Saturday, October 31, 2009

Heroes Under a Ghost Moon

I saw a dead woman yesterday.

She was slumped at a kitchen table, surrounded by elderly women sitting at their supper plates.
Behind her, bent over her, Glenda the house aide jerked the woman’s body up and down, administering the Heimlich maneuver over and over again, yelling at her, “Stay with me, Jo! Jo! Jo! Come back!”
Arriving on this scene with my aged, mentally handicapped mother in tow, I was stunned senseless. Glenda yelled at me for help, sweat beading on her face. Jo’s body flopped like a rag doll’s.
In this house my mother lives with five others who are just like her. Jo is her roommate. Three demented women watched quietly as Glenda, her arms around Jo from behind, jerked and jerked and sweated and yelled.
I grabbed the phone, tried to dial, couldn’t operate the phone. In a thick accent Glenda cried out that Jo had had a stroke, and she had already called 911. Minutes passed. I fumbled with Glenda, trying to help.
I was confused. Why was Glenda doing the Heimlich? I felt Jo’s face. It was ice cold. She wasn’t breathing. Why was Glenda yanking at her body? Then I realized Glenda had said Jo had choked.
I took the phone after Glenda paused and dialed 911 for me. “Where are you?” I asked. The woman said they were almost there. A minute or two later, the siren blared to a stop in front of the house. I went out to get them.
The EMTs hustled into the kitchen, pulled Jo’s body to the floor, went to work. I took my mother into her bedroom.
“That is scary,” said my mom. “What’s wrong?”
A loud commotion went on in the kitchen. I explained that Jo was very sick.
The EMTs suctioned Jo’s throat and brought her back to life. Glenda’s unrelenting Heimlich maneuver had kept her alive, just enough. I went back in the kitchen, where Jo was breathing, slightly conscious, on the gurney. Glenda and I threw our arms around each other. “You’re a hero, you’re a champion!” I told her sweaty forehead.
As I drove home later, I was awestruck by the miracle I had witnessed. One woman’s tenacity, another woman’s life. I’m glad I was there to see it.

Ghost Moon

Over the black silhouette of trees against a purple sky
Slung low like the silver buckle of a cowboy’s belt
The moon rose, pale and faint and round, oddly
Opaque, as if with a hand you could wipe it away.

My old mother, with her fading mind, has the same
Translucence. Sitting in the car beside me, nodding
Vaguely at what I say, she waxes paler steadily
As she rises from herself, a ghost impression

Of the woman who raised me up, fierce and strong.
She no longer is substantial, just a wisp of breath
In a wizened body, silhouetted against the sky
Beyond the window of my car, my ghostly mother.

Chris Alba © 2009
Photo courtesy Georgia State University

Friday, October 30, 2009

Flash 55 Friday

Yesterday I was ready to take some action in the garden after weeks of neglect. I yanked out the dying hollyhocks, then turned to address the dead sunflowers.

Everywhere I looked, there were tiny goldfinches picking at the seeds drying in the sunflower heads. Fluttering wings made the deadness seem alive. I didn't have the heart to pull out the stalks, not when the goldfinches found them so bountiful.

A lesson in this, I think.

Here's my Flash 55, a ficticious poem.

If you want to play with your 55 words, go see Mr. KnowItAll, whose link you'll find under the blogs I follow.

Not Everything Black Is Broken

The sky went down in flames
of violet and orange
framed by black palm trees
waving their frondy arms.

In the light a shovel seems like a tool,
A builder, a breaker of things
In the dark it is my dance companion
Maker of music, a slip of a dream

Chris Alba © 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gosh, It’s Chilly Around Here

We had our first frost last night, and it's cold here in my sunroom. I tried keyboarding with gloves on; it was a ridiculous failure.
There have been way too many warm fuzzies on my blog lately. I think I will pick on my marriage today.
My husband and I have weathered 18 years together. It has not been a bed of roses.
Joe is getting a swollen head because lately he has been especially wonderful, and I’ve told him repeatedly how wonderful he is. He walks around here puffed up like a pigeon.
Deliberately, I am going to remember that five years ago I thought we were headed for divorce court. We had a teenage daughter and different opinions about surviving the hell of it all.
The fact is, for these two recovering alcoholics, working our 12-Step program at home proved to be crucial. I was powerless over him, he was powerless over me, and we were both powerless over that teenage daughter. But praise be, God could and would if He were sought.
When times were hard, we both remembered the vow we made in the beginning: We won’t run, or stuff our feelings, or lie to each other. Life together was painful sometimes (for years, actually), and there were phone calls to sponsors and plain old prayers (God help me!). Somehow we lived through it.
Here’s a mean poem I wrote when I couldn’t stand it anymore, when I couldn’t just grit my teeth and keep on chugging away at married life like the Little Engine That Could. It reminds me today how grateful I am that we stuck it out, that the struggle made us stronger.

