Donny

I ride my bike to and from work, regardless of conditions. I work downtown, so there are many hazards to navigate. I spend most of my mental energy staying alert to everything, staving off "door prizes" and dozy pedestrians sauntering into my lane. At the same time, I try to push away any needless distractions.

Except when they aren't distractions.

On my way home last week, I hit a red light and scanned the streets as I tend to do when stopped. I saw a homeless guy who set up shop outside a pharmacy. Homelessness in a big city is common, of course, and there was nothing about this man which stood out. Until I read the sign:

"Clean and Sober. Help me get back on my feet."

The light turned green. I was a few minutes away from home.  Something compelled me to stay. I rode towards the guy, who was dropping an apple core into the garbage can nearby. Near his sign was a mat, a half-eaten sandwich, a muffin, a water bottle and an olive green duffle bag. 

"So how long you been clean and sober?" I asked, leaning over my bicycle bars.

"Three months," he replied as he adjusted his sunglasses.  

He was wiry, but not the kind of wiry from being dope sick and unable to eat for weeks. I couldn't see his eyes, but he had both that snap and calm one has when they are on the level. No shakes, no sweats. 

"That's great - what was your joy?" 

"Heroin."

"How you staying clean?"

"Methadone. Planning on getting off that soon too."

He took a bite of his lunch. Healthy food. No junk food for a man whose body saw only toxicity and shame spread and fan out through his veins. We spoke about drugs, and booze and the insanity surrounding it. I told him of my five years sober. He gave me a thumbs up. People buzzed around us, oblivious to this man and the dude talking to him.

As we continued to chat, I made a conscious effort to absorb his frailty, his spirit, his resilience. The first few months of sobriety is like jumping into the deep end without a lifejacket. It's like learning to swim while wave after wave crashes down around you. Emotions, once dormant under the lash of alcohol and/or drugs, rage up again, tossing us about, daring us to stand square to them and let them wash us rather than wipe us out. Everything is super-charged in those first few months, and I remember being at my most suicidal during those tender days.

I admired Donny. I loved his acceptance about his situation. He wasn't wearing self-pity like a shawl, wrapped around a hand out for a few extra sheckles. He was planted firmly on the ground, smiling, feeling the sun on his face. I can't say I do the same on a daily basis, and I have so much going on for me. I will look at the negative, sour on the things that others would love to have. I will self-sabotage. I will jerk the chain hard on joy when it wants to wander off onto the green fields.

"You look like you're doing pretty good, considering," I said, digging into my backpack.

"Could be worse. Could be dead," he said, taking a swig of his water.

I folded a $10 bill and handed it to him. 

"Hope this helps in a small way."

"You betcha. Thanks."

I thought of the times I swindled and lied to get my next fix. Ten dollars would have gotten me just enough to last me an hour or so. It would have paid for the morning booze, the stuff to stop the massive shakes at dawn. But I don't have to worry about that kind of problem any more. 

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Donny. Call me Donny. That's what they call me down here."

I thanked Donny and went back towards my home. Not a street corner or shelter. A house. Where there is a car parked and food in the fridge. A family who accepts and loves me. A place to put all the things my job allows me to purchase. 

Donny was God in the shape of a fellow traveller. I know that I was meant to talk to him, to share with him, and to alight from his spirit and form. It was another touchstone in which we get to be of service, to be reminded where we came from, and what is possible.

It was love.

 

  

Etchings

Yesterday I went for a run. I don't often plan routes—I usually just go by feel. I approached an intersection at the same time a black minivan did. I didn't want to break stride, so I jogged down a side street for a few seconds so that I could let the vehicle pass. As I cut back to the main street, I caught a small marking on the sidewalk. Two initials—HP.

The first association that cropped up was “Higher Power.” A part of my mind tried to downplay it all by saying it was just a bored and subversive kid who, raging against the machine, carved his initials into the concrete. Maybe it was an exuberant Harry Potter fan. But I don't believe in coincidences. I feel that my diversion was a small reminder to keep The Creator at top of mind. He does this because He knows that I am very adept at forcing the squeeze play on Him when my brain is in Tilt-A-Whirl mode. And my mind has been less than amusing as of late, parking many unhealthy thoughts on mental Post-It notes.

