24 December 2011

The Eleventh Step

Karl brought in a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree and set it on the center of the four folding tables that had been pushed together for the weekly meeting. A cheap old artificial tree, black wire and green bristles, missing a few *branches* from Christmases past.

He even thought to bring an extension cord.

Blinking colored lights hanging off a half-vacant fake tree.

Eighteen losers ringing the tables, staring at the blinking lights.

Nobody talking.  A couple of coughs.  People clearing their throats.  Metal chairs squeaking.

I wonder what prompted Karl to bring the *tree?*

Looking at that tree, I remember what I think of as the *Last Christmas,* the last Christmas before things went really bad between my mother and father.  I was twelve and my brother was fourteen.  Our mother had decorated the apartment for Christmas.  Tree, wreaths, stockings, the whole nine yuletide yards.  Nobody appreciated it.  An act of preposterous sentimentality.  I let her know it. 

It’s no surprise, then, that here I sit, thirty-seven years later, at the tables of the losers.

Why would Karl bring in that stupid little *tree?*

Most people sitting here have broken families, what is he trying to say with his broken-down little *tree?* 

“Welcome to the Wednesday night Hope and Recovery Meeting.  I’m Joe, and I’m an addict,” Joe says.

“Hi, Joe” everybody says, automatonically.

Around the table we go, introducing ourselves as addicts.  Part of the ritual.  Part of the liturgy. 

Joe continues reading from the meeting script.  It ought to be in Latin.

What will I confess tonight?  I haven’t told the truth here in a couple of years.  Not that I haven’t been sober.  I have been.  But I need to make up some minor incident in order to feel like I’m contributing.  I have no doubt I could stop attending meetings and remain sober.  But I would miss the ritual.

"We strive to practice anonymity and confidentiality," Joe says.  "Who we meet or what is said in a meeting is treated as confidential and is not discussed outside the meeting.  Who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here."

"Hear, hear," everybody says automatonically.

"Does anybody have any announcements before we split into our tables?"

"Hello, my name's Ira, I'm an addict," Ira says.

"Hi, Ira," everybody says automatonically.

"Joe," Ira says, "our preamble states our fellowship does not support or endorse outside causes or issues.  So why is there a Christmas tree on the table?"

I scan the room, see a few rolled eyes, several frowns.

"That's not really an announcement," Joe says.

"We're supposed to define our Higher Power for ourselves, not have it defined for us by an icon."

"That's more of a complaint than an announcement," Joe says.

"I'm announcing a violation of the preamble.  Our fellowship is supposed to be inclusive, not exclusive. And by having a symbol of a specific faith on display, we are in. . ."

I stop listening.

I wonder what my ex-wife and kids are doing?  I need to remember to round up a few presents and send them off.  I wonder what the kids are into, now?  You fall out of it pretty fast.

I remember one Christmas, I took the kids into Victoria's Secret, they were 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 years old, and I let them pick out some pajamas for the old lady—nothing too slutty, just some nice stylish sleepwear.  The old lady blew her stack.  "You took the kids into Victoria's Secret?!?!"  She lectured me on how that would damage their view of women.  Well, we had a good time in that store, shopping for her.  I can still see that Asian salesgirl. It remains a pleasant memory.  That's out of the old lady’s reach, out of the old lady’s reach.  She can't move it five hundred miles away.

There's Karl, unplugging his little tree, taking it off the table, rolling up the cord.  Poor old bastard.  He was probably working off some old memories of his own, and just wanted to bring in a little cheer.  And he ends up getting kicked in the teeth.

"I know this is a Christian church," I hear Ira say. "And I am appreciative they let us use this space.  Nevertheless, as a group, we bring no—"

"All right, you made your point," Joe interrupts.  "The tree is gone.  Let's not waste any more time on the issue.  We need to start the tables."

"I was not 'wasting' time," Ira says.

"We're on step eleven this week, I believe," Joe says.  "Step eleven can meet in the kitchen.  Topic table downstairs.  Open discussion here.  Have a good meeting everybody."

I stay seated for open discussion. Ray, Denard, Karl and Ira stay, also.  Five minutes for each of us.  I'll be out of here in twenty-five minutes.  Still time to hit a store.

Nobody says anything.  It's always like this.  Waiting for someone to go first.

"Why is everyone looking at me?" Ira asks.

I wasn't looking at him.  I was looking at a poster on the wall.  A picture of a luminescent Jesus, with the caption *The Light of the World.*  Jesus was looking at him.

Nobody says anything.

"Well, I guess I'll go first," Ira says.  “It was a very good week.  It was an uneventful week.  I was reflecting on that on the drive over here tonight.  I used to seek ‘events.’  I used to seek sensation.  I craved it.  We all craved it, didn’t we?”  He stops.  He looks around the table to make sure we are all nodding in agreement.  I nod.  What the Hell, why not?  Ray and Denard nod.  Karl doesn’t.  “I guess what I’m trying to say, fellas, is that in recovery there is a peace, a tranquility, if you will.  And that feeling of peace or tranquility, even serenity, if we could borrow the phraseology of our famous prayer, that feeling was a stranger to me.  And it took some time to warm up to that ‘stranger.’  It took some time for me to accept it.  What I am trying to say, fellas, is that in recovery, or at least, in my recovery, but I think also in most everyone’s recovery, is that early in recovery, we miss the sensation.  I missed the sensation.  Peace or tranquility or serenity didn’t look so good, at first.  It was definitely not ‘love at first sight,’ if I can put. . .”

Boring.  That’s a big problem with these meetings.  Most of what’s said will bore you to tears.  I tune out.  I need to invent my weekly anecdote, anyway.  Let’s see. . .I could say I was in the checkout lane at Meijer. . .and. . .a couple of lanes away, I saw. . .Danni. . .ha!. . .Danni!. . .yeah, that’s good. . .I knew Danni way back in the day. . .when I was buried in my addiction. . .buried alive in it. . not knowing I had a problem. . .so. . .so. . .so seeing Danni there. . .and remembering. . .and remembering what?. . .what?  Ridiculous.  Danni’s been dead for six years.  Ha.  I could say her ghost visited me.  Like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“. . .seems familiar and not strange, anymore.  So what I’m trying to say, fellas, is that it’s a different life, a different way of living.  And it’s healthier.  Healthier for the body and the soul.  It’s more honest.  It’s more respectful, both to myself and to others.  What I used to think was happiness was, in reality, only turmoil.  Emotional and physiological turmoil.  But I mistook that chaos for happiness.  All the game playing, all the secrets, all the ‘that’ behind the addiction, if that isn’t too Eastern a concept, the ‘that’ behind the addiction.  So I guess that’s it, fellas, that’s what it all comes down to, a new way of life.  And I’m thankful to have the opportunity to share recovery with you.”

He shuts up, and we all say “thanks, Ira,” automatonically.  All of us except Karl. 

We shift in our chairs, look around.  Ira takes a sip of coffee.  Ray unwraps a Hershey’s Kiss.  Karl’s staring at his Christmas tree.  It’s over by the door.

Denard goes next.

"It's like Ira was saying.  You want the sensation.  I still want it."  He stops, sighs heavily.  "Rough week."  He sighs again, shakes his head.  "I done did some things.  Ahhhh, fuck."  He shakes his head, he chuckles.  "I just can't seem to stop.  I mean, I can.  I can stop, you know?  But then, I start again.  And then I have to start stopping again, you know?"

No, I don't know.  I never really know what Denard is talking about.  I don't think he knows, either.

But who really knows anything, anyway?  If any of us knew anything, we wouldn't be here in the first place.

Man, that last Christmas.  Twelve-years-old, and spitting in the old lady's eye.  I was already off track.  I started these meetings about thirty years too late.

Now I have the appearance of being on the straight-and-narrow.  Sober in behavior.  But nobody to see it.  Except these stumblebums.  I lost everyone else.  Sober in behavior—but for whose benefit?  I have no responsibility, now.  Some of these misfits believe they have a responsibility to themselves.  Not me.  That’s selfish.  Sobriety for self is an act of vanity.  And anyway, in spirit, I’m still an addict.  The same dark desires rule the inner man.

You see?  If you think about this too much, you only end up asking: why bother?

