What grace looks like — a happy new year tale
I could hear the quiet hum of the furnace. It’s easy, at 3:00 in the morning, when the house is quiet, and the world seems to sleep.
I could hear the buzz of the highway, that unfolds in its great concrete planes and curves, not too far from my window that holds in the warmth of the furnace that hums in constant susurration at 3:00 in the morning when the house is so quiet and the world seems to sleep.
The cat is unaware of the sleeping, softly humming world . Her only concern is my changed breathing and therefore, my coming awakeness. She cares nothing for traffic or heaters or nighttime quiet. She crawls on my chest, purring her quiet and constant purr that covers the more quiet hum of the furnace, and nudges my fingers with her nose. She’s looking for scratches and pets. She is the Empress of Night, Queen of Drowsy sun. She nips my scratching fingers when she’s had enough. She rules with an iron fist and sharp, still-kitten teeth.
I lay in my bed, surrounded by warmth and just-below-noticing noise that I hear only in passing and send out a silent prayer of thanks for all that I have in my life, for all the wholeness and brokenness and possibilities that make up the life that I have been given, the life I have chosen. A sigh – six of one, half dozen of the other. I used to stress on the finer points and philosophical distinctions played out in the giving and the having and the choosing. These days, I’m learning to find grace just in the living.
Another reason for thanks.
I find that, in the stillness and quiet of 3:00 am, it’s easier to just be, even if for just a moment. I’m grateful for those moments, and for that stillness. For those few minutes, before my head fills with the chatter of voices and relentless noise, I can breathe and be. There’s just that moment, a slow inhale and steady exhale. I feel my soul slip in, returned from its dance with angels along the arc of Saturn’s rings (or so I imagine), but returned nevertheless. I offer a prayer of thanks, again, for this gift of trust and faith.
Inhale. Exhale. And again – a handful or two of breaths that remind me that I’m alive, that there is a God (whatever That is), that I don’t have to have an answer, not in this moment (or even the next). I am here, in this place, and I am so very grateful for all the blessings I’ve been given, even when I felt those blessings were curses. I have a tendency to find gratitude, and God, only in hindsight.
Funny – but they all seem to stem from the same place, those cursed blessings – or perhaps blessed curses. It surprises me, this place – so well hidden from view (yours and mine both), but I move, with what seems like excruciating slowness – away from the fear that tethers me in place to a moment of quiet stillness, an eternal moment of inhale and exhale. It’s a very fragile place.
And from this vantage point, finally unbound, I look back, to count all those gifts of brokenness and grace that have been given me. Here, in the 3:00 am quiet, with the purr of a cat and the drone of distant traffic, with the gentle rhythm of my son’s breathing down the hall, I offer a prayer of thanks for the kindness of strangers. And more – for the kindness given me by the people I know.
A decade or two ago, newly sober, still mostly feral, I was in awe of what we called the “fellowship.” Drinking had always been such a salve, a slippery balm that maintained an invisible but solid wall between me and the humans. Every drink, every drug, every thing that I used to make me not feel merely bound me tighter, twisted into a tangled mess of fear and loathing – it all kept me safe. Kept me distant, untouchable. Invulnerable. And here were all these people, all these sober drunks with some time: sometimes only an hour or two, sometimes days or weeks or years (Really? Years? What the hell?), some who turned out to be visiting, feeling the need to don the mantle of Scout – those who went back out to test the waters (that were always 80% proof at least), and not all of them found their way back in – all these people, with names I sometimes remembered but mostly didn’t, with phone numbers readily given but that I never called, they all of them, mostly, showed up. For each other. For themselves.
Even when I snarled, or whined, or pushed back as far as I could go. I felt like Harry Beaton, the character in Brigadoon who couldn’t bear his grief, who wanted only for others to hurt as much as he did, who ran, as if all the hounds of hell were running through his head, skittering up an down his spine, trying desperately to leave , all the while doomed to stay in the same place. “I’m leaving Brigadoon,” he cried, “The miracle is over!” That was me, too: I wanted out, I wanted the miracle – of sobriety, of AA, of something I couldn’t even name – I wanted it over for everyone. And still, all those drunks, they showed up. For me.
