Course: Writing Your Obsessions

Instructor: Tara Campbell

Prompt: Signs

The waterline grabs me first.  A young man sitting on the 2nd step of a very still, placid pool in his stocking feet, blue jeans, and a brown, long-sleeve tee with reverse-stitching that looks like he bought at a retro surf-shop on the Boardwalk. Hands folded in his lap, his gaze pensive. My heart’s eye is drawn to the waterline bifurcating the brown tee into dark and light hemispheres, splitting him right below his heart line. Now I can feel the pressure of the pool water on my torso, pressing against my solar plexus.  The Tweet’s caption says, “I don’t know what you’re going through but I understand…..”  

The pressure of the waterline, an equator separating what is safe and what is exposed, intensifies slightly. Afraid I’ll get caught with no air my lungs, my inhales quicken and deepen.  Is this how you feel too, my friend? Yes? Then I do know how you feel.  I don’t always know what is safe and what is exposed, but I know that feeling.

Fleeting messages morph to familiar feelings with ironclad conclusions. But a moment’s contemplation can spark empathy’s flame, an indomitable and enduring force of love and tolerance.  

When I wrapped my car around the telephone pole on that icy January night in front of the Hampden Township police station I took it as a sign, a wake-up call.  Years of protecting my drink, my secret mistress, living below the waterline away from air and light, coddling shame and desire as they dance the dance of stealthy lovers.  They both fear, yet long for, the light and air above. Does that make sense?

I was never crazy about the whole God thing, but those sanctimonious 12 Steppers told me I’ve got to turn my life over to some Higher Power if I want to get sober.  I didn’t want to turn over my life to anything or anybody, I just wanted to know how to drink like a gentleman, not wreck cars and trash relationships.  I wish I could genuinely sit still and enjoy a moment. 

Wherever you are, you want to be elsewhere? I know.

Let me be clear, anonymous self-help groups are not a hotbed for mental health, but there are some very helpful tips and tricks, a profound and gritty wisdom wrapped in their pithy phrases.  I am naturally suspicious of religion, cults, and confident salespeople with narrow agendas (particularly my own!). This suspicion was magnified when it felt like a freakin’ book club!

Although I hate to admit it, their suggestions worked. A morning reading is not an unpleasant way to start the day.  Stilling the monkey-brain chatter with a daily meditation, a Sanskrit poem, or a smooth, etched Healing Rune pulled from a green felt bag can yield some pretty amazing gifts.  Today my stone had the sign for ‘Forgiveness’:

“A life in transition draws upon forgiveness

in order to make peace with the past.”

I know it doesn’t make sense now, but trust methis spiritual stuff is rigged.  The universe is conspiring to help you in mystifying ways.  When I pay attention to what is going on around me I find I get what I need, even when I don’t know what it is I need. While all I wanted to do is stop drinking too much, a willingness to change, I found,  opened the floodgates of a seemingly infinite stream of people and messages and music that give me daily nuggets to chew on.

It’s crazy, right? These dime-store spiritualisms pop up and yank me from a howling storm of unutterable confusion into a momentary pool of calm and serenity. But it really works.

 The piercing clarity offered by these phrases effortlessly allows me, even if for just a moment, to transcend the fear and longing with an unfamiliar empathy. They shouldn’t coexist.. But they do, with the spark. And they persist and propagate with a patience and kindness reminiscent of Corinthians.  I don’t know how it works; I just know it does.  

Sometimes, anonymous quotes I heard in a meeting or saw on a poster hanging in a candle shop pops into my brain, “Things don’t happen to me, they happen for me” or “Gratitude begets Grace.” I’m at my best when I stop and think about what these mean to me in that particular moment. 

Sometime songs from back in the day, when I was your age, float in; “Every form of refuge has its price”. Such grounded truth from The Eagles, “Lyin’ Eyes”.  Or “Fear is the lock and laughter the key to our hearts.”  Why would God send me a message through a 1969 CSN song?

Of course, there’s the self-help genre of books, most of which seem to be authors monetizing their own recovery.  “Forgiveness is the currency of healing”. Uggh! Quoting Caroline Myss? Who knew healing was such hard work? Right?

What the fuck, right? What is this sorcery? I didn’t want to stop drinking either, I just wanted to stop drinking like an idiot. 

Yet here I am, sitting next to your pool. Our pool.  You know life is a team sport, right?

Maybe this is simply our destiny. What if every person we meet we already met in Heaven, or whatever you want to call it, and agreed to put each other through the paces to learn lessons we need to learn? That’s some Caroline Myss shit too. 

If you can consider that everybody comes into our life for a reason, a season or a lifetime; we just never know which.  Perhaps we agreed to meet here, tonight, me on the side of this pool. I’ll share some hope you if you let me practice empathy. Deal?

I went to AA to get away from the heat.  What I found – was a light. When I face the light, I realized my shadows were behind me.  My friend Kell promised me if I stay facing the light, eventually, I’d become part of the light.  Sounds better than getting burned by the heat, eh?

I don’t know what you’re going through tonight, but I understand. The only way I know out of this pool is by using the Steps.  But for now, let’s just hang out until sunrise.

One thought on “Spark Empathy’s Flame

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