I glance up at the clock. It’s a simple clock—black and white, round, powered by 1 or maybe 2 double A batteries contained in a little square, plastic box. The little hand is on the 7, the big hand is on the 6. 7:30. The meeting is supposed to end now. The energy starts moving, hips shift back and forth in creaking plastic chairs, knees bounce, eyes dart along the ground looking for half drank coffee cups and purses. I glance around the circle searching for clues about what happens next. “What now? What happens to all of this energy? Where does the honesty go? How do you close after such an outpouring?” My mind worried.
I get anxious at the end of meetings. I fear the idle standing around and lingering that inevitably happens. Most of the meetings I have attended are professional, usually filled with education and other social service administrators all connected by a vague mission of “building healthy communities for our children.” Meeting after meeting ends and it’s time for “networking”—small, sterile conversations about our overly committed schedules, grants, job vacancies, new programs. When I was working, I would often make up excuses to leave meetings early just so that I could avoid this awful ritual. Honest conversation sometimes happens in parking lots between like minded colleagues, but never inside the meeting. Meetings are about politics. Meetings are about everyone playing their part and representing their agency.
At 7:32, we all stand up and hold hands. Our beautiful blonde facilitator asks another woman, Amanda, if she would close the meeting. Amanda is an attractive masculine woman standing across the circle from me. She looks young, probably in her mid-thirties. Her short hair cut is parted to the side and gelled perfectly back away from her sharp, angular face. She wore dark blue denim jeans and a perfectly pressed button down shirt. Her watch matched her belt buckle.
Amanda nodded in agreement. She inhales so deeply she almost has to stand on her tippy toes. “A moment of silence for those of us who are still suffering,” Amanda says as she exhales. Everyone bows their head in unison.
I immediately think of our beautiful blonde facilitator and her suffering. She is standing next to me. We are now holding hands, sweaty palms touching. The “playbook,” the big white binder, sits on a chair next to her. Less than a half an hour ago, she was in tears—the kind of tears that jump out in strong, sporadic bursts as you try to hold back, but can’t. I instinctively put my hand on her shoulder as she cried. Thinking now about the profile of her face and the way her whole body cringed with pain as she spoke makes my eyes water. Today is her mom’s birthday. Her mom is a drug addict and alcoholic, and has been battling the disease her whole life. She talked about being sober for 1 year and running a marathon the day after St. Patrick’s Day last year. I can relate to this type of running—the running you do when you are trying to get away from something. I also signed up for a marathon right around the time my brother relapsed and started to feel really lonely in my small, white college town. That was almost 1/2 my life ago now.
My thoughts reconnect with the circle. It seems obvious now that a moment of silence is the perfect way to move forward after an outpouring of honesty and sincerity amongst strangers. To take a moment, to acknowledge the pain and suffering is there and to move forward together. The acknowledgement lets everyone know that their pain is seen, felt, heard and is now held by us all.
I have never seen this type of honesty and sincerity after a “cross sector collaborative meeting for youth violence prevention” though we are always talking about life and death. Sure, there are times when speakers, mothers who have lost their children to the streets or youth themselves share their gut wrenching stories. But these mothers and youth are representatives of something most people in the room don’t understand. They are tokens. Their audience of administrators listens sympathetically and thinks “that was a tragic story” while driving back to their air conditioned offices. No one ever takes a moment to really stand there with our children, youth and mothers and hold their pain. It’s not on the agenda. It’s not a measurable outcome. This is why I usually fear the end of meetings. This circle of strangers is teaching how to handle the end of something meaningful with grace—how to look it in the eyes, hold it and feel the weight together.
“Now we will recite the serenity prayer,” Amanda says. A chorus of voices, heads bowed, murmurs this prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change,
the courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I mumble parts under my breath. I can’t remember the exact order of these 3 short phrases though I have heard it many times before. In fact, at the suggestion of my therapist, I printed the serenity prayer and posted it on the bulletin board in my office. This was before I admitted I was an alcoholic and attributed all my problems to being overwhelmed with work. Working with homeless and foster youth in very poor violent places, I was always trying to push boulders up mountains, trying to fit grand visions into institutions that couldn’t hold them, and in turn, I felt very drained and frustrated. So, I drank every night. At least this is the story I told myself.
