The Tunnel

This is the tunnel

Brilliant explosions dissolve and crackle

Into nothing

As you pull away from that place

A way station

Or the start of your falling grace

A thousand tons of burned out horizons

A sinister giggle of lonely shivering halos

Taudry yellow, blood-red crimson

A darkness that puts black to shame

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Hiatus, Sabbatical and other Foreign-sounding Words

In the spirit of spiritual sacrifice, I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I know, I know, you’re thinking “Um, Ash Wednesday was last week.” I know Ash Wednesday was last week. Like any honest, well-meaning lapsed Catholic, I’m coming up late on my penance. “Dude, seriously, I thought you went and got all Buddhist on us,” you’re thinking. It’s true, meditation and the teachings of Gautama Buddha have found their way into my personal hierarchy of wants and needs. But like any good Catholic, I am versed in the Sacraments, so I know that a dash of Reconciliation here, a pinch of the Eucharist there and I’m right back on the inside with the Big Man. Besides, as I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before, I’m one of few Catholics that has received the Last Rites and lived to tell about it. Well, not actually tell about it since I don’t remember a thing about the experience since I was heavily sedated at the time, but you get where I am going. And besides, I figure at this point, me and God are even Steven. I’m not worried.

“Didn’t you write a blog post just two months ago extolling the virtues and lauding the wonders of Facebook?” Man but you are a pesky voice-I-created-myself-for-the-purposes-of-this-blog-post. It’s true that not long ago I got on a soap box about how Facebook has come to mean so much to me since, as a writer who has enjoyed the satisfaction of having my words read by others both in print and online, and enjoyed the praise (and criticism, of course) that ensued. I am sort of an exhibitionist that way. But the ultimate goal of this experiment is to focus on my personal life, focus on the purity of my writing, be it blog or book, and ultimately of freeing myself of attachment. Attachment I have to the reaction of others and, potentially, how that might sway my work in one direction or the other. Attachment to immediate gratification or disappointment. Ultimately, attachment to distraction. In addition, I want to make serious headway in my piano skills, devote myself to 5 times per week at the gym again. I find myself in something of a rut and dropping Facebook for 40 days and 40 nights seems a logical piece of the larger puzzle of righting my direction and centering my spirit.

Understand, I’ll probably check Facebook occasionally, but I swear on this day, February 22, that you will not know it. Not a “like,” not a comment, not a “like” on a comment on a thread, not a comment on a “like” on a comment on a thread on a post. Nothing. “Yeah, and what about if I private message you and that little blue dot next to your name on my Smartphone gets all colored and I know you checked it?” I’ll do you one better my friend. I will respond to you and we’ll converse same as usual. But if you suggest in public that you PM’d me and we talked I’ll deny it. Well, I won’t deny it because I can’t comment on the post or “like” the comment, so no one will know if you are telling the truth or not. I certainly won’t correct you because … you get it. Besides, with communication the way it is these days, Facebook Messenger seems to be just as important if not more so than texting, email or phone calls. Maybe not phone calls. Shit, there’s many, many young people out there that don’t even know that that thing they hold on to like Linus holds on to his blanket actually places telephone calls. And if you comment on a blog post on my blog itself, I will read it and I may respond. No nasty ones though. I can just decide not to approve those and they don’t show up at the blog anyway, so don’t bother. I’m a member of a few Facebook groups and I will share my blog posts with those groups and that is where my involvement in all things Facebook will end.

I digress. I’m not going to substitute Twitter or Tumblr or Tweaker or anything else. I’m simply going to cut Facebook out of my diet for 40 days like cookies or candy. Or cigarettes. Hell, maybe quitting smoking will be easier since I won’t have the distractions of so many people, even the ones cheering me on. And then again, as I’ve come to realize about myself, maybe I’ll last a week with this experiment before I come slithering back on my hands and knees groveling for your attention again. We will just have to find out. Understand, this is something I need to do and want to do. I’m not isolating or anything. Simply reevaluating. Reassessing. Recharging.

So farewell, see you on April 3rd.

Okay, we’ll go with April 4th.

I want to see the comments and reactions from this blog post, okay?

Like methadone to a junky, I swear.

The Uphill Warrior

As part of a unified effort, I, along with hundreds of other bloggers, pledged to devote one post on February 20th to the concept of compassion. You can read all the blog posts by going to the blog 1000 Speak for Compassion. It took about 20 minutes of thought for me to determine what my post would be about. In the last three years, I have been in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. One man held my hand as I made the transition from one life to the other, just as he has for countless other men for almost ten years. That man will ever be on my gratitude list of people that knew that I, along with every other person who struggles with this disease, have so much to bring to life’s table of abundance if only I could rid myself of my addiction and shed my shroud of guilt, shame, and transgression.