Doldrums of the Weaker Sex

Orange leaves whip around in flights of fancy.
People pull on sweatshirts against the sudden chill.
The rhythms of maroon and yellow on the lawn
are rimed by white frost in the mornings.

Why is attenuate, like autumn, a lonesome word?
It is, you say, just a weak-kneed verb.
The dog wants into my private room
and without asking, you let her in.

This romance has attenuated,
shrunk so thin it’s like a fence
turned sideways and you hardly see it.
Your questions are sharp and pointed
with slender answers. Because. Who cares?
I don’t hate the dog, but I want my room
inviolate, a word more powerful than you.

Chris Alba © 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal, Part Two

Here's the scene: I was placed in the intensive-care unit of the psychiatric hospital, put in a room with a bare plastic mattress on a single wooden bed, and the noise outside the room was intense: TV blaring in the group room, playing "Snow White" with the song "Whistle While You Work" resounding through the hallway, deeply disturbed people yelling at each other, an angry woman outside my cell fiercely demanding an ambulance because of her pain.

I climbed into the empty closet, which had no doors and no pole, just a white cubby really, and I cried like a baby. What the hell have I done to myself, to come here? I was depressed at home, but here I was scared. It was a lunatic asylum, and I didn't belong here.

I don't cry, as a rule. But there I crouched, weeping helplessly to the tune of "Whistle While You Work." It felt like a scene out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Then the idea came into my head like a gentle whisper: Do the Steps. So I wept and repeated out loud the First Step, claimed it for my own: God, I admit I am powerless over this situation and my life is unmanageable (sound of my own sobbing here). Second Step: I believe that a power greater than myself will restore me to sanity! God, I really need your help right now(sound of woman screaming in hallway here)! Third Step: I'm making a decision at this moment to turn my will and my life over to you, God, and I need you to intervene!

At that moment, someone came into my room with sheets and blankets and made my bed. I climbed out of the closet and wiped my face with my hands. I survived the moment. The sense of powerlessness was total, but there was now a grain of peace. I felt like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car, but now I could leap out of the way.

It took a night and another whole day in that crazy environment to get myself transferred out of that unit into a saner one, but I survived the many helpless moments by turning my life and my will over to the care of my God.

It's a lesson I will never forget. The Steps work in all situations. With them, we can survive the traumas life throws at us. And I remembered what my sponsor had said many times: It came to pass, it doesn't come to stay. Funny, the things we have heard in AA that help in times of need.

I got home yesterday to discover that the narcissus are blooming outside my front door. I picked some this morning, and the fragrance wafts across my desk as I write. You all prayed for me and I got better. Prayer makes a difference.

Today's picture is a watercolor by my friend John Barnard, which I bought last month with my winnings from the fair in August. It hangs over my fireplace, reminding me that we are given many gifts, and it's good to freely give away the strength and hope we receive. There were several recovering alcoholics in that psychiatric hospital, many of whom had been driven to drink again in their despair. I was thankful over and over again that I hadn't picked up a drink, that I looked for help first. God gave me people to work with, to share hope with, to encourage, and it sure felt wonderful.
For today's poem, I'm offering the segment by Alexander Pope that contains the line "Hope springs eternal," thanks to the Walking Man, who looked it up for me:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
rests and expatiates in a life to come.
-Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Joining the World Again

I've been on "retreat" in a hospital three hours from my home for the past week and a half. I got home an hour ago, feeling like a new person, or the old me, both of them good.
One of the questions asked of me last week was: What is your most cherished possession and why?
My answer was: My laptop. It contains my manuscripts and everything I need to stay connected with a bunch of good people.
We didn't have access to computers or cell phones. I missed my people, and I'm going to browse some blogs and check in with a few of you.
We did have a lot of meetings, but if I never again hear someone call out "Time for group!" I will not be sorry. The time was good and well-spent, but am I ever glad to be home.
Today's picture is by Matisse. A print of it has hung on my wall at home for decades. I love the vibrant magenta and gold, and the woman arranging some kind of order on her crazy table. Joe, my husband, has worked hard to keep our home in order while I was away. He even dusted the knickknack shelf for me. The kittens have grown six inches at least, and the dogs are acting like wild things in their efforts to shake their tails off their hind ends.
I wrote no poems while away, so there's nothing new to share. But I'm posting here what might be my favorite poem:

How an Egret Saved Me

I lay prostrate on the couch & worried & worried
The newspaper scattered like leaves around my bier
The syllables of war trip over the tongue like poetry
Afghaniraq darfuristan & the birds are fluttering
Into extinction In the latter days the seas arise
My aunt says God is coming soon but where is he
Where is his sign I’ve lost you to the television
& the latest tennis match among the titans
Worried & worried until I saw the water’s reflection
On the wall there A dancing curvature of light
& through the glass I saw the egret winging past
The long white neck folded & long dark legs folded
Trimly as a package born aloft on broad white wings
A love letter airmailed from a distant God
Chris Alba (c) 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

The title is some line stolen from someone else, but hope has been on my mind these past few weeks, especially last week, as I was locked on the psychiatric ward and medicated, with anti-anxiety agents meant to keep my head from imploding.

