Step 2: [We] [c]ame to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
Why movement activists need a higher Power:
“A very strong reason I am so attracted to the community at [Union Theological Seminary],” explained Michelle Alexander, “is that I believe the experience will enable me to clarify my spiritual beliefs, deepen my understanding of systematic theology, and expand my thinking about the possibilities for prophetic advocacy and movement-building across faiths, races, and cultures. I would like to imagine that a wide range of people of faith and conscience who sing songs from different keys may be able to join in a common chorus that shakes the foundations of our unjust political, legal and economics systems, and ushers in a new America.”
-Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, explaining her motivation for leaving her professorship at Ohio State University to take a position as a visiting professor at the Union Theological seminary.
Michelle Alexander is an amazing scholar, writer, thinker and feminist that has inspired pretty much all my work for the past 5 years. Her quote above explains why movement activists need faith. In the eyes of a burned out activist and recovering alcoholic, her words help me understand the connection between my efforts to stay sane in the era of Donald Trump, and my attempts to find a higher power in Church basements with recovering alcoholic women.
So, below is part of my story about finding a higher power—step 2 in the 12 steps of AA. I hope this part of my journey allows me to find the inner strength needed to stay engaged in social justice work for the long haul and to push back against the inertia of cynicism and that ever tempting desire to throw up our hands and say, “fuck it.”
So, thanks Michelle Alexander, for being such an amazing scholar and for making bold, inspiring moves. You are giving me faith that I am on the right path.
The bus chugs up an anonymous highway somewhere in the middle of Maine. Town after monotonous town passes by. The sky is bright white and gray. An unremarkable and overwhelming light filters through the tall rectangular, dirt stained windows that line the side of the bus. My forehead pushes against the cool glass. I squint to try to block out the light. My eyes sting. I wish that I had sunglasses or those oh-so adorably nerdy transition lens glasses to help dilute the potent dullness that surrounds me.
It’s that in between time of year here in Maine—transition time. Tight, angular buds line bare tree branches—latent energy waiting to burst, fingers balled up in tight fists—silhouetted against the neon gray light. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and I can’t see the sun. The dreary anonymity of the landscape reminds me of my hometown in Upstate New York. Growing up, I remember the grayness, the in-betweeness would drag on for months and months and months. I always resented nameless, sameness of that place. I text Sugar and tell him I miss the hot, diverse, grungy mess of our California hometown. Exhausted and weary, I haven’t arrived and my heart misses my home.
“Why did I take the red-eye from California to JFK to Maine? Where exactly was I going? I thought Punxsy lived on an island? Why was I so far from the ocean?,” my thoughts start running around in circles as the bus moves closer to my final destination. Out of nowhere, I am suddenly feeling panicked, worried that I missed my bus stop. I throw my jet-black computer bag over my shoulder and move swiftly to the front seat. “Did I miss the stop for Rockland?,” I ask the driver, feeling like a kindergartener on my first day of school. “No, ma’am. Rockland’s the next town. We’ll be there shortly.” Relief. I slip back in my seat next to a cooler full of plastic, single use water bottles.
Punxsy is standing next to the curb as the bus pulls into the station. She is bouncing up and down, unable to contain her excitement. My heart expands and lifts as my mind recognizes her familiar face. Her sloppy uneven curls hang frame her face as she smiles ear to ear. Punxsy is both heavy and light at the same time, free and grounded. I step off the bus precariously balancing my computer bag, purse and rolling suitcase on my arms. Punxsy jumps forward to greet me. She is holding a bouquet of white flowers that look like a cross between carnations and daisies. I am swallowed up by her pale green hunting jacket as she wraps her arms around me. I stand on my toes and feel the bones of our chests press together. This place feels so foreign to me and Punxsy feels like home.
Punxsy is my soul sister. We’ve been friends for over 10 years. Knowing the a new job, a marriage, kids, houses and the many other all consuming joys of adulthood are in my not so distant future, I knew I had to make this journey. Punxsy is also a seeking, adventurous soul whose expansive, positive energy would surely help me with step 2 of the AA program: figuring out how to believe in a higher power.