It's a cinch to preach serenity when the sea is calm and the sun is out and the dove returns with an olive branch. It's easy to play spiritual giant when things are lined up well, when there are no pops, hisses or dust in the grooves of the album. But when the needle starts to skip and the tune gets warbled, discordant and choppy, it's difficult to keep to the beat of the hit song “All Is Impermanent.” Learning to want to stay on the beam when I am far from it is one of the greatest challenges I face. My default mode of isolating and trying to manage things on my own kicks in as easily as a car alarm during an earthquake. It is precisely when the ship is lurching and heaving that I need to keep close to The Creator—not move away from Him. My ego won't have any of that, though.

The HP marking on the pavement is one of many engraved images that are often tossed my way—the Creator passing notes to me like I did with my friends in class. My conscious contact is often like an Etch-A-Sketch—sometimes the etchings are rough and difficult to discern. Sometimes they are hazy and half-finished with soft lines. Other times, they are clear as a stone in shallow river waters. There are also times when my mind and spirit are in turmoil, the whole thing is shook up, and all I see is an empty gray slate staring back at me. But I need to remember that it's in clearing the canvas that something new is ready to be revealed. The knobs twist like the gears of a grimy steampunk contraption and when I least expect it, I am staring at a new revelation. The timing is exactly beyond my comprehension, but I understand it completely. That train always gets into the station.

No matter how many times the etchings come to me, I always surprised at how they arrive. Sometimes it comes in the form of a line I read in a book, or something says to me in passing, or a seemingly random event. A few years ago, I was having a rough day, and I struggled as to whether I should go to a meeting or not. I really resisted it. Eventually, the pull to go overrode my ego. As I navigated my bike down to the church, I still continued to argue in my mind whether I was making the right decision. I asked to no one in particular if I was doing the right thing. Ten seconds later, I passed by a homeless man on a bench, and as I sped past him, he smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Just like that. Boom. Mic drop.

How distinctly I can capture these celestial etchings is proportionate to how open I am to be willing to seek them. Even when my spiritual britches are in a twisty knot, I know that if I turn the dial just a shade closer to “open-minded”, I have a greater chance of finding my directions from the sort of God Google maps. Holy hints and divine directions flow forth when I keep my heart open. It feel counter-intuitive considering what I really want to do is to flee and feast on my self-pity like a stolen treat. But when I give myself to faith and allow myself to accept what it given to me, through His Grace, then the etchings are clearer and closer to the ground.

A great vantage point, whether I'm running or just sitting down and taking in the sunlight of the spirit.

Thirst

My wife and I went out for dinner the other night, and decided to try a new restaurant in our neighbourhood. It was a brew pub. Pubs don't deter nor determine my choice in dining. I happen to like pub grub, and this place served some elevated fare. But I have to admit, that for the first time in awhile, I felt a little apprehensive going in. 

I used to brew my own beer when I was in my late teens and early 20's. I wasn't out for a cheap high-I really did enjoy following recipes and trying out new flavours. This was around the time I was finding my way into being a chef, which also involved playing around with recipes, so there was something about experimenting and playing around. I really took to the craft of brewing. I enjoyed the crispness of a proper lager, the butterscotch overtones of a brown ale, the effervescence of a wheat beer, the sweet-and-sourness of a Belgian ale. I played with fruit, herbs and different hops in my drinks. I took pride in creating something that was my own.

And yes, it was booze. I got to enjoy the final product with some of my friends.

As my need for alcohol increased, my willingness to take the time and effort in creating beer waned. I wanted what I wanted, and I wanted it now. The escalation of alcoholism upped the urgency of my poor decision making and created a vacuum of worthlessness and self-loathing.

Alcohol wasn't the only thing that I thirsted for.  

I thirsted for self-flagellation.

I thirsted for isolation.

I thirsted for validation.

I thirsted for grandiosity.

I thirsted for an altered state.

I thirsted to be someone else.

I thirsted to not be alive.

I thirsted for complete oblivion.

