Looking into the eyes of courage: A life-changing reunion

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An intimate moment between Trish and Hakan, who traveled from Sweden

It’s not very compelling to read that I was indifferent about going somewhere.

My journalism professors would call this a “bad lead.” No hook to draw the reader in. “Indifferent” isn’t exactly a power word, more of a lame adjective where a good verb would coax the reader along.

But it fits. I’ve been a flimsy cliche. I recently agreed to go to a reunion but with the qualifier that “I’m not really a reunion sort of guy.” Like those people who boast that they don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” do I somehow think this makes me superior?

What it makes me is insufferable. And full of shit. Some friends from an adventure more than three decades ago showed me that.

I am a member of Up With People Cast C ’86 and we aren’t an indifferent group. One of our own is enduring a decade of suffering that should break the spirit. Instead, she has transformed it into spirited poetry, a lyrical lesson in whole-heartedness. Trish Wilson-Geyling and her family lost their youngest member, 8-year-old Rudy, in July 2017. He died suddenly from a congenital heart syndrome. Before he was born doctors said Rudy would not survive without utmost medical intervention. In a blog called “Rudy’s Beat” Trish chronicled the joy and exhaustion, beauty and terror, adventure and mystery of her family’s short time with the buoyant little boy who possessed the same bottomless supply of smiles as his mother.

 

 

The words of Trish and her husband Rolf invited us in as they savored every moment, every smile, every tear, every overwhelming fear. They asked for our prayers when holding on to hope demanded more hands. Trish’s writing expressed the heaviness of fragile hope, but it never outweighed mindfulness, faith and gratitude. Upon Rudy’s death Trish wrote, “The doctors would have counted it a victory to have him home for six weeks. We had him home for eight years.”

Two months after Rudy’s death, before they had time to unpack their grief, life ambushed the family again. Trish was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive and incurable attack on the body commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I gasped “Jesus!” when I heard. It was up to him if he took it as a prayer or a reprimand. What more could one family endure?

Although leveled by the news, Trish kept writing Rudy’s Beat, digging deep to balance twice the grief with her singular presence in the moment. As always, her posts were packed with photos of a family clearly in love with one another.

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Trish and her son Max

Updates on her treatment were stirred in with tales of daily life, celebrations, kids starting school and memories of Rudy. And gratitude, always gratitude. As the ALS progressed, word spread across social media. It was time for a reunion. More than fifty of us would meet in Santa Barbara for “TrishFest!” The rest of our cast would show up on FaceTime and cell phone speakers. Our mission was to be there for Trish, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that it was Trish who ended up being there for us.

I mistook cynicism for wisdom, or for keeping it real, when it was simply a disguise for insecurities. My take-it-or-leave-it coolness about attending the reunion was camouflage for the self-centered silliness of the 19-year-old in 1986. A reunion is a good place if you’re not careful to compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.

However, I forgot a few things. My fellow cast members are among the kindest people I know, and it was ridiculous to think my dark thoughts would not be extinguished by the brightest smile in our cast, still at full power and untouched by illness.8C178468-E589-4FB2-98E6-722EE99F5FEA

When we returned from our year with Up With People we learned that our experience was inexplicable. Even those closest to us stared blankly, like we were telling them about a dream we had the night before. We were a 100 kids between 18 and 25 from more than 30 nations and states, who traveled the world performing music and dancing for crowds, even though many of us weren’t that talented at either. However, some were so gifted they made the rest of us better. We were our own roadies, merchandisers and PR. We lived with families in each town we visited, even if we didn’t speak the same language. All of this was a wedge. It opened our way into communities for the real work. Cast members served at schools and nursing homes and homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We visited prisoners and addicts, and felt the grace of people who were ill, stigmatized, disabled and dying.

One of our greatest accomplishments was showing people everywhere we went that a bunch of kids from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, saturated in hormones and without the benefit of fully connected frontal cortexes, could get along and do some good.

Mostly, we learned to show up.

It is not hyperbole to say that TrishFest was life-changing.

My oldest daughter Annie came with us to the reunion and her sister Emily surprised us, showing up from Missouri. They finally experienced the rowdy hospitality of Cast C. Emily hung out with the cast drummer for whom she was named, and Annie mingled like she had traveled with us.

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Emily and Emily

After so much time apart our cast hugged like linebackers. Happy anxiety charged the air with impatient affection. The laughter was pyrotechnic. Trish entered in her wheelchair with a smile that I could swear made the lights flicker, and turned a rented house into a sanctuary where we could be both riotous and reflective. She liberated us to unleash the power of our vulnerability, to carve away all the emotional callouses of middle age.

Quiet conversations in corners, home-cooked food prepared by our children, raucous tequila shots on the patio, jam sessions with Trish and Rolf’s astounding children. Stories that justified gray hair, wrinkles and wisdom. One friend recalled that there were a few times on tour that he wanted to kick my ass; I grinned and nodded. “I remember, and you should have done it.”

We went to church with Trish and longed to have her faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were a cast known in our day as trouble-makers. Sometimes it seemed like the rules were a disobedience to-do list. What we were doing was too important to be taken seriously. Last week we were almost as unrefined, crowded into a house, as we were long ago, cramped on a bus.

We surrounded Trish with stories, songs, photographs and prayers. We looked into the eyes of courage and felt braver for it.

Trish wrote that she wished Rudy didn’t have to live with such frailty and lamented that he left them so soon. She wished she didn’t have ALS and that her family didn’t have to walk through it with her. Her family has a deep capacity to love, she said, but of course that comes with a deep capacity to feel pain. It comforts her, though, that life has become “second nature” to them because of what they have come through. They have gained a certain “expertise.” She calls it “Rudy’s legacy.”

Being with Trish broke us open and renewed us. Her presence in our lives, even from great distances, is a gentle challenge to stay broken. Remain vulnerable. Don’t let the protective callouses grow back. Don’t allow fear to rule us.