We’ll call that man “Mitch”. Mitch owns and manages properties in my area of the world. I never asked him about whether he owns commercial or residential properties. I do know he owns and manages four “3/4” houses for men in recovery from substance abuse. In my case, Before I went to treatment, I had been flopping with a friend after being evicted from my rental house. I wasn’t evicted out of malice, though. Rather, necessity on the part of my landlord dictated that I find a new domicile along with my girlfriend and her two children. After about a month when I was at my absolute alcoholic worst, my girlfriend proceeded to kick me out of the temporary housing. More bluntly, after a knock-down-drag-out fight in which I was most likely at fault, she took all my belongings, dropped them off on my parents’ porch and told me we were done. That night, my parents essentially told me I had two options. I could go to substance abuse treatment or I was on my own. After inexplicably thinking about that for a minute, I agreed to go to treatment.

A month later after I graduated from treatment, I moved into one of Mitch’s houses. It was on the other side of town as my parents’ house and I knew a couple guys from my treatment program who also moved to that house. My motivation was that after I graduated, my only other option for a living arrangement was my parents’ basement. The old adage “Home is where you go and they can’t turn you away” was certainly true in my case, but the prospect of living in the room that my father had converted into his office and under the same roof as my parents and my sister, who has autism, was about a half-step more appealing than checking into a homeless shelter. I mean, I was 36, newly sober and newly single at the time. How many single 36 year-olds do you know who pack their little black book with phone numbers? Exactly.

Life in the sober-living house was fairly regimented but not overly so. You had to have a job and if you didn’t, you had to volunteer every weekday. That way it didn’t feel like a flop house as you weren’t sitting around watching TV all day and feeling sorry for your sober ass.  Residents had to go to 5 Anonymous meetings per week (Alcoholics Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) in their first month, four in the second month and three every month after that. More than half of those meetings had to be with other residents of that house. Mitch knew the importance of building community in sobriety as he had been sober himself for a pretty long time. I have been to many AA meetings in my short stretch of sobriety and I can tell you that strength is found in numbers and the more sober people you surround yourself with, the easier it is to believe that you are doing the right thing and that living a life free of drugs and alcohol is not only possible but rewarding in ways you cannot even fathom when you are at your bottom. It’s why AA sponsors so many events and community gatherings for its members. On the macro level, it’s seen at the annual AA fireworks display and picnic on a member’s multi-acre spread every July 4th weekend. On the micro level, it’s me driving my housemate to work at 5 A.M. because his driver’s license has been revoked. In addition, you had to mark all your food with a Sharpie to know it’s yours, you had to keep your room neat and clean and you had to make your bed every morning. Many guys shared with a roommate unless they lived in the house long enough to earn a single by seniority. I was one of those guys and I still have mixed emotions about being there that long, but no matter. Oh, and I still adhere to the practice of making my bed every morning. Mitch knew that if you start your day with an act of humility and order, you just might carry it through into everything you do. That is another sentiment that I gleaned from my time in one of Mitch’s houses. Start your day clean because you, now, are clean as well. Plus, as Mitch always said, chicks dig a guy who cleans up after himself. More than that, keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean were also of paramount importance because Mitch knew that most guys in his houses had become accustomed to their wives, girlfriends and mothers cleaning up after them. And being married as long as Mitch had (his wife was the book keeper and the mind behind the muscle in the operation) he stressed the importance of the phrase “happy wife, happy life.” And if you didn’t clean up after yourself, you were fined. Didn’t matter if it was a half-empty plastic bottle you left on the coffee table before you left for the day or a soiled pot you left in the kitchen sink before you went to bed. If you left a mess and then you left, you were fined.  $10 for the first offense, $20 for the second and so on. And Mitch would be the first to tell everyone at the weekly house meeting that he wasn’t a big fan of the fine system himself but it was the only way to maintain public order in a house full of 11 guys trying to get their lives together.

