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To Build a Fire

bonfireOne of the best short stories I read during grammar school was Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”.  The story recounts the struggle of a Yukon prospector hiking through the wilderness in sub-zero cold.  The unnamed prospector falls through a thin layer of ice covering a spring fed pool of water.  Though he was wet only up to his knees if he failed to dry his boots and socks, hypothermia  would quickly overcome him.  Frost bitten feet in sub-zero temperatures would cripple the prospector making it impossible for him to continue his journey to the warmth and safety of a lodge just a few miles away.  If the prospector was unable to continue he would freeze to death.  His only chance was to build a fire so he could dry his socks and boots before he could resume his journey.  To build a fire was the difference between life and death.

I was reminded of this story this past weekend while participating in a Matt Talbot Retreat.  Matt Talbot is a non-denominational spiritual wellness movement for people in recovery.  It advocates the practice of The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a suggested program of recovery.  Matt Talbot is a blessing for many people experiencing the grace of recovery.  AA teaches us that alcoholism is a disease and that alcoholics and addicts suffer a sickness that afflicts our mind, body and spirit.  The Matt Talbot Movement places an emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of our disease.  We attend seminars and meetings.  We enjoy fellowship with our brothers in recovery. We make new friends with others suffering from a common malady and we reconnect with other Matt Talbot brothers we have not seen since our last retreat.  The biannual retreat is a special weekend that allows us to nourish and recharge the spiritual batteries that become so dangerously low by the emotional and mental demands of modern life.  For many of us, Matt Talbot is a critical cornerstone of our recovery program.  It is a critical tool that helps us to free ourselves from the spiritual bondage of addiction.  It encourages us to draw closer to our Higher Power; thereby moving us further away from the emotional and mental shackles that threaten to enslave us.

On Saturday evening after the days sessions and nonstop witnessing and ministering to one another about our personal journey of recovery, many of the brothers assemble on the banks of the Hudson River for a traditional Saturday night bonfire.   On this moonless night the huge bonfire provided a striking contrast to the black woods that enveloped us.  Like our hopes for continued recovery, the dancing flames soared into the night air expressing a sincere yearning to touch the massive hardwood boughs that towered above us.  We closed in on the fire remaining transfixed by the unbounded flames and the fleeting shadows of ghostly apparitions that seemed to hover then flee the burning light. We were a band of wounded brothers drawn to a lamp of hope that we desperately needed  to navigate the uncertain dangers posed by the swift dark waters of addiction.

At the bonfire we are encouraged to choose a log to place in the the fire.  But before we can burn that log we must stand before our brothers and make a statement about a resentment, misgiving or fear that threatens our recovery.  As we say in AA,  holding onto a resentment will lead you back to a drink.   Naming our fears and resentments is our first step toward conquering them.   The brothers spoke of the ugly compulsions that drive our addictions; revealing painful truths about low self esteem, victimization, unbridled anger, tragic circumstance, sexual and emotional abuse, violence, poverty and ignorance and other issues that  led to unfathomable depths of guilt and shame.  As alcoholics and addicts we let these things have power over us and in so doing we feed our alcoholic and addictive behaviors.  Standing within a circle of trusted brothers, divulging secrets that have long held our soul captive and conferring bitter resentments and raging fears onto a log truly liberates the soul.  It is a critical step in the recovery process and spiritual wellness.   The giant bonfire is a life affirming tool that allows us to cast out these powerful demons, condemn them to death by fire and happily witness their power over us dissipate as they burn away into a pile of harmless ashes.

In Jack London’s story after the prospector fell through the ice he quickly moved to build a fire.  He moved under the protection of a tree, found some dry leaves and small wood chips and started a fire.  He was relieved that the fire caught and grew but a wind kicked up and blew snow off a pine tree and crushed his fire under a pile of snow.  It was a unfortunate event that would cost the prospector his life.  As the prospector began to accept his sad fate he remembered the advise of an old timer who warned him about traveling through the Yukon.  “Never travel alone”  said the old timer.  As the prospector lay freezing to death, he realized the hard truth of the old timers wisdom.

When it was my turn to cast a log into the raging bonfire I recounted a telephone call I received that morning.  A person from my home group with 40 years of blessed sobriety called to tell me about the death of a fellow alcoholic.  This fellow was in and out of the AA program for many years.  He was found dead in the bathroom of a boarding house in which he lived.  He was about 40, has a daughter in college, recently lost his mother and his job.  He went out a couple of months ago and was just coming back into the program.  He landed at the hospital, they told him his liver had high levels of enzymes and that he needed to stop drinking.  The past few weeks I was taking him around to meetings.   He was a Christian, loved to play guitar and was a gentle man who cared about his daughter and deeply loved her.

The 23rd Psalm says that God’s rod and staff comforts us.  I grabbed a stick that was worthy of Moses  to throw on the fire.  This disease needlessly claims too many souls but there is an easier softer way.  I wanted to convey to the brothers and to remind myself that God is always a near and present help during time of adversity.   We never have to go it alone.  That the fire of faith is freely available to all.  It is up to us however to draw near to the flame and to tender a burning desire of recovery for it to take hold in our lives.  Recovery is truly a matter of life and death.  I offered my thanks that God has never abandoned me to the ravages of my disease.  I remain grateful to be counted among the present here this evening still able to draw near to a fire to keep the hope of my recovery burning bright.  I blessed the soul of the fallen friend that the disease had claimed.  I also prayed that the brothers present by the fire this evening will be counted among the living at the next bonfire.  I placed my stick on the fire.  It burned a long time.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
For behold, darkness covers the land;
deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.
But over you the Lord will rise,
and his glory will appear upon you.
Nations will stream to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawning

Isaiah 60:1-3

You Tube Music Video: Jose Feliciano, Light My Fire

Risk: alcoholism, recovery, spirituality, death

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October 20, 2009 Posted by | Bible, faith, heal, life, love, psychology, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Suicide of a Friend

mounts_bay_sunrise_2This is one of those mornings in our lives when we welcome a rising sun with grim dread. This is one of those mornings where we become loosed from our moorings of certainty. This is one of those mornings where words fail and the throne of faith is overthrown by shame and guilt. This is a morning to put on a nice suit and proper tie to attend a funeral of a friend who died by suicide. So final. So silent doth the dead speak to us. Crying out their pain with a clarity we never heard or understood as they walked among us here on earth. My friend continues to speak to us from the beyond.