Our “official” reunion is in two years. As she left, Trish beamed through exhaustion, and said “maybe I’ll be there to see you.”

I plan on showing up.

Check out Rudy’s Beat: https://rudysbeat.com/

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My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

My wife is 53 and I like it — bad spelling and all

My wife looked forlorn when she said, “I’m going to be 53…”

I’m glad my wife is 53 today. If she were 40 or 30 or 20, she wouldn’t be with me and I wouldn’t be with her. I wouldn’t know the joy I felt when she first noticed me (I’d been trying to get her attention for a while). There are a few other reasons why I prefer a 53-year-old J.J.10624940_10202503353164951_4538244234849287657_n

  1. Her name is actually J.J. Leibrock Madden. Call me selfish or sexist but that’s way better than any name she’s ever had.
  2. The night eight years ago when I realized I was in love with her, I hung up the phone, walked into the kitchen and my knees buckled. I sagged into a chair and whispered, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.”
  3. One time, as we waited for a table in a restaurant, an elderly woman approached and said, “Excuse me. I couldn’t help noticing how in love you two are. You’ve made my day.”
  4. I get crazy insecure. I think about all the things other men have given her, the places they’ve taken her, that I couldn’t begin to give her. It’s not an attractive trait, but there is something strangely exciting about it. I’ve never cared enough before to make myself miserable like this.
  5. She chose me not them, my friend Carol always reminded me. I will never be her first love, but I get to be her last.
  6. I don’t think I have single attractive feature. Crooked face, decidedly unmuscled body, bird legs, skinny arms, other personal deficiencies I’d rather not talk about.  But she finds something! Which means she also doesn’t give up on a difficult task.
  7. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. I could stop with that, but my children would say, “Jeez, Dad, you can’t come up more.”
  8. She loves my children. When they call they’d rather talk to “mom” not me.
  9. She votes – always.
  10. She doesn’t vote Republican
  11. She makes decisions that are against her interests, because other people’s are more important (Guess I could have just said, “See #10).
  12. She was high school valedictorian but never taunts me when I do really stupid shit.
  13. She has wrinkles from all the sun and wind and worries and smiles.
  14. She hates mean people.
  15. She’s figuring out that “Fuck ‘em,” is always the right answer when dealing with mean people.
  16. She doesn’t get too upset when I give her unsolicited advice about saying “Fuck ‘em!”
  17. She say “Fuck ‘em!” when she encounters Trump supporters (I guess I could have just said see #15)
  18. She is a FANTASTIC liar. “You’re not gaining weight Danny, You’re really smart, Danny, That joke was funny, Danny, You’re a good singer, Danny…”
  19. She smells really good.
  20. She doesn’t think I smell bad.
  21. She’s a feminist.
  22. She’s a bad speller when she’s mad or horny.
  23. She’s a bad speller a lot. That’s all I’m saying.
  24. She doesn’t freak out when I freak out.
  25. She finds my keys so I stop freaking out.
  26. She has a 7-year chip and her sponsor had to tell her to stop taking so many service commitments. Leave some for someone else.
  27. She has cool tattoos.
  28. She gets excited about fruit.
  29. She’s cooks like an artist.
  30. Sometimes she gets sad and has to stay in bed all day.
  31. She laughs a lot.
  32. She buys me all the hummus, avocados and chocolate I can eat.
  33. She is the mysterious, tan, blonde California girl I fantasized about in junior high.
  34. She doesn’t get mad at me unless I am a complete dick. Which is never. Haha! Just kidding.
  35. She likes the TV show Supernatural
  36. She lets me have a crush on singer Brandi Carlile, even though she has a better chance with Brandi Carlile than I. She thinks my crush on Larry Bird is a bit much.
  37. She doesn’t always agree with me (that would be boring).
  38. She wakes up pretty, no need for makeup. And, thank god, no need for hairspray.
  39. Her hair is beautiful and I find it on my clothes when I’m at work.
  40. She’s way too hard on herself but she gets better each day.
  41. She’s way to easy on me but she gets better each day.
  42. She hurts when other people hurt.
  43. She loves Draymond Green.
  44. She promises she won’t leave me if President Obama appears and asks her to run away with him. See #18.
  45. She thinks George Carlin was a genius.
  46. She loves British TV and speaks in a terrible British accent that sounds like someone just back from the dentist.
  47. She loves to swear. She is proficient in “all the words you can’t say on TV.”
  48. She growls when I tell her surfing isn’t a sport. She’ll think it’s funny that I just pissed off every surfer who reads this.
  49. She is a hard worker (which makes us a perfect match, because I’m lazy)
  50. She gets exasperated when I turn on REO Speedwagon music (because I know it exasperates her.)
  51. She always says exasperate when she means exacerbate.
  52. She flips me off when I correct her grammar.
  53. She has shown me that second chances are always possible, and that in love moments are more important than years.

Happy 53rd birthday, JJ!

 

A walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction

I will not be ruled by fear

My morning mantra, walking from the parking lot to the shelter

I will not be ruled by fear, I mumble. I will not be ruled by fear…

…I will not be ruled by fearcourage-man-jump-through-the-gap-between-hill-business-concept-idea_1323-262

My fear is not the person who lives on the street, the woman fleeing domestic violence or her abuser

Not the drug addict, nor the person hearing voices

I hear voices of my own…

…who unleash swarms of worries, mock confidence, whisper self-doubt

I talk too much, I don’t speak up; I reveal too much, I keep too many secrets

I am chaos and perfectionism, forgetful, and obsessive

ADD and OCD

Mindful and distracted

I offer no comfort, then give too much advice

I read minds and make up answers

Oversensitive, and insensitive

I am dependent, I am controlling

I am timid and arrogant

I am lonely and loved

Oh, but sometimes the voices are drowned out by a mumble

I surrender and they submit

Sometimes I accept the contradictions

Today, I am not ruled by fear

My flawed tattoo: A reminder that letting go may be the only way to hold on

The artist wasn’t accustomed to creating imperfect tattoos, but I asked for imperfection; a single word scribbled on my forearm like a IMG_0902note from someone – a note too someone.

No computer font, so precise and formal, or florid script, so graceful and expressive, would do. I explained why my tattoo should be flawed. As artists are want to do he found meaning in my request.

He went to work with pencil and talent and returned with something perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise.

My dearest friend died recently. Her body gave out and for the final two weeks her only response to doctors and family was a strong heartbeat.

I called from 2,000 miles and a friend placed the receiver to her ear and promised that she could hear me. I sang Bob Marley, off key.  Don’t be afraid I said, I love you, it’s ok to loosen your grip now. Then I joked that she was never much good at letting go.

In our marathon conversations we often talked about the word, now as permanent to me as addiction.

I promised that after our final farewells I would get the tattoo in honor of her and how hard she tried, but also as a warning to me. My friend died because she was sick, but her illness was a wild animal feeding off fear, more aggressive as her trust in the taming power of the word faltered.

The cunning baffling demon – our shared peril – conquered her because she thought she could conquer it.

It’s Ok to go, I told her again — we will all be fine. Your fight is ended.

I have to believe that she came to understand. As her heart weakend, she became resigned to her fate. She finally let go; somewhere beyond the silence, her ragged breathing and failed body, she accepted the blessing.

She was powerless and her life had become unmanageable.

Now we who love her are left to find our way through the over-analysis, guilt and regrets of grief. Or we can find acceptance in all that she was: vibrant and ill; strong and weak; engaging and lonely; a beautifully imperfect person who sought — too often — to please everyone she encountered, blinded to the impossibility of such a feat.

I must not be deceived; I look at the word on my arm to recognize the arrogance of believing I had the power to save her, to prevent her suffering and death.

She and I used to joke that people who are able to drink in moderation have a superpower. They might as well be able to fly, because we can do neither.

My tattoo is fresh and new today, the single word is simple and rough-edged. I remember my friend and long for one more phone call, to laugh and cry and learn answers to unanswered questions.

I try my best to reconcile her struggle against life and escape from herself with the liberation in death from all fear and torment. Maybe the word, so elusive to my lost friend, will provide me with faith, or maybe not.

I look at the tattoo and one thing is certain.
For today, “Surrender” is my superpower.

Anne Lomott: What to make of God

Let’s settle this God thing once and for all.lamott_rect-620x412

God, or no God?

Who on earth knows?

Any proof, either way?

None, except for Bach, foxes, forgiveness, elephants, bulbs and my dog Lily, may she rest in peace. Also, the fact that someone like me could have 28 years without alcohol or the non-habit-forming marijuana I smoked on a daily basis for 15 years. Also, ripe peaches, books, and Mr. Rogers.

There is Infinite good and beauty and heroism and artistic genius everywhere we look. Is this proof of God?

No, because there is also infinite evil and madness. I am not going to name names.

What do we even mean when we use the word “God?”

For the sake of argument, let’s say we mean a Higher Power–a power greater than our thinky thoughts, good ideas, grudges, positions and opinions: a divine Mind, a benevolent intelligence of some sort, some kind of bankable Love energy. Something that hears us and cares, when we cry out in our pain and mortification. I also like the Deteriorata’s definition of God as the Cosmic Muffin.

But what if the most illustrious atheists and agnostics hear that we actually believe this?

It’s none of your business what they think. To plagiarize from my book, it is like worrying about some guy wandering around the Mojave in a wet suit, reciting the poetry of Edgar A. Guest. People get to think and believe what they think and believe. You will never change them, or they us. Surrender: lay your weapons down. Let me make you a nice cup of tea.

What if they say you are ignorant, and a danger, in public?

It would have nothing to do with you. Maybe they are having trouble at work, or a spastic colon.

So do you actually believe that the soul is eternal? That death is just the end of dying, not of life?

Yes. Also, that there is a dessert section in heaven, and that it in fact makes up most of heaven, except for the ponds, and gift shop.

But we still die, correct?

Of course, and the question we ask ourselves, is, How do we live in the face of that? How alive are we willing to be? Why do we keep hitting the snooze button? What will it take for us to stop squandering our time?

Well? What’s the answer? What does it take to get serious about this life we’ve been given, even if we don’t know if God gave it to us, or chance?

Usually either a terminal illness or a DUI.

Is it legal to believe in evolution and all aspects of modern physics, yet also believe in a personal god, a Beloved, a sacred dimension to our lives?

Yes, in some states.

I shared this without consent of Ms. Lomotte, but she’s a really cool woman so I hope she won’t mind. And it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

My Nemesis

My nemesis is always near, aware of my weaknesses

I am sleepless and lonely; he comes with such cunning it seems he was in the room before me

D399981D-A4FB-4F50-A571-5E0CA6A5E688-718-000000BAA56AC705At first he is the flicker at the edge of my vision, then surrounding me like a prize fighter

Fleeing is not the answer;  he rides my shadow, amused by my haste, as if it gives him credibility

He mocks me if I hide, aggressively exploiting my self-pity with hypnotic voices in my head

I am most most vulnerable to his persuasion when mind and body feel neglected, starved, resentful, exhausted

I slip into his deceptively powerful arms until it’s too late; my lungs feel a reflux burn and my lips go numb with panic

He whispers in my ear words that stir an evolutionary urge

Fight! Conquer Me!

But I have been trained, disciplined to persevere

I surrender.

My nemesis sighs, releases his grip and is gone

 

 

 

Rumbling down the Hot Wheels Highway

The rumble up through the seat loosens my bones and I am a child again

The curvy, sun-glistened highway, a strip of orange Hot Wheels track

I sit high in the cab like a boy in his father’s lap, unable to reach the pedals

It is impossible to say the word “truck” and remain an adult

Alone, driving through a landscape of steep hills, vineyards and draws

I imagine I created it all to fit around my winding highway

Truck. I say it again aloud, enjoying the way it feels in my throat

I have no choice but to drive slow, at risk of shifting the load

There is something comforting in that, my normally lead foot is meditating

At the end of my drive, a mother-in-law will boss me as I unload

I downshift

Slower

Jacob’s reminder to dance

Yesterday I wished my cousin Brian happy birthday on Facebook.