Everyone lifts their hands and says, “keep coming back it works.” Our facilitator asks us to move the chairs back around the tables. The energy dissipates quickly like a burst of wind after a door slams. We are released. We can let go.
A woman, I’ll call her Angel, approaches me immediately after the circle disbands. She looks both soft and tough kinda like Amanda. Her hair is bright white, cropped short, perfectly parted and gelled. She is wearing overalls, deck shoes and white collared shirt. The back of her shirt is slightly see through. Triangles of lace from her bra peak through the fabric on her back as she stretches to tie her shoe. Sexy, strong, I thought. She is chewing a toothpick and looks me dead in the eyes as she walks towards me.
“Yeah, my mom didn’t talk me for like a year when I first came out as an alcoholic. Don’t worry it will get better. I’ve been sober for 27 years and my family is still fucked up. My Dad’s 72 and smoking oxycontin with his 24 year old girlfriend. Just crazy stuff,” This is the first thing Angel says to me. No small talk here.
“It gets easier as you go along. And then the really good things start happening, so make sure you come back. It gets so much better. My mom is like that, ya know, spiritual and stuff, but she also didn’t want to admit she had a problem with drinking, so she didn’t accept it when I did. It’s hard when you start getting sober, because you wanna go around being like “hey, this is best thing ever,” but not everyone is going to get it,” Angel continues. It gets better. Those words stick with me.
I hustle quickly out the basement door. “Good to see you Ashley! We hope you come back next week,” says a woman in her mid fifties as she hunches over to open the door to her Ford taurus. I smile, thank her and shuffle my feet quickly to my car.
My butt hits the driver’s seat. I am stunned. I inhale and exhale quickly. I am on autopilot as I fumble around my purse trying to find my Iphone. Who might understand what this feels like? This sense of being completely naked, open, seen. Candy would get it. I tap the envelope icon on my phone and write a bewildered, short message to her:
Subject line: First Meeting
All women. Lutheran church. Amazing. We’re coming together!
Sent from my iPhone
I hit send and think of Candy. Candy is a tremendously kind, warrior woman who has been a best friend for over a decade. I have seen Candy on mountaintops, completing her masters degree in education with a focus on social justice and science, and in gutters—crying wondering why she can’t love herself and find someone to love her.
Candy was the first person I reached out to when I realized I had a drinking problem. Sitting on the couch, crying, drinking a pint glass of wine filled with ice cubes after working a 10 hour day, I held my phone in the crook of my neck and bumbled something like “I am a drunk!” I slurped down a lukewarm watery wine mixture and felt completely unhinged.
Candy is the type of person who really “get its”—not in an intellectual or sympathetic way, but in a deeply lived and felt sort of way. She radiates a compassion and kindness that is palpable. I feel it through the phone as we speak.
I don’t remember exactly what we talked about that night. Now, I realize that phone call was just about me making a confession to someone I loved. To someone who I knew would “get it.” Candy didn’t try to give me advice, but rather, stayed with me, exactly where I was, acknowledging the hardship I faced, holding my hand as I looked up at a giant mountain I didn’t think I could climb.
Candy is my only friend who is also an alcoholic. I remember Candy got sober for the first time after her 30th birthday. She blacked out and said and did somethings she regretted. So, she gave up alcohol—all alone surrounded by a community of hard drinkers. That night as I confessed to her on my couch, she told me a story about being three months sober, going on a booze cruise and drinking soda water surrounded by drunk people. She stayed sober for 5 months that time. I remember thinking “sober on a booze cruise, five fucking months without a drink?!?” as Candy spoke. It all sounded miserable and impossible.
I am 4 months and 9 days sober now and I think I’ll make it to 5 months after all.
I have been to 4 women’s AA meetings since writing my previous post. Everyday I wrestle with the energy I feel in those Church basements and and only beginning to understand how it is changing and healing me. I try to hold it, the energy, the feeling I felt in that Safeway parking lot. I’ve had a million ideas about what I would write about and now it’s all just slipping through my fingers as I try to put it into words. Maybe this energy is the thing that Stardust is talking about when she talks about God—a force without form, so expansive, so large, so loving it can’t be held.
I know this much. What I am feeling is openness and beauty. It’s strangers, women, coming together in Church basements for 28 years practicing rigorous honesty. It’s the layers of addiction that wrap around people’s lives for generations. It’s the grandma watching her 5 year old granddaughter chase her drunk mom around their trailer, and remembering when she was 5 and chasing her drunk mom taking on all those adult feelings when she was just a baby. It’s the soft spoken, husky woman wearing the Raiders sweatshirt who has been sober for 4 years and suffers from chronic shoulder pain. She cries as she tells us she has been in pain for years and has been too scared to take medication, because of the addiction. It’s the unforeseen, uncontrollable tears that roll down my cheeks as Dorian tells me she would love to be a part of my support team and that I can call her anytime day or night. I have spent less than 2 hours with this woman and I sense she really means what she said, so I cry.
So, how does all this alcoholism, pain, addiction and AA meetings connect to the orange guy? The poor excuse for a person that is dismantling everything we love and cherish? Movement activists talk about the power of love to bring our divided nation together. Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March on Washington, suggests we should replace hope with radical love. Van Jones, with his gorgeous brown skin and bald head, talked about the power of love to heal and bring us together. He tells us only a “love army” will conquer trump. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “darkness can not drive out darkness only light can do that. Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that.” I always loved that quote. As I watched the Women’s March on Washington live stream with Candy and Stardust cuddled on a couch at our Air BnB in Oakland, I heard movement activist reminded us about love. I wanted to believe it all. I wanted to feel it, but now, I know I never really had.
Intellectually, I have always believed in the power of love. Metaphysically and philosophically, it always made sense to me, the laws of attraction, the power of a positive vision and so on. So, I have tried to practice love in my work and in my relationships, and mostly, I feel like I have failed. I won millions of dollars in grants to transform the culture of schools and communities—only to have the entire operation co-opted by perverse political agendas. I have scaled back and worked in small communities conducting a homeless census of farm worker families, sharing stories of families with infants and children living in shacks and paying $600 a month in rent, and trying to help men and women who can’t read or write in Spanish nonetheless English receive their “one time homeless emergency assistance” through social services. This family has four children. They were born here. They have rights. They just can’t remember to save receipts, fill out forms or crawl blindly through this piecemeal, byzantine bureaucracy we call a safety net and they don’t deserve to be sleeping in sheds. (Thoughts of refugee mothers being torn away from their children at our southern border creep in. What about my undocumented friends? What about these children? Images of an orange monster yelling about Mexican rapists and murderers flood my mind. Good thing I am not drinking right now!!)
It’s not that all the work I have done is for nothing. (I can hear you trying to reassure me through the computer screen!) Conversations, ideas and attitudes slowly change. People start to get organized and I felt, at times, happy to be apart of it all. There were fleeting moments when I felt my heart open up and connect to something greater than me. There was that time our parents showed up at our board meeting and cried because their children didn’t ever want summer school to end.
Yet, if I am honest, I wasn’t ever able to do my work from a place of real love. I was too frustrated, too sad, too pissed, too tired. I cared and felt too much. I was insecure and sought approval from institutions and people in power. I wanted to change things, to fix the unfixable. So, years passed, grants came and went, programs started and stopped. I wanted to do so much more than I was able. I got tired, stopped sleeping, burned out, drank, clenched my teeth and kept sending emails and going to meetings and seeing kids and families and cried in bathrooms alone.
This, to me, doesn’t sound a lot like radical love. So, perhaps, what I am learning in those church basements is about what love looks like and feels like, love between strangers, love that doesn’t have a political affiliation, a love that overcomes addiction, a love that heals divides.
Meet the newest addition to the homestead. Sugar and I have been affectionately calling this little fuzzhead Shit Foot or Caca Pie. (That’s Spanish for Shit Foot.) We call him this, because he always steps in his own poop (in case you needed someone to spell that our for you!)