Personal Growth

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The Other Option

He was asked to write
A love poem,
His former words of
Scorched barns and
Frogless ponds
Carried too much doubt,
Their darkness weighing in
On lives used to
Commuter drives,
Passing lanes,
Parking ramps,
Slammed car doors,
Disgruntled bosses,
Hurried lunches,
Clocks that moved
To the rhythm
Of a tired old violin.

An apparition arrives
Right before closing time,
Of a young woman,
Shy, with uneven teeth,
Small breasts,
A scientist’s hands,
Walking across the hill,
The seduction of innocence
And a school uniform
That spoke to him
Of poems, earnest questions,
Beach blankets and novels
Of women torn
Between men who wrote sonnets
And men with ample bank accounts.

 

 

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Making Exits in Our Lives

AA’s Third Step is more often portrayed as a step about all the deficiencies of self will. But self-will embodied in all kinds of control over everything in our lives—relationships, jobs, goals, medical issues, family, and, of course, addictions

Today, at a third-step table, I realized that much of my adult life was about exits, getting out of relationships and avoiding personal conflict, especially with another person in my life or family.

Whenever I got out of relationships, I often just left in silence. Or, I created some kind drama. Or I just said, in one form or another, “it’s over.”

I vividly remember one night many, many years ago, packing a small suitcase, coming down the stairs, and saying to my ex-wife, “I’m leaving.”

I came to the conclusion, today, that those exits were a clumsy way of taking control. Or avoiding a mature, compassionate response to someone who cared for me. I did that a lot when I was in my chronic alcoholic state.

There were other issues related to that kind of behavior, certainly. However, my drinking just made it easier to keep avoiding reality, especially with intimate relationships.

The twelve-step program opened me up to a whole new world of deep friendships and trust, two issues that were very much at the core of all dysfunctional exits I made out of many relationships and groups.

The program and the fellowship also enabled me to further open up to many communities that I belong to, communities in which I can now make exits that are mature, thought-out, and rational. And, more importantly, without hurting others.

Just some thoughts

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Abandonment

There was a time in my life when fatalism had more appeal to me than optimism.

Lately, the old cyclical narrative of abandonment has reared its ugly head.

Sometimes, writing is my own secular form of exorcism.

But sometimes the old devil watches me start to write and steps out on a coffee break, comes back, looks at one of of my exorcism poems and says politely, “a reprieve, my boy. I’ll be back.”

Abandonment

His mother left him once when he was a child,
Would she exit again in another form?
Yes, he decided, in all the lovers he scrapped
For hanging around too long,
Being far too modest in their passion,
Or clinging like an abused dog.

Tragedy would wrap its arms around him
On days when the sun offered solace,
Possibility escaping him every day
As his new friend leasing out
Only the bad news, his best seller.

Someone dying on stage,
Another host’s deliverance,
The happy ending, his Cinderella
In a head-on collision
On the way to the senior prom.

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Second Step

The Higher Power as the “Spirit” of Transformation

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

That power for me is the power of transformation arrived at through service, self-reflection (4th and 10th steps), shared recovery stories in the rooms, silence, human connections, trust, surrender, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, community, listening, surrender, and humility.

Silence can take the form of meditation, or for traditional believers, it can be whatever kind of prayer works. My form of prayer is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “tonglen,” which is a breathing exercise of breathing in somebody else’s pain or suffering (even my own) and breathing out relief and kindness. It is an altruistic, humanitarian, compassionate extension of love.

When I’m at a meeting where the Christian “Our Father” is recited, I stand silently to absorb the mantra-like connection I internalize from the group in that prayer. I find it very nurturing.

And I say the “Serenity Prayer” to remind me to balance my behavior between doing the right thing and acceptance when I can’t change the inevitable, an outcome, or somebody’s behavior ( I”m right now in the middle of trying to accept somebody’s need to proselytize and control in a group I’m in)

That acceptance is also a form of surrender. But I have to know that surrendering to dysfunctionalism, tragedy, or the inevitable doesn’t mean I get off the hook. I have to also surrender to the pain that comes from that surrender.

Surrender can also mean I can’t always control some of my faults and inadequacies. Sometimes I need guidance from others and/or a counselor. And I also need patience in accepting the process of an active Step Program and sponsorship to do their “Refiner’s-Fire” work on those faults.

That power greater than myself I often refer to as the “Spirit” of transformation. In my experience it is expansive, loving, engaging, and inclusive.