On his page I saw a photo of a younger Brian, but the photo was too natural, not like the posed senior picture’s of the 1980s. It was Brian’s son Jacob. I sagged at my computer. Father and son shared a birthday.  Jacob leaned easily against a brick wall, tattered jeans and flip flops. He didn’t appear to have a care in the world

The tears surprised me.

Jacob died a little over a year ago after a struggle with substance abuse.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know Jacob as well as I would have liked.  We talked when I ran into him at the grocery store where he worked and we occasionally joked around during the time he played soccer with my son.12631559_1224193100928116_8414144582599671273_n

He never knew about my strongest bond with him, a longing from afar to reach out and help, to let him know I had been there. I fantasized that he might see it in my eyes, or feel it in my passing presence.

I wear a red band on my wrist with Jacob’s name on it. It’s also inscribed with the words, “Forever laughing,” a reminder of a young man who glowed with humor and irreverence.

Tugging at the band, I realized the sudden tears were for loneliness.

Jacob was alone when he died. His father was alone when he found him. Loneliness can swallow entire families.

I remember the depths when no one could reach me. I was alone in a room full of people who loved me. No matter how many reached out to me, it didn’t matter until I decided it was time to reach back. No one could have lifted me up until I was ready to be lifted. Then there is the loneliness of the ones who strain and long and ache to help, and are filled with fear and regret and helplessness. 

That is the great terror of parenting. My kids are grown and I can try to teach all the lessons I have learned from horrible decisions. They have witnessed some of my worst. But they must make their own way and their own mistakes. They must solicit my advice before they will receive it.

No matter how much we love others, they must want help. That can be a paralyzing proposition. Our peace depends on staying in the moment, doing the next right thing, neither regretting the past nor agonizing over the future.

The red band reminds me of acceptance.

Khalil Gibran wrote: “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

From what I have heard and witnessed, Jacob lived his life with a reckless charm that drew people to him. I’m sure only those dearest to him knew his fears.

I try not to let fear govern my days and I often fail.

I must find a way to live like my cousin Brian who, even in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy a parent can endure, still smiles and bursts forth with a laugh that must ring truer than any to grace the ears of God.

There is an afterlife, right here and now. Our loved ones walk among us in the stories we tell.  Jacob’s friends are still posting photos and jokes Jacob would find hilarious, and stories of his exploits still make the rounds. No doubt he still breathes life into water skiing trips, holiday dinners, and family milestones.

The red band reminds me of joy.

I remember as a child, I used to find comfort at funerals. Even though it was a time of haunting sadness, there was something sheltering about the way my expansive family set everything aside to turn its sympathies inward, like a huge canvas tent in a purple storm. It is good to know we are not alone when we are lonely. Even if no one can truly reach the depths of our pain, it is good to know that so many want to suffer with us. Priests called it the Paschal Mystery. The Buddhists simply say “Life is suffering.” God didn’t want us to suffer, but he showed us that we could find some semblance of meaning in it. We can stay in the moment and hold those we lost close. Someday, someone will ask us for help, and instinctively we will be ready because we have suffered, because  we have lost, because we have mourned.

We will be ready because we have been there before them.

The red band reminds me of compassion.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

Like so many people, I long to reach out and ease my cousin’s pain. I am content to know that he is sheltered by a great tent. I hope that he finds strength in family and friends. I hope he remembers that many people want to help carry his burden even when they cannot possibly understand the depth and breadth of it. And I know that he will repair his injuries by caring for others.

The red band reminds me of healing.

Jacob was a special young man and one doesn’t ever recover from losing someone of his character. But imagine how Jacob would laugh to see his dad dance.

 

Tidings of Acceptance and Peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. He made his point while keeping long friendships with his Christian opponents. Granted, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no Menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it–no matter how much whiskey I drank– we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember. Our parents talked a lot about times gone by.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. We didn’t care much about what our parents did when they were young either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

The Hole

Man falls into a hole.

The walls are too steep, smooth and high to climb out. imagesH1HEWJDT

Soon a priest comes along and the man yells for help. The priest scribbles a prayer on a scrap of paper and drops it into the hole and goes on his way.

The next person to come along is a doctor. The man hollers from the darkness, “Can you please help me?” The physician writes a prescription and drops it in.

The next person to pass by the hole is the man’s friend. The sun is setting and the man is anxious. He cries for help.

The friend jumps into the hole.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” the man asks. “NOW WE’RE BOTH DOWN HERE!”

“Yes,” said his friend, “but I’ve been here before and I know the way out.”

 Author unknown

Surrender is my superpower

There’s a certain surrender to a criminal background check. Even if I know they won’t find any sexual offenses or violent crimes, I hold my breath when the woman takes my fingerprints. I guess that feeling will never go away.images (1).jpgsurr

The woman smiles and says, “That’s it.” I joke about the high-tech way they do it now days,  like a mini-copy machine. No ink to wipe off my finger tips. I smile slightly as I reach my car. It’s nice to go free this time, clean fingers and a clean conscience.

The late great comedian George Carlin said, “I get a nice safe feeling when I see a police car and I realize I’m not driving around with a trunk full of cocaine.” 

That’s sort of the way I feel these days. When I see a police car, I enjoy the way my heartbeat remains steady.  The DUI is too old to be a concern on background checks. No beer cans to hold below the line of sight, no bottles under my seat.

Six and a half years ago, I really had no choice but to surrender. The highway patrolmen, his face about three inches from mine, demanded, “How much have you had to drink, Sir!” I think he already knew the answer well enough for his purposes. When you’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup, you really don’t know how  to answer that one. I replied, “I don’t know.”

A few weeks later a group of people listened as I said those words in a different context.