I could not slake my thirst for any of these. My need to drink tied into all these other thirsts. I tried to fill the need for connection, meaning and self-esteem with alcohol. I tried to wash away the riveting pain in a river of red wine and 40-pounders of vodka. I wanted to put a gun to my head and finally rid myself of me. But alcohol was all I had.

A shot is a shot is a shot, after all. 

My thirst finally broke me down. I was parched, my tongue and soul stripped down and raw.

I realized that what I sought was already in me. I had to be willing to see it, to find it, to give myself permission to understand that I no longer needed to live the way I used to live. Men and women who had already been down that path lifted me up and showed me how to really quench my thirst. I prayed, I meditated, I worked with others, I was given a new way of holding life up and examining it. I held aloft my spirit, like a chalice to the heavens, and could replenish as much as I wanted and needed. As long as I remained humble and centered, there was plenty to hold in my hands.  

When I am not centered, when I am feeling dry, when I am drifting away from the tributaries which recharge and revitalize me, then The Thirst comes on.  Carl Jung once observed that the alcoholic's thirst for alcohol is, "the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God." 

So when I sat in that brew pub and listened to the server talk about their latest beers and I started to drift off into "what if" land, I realized that my thirst was manifesting back to an old way. Even though it was brief, and my cranberry soda did the trick just nicely thank you very much, I had to sit with the fact that at times like that, I need to turn my attention to drinking from other cups. I need to change the course of my thirst and direct it to where I know I will always have a full glass. I need to see that I of myself am enough. I sometimes require a nudge in that direction, but I am glad for the cues the Universe gives me to put me back on the path I was meant to walk.

The thirst for a whole and complete life will always be there, and gratitude is something that I can always brew up. In double batches. Because for guys like me, it's always more festive with doubles.  

  

Pace

I've always been a fan of my Garmin.

I bought the wearable GPS unit second hand several years ago. I wear it almost every time I run. Or bike. Or go for a brisk walk.  The Garmin measures speed, pace, time and even maps your route. It spits out numbers and stats that appeals to my inner nerd. It lays everything out in tidy columns and enchanting decimals. Everything you need to know about your sweaty escapade is spread out in front of you, except for one important yet immeasurable factor—effort.

Before GPS units, runners measured their runs by effort. They didn't wring their hands over pace, or fret over cadence.  They just knew that either that day's run was hard or easy. A runner judged their performance by how they felt, how much intensity or ease they placed into their run and how long they went. 

Effort is something that can't be measured and analyzed by a computer. Some days I run seemingly without strain and other days it's like I'm going uphill in quicksand, during a hailstorm and wearing army boots. My pace may be the same in many cases, but the effort is wildly different. When I judge myself by my pace, I am usually disappointed because it doesn't factor in things like fitness level, weather, motivation, fatigue, etc. Or I compare myself to other runs or even other runners. I often feel like I should have done "better". Results aren't the outcome of a simple calculation. 

The same can be said in my life. There are phases in my life where I can juggle all sorts of things and not feel any undue stress. I can easily bounce from one thing to another and not feel sluggish or weighed down. I have an inner capacity that carries me, a spirit that is undaunted by landmines or complications. It's like I can go on and on and only feel the sunlight and the richness of my efforts.  My pace is rock solid. 

Then there are other times where even the simplest tasks seem daunting, where I feel my skin is heavy and my heart is encumbered. I am still doing the same things, but there are some incalculable factors that make me feel that I am swimming with cement blocks on my feet. I feel like all I can manage that day is just taking a shower and getting dressed for work. My pace is off the mark. 

The one thing I have learned in running is to adjust. Coming back from my herniated disc has meant that I have had to look at my training in a new light. I have had to learn to not only love running again, but to take it easy. Build up slowly. I can't tackle the distances and times the way I used to. I can and will get there again, but I need to be patient, listen to my body and take advice from others who have been there before. 

Lately I have applied this principle to my life, in general.  In the last few months, I have been easing up. I have taken a hiatus from the pod, and this blog, and stepping down from other things I have been doing up until recently. My pace wasn't matching my effort. My effort was heavy, and my pace was sloth-like. I realized I had to adjust my efforts by redirecting them. I had to take my mind off of pace, results, numbers, likes, hits, pages written, etc. and re-focus on where my efforts were going and the energy behind them. 

