"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me..."
There was this thing that happened on the night of August 16-17, 1987, if you're old enough you might remember it, called the Harmonic Convergence. It was a night in which eight of the planets of the solar system were all going to be in alignment, and it was heavily hyped in the New Age community as a cosmic event that signified an end to centuries of war and the beginning of a new era of world peace, and hyped in the mainstream media as, well, a lot of hype. To me and my friends in college, it just seemed like a good excuse to go out into nature and get blasted out of our minds. So we piled into a friend's pickup truck with some food, a lot of beer, a decent supply of "other things", and our favorite road tape which had the Velvet Underground's banana album on one side and Dream Syndicate's Days of Wine and Roses on the other, and we drove on out to Enchanted Rock.
The park was packed, no camping sites at all, not that we had brought tents, we actually had no intention of sleeping. We set about getting mind-altered in a manner befitting a Timothy Leary-like change of consciousness event, and then a few of us started hiking up the rock, no flashlights, just the moonlight.
About halfway up, I stopped to rest with somebody, and we sat down on a rock and looked up at the stars. Or rather, up at the sky. And after I minute, I realized what it was I had done. And I said to him, "I wish I hadn't taken that a little while ago", and he asked, "Why?"
I just remember sitting there being filled with sadness. I used to go camping a lot in my teen years, went back-packing once for a couple of weeks in New Mexico, but I hadn't done anything like that in a long time. And I told him, "I haven't been away from big city lights for almost ten years, and I'm finally out here in the wilderness and there are probably billions of stars and I bet you can see the Milky Way, and I know that it's beautiful, but because I went and artificially fucked my head up for the night, I can't see them because my vision is crawling all over the place. I can't see the real stars, all I see are shimmering hallucinations where the stars should be."
"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world..."
And I've been thinking about that night recently as a metaphor for the whole of my drinking life. Because what I've found lately, especially in the past year, is that what keeps me sane and what keeps me sober and what keeps the voices out of my head, keeps the inner conversations from spiraling into a pit, are those moments when I stop and notice, really notice, something beautiful in the world.
Jupiter has been visible in the night sky for the past few months, and almost every night I'll look up at it and go, "yep, there's Jupiter". But more and more lately, I'll look again, and I'll just stare at it, and I'll think, "damn...that's fucking Jupiter. That is so awesome."
Little things like that are everywhere. Watching an old black man catch a giant catfish in the Mississippi at sundown while a giant Norwegian tanker silently powers upriver in the background. Sitting in the Houston airport waiting for my flight connection, watching the sun go down and noticing that as day turns to night, the three-dimensional skyline turns flat and two-dimensional, and the airplanes flying inbound and outbound become just blinking lights moving in lines across a flat plane. Poking through the leaves of my garden with my kids and finding two huge squashes ready to eat, and seeing a couple of bees working in the other blossoms. Cooking dinner or watching a movie and having one of my kids just walk up and give me a huge neck hug, for no other reason other than that they feel good and they're glad to be with me.
I didn't used to get the God stuff that they talked about in "the Program". Prayer doesn't work for me. I don't feel like there is anyone listening, really, at least not in the way that, say, Christians do. But I do feel like there is a benevolent force in the universe that wants me to be happy, that wants me to do good for others, and that wants me to be sober to the best of my ability. And my version of prayer is to notice all of the beauty, whether awesome or simple, that is all around me, and fill my soul up with that goodness, so that when night rolls around and I'm alone with my fears and anger and resentments, there's no room for them to get in, there's no room for them to spiral, because the goodness and happiness that I've soaked up that day crowds them out.
That's how my good days go, anyway. And there are more and more days like that, more than there have been in my life since I was a little kid. Even with all the external stuff pulling me in the other direction, the bad days are fewer and fewer.
You can call it hokey, you can call it "American Beauty spirituality" if you want. But it works for me.
And what this has to do with drinking is that alcohol did to my happiness, my real happiness, what that other stuff that night in 1987 did to my ability to see the stars. It's like the drinking put this sheet of bubble wrap in front of my eyes so that I couldn't really experience good and beautiful things as they were, I could only view them through the blurry and skewed and hallucinatory viewpoint of an alcoholic mind. The irony is that some of why I drank had to do with real fears and anger and resentments, and yet the drink prevented me from experiencing the things that could help me work through them; it just tamped them down where I could ignore them. And so for twenty-five years of my life, I chose to treat the symptoms of my life by drinking, not knowing that the treatment, the alcohol, was preventing me from seeing the cure.
I like it better the way it is now.
"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world.
Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.
You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure.
But don't worry. You will some day."
Ray, alcoholic. Six years today.
And happy birthday, Professor, wherever you are.