The ground

I find myself standing in a field. Or maybe a prairie. There’s wide open space all around me, with long grasses, waving in a gentle breeze. If I stand still long enough, I can feel the earth pushing up against my feet.

Sitting down, I feel comfortable. Its the kind of comfort I felt as a child with my head on my mom’s lap, her long narrow fingers stroking my hair. I look around the prairie, at the ground so close to me, and I notice beauty in everything–the tiny flowers, the seeds on the grasses, the subtle hues on the pebbles. And since this is my field, my prairie, there are no snakes. I feel safe knowing the snakes are only in someone else’s patch of ground.

When I lay back, feeling the cool earth on my shoulder blades, I look up at the sky. With deep slow breaths, I can, I believe, feel the planet rotating. The sky is blue, and the apex of the dome is the kind of deep blue you only see in your dreams. A few friendly clouds move very slowly. Or am I moving beneath the clouds? The sensation of movement–do I feel it or do I see it? I cannot see the sun, but I feel warm, like the warmth of a baby cradled in its mother’s arms.

My eyes close, and I can hear the cicadas calling to each other. The breeze blows through the grasses near to my ears, and dishevels my hair, just a bit. The ground is firm, but I don’t need a pillow. In a moment I could just fall asleep.

And then its gone. Did I jump? Was there a cliff? Its like I’m falling in a dream, but I’m too disoriented to be afraid. I was just enjoying the support of the earth, and the comfort of my prairie, and now, what? Is that Dorothy in a tornado? Am I falling or flying?

I try to look down, but I see nothing. Not black. Not white. Nothing. The people I love are all swirling around me. Jesus, I’ve transformed into my own Wizard of Oz metaphor. I look at each of their faces as they tell me “its going to be OK”, and “we love you”, and “we’re here to help”. But what’s happening to me? Where am I going? Am I going up or down or sideways? They answer, but I can’t really understand. I focus on their faces, trying to read their lips, but I can’t. I reach out, and my wife grabs my hand. I pull her closer, and she looks around with me. No ground. No prairie. No grasses or cicadas.

Other faces emerge. My dad. He joins us. My aunt. She gives me a hug. My children wrap their arms around me, and I wrap mine around them. We hold each other.

My mom’s face appears amid the chaos. I reach out to her, but I can’t touch her.

“Goodbye.”

I’m still waiting

My mother died a month ago today. In that time, I’ve gotten a lot of stuff done: I’ve met with attorney’s for her trusts, put her will through probate, transitioned her bank accounts to my name, paid-off and canceled credit cards, and taken thousands of dollars worth of her things to local charities. And yet I keep checking my email and physical mail and Facebook like I’m going to get some message from her.

I’m waiting for her to tell me how happy she is with all the sorting I’ve done in her garage.

I’m waiting for her to come over and help me sort family photos.

I’m waiting for her to have an opinion on what I should do with her fine jewelry.

I’m waiting for her to tell me how cute my wife’s nieces are playing with her costume jewelry.

I’m waiting for her to ask if I’ve sold her car yet.

I’m waiting for her to tell me what her discharge date is.

I’m waiting for the tears to flow through the wall of responsibility.

I’m waiting for people to stop saying they’re sorry for my loss.

I’m waiting for my obsession over my own life expectancy, retirement, and financial condition to turn down from eleven.

I’m waiting for my nightly headaches and restless sleep to fade into distant memory.

I saw my mother’s ashen face, unbelievably motionless, not look up at me, and yet its like I’m still waiting for her to wake up, thank me for all I’ve done over the last month, and tell me she loves me.

I’m still waiting.

Atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous

**Disclaimer: Every AA group is different. Every AA meeting is different. Every person’s experience of those meetings is different. What follows are my reflections of the patterns and themes that I see in the part of the world I’ve been going to meetings.**

I’ve been to a number of different gatherings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’m still having a difficult time with the “higher power” concept, and the frequent prayers, and the nearly constant talk of God in some meetings.

Now, to be clear, no one is telling me what to believe when it comes to God or a higher power. But many are clear that belief in a higher power is required when working the steps. And although I have essentially chosen “community” as my higher power, there are a number of places where the Christian history is just too thick to cut through. Its kinda hard to explain, so let me try to illustrate with a metaphor.

Imagine AA is a method for teaching people how to cook. There are a couple of canonical books that were written 50+ years ago, and everyone loves the recipes therein. And also imagine that AA meetings are potluck dinners where people share the dishes they’ve made from these recipes. Maybe they’ve reinterpreted the recipes, or given them their own flair. Some meetings will make one recipe a week (everyone makes the same thing, and talks about what it was like to make the recipe), whereas other meetings will have dishes from a lot of different recipes.

Now, lets say you’re a vegetarian. No problem, everyone says. We won’t make you eat meat. You can substitute any protein you like in the recipes.

One meeting is all about Chicken Parmesan, and the standard refrain is that you can eat just the cheese and the tomato sauce. Just put the chicken aside. The omnivores in the crowd don’t seem to understand that the whole dish has chicken throughout, and you can’t just pick it out.

Or another meeting is about tacos. Some people bring beef, others chicken, and you can bring beans. That recipe works OK without using meat. Some people might point out that beans have protein, and meat has protein, so, they’re pretty much the same, right?

And the strangest part about some potlucks is that they start with a shrimp appetizer, and end with a ceremonial jello toast. So you just stand there, politely waiting for them to finish. The shrimp appetizer is in the canonical cookbook, but the jello isn’t which seems a little weird. But hey, we live in a jello-eating culture, so what’s so bad about it? Many people don’t even realize that vegetarians don’t eat jello.

As an atheist in these meetings I do my best to, as the frequent refrain goes, take what I like and leave the rest. The biggest problem is that in many of the texts atheists and agnostics are treated like lost souls, or children who haven’t quite grown up yet. Consider this excerpt from chapter 4 of the big book, which seems intended to welcome non-believers:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him.

See what they did there? The author seems to think that atheism is born of prejudice, rather than a logically considered and carefully examined viewpoint. They also couldn’t “fully define or comprehend” this thing, but they’re unequivocal in calling it God. And despite what people say about “you can define your higher power as anything you want,” the chapter meant to bring non-believers into the fold specifically says that you’ll have to be willing to believe in a monotheistic deity to reap the benefits of the program. The whole chapter feels like it was written by someone who thought they understood non-believers but was actually a believer themselves.

A passage from the frequently-read how it works also makes no bones about the requirement to believe in a mono-theistic deity:

Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him
now!
Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Again, despite frequent exclamations that your “higher power” can be anything you want, it is frequently referred to as a) an individual thing, b) that is male, c) that listens to prayers, d) responds to supplications for assistance, and e) is omnipotent. Sure, I can define my “higher power” as “a community of people who support me in my recovery”, but I have to do some mental gymnastics at every meeting to either ignore or translate the readings.

Fortunately, there are some openly secular AA meetings, but they may be hard to find. My local AA service organization has a nice directory of meetings all over town. They even make it easy to search for GLBT-friendly meetings, men-only meetings, women-only meetings, in addition to those offering baby-sitting, and wheel-chair access. But there isn’t a way to search for or filter secular meetings in the listings. I’ve sent a message to the group asking them to add that in, hopefully making it easier for people in my area to find secular meetings.

Cunning

I’ve been to around twenty AA meetings in the last two months. There are many things I’ve come to like about AA, and a fair number of things I dislike about the program. Going to the meetings, I find I learn a fair bit about myself, and a lot about others. Many of the meetings (if not all?) read How it works near the beginning of the meeting, and some even make parts of it a call-and-response. I don’t particularly like the reading in general, but there’s one phrase that stands out in my experience of AA: “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” (those last three words are sometimes called out as a response to the beginning).

Cunning.

That’s the most significant word for me. In the one score meetings I’ve been to, the stories people shared have had common themes, and nearly all of those themes could be summed up in that one word: cunning–having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion. People of all walks of life have experienced a wide variety of impacts from consuming alcohol. Bright, accomplished people have consumed more than they knew was good for them. Smart people have sworn off drinking for decades. And yet, alcohol finds a way back into their lives. Alcohol, if I may personify the chemical compound, invites itself into their minds, reminds them of the good times they’ve had together (or the pain that it helped to alleviate), and convinces them that it’ll be OK to have just one drink.

One man at a recent meeting told about his decade long sobriety that ended with “just a glass of wine”. Less than a week later, he was in prison for three years, directly because of alcohol. This is just one anecdote of the dozens I’ve heard like it. And I’ve been to just a handful of meetings in my mid-sized city.

Lest you think I’m guilty of confirmation bias, I assure you I don’t think alcohol has this impact on everyone. Maybe not even most. Honestly, I’m not worried about the statistics of the impact alcohol has on people’s lives–it is very well documented.

What I’m interested in are the stories of that impact: the people who have been hurt, the lives that have been shattered, the attempts at recovery, as well as the people who manage to swear it off for good.

So I’ve been kicking around the idea of making a documentary of sorts. My goal is to tell the stories of alcohol’s impact on people’s lives, and hopefully have people rethink their relationship with the cunning substance. I’m not done formulating a plan, and I’m not even sure if I want it to be a “web series” where each story can be posted individually, or it if will be a finished single movie. Details, details, details.

I want to start with interviews of people whose lives have been impacted by alcohol in any way. Where I go from there, I don’t know yet. If you’re interested in helping with this project, please let me know. I can be reached at rick@nearbennett7.com (just be sure to remove the 7).