What am I?


I was talking to my granddaughter last night on the phone.  She relayed a conversation that she had in class that day with her teacher.  My job title was one of the vocabulary words in her class that day:

Granddaughter – My grandfather is an X and he works at Y

Teacher – That’s very interesting.  When I was in school I went on field trip to Y and it was really interesting.  I remember that visit to this day.

Granddaughter – Yes, I have been there too and it is really interesting.

So, my granddaughter told me she it was very cool that I worked at a place that everyone agreed was so interesting.  My granddaughter relaying that experience brought to mind a similar experience from 25 years ago.  I was doing a show and tell in my nephew’s class.  I had just returned from a trip to the Galápagos Islands and gave a presentation on the visit.  In the fifth grade class my nephew introduced me in the following way:

This is my uncle X.  He is going to school at Y and is studying to be a Z.  And he is a recovering alcoholic.

Those two exchanges are quite relevant to me.  The earlier one because after just a couple of years of sobriety, my nephew identified recovery as an integral part of who I was.  The more recent because that I am a recovering alcoholic goes without saying to my family, but is integral to the very existence of what and who I am today.

Giving It Away to Keep It


We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.  AA Promises

Without question, I have seen a shift in my motivations for my actions in recovery.  As a child of the 60s social activism, I had always framed my behavior in support of the underdog and the oppressed.  I certainly don’t mean to dismiss all of those years of effort.  Yet early on in recovery, I understood that a significant part of my motivation resulted from a rebellion and anger at whatever I felt was actually oppressing me.  Despite some very good intentions, relationships were often formed based on what I was going to get out of it.

I don’t suggest that in recovery I evolved into some sort of ultimate altruistic do-gooder.  But I have the occasional clarity of thought today that an action I am about to take is not going to benefit me in terms of economic, sexual, career, or any other directly self-serving motivation.  To be mindful of that fact is an important recognition.

This leads to a discussion in our AA meeting last night – reaching out to others.  The person raising the topic noted that outreach could be either for our own needs in reaching out for help or for the needs of others in reaching out to help.  I was struck that these needs are often the same.

In my first 90 days of recovery, every Friday I went to the local indigent detox center and spent 45 minutes with folks who did not particularly want to be there and who did not particularly want me to interrupt their morning television with my impromptu AA meetings.  During that first 90 day period of sobriety, I needed that outreach to stay sober myself.  That process also planted in my head the understanding that the solution to my problems was being in service to others.  I never left that facility feeling worse than when I walked in.  Most generally, I always found an answer to whatever problem I faced at the time.  I find the same is true in going to meetings today, talking to the addict who still suffers, or simply when being in service, and knowing I have nothing of selfish value to gain, that I truly gain the most.


parque litico monoThe excerpt below is from one of my favorite novels, Jayber Crow by Wendell Barry.

For a while again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal himself in power. I wanted to tell him that it was time for his coming. If there was anything at all to what he had promised, why didn’t he come in glory with angels and lay his hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land? Why didn’t he cow our arrogance?…

But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such thoughts before: “Let Christ the king of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Where in my own arrogance  was I going to hide?

Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn’t I just advise him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself.

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment he had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t he do it? Why hasn’t he done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?

I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, he hasn’t, because from the moment he did, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be his slaves. Even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

And so, I thought, he must forebear to reveal his power and glory by presenting himself as himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures. Those who wish to see him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.

Our Experience Benefits Others . . .


“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  AA Promises

I had a conversation last week with a friend I have not seen in some 20 years.  We occasionally go back and forth on email.  Today she is dealing with some pretty intense Alanon-type issues that we never discussed before.  Our phone conversation lasted for nearly 3 hours.

A colleague in her 40s faces decisions on a surgery that will either save or end her life.  We have always been friendly, but I also understood that she was a rather private person.  We get together socially perhaps every six months for a one or two-hour lunch and I visit her during her somewhat regular hospitalizations.  Two weeks ago our lunch lasted for over three hours and our last phone conversation went some 90 minutes.  We talked a lot about the pending surgery.

The list goes on . . .

What I appreciate today is that recovery brings some sense of relating, empathy, sharing with others facing a range of life choices.  Recovery has less to do with not drinking and more to do with decisions about living.  For example, today I find less relevance in how I was totally wasted during the time of my maternal grandmother’s death and funeral some 35 years ago, and more relevance in the ability to grieve that loss and celebrate her memory in my recovery today.  That list goes on as well . . .

I don’t know that there is any specific story or event in our experience that will benefit others.  Rather, I think the choice to actually live life on life’s terms in recovery is from where the experiential benefit all flows.  I think of the people who inspire me today and whose wisdom I seek – my wife, civil rights leader John Lewis, mystic poet Rumi, all the Gods of the Abrahamic traditions, and all of my fellows in recovery, – the inspiration is not from the stories of their past or the strategic decisions they make today.  Rather, their aura, essence, and direction of life force seems to be where I draw strength and inspiration.

The Grace of Time to Think . . .


Part of my mountain bike route

Today was stressful.  I walked into a “retreat” type meeting this morning and was told that the new hire who is to act as my assistant is being held up in a bureaucratic limbo.

me – For how long?

them – I don’t know.

me – But we have already been through the bureaucracy and gotten approval.

them – Yes, I know – but there is this new “soft-freeze” where every replacement hire must be approved again.  Plus you are starting the person near the top of the pay grade.

me – But we already got approval for the pay rate, right?

them – Yes.

me – I can’t keep working 70 hours a week doing two peoples jobs.  This is ridiculous.

them – yes, I agree.

