We are now in the third week of Advent, which is a big time of year for my Jesusy people. The new church year begins and a new note is struck: It is a time of preparation and waiting, because even though, as autumn grinds to a dark and murky halt, everything is dying and falling asleep and falling off, something brand new is coming. Hope is coming. And so one of the messages of Advent is, don’t weep over leaves.
The belief is that enough hope and tenderness will lead to world peace, one mind at a time. All nations will come together in kindness and justice, swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. This is a little hard to buy with a world stage occupied by so many madmen, and so much suffering. But setting aside one’s tiny tendency toward cynicism, in the meantime — in Advent — we wait; and hope appears if we truly desire to see it. Maybe it’s in tiny little packets here and there, hidden in the dying grasslike winter wildflowers, but we find it where we can, and exactly as it comes to us, while the days grow dark. We remind ourselves that you can only see the stars when it is dark, and the darker it is, the brighter the light breaking through. Advent is about the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and so as the fields outside our windows go to sleep, we stay awake and watch, holding to the belief that God is with us, is close and present, and that we will be healed.
I want that belief, and that patience; I checked the box on the form choosing that. But it has not been forthcoming. I have instead been feeling a little — what is the psychiatric term? — cuckoo. My mind has been doing a Native American worry chant, that I must have learned in childhood, WORRYworryworryworryworryworryworryworryWORRYworryworry … It’s not that I don’t have a lot of faith. It’s just that I also have a lot of mental problems. And I want to fix them all, and I want to do that now, or at least by tomorrow afternoon, right after lunch.
I thought about calling our pastor and trying to get her to try to fix me, but she had left town for a little R&R. This is just intolerable. I have told her more than once that we wouldn’t have hired her if we’d known that she was a minister with boundaries. So I started calling all the other religious people I know, but discovered that, even though God may be ever present and close by, none of His or Her spokespeople were in very good moods.
The first Protestant pastor I reached seemed bitter. “Can we talk about God?” I asked.
“Who’s that?” he said.
So I called a Jewish friend, who usually makes me laugh, but I could tell right away she was in a terrible mood. Her children were keening in the background.
“You should smack those children,” I said warmly.
“Tell me about it.”
“I was wondering if you could tell me about the Jewish celebration of the light's return; what spiritual preparation is called for in the weeks before you light the first Chanukah candle.”
There was a long silence. “This is a joke, right?” she asked.
“No, no, talk to me. So, well, you’re Reform, right?”
“Of course we’re Reform. We’ve got a crucifix on our front door. Look,”she said, “call me tomorrow. My child just drew with Magic Markers on the TV screen. Tomorrow we’ll have an invigorating talk about the menorah, about Judas Macabee casting the Syrian thugs out of the Holy Land. And I don’t mean Miami Beach.”
I called another minister. “My mind is on the fritz,” I said.”I want God to reach down with His or Her magic wand and restore me to my former luster.”
“Good luck, Bubbie. Here’s the only thing I’m sure of: Go take care of God’s children today, and God will take care of you.”
“Does it say that somewhere?”
“Yes, it’s right here, under ‘Secret of Life’ in my Owner’s Manual.
Then I called my Jesuit friend, Tom, who is a hopeless alcoholic of the worst sort, sober now for 35 years, someone who sometimes gets fat and wants to hang himself, so I trust him. I said, “Tell me a story about Advent. Tell me about people getting well.”
He thought for a while. Then he said, “OK.”
In 1976, when he first got sober, he was living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, going to the very hip AA meetings there, where there were no fluorescent lights and not too much clapping — or that yahoo-cowboy-hat-in-the-air enthusiasm that you get in L.A., according to sober friends. And everything was more or less all right in early sobriety, except that he felt utterly insane all the time, filled with hostility and fear and self-contempt. But I mean, other than that everything was OK. Then he got transferred to Los Angeles in the winter, and he did not know a soul. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “I was afraid to go into entire areas of L.A., because the only places I knew were the bars. So I called the cardinal and asked him for the name of anyone he knew in town who was in AA. And he told me to call this guy Terry.”
Terry, as it turned out, had been sober for five years at that point, so Tom thought he was God. They made arrangements to go to a place Terry knew of where alcoholic men gathered that night in the back of the Episcopal Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown L.A. It was Terry’s favorite gathering, full of low-bottom drunks and junkies — people from nearby halfway houses, bikers, jazz musicians. “Plus it’s a men’s stag meeting,” says Tom. “So already I’ve got issues.
“There I am on my first date with this new friend Terry, who turns out to not be real chatty. He’s clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills, but the cardinal has heard that he’s also good with newly sober people. He asks me how I am, and after a long moment, I say, ‘I’m just scared,’ and he nods and says gently, ‘That’s right.’
“I don’t know a thing about him, I don’t what sort of things he thinks about or who he votes for, but he takes me to this place near skid row, where all these awful looking alkies are hanging out in the yard, waiting for something to start. I’m tense, I’m just staring. It’s a whole bunch of strangers, all of them clearly very damaged — working their way back slowly, but not yet real attractive. The sober people I've met back in Berkeley all seem like David Niven in comparison, and I’m thinking, Who are these people? Why am I here?
“All my scanners are out. It’s all I can do not to bolt.
“Ten minutes before we began, Terry directed me to a long flight of stairs heading up to a windowless, airless room. I started walking up the stairs, with my jaws clenched, muttering to myself tensely just like the guy in front of me, this guy my own age who was stumbling and numb and maybe not yet quite on his first day of sobriety.
“The only things getting me up the stairs are Terry, behind me, pushing me forward every so often, and this conviction I have that this is as bad as it’s ever going to be — that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. Well. All of a sudden, the man in front of me soils himself. I guess his sphincter just relaxes. Shit runs down onto his shoes, but he keeps walking. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“However, I do. I clapped a hand over my mouth and nose, and my eyes bugged out but I couldn’t get out of line because of the crush behind me. And so, holding my breath, I walk into the windowless, airless room.
“Now, this meeting has a person who stands at the door saying hello. And this one is a biker with a shaved head, a huge gut and a Volga boatman mustache. He gets one whiff of the man with shit on his shoes and throws up all over everything.
“You’ve seen the Edvard Munch painting of the guy on the bridge screaming, right? That’s me. That’s what I look like. But Terry enters the room right behind me. And there’s total pandemonium, no one knows what to do.The man who had soiled himself stumbles forward and plops down in a chair. A fan blows the terrible smells of shit and vomit around the windowless room, and people start smoking just to fill in the spaces in the air. Finally Terry reaches out to the greeter, who had thrown up. He puts his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Wow,” he says. “Looks like you got caught by surprise.” And they both laugh. Right? Terry asks a couple of guys to go with him down the hall to the men’s room, and help this guy get cleaned up. There are towels there, and kitty litter, to absorb various effluvia, because this is a meeting where people show up routinely in pretty bad shape. So while they’re helping the greeter get cleaned up, other people start cleaning up the meeting room. Then Terry approaches the other man.
“My friend,” he says gently, “it looks like you have trouble here.”
The man just nods.
“We’re going to give you a hand,” says Terry.
“So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet, walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn’t covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.
“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.
“For you, Crabby Miss, and for me; together, over time.”