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Methadone

My lovely agonist,
Cruel substitute,
Halloween mask,
Candied-apple Lover
In your cheap eye-liner,
I want to lust for you
As my first drop-dead date
In concrete basements,
But you were sent
By some official
Dressed in green pants
With a name tag
And ugly shoes
I cannot trust
Right now.

But give me time.
For I need a lover,
As young hearts do,
Some quiet face
That doesn’t nod off
And eyes that do not close,
And long-fingered hands
On warm washcloths
And piano keys
On a Sunday afternoon.

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Happiness and Grief, Two Sides of the Same Emotional Coin

We had two contrasting topics at an AA meeting this morning—Happiness and Grief, emotions I have struggled with so much of my life.

Today, because of my sobriety, they are emotions I have learned to be comfortable with.

My sobriety has been guided by the 12 steps, sponsors, service, meetings, the stories people share, and the Higher-Power Spirit of my understanding. That Spirit, for me, is the power of transformation I continue to experience in AA.

And that sobriety has given me the kind of happiness I never experienced in my alcoholic drinking days.

It is the kind of happiness I call “chronic happiness.” The kind that makes me smile warmly at a friend’s success, laugh at a corny joke, sit contentedly watching a nostalgic film without getting cynical.

At the same meeting, someone shared their grief, grief jump-started by gut-wrenching trust issues.

I am always amazed how the program is able to absorb those two emotional extremes without telling us that we “must” be at a certain level of happiness protecting us from too much grief.

Or even that grief has a more intense emotional content than happiness, which I believed during my heavy drinking days and much of my early adult life.

Over the many years in the program I have discovered that happiness and grief are two sides of the same emotional coin.

I don’t remember, exactly, how those two emotions completely dovetailed when I got sober. But I do remember one incident, in early recovery, when I totally internalized a deep grief in having hurt my wife by my drinking and recklessness (I vividly remember the feeling of overwhelming grief in that Episcopal Church basement). I realized, then, that I could truly “feel” something for someone.

Once I internalized that deep sadness for another person, happiness began to arrive in small doses. I am convinced that that first experience with grief in the rooms of AA made it possible for me to experience other emotions, especially happiness.  

I find it interesting, even ironic, that happiness often arrives with a tinge of sadness for me, almost as if the fullness of that happiness is too much to bear. Or that feeling of being overwhelmed by an experience. I think that’s what happens when people experience “tears of joy.”

I also found that if I can truly experience happiness, which is a deep form of connectedness to the world, then I know, conversely, I am capable of grief, another form of connectedness to the world.

One is about fullness, the other about absence. And my experience has been that they play off of each other.

And more importantly for me, to experience grief over a broken trust makes it more probable that I will experience happiness, for the kind of hard-hitting grief we’re talking about here often seems to give a deeper texture to happiness.

Finally, happiness and grief seem to juggle my psyche in ways that deceive me into believing that they are totally unrelated, when, in my experience, they are not.

 

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Authenticity

The Arbitrariness of Life

I am not convinced that it is easy to be who we really are. Our identity scripts seem to have already been written, or are being written, by forces over which we don’t have much control.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever chosen their parents or the color of their eyes inside the womb. And no one would argue with the reality that if someone were born in a New York City condo, they have a better chance of entering Harvard or Yale than someone born in poverty.

And who can say, in middle age, they would have actually gotten married? If the answer is “yes,” who can say they know, for sure, that would be the right answer for them now? And, knowing what I now know, would I marry the person I did when I was in my twenties.

Daily Rituals and Real Intent

On a more general level, how do I know who the real me is?

I get up in the morning, take my meds, go to the bathroom, put the coffee on, cut a banana in a bowl, scan the cereals on top of the refrigerator, choose one that appeals to me that morning and pour my choice into the bowl with the cut-up banana.

That’s my morning ritual. But is that the authentic me?

I can’t do the process of elimination here. My ritual, after all, emanates from no one else but me. Its genuineness can’t be questioned, unless, of course, I wake up resenting it.

Ah, resenting it. There’s the rub.

What if I decided, one morning, that I really don’t like eating breakfast by myself, that I feel the full weight of my aloneness when I first wake up. Or that I’ve really not been true to my feelings of loneliness because I’m too afraid to admit that I don’t have the inner strength to be by myself?

This domestic narrative tells me something: I can exist on two levels.

There’s a repeated action, like washing the car, taking a shower, preparing dinner, driving to work on the Interstate. These repeated actions have a kind of inner strength to survive on their own momentum and energy. And each of these actions contain smaller actions, one leading to another, until they accumulate to a completed act.

