first published in “Through the Red Door,” the blog for Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church.
Headed out the door, late as usual, I paused with my hand on the key. The neighbor’s cat was immobile on the front porch, deathly still, ready to strike. My eyes sought out his prey. After a moment, I saw it: a lizard or green anole, just three inches long. It was a dusty, unremarkable brown, still as a stone, about three feet off the ground. It was out of reach of the cat, but was it aware that it was safe? Looking closer, I saw its throat was pulsing rapidly, and it looked like fear to me.
When I am fearful, anxious, out of control, I forget to breathe and lose my focus, paralyzed by the threat I am so certain is about to pounce. Then I am best served by stillness, because that’s how I sometimes discover how to act, think and become what my Higher Power has in mind for me.
How ironic, that the apparent source of its salvation at that moment caused even more distress.
My first impulse was to rescue the lizard from the fanged, clawed predator, but some instinct or maybe just curiosity stilled my movement. I stopped and witnessed the stand-off, a miniature high noon, completely inconsequential except to the three-inch anole. For the lizard, it was literally a life-or-death situation, and I wonder now: did those few seconds feel like an eternity to the cold-blooded creature?
Then, because of impatience or a short attention span or a desire to look like a responsible adult who owns a clock, I twisted the door knob. The cat, quite accustomed to my comings and goings, barely flickered an ear. The chameleon’s throat seemed to pulse even faster. How ironic, that the apparent source of its salvation at that moment caused even more distress.
I told the cat, quite nicely, to leave the poor beastie alone for the time being, and Rocket complied with feline aplomb. That is, he ignored me for a leisurely beat or two before strolling a few feet away and burying his nose between his long, upthrust legs.
I stood on the threshold and watched the lizard. The fresh air reminded me to breathe, and the deep stillness of the creature gave me a little jolt of joy. As I watched, and breathed, and remembered to be grateful, an electric, vibrant green crept from one end to the other of the chameleon, a transformation so soothing, so astonishing, so poignant I gasped – and just like that, the lizard disappeared.
When I came home hours later, no sign of the lizard. But Rocket, my neighbor’s cat, was sprawled across my front step, and deigned to allow me the pleasure of sinking my fingers in his silky, warm belly fur. He purred, and it was as if we had never held the balance of a tiny life in our control. Perhaps we never did.
Well-written poetry drops into the mind like a smooth pebble. Each word can be savored, explored for multiple meanings, tasted and turned over. But there’s very little candy coating waiting to be dissolved. Very quickly, readers are compelled to return to the rock-hard certainty of that single word placed with great deliberation on a mostly vacant page. It’s feelings, bared to the bone, unmistakable, especially for those with shared experiences.
Actor, songwriter, poet Michael O’Keefe learned early on what power there is in sharing emotions. Nominated for an Emmy for his role as teenaged Ben Meechum in The Great Santini, he played the role of a child of an alcoholic with unusual intensity. Perhaps that was because he lived it before he acted it. In a collection of poetry titled Swimming From Under My Father, he takes us with spellbinding simplicity through the process of growing up that is often part of a recovery journey.
The first section is titled “Entering.” Like the first tentative sticking-in-of-toes, O’Keefe comments on the pain that brings all of us to desire recovery, hinting at the seductive and addictive qualities of those remedies we concoct to relieve our own pain. In “Onstage With The Leading Lady” O’Keefe observes “the theater is a drug that relieves the reality we suffer”. The price of that solace is the expectations of the audience and the risk of not meeting those needs as they are “waiting in the dark for a ritual to identify themselves”.
Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability.
The section ends with a dawning sense of poignance in “His Thumb Hooked Me”. An old Romanian rabbi hitches a ride and O’Keefe finds small gifts in the absurdity of a chance encounter. “What do you do?” the old man asks. “I’m trying to forget,” is O’Keefe’s reply. Then a few more blocks down the road the poet seems to reach for something deeper: “my prayer is to forget,” he says, to forget “myself.” As if in answer to his prayer, by poem’s end, he seems to have forgotten the significance of the old rabbi altogether.
In the second section, entitled “Swimming,” we are submerged into deeper water: O’Keefe’s childhood, when “Things you had to do to survive back then:/Lie, hide, never cry,/and be STILL.”
The tension finds some relief in O’Keefe’s wry humor referring to his Roman-Catholic upbringing, the rapid family growth, and the unspoken effects of alcoholism: “Pop had a quaint two-quart a day drinking habit that/reeked from the basement on Alden Rd./to the community of Saints/Mom put her faith in daily.”
Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability. As a grown man, now, he’s worked his way free of those losses, to some extent. But then the cruelest irony: the tormenter, the strong one, becomes weak, needy, confused. “My father’s tide is going out./Seeing his cognitive abilities/ in a puddle on the rocking chair porch/ I am kicked in the head by time.”
O’Keefe documents his own way out, a rescue in a sense, in the title poem, “Swimming From Under My Father.” It’s ambiguous, the road to the water hazy, the transition from car to water’s edge an awkward one, but there is redemption there, and grace.
Applying that grace to his relationships and the center of his life is the topic of the third section of poetry, titled “Emerging.” Mostly short, gently self-mocking and fully self-aware, the poet’s emergence into the grown-up world involves, among other things, “Confession,” “What We Have In Common,” “Love,” “Forgiveness,” “Lunch With My Brother” and “Five Ways of Looking At It.”