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

It would take a while longer, but they nodded and smiled when I admitted “I don’t seem to know anything.”

I grew up in a culture of self-control. When I failed, I was told to work harder. My teachers, at every parent-teacher conference,  said I simply needed to apply myself. I tried and too often failed to “win” the pretty girl. My church told me to suppress my urges. I used to wonder if my good deeds would outweigh the impure thoughts and “self-abuse” when it came to the question of hell. When I developed “nervous tics” in junior high (not until my 30’s would I learn it was Tourette’s), a neurologist told me I was high-strung. Mind over matter. I could will myself to stop.

Surrender, quitting, giving in, was a sign of weakness.

I am not complaining. My childhood was like most. However, there are times in life when self-control, will power, hard work or mind over matter are not the answer.

For me it was drinking. I worked hard, didn’t show up late at the office. I didn’t even get hangovers. I told family and friends I could control it. I think people who are not alcoholics have a superpower. They might as well be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. They don’t have to say, “I can control it” anymore than they would insist that they can control themselves at a water fountain.

I could drink in moderation. Of course my idea of that was four drinks a night. I would stop at four each night until one night I didn’t.  I plowed on through to eight, or nine or maybe even 12. I gave it up for periods to show others that I could. Once I gave it up for Lent. It was pretty easy. But on Easter I embarrassed myself. I had willpower. Actually most alcoholics do. Problem was, for the stretches that I wasn’t drinking, all I could think about was that I wasn’t drinking.

I wrestled with this cunning, baffling chemical like Jacob and the angel. It’s been said that alcoholism is a low-level search for God. I believe that. Once in a while I would find that perfect buzz for a few precarious moments.  There was a longing in my drinking that felt sacred and traditional.

“If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction,” said author Ann Marlowe, “I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time…addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to users.”

Toward the end of my drinking, I feared I might have ruined a good thing. But I refused to give up. I knew when the time came I would be able to stop.

I grew up understanding surrender as weakness, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. However, nowhere in the dictionary definition is weakness mentioned.

Merriam-Webster: “to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed.”

Jonathan Franzen said, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”

The second definition: “to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.” Alcoholism is a lonely condition. For that matter many of life’s travails are. Rugged individualism is overrated.

An Alcoholic is often described as a person with a huge ego and a tiny self-esteem. The ego said I have this under control. The self esteem said I can’t go on without it. Surrender said, I’m defeated, please help.

Surrender is a great relief in a world that demands that we hold onto life tightly with both hands. Surrender gives us permission to let go. It says we don’t always have to win. Today I can surrender the last word in an argument. Surrender allows me to slow down and let the aggressive driver have his waysurrender on the road. Surrender gives me patience. Surrender provides the humility to make amends. Surrender is the wisdom to go through grief rather than around it. Surrender is falling in love.

Perhaps its greatest gift is the ability to acknowledge fears and failure without dwelling on them.

It’s OK to look at the past, but it’s not polite to stare.

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

Walt Whitman rejoices at the scientific spirit, “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

My background check hasn’t come back yet. There will be a six-year-old DUI on there which could cost me the job.

But on the bright side, I don’t have any cocaine in my trunk.

A young man of joy: Every bit his father’s son

10847786_10202447971635249_8284351797113282319_nIt’s been a day since my cousin Brian found his son Jacob unresponsive on a bathroom floor.  I feel bleary, heavy, trying to grasp such sudden and gaping loss. My imagination won’t leave me alone, circling the way it happened.

Brian and I grew up together and I don’t remember ever seeing him sad. His laugh bounced around and exploded like a sneeze. I remember once Brian was helping me move and he peppered my brother and me with dirty jokes in the cab of the Ryder truck. Brian’s jokes were terrible, but  his giddy laugh incapacitated us. To say it was infectious is like saying a tornado is breezy.  I couldn’t see the road and my stomach cramped. More than once I slowed down, considered pulling to the shoulder until I could sit up and see straight.

This weekend, at the moment of Brian’s greatest heartbreak, I imagine my cousin’s capacity for joy in all-consuming contrast, turned upon himself in bottomless sorrow and roaring despair.

10556354_10154943450570722_6181797544446628608_nJacob was his father’s son. Almost every testimony on social media recalls his infectious laugh and irreverent humor, his knack for sensing when people needed kindness, a talent for making everyone around him feel good, all gifts of his nursing parents.

My experiences with Jacob were originally on the soccer field, where he and my son, the other Jacob Madden, formed an aggressive and intimidating defense at LeBlond High School. Due to his physical play, I recall Jacob among the league leaders in Yellow Card warnings, each of which he accepted with a smirk. Jacob played with a grinning  recklessness and devil-may-care style that was true to his personality. Jacob and I shared some of the same struggles over the years. I kept tabs from a distance, pulling for him and quietly celebrating his successes. Like others with these struggles, he was filled with passions and a desire to take care of others. He likely surprised those around him with sudden expressions of concern or encouragement.

Jacob was his father’s son.

Brian has always felt deeply, laughed with all his heart, and carried an infectious joy to those around him.  I hear over and over with pride that he is among the best nurses, filled with compassion and tenderness — and always laughter.  I remember in a junior varsity basketball game, Brian’s coach assigned him to guard me. As I brought the ball up court I heard the familiar giggle. I fell apart laughing. My coach yanked me and yelled, “What the hell’s your problem!” All I could say was, “That’s my cousin.”

Now, in his own words, Brian’s heart is broken. All the glory of his infectious laugh and famed compassion is now sorrow so deep that one wonders if he can stand and hold the pieces of his heart together.

It is time for Brian — and for that matter Julie, Jacob’s mother, his sister Nicole, his grandmother Connie, and his Aunts Linda, Beth, Debra, and Michelle– to recognize that suffering is every bit as infectious as laughter. As hard as I laughed in the cab of that truck that day, or on that basketball court, that’s exactly how hard I hurt for my cousin. As incapacitated as Brian’s laugh left me, so it is with his grief. The reach of Brian’s heart was just the beginning.