Punxsy lives in rustic, bare bones, feminine goddess cabin in the woods surrounded by bare deciduous trees. She spends 6 months a year on an island off the coast working at a small start up experiential education facility. She rents this small 600 square foot cabin where she lives alone. “I was either gonna rent this place or place near by that didn’t have any running water,” she says as the gravel crunches under the wheels of her Subaru and the car halts to a stop.
The cabin is a sanctuary filled with knick knacks, sea shells and mismatched thrift store furniture. Everything feels sacred, yet entirely replaceable. Posts and beams meet to form the steep A-line roof and hold in all the expansive, warm energy in place.
A framed photo of Punxsy sits on the shelf above her stove in her boxy little kitchen. In the photo, her shoulders are covered by oversized, tan hunting coat. A bulky brown sweater pokes up around her neckline. A soft stubble of brown hair pokes through the taunt skin on her shaved head. She smiles a sort of half smile, her lips parted slightly as though she is trying to say something. Her eyes are heavy and faraway. She is patient, calm and seeking. She is a woman who shaved her head, so she could get closer to whatever it is she is looking for. Her photo tells me that I have come to the right place and am on the right track.
Giving yourself to a higher power is part of the 12 step process. It’s step 2 and 3. Listening to all the stories in AA meetings, it’s clear that if I am going to heal and stay sober, I needed get serious about this “higher power” thing. Until now, my forays into defining a higher power have been mostly intellectual and quite shallow. I meditated here and there, dabbled in Buddhism, fervently rejected Christianity and mostly hid beneath the cloak of agnostic and atheist intellectual superiority.
Growing up, I was the only agnostic kid in my school filled with hard-core, born-again Christians. I remember coming home to my mom in tears and telling her that a kid at school told me she was going to Hell, because we didn’t go to Church or believe in God. “You are not going to Hell. You are staying right here with me. Those people are snakes in the grass. SNAKES IN THE GRASS. You can’t trust them and don’t listen to them,” my mom told me as she wiped the tears from my cheeks.
So, from then on, I believed it was better to rebel than believe in anything. In fourth grade, I sat outside the classroom while all the students said the pledge of allegiance, because I didn’t want to say the words under God. As a senior, I remember calling out my AP English teacher for only assigning readings with Catholic or Christian allegories.
But things are different now. I am over my hang-ups and feeling quite well…desperate. I want to find this higher power thing. I want to nail it down, to feel it. I know I need help and guidance. I need someone to hold up a flashlight and help me find my path. Luckily, these “flashlight holders” are built into the AA program. They are called sponsors.
My AA sponsors, who refer to themselves as my AA Grandmas, have been coaching me through the 12 steps. My sponsors have been best friends for 30 years and come as a sort of “package deal.” One is a sweet woman who is so incredibly sincere and eager to help alcoholics. She speaks about this concept of “rigorous honesty” and I want to understand it like she does. My other sponsor is a nun, a Catholic sister of social service, who spent 20 years as active alcoholic and homeless advocate in the convent. She told me she spent most of her life “going through motions” defined by the Catholic Church, mouthing words, reciting Bible verse and never really feeling must of anything. Over 20 years in a convent and no contact with a higher power? So, she joined AA and did a “30 in 30”—attening 30 AA meetings in 30 days. At the end of the month, she realized that her higher power was love and she surrendered her life to love. She is old now, maybe in her mid-eighties now and has been attending AA meetings for 28 years.
Part of my plan for finding my higher power was taking Punxsy to an AA meeting. We search the Maine AA’s website and found a Friday night and found a “Women’s Serenity Group” meeting. “Perfect,” I thought to myself. My meeting back home would be taking place at the exact same time. The part of my brain and soul believed this coincidence was some sort of sign. An excited, anticipating energy floods my body and says, “yes, it’s working, this is way it’s supposed to happen!”
