to find the Labyrinth I ran into one of the monks, who asked if that's where I was going.
"Yes, Fa... Brother." I was doing that all weekend. I kept starting to call them all Father.
He gave me the best advice about a spiritual exercise I've ever heard in my life:
"Don't judge yourself. Don't judge your process. When you catch yourself judging, don't judge yourself for judging. Try not to try. When you catch yourself trying, or trying too hard not to try, don't judge yourself for trying. Just be open to all of it, and decide before you start that everything that happens is the right thing that was supposed to happen -- your thoughts, how you feel -- all of it -- is the right thing to be part of your question and part of your answer, whatever it might be. Have faith that this has worked for thousands of other souls, and so it will work for you, too."
Wouldn't it be cool if he walked on, I turned around and he was mysteriously gone? Yeah, but the truth is he actually had one of those yellow janitorial buckets on wheels and was headed off to mop something. Squee squee squee went the bucket wheel when he left, sort of ruining the moment. I suppose mopping something is very monkish, but I was looking for Big Stuff. Portents! Omens! Spirit Guides!
What I got was bugs.
The Labyrinth was on a patch of dirt, and it looked like something they'd made for an episode of "Sesame Street" and then decided to film somewhere else. Which is not to say it wasn't the real deal, but it was small and pedestrian compared to the magic maze I'd been expecting. Still, I missed the shopping trip and wasn't up for hiking, so ... might as well ...
It was hot. I could feel the place where my hair parted and my scalp was exposed burning in the sun. There were no birds, or shade. Just these rocks in concentric circles, twisting smaller, and the sun beating down, and what felt like a million bugs flying around and buzzing me.
Step step step ... in and turn and follow around and ... here and there I noticed what looked like things people had left not only in the center but along the way, too. I thought, "Wow, they were so moved and connected they knew to leave their little tokens here ... I'm only ..."
Caught myself and went back to staying open and thinking my question.
And my question, as if you hadn't guessed, was, "God, what now? What next? What should I do to change this? I'm on my way Out, I feel like I'm on my way Out and I'm scared because I'm not scared about that at all."
In I go, turn and twist, and judge and try not to and I giggle because I wonder if you can screw up your karma by jumping rows or short circuit the spiritual zap by moving some stones around and then I tell myself to shut up again and I go back to my question.
And I sit in the middle and I think and the bugs buzz me and I say, "You guys, come on, I'm trying to have a spiritual experience here!" And I leave my question and my token and I walk out, thinking, looking for something to take with me, trying not to think, and trying not to look.
And I got out of the maze, and I just reached down and picked up a rock, first one I sort of stepped on outside the Labyrinth.
And Mr. SponsorPants came to me. Not a person, I'm the person -- the idea. And I thought, "Wait, I want less, so I'm inspired to do more? NO. No no no. No thank you."
But as is the way of these things, whether you believe it or not, stuff like that won't let go of you.
So shortly after I got home, I started this thing. I had some pictures in my head of who and how it might help people trying to get and stay sober via Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps. I knew I would do it for a year (at least -- and I'm not stopping now). I knew I would do it every day -- and I did, for a while. Maybe the first three months, though writing it seven days a week just about broke me, so I took the weekends off. It's not what I first thought it would be, it's maybe not going to become what I thought it was supposed to be, but in doing it my Need was answered, and shortly after I started I didn't just remember what I believed, I believed it all again. And the comments and the emails over the past year came just as I needed them to, small things making big differences on the occasional tough day, and I'm grateful for all of them. If they were perhaps small to you, I assure you they were a big help to me.
My mom passed away earlier this past year. She had a good long life, and she was blessed with a good death. All of her kids were around her. Writing this blog kept the spiritual tools we use to deal with Big Things close at hand for me during that time, though I didn't write about her passing specifically here. I had a powerful experience the night I flew home from her funeral, and writing about it in Mr. SponsorPants made it somehow more real and -- knowing there were people that might find some of it helpful -- even more helpful to me. Which of course is the secret of AA anyway.
Whether we want to or not at first, whether our faith feels real or false, free or forced, like water or dirt -- whether we're sober days or years, we try helping other people and in so doing we ourselves are transformed, in an alchemy of love and service which never fails us and never stops healing.
I'm grateful for the inspiration and for the vehicle to share, and I've been by turns humbled and helped myself that anything here has been helpful to anyone reading. Mostly I'm just trying to pass along what was so freely, so generously given to me for the past 20+ years.
And finally, I think I actually was maybe on the way Out a little more than a year ago, and the experience leading up to, and the doing of, this blog was instrumental in revitalizing my faith in a Higher Power and in AA.
So, here we are, a year from when we started, and, one-day-at-a-time, I'm still sober.
And you know what?
So's my cat.