Winter’s Last Grab

Theoretically, the arrival of spring is inevitable.  It doesn’t feel inevitable in April.  We get handed a day of sun and short sleeves, the forsythia squint out, and then winter yanks us back.  Today is forty degrees, overcast as a trenchcoat, and the wind slaps everyone in the face.  Grow up!  It’s not spring yet!

Last Friday evening, I wore a summer dress under a cardigan and a winter coat.  My boyfriend and I made rounds of art galleries.  He walked up to me holding a cup of beer, and I could smell the alcohol underlying the grainy bouquet. 

It’s still winter, and it’s still Lent.  I miss drinking.  The poisonous streak of alcohol, then the flavor in my mouth, down my throat.  Then it turns my blood from calm magenta to fluorescent and squealing.  I can live without it, just as I can live in long underwear and wool hat and long boots.  But the abstemious life is isolated and itchy.

During Palm Sunday church, we read the whole Passion story, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t hit the extra Holy Week services.  Some people would miss Jesus’ death all together, and be completely confused by his surprise appearance at Easter next week.

I like how Peter freaks out.  Every time you trust something to save you, it ends up getting crucified.  Every time you are inspired, you are shocked by the death of inspiration.  It just happens that way. 

I think the Passion story is about how people survive disillusionment.  People somehow move toward new beliefs and new opportunities.  Regardless of whether some Jesus person in any way came back to life, I believe that resurrection is real. 

Eventually, spring will win.  Although this Sunday I held my paper next to my wool coat and shivered, some Sunday soon I will stand at that same intersection, with my arm bare, glowing in the sun.  From shivering, we will glow, and then sweat, and then go back around again. 

Where most religions emphasized the circular sense of the year, and of life, Christianity has a streak of linear energy, messiah-seeking, a future orientation.  Christianity relishes spring.  Worships spring.  Fetishizes spring.

The winter is still in front of us.  We’ll kneel and mourn and listen to the gory details of Holy Week’s winter, only because we hope spring is inevitable.

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More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.

Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.

Dancing

I went straight from a Midwestern Baptist-style funeral to summer-steamed New Orleans. One minute I was singing a hymn in a pew, and hours later I was on a bus staring at the rehabbed Superdome, seeing the ghosts of the abandoned along the clean sidewalk.

I had to say some firm, abbreviated goodbyes to get out of the church and to the airport on time.  Once I was installed behind the security lines, I disciplined myself to read the newspaper, as if it were a normal day.

I was woozy with exhaustion when I finally got to the New Orleans airport.  I just had to get a ride to the hotel.  Then I could let go and sleep.  But the van was the cheapest way, and the van was a while in coming.  The van drove us by the Superdome.  That was the first I saw of New Orleans.

People had told me, It’s like Europe, and as I looked out the dotted side window, I thought, This isn’t like anything else.  The darkness of it, the narrowness that suggests age, and the patina that proves a city values history—it was strange to me.  There was nothing out those windows that said America.  Americans prefer to tear down a building just when it is getting interesting.  Americans need things opened wide.  There could be aliens or time travelers hidden in this city.  I looked for ghosts.  I saw empty lots.

I was a ghost by the time we got to my hotel.  It was the very last stop on the van’s ring-around-the rosy drop off pattern.  It was also, blessedly, in the French Quarter, in an ancient building, and not part of the dull convention center zone.  I had time for only a few hours’ sleep before my convention began the next morning.

I stumbled through the next day’s work fueled with Styrofoam cups of coffee.  Since this was a business trip, I wasn’t sure that I would partake of New Orleans’ pleasures at the end of the day.  I had a one-drink-with-the-boss limit that I’ve always strictly observed.

However, once we were installed in a piano bar, the drinks began to flow, and almost all of them were gifted to me by other members of our party, and I counted slowly: wine, wine, sazarac, sazarac…. The waiters circulated, jacketed in neat red uniforms.  The cellar walls of the bar ringed us with darkness. The man next to me slashed song titles on a napkin with ballpoint pen, checked them with me, sent them up to the performers.  And I was gleefully tipsy, while safely less drunk than my colleagues, who were singing into their straws and swordfighting with their cocktail swords.

Back at the hotel, I looked at myself in the garish glare of the mirror.  I thought of the good Christian crowd at the funeral.  Boy, if they could see me now.  I drank four cups of water, glugged them down like a trouper, and lay down to try to sleep.  It would be another night of not enough sleep, and another long day of conference sessions in frigid, plain rooms.

My last night in New Orleans, I danced in a blues bar on Bourbon Street.  It was almost empty—a slow night. They sometimes have time during the funeral when people can stand up and say something about the dead person.  I had said something about Grandma.  I told a story about her dancing, although the room was full of dancephobic conservatives.  The story might have been awkward for the crowd, but I thought it did Grandma justice.