I’ve been home a week, and trying to function through the new medications (there are five) isn’t very easy. They warned me it could take a couple of months to all kick in.

My husband Joe is helping me do things like housework and getting me to meetings, but he’s impatient too; as he says, “I just want my wife back!” … the one who only a few months ago was zipping around town thinking, “I love my life!” I want that wife back too.

Major depression doesn’t mean you think a lot about yourself. It isn’t about feeling sorry for myself or sitting on the pity-pot. I was considering this today. I could and I have carefully written down the gratitude lists, and I thank God for the wonderful moments sent my way.

Major depression just feels like a heaviness inside, a darkness that has nothing to do with the external world. It requires a great deal of energy to perform the simple tasks of daily living: washing a cup, putting laundered clothes away, pruning a bush. I’m finding it hard to care about those things.

I don’t sit around and think of ways to end it all, like Sylvia Plath. I’m in recovery from alcoholism, so I have a whole kit of tools in my toolbag designed to help me function in life one day at a time. The addict in me says I really want a massive dose of morphine, and then I would feel fine.

Before I found sobriety, the disease loved my depressions. It told me all was hopeless, really, and I didn’t belong here. Hence, there were many suicidal, self-destructive actions.

Those days are gone now, because there is always hope. The AA program fulfilled my hopes, and blessed me beyond what I asked for. I made a sign, which is today’s photograph, for the Midstate Fair’s garden-sign competition. I worked with old wood and with sunflower seeds spelling out the word HOPE. It won a big blue ribbon, but that’s beside the point. Hope to me means keep trudging, keep thanking God, and believing this too shall pass.
Here’s a poem I wrote this morning. It’s not titled.

I woke at 9:15 for a 10 o’clock appointment
threw food at the dogs, hurled salmon at the cats
and dressed in yesterday’s clothes, yesterday’s hair
mascara smeared halfway to my nose
but I have my earrings on
and I can conquer the world.

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Flash 55 Friday

The Visitor

When you came to me in the mental ward
you told me, like an angel,
I was pregnant with possibilities.
Just then a great power flowed
like a spark of creation through
your fingertip pressed against my own.
In that instant I ceased to be wretched
and became a woman ripe with life.

There's my 55 words, even though it's only Thursday evening here.

Expectations Run Amok

Have you ever wanted to tell your significant other something important, and he/she listens with only half an ear? Ever had something momentous happen, and the SO just seems intent on getting dinner on the table and watching a game of sports?
Sometimes I want to yell: Just Listen To Me! Stop What You’re Doing and Hear Me! I Want to Be the Most Important Person in Your Life Right Now!
Yelling might get his attention, but I can’t do it since I’m not one for yelling. I like civilized discussions.
So I came in here, my little conservatory-office, and wrote a poem. It doesn’t paint him in a very flattering light, but his response when I read it to him was “That’s wonderful.”
He’s easy to love, even if he is sometimes hard to talk to.

The Wife, Suffering Deep Depression, Goes to the Therapist

I come home to you, my husband of 17 years,
and you pull the chicken out of the oven and say
How was it? while you get the spinach ready
and set out knives and forks and plates.
How was it, that visit with the therapist?
You say, I’m going to eat now; how ’bout you?

I stand in the kitchen like a big crow,
black and shiny and standing in that little kitchen
like I don’t belong there; how am I going to eat
this food on this plate, for instance?
At moments like these, you tell the truth or lie,
so I said It was strange. You were eating
and the Phillies came up with another run.

Strange how? you asked. I didn’t know how.
I sat beside you, not like a crow but like a woman,
and I carefully ate that plateful of chicken & rice.
I had told her I was sick of the cheerleading
that the darkness was too big and I was scared,
that we needed to talk about why I melted down

and had to go to the psychiatric ward and all
the crying and the sense of pain. There were long
lengths of silences that I didn’t bother to fill.
She offered me no answers. I’d have been surprised
if she had. It was strange that I couldn’t connect

with her, and now I can’t connect with you.
I take my five pills, or seven, and hope they fix
whatever is in me that is wrong and so unspeakable.
that the best I can say is I am a crow in the kitchen.

Chris Alba © 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Oh, No!