Jacob was his father’s son.

Ladies and gentlemen, the amazing and still undefeated Edna Schafer

“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
Khalil Gibran

Edna Schafer didn’t so much battle cancer. She proved that love and joy outshine it.

My Aunt Edna, who died last week, had known much pain and grief in her 76 years of life. The mother of seven  children, she and husband, Bob, a rough-talking farmer, earned reverence in the eyes of their family and neighbors for their hard work, integrity and kindness.   As years passed respect has only grown for a family and its country matriarch who have endured unimaginable grief with grace and acceptance.

“Life is suffering” — The First Noble Truth, The Buddha

I doubt that Aunt Edna ever read the teachings of the Buddha, but she instinctively understood this truth. The Buddha wanted his followers to understand that the moment is all we have. To worry about future suffering or past regrets was of no use. Edna knew suffering, but she seemed to know that it was out of her control. As Catholic writer Henry Nouwen wrote: “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

10616522_559580804168395_7308452202808705634_nWhen cancer was discovered in Edna ‘s bladder four years ago, few doubted that this indestructible woman would beat it. A year later doctors removed her kidney. Posts on a Facebook page called “Edna’s Posse” remained as optimistic as  ever. In the middle of chemotherapy treatments Edna suffered a heart attack. She joked about her bad luck and was always the first one to laugh.

She never wavered from hospitality. Edna nurtured her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She seemed ageless as doctors injected needles of chemotherapy and constantly checked her blood. When she underwent triple bypass surgery she found it more ironic than crushing. Even in the hardest of times guests to her house were offered cookies, ice cream or a big spread of home cooking.

A favorite memory of nieces and nephews was wrapping up in blankets and sleeping bags for overnights on the living room floor of the big old farmhouse straight out of rural mythology. If we weren’t all old now we’d still be camping out at Edna’s.

One of the first times I ever got drunk, my cousins brought me back to pass out on the Schafer fold-out couch. I feared disapproval the next day at lunch, but only got the infectious  laugh from my aunt. She ribbed me later at family reunions for refusing her fresh strawberries that day as I struggled through a strawberry schnapps hangover.

The Schafer family’s suffering was like a chapter from the Book of Job. When doctors discovered a tumor on the trachea of Bob and Edna’s youngest daughter Anita, a kindergartener at the time, she was given 6 to 9 months to live. She lived eight years symptom free.  In 1981, Anita would be unexpectedly diagnosed with brain tumors.  She would spend much of the next year and a half in hospitals as doctors tried to save her. The countryside wept with the Schafers when Anita died two days before her 14th birthday.

A few years  later, the family suddenly lost Bob in the fall to a blood clot following back surgery. He was a strapping 58.  A community again grieved with a devastated family as they gathered to help the Schafer’s bring in the crops. Only a year later doctors discovered that Edna’s oldest son, Mike, had a brain tumor. Despite aggressive treatment, he died a year and a half later at age 33, leaving behind a wife and young daughter

Author Anthon St. Maarten wrote: “If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day.”

945916_10151565539863801_1084158088_n

The Schafer family gathered around their mom, front and center.

There were whispers that this family seemed cursed when in fact they were blessed. Rather than break apart in the shadow of grief, they gathered around their mother and thrived. Laughter was a constant in a family of good humor. Affection was sown in a family that knew great loss. My brother and I often noted that the Schafers always had the  best turnout at family reunions.

Rather than feeling forsaken, Edna never missed Sunday Mass. She not only refused to judge, but loved those who chose another path, including those in her family.  She seemed puzzled by anger or people who held grudges. She knew that sudden loss and sudden joy could come upon us at any moment. When my aunt died I remembered the words of Khalil Gibran: “Some of you say ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Of course there were lines of sorrow in Aunt Edna’s face. But they were inseparable from the lines of laughter.

Eventually the cancer spread to Edna’s liver, lymph nodes and abdominal wall. Weakened in the last year of life, she still traveled with her daughter Lori to Maine. Then in August she made the long journey to Idaho to see her granddaughter  married.

“I think that’s what she was living for,” her daughter Sharon said. “At the wedding dance we kept asking if she was tired, if she wanted to go home, but she stayed until the last dog was dead.”

Two weeks later, doctors said they had exhausted all treatment options. Edna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, we gotta do what we gotta do.”

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Edna returned home. Hospice came to keep her comfortable in her final days. But I believe a life well lived was her greatest comfort.

10672376_10202013823346420_4446256785970219818_n

Edna shares a laugh with her grandsons, Garrett (left) and Ethan.

“I think Mom knew she was going to die from the beginning, but she was protecting us,” Sharon said.

People were always drawn to Edna. Not for great words or great deeds, but rather for simple acts of kindness and her ability to find joy through trials that many feared would break them. She knitted scarfs, and eagerly gave them to her grandchildren or any children who came to visit. Every time  I talked with her, the first thing she said was, “Come see me.” On one of my  visits back to Missouri Edna opened her house to my children and me to spend a weekend together. She immediately became Aunt Edna to them as well.

In her final hours people filed through her house to say their goodbyes and more goodbyes were said in a crowded church at her funeral.

On the day of Edna’s funeral I saw a passage from The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg, that caught in my chest:

“There are random moments – tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms – when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead.”

Edna grieved deeply. Then scattered joy like seeds on rich soil.

She  taught those who knew her that life is suffering. But we are meant for joy.

It is our choice.