I lived in Mitch’s house for 18 months and there’s no way I could say for sure how many guys I saw come and go during my time there. I stopped counting after 50. Mitch had this operation going for more than 10 years and he never hesitated to tell us that he didn’t start to break even or turn a profit until the 9th year. There was a host of reasons. Some guys “went back out,” the code phrase for drinking or using again and thus relinquishing their “sobriety deposit” of a $100. But that was a pittance of a trade-off considering Mitch let guys stay in the house who were one or two or even three months behind on rent. Some guys even went back out while they were still living in the house because they thought they could get away with it. Please. A recovering drunk or addict knows what to look for and nobody got away with it. Some guys violated the rules of the house that Mitch laid down and were read to the new resident upon moving in, a process complete with said new resident signing off on the process to signify “Yeah, I got it. Any violations are on me now.” In those cases, Mitch conveyed that information to a guy’s probation or drug court officer and they were removed from the house. But Mitch’s compassion for the new guys, his tolerance for their behaviors and violations went to extreme lengths. For Mitch, it wasn’t about making sure a guy followed the rules as much as it was trying to help guys new to recovery become accustomed to taking care of themselves. More than that, Mitch wanted guys to become accustomed to liking and respecting themselves. In my case, since I had nowhere else to go and I had a job upon leaving treatment, following the rules of the house was relatively easy. But for a lot of the guys, Mitch’s houses were a completely foreign way of living.

Mitch knew about transitioning to a sober life. I heard him give a speech once at a meeting in which he relayed a story I’ve heard many times in recovery about being the alcoholic/addict who wants to stop but doesn’t know how. This will be a strange, incomprehensible concept for the “normy” but for us, it makes total sense. Mitch took the idea of living a normal life and combined it with living a sober life. He was 5’8” soaking wet and had a laugh that was akin to a schoolgirl’s giggle. But the Napoleon Complex he suffered was reserved for fighting addiction and he felt an obligation to extend a kind hand to guys like me who got out of treatment feeling vulnerable, alone and lost. And again, I stress the importance of guys having other guys literally around every corner, even if and especially in their own house, all trying to do the same thing. I was fortunate to have a family and friends on my side. Many guys, especially those who had been to treatment one or two or three times before (again, it happens all the time), they had no one with faith in them. Except, that is, Mitch and the guy’s housemates. Many alcoholics and addicts know all too well that feeling of “What am I going to do now without that massive crutch in my life?” I certainly did. Mitch knew because he had been that guy more than two decades before. He had traveled down that path and, with his houses and the guidance he offered, he effectively told the newcomer “You’re not alone buddy. Here’s 10 other guys in the same boat you are in. Now let’s try and find land together.”

In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, in my experience anyway, the terminology for the length of your sobriety is broken down into being sober “for a minute” (less than 10 years), being sober for “awhile” (between 10 and 20 years) and being an old-timer (20 years or more). Don’t tell my sponsor he is officially an old-timer, though. It would break his heart. Mitch is an old-timer, too. He has devoted more than a decade to incorporating compassion into his daily life by extending an olive branch to the newcomer, patting him on the back and bringing other guys with him to say “Hey, this is going to be hard. Let’s see if we can make sense of this thing together.” I have been sober for a minute as I celebrate 3 years of sobriety June 23 of this year. Could I have done this without Mitch’s help? Maybe. But I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t have to.

My Serene Jumbled Chaos

On a mad, driven search for truth

For love, lust, pleasure and pain

To blatant, teeming, chaotic spans

Cacophonies of thriving cold, damp earth

Of subways and mountains

Arenas, coliseums and the lunatic minstrel shows

Fanning the flames of wanderlust

Only to come to this calm, secluded path

Leading to the bodhi tree

And the shrouded, mysterious expanses of my mind

Empty Calories: So Much to Say

At first the task seemed incredibly daunting. How would I go about what seemed like it would be the arduous chore of documenting everything about the last 10 years into a fluid seamless narrative? I mean, how do you do that when you have significant problems with your memory and are not really sure if how you remembered events are the way they even happened in the first place?

I started this blog because of the overwhelming encouragement I received about my writing in a Facebook gathering of creative souls called the Creative Group of Bedlam Farm. And so far I’ve had a blast. Over the last few years, it became more and more apparent to me that the sickness I endured that almost killed me somehow left my talent for writing unscathed. I still had the ability to write non-fiction prose and write it well. Over the last few months, I tried my hand at writing poetry and even embarked on an entirely fictional story and I could do that too.

Yet also over the last few months, I started working a schedule with even weirder hours than when I started it a year ago. And perhaps it was of the fact that I worked such bizarro hours that my psyche tumbled down a rabbit hole of skewed perceptions and false positives. I made a few good decisions that I’m very happy about such as choosing a new AA sponsor, himself a member of the same Facebook group and purchasing a piano as part of an ongoing effort to rehabilitate the brain that was damaged by the aforementioned sickness. But I also made some pretty crappy decisions about how much of my twisted psyche I should share both on and offline. In the process, I alienated friends and drove people away that I had come to value dearly.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Andy Andrews 7 Decisions over and over again. I think I’m on my 4th time through. My mom gave me the DVD of this man’s motivational speech of the same title years ago. I watched it, but was so ensconced in substance abuse at the time that his message of inspiration and resiliency was pretty much lost on my alcohol-addled mind. This time, though, his message of the handful of simple things one needs to do to truly achieve happiness is as clear and apparent now as the necessity of my sobriety in getting my life together was almost 3 year ago. I filtered the knowledge I gained from listening to the book through the funnels of my newfound affinity for Buddhism, my realization that I had to get my priorities in order and my perception that my personal relationships with my family, my friends and my fellow creative souls in the Creative Group were, at best pretty skewed. At their worst, I was getting evermore jacked up and pissing people off.