I slept like a log, thank God, and woke up late.
It's still drizzling, thank God. I'm off and running this morning to help a sponsee shop for a bridal shower, thank God for fellowship. When we hear that we don't have to do anything alone, we can depend on that.
A number of you have left comments on my posts that encourage me to have faith, keep trudging, count my blessings, and know that I am prayed for in my hour of need. You don't know how much I appreciate the words and prayers, the concern.
This photo is of a birdhouse I made from things found in a trash heap. I love its expression of dismay. I have felt like that from time to time, but sobriety has taught me how to change my attitude, if not my circumstances.
My sponsor drove me through a storm last night to win another prize in a small poetry competition. It was a mighty blustery, scary storm. But she drove precisely and with grace, and we talked about this gift of rain.
Instead of fear and anxiety, there was peace in that car. She's stayed sober for 26 years, and we share a lot of feelings, so we can laugh and relate on many different levels. A good sponsor is a gift as valuable as rain after a drought. I must run and get ready for the bridal shower shopping, but wanted to check in with some gratitude this morning for the blessings of living sober. Have a blessed day today unless you've made other plans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rain After a Drought

Here on the California Central Coast, we're in year three of a drought. There wasn't enough rain this year to grow the grass that feeds the range cattle. We're on water rationing. Things could get much worse. A lot of people around here are praying for rain.
This morning, it's balmy in my sunroom, and my fingers aren't chunks of ice because.....IT'S RAINING! The rain patters on my glass roof, sometimes heavy, sometimes soft. Gusts of wind make giant oak limbs sway, make the sycamores shudder. There's a whole bunch of motion in the trees, that rain dance that proves the invisible wind is a visible force. Once I heard that if you have trouble believing in God, consider him to be like the wind. You can't hold the wind, or see it, but you can feel it on your skin and see the evidence of its passage.
Late September and October are grape harvest times. Maybe the only people in this region who are troubled by the rain are grape growers, who might worry about the rain's effect on the vines or how to get in the harvest, given the weather.
This photo of a spot down the road from me was taken by a friend named Robert Stevenson. He's a good photographer who volunteers much of his time and work to the downtown nonprofit association. It's part of a national organization dedicated to saving old downtowns and reviving them, called the National Main Street Association. In 2004, I wrote an application for an award called The National Main Street City Award, which honors the preservation and economic revitalization of a dying downtown.
We won that national award. Our Main Street organization has done a tremendous job of preserving and revitalizing our once-pathetic downtown, dying because of shopping centers built on the perimeters. One elderly woman runs the association, assisted by one executive assistant, and hundreds, literally hundreds, of volunteers who do the work.
In 2004, when I wrote the application for the national award, I interviewed an architect who was instrumental in both the start-up of the project and its current status. His name was Rand Salke. He spoke of downtowns as if they were living ecosystems, beings that people could help to thrive. He was funny, smart, and a big help in my telling of the history of our downtown.
He killed himself this year. He suffered from a sudden depression, a big one, that blinded him to his talents, his value to others, his young daughters' need for him, his wife's love, and everything else that blessed his life. He refused to take medication.
A month earlier, my beloved cousin Julie died of complications from diabetes and a transplant. She fought to live almost all her life. What gave her strength to keep up the fight, as her body tried to die a hundred times, was her relationship with God. She talked with him daily, studied the Bible, encouraged struggling friends, and was best friends with her husband and her mother, my beloved aunt who is the sister of my demented mom. Julie did her best to live. She took dozens of medications for the transplant and the complications. She did whatever was necessary to live a full, contented life.
A couple of weeks after Rand hung himself, one of our young AA girls commited suicide. She had managed to stay sober for several months, but she had a mental illness, she heard voices, and she refused to take the medication to treat the illness. The voices told her that the solution was to die and go to heaven.
There's a point to my rambling about death and medication. Even the rain factors in. We all live on hope: hope that the paycheck will come, the car will work, the spouse will keep loving you, the sun will rise again tomorrow. We hope we'll make a difference in someone's life. We hope our poetry is good enough. We hope we'll stay sober one more day. We hope for what we cannot see: a good future, a contented life, a God who loves us individually and who uses all things for the good of those who love him.
When hope dies, the man dies. Maybe not literally, but the spark dies inside. Rain is a form of hope. I hope the earth will be replenished, the thirst of the earth will be satisfied. I'm having trouble with generating hope, feeling like my faith is fragile. But the doctors told me if I take the medications, I'll feel better. I take the meds, so there must be some hope. Thanks for listening. My husband says I have stop now and go to a meeting. Suit up and show up. Take the body, and the mind will follow. AA gives us hope.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What to Say When You Have Nothing to Say

I don't know anything about this painting or its painter. I found it on the Internet one day and saved it to my picture file.
I like the little red bird perched on the stem. Maybe it's looking at the pond water below. Maybe it's admiring the flowers.
I know when I look at this painting, I feel peace. Some of the leaves are old and full of holes. One is curling; I don't know why. It's a space that seems serene within itself, not making any statements, not startling anyone, not inspiring one to think.
I know I need that serenity in my life today. It isn't there inside today. In its place is low-grade anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed. And so I look at this painting. I don't have to do anything. Just wait. This too shall pass.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

When Your Brain Is Topsy Turvy

For everyone who has ever had a bout with sadness, uncontrollable emotions, or whatever gets you down and out, here is a poem I wrote in the hospital. It's about the loneliness you feel when you're in sorrow or turmoil, when neither God nor loved ones seem able to help. You hit your knees like you're supposed to, and you ask his help but no burning bush arrives. Maybe God is just waiting for you to be quiet, go to sleep, so he can bring you peace.