Before the meeting, Punxsy and I sat down at a cafe and drank spicy chai tea. Our hair was wind blown. Our skin was covered in a thin layer of salt that hangs in the cold coastal Maine air. “So, tell me what I should expect at this meeting,” Punxsy asks as her leans forward in her chair, crouching over steaming cup. I give Punxsy the cliff notes, a rundown of the play by play outlined in AA facilitator’s binder. “It’s an open meeting. Anyone’s allowed to come. Don’t worry. Women love to see new people at meetings.” A nervous and excited energy floods over us. We’re expecting something big to happen.
As we drive to the meeting, I text my sponsors and let them know I am heading to a women’s serenity group meeting in Maine. I want them to know that I am doing the work, that I am on track and it’s all going according to plan.
Punxsy and I spend the next 30 minutes driving in circles around tiny, anonymous residential streets. We pull up to the building where the meeting is supposed to be held. It’s 6:24 and the meeting was supposed to start at 6:30. The building is dark, there are no cars in the parking lot. Everything feels still. We both know no one is there, but I get out of the car and knock on the large glass door anyways. I slide back in the passenger seat, shoulders slumped, feeling defeated.
Our type A personalities don’t want to accept that we won’t be going to a women’s meeting afterall, so we take action. We call the AA hotline, YMCA and drive knock on the doors of all the surrounding buildings just so we can feel like we did everything we could try to make it happen.
It’s 6:42 and Punxsy and I are sitting in an empty parking lot filled with gray gravel in front of some random unimportant building in rural Maine. The thick blanket of defeat suffocating our excitement. Punxsy turns her head to me and says, “I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.” The sincerity of her voice and gaze is overwhelming, so I block it out. “Ahhh…it’s no big deal,” I say.
We drive back to the cabin feeling defeated and frustrated. We yell random things like, “we don’t even have any more seltzer water!” and dance around our disappointment. Inside, I feel heavy sadness. I try to push the heaviness away, but it keep landing right in the pit of my stomach. I stare out the window and wonder.
When we get back to the cabin, Punxsy starts making dinner. We’re having pesto and fiddleheads, a special fern that is in season during this dreary in between time in Maine. A warm light fills the kitchen. I sit in a rickety thrift store chair watching Punxsy. My stomach feels like it is filling with concrete. My throat gets hot and tight. The sadness swallows me up again.
Staying sober requires reaching out to your tribe of supporters when feeling overwhelmed rather than numbing out with booze. This requires naming emotions—a skill I never really practiced until now. My MO was always to stuff emotions way down deep and continue working to “make the world a better place” and then drinking or smoking to provide some instant relief.
I text my sponsors and tell them I feel frustrated and sad that we couldn’t find the meeting. “Frustrated” and “sad” seeming like such oversimplifications. The words hardly describe the mass of hot constricting energy that is filling up my chest. But I force self to send the message and describe the situation simply. Easy does it, Crashley. Easy does it.
“Just have your own meeting,” my sponsor texts me and back. “And be safe :).”
You have to climb up a steep wooden ladder to get to “second floor” of the cabin. Wrung by wrung, I climb the ladder and I grab my “Big Book,” the AA bible, from Punxsy’s loft. I stand at the top of the ladder and force myself to take deep breaths.
My feat land heavy on the cabin floor. Punxsy still making dinner—bouncing around the kitchen, steam rising from a pot of boiling water, blue flames heating a bright silver pot. I sit down at the kitchen counter. I want to tell Punxsy how upset I feel, but the words won’t come out. Big, heavy tears fall down my face.
Since getting sober, I realize that sadness leaps out of me in these tidal waves, knocking down the walls that tried to hold it back. The Universe seems to dealing out emotions in these very large unmanageable portions days. Emotion hits me at the weirdest, unexpected times.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to Punxsy, but I told her everything. I told her I felt so sad, because I was looking forward to sharing the experience of a meeting with her. I had been waiting two weeks to say certain things out loud to a group of strangers, to a circle of alcoholic woman, to my tribe.
Specifically, I wanted to tell my tribe how much it hurt when I saw my exes “Save the Date” on her Punxsy’s refrigerator. My ex, we’ll call him Crow, and I had dated for 7 years from the ages of 19-26. Crow and I were best friends, companions for a long time before my world started to unravel. We grew up, traveled the world and adventured together.
Crow and I broke up right when my started graduate school and my sister had her psychotic break. I got the news about my sister while I was in NY at Crow’s sister’s wedding. I was 3,547 miles from home. I still remember the street corner I was standing and the sound of my mom’s stunned voice coming through the phone—my sister was in the hospital, there was a party, drugs and now she was in the hospital. My mind froze and the world blurred to black and white and gray.
My memories of this time when everything started falling apart are kind of blurry. I remember stopped sleeping and Crow grew distant and so our relationship ended. I hadn’t spoken to Crow in nearly 5 years. He started dating a woman who looks just like me 5 months after we broke up and now they were getting married.
Crow, like many people, still considered Punxsy a good friend, so he invited her to the wedding even though they hadn’t kept in close contact. So, here I was, in a cabin in rural Maine, a piece of my past ripping into the present.
Crow’s Save the Date announcement was a small half sheet of white paper. The invitation read “OPEN BAR” in large white letters on the front. There was a photo of Crow and his fiance holding half drunk pints of beer next to snowy mountain.
My mind told me it was proof that I was on the right path, that I had found the right person, that I was meant to be sober. I believe this is true and I wanted to be at peace with the Save the Date, with Crow, his fiance and their big happy drunk wedding, but my heart felt something else. My heart said, “FUUUUCK YOU.”
Feelings of sadness and loss about Crow had been rising up inside me in ways I hadn’t ever felt on this trip. This was not part of my plan. I didn’t want to deal with this right now. FUCK! I felt so mad at him for leaving me when I needed him the most. I remember the woman I was back then—feeling so completely and utterly confused and alone visiting her sister in psychiatric wards and trying to be a “good graduate student,” trying to hold it all together. I felt pissed that “normal” people could have “normal, happy, drunk weddings” and that instead I had a family life that was well, complicated, so complicated that the bringing together of people in a happy celebration is not something I am capable of imagining. I have no reference point for normal. Sugar and I recently got engaged and when I think of the “my” wedding might look like, my mind literally goes blank.
Since getting sober, memories are dropped from the sky and I have to look at them. Feelings seem to pop of out of nowhere, materializing from thin air and wrapping around my heart and mind. It’s like a benevolent, gentle and sometimes shocking force saying “Remember this? Now it’s time to deal.”
Crow’s “OPEN BAR” Save the Date handing on Punxsy’s fridge in Maine was one of those “special deliveries.” My tribe of female alcoholics would understand deeply what this message meant—what it looked like to my newly sober heart and mind, what it meant to think of happy families coming together. I had pictured myself sharing this story with Punxsy and the other women alcoholics in Maine, but instead, I sat crying at her kitchen table. The feeling stuck in my stomach, not sure where to go. This is why I needed to go to a meeting in Maine with Punxsy. This is why I sat at her table and felt completely lost.
“My sponsor said we should have our own meeting,” I tell Punxsy as tears roll down my cheeks. “Great! I’m totally down. Let’s do it.” Punxsy replies. Her infectious enthusiasm truly knows no bounds.
Punxsy hands me a bowl of pesto pasta and fiddleheads and looks at me expectantly. I wipe my nose and slip into the familiar skin of “meeting facilitator.” I call the first meeting of the rustic, divine feminine goddess in Lincolnville, ME to order. There are only two women at this meeting: Crashley and Punxsy, so assume the role of secretary and meeting chair. I open my Big Book and create a sign-in sheet on the first blank page. Punxsy and I write our names in blue ink. I have her sign my book, because I know I will want to remember this forever.
I read the 12 steps and Punxsy reads the 12 traditions. Hearing those familiar words read out loud fills me with a sense of ease. The tightness in my chest softens. The foreign becoming the familiar. Punxsy would later tell me that this is the power of a ritual. Rituals allow to connect and transcend to a familiar space. An agnostic learning the power of ritual in a cabin in rural Maine.
Punxsy and I read about step 2 in the Big Book out loud to each other while eating fiddlehead ferns and pesto. We pass the book back and forth taking turns reading each page and stuffing our faces with carbs. I struggle sometimes with the language of the Big Book. It was written in the 1930’s, so I disagree with the pronouns and the words and phrases often twist up my tongue, but tonight with Punxsy, it all seems to flow.
The Big Book’s writing on step 2 discussed a newcomers reluctance to accepting a higher Power. The chapter is a set of anecdotes that describe all the ways people resist accepting a higher power. I can relate to anecdote about the “intellectual” that assumes a higher ground by arguing about the impacts religion has had on humanity as a whole and other oft-touted arguments. A lack of humility and openness are what prevents the intellectual from accepting the existence of a higher power. It keeps the intellectual stuck in the world of ideas unable to transcend. “Yup,” I think as I read the words out loud. “That’s me and most of the people I know.”
After we finish reading, I assume the role of “meeting chair.” At AA meetings, the meeting chair shares a personal story about a topic related to sobriety and then asks the group to share. For the first time in my life, I talk out loud, unfiltered and honest, about my relationship to a higher power. For the first time in my life, I feel ready to let go of my intellectual hang ups. I am ready for help. I don’t agree with the pronouns and all the He and the God and the whatever the fuck else is wrong with the text, but I also don’t care anymore. I just want to change. I want to have faith. I want to believe in something. I want to have a higher power that I can trust, name, feel, a force I can’t describe. A high power that only belongs me. I say all of this out loud to Punxsy.
Before I left for my Maine vision quest, my sponsor told me a story about a woman who handed her life over to a door knob. A door knob opens. A door knob closes. So, she put all her faith in a door knob. I loved this simple metaphor. I pictured a door knob coming to me in times of need. I told Punxsy that there was a part of my that was waiting expectantly for something like this to happen. An image to pop into my mind, a perfect metaphor, to reveal itself to me. I was waiting for the sacred experience, but it just wasn’t happening.
As I continued to ramble on about this “higher power,” something started to click. I read once about the power of a “still, small voice” in one of my favorite sobriety memoirs.* This idea of a still small voice resonated with me. It matched my experience. There is a voice that comes into my head sometimes. A still, small, soft, feminine voice. It’s a voice I can trust. It’s very steady, gentle and speaks truth. When I am having trouble finding this voice, I always know where to look. I find the voice in literature, in PodCasts, in the voices and experiences of my soul sisters. The still small voice comes to life in the basements of Churches surrounded by women who daring to be unafraid, to speak truth.
I model the role of meeting chair by asking I ask for volunteers to speak and share their thoughts about their relationship to a higher power. Punxsy raises her hand. She’s really “in character” as a meeting participant. I laugh and ask her to share. She talks about many thing, but what sticks with me the most is her belief in the need to surrender. “Thy will be done,” she says, the still, small voice speaking through her.
Punxsy and I close the meeting by reading the 12 AA promises. I search for “AA promises” and read from my brightly lit Iphone screen.
The AA promises:
1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed
before we are half way through.
2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience
can benefit others.
6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
8. Self-seeking will slip away.
9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us –
sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
We hold hands across the kitchen table. I recite the serenity prayer and Punxsy echoes the words back to me. I raise our hands and say our customary closing “keep coming back it works” while bouncing our fists up and down to the rhythm of words.
“Oh my god, you do a little cheer at the end?!?! That’s so fun!” Punxsy says as she squeal with excitement.
Yup, Punxsy. That’s what we do. It’s so fun.
*Glennon Doyle Melton writes about the power of a still small voice in her book Love Warrior.
Sugar holding our new baby duck, Batty. NNNNNNN…DUCKY!