My previous assistant’s last day was over one month ago as they moved out-of-state with their spouse.  So here is where I took all of this today.  I was immediately angry.  I know and “them” know that the hire is ultimately going to be approved, but it might end up sitting around for another couple of weeks, or perhaps even a month all the while I continue to do the work of two folks, blah, blah, blah . . .

. . . so during my days of active alcoholism, I likely would have become obsessed with the issue, not heard any of the other discussions at the retreat, some of which were quite good, left the meeting as quickly as I conveniently or otherwise could do so, feeling plenty sorry for myself, climbed inside the bottle, fed my anger and resentments, blown off the rest of the day, perhaps done something really ineffective and stupid, blacked out/passed out, and come to the next day without any resolution and feeling miserably hungover as well. . .

. . .  but today I recognized something different.  All of that “this too shall pass” “if the job were that easy there never would have been an opening” “live into the solution” “attitude of gratitude” and other recovery thoughts tempered my anger. So after I left the meeting, I composed a pleasant but matter-of-fact email to “them” noting I was hopeful the impasse would be resolved in short order, posed solutions and alternatives, but clearly affirmed that without an assistant I could not do the tasks set out for me over the next few weeks, and then I went for a mountain bike ride along the river. . .

. . . and I thought, and was grateful for the time that now intercedes between the event and taking action, where in the past I would have immediately drank, but now the voice of what I have learned in recovery takes the place of alcohol and leads toward a solution.  Makes living a lot easier.

Rooms in Sobriety


I recently got back from a couple-week trip to Peru that I blogged about already.  The trip brought together some folks and circumstances that result directly from the road I traveled in sobriety.  The colleague I collaborate now with in Peru is the childhood friend of one of my step-daughters in the family I came to join in 1998 after being sober for nearly 15 years.   When I first met this person back some 10 years ago, I recollect giving her two big boxes of my academic texts on South America because I was ‘getting out of the business.’ Now I find myself getting back into the business through another door some 10 years later, leading to my trip this summer.

I also realize that today, everything that I do, every word that I write in this blog, would not be possible were I to pick up the bottle and decide to climb back into my active alcoholism.  Addicts are sometimes criticized as being overly dramatic when saying that to practice their addiction is to commit suicide.  However, a decision for me today to actively practice my addictions is precisely that – a decision to stop living, to only exist as a biological organism waiting for fate to snuff out it’s breath.

One of the realities I enjoy most about sobriety is that when I reflect on the time that I have been sober, I could never have predicted the road I would travel.  When I walked into the detox unit those years ago, all I wanted to do was to quit drinking, stop the obsession, end the blackouts, the insanity, the constant sickness of body and mind.  I could think no further than that.  I had no other dreams or aspirations.  I just wanted to stop the pain.

With sobriety I began to be able to dream again, and not in nightmares.  After a bit, I became reminded of a quote that had meaning to me many years before the insanity of addiction took its full toll:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them – Henry David Thoreau

The foundation building is a big part of sobriety.  The castle for me is trying to construct and live into a true self.  I find this to be like a building with many rooms.  I enjoy that there are always new rooms to explore, to learn from, to incorporate their lessons and experiences into the whole self.  This summer I went in the Peru room and found a lot of cool stuff to work with in that process.

A couple of months ago, I took an online test based on my health status and life-style today.  The test results predicted I would live to be 94 – another 33 years of room exploration!  But even with the probability of getting run over when crossing the street or whatever, I think about the room exploration yet to come that is only possible with the foundation of recovery.  A truly exciting prospect!


Staying sober at 11,000 feet

AA Peru

I have been on the road  of late for a project – specifically in the highlands of Peru in a remote highland village of 400 folks a 12-hour bus ride from Lima.  For the first time in a while, I was doing a bit of projecting about alcohol.  One of my reasons for going to Peru was to be present for a special Fiesta based on some work I was going to begin collaborating in.  I was a bit nervous that I would be in a small rural village with the speciality corn liquor, chicha flowing in abundance.  And there I would be, a gringo who speaks little to no Spanish, having to explain why I did not want to drink the ceremonial toasts and so forth.  The Fiesta was to take place on August 3.  My sobriety anniversary is August 4.

So I did all the requisite preparation that I need to do for such situations.  I know it is always just a matter of being prepared for such situations – not drinking from the communal cup that might be passed with an unknown content.  I mentioned to my colleague who would also be in Peru that I would not be joining in on the ceremonial toasts with alcohol.  She noted that would not be a problem.

As is often the case, my greatest fears are projections not based in the real world.  I had  no trouble with the 11000 ft above sea level location of the village, nor did I have any other health problems during the trip.  On the evening that I arrived, I was invited to a dinner of rabbit and potatoes at a local resident’s home.  There were about 10 other folks attending.  My colleague was held up and did not arrive until the next day.  I was brought a Coke for the ceremonial “Salud” after dinner.  One of the North American students, chose to lecture me on how the drinking of alcohol in such situations is the social lubricant on which trust is built.  I did not wish to engage in a debate over the issue, but I am confident a proficiency in Spanish on my part would be the better social lubricant!

At any rate, the Fiesta on August 3 was fantastic and I did not once even consider the thought of drinking.  To do so would have been completely at odds for my reason for being in Peru.  I was too busy doing the business of the trip.  When darkness fell on the Fiesta and the dancing and beer were in full flow, I did not even need to excuse myself to go back to the room and crawl into my sleeping bag for the night.  I was no more missed at the late night celebrations than I would at a bar.

On August 4th, I woke up early while the rest of the village slept it off.  There was no one else up.  I made my coffee and went for a walk up the side of the mountain a bit further.  I was mindful of life and grateful for another day of sobriety that now totals 29 years one day at a time.