Where is God when the brainstorm strikes
the gray jelly slammed with a hammer on the anvil
and gray jelly pieces flying everywhere?
Where is God then? Is he smoking a cigar
in the Bahamas, tapping his toe to the gospel choir?

Where is God when the brainstorm batters down
the wood house I live in, hurling me into the maelstrom
of clouds, black as sin, flailing like flotsam
in a tornado, with no safe zone to run to?

Was God on my shoulders as I stood in the sun
on the hospital's smoking deck, puffing,
puffing, puffing at my last cigarette, waiting like a dog
to be let in at the back door of his home?

Was he there or camping at Big Sur in a blue tent
with his angelic hosts, those giants of faith
who walked through seas and tore down cities
with a trumpet? Did they smile at my trifling pain?

Did God come down in human form as my husband
tapping his foot like a man in a therapist's office
and tapping the sports page on his knee
telling me he loves me as he watches the clock?

Maybe he is at home with the kittens and dogs
stretched out on the couch, serene
among my watercolors, the dusty books,
dreaming of Afghanistan, and peace.

Where is God in this place, lonely as two bones
on a sand dune? Is he lurking in the hallways
like a night watchman until I go to sleep at last
and then he will slip in the door and heal me?

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming Home From the Psych Ward

The Santa Barbara air had a clean fragrance, and a nice breeze wafted through my hair, which hasn't been washed for four days. I smoked a Djarum, which has been outlawed here in California, and savored the familiar old inhale/exhale routine.

The nursing staff had lost my wallet, containing practically all my life. They sent me off with promises to find it and mail it up to me. I was content with that. It seemed a small thing to lose, when you have fought a monster in your mind and then emerged triumphant.

I went off too many meds and did it quickly, sometimes without consulting my doctor. I knew I was in trouble when I won the big-deal poetry prize, was happy for a moment, and then the black monster reappeared, took out my brain and shook it real hard.

I worked my AA program to the best of my ability. But I've had this mental illness since long before I was first hospitalized for depression at age 16.

I think it's time for the rah-rah cheerleader to take a break and explore the black sorrow for a little while with my therapist. The medications will take time to work, but patience is a virtue I learned in AA. At least there is hope, where before there had been despair, carefully controlled.

Thank you to everyone who wished me well and sent prayers my way. I believe in the power of prayer to change things, starting with changing yourself, for that moment or that day. The support I had from you kept me sane when I wanted to explode (the Ativan didn't hurt, either). I'm no longer on Ativan, no drugs that start the phenonemon of craving. Just loving you guys and looking forward to tomorrow ( writing this at night). Have blessed days, each one of you.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Ed, You Talk Too Much

"Women of 20 are as mature as a man of 40," Ed declares
in his red and gray running suit.
But I wonder," he continues, "when she says
"Ed, you're just not mature enough"--
"Alex was sure cute, wasn't she?" he asks.
I stare at him , feeling the pen
like a sword in my hand.
"I don't want to talk about that," I say
and take a long puff off the fake cigarette
I made: a shortened straw, a bit of tissue
(for drag) and a bright red highlighter tip.
Ed goes off to the other side of the patio
where he rides the stationary bike a while.
Schizophrenic, he had spent the better part
of the afternoon wailing in his room, two doors
down from mine. When he returns from the bike
he doesn't talk, just stares at me, puffing on my
straw cigarette, as I write about him.
I feel a little bit of guilt: Should I listen
to his placcid rant, now the drugs have kicked in,
or shall I just feel the air, the cool, sweet air
Santa Babara Air, early October, a hint of salt
Shall I rest my puffed-up eyes on cypress
trees through the window, a procession of palms
running through them, and just admire
the red flowers on some species I don't know
a soft bloodred against the rich green bushes:
Shall I drink my fake spiced chai tea
and sense the peace of this quiet place
ignoring Ed; ignoring all attempts at mindless
union, even the girl who wanders in to start
a load of laundry, tears puffing up her face
like mine, soul sisters of the broken mind.
Ignore them all and understand
sometimes the silence matters more
than contact with humanity, even mine.