So, following the advice of the Buddha himself (you can read about that here) I devoted myself to the simple act of meditating again every day. The simplicity and focus of Zen meditation led me to make amends to a couple people that I had seriously angered, it punctuated the absolute necessity of practicing piano on a semi-regular basis. Most important of all, it saddled me with the yoke of again taking up the task of writing my book. At least, it felt like a saddle at first.

40 pages later, I feel the need, and oddly the desire, to cancel plans I previously made to play cards with my buddies or even go to this or that AA meeting because I had to work on the book. I should rephrase that to say “wanted to work on the book” because now that I am off and running, it feels like an hour a day is not nearly enough time to get straight all that I want to do with this project. In the beginning it felt like a chore that would ultimately be worth it because I would suddenly appear in the upper 20’s of the New York Times Best-Seller list and Oprah would feature me in her Book Club. Then the Andrews book brought to light some stark realities. Namely, that the fears I had about whether I would have anything else to say after this book, whether I would be able to truly and effectively grasp how I felt about what happened to me, what I learned and what I hoped to do with it were just that, fears. They were intimidating, but they were illusion. The painful and pressing reality of “You haven’t even really started the book, Jerkweed” became oh so apparent. And what was the intimidating fact that I’ve heard from a friend and former editor and read in more than a few Acknowledgements about how much diligence and patience with yourself and your manuscript goes in to writing a book has become less an ornery bear its best to avoid. Anymore, I’m learning to hug the bear, give him kisses and let him lick my face. As it turns out, I have plenty to say about the sickness, AA, and myriad other experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years. Or, more simply, this is going to be a herculean task and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Today, I need to apply for a job. I need to respond to an email from the woman who taught me how to play a piano 25 years ago. I need to go bowling with my sister.

And I need to write Empty Calories. I see the end of this tunnel more clearly and definitively every day. It’s not a question of if I will write this book anymore. It’s two questions now. What will I do with it when I’m done and where will I go from there.

I Hear Lavendar

lavender

The sweet, solitary color

A distant, elder sister of my dreams

Confident and unique in your style and hue

A smooth lost melody

Singing on dawns forgotten

To the raw and stark black, white and gray of this time and place

You giggle and turn away

And hold your note

Loud and clear in a thin ribbon of sound

The cool drafts of a long ago reality

I bow to your beauty

And savor your forgotten song

Until you come again

Chainmail

chainmail

The windswept plains of time reveal

The losses of battles, forgotten

A warrior king stands in his tent

A servant boy dons him with the armor of war

Once again, he prepares

His sword sheathed at his side,

For battle

For love

An enemy, unseen and unnamed, lies on the other side of a distant ridge

Defending the fair maiden of prosperity

The king, scarred, torn and worn

steps to the edge of camp

Saddles his horse

and mounts

Reawakening

Puget Sound

Mount Rainier levitated in the clouds across Puget Sound. I sat on the beach, water rippling up to my bare feet. I looked down the beach towards where the Sound emptied on to the Pacific Ocean. Turning in the other direction, I saw him sitting about 30 feet away. He turned his head slightly in my direction, then turned it forward again. I got up, walked down the beach and sat down next to him. That familiar half-smile I’d seen in all the pictures on Buddha Daily rippled across his face.

“Hello,” I said.

He said nothing. Only breathed softly. Deliberately.

“I know,” I said. “I just can’t seem to make time for it.”

He chuckled softly, but still said nothing.

“There’s just so much to do,” I said and gazed out at the gentle waves.

“You’re doing everything you need to do. But nothing gets done,” he said. “Nothing needs to be done. You need to want nothing.”

“I’m not following you,” I said.

“You are not meant to follow me,” he said, his eyes half-closed. “You must awaken yourself.”

“I know,” I said. “But there’s just so much –“

“Ah ta ta ta,” he said, sounding exactly like Mr. Miyagi. “There’s nothing but love, compassion and truth.”

“Yeah, but what is my truth?” I asked him.

“That you have lost yourself.” The baby elephant he had become turned to me, reached out his trunk and flicked the end of my nose.

goofy-baby-elephant-sitting-in-water

I smiled a big smile at him.

