Archive for March, 2014

Wreckage of the Past

One thing about being in recovery from either drugs or alcohol is that eventually you must face the wreckage of the past. In practicing the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, step nine tells addicts to make direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would further injure others.

Just last week I saw a wonderful play at the Court theater, “Water By The Spoonful,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, about addiction, efforts at recovery, and the terrible price of addiction on those who surround the alcoholic or addict. The play was especially timely, given the unfortunate, unexpected relapse and death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who got sober at age 22, spent 23 years in recovery, but sadly relapsed, overdosed, and died. Aaron Sorkin commented on Hoffman’s death in Time magazine: “He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

Sometimes the best you can do in recovery when facing the wreckage of the past is to make a living amends, reform your life, stay sober “a day at a time,” and attempt to find a more spiritual way of living. Now that I’m coming up on seven years without a drink, there’s a slight tendency for me to whitewash my drinking years. It feels like the life of a different person, a person who dreamed of doing things, who dreamt of being creative, but never actually sat down to write, a person who wanted to live life fully, but lived a shadow life, using alcohol as medicine to drown out feelings of inadequacy, a sense that I just didn’t measure up and that I wasn’t really living life.

In “Water By The Spoonful,” one of the main characters, Elliot Ortiz, can’t forgive his mother Odessa for the years she spent using drugs and alcohol. The title comes from an incident in his childhood in Philadelphia where she, in the throes of addiction, took him and his sister to the ER when they had the flu and was sent home with the instructions to give the two kids a spoonful of water every five minutes to prevent dehydration, but she failed in her job and his sister ended up dying. Elliot’s aunt ends up raising him, and his mother does indeed get clean and sober, but he can’t forgive her. She ends up getting a job as a janitor (highly symbolic), and during her free time monitors an online site dedicated to helping crack addicts beat their addiction. Unfortunately, not only can’t Elliot forgive his mother, she can’t forgive herself, and it’s this inability to cope with the wreckage of the past that comes back to haunt her and threatens her sobriety in a vulnerable moment.

I think the lesson is that we must reconcile ourselves to the life we have lived, and we must forgive ourselves if we are to move forward and change our future from our past. I’ve been told that insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. The reality remains that we recover a day at a time, and for me, recovery means that I write–good or bad, the words accumulate a page at a time.


City Boy

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse?

A tale of old originally titled, The Town and Country Mouse, as part of Aesop’s Fables, the story tells of a proud city mouse who visits his cousin in the country and then scoffs at the simple meal his country cousin prepares so the more extravagant city mouse in turn invites his compatriot to come to see big city life. The country mouse takes him up on his offer, but during their opulent meal, they must scurry for safety when dogs invade their digs, and each mouse, I believe, determines that he is the more fortunate of the two. Neither envies the other’s circumstances.

I myself just got back late last night from seeing a play in the city with my friend Rosie. While the drive home took only an hour and a half, the drive into Chicago took nearly three hours, and though I listened to an audiobook most of the way, I still found myself cursing my distance from the city. There’s always been a kind of divide between my friends who are city dwellers and suburbanites. I happen to be an ex-city dweller, and have lived on both the north side and south side of Chicago. The city, I have found, is very neighborhood-specific, and as a Chicagoan, you also feel a sense of pride and belonging that differs, in part, based on whether you live in Hyde Park, are a South Sider, or live on the north side in Andersonville, Edgewater, Wrigleyville, East Lakeview, Rogers Park, or any of the many other neighborhoods. Of course there are many more neighborhoods, neighborhoods peopled with Polish or Irish or Mexicans, and a lot of your identity can be determined based on where you live. I also think I had a sense that I was more hip and urbane, somehow more current and relevant, and that I was living life more audaciously when I was a Chicagoan proper.

Now I live in the far western suburbs, and though I grumble at the distance into the city, I don’t think I would trade my sense of increased space, or the greater sense of peace and well-being I have now. I feel more able to spread out, walk around my three bedroom ranch house–even if I’m only pacing when trying to come up with a story idea or simply to glance through my book collection as I look for a book I’ve misplaced–or leisurely walk my Beagle and Akita around my neighborhood.

It was great fun, back in the day, to pack a towel and swimsuit, and take the El train north to Hollywood Beach to lay out on the sand, great fun to head to the Music Box theater to see the latest art house film, great fun to check out the latest ethnic restaurant, and I have to confess, now it’s much more of a trek to plan a day in the city, but I don’t feel nearly as claustrophobic and cramped as I used to feel. One time, while living in the city, I was even broken into, although the rather inept robber quickly scanned the studio apartment and stole the VCR (this was back in the day before DVD players took over), leaving behind my fairly new laptop computer. The police suspected it was a drug addict who wanted to quickly fence something to fuel his drug habit.

For many years, as a Chicagoan, I didn’t have a car, and had to walk everywhere, or take the El, and I used to think myself somehow superior to suburbanites, simply because I felt closer to the pulse of life back then. Now life is perhaps more measured, lived with a greater deliberateness, but I wouldn’t trade the sense of peace I feel. I always felt vaguely frantic and rushed as a city boy in a way that I no longer feel hurried.

It makes sense to me to get up on a Sunday morning, pour a cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper or the New Yorker magazine. I can still always head into the city when I want, but city life doesn’t dictate my very essence.

Butch It Up!

A disclaimer: I live in a small town, a town so small that until quite recently it was considered a village. Our town is nestled about an hour west of Chicago, and people have chosen to live here for various and sundry reasons, including its proximity to a major metropolitan area as well as for some citizens, the advantages of being in a small town where everyone knows your name.

I am part of a library book club, and have made friends that way, but recently went to check out a mens’ group at my local Catholic Church. I made sure, when I walked in the door, to drop my voice into a gravelly hyper-masculine tone and monitored my mannerisms. It occurred to me that I was seeking to “pass” as straight in much the same way that in the not-too-distant past some light-skinned African-Americans may have sought to “pass” as white. Why the good opinion of strangers mattered so much to me remains a mystery?

Being both Catholic and gay poses certain challenges. Until quite recently, the position of the church seemed to be something along the lines that having a gay sexual orientation in itself was not sinful, but that acting on it was, an untenable position, if ever there was. Our new pope, however, Pope Francis I, has made public declarations about homosexuality, saying, “Gay people should not be marginalized,” and, going further, “When someone is gay and seeks the Lord, who am I to judge him?”

The problem with the meeting was more than me merely feeling judged. A good forty-five minutes was spent discussing how to snare new members rather than focusing on the spiritual needs of the thirteen of us present. The guys had a lengthy discussion as to how a significant monetary donation to help high school students do service work projects during their spring break would raise the visibility of the mens’ group and attract new members. Everything revolved around getting more butts in the seats, and it certainly seemed to help if you happened to have discretionary income to donate to those causes the mens’ group deemed worthy. Though they appeared friendly to me as a newcomer, I found myself wondering how welcoming they would be if they knew for sure I was gay? A lie by omission is still a lie. I kept thinking of the old song played during the Sesame Street skit: “One of these things is not like the other.”

In the future, I suspect I will go where I feel I can fully be myself, where I can date a man without feeling liking I’m sinning simply by being who I am. In my mind, I think we Catholics would benefit not by concentrating on our sinfulness, but rather by focusing on leading more spiritually centered lives.