Secrets of the Hospital Food Tray

A miniature bowl of orange sauce (?)
topped with plastic, what a mystery
among the ordinary pepper stamp
the packet of salt and the squeezable
toy of mayonnaise. It is the color of a rose
in my garden, the orange one called Lucille Ball
Like neighbors in a campground, squeezed together
politely, green chunks of grapes and honeydew
sit next to a brown bowl of white clam chowder.
For some reason the chef has added
a pitiful white plate, a strip of green leaf and red
circle of dried and pale tomato, its tiny seeds
dull. The whole gray tray is dominated by a bowl
and lid, a huge plastic cranberry on a field of white
Within is the unspeakable, the relics of a saint perhaps,
thousand year old bones and parchment flesh
holding the spectacle together for the viewing
of the public. Never mind what's in there. No one
cares. A cup of coffee survives, the same cranberry red
as the entree, and beside it black plastic utensils
and two packets of sugar. Of all the tray
I remove only the coffee and tear open one sugar.
On it is printed, from
"Your heart knows what your mind
only thinks it knows." I know everything
I need to know about this supper,
and my heart tells me it will not be my last.

Let's Keep Dancing

Goethe said, "Live each day as if your life had just begun."
Some old song started out this way: "Is that all there is, my friend?
Then let's keep dancing
Bring out the booze and have a ball
If that's all
there is."

I took that song to heart from age 14 to age 36, more than 20 years of dancing with the booze and the drugs and the low-down places they took me.

It was a ball. Then it was a need. Then it was a sickness, and finally, a train wreck.
I'm lucky I survived my last suicide attempt in 1990, the one with the Valium and the Bombay gin.

My sobriety started that year with a sense of wonder, some fear, and a lot of hope. Alcoholics Anonymous seemed like a miraculous introduction into a whole new life.

The group I started going to (was it just a coincidence?) gathered me up and set me on a journey: step studies, book studies, tradition studies, participation meetings, speaker meetings, service commitments, not to mention the barbecues, the dances, and parties by the pool.

For years I was a greeter, cup washer, secretary, refreshments bringer, sponsor, speaker-getter, and convention goer. I married a sober alcoholic, and life was a ball.

Then I moved to a small town and everything stopped.
My sponsor died with me at her bedside, right before we moved, and I didn't get a new one.
I got a job in the new place and went to one meeting a week. I didn't have time for newcomers or commitments. I knew the program, so I didn't read the book anymore, and I said my prayers at church on Sundays.

I didn't practice any of the steps.
It's no surprise I started dancing with alcohol and drugs after 15 years of sobriety.
It is a surprise that I didn't die of a drug and alcohol overdose.

God seems to have a plan for me.
After my relapse in 05-06, I've kept coming back to AA in spite of two more relapses on prescription drugs. Thanks to AA and my higher power, plus 100 percent commitment on my part, I have almost 19 months of sobriety now.

Here's what I do to stay sober one day at a time:
I work the 12 steps, go to a lot of meetings, and I pray.
I ask God to help me live each day as if my life has just begun.
Because it has. Each morning my life is a new day on the journey of discovery: who I am and what I want to be, who you are, how we can relate to each other, and what the world holds for us today.
Hail, blessed Friday!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Your Name Is Good

Ten times say your name fast in a row
and you will get a foreign country
where subversives blow up baby buggies
because they cannot run the government

You will find the Latin species name
for an iridescent butterfly living high up
in the Amazon, which mates and then it dies

If you call yourself by your full name
the one beknighted on you by your loving parents
and you say it swiftly ten times in a row

You may discover yourself to be an exquisite gadget
on a spaceship headed for the moon, an element
of astronomical importance, in competent hands

You will hear the name of an obscure rondele
written by a protege of Mozart, a silly dance
for an odd assortment of laughing people.

What you will not hear is who you are, in the flesh
and in the mind. You are not a beast that Adam
named. You are a human mystery, and you are fine

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bowing to the Psychiatrist

Look at that smile! This is my beautiful daughter, heading for a party on her 23rd birthday.
She's on the top-10 list of reasons why my life is so blessed. She has a good job, and a fine man, hopes in her heart, and gifts she has only begun to explore. She has her hurts, but she has her faith, too.
Milo is her name, and she was raised in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
She knows all the slogans by heart, and her intuition is strong.
She came by the house last night to share a song that made her think of me. I was sitting with my husband and an old-timer AA woman who were both helping me make arrangements to go for psychiatric help.
God sometimes sends us out to be the Big Book in some needy person's life. Last night, Milo was my Big Book, reminding me to be honest, trust God, and wait patiently for His help. She cried a little, hugged me a lot, and practiced the principles of courage, faith, and tenderness with those who are hurting.
I have tried all the years of her life to be the mother whose love is abiding, forgiving, encouraging, and strong. I have tried all these years to be the mother I didn't have. She says I have succeeded. And while she is afraid of my mental illness, she believes in my sobriety, and she knows recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous will pull us through, no matter what we face.
No matter what we face, we don't have to give up, give in to the compulsion, and be the failures we used to be. The 12 Steps change us. They give us an all-powerful God who can carry us easily in His arms when we're too weak to take another step.
Sometimes that God makes us an instrument of peace in another person's life, if we're willing to be used. He makes music in us, no matter how decrepit we might be, that sings hope into another's heart.
I have to go pack a bag and drive to Santa Barbara for help with my medical condition. But if she should read this post today, I want to leave her with a message: The future awaits us, one day at a time. It is good. We are loved. We can make a difference in someone else's life, if we just reach out a hand in a time of need.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Busy Hands

This morning I have made up my mind to buy gloves, the kind without fingertips on them.