This man was more then a friend. He was a father, husband, brother and a son. He held many occupations, enjoyed diversions, displayed passions and imperfections like all human beings. He was also a child of God. Though tormented and sick he was never forsaken. He deeply loved many and was unconditionally loved by many. In the end an addled brain led to a desperate alienation. Self medicating himself to find sanctuary in the hollow solace of prescription drugs and booze. It would in the end consume him. Enabling him to close the door on a life that family and friends diligently tried to keep ajar. All we wanted in return was his continued presence among us. My friend choose to slam the door shut.

Anger rises. We put so much into him. How could he slap us in the face like this? As we gathered about his coffin, in hushed whispers we sought out information, confirmation and consolation to alleviate a sense of guilt and quiet the shame that enveloped us. The deceased’s mother, shaking with Parkinson’s disease, stares down at a bare coffin holding the remains of her son. How much did she invest in this boy? She suckled him at her breast. She mothered him under her roof for two decades. She continued to mother him with a pervasive love that continued till the end. Did the child squander this love? Has this mother loved wastefully? I see no anger in her. Only a continued extension of her abundant love. “Sleep well my child. I’ll soon join you.” I could hear her coo silently to herself as she softly touched the burnished wood of her child’s casket. Any anger was mine, certainly not hers.

My friend’s sisters were his loving attendants to the end. They were heroic in a desperate attempt to save their beloved brother. They gave him refuge under their roof. They nursed him within the sanctuary of family. One may think that their deeds of heroism now matter little or count for less. But such shamelessly squandered love is what our hurting world needs more of today. I marvel and cherish their example, as I witness one sister arrange an errant ribbon on the cluster of roses sitting atop the casket. A loving touch, a caring hand, an attending heart remembered to bring their brothers beloved Boston Red Sox cap also placed on the casket.

My friend’s daughters and former wife arrived to the service late. One daughter entered the crowded room nestling flowers. She moved quickly toward her father’s casket. Her expression was like that of a child racing toward a Christmas tree on the blessed morning. Did Santa come? Is it really here? Has this thing arrived? Her breakdown into tears confirmed her worst suspicion. A terrible expectation realized. Her father was really dead. Now laying in state in a room full of awkward people. The other daughter fraught with grief remains in the protective arms of her loving aunt. She sobs into the woman’s bosom. Tears saturate her blouse. Women absorb the pain and transform it into strength and a curious wisdom that remembers how to endure future pains to come.

How do you approach the daughters of the deceased? What can you say that has any meaning to them during the nadir of their young lives? How do you expect them to understand the sincerity of your pain when theirs is fathomless? You fear for them. Has the actions of their father bound them to a lifetime quest to seek answers to questions that cannot be answered, motives that cannot be understood, truths that will remain forever hidden?

The grace of my friend’s former wife was sorely tested. She is devastated to discover her ex husbands casket on display at the front of a crowded room. She sobbed, embracing and kissing many as she made her way toward the casket. Her painful separation from my friend after 27 years of marriage was difficult for her but was a consequence of her husbands spiral of decline. She loved him greatly and it was greatly returned to her by my friend. College sweethearts, they joined together in a youthful promise to love and endure all things as one. I pray she isn’t consumed by the demons of nostalgia and fall into a black hole of guilt. I don’t think that will be. She is a spiritually centered, emotionally healthy woman. She does yoga. Her next life chapters are waiting to be written.

On the day they were married I wore a new gray suit and tie to the affair. During the cocktail party a man played musical glasses. It was a bit quixotic and it stamped their union as something that was uniquely blessed. I liked it very much. I also liked the open bar. I got sloshed. As I would continue to do until I got sober 27 years later.

My friend knew of my sobriety and participation within AA. I asked him to join me at a meeting one week before he died. He left a message on my cell phone. He said he was going off to rehab to start the process of recovery. He said he would call me when he got out. He left the rehab after one day because of insufficient insurance coverage, checked into a hotel room and killed himself.

When I entered the room for the funeral service my friends crying sister met me with an embrace. Her tears stained a new tie I chose for this service. She thanked me for trying to help her brother. She said that her brother called her on the terrible day asking for a slip of paper that had telephone numbers of important people. I was number two on that list. I shudder and ask myself, for the want of a phone call?

As I left the service I stopped by to wonder at a small aviary of tiny exotic birds that was in the lobby. The multicolored birds were nesting and gleefully chattering at the roil of life. They flitted among hanging flowers of verdant vines of ivy. They were beautiful. Seeing such beauty is one of life’s simple affirmations.  My friend is now winging home.

Vaya Con Dios Amigo

You Tube Video: JS Bach Badinerie Wine Glass Music

You Tube Video: Vaughn Williams, Lark Ascending

August 15, 2009 Posted by | children, culture, faith, family, life, love, psychology, religion, seasons | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment