A Tent Among Us
So I called my Jesuit friend, Tom, who is a hopeless alcoholic of the worst sort, sober now for 22 years, someone who sometimes gets fat and wants to hang himself, so I trust him. I said, "Tell me a story about Advent. Tell me about people getting well."
He thought for a while. Then he said, "OK."
In 1976, when he first got sober, he was living in the People's Republic of Berkeley, going to the very hip AA meetings there, where there were no fluorescent lights and not too much clapping -- or that yahoo-cowboy-hat-in-the-air enthusiasm that you get in L.A., according to sober friends. And everything was more or less all right in early sobriety, except that he felt utterly insane all the time, filled with hostility and fear and self-contempt. But I mean, other than that everything was OK. Then he got transferred to Los Angeles in the winter, and he did not know a soul. "It was a nightmare," he says. "I was afraid to go into entire areas of L.A., because the only places I knew were the bars. So I called the cardinal and asked him for the name of anyone he knew in town who was in AA. And he told me to call this guy Terry."
Terry, as it turned out, had been sober for five years at that point, so Tom thought he was God. They made arrangements to go to a meeting that night in the back of the Episcopal Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown L.A. It was Terry's favorite meeting, full of low-bottom drunks and junkies -- people from nearby halfway houses, bikers, jazz musicians. "Plus it's a men's stag meeting," says Tom. "So already I've got issues.
"There I am on my first date with this new friend Terry, who turns out to not be real chatty. He's clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills, but the cardinal has heard that he's also good with newly sober people. He asks me how I am, and after a long moment, I say, 'I'm just scared,' and he nods and says gently, 'That's right.'
"I don't know a thing about him, I don't what sort of things he thinks about or who he votes for, but he takes me to this meeting near skid row, where all these awful looking alkies are hanging out in the yard, waiting for a meeting to start. I'm tense, I'm just staring. It's a whole bunch of strangers, all of them clearly very damaged -- working their way back slowly, but not yet real attractive. The people back in Berkeley AA all seem like David Niven in comparison, and I'm thinking, Who are these people? Why am I here?
"All my scanners are out. It's all I can do not to bolt.
"Ten minutes before the meeting began, Terry directed me to a long flight of stairs heading up to a windowless, airless room. I started walking up the stairs, with my jaws clenched, muttering to myself tensely just like the guy in front of me, this guy my own age who was stumbling and numb and maybe not yet quite on his first day of sobriety.
"The only things getting me up the stairs are Terry, behind me, pushing me forward every so often, and this conviction I have that this is as bad as it's ever going to be -- that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. Well. All of a sudden, the man in front of me soils himself. I guess his sphincter just relaxes. Shit runs down onto his shoes, but he keeps walking. He doesn't seem to notice.
"However, I do. I clapped a hand over my mouth and nose, and my eyes bugged out but I couldn't get out of line because of the crush behind me. And so, holding my breath, I walk into the windowless, airless room.
"Now, this meeting has a greeter, which is a person who stands at the door saying hello. And this one is a biker with a shaved head, a huge gut and a Volga boatman mustache. He gets one whiff of the man with shit on his shoes and throws up all over everything.
"You've seen the Edvard Munch painting of the guy on the bridge screaming, right? That's me. That's what I look like. But Terry enters the room right behind me. And there's total pandemonium, no one knows what to do. The man who had soiled himself stumbles forward and plops down in a chair. A fan blows the terrible smells of shit and vomit around the windowless room, and people start smoking just to fill in the spaces in the air. Finally Terry reaches out to the greeter, who had thrown up. He puts his hand on the man's shoulder.
"Wow," he says. "Looks like you got caught by surprise." And they both laugh. Right? Terry asks a couple of guys to go with him down the hall to the men's room, and help this guy get cleaned up. There are towels there, and kitty litter, to absorb various effluvia, because this is a meeting where people show up routinely in pretty bad shape. So while they're helping the greeter get cleaned up, other people start cleaning up the meeting room. Then Terry approaches the other man.
"My friend," he says gently, "it looks like you have trouble here."
The man just nods.
"We're going to give you a hand," says Terry.
"So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet, walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn't covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.
"Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn't have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I'll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time."
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Monday, December 29, 2008
I Have Been in the Tent
It's a few days late. But I just saw it, and I want to share it. So, like the good people at slacktivist, from whom I grabbed it, I'm going to hope that Salon turns a blind eye and lets it stand.