I have found this easing up to be vital in my overall perspective. The problem with taking things off my plate is that I start to wonder where the next spiritual / mental meal is coming from. The negative space on the plate takes over and I start to panic a little. But one thing I have learned on this journey is that nothing is outside the realm of the Creator. I know that my faith will not lead me astray. Listening to my spirit is wise. My ego will try to thwart it, just like it does when I am running, but in the end, when I lay low my ego, other things will rise in its place. It's not easy. Ego loves a good pity party and to compare and compartmentalize. 

The result of easing up and focusing on the effort is that new things have come up. My pace is shifting. It's not a straight line or easily marked route. It's hilly and there are puddles to jump and my pace will reflect what life puts in front of me. There are times when I need to slow it down and there are times I can kick it into first gear. The most important thing is that I keep moving forward. 

 

 

Nest

When my wife was in her last few weeks of pregnancy, she started on a cleaning frenzy. She is not normally the type to grab a broom, or window cleaner and paper towels, but there she was, bulging belly and all, going at the house like the King of Norway was on his way for monocle-eyed inspection. This final frantic burst of energy is considered normal for humans and animals alike. Nature gives expectant mothers a boost of energy to help them prepare for the wee one(s). They call it "nesting" and it's driven by pure instinct and late-in-the-game adrenaline. Even fathers get involved, feeling the need to clean out the basement, or paint the front hallway or fix up the car.

I find myself many times going through phases that mimic this nesting phenomenon. I am not with mop in hand per se, but I do feel a sense of cleaning house—in a focused and methodical way. I was listening to the wonderful Bishop T.D Jakes last night, and he spoke about living a life focused. He preached that in order to receive new blessings, it is important we organize our life for them, in practical and spiritual ways. I cannot receive new food on my plate when I have yesterday's leftovers and dirty cutlery on it still. This spoke to me as I have been going through a recent need to declutter my life. I have been sensing that it's time to shuffle the deck of cards and remove the jokers—not that the jokers are bad, but they just aren't needed right now.

As as active alcoholic, people pleasing was my business. Self-care wasn't. My concern, other than making my sure my belly was full of booze, was to ensure others liked me. Or at least dislike me as little as possible. I cared plenty what others thought of me. I twisted and bent myself to secure other people's approval. In the process, I lost my own sense of self. Part of that Like-Me-At-All-Costs program was that I said "yes" to everything. No matter how much it would mess my world up further, I agreed to everything so that I would get a gold star in everyone's book. As a result, I would say "no" to the things that really mattered—family, my wife, etc. I was saying "yes" to the wrong things and "no" the right ones. 

Boundaries were blurred at best, and with that, I made many questionable decisions. I feared asserting myself and asking for what I needed. I didn't want to be seen as either dominating or weak. I was a sniper in life—alone, in control and a sharp shooter. In fact, I was just a scared child afraid to let someone know I was alone and wanted a hug. 

When I got into recovery, learning to set boundaries and lines was challenging. I was standing up for myself, in small and not-so-small ways, and it frightened me. I didn't want to upset others. But what I found is that in marking those lines in the sand, people respected me more. I respected myself more. Others knew what I stood for and while they may not have agreed with me, they understood. I was able to make clearer and more refined decisions. The blur was gone and I found a structure within that kept me on the beam. I was becoming focused. And with that, the blessings came—a job that I still have, a new child, working with others in recovery, etc. I found freedom in something I once thought would be confining.

Every now and then I need to turn the lens and recalibrate, refocus.  These days, I am finding myself moved to sweep the deck. I feel some sort of nesting instinct kicking in. I am saying "no" to a lot more things. I am rearranging my life to create space. I am passing on projects to other people. I am, in essence, taking away my dirty dish and leftovers and setting the table for something new. New focus, new blessings. 

I am not sure what is coming down the pipe for me, but I know that I will be ready soon. Ready to take on whatever the universe needs to give to me. Ready in the nest, ready for the birth of something new.