“. . .tomorrow. Ahhhh, fuck, I have to believe tomorrow will be different.  If it’s the same, then today never ends, you know?  It just goes on.  It’s like time stops.  Yeah, it just stops.”  He sighs heavily.  “Ain’t that some fucked up shit?  Time’ll just stop, and today’ll just go on forever.”  He sighs.  “This addiction, man, it messes with everything.  Everything.  The laws of physics and everything.  Space and time just disappear.”  He throws up his hands.  “What can I do?  What the fuck can I do?  This thing is bigger than me.  How am I gonna battle black holes and all that shit?  Because that’s what this thing is, a black hole.”

He stops talking.  Even though I’ve just been told time has stopped, I can feel the seconds ticking by.  Is he finished?  Is it time for someone else to take the stage?  He must sense all of us thinking the same:

“I’m done.”  He sighs.  “Nothing else to say.”

“Thanks, Denard,” we all say, automatonically.

Thanks for nothing.  That’s what I feel.  Nothing.  It will pass, it will pass.  But right now, nothing.  I’m closer to being dead than people going through a near-death experience.  I’m not out of my body, I can’t see myself.  I see no welcoming light.  I’m here.  Breathing.  I see these other fuck-ups fidgeting, scratching.  I feel no kinship.  I might as well be sitting at the bottom of the moon’s deepest crater, staring at rubble.

“. . .compete with my brother.  He was tall and lean, like my dad.  He was good at sports.  I was always chubby.  So I tried to compensate.  I excelled in school. I always got perfect grades.  Dad always said he was proud of my academic achievements, but he loved going to all my brother’s games, it was obvious, and you could see the pride and the love. I always felt inferior.  My dad and my brother had a real bond.  Dad never said he loved me.”   Ray stops.  He’s choked himself up.

Ray says the same thing, every week.  “I’m fat and my dad didn’t love me, so I forced myself to do well in school and business, to earn his love.  But I put so much pressure on myself, I became an addict.”  It chokes him up, week after week.  He’s fat in belly and wallet, unlike most of us.  He’s still got his wife and kids, unlike most of us.  He seems to have one specific thing eating at him, so to speak, unlike most of us. 

There’s not any one thing I can blame for my failure, except myself.  And I doubt it’s really that simple, or external, for Ray—but it seems to work for him.

And let's face it, this is only part of the problem. A lot of these guys seem to think addiction is all that stands between them and the Pearly Gates.  Reductio ad Absurdum.  It's all rotten.  The addiction just shows, like a crack in the wall.

What am I going to say?  I need to think of something.  I'm running out of time.  Once Ray finishes mourning for himself, it'll be down to me and Karl.

". . .hugged me and said he loved me, I wonder how different my life would've been?  Not that I'm not grateful for what I have.  My wife has stuck by me.  But I have to admit, there are moments of doubt.  I've always been a good provider.  I've let her have whatever she wants.  So does she love me, or my paycheck?  That's what this disease can do to you.  It's awful.  All the doubts.  You can't trust yourself and you can't trust anybody else.  I've had a lifetime of insecurity.  The disease worked its way into my mind, because—"  Ray stops.  He's choked himself up, again.  "Because there was no love.  A strong mind is built on a foundation of love.  And I never had that.  So I wasn't equipped to resist the disease."  Ray wipes his eyes.  I don't see any tears.  Phantom tears, I guess.  "I feel love in this room, though.  That's what keeps me coming back.  That's what keeps me sober.  Thank you.  Thank you all for loving me."

"Thanks, Ray," we all say, automatonically.

A clean, well-lighted place, that's what this is.  The Presbyterians have a nice place, here.

The others are looking at me and Karl.  One of us has to talk.  Karl looks like he's taken a vow of silence.  He's staring at his Christmas tree, unblinking.  Ray unwraps another Hershey's Kiss.  One of the Christmas kind, in green foil.

"I remember watching my mother," I say, "putting tinsel on the tree.  I said to her, 'this Christmas stuff just makes it worse.'  She says, 'makes what worse?'  I say, 'you and dad screaming.'  'I'm just trying to bring a little cheer into all of our lives,' she says.  And then I shouted, 'I SAID, IT JUST MAKES IT WORSE.'  My brother laughed.  I don't know where the old man was.  Probably in the bedroom, drinking and listening to his shortwave.  Probably trying to get a Bartok symphony.  The old lady still had some tinsel in her hand.  She hesitated, put it on the tree, and then that was it.  Her decorating was over.  Forever.  That tree and all the decorations stayed up till summer, when we had to move out.  She never unpacked that stuff again."

Karl seems interested.  The others, not as much.

"I was right.  It did make everything worse.  Well, maybe I should say, I was being honest.  All that phony Christmas cheer couldn't cover up the ill will in the household.  And even though the decorations were cheap, the tacky Christmas junk of the poor, it still seemed like. . ."

What did it seem like?  What am I trying to say?  I can very easily go back and relive that Christmas.

Look at Karl, he's really into this story.  Well, there are some of us for whom the holiday has a. . .

"I would say I was embarrassed for all that cheap Christmas junk. I felt embarrassed for all the trinkets, for them having to witness our family rancor.  But, and this is the important thing, I was wrong in behavior.  I shouldn't have disrespected the old lady."

At that, Denard nods.

"It's that time of year, of course.  There are reminders in the littlest things.  And Karl brought in the tree.  I was twelve years old.  You know, in the gospels there's only one account of Jesus from when He was about three until He was about thirty.  There's an incident from when He was twelve.  Mary and Joseph had lost track of Him.  He was in the temple, teaching the rabbis.  And when Mary and Joseph find Him there, He says, real nonchalant, 'did you not know I must be about My Father's business?'  Now, me, when I was twelve, I was shouting at the old lady, ruining her Christmas.  So you see, whatever has led me here, right here, to this table, was already in me at age twelve.  So. . ."

So?  So what?  I lost my train of thought with that little digression about the twelve-year-old Jesus.  Now what?

"Look, for some of us, there is a real presence in the season.  It's like the Catholics and their little communion wafer.  They believe it is the flesh of Christ in that wafer.  Well, some of us feel the real flesh and blood presence of the Lord during Christmas."

They don't know what the Hell I am saying.  Except Karl.

"Look, of course He's always here.  It's just at Christmas and Easter, you focus more, you are less distracted by the world."

Look at these idiots, they don't understand.  But I can tie all this together, now.  It's crystal clear.

"The point is, I had already lost the way at age twelve.  And here I am, thirty-seven years later.  Thirty-seven?  Listen, the Jews were in the wilderness. . ."

No, I don't want to get sidetracked, again.

"The point is, here I am, thirty-seven years later.  Lost everything. Now what?  What's the point?  Is sobriety a sacrifice?  No.  I don't do this as an offering.  So, now what?  What's the point?  I don't know.  And that is the point.  I don't need to know.  I no longer need to know.  I've lost everything, according to the world.  Why?  Why did I do the things I did, which caused me to lose it all?  Why am I like the way I am?  I don't need the answer to that question.  I'm at peace.  I live by the faith of Jesus, the Higher Power.  God planted His faith in me, and now I trust in that until the end, no matter what happens next.  And at the end, all will be revealed."

Yes, I think that's it.  And those may be the first true words I've spoken here in a couple of years.  Look at their faces.

"Thanks," they say, doubtfully.  Except Karl.  His "thanks" seemed genuine.

The poor old lady.  I never made it up to her.  Yeah, I’ll hit Target after this.  I’ll get some gifts for the kids.  I’ll ask a clerk what the hot toys are for seven and nine year old boys.  Hell, I’ll even pick up something for the old lady.  The old lady ex-wife.  And I’ll get myself one of those Christmas trees-in-a-box things.  The kind you just unpack and plug in. It’ll be like lighting a candle for—

Karl bangs his fist on the table.

“I wasn’t going to speak a word.  I’m so disgusted.  I wasn’t going to speak a God damn word.  But you,” Karl says, looking right at me, “inspired me.  The rest of you. . .” he shakes his head.

“You know the protocols forbid cross talk,” Ira says.

“Cross talk?”  Karl laughs in scorn.  “I’m not talking across the table to anybody.  I’m just making general comments.  And listen, Mr. Know-It-All, you being the great know-it-all, how is it you don’t know you’re supposed to keep your piehole shut while somebody else has the table?  So you shut your piehole and listen.”

Ira burns red.  Denard tries to hide a smile. Ray plays with the foil from his Kisses.