My fingers are like slivers of ice, and typing on my keyboard is akin to typing with a pencil, deliberate and slow. It's 45 degrees in here.

My office is a glass-enclosed room, which faces east into a park of old oak trees. To keep the cost down, we got a building permit that didn't allow us to run the duct work of heating and air conditioning into the room. I could keep the sliding glass door open and let in the house's warmth or coolness, but I smoke as I write, and the house is a smoke-free zone.

So in the chill of the morning my fingers freeze, and today I think of the solution rather than sit in the problem. Hail, gloves!

Yesterday I also got into the solution instead of dwelling on the problem, the problem being me and the solution being a newcomer. The death of summer's garden has depressed me, so yesterday I asked K to come home with me and help me prune the dying plants. When I asked her, she hugged me and cried.

We found two praying mantids as we worked. It's the end of their season too; the females have grown large with eggs waiting to be laid. There was a praying mantis in the dying rudbeckia, eating a butterfly, and I left her alone and worked around her with my newcomer.

As K and I worked, we talked about drugs and death and God and husbands: most of the things that matter in our small worlds. She's beautiful to look at and beautiful within, and she struggles to stay clean and sober but she keeps coming back. So we talked, and I loved her up, and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous worked in our lives.

In an AA meeting Sunday, someone said: "As alcoholics, we treat our loneliness with isolation."

It might be good to ask why we do that. It might be helpful to know the reason. But for me it's better if I just hear that truth, then take the action that will set me free from the bondage of myself.

K and I smiled a lot as we chopped down the dying plants. Had she not come home with me, I would have curled up in a ball on my bed, alone in my head. Instead, my soul was fed as the work was done.

There is an old saying that busy hands are happy hands.

My hands are warming up as the sun warms my room, and in my chest a warmth glows like the embers of a fire.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dancing With a Ball and Chain

I have the mental illness of depression. It is like a ball and chain around my ankle. When I take the right medication, I can dance with that ball and chain.

I stopped taking the medication. Alcoholics Anonymous has helped free my mind of the ball and chain. Until the last month, I danced.

Then one day I woke up, and the iron ball was chained to my ankle again. I tried to waltz, and I fell down. My head hit the floor. It buzzed like a hive of angry bees.

They called my name from the platform and said I’d won the prize for dancing. I gathered up that ball and chain and limped up to the podium. I took that prize with all the dignity a woman can muster when she has fallen.

Today I see my doctor. We will discuss new medication. I want to dance again. I woke up early the morning after my big prize, and this is how I felt:

To the Unknown Man at a Writers Conference

I took the cat poop in a plastic sack
outside to the garbage can at dawn

The morning star winked at me
in a sky the color of a purple iris

For the first time since spring I pushed
my arms into the coat I wear in winter

Buttoned it up around my neck
and shivered, heavy with sorrow

Would it matter to you if you knew
I rise before sun-up on Sunday morning

Trembling from the nightmare
that ruined my sleep and remembered you

The young father with his clipped beard
already going gray, his eyes kind

Would it matter to you if you knew
my unshaved legs bristle with hair

And I thought of them with despair
as I pulled my husband close for warmth

Before giving up and getting up
to clean the cat box and feed the kittens

Would it matter to you if you knew
I am a friend of mental institutions

Where white sheets warm me like a coat
when the deep chill settles in my bones

And my unfriendly mind says dying
is the only way to live with myself

Would it matter to you if you knew
how much I grin and bear it, chanting

keep moving, keep moving, keep moving
like a mockingbird cries in the night

and the gravelly sound of cat litter
grounds me here in the necessary world

Would it matter to you if you knew
I drink deep gulps of coffee from a large cup

Wearing my winter coat in a windowed room
looking at October and its brown leaves

As the sun breasts the hill and blinds me
with its white welcome to another day

I think of you telling of your two daughters
the white name tag on your black sweater

your salt and pepper cheeks, a lithograph
of love, as you read what you have written

You look at me as if I hold your fevered
daughters in my arms and I can heal them

With a word, as if your faith in me
were endless. And miracle of miracles,

I spoke the word you needed and your heart
was in your eyes. This morning I remember.

Chris Alba © 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Today Is a Gift

Today I rose before the sun, troubled by a nightmare. For the first time I had to put on my winter jacket, which made me sad. I can’t shake this feeling of grief. So much is worth thanksgiving, and I say the prayers, express the gratitude, work the program of sobriety, put out the effort to live with grace my blessed small life.
The writers conference yesterday was a region-wide celebration of language and both the work and art of writing. I took part with a whole heart. Yet fear lay like a rock in my gut, because I had entered my poem “Fire on the Mountain” (see Saturday’s post) in the pre-conference competition. Full of doubt and low self-confidence, I prayed my ass off to accept whatever came of it.
Fear brings adrenaline, both body chemistry and brain chemistry designed for fight or flight. For me, flight is the preferred response. Go hide. Be the deer, fleeing the hunter.
The competition session made me sick with fear. As the genres were announced, my body was the trembling deer. My prayers seemed fragile: Please make me okay with failure. Please grant me a small mention somewhere, an also-ran, a potential contender. And please give me grace to accept the loss, strength to face whatever came down the pike.
Three hundred people filled the auditorium. My entire region of the state was represented, people from as far away as Wisconsin and Washington state. I’m an alcoholic-addict in recovery who writes out of inner need to paint word pictures. I am a small human being, nobody really, and my faith is weak.
The genres were announced, the third-, second-, first-place winners of novel-writing, short-story writing, juvenile writing. It was poetry’s turn. I heard the names called, and they were not mine. Finally, the winning poem’s first line was read.
It was my first line. It was my poem. It was me they called to the podium to read “Fire on the Mountain.”

God had mercy on a flawed and struggling soul. I would have fallen on my knees with thanksgiving and awe if I had the guts. After reading the poem at the podium, I went to the ladies restroom, where I stood among the sound of flushing toilets and wept.

In fear we pray for acceptance and strength, often without a feeling of trust, only terror. But yesterday I learned God hears those cries of our fragile attempts at faith. He knows we’re flawed. I don’t understand His workings. He doesn’t always grant the prize. But I know that faith is not a feeling, and grace is our Creator’s greatest gift.
Finally, Monkey Man, here is my Sunday 160, originally titled "Menopause" but that took it over the space limit:
When her bleeding stopped
the fat roared in
not like a pear
but like an apple
with legs.
It was so grisly
she forgot to mourn
she was too busy eating
eggs to be sorry.

Chris Alba © 2009

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fire on the Mountain

I’m headed for a writers’ conference this morning and taking some of my work to study. Full of self-doubt, full of hope, full of happiness for the pleasure of learning, I feel great rising early to examine the power of the written word today.

One night this past summer, as fire burned in the mountains above Santa Barbara, my husband and I drove past the site, and I was awestruck by the power of the flames. It occurred to me that my reaction should have been horror, if I were thinking of others defeated, smoke-tired, trapped in a deadly natural disaster.
I came home and wrote about that uncomfortable juxtaposition.

Fire on the Mountain

that flaming orange flower
blooming high up there
under the blue-black sky

From your place of safety
down here on the flat
that flickering blossom
thrills you
like an exotic woman
running her tongue
around your lips

It is so stunning
you could stand and watch
all night, a moth
for whom the flame
is the sacred
needed thing

You almost forget
the screaming horses
the dogs who cannot run
fast enough
the cat crouching
in a corner of the house
hissing at the inferno

Chris Alba © 2009
Photo by CBC News

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gratitude Is Work Well Worth the Effort

October here on the central coast of California brings brisk mornings and hot afternoons.

I'm obsessed by my sleeplessness and a little bit of woe, and it makes me overlook the things in life that are good and sweet.

So today I'm working on thankfulness:

My house is a mess, my garden is a mess, but I have a great cup of coffee in front of me and will work a ninth step with a beautiful sponsee.
My kittens make me laugh.
My Creator loves me and all the rest of God's kids.
My spouse is loving and funny.
I have dear friends.
The blogosphere has put me in touch with an interesting, supportive community.
Poetry brings me joy.
The list could go on and on.
I have a lovely grandson is enchanted with bubbles. I've posted a picture of him.
My dear friend Betsy, who suffers from Parkinson's, has laughter in her heart. Here's a poem about her.
Have a blessed day, all you good people.

Rainbow Sky

Quivering Betsy, with her quavering voice,
rides her wheelchair as if it were a dead horse
It’s hard to tell if she’s laughing or crying
because they sound alike, that hoo, hoo, hoo
While her lumpy body slumps in the chair
like a lump of clay waiting on the wheel
tremulous hands flutter around her face, like birds

Yet she can sing to her Jehovah
in the clear bell tones of an angel
and I heard her sing
The joy of the Lord is my strength
plus part of the Hallelujah Chorus
as I left her alone in her chair in her home
Rainbows spread across the sky
like the scattered petals of a rose
and I swear I saw her dancing

Chris Alba (c) 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Harley Hero

The black rocket roared past her on the freeway.
She felt old and dowdy in her sensible economy car.
Then the helmeted knight, as he raced away,
looked back at her, and suddenly she was Guinevere.
But he had dragons to fight and he sped on his steed
up the cloverleaf toward them. She watched him
accelerate over the bridge, her sudden swain,
and her heart pounded in his wake.
Chris Alba (c) 2009
Photo courtesy Harley Davidson