The Difference a Year Makes

This time last year, my wife and I were photo-whoring and shaking fairy dust out of our heads. We had just returned from a head-spinning trip to the UK, and readjusting to life squeezed uncomfortably into North American shoes. That, and relearning to drive. Five weeks in the UK had given us sore, flat feet from miles of trudging London’s pavement skeleton. It meant over-worked iPhones bulging with pictures, heads full of Skye and oddly named places like Tu-Hwnt-I’r Bont, Llanthony, and Beddgelert, many pages of writing, and the faces of loved ones.

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Red, double-decker buses. How totally London.
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In Trafalgar Square
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St. James Park
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Into the mystic…Skye
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The Cuillin Hills, Skye
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Outside Ty hwnt yr bont
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Llanthony Priory
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Beddgelert

Our hearts pulsated wildly, aglow in fresh memories. 

One is surely blessed to be found by adventures of this kind even once in a lifetime. This was our fourth trip, but arguably our best. Like the others, this hop across the pond had under it a built-in rationale to guide it. For Rae, it was largely book research – this bridge, that pub, this street corner, that tube station. For me, I was in search of something. I like to think it was maturity, but one can only expect so much in five weeks.

I had some vague notion that a trip of this kind was what I needed for my ongoing pursuit of an even more vague notion – home. No small feat for anyone, let alone one as prone as I to internal homelessness. My extensive writing on the subject had produced a better understanding, but few certainties. Frankly, it just whetted my appetite to learn more. Besides, it’s a high-sounding reason to spend thousands of dollars traipsing around Britain. Rather noble, don’t you think?

For now, at least, such interior matters can wait for another time. A much more ominous discovery needs some attention. With that primer, I’ll just put it out there.

After fourteen years of sobriety, Britain and I sat down for a drink, or ten.

Well before our trip, a wispy, but persistent voice, had begun planting a series of tempting ideas in my head:

“Rife, you’re not an alcoholic, you simply lack self-control.”

“It’s been fourteen years, that was then. This is now.”

“Dude, relax, you’re on holiday. Splurge a little.”

I’m generally a good guy (unless people tell me that just to get me off their lawn). But, annoyingly, a complex maze of dark veins courses through the ore of my otherwise rich life. I smile, knowing full well something isn’t quite right.

To be in Britain is to be awash in street-lit, woody pubs, full of friendly chatter, darts, and tumblers of frothy beer otherwise known as pints. Scotland boasts famous distilleries on every bank and brae, in which is made the amber dew that bears her name. It is woven into the very cultural DNA of the places I love most.

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So much community happens here

It proved too much of a temptation. And I dove back in, head first, into a world that knew me well and had, apparently, been watching and waiting for my return.

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Could you say no? I didn’t think so.

It was simple enough at first. A gift shop on Lindisfarne sold various types of mulled wine, or mead. They handed out samples of the stuff like cocktail weenies at Costco. I would not discover until later how sharp its teeth would be as it slunk like a sweaty pole-dancer down my lusty throat. “See how I love you?” it said. “See how you’ve missed this?” it said. “See how you’ve grown?” it goaded, like the serpent from the tree.

 

Lindisfarne Luscious
Lindisfarne Mead

For an alcoholic, to say yes to the booze gods, is to remove one’s clothing of pride, oil up the pole of self-respect, climb on, and plummet to the bottom of the pit known as despair. Most insidious of all is that we won’t see any of it this way.

“No, it’s all good”, we tell ourselves.

“I’ve got this,” we say.

“I’m not ‘one of those’ drinkers,” we boast.

“I just need to be discerning and exercise self-control,” we convince ourselves.

And, the whole time, our pants are at our ankles and a noose tightly around our necks. Even as we speak the words, we choke them out, while losing all remaining respectability.

The days following our return were met with rapidly deteriorating self-control. Almost like magic, beer left the fridge faster than I could replenish it. I bought bottles of wine in twos and threes for ‘us’ to enjoy. How thoughtful of me. I began drinking before, during, and after routine tasks convinced that it was merely heightening my pleasure, or calming my nerves, or congratulating me on a work day finished.

I began losing any sense of appropriateness, propriety, reason, even common sense. I had jumped into a vat of snakes and looked up, smiling, as they coiled around me.