“Be honest,” they said. Be open and willing and vulnerable, a little bit every day. I scoffed at their naivete. “Keep coming back,” they smiled, sipping coffee as the smoke from their cigarettes rose in delicate spirals, collecting in a haze just below the ceiling of the meeting room. I went back, again and again. One day, on a whim, or perhaps a dare to myself, I offered a truth or two, exposed the delicate skin of my secrets, just a fraction, and waited for the white hot pokers to come, seeking blood, sensing weakness. They never did, and I lived to tell the tale. I tried it again. And again. I shed my secrets like a shroud, felt their weight shift and dissolve, not all at once, but in time, over time, as I learned to trust.
“It’s ok not to know,” they said. “It’s ok to ask for help.”
I laughed, I was too smart to fall for that line! I knew it all and needed nothing from anyone. I was the Fixer of Broken Things. I knew, above all else, that I would never be loved, and so decided that to be needed was almost the same. Almost enough. So I found all the broken pieces, all the broken people – and I fixed them all. And in all my fixing, I could find a whispery echo of the humanity I was so sure was just outside my grasp. I knew, without doubt, that only one person remained outside the circle of healing: me.
But those people, those glorious drunks, they showed up and they offered and they loved – freely, without any expectation of return. There were no scoreboards or scales that weighed my worth. With infinite caution and care, I crept away from the curse of people – the burden of their need and want and broken desire and slowly, almost imperceptibly, found grace in fellowship, the blessing of people who fill my life, and my heart.
So here now, a few decades later, looking back at a lifetime of wholeness and brokenness and breathless awe, I find grace – and God – in the kindness of strangers and the people I have gathered along the way, here in the quiet of 3:00 am.
Who the fuck am I kidding? “Looking back at a lifetime…” Ha! It’s all well and good to talk of lessons learned – difficult, daring, skin-crawling lessons that you learn and then fold up neatly, put it away in a drawer in a locked room that lives down a long and cobwebbed hallway that is dusty with disuse. I like lessons like that, feel a smug humility that I can say, “Ah yes – that was hard, learning how to do that. Not that I’ll do it again or anything, but I got that badge, thanks.”
This past year has been a never-ending parade of learning that lesson, again and again, the one where I ask for help. I tried. I tried so hard to shoulder all the broken pieces, all on my own. God, I tried. And I couldn’t do it. Time and again, I struggled, like Atlas. I carried every load I was handed, felt buried by the weight of it all, until I stood – motionless, breathless, defeated – until the pain of not asking for help was finally greater than the fear of reaching out. And so, skin crawling, face pink with heat and body glistening with flop sweat, I asked for help.
And without fail – without fail – every time, there it was. Offered not as an “if – then” statement, but freely, unstintingly. There were rides and loans and stronger shoulders than mine that could bear the weight of my fear. People showed up, offered their love, sometimes in the form of coffee and a willing ear, once or twice as a job that came as I stood teetering on the brink of financial disaster that threatened to swallow me whole. There was the offer of advice a time or two, but more often, a steady presence and a gentle hand to hold. I needed everything that was given.
I used to say, in the early days of my sobriety, that the only thing worse than not having friends was having them; the only thing worse than depending upon the kindness of strangers was depending upon the kindness of people you know. Now, just about a quarter of a century later, I still hesitate. I still shudder a little. I still stumble, making my solitary way to some desperately high ledge. But with every piece of brokenness that I cling to, I hesitate a little less, don’t walk quite so close to the teetering edge. I am learning to shrug a little sooner, so that whatever it is that I think I must carry doesn’t crush me under its weight.
A quarter of a century later, after a lifetime of steadfast fear and absolute certainty that my burdens are mine, that I am the fixer who can never be fixed, I have discovered a new conversation topic with God. These days, there’s a a lot less “Why me, God?” and a helluva lot more gratitude for all the gifts I have been given. Why me? Sometimes, it’s the choices I’ve made or the actions I’ve not taken that place me smack dab in the middle of something hard and fierce. Sometimes, there’s no reason at all, a thing of fearsome and capricious chance that happens because it does. Even then – a conversation of thanks.
So, as we turn the corner of the year, in the quiet hum of darkening skies and the skitter of ice and sleet against my windows, in the end-of-the-year stillness of three in the afternoon, I offer this, my prayer of thanks, with humble gratitude for the presence of strangers and friends who teach me, every day, what grace looks like.
God of infinite compassion, who fills the world with quiet wonder and endless breath, thank You for the gift of not knowing, the grace of bending and the joy of asking.
Merry new year xoxo