The X’s and O’s of mindfulness

It’s disconcerting when the messages from my brain stop reaching my feet. My gait slows until I find myself standing mid-block overwhelmed by a zombie horde of thoughts. I turn lamely in the other direction, guided by puppet strings. My arms drop heavily at my side. In the stillness I look longingly at the sky, listen to the breeze in the branches and glance at a car approaching a block away. I wait for a single voice to quiet the others in my head. Scraps of conversation that could have gone better, song563730_10200900903184703_820030752_n lyrics, basketball drills I need to remember, a grocery list of things to do that I’ll quickly forget. Why don’t I remember to carry a pen and paper? I need to exercise more, read more, stop procrastinating. I press my hand to my stomach to stop its rumbling. The potato chips and spoonful of peanut butter I ate in the darkness this morning aren’t cutting it. I need to eat better.

After more than five years of working at this, I wish I were better at intentionally stopping my brain, at finding moment’s of peace, better at what the Buddhists call being mindful of the moment. But sometimes my mind blissfully does it on its own, but not at the most convenient of times.

The sunshine makes me sleepy. As the stillness quiets my mind, gravity tugs at my heartbeat. The squeak of the car braking at the four-way stop wakes me from my reverie. I look around, with a twinge of embarrassment.  I shake off the comfortable stupidity and head for home.
Sometimes I wonder how I make it through our neighborhood without tripping or walking into traffic. There are times in the morning when I come to, surprised that I am fully dressed.  I remember digging the clothes out of the drawer, vaguely recall pulling on the jeans…and then suddenly I am dressed, and I sort of match. I’ve heard it called “The Committee,” the voices I must choose from in my head.

They are the reason my driving record is spotted with speeding tickets, why I need pills to sleep. The messiness of my desk matches that of my mind. Pull my attention from one task to another and my original, more important job, ceases to exist, until it catches the corner of my eye with a jolt of panic.

Sometimes two, three and four thoughts crowd into my head at one time. Recognizing the puzzlement in my eyes,  my wife asks, “What are you thinking?” Unsure how to answer, I say, “Nothing” when “Everything” would be closer to the truth.

There is wonder in this hurricane of thoughts. When I first stood before my wife, I couldn’t decide whether to babble on about her smile, or her hair, or her scent, or the way blood was throbbing through my heart. Call it indecisive or eclectic, but I can’t turn the shuffle off on my iPod and stick to one artist. A romantic moodiness leads me from Hank Williams to Bob Marley to Led Zeppelin  and back to Johnny Cash by way of Nirvana. Deciding what book to read is an agony of indecisiveness.

I remember as boy, my mom told me to go out an mow the yard. I stood on the back porch in the heavy summer heat, looking for inspiration. It didn’t take long. I yanked the mower to life, pushed it near the house, kicked the garden hose out of the way and carved a vertical path from north to south.  I mowed another  path parallel to it, and then two more paths crossing from east to west. I stepped back and admired my creation — a gigantic tic-tac-toe board.  I stuck my tongue out, concentrating, and started mowing X’s and O’s into the lawn. I grinned as I watched more and more grass disappear beneath the mower. As I moved from one square to another, my monotonous job became fun. But before I could see who would win, Mom burst out the backdoor, her face twisted with anger.  I stared blankly as she demanded to know what I was doing. I was puzzled. After all, the lawn was getting mowed. As she yelled at me, I looked around, dispirited, and realized that my tic-tac-toe game had turned into haphazard lines and patches of unmowed grass.

I learned some important lessons that day.

Even though mom made me start over and mow the lawn her way, I had already figured out that when a task seems too big, the best way to knock it down to size is to set short achievable goals — even if they are tic-tac-toe squares. If you can have fun while you’re doing it –BONUS!

I learned that mumbling “I uz playin’ tictactoe” isn’t a strong enough argument when a pissed off mom has a clear opinion about the “right way” for a yard to be mowed. I also learned that the “right way” can sometimes be the “wrong way.” We’ll get back to this.

Life, like Mom’s back yard, has often been too big for me.

As far back as I can remember I felt alone in a crowded room. I never felt like I fit in. In a classroom, with my closest friends, with family, even alone, I always felt on the outside looking in. Every moment of every day I measured myself–and came up short–against what other people thought.

That changed when I drank my first beer at age 17. More accurate would be my first seven beers. In the haze between the first beer and my first blackout — I felt freedom. I didn’t become an alcoholic that day. I became a practicing alcoholic.  I was–I believe in my heart–always an alcoholic.

With alcohol in my system, the nervous kid who cared so much what people thought disappeared.  I paraded out of the corner to the center of the room. The anxious edge went away. I could talk to girls, I could laugh and tell stories to a room full of people. I could share my emotions. Pardon the cliché, but I was comfortable in my own skin.

Those voices in my head–they started singing in beautiful harmony.

I was falling in deep, passionate love with alcohol.

But alcohol is a cunning baffling lover, who whispered in my ear that I could do anything I set my heart on, and then slipped away in the night, leaving me alone to clean up the mess.

Twenty-three years later, I was literally dying to keep this passion in my life. But I knew it would kill me to give her up.

Then she left me on a highway in handcuffs.

The thought of never drinking again was impossible. It was too huge.

I was born an alcoholic. But at 10 years old, before I had every touched a drop of alcohol I had seen my first glimmer of hope, playing lawnmower tic-tac-toe.

Not long after I got out of jail, a friend spoke the words that would save my life, “You don’t have to stop drinking forever. But can you stop drinking for today?”

There’s not a lot of mystery behind 12-steps programs. At its most basic it’s really about setting short term goals. Just don’t drink today. Make mole hills out of mountains.

I had a big yard to mow. I broke it into small squares. To most people, Mom’s way might have been right and proper. But to a budding alcoholic, my way was right. Whatever works.

On a basketball court, I tell novice players that the only thing you can do wrong is nothing. Don’t get paralyzed by fear.

I walked out of jail, angry, afraid, humiliated, a hot mess with a world of shit awaiting me.  I went to a meeting. I asked for help. I went to another meeting. I didn’t drink–that day. People nudged me to take small–no, tiny–steps. As I progressed 24 hours at a time, I found that this program worked on everything else in my life–divorce, tax problems, unemployment, financial crises, raising teenagers.

One night, when the craving to drink took a hold of me, I found that even 24 hours was too big to get through. So I prayed a Serenity Prayer and determined to get through the next song on my iPod. I made it through one song without drinking. Then another. I kept doing this, three minutes at a time, hoping Stairway to Heaven wouldn’t pop up. I didn’t know if I could handle eight minutes.

The Catholic priest and writer Walter Elliot wrote, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”

I learned to avoid words like “never” and “forever” and the hollow feeling they carried.  A lot of 24 hours have passed and I’ve learned to be patient with those empty feelings. Everything in life passes like a breath.

The voices in my head, The Committee, still take over and all too often carry me into a future of anxiety or a past of regret. I prefer to stay here in the present, because it is a place where I’m sober and fairly happy. I have no control over those other places. In the past I most certainly was in the grasp of my old conniving lover, and the future holds no guarantees.

Today, my iPod is playing a little John Hiatt as I head out for a walk. Hopefully I won’t get lost in my own neighborhood, but if I do the embarrassment will be short-lived.  I pass a large, unmowed lawn. It is ripe for a game of tic-tac-toe.


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