Finally, he acknowledges that we each struggle to do the best we can: “We abide here/ and nowhere touching nothing./ Especially not one and other./ This arm’s length between us/ is the only way we know.”
This book has only a few thousand words, but you’ll feel every one of them.
Every year, my parish family compiles a book of Lenten Meditations. We’re each asked to read and reflect on the day’s assigned scriptures from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel. This year, I chose to write about the epistle: 1 Cor. 13:1-13. Here’s what I wrote:
Choosing between the readings assigned this year was tough. I want to share with you that the voice of God from the burning bush was actually the voice of Charlton Heston, Moses’ own voice, as portrayed in the classic “The Ten Commandments.” I’d like to talk about how I struggle with belief, like the boy’s father from the Gospel reading, and how his cry “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” resonates for me. But that would be too easy.
Instead, here’s a confession: every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, for almost thirty years now, I gnash my teeth or cringe or crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that. I can’t be always kind or eternally patient; I get angry without cause. I hold grudges. This winter, by God’s grace, I keep reading. I’ve spent so long being angry at St. Paul for pegging me as less than perfect, I’ve missed the rest of the story.
Every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, I crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that.
What has come to me, softly, gently, is that God is describing Her feelings for me. God is telling me I can know everything, endure all hardship, even move mountains, but it means nothing until I know in my heart and my head just how perfectly I am loved. Love is the key.
A friend of mine was photographed last year holding a sign saying simply “Love Wins.” When I saw those words, my heart expanded three sizes or more, just like the Grinch. (I’ve already confessed my commonalities with that mad, sad green creature.) Forgive me, deep thinkers and theologians. That’s my spiritual core in two words: Love wins.
If it’s human love, it will be flawed. No matter how desperately I might strive for it, I can never be anything other than human in this life. I hurt people; people hurt me. I can work to love myself better, I can try to be a more loving sister, daughter, friend, mother, but I will fail, at times spectacularly, just like everyone else.
But leaning into God’s love, I’m discovering a love that never fails. One which “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” At precisely the right time in my life, in the winter of 2016, I have shed a little more resentment, looked deeper into my fears, glimpsed, dimly, that which I have yearned for all my life. I am fully known, and perfectly loved. Love wins.
Wise Woman lore:
When you move to a new house, slather butter on all four paws of your cat. By the time she’s licked herself clean, she’s comfortable in her new environment and won’t wander back to the old house.
I don’t know where I picked up that bit of wisdom, and I certainly don’t know if it works for cats, but here’s how it works in my life:
As my energy level increases, and my anxiety level fluctuates, sitting still to meditate becomes problematic. (let’s not talk about the painful process of trying to quiet my bubbling brain). A couple of years ago, when the concept of self-care began to sink in, I discovered the pleasure of massaging my own feet.
Then, a delightful tiny epiphany. If I massage my feet with shea butter, cocoa butter, or some such, I am stuck sitting cross-legged on my bed until my feet are not too greasy to walk on my old wooden floors. If I get up and try to walk around with buttery feet, it leaves ugly footprints and there’s the very real prospect of busting my butt.
Sufficient incentive to stay still. If I breathe deeply, I reward myself further with the intoxicating scent of cocoa or the sweet, cotton-candy fragrance of shea butter.
I cannot muscle my way into good meditation practices, good health, emotional sobriety, happiness, joy or serenity. When I am open to the loving whisper of a power greater than myself, I can smell, touch, see and live these gifts, miracles of the commonplace.
I’m honored to be a part of a new magazine of the South, called Good Grit. If you’re not familiar with it, please check it out in print, or online. Buy a subscription. It’s beautiful. The Harvest issue has just been published and it’s a keeper too.
By Karyn Zweifel
My mother was born near the geographic center of the continent, oldest child of a teacher and a mail carrier, about as distant from the sea as it is possible to be. Surrounded by waves of golden grain as far as the eye could see, she dreamed of the ocean, endless ripples of blue fringed with white. When she finally made it to the seashore at age 22, it was in reality a homecoming; “I knew when I saw it that that’s where I came from,” she says. “I just cried, it was so beautiful.” To this day she feels more connected to the universe at water’s edge than anywhere else on earth.
with Karyn Zweifel
From Recovery Campus Magazine, Summer, 2015
I am no stranger to the disease of alcoholism. I have two aunts with many years in recovery and a brother still struggling. So when my husband and I visited our oldest son, Andrew, during his first semester of college out of state, I was very concerned about his behavior.
“…now I understand how the stigma of addiction and mental illness causes so much pain. Parents need to be more open, be willing to say ‘I’m really struggling,’ and get help for themselves and their children.”
He’d joined a fraternity, and during our visit, my mother’s intuition kicked in. I could tell it wasn’t just the normal college drinking experience. Andrew was secretive, and what we saw at the fraternity house was alarming. Andrew did not do well academically that first semester but convinced his dad to give him a second chance.
“Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.”
–Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water
These simple words are likely to strike a chord of recognition in almost every human being. Rohr, known world-wide for his focus on transformational and mystical traditions, has written more than twenty books about spirituality, recovery and relationships, and his writing style is straightforward and concrete.