“I’ve seen this bullshit so many times before.  I was the fourth person to join this meeting when it started here eighteen years ago.  The three ahead of me, including the two founders, are long since lost to the outer darkness of addiction.  I’ve seen them all come and go.  Seeds by the wayside.  I’m sixty-two God damn years old.  I’ve seen all of your bullshit many times before, so I know of what I speak.  None of you are going to make it.  Not even you,” Karl says, looking straight at me, “you’re close.  But close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies.  Unless God creates a clean heart and a right spirit in you, you’ll end up back in the gutter with these stiff-necked—”

“You’re way out of line with this negative cross-talk,” Ira snaps.

“I told you to shut your God damn piehole, you fucking Pharisee.”

“Pharisee?  What are you trying to say?”

“You aren’t worthy to untie my shoelaces, yet you claim the right to be offended by my Christmas tree?  I don’t think so.”

"You were wrong to bring in the tree, and now you're talking like a lunatic," Ira says.

He and Karl lock into a stare.  Look at them.  Quite a contrast.  Karl is much older, but he still looks pretty solid—he probably cuts his own grass with a push mower.  There's probably not even any grass where Ira lives.

"Guys, guys," Ray says, "maybe we should just do the circle prayer and call it a night, huh?"

"That's all right with me," Ira says.

"I'm not done speaking," Karl says.

"Finish it up, then," Denard says, as if he were exasperated.  But what does he have to be exasperated about?

Karl sits there, staring straight ahead.  Not a word comes out of his mouth.  Time seems to stop.  Like in Denard’s physics.  It’s peaceful, though.  This quiet.  A quiet moment on a winter night, though the others seem impatient. They grimace.  I could sit here all night, in the quiet.  I could sit here all night in this peace and quiet, and enjoy just staring at the *Light of the World* poster.  Peace and quiet.  It’s nice.  But then Ray starts shifting on his chair, and the chair creaks.

“God, I’m weary of these meetings,” Karl finally says. 

He stares at the ceiling.  He seems old, now.  He looks around the table, giving each one of us a short scan.  “Go ahead and have your circle jerk prayer.  I’m through.”

“Thanks, Karl,” I say. 

The anti-climax must have surprised the others, they’re a half-beat slow in adding their affirmation.

I’m the first to stand for the prayer.  We’re supposed to close the meeting by holding hands and saying the serenity prayer as we look each other in the eye.  It’s supposed to mean we’re not ashamed.  I’ve never really enjoyed this ritual.  It’s a little too self-validating for my taste. 

Everybody’s standing, except Karl. We all look at Karl.

“You going to pray?” I ask.


He stands up, puts on his coat, an old blue parka.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. . .” we begin, automatonically. We watch Karl, instead of looking each other in the eye. “The courage to change the things I can. . .” He’s at the door.  He stoops to pick up his Christmas tree.  “And the wisdom to know the difference.”  An old man in an old parka with an old fake tree.  He pushes the door open, takes half a step outside, then turns around:

“Your prayer didn’t make it out this building. That Higher Power you all talk about?  You honor Him with your lips, but your hearts are far from Him.”

He leaves.  The door bangs behind him.  We stand there, looking at the door.  I hear laughter from the step table in the kitchen.

“Sounds like there having a better meeting than we did,” Ray says.

Ira nods. “I’ll tell you, fellas, that was one of the strangest meetings, ever.”

Ira, Ray and Denard start rehashing everything.  Changing it into something that suits them.  I put my coat on and leave them to it.

It’s a cold night.  It’s freezing in the car.  I put the heater on high.  But it will take this old Honda several minutes to start blowing warm air.  I begin to pull out of the parking lot, and I remember my plan to go to the store to buy gifts—God!  How stupid!  I shift into reverse and back into a parking space.  I sit in the car, wondering at my stupidity. 

Karl was right.  Who am I kidding? 

There’s nothing in me but sawdust and resentment.  I don’t have what it takes to finish.  I gave up and quit.  I went through the motions so badly, even the old lady could no longer ignore it—she had to leave.  Everything that should have been a blessing, I treated as a curse.  A few thoughtless gifts mean nothing.  Another half-assed gesture added to a life of half-assed gestures.

I sit here in this car, the motor running, the heater blowing cold air.  I search the black December sky.  Where’s the Jesus star?