The Divine Revelation of Suicide

Suicide occurred to me like divine revelation–obvious, certain and irrefutable. I was lying in bed next to my wife when I realized that all those well-meaning people who say it “is not an option” are wrong. Of course it is. I recognized so clearly that I had been granted too much life span. My capacity for joy, my talents, my ability to provide for my family had been finite. At 46, a bipolar episode and the subsequent depression had exhausted me. For months I had been crashing deep10563127_10202444202846230_1914226759642794028_n into sleep, or medicating myself with midnight Netflix.
Self-absorbed and terrified I devised the obvious way to slip out of the picture, a one-night relapse. Binge drink myself to death.
Instead, like I have done for years when the urge to drink has come over me like religious fervor, I told someone. This time it was my wife. I told her my whole plan. Inside my head, my self-worth was self-evident. As soon as I spoke, I recognized the path of destruction I was preparing to leave behind.
I haven’t considered myself a good father in the past year. I told my wife my kids love the idea of who I was before. She told me I was wrong. But even that is better than what I would be leaving behind.
I told my wife she deserved better than me. That’s when I experienced the truly divine revelation of what it means to be loved.
I am still battling the depression, with the help of puzzled doctors. Of course, the death of Robin Williams last week gave me pause. I mourned his genius but more important I wondered if he like me felt like his time had run out. I of course am no Robin Williams but I shared with him a history of addiction, which is a disease of loneliness. I was saddened by his death and the loneliness of it.
It is a common saying that the mind of an alcoholic is like a bad neighborhood, you shouldn’t go there alone.
In recovery we rely on one another to fight the cunning and baffling demons. We pick up a phone. We go to meetings. We talk to sponsors. With luck we have the support of family. Yet suicide is not uncommon in our ranks.
Some would call such an act selfish, for the grief and suffering it leaves behind.
I would not judge so harshly, because in my encounters with clinical depression, I have become self-centered and isolated, turning harshly upon myself to the point of obsession. I don’t think the Catholic Church teaches this anymore, but when I was growing up I learned that suicides went directly to hell. Some religious people still believe that.
Addicts often choose “spirituality” over religion. It has been said that religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell.
Spirituality is for people who have already been there.

A woman who fills me with awe

In my worst moments of insecurity, I plead with her, “Why do you love me?” She never rolls her eyes or tells me to grow up. I’ve heard beautiful women can’t stand insecure men. She patiently says, I love you because you are you.28912_1297963249029_1300685_n I love you because you love me like no one ever has. She reminds me of the four beautiful children I have brought into her life.

She still hasn’t addressed my tiresome fears. I’m no better looking, no more able to take her to exotic places, my dark list is still long and tedious… But she holds my hand and kisses me and the list gets all jumbled. I’ll have to pursue my argument later. It all seems pointless, anyway. Yes, it is true, she could do better than me. But she has chosen me, or as she puts it, she had no choice–we had no choice

I am daily in awe of this fact. I get to be with a woman who fills me with awe. I was filled with awe the first time we went out to lunch. As we left the restaurant, she stopped and thanked each person who worked there, whether they had helped us or not. I could see it in their eyes, they were as surprised– and charmed–as me.

Other men have taken her to Africa and Paris and Cabo. Me, I’ve taken her shopping at the St. Joseph, Mo. Hy-Vee–and she paid.

One of her trips to Missouri was for our wedding –Cabin 1 at Mozingo Lake. My children were there, so was my Brother Ryan and his daughter Olive and her mother NyEela. Pizza and Pepsi, storebought cake. My daughter asked if she could wear sweats. Of course, my bride said, scoring points. My friend Nathan Byrne presided.

A highlight of the evening was being pulled over on the way to the cabin –on the way to our wedding– by a police officer who saw a packed car on Thanksgiving and suspected no good. He was befuddled by a car full of children on the way to a wedding. The second highlight came when, in a rush to start a fire in the cabin fireplace, my son Joe burned my handwritten marriage vows as kindling.

I scribbled out new vows and married this woman of grace and infectious kindness.

That my children were at the wedding, a night my youngest daughter called a wonderful evening, is testament to this woman’s ability to break through barriers of pain and anger.

She entered my children’s lives at a difficult time, when I was splitting with their mother. My daughter Annie who now calls my wife Mamma J. and loves her deeply, recently passed a photo of us on the wall in our bedroom from that time. She frowned mockingly and said, “I remember that picture. That’s when I didn’t like you.”

It’s true, they didn’t like JJ much, and JJ gave them space.

I would never bring a person into my children’s lives who would hurt them or treat them with disrespect. That worry never entered my head. I followed JJ’s lead. Again I watched in awe.

She reached out with a letter. My daughter Emily warmed and sent back the Serenity Prayer. These days, Emily talks regularly with her stepmom and they Snapchat almost daily. Joe calls almost every day and seems more interested in talking with JJ than me. Jacob, in college now, doesn’t connect as often, but the affection has always been obvious.

My friend, Fr. Hugh Tasch, a Benedictine Monk, told me that when the Scriptures call for us to fear God, a more accurate translation is to experience awe in the divine. Fr. Hugh also asks me often about my own experience of the divine in my marriage.

When I met JJ and ended my failing first marriage, my parents and sisters turned their back on me and have never spoken to me again. They have done the same to my brother Ryan and his little girl. Ryan noted once that it is sad because if my family ever met JJ, he has no doubt they would love her.

Once again, I note a sense of awe. I am perfectly at peace with my shattered family because I must be with this woman.

I recall the night when it first hit. I had enjoyed a rich and exciting conversation with JJ, late into the night. We had laughed. I had longed for her. There were moments of uninterrupted silence. Emotions had swelled in me. I had nearly wept to hang up the phone. I got up and walked into the kitchen. My legs gave out and I barely made it to a chair. I sat their in the dark, catching my breath, smiling.

“So this is the way it’s supposed to be,” I whispered.

Mining for Lithium in the Red River Valley

There’s something lonely about tail lights. They pass in the night without even the blink promising they might turn off and wait.

I pull onto Highway 101 in San Rafael, California, and ease into a river of red. The music on the radio is gentle country, but
I’m headed north to become a Nirvana song.

rainy-tail-lights-at-night-400x265The traffic is dispassionate and sluggish like my emotions. I slow down and gaze ahead at a valley of commuters, trying to imagine the car lights as festive. They are people who care nothing for my pharmaceutical pilgrimage. I have to be at the Rohnert Park Costco by 7 p.m. to fill a prescription of Lithium.

