The past few days, I've started to notice that some things are getting easier. Thinking back to last summer when I quit drinking, I felt this around eight or nine weeks after quitting, but I wasn't sure I could attribute it to having quit. One big thing was, and is, being easier around other people. Instead of starting with an assumption that other people won't care much what I have to say (while at the same time hoping they find me fascinating!) I'm just more open. But without the background shenanigans I have to do in my mind when I'm trying to work around all that, I feel a lot more present talking with people.
That kind of talk sounds so abstract. Present and open: what the hell does it mean, right? Let's see if I can be a bit more clear. At my conference last week, I was able to walk up to people and talk with them, without being hyper-aware of myself or worrying about what the person might think of me. Most people were interesting and friendly, and we had super interesting conversation. For me, conversation is one of the great pleasures, essential to what I think of as a good life. Being able to enjoy that without isolating myself in my own insecurity was amazing. I'm grateful for it. Some people were not friendly, and it didn't matter all that much. Mostly they were just busy, or distracted, or focused on something else. I didn't take it personally. Now it's one thing to know that in principle, and it's quite another to feel it. That's the difference: I felt comfortable in my skin, and I was able to just let go of the little slights and hurts that often consume me. That left me open to what actually was happening, able to enjoy connecting with people who are interested in talking with me about things that interest us both. What a gift!
I felt that last summer when I quit drinking. I started the school semester at around 60 days, and I found myself able to chat easily with people, not get so caught in being uncomfortable that I close myself off. At the time, I thought maybe I had just changed. People change. But I lost that ease when I started drinking again, and eventually I was back in my old cut-off tensions. That was a big reason I quit this second time around. Now I'm starting to feel that ease and openness again, and I know it's because I'm not drinking.
A few years ago I was taking some writing classes. In one class, we had to write a scene from an early childhood memory. I don't remember a whole lot from when I was very young, though judging from photos and family lore, I wasn't a terribly happy child. I wrote about when I was not quite five years old, sitting in my kindergarden class, watching some kids sliding down a rail that I knew they were not allowed to slide on. There were a tangled little gang of them, shrieking and laughing, climbing the stairs and sliding down that rail over and over while the teacher was out of the room. I sat in my chair, completely still and silent, watching. It's not so much that I wanted to join them, though I guess I did. A better way to say it was, I wondered how they did it, how they got up out of their chairs and walked over to the group and joined in, shrieking and sliding. In my memory of this, I sat watched and watched, trying to figure out how to be like that, or even how to start.
We had to read the passage to the class, and it was only once I read it aloud that I saw how dark the story was. Before that, it was just the way I was as a child. After I read my writing, there was a long silence. I could feel that people were uncomfortable, and I thought maybe the passage had been really poorly written and no one knew how to critique it. Then the teacher said something like, "I don't know what to say about alienation in kindergarden. But I sure feel it." It was one of those moments when you realize something you think of as completely normal simply isn't the way things are for other people. My fellow students went on to read lively scenes about birthday parties and Christmases and new bikes and whatever it is people remember when they remember their childhoods. I sat and listened, wondering about what it was like to be like them.
The irony is, trying to connect with other people is probably what drinking was all about in the first place. You know how it starts, those drinks that help you relax and suddenly you can speak easily with others, be funny or charming or interesting whatever else you are. I loved that, the feeling of communion with people when we sat sharing food and drinks and stories. I wasn't used to it, but I was pretty sure I'd found that magic that lets you join in. For those of us who develop problems with drinking, that doesn't work forever. Maybe my drinking started out as something that dissolved the invisible barrier that let me join in, but in the end, it was its own barrier. I mostly preferred to drink alone, often with a book I would read but not remember much of the next day. Still, for years my vision of heaven came straight from the novel All Soul's Day by Cees Nooteboom. Everyone in the book is alone and lonely, which I think left many readers out in the cold, but it resonated with me. There's a recurring scene in which the main character drops by a restaurant where he and his friends have a regular table, and they eat and drink and talk about food and ideas, life and art, and everything in between. When I read it, I knew I wanted that more than anything, that communion with other people. That was my heaven. (In the book, there is a minor character, a Russian woman who always drinks too much vodka and the friends take care of her, and even when I read the book over a decade ago, I worried I might end up more like her than I wished.)
Sometimes I read a lot about how much we need to focus on ourselves, and I get it, but it's only a partial truth. An old friend, a psychologist, talks about how we have to get out of our own way so much of the time. I like that. I knew he was onto something when he said it, but I'm only recently starting to really get what it means. That's what I think quitting drinking is helping do for me. Me being in my own way wasn't caused by the drinking. And I've been working on this stuff for years, with therapy and reading and trying to find a way to be at home in the world. But I am getting glimmers of how it might work. For me, quitting the drink seems to be helping me clear away some of the tangled mess that keeps me isolated. And without that mess, I am more open to the world.
Writing about presence, philosopher Alva Noe says, "The world shows up for us. But it doesn't show up for free.... We achieve access to the world around us through skillful engagement; we acquire and deploy the skills needed to bring the world into focus" (from Varieties of Presence, p. 2).
I guess that's what I'm getting at here. Quitting drinking allows me to show up, too, and do my part. Showing up isn't just a magic quality some people have inside them. Engagement is a skill, and you can't learn new skills when you're drunk. The world is already there, showing up, and it's already glorious. It's a fine thing to be able to show up too, open to the world. I'm new at this, but I know this is what I was looking for. Not drinking in my fictional dream-restaurant with the other lonely people. I wanted this, to get out of own way, open and engaged, learning how to show up to the world that is always already showing up for us. I love it.
Peace and joy to you. Thanks for being open to reading my words, and keeping me company along the way.