And then there’s another kind of inner energy that accompanies these actions. Let’s give them several names: contentment, anger, resentment, frenzy, groundedness, even neutrality.

If I’m feeling content or even neutral in performing my morning ritual, I don’t question the habit I’ve developed. But if I wake up with anxiety about my ritual, maybe, just maybe, I’m in denial about its efficacy.

Maybe I really want to go out for breakfast. Maybe I really want to hang out with people in the morning. Maybe, I’m lonely. But the ritual of eating alone in the morning keeps me tied to a false self, one that is denial of his need to be with others, to be in some kind of community, not to isolate.

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“Middletown” at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

So, what is small town America really like?

If we listen to Sinclair Lewis, it is an inferno of conformity and class provincialism, not to mention the hypocrisy so blatantly embodied in Elmer Gantry, the itinerant preacher, who mesmerized his small-town believers while acting out his lust on any willing or paid-for victim.

Gantry is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s small-town Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” who carries around a fake Bible that is actually a hallowed-out box containing condoms and a bottle of whiskey.

Thornton Wilder might have a slightly different perspective. “Our Town” has a cast of characters living and dying normal lives in a small New Hampshire town. Some die before their time like Emily Webb during her second pregnancy. Some die in the war. Some die of natural causes. Some die by suicide.

But everybody in the queue of life, eventually dies. There is no question that, at some point, all the characters will be laid to rest in the town cemetery.

We are given a small-town consolation by Emily who, after she dies, chooses to return to life at 12. She is overwhelmed by the reality that there are so many chances we miss in taking in the beauty of our daily lives, including her mother’s morning coffee.

Walter Eno’s “Middletown,” is another painterly-like portrait of small-town American life.

The town may be a prototype of that life. But its stark, over-the-top realism leads me to believe it’s more like “Our Town” on steroids. And the playwright’s heightened language, especially the dark comic lines, too often overwhelm the energy required to be ready for the next edgy line. The linguistic brilliance is there but the humanity of the characters gets lost in the verbal pyrotechnics.

Eno’s small town characters are clearly evident– a cop, a tour guide and a couple of tourists, a librarian, a mechanic, a landscaper, two doctors, a hospital janitor, a suicidal drifter, a woman whose husband is always out of town, and an astronaut, the hometown hero.

Each one has their individual identities. Mrs Swanson and John Dodge are the centripetal characters keeping the play’s center around the themes of life and death.

Swanson has just arrived in the town with her husband who is always out of town, except, apparently, the one time that she becomes pregnant, giving birth to the child as the play ends.

John Dodge is the town drifter, a Jack-of-all-trades who occupies his time with small jobs, hobbies, and hanging out in the library looking for books on gravity. At the end of the play, suffice it to say he is on a downward cycle.

The local cop seems to have a sado-masochistic edge on his night rounds when he starts to choke an alcoholic mechanic, who does community service at the local hospital by entertaining children. The hospital doctor gives Mrs Swanson some clichéd advice about starting out with simple words to her new baby and then fills in with Farmers Almanac-like predictions of what to expect after the pregnancy; two tourists have a lot of questions about a local landmark; an astronaut gives gives his star-studded description of what the earth looks like from the moon; and a librarian fills us in on the local history and engages a number of characters coming into the library.

Eno also creates fictional characters who hang out during the intermission.

Swanson and Dodge appear to be Eno’s manifestations of Eros (new life) and Thanatos (death). And Middletown is everything in between, what ever form it takes—-in a library, on the street, in front of an emergency room, from the moon, inside of someone’s home.

For a brief moment, Eno suggests Swanson and Dodge just may find in each other some redemption from their profound loneliness. Swanson at least has a new life to nurture. But the awkward intimacy between them never blossoms.

There you have it, friends, small town America seen through the artistic lenses of Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Thornton Wilder, and Walter Eno.

I found it somewhat difficult to sit through so much of the dark sarcasm and cynicism of Eno’s language. It had too much of a sit-com sensibility trying to be Beckett, in my judgment.

But kudos to the cast and to the production at the Shaw Festival on Niagara on the Lake. I would see it again. It will be up and running for the rest of the season.

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“Maudie,” a Review

Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.

I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).

Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.

Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings

Two things struck me about this intimate film.

For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.

Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.

The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.

Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).

And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).

I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.

The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.

To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.

Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.

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The Unexamined Life

It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”

I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.

The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.

Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.

Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.

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