As I drive I worry. There are so many side effects I can’t keep them straight in my head. And there’s Kurt Cobain’s ghost sitting in the back seat. But I’m turning my will over to what monks call obedience. My doctor and my wife and friends say I should give it a try. I’m taking it on faith.

As they said when I got sober, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

At a 12-step meeting a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the terrors of my bipolar break and how Alcoholics Anonymous had helped me prepare for it. I knew I couldn’t handle life alone. I knew my life was unmanageable. I had learned the Promises: “We will know new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

These did not seem extravagant, but they did seem hazy.

Following the meeting, two kind women approached me and thanked me for revealing my struggle. They, too, were bipolar. The rooms of AA are full of our types.

I remember a day at the beach when my break was at its worst. I felt the need to alter my mind. It didn’t need to be alcohol. I felt like anything: codeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, weed, meth would have made the slightest crack in in the fear clamping my soul. It would have been like that first crack of light that buried coal miners see. From there all it would take would be a few more cracks.

Fortunatelly, I waited for a medically approved cracks.

Now, I push through Novato traffic, where it routinely bogs own just after dark.  I am nervous, tired and sad. I still haven’t been handling work situations and conflicts as I used to before my Christmas crash. My doctor says I’m getting better, but there’s still something behind my eyes, a look of fear that something is waiting to take me again.

Lithium is a the standard med for treating what has been happening to me my entire adult life. The side effects sound like one of those TV commercials for erectile dysfunction medication, where the guy reads so fast you can’t possibly hear them all.  None of them are worse than the panic and nightmares and that feeling of permanent startle.

When I told my daughter I was bipolar she cried. “It’s a lot to take in,” she said.

“I’ve  always been bipolar,” I said. “They just gave it a name this time and they can better treat it.” Then I went into the bedroom and held my head in my hands. I try to protect my children from this but they deserve honesty.

Traffic slows to a crawl through Petaluma and the two lanes in the final stretch to Rohnert Park. I will pick up more Klonipin for the anxiety and Clonidine for the tics from Tourette’s I’ve had since Junior High. I chuckle at all the drugs that have replaced booze.

When I pick up the meds, the paranoia flickers. I expect the pharmacist handing me all the medication to glance at a nearby security officer. We’ve got a live one here. Instead, she smiles, asks if I have a Costco card and rings up my order. She pleasantly says, You have a nice evening.”

I pull out of the Costco parking lot to more lonesome tail lights. The only meeting I’ve been to  in a week has been to see my psychiatrist.

I have a bag full of pills and a pit in my stomach. I open the bag and look at the bottles.

I think I’ll wait until morning to explore the promise of Lithium.

Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real

I don’t know why I went to the meeting.

After a two-hour drive in traffic to reach the Costco pharmacy in time to buy anxiety medication, I meandered back through more traffic and arrived at the Church five minutes late. I felt a chill dark and cold like the winter night. I vowed to sit in the back and not participate. Like a kid whose parents made him attend Mass. “I ain’t singin’ and I ain’t listenin’ to no pastor!”

Bbx45RRIYAA5kUKI tugged my stocking cap down over my eyebrows and punched my fists into my pockets. Leaned back in the church pew and closed my eyes painfully. Luckily I was late enough I had missed the reading of “How it Works.” The first person started to share: Something about being grateful for this program and about how good it was to have this meeting to come to. I wasn’t really listening.

I looked at the time on my phone. Fifty more minutes. Fuck, what was I doing here!

More sharing. One guy had lost someone close to him and proceeded to relapse. He was back– starting over. I think he said he had 10 days sober.  I sat up and golf-clapped for him. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes again. The guy sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. I was putting off an uncomfortable vibe.

I was better than I had been a few days earlier. The terrors of the bipolar episode weren’t paralyzing me anymore, but that didn’t mean the fear was gone. All the character had drained from me. I had become the center of my own universe and it was a universe without texture or excitement or tenderness.

I sat fidgeting as voices droned on about gratitude, acceptance and promise.

I couldn’t hear the voices over the question in my head, “Why in the hell am I here?

For some reason a memory bubbled up through the poisonous thoughts in my head. It was from the last months of my drinking. It took a lot to get me drunk back then and it really wasn’t much fun anymore. I walked into a liquor store near Atchison, Kan., and stood, staring at the shelves. Nothing looked good. But I stared and stared. For a half an hour I stared at beer and whiskey and rum and tequila. I stared until I finally bought a cheap bottle of rum.

I drank that bottle on the way home to my family.

To my surprise, I raised my hand and spoke. “I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic.”

”High Dan!” the room responded. I felt irritated.

“No offense,” I admitted, “but I haven’t really been listening to you all tonight.”

I briefly mentioned that my holidays had been kind of crappy and that I didn’t really want to be here.

I told the story of long ago standing in the liquor store trying to decide what to buy.

Whether I wanted to or not, drinking had become a habit, I said.

I think that’s why I ended up at the meeting. Habit.

I remember a lot of 12-Step meetings where my heart was lifted, or I felt embraced by fellowship, or where answers to my problems mysteriously arrived just when I needed them.

This time, not so much.

Someone once told me that sober stands for “Son of a Bitch Everthing’s Real”

I laughed lamely, “I guess it’s better to be at a meeting in a shitty mood than to not be here at all. I hope by the time I leave I’m grateful for coming.”

As I slinked toward the door,  a tall man with silver hair approached and said, “Well, Dan, quite a share!”

I grunted.

He said, “So you had a bad Christmas?”

I knew he was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t having it.

“How long you been sober?” he asked. I told him and he looked surprised by how long. He asked me if I’d done the steps,

“Yeah,” I said, anxiously turning toward the door.

I shook his hand, said thank you, and walked to my car.

Some will tell you that you never feel worse after a meeting than you did before.

On that night, I would have disagreed.

But I did drink a Dr. Pepper on the way home to my family.