* * *

Now, after much heartache, a shit load of counselling, a brief sojourn with friends, a lot of books, and a good support network, I am sober once more. And, in that sobriety, I gaze back into the past year and ache at the smouldering wreckage I’ve left behind. A wake of carnage, stupidity, and shame lays in heaps, along with my self-respect. And I begin again the arduous journey back to sanity; back to the reality of life without the crutches of inebriation and forgetfulness.

Despite my fallacious foray into the forest of dumb-fuckery, the shimmer of this journey has stayed with us, even if our feet feel a bit more planted on familiar, and yet somehow foreign, soil. Home is where the heart is say the poets. Home is where the mortgage is say the realists.

Home is your heart say the mystics. 

And that home for me must be a sober one. It is deceptively easy looking up at the sky for answers when the ground is quicksand. My attention has harpooned itself too quickly in less than helpful directions. What I think my heart wants is rarely what it needs. And, I guess, my heart has been my quest all along.

This receding shoreline of self-awareness can be wearisome at best, downright haunting at times. But, while we’re busy gawking at life through the viewfinder, the truly panoramic views are found in the small, easy to miss things. In the dull, routine things. The faces of friends. The laughter at one’s own shitty jokes. How watering roses in my garden can’t keep up with the raw heat of a Yakima summer. Or, just staying sober because you love all of it.

Now, I’m challenged to add my wilderness wandering to my expanding story and pray that it helps buttress my inner fortress. That it makes me wiser, a better man, a truer friend, a more attentive lover, a more insightful guide to others in similar peril. All this and more makes for the skeleton of a life. We get to place the meat on the bones with every smile given, every embrace, every mistake or triumph, every tear released to its rightful owners.

It’s all of a piece. And, some of the time, all of a peace.

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Rob, newly sober

Morning Pages, or something like that

I’m new to Julia Cameron’s idea of Morning Pages. Her best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, has changed many lives and continues to do so. Lately, it seems to be the case for me as well. Through so much of what I write or compose, I am seeking to link the deepest places of my soul to the creative spaces in my head. To put it another way, I am happiest whenever my deepest longings meet my best gifts (thank you Frederick Buechner!).

But Ms. Cameron does this so much better, so here we are. I love the idea that art can create wonder from boredom, peace from turmoil, full from empty. It’s supposed to be that way with our spiritual practice as well. Creating light from dark is what the gospel intends to do in all of us. 

But we so easily entangle ourselves in all that is quick, convenient, or potentially euphoric. We shelf the best stuff for the fast stuff. It robs us of what our creative and spiritual selves want to share, with us, and with the world.

My interest in Cameron’s book has been piqued for many years now, but only got taken off the book shelf recently. Procrastinator you ask? Um, hell yeah! Nevertheless, we’re there now and she is guiding me into my own well by means of writing as meditation. It remains my intention to write my book from this well. 

But, I gotta find it first, relearn how to lower the bucket, and not be afraid to see what comes up. So, here goes. These were my Morning Pages from today, Friday, June 30th. Hopefully they find you whole and happy.

* * * * *

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My typical morning spot. It totally works.

Morning has again crept with typical stealth onto the broad, brown land. This is a hopeful time of day for me. It’s as though I’ve been granted another twenty-four hour run at this thing. Life may have been a jolly cock-up yesterday, but morning comes again and says “Fuck it. Let’s give this another go, shall we?”

For someone like me, prone to shadow, turbulence, and chaos, this comes as welcome invitation indeed. The equally broad landscape of my life needs this daily reimagining. They are little reawakenings as it were to all the yummy goodness just below the surface of things.

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Typical of our regional semi-arid hills and dales

In this desert, although appearing brown and dusty dry on the outside, there holds within it all the possibilities of the world’s first day. If God can step back, clap His/Her hands, and with a smile proclaim, “it is good,” then surely I can do the same.

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That should be a regular meditation for each new morning to which I have the good fortune to see. Step outside, listen, take a deep breath of its newness, and, together with my Creator proclaim, “it is good.” Perhaps with such an outlook, every day can be experienced for the next-chance-to-grow it really is.

Besides, if God could create something new every day and say these words at every one, then it behooves me to do the same. Even if I can’t quite get to that level of optimism, sometimes it is enough to say “well, I fucked up a lot less this time. That’s good, right?” The icing is to rest at the end with feet up, heart full, proverbial Gin and tonic in hand (well, tonic water for this problem drinker!)

What could be better?

