Steps 2, 3, & 12
Taped to my fridge I have an old fortune cookie fortune. Except it’s an alcoholic fortune. One of my friends used to order these special alcoholic fortune cookies with program tips and slogans tucked inside on the little strips of paper. For us, these kind of are fortunes, because our lives go downhill fast if we don’t practice this stuff. Anyway, it reads:
|“This is a Save Your Ass program not a Save Your Soul program. We are concerned with the here & now, not the hear after.”|
You might notice that he misspelled hereafter as “hear after,” and apparently no one at the fortune cookie factory noticed. As it happens, this friend of mine, Dave F., has since gone to the hereafter. His liver quit on him suddenly at age 47, many years into a healthy sobriety, and he did not survive the transplant. But for me, because of how Dave lived, and because I still think about things he shared in meetings, he has indeed gone to the “hear after.”
“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”
That saying, attributed to various people, runs along the same lines as the Save Your Ass slogan. Those who accuse AA of religiosity, as I once did, completely miss the point. Drunks don’t want to be holy. We don’t hope to get into some God-ass-kissers’ heaven. And we sure don’t go through the 12 Steps to become shining examples of goody-two-shoes bullshit. No. We want to live. We’re motivated by pain and the threat of self-destruction, and we’ve known both too well for longer than we could stand. To get sober, we need the help of a higher power to remove our compulsion to drink. But to stay sober, we need that god to relieve us of the compulsion to think in alcoholically self-centered, fear-driven ways that twist us up inside until we either tip the bottle or otherwise wreck our lives.
Mind you, I can wreck mine purely from the inside. If I’m off the beam spiritually, even the most outwardly beautiful Hallmark moment can be shot through with x_(insert anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, ire, not enough etc.) to the point where, idyllic as it looks, I’m in hell. The choice is mine to wallow in those feelings addictively or to forcefully wrench away from them and ask god for help. I say “forcefully” because the pull of those emotional reflexes can be every bit as tempting as the reflex to drink.
Dave was prone to all these aspects of our disease, but he kept turning away from his defects, reaching for what god could offer instead of what his disease could. Not just once in a blue moon, but consistently. One summer night at an AA meeting we hold around a campfire on the beach (Golden Gardens, Tues night), I heard him tell a story that has stayed with me in the “hear after.”
That same day he’d tried to summit Mount Olympus alone. Sounds epic, but it’s also a lo-ong drive, an even longer overnight hike in, and a very dangerous ascent. In any case, almost as soon as he’d reached the glacier, one of his crampons broke (spiky foot gear for climbing ice). He’d tried to rig it: fail. He’d tried to climb without it: fail. Finally, he’d had no choice but to turn around in defeat. Having driven straight from the mountains to the beach, he was boiling water on his camp stove for his freeze-dried dinner as he spoke. Here’s the story I remember him telling.
“I got down into the trees, and I was so damn pissed. I broke for lunch at this creek and I was just pissed as hell. All this time, all this preparation – fuckin’ crampon breaks! I was denied! It felt so unfair, and just like my whole life has gone that way – you know? But then I see something pop out of the water, and it’s this little bird. There’s serious fast-moving water in this creek, rapids, pools. And I see where he lands, and he’s got this tiny fish. Swallows it. And he’s lookin’ at the water. Flits somewhere else, looks at the water. Boom! He shoots in! He’s like a rocket. Few seconds later, pops out. This time, no fish.”
Dave told about the change that came over him, watching. Sometimes the bird hit pay dirt and sometimes, for all its daring, getting churned around in that washing machine of roaring ice water, it got nothing. Gradually, he remembered to notice what a spectacularly beautiful place he was in. Gradually, he accepted what had happened.
“Maybe that’s what I was supposed to see today,” he reflected. “Not the view from the top, but that bird trying, and going for it, and working with whatever god gives it – fish or no fish. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to summit today, or I could’ve fallen cause the crampon broke at a bad time.” He shrugged wistfully, stirring the package. “This was supposed to be my victory dinner. But maybe it is, just being here with you guys, sober. Tonight I’m grateful.” Waves broke on the sand. We could all see the sun setting behind the Olympic mountains across the water, and now Dave turned his head to look at them. “I’ll tag Olympus another day.”
And tag it he did, solo, a year later – his last. On that day, he nabbed a truly precious fish.
I didn’t get a chance to see Dave F. in the hospital, but I heard that all the nurses, doctors, and orderlies fell in love with him because of his humor and kindness. I know over a hundred people who love, remember, and miss Dave today because of his selfless generosity. That guy used to carry the makings and equipment for entire pancake breakfasts 3,000 feet up Tiger Mountain, cook during our mountaintop meeting, and hand out steaming plates to anybody. He reached out to newly sober drunks who didn’t know jack about climbing and brought groups of them up mountains, passing on his knowledge. He even planned group climbs on holidays for those without family, spreading the word about our sober climbing group at AA meetings everywhere. In the summer of 2o12 I joined him on a climb of Mailbox Peak, laughing and joking about I don’t remember what. The other guys looked up to him. He had confidence and charisma.
Contrast this with 2006, the first hike I ever took with Dave F., when he spent most of our descent of Mount Si complaining to me about his job, luck with women, lack of education, and life in general – letting out his sense that he never got a break. Or compare it to our first ascent of Rainier that same year, when he kept to himself at base camp and spoke little to anyone except our leader. He struck me as wounded – lonely but too shy to socialize, trapped inside himself. He was like a bird waiting for a fish to jump out of the whitewater into his beak.
Here’s the crux, okay? Dave underwent a psychic change, that spiritual awakening named in Step 12 that happens as a result of sincerely working 1 through 11. If he hadn’t, up there on Olympus, he wouldn’t even have noticed that friggin’ bird. Or if he had, he wouldn’t have given a shit because seething about how he’d been robbed would demand all his attention. But with the psychic change, Dave sensed that such a path, the way of resentment and self-pity, was dangerous, because resentment spreads in an alcoholic like a cancer until, before you know it, you’re too smart to go anymore to those stupid meetings where all those bozos are so full of shit. Recovery like Dave’s takes courage. It takes work.
Turning to god is how we save our asses. When we’re open, when we’re in the habit of looking, god speaks to us through the tiniest, most unlikely messengers. If we want that message more than our version of the story, we pay attention, we see metaphor, and let god give us exactly what we need to be whole and free in the here and now.
PS: To my surprise, while hiking this August, I camped at the same wilderness site from which the above photo was taken. Here’s my (ex)boyfriend’s version, not quite as good, but still: