I saw a newspaper story about a memorial service of sorts, for a woman who drummed in a couple of West African drum circles down in NOLA. There was a video of the gathering, and it did my heart good to see people in Congo Square, one of the only places aside from church that enslaved people were allowed to congregate in the old times. They probably drummed just like what I saw on that video, celebrating a life, not mourning a death.
As I read the accompanying news article, I realized that I knew the dead woman. Her name was instantly familiar, and she dated a crazy friend of mine a million years ago. She was just someone I knew as a friend of friends. Whether I knew her or not, even in passing, her death drew some visceral response from deep in my gut. She was exactly the same age, and was a physical therapist. She was murdered, in her driveway, and it looked like a car-jacking gone wrong because her car was missing when the neighbors found her, stabbed in the chest and gone almost immediately. Such a waste.
Even though I could not say this was a personal contact of mine, but we had crossed paths at some point. New Orleans is not a big city, despite the hum of constant activity. The connection was close enough, though, to bring me back to some days more than 30 years ago. It was the year I got sober, and we were all bouncing off the walls, literally and figuratively.
The friend she dated was in the circle of lunatics I fell into, all of us trying to do this thing called sobriety, and not having a single clue about what the hell we were doing. We were in our 20s; I was 28. I was not a groovy chick at that point, but I was definitely happening in a far out way. Very far out. I had no idea who I was, and neither did anybody else, so we were OK. The elders amongst us were patient, and like all other old-timers in sobriety groups everywhere in the world, endured us believing we “had it”, and implored us to keep coming back. We did that.
I remember we all thought we had to re-invent the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, update it, make it better and more appealing to people our age. It was entirely all about us, and I was seriously going to rewrite the Big Book with contemporary language. What the hell was a “whoopie party” anyhow? We could certainly do better. I had maybe four months sober under my belt, had started making a little sense, and felt like I had mastered sobriety in record time because I was just that good.
Looking back on that makes me smile, because it’s such a typical thing for newcomers to 12-step programs. Everyone feels better after a little bit, when they begin sleeping again (as opposed to simply passing out), and believe it’s all over and you’re ready for the big time. We didn’t realize we had the emotional maturity of 12-year olds at that point, some of us still making armpit noises and laughing hysterically about using the word “do” twice in succession and proclaiming “I said do-do!” Oh, those were the days – great brilliance followed by periods of abject stupidity.
The main group I hung with in those days was a women’s group, and we took some things very seriously. Sexist language was a very grave matter, and most of us had no sense of humor about it. There was simply no reason we had to read the excerpts from AA literature exactly as written if it was sexist, dammit. God did NOT have to be “he” and we did not have to ask for “his” damned help with anything. So there.
Over the many years since those days, I still chuckle at the notions we had to re-invent wheels that were rolling along quite nicely. Every generation of people in sobriety goes through some of that, but we just knew we were the first and only innovators. These days, I don’t feel a particular need to re-invent anything, except maybe some of my core values and how I’m rolling through the world. I suppose age does bring you around to something akin to peace, if you’ve done the work to weather the storms and haul away the damage.
Life is so very short. Things are so very insane right now. I am obsessed with thoughts of being alive right now, at this time, for some purpose. It’s maddening because I don’t quite know what that purpose is, although recently I’ve touched on the edges of a flitting aspiration. It’s very feathery, like trembling and frantic flapping of a baby bird getting the hang of what happens when you move this muscle, and this other one.
The fragile thing in my soul that keeps trying to fly is that I am the one left to tell, the one who came to tell the story of at least some of my ancestors. It’s the women in particular, my mother and her mother and my father’s mother and my father’s grandmother. My mother and her mother, my grandmother, are the only two known to me. My father’s mother died when he was still a baby, and his grandmother committed suicide when his father was a small child. Without all of them, I would not be here. That means something to me.
I always wonder about what contracts may have been established on that esoteric plane where the soul resides, what pledge I may have made to pull some meaning out of my walk on this Earth. It would distress me to leave here without having done anything that has a meaning. That sounds absurd, now that I’m writing it. What I mean is that I would be distressed if I had done nothing of what I had contracted to do in that other place, in that other time.
A lot of what I have been occupied with, in my life, seems to have no real weight. I have done some good work in sobriety, reached out a hand to a few people, have been a good friend at times. I am not discounting that, but feel that I haven’t yet hit upon THE thing I need to do that will have it all come together. I often feel as though I have a large collection of disjunctive experiences, kind of like a junk drawer with odds and ends that aren’t necessarily related. All of the contents may be useful or helpful at some point, but rarely all together. I want to figure out how to make a story that utilizes all of it. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it will be a work of art.
My inner critic is shrieking that I am being grandiose, that I am seeking recognition, or acclaim, and that is merely egotistical. The inner muse is shaking her head, and wondering who the hell keeps letting the critic speak, She asks me to explain why it’s incorrect to want something that gives me pleasure, and it would give me pleasure to share the story of these women with other people. It would do me good, and perhaps it could do good for someone else. Most importantly, I fell it’s a way to honor them, and pay my dues. I don’t expect anything free.
This is a bizarre train of thought for tonight, but I guess it’s fine. I’m a little tired, not sure if I’m quite ready for sleep, but once again I’m looking around this place and wondering how the hell it got to looking like this. I’m listening to the Indigo Girls, and Amy Ray is doing her version of “Romeo and Juliet” that I love so much. “I dream your dream for you, and now your dream is real… … now when you gonna realize it’s just that the time was wrong.”
Maybe this is what I am missing, like something I’ve lost somewhere along the way. I’m missing the dreams, missing the waking up and feeling like I can do just about anything, no matter what “they” say. I have done quite a number of things in my life just to prove people wrong, people who said there was no way I could do whatever it was. Anger is a wonderful motivator, and I’m sure that’s why I have such a great capacity for it.
I need to make sense, and there are only a few places where I feel that I make sense, where I feel even vaguely relevant. There is so much fear that goes along with being in that place, fear that I’m going to screw it up, that I am not talented or skillful enough to occupy that space. Fear that it will not last, that I will bump into the real border wall, the one that I am constantly building to keep myself safe. The one where the barbed wire points inward so that it traps me inside, and yeah I’m pretty well protected, but to what end? You don’t play, you can’t win. I know this, but I don’t want to lose my quarter (that dates me, yeah?). Do I not have enough faith in myself to believe that I can get another quarter?
That’s the real deal, then – gotta take a risk, gotta believe, gotta step outside the safe room. What good is it being safe all by yourself? This isn’t working for me all that well any more, so I’m gonna have to make a break for it. I keep going around this same traffic circle, though, just going around in a big circle and getting nowhere. So perhaps I need to take one of the exits and see where that brings me.
Earlier today, I was sitting outside with the dog. It was pretty warm, but still enjoyable. I caught sight of a hawk, high in the sky, circling and soaring the way they do. I watched it for quite a long while, marveling as I always do at the powerful wings and amazing visual acuity that characterize that species. The red tail feathers caught the sunlight, seeming to blaze like flames it seemed. The message that came to me was that I’m in the right place right now. Maybe tomorrow I should be someplace else, but right now, I’m in the right place. This comforts me, because I always wonder if I should just go back to NOLA and call this a great experiment that has come to an end. But I’m in the right place. This I know.
What brings me here? My soul brings me here. Just me, and every cell I’ve got inside me that is the result of my ancestry. I was left to tell, so tell I must. No need to rewrite anybody else’s stories, I have my own. Is that not social justice? I say it is.