One can hardly be surprised then to know that St. Augustine’s favourite passage of Scripture was the creation narrative. He elucidates upon it in depth in his Confessions in a way only a genius philosopher can (beautifully unintelligible). He sees things in the creation not readily available to mere mortals like you or me. But, in my ongoing pursuit of contemplative creativity, there is here a wonderful challenge; a holy dare.

I have before me then a challenge to see, truly see, what lies right in front of me. Where I see a sparrow, God sees the perpetual renewal of all things. Where I see a rose, God sees something magnificent from humble beginnings. Where I hear a crow caw, God hears a virtuoso in training. I taste dirty water, God tastes the banquet, spread out with delights borne of its nourishing goodness.

In the brooding darkness that so often smothers me, a good long look at a morning like this one acts as reminder that it is truer than me. It is the darkness that is askew. The brilliance, colour, and cacophony of sound is the real. And it is before me now, insistently mocking all sadness and doubt.

If God is so capable of seeing perfection in the imperfections and incoherence of each new day, then that is what I am called to see. What we are all welcomed into.

So then, step outside with me, stretch, yawn, blink, breathe in deeply, and stare into the day. Then, together, with He/She who built it, say…it is good.

Peace, dear souls

 

 

Glimpses IV: the spirituality of home

With this topic I enter through a small door into a big room. I do so on tip-toes so as not to awaken any sleeping giants. Home, like love is a word deceptively larger than its meager 4 letters suggests. In my 48 years post-womb I have been many people to many people with many people. A social chameleon, I guess I thought it best to live vicariously through anyone other than myself. Their stories were better, more invigorating or inspiring, or more inclined to win female attention or male praise.

As a result, home, both as place and idea, hasn’t always had the centrifugal force it is supposed to have. From time to time, life has felt a bit disjointed, like a balance with an ill-positioned fulcrum. It’s always a little off. Move it enough and one forgets where the center was to begin with.

Most folks enjoy at least a minimal sense of who they are and when their boundaries are breached. Whenever something foreign or unnecessary storms the walls of their identity they have a means of objective detachment whereby to judge their suddenly unfamiliar surroundings. I, apparently, lack this essential characteristic.

Why?

Is it my artistic, non-logical, non-empirical sensibilities? Perhaps the fact that I’m adopted? Could it be my “progressive” sensibilities (think protest songs, Kumbaya group hugs and flannel shirts), my piss poor memory or some unseen psychological malady(s)? Bad gas? It is as baffling and frustrating as it is intriguing.

The result is the fact that home needs redefining for me – renaming even; something broad enough to encompass my complexities (annoyances to those who know me best), focused enough to provide sufficient context for who I am becoming and “Jesusy” enough (thank you, Anne Lamott) to be honest, self-sacrificial and have lasting trajectory with ultimate meaning…oh, and perhaps a hint of compassion.

(The 950 square foot bungalow in Calgary where I grew up)

A recent trip to my home-turf of southern Alberta left me with these thoughts:

Home is not geographical as much as spatial. It involves an awareness, a familiarity as it were; that place “where everybody knows your name.” I know it and it knows me. There is no awkwardness or second guessing. I understand the politics, the inside jokes, the acceptable or unacceptable faux pas. The prevalent bigotries, hip views, “in” restaurants, “now” looks. The shortcuts and back roads to places only I know or care to know.

In other words, home is where we know and are known. It is about who we spend our lives with and why. We are most home when surrounded by those with whom we share life, both good stuff and bad. We are home when someone cares enough to be pissed off at us or play practical jokes on us. Or cry with us.

Here is the challenge however. As good as all that sounds, it’s still an unsure footing for something as untamed and uncertain as the spiritual life. It makes a ton of assumptions, many of which grow from our home-grown, Western world, Waltons mentality. What if I’m blind and cannot see the above gifts? Deaf and cannot hear the words of familial comfort or humor? Comatose and cannot experience them? Mentally incapacitated so as to deny full involvement in it all? Incarcerated or worse? Where, then, do I find “home”?

If anyone stood well outside the comfortable, normal or expected, it was Jesus. His was not a simple move across the country or even the globe. The journey he undertook landed him amid the harassed mass of fallen humanity of which he was now a shareholder. Where once he enjoyed the benefits of Trinitarian dwelling and the benefits thereof, he passes through a birth canal into the cold world, created for, through and by him. Jesus’ example and presence makes home possible even in the least likely locations.

Why?

He gave up his “home” in order to give us ours. And that’s good enough for me.