When I drank, my life was always dramatic — at least to me. Everything was a big deal. Drinking both fueled and helped defuse that. If someone was mad at me, if I’d behaved inappropriately, if some asshole had robbed me of a goal or privilege rightly mine, my emotions would rollercoaster up and down huge swells of anger and careen around curves of righteousness before finally winding down to the self-pity platform to which all things led: poor me.
But in those days, I had a best buddy, wine, along an array of other pals — beer, the gin & vodka twins, and all those whiskey relatives. We’d hang out and they’d fix everything. Actually, they’d fix my brain; everything else stayed exactly as it had been. But by muting my amygdala so the fear subsided and by impairing my frontal lobe so that all thoughts simply led back to me, drunkenness let me feel brokenly triumphant. Fuck them. Fuck everything.
In those days, everything I had going for me was external — or so I believed. What mattered was out there, so I was constantly keeping score: first it was grades and teachers, then published stories, then impressing my students, and eventually, as my life spiraled downward and I quit teaching to focus on drinking — I mean, writing! — it became impressing all the “cool” cats at the tiny espresso shop where I worked.
Mind you, everything that went on in that espresso shop was colossally big news! Who was getting together with whom, new policies about whether you could eat behind the counter, hirings and firings. In the end my main drama centered on the fact that my life partner had read my journal, caught me cheating emotionally, and promptly left, so now I couldn’t pay the mortgage with my joke of a job, even if my shifts hadn’t been cut for coming in stoned.
Drinking enough to make that no big deal nearly killed me.
When I got sober, my focus gradually shifted to who I was within and whatever linked that spirit to a higher power — to goodness in the world. At first, of course, I had no idea the 12 steps were effecting that change. I just went through them with a sponsor and discovered harmful patterns in my thinking and behaviors, asking my higher power to help me outgrow them. And as I began to lay aside increasingly subtle versions of these once precious “coping skills” — deception, manipulation, knowing best (pride), envy, and my favorite, self-pity — the ride of living smoothed out. A lot.
Today, I have no crises. I don’t wish I were somebody else. Sobriety’s granted me huge gifts: I’m performing in two ballet recitals this spring and climbing three glaciated mountains this summer, so my life is full. My home, health, work, son, and friendships are all good.
But smooth sailing can be frickin’ difficult for an alcoholic!! Without that clamoring, overflowing bucket of piddly-shit drama to seize my attention day after day, my gaze drifts to the horizon and I wonder, what am I doing? What’s my life for?
I’m getting older. I haven’t made any big splash lately. My son has grown up, my dog is old, I have no partner. What stands out with increasing clarity is that I will disappear from this planet in a number of years. How many is unknown, but every day I’m closer. What will my life have meant?
Here’s where near-death experience comes in. I am so blessed that the inexplicable paranormal phenomena stacking up in my life finally led me to the Seattle branch of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and that I hold a service position there of interviewing near-death experiencers and writing up their stories for our newsletter (snailmailed only at this point, sorry). Every other month, I get to Skype with someone who has, like me, died and come back with wisdom to share.
On the other side, when they are pure spirit, many know their life’s purpose. There’s a role we’re each here to play, and they’re shown theirs. Yet when they come back, they remember knowing, but they can’t remember what! This “forgetting” seems to be the price of embodiment. Enclosed in bodies, we lose 99% of our conscious connection to the expanding web of creation that is god. With little to go on but our hearts and the gossamer strands of love that link us to other hearts, we’re something of a lost boat, a tiny shard trying to work out its place in a 13.8-billion-year unfolding.
When one NDEr was given the choice to stay in the spirit realm or return to her body, she asked what would become of all her half-done life’s work if she died. “None of that matters,” she was told. “What matters is connections. If your work helps someone to strengthen their relationships with others or even to know themselves better, it has value. The important thing is the wake you leave behind you in the waters of life. Do you leave a wake of love… or of indifference?”
That’s our job — to love others and love god by generating gratitude for this spectacular pageant of life on Earth. My life is not about what accolades go up on my mental mantlepiece. It’s about the people (and other beings) I love and the ripple effect of loving them, which touches countless lives of people I will never meet.
Humility is also key. In 1995, when I was about 100 days sober, I visited the site of the first Olympic Games — alone. Wandering from the ruins, which date from 776 BC, I took a nap under a gnarled tree. And when I woke, looking out at the meadow where a sign indicated the Greek athletes’ housing had once stood (6), used centuries later as Roman soldiers’ quarters before god knows what in the Dark Ages, I had a sort of vision. I saw with time-elapse speed hundreds of trees germinating, growing large, and dying; buildings going up and falling to ruin; people slaughtering each other and making love — all in this very same meadow while its grass sprouted green and then dried to yellow over and over, 2,771 times.
The years, I saw, cycled through just like waves on a beach. So did human lives. I was no less transient than a blade of grass — but one with a plentitude of choices.
Ultimately, the purpose of my life has to be turned over to god every day as a part of Step Three. In my own version of the famous Merton prayer, I tell god, “I can’t see what I’m doing, but I love you. Please lead me wherever I can do your will, and lend me the courage and grace to do my best there.”
Life is no more and no less that that. And that is enough!