“Really? An elephant?”

“You always say you want an elephant,” he said. He dipped his trunk in the approaching tide waters and splashed water on both of us.

“Stop it,” I laughed. “What do I need to do to find myself again? And please, I want a direct answer. Though I appreciate this “words of the sage” approach.”

“First, you must meditate again. Every day. As you were doing before the fog took you. One, two, three times throughout the day. But you must do it. You must find yourself again. Find the equilibrium of who you are. That’s why I have come. I’m the True Self you have forgotten.”

“What then?” I asked and looked up at the sun setting behind the horizon on Bedlam Farm.

Red on bedlam

“Reawaken the man you were when you first dreamed of this place,” I turned to find a hulking black steer towering over me.

“Elvis!” I turned and surveyed the lush green fields all around us.

“I was always your favorite of Jon’s animals,” he said and smiled. If steers can smile, that is. Red had come over and sat next to me. I scratched him behind his ears as he groaned with delight.

“You were centered, you were sober, you had begun studying Buddhism and meditation and you had found the biggest reason to be excited in a very long time,” he said.

“Yeah, and then I started working this bizarre schedule and the wheels started to fall off the wagon,” I said. He looked at me quizzically.

“Find another metaphor than falling off the wagon,” he advised.

“Good point,” I said.

“You began to isolate yourself from everything, just like Scott. And you did some crazy, stupid, irrational things,” he said and swatted a fly from the top of my head with his tail without moving.

“I had to work. After the Humane Society, I had to work,” I argued. “I did the pet-sitting, then the holidays came and I got the piano and …”I drifted off.

“The piano is a very, very good thing,” he said. “And you may just tinker with your brain enough to truly make a difference in how your brain works. But you’ve forgotten the thinking and the feeling and the being that truly filled your mind, body and spirit with joy. Not to mention you’ve gained ten pounds when you weren’t looking. You let the darkness overcome you and the darkness has no place on the Farm. No place in your life. Jon told you you are worthy and better than the darkness. Reawaken to the man you were when you started the blog and so many came to sit and hear your stories,” Elvis said and brought his enormous tongue all the way up from my jaw to my ear. Twice.

“I get to go on my blog and say I was kissed by a steer,” I said.

“More like a gopher.”

I was sitting on the floor of a balcony overlooking the Chicago River. Next to me was a furry little beast frantically scratching his ears with his hind leg.

Chicago River

I blinked twice, licked my lips and ran my hand over my chin a couple times. “I get your point, but why are you now the gopher from Caddyshack?”

The gopher grinned, then threw an acorn at my cheek. He hit it squarely.

“This is your blog. Which makes it my blog too. And I choose to be a gopher,” He said. “You need to refocus, to reawaken to the things you want to do at this time. Need to do.”

Caddyshack_gopher

“What are those?”

“Start with the meditation. Piano, finding a new job, exercise, and for god’s sake please quit smoking,” the gopher said.

“That one is –“

“Yes, that one is going to be the hardest of all. You have 25 years of healing to do according to that “stop smoking” web site. But it’s time. And you won’t save any money for the trip to Bedlam unless you do it,” he said. He hopped into my lap and started cracking a walnut on my boot. “And of course, Empty Calories.”

“”That one is –“

“That one is going to be perhaps the most difficult of all but you have to face Him. Over and over again. But I’ll be here.”

I was sitting on the front steps of the house I once shared with my fiancé. The house where it all happened. Next to me sat a white and gray Akita on one side and a jet black Newfie on the other and a Bernese Mountain Dog lay on the ground with his head where the gopher was a moment before.

“Your blog, my blog, your head, our rules, remember?” they said. “Your blog, The Back Forty, all your personal observations. They’re easy, they’re fun and you can occasionally throw them out into cyberspace when the spirit moves you, but you have big work to do. Please, for your sake and the sake of the ones who love you, the ones who want to know what happened to you, and the ones who will benefit from reading your story and know that life is simply different now, but no way is it over. The dream you have of being a motivational speaker and a published author and everything that will go with that. It all starts with finishing the book.”

“I must reawaken to the good and pure things and forget all distractions,” I said. I was sitting on a slope on Mount Hood where I had hiked many years ago. Kilgore was sitting next to me.

“This was one of our favorite mountains. That would be a great book title,” I said. “My favorite mountain.”

Kilgore pawed my leg, “Focus, my friend,” He said and laid his head on my thigh and I stroked his white ascot of fur.

Fixed A and K

Refocus. Reboot. Reawaken.

The clouds came washing over the mountain and enveloped me.