Glacial Time

The room was a mess of chairs and tables.

An assortment of pads and plastic. Furnished by whatever people brought in from other rooms but never carried out. Connected to the cafeteria, it was not a room on the visitor’s tour.

I’ve been to two meetings there in my life. Both were reunion meetings for the men’s group that first got me sober. At the first meeting, I was only a few days clean, shipped there from a hospital, dosed on anti-psychotics.

My memory of that first meeting isn’t the best.

It was reunion weekend so old-timers flew in to show newcomers that this thing really works if you stick to it. But I didn’t know all that then. I assumed the facility flew in extra reinforcements to trick me into joining their cult. Men from all over the world were there to bring me a message of hope, but I was too busy waiting for an opportunity to tell my counselor and anyone else who would listen, “You’ve got the wrong man.” Drugs and alcohol were not on top of my list of problems back then. My boss was my problem. My drug dealer. My roommates. My parents. Plenty of problems. All sorts of people who didn’t get me were my real problem. Sure, I happened to have a few bad habits and I tended to black when I drank. But who didn’t?

On my first time in the room with the scattered seating, I sat in the back corner, like a student wearing a dunce cap in the days when teachers shamed the troublemakers. It was a voluntary seat. In fact, I picked up one of the dirty orange cafeteria chairs and moved it there. I was not there to make friends. I wasn’t even there to stay. I didn’t have faith in much, but I somehow knew I would find a way out of that place—that place of chores and tears and hugs.

 

A year later and I was in that same room, with a new crop of men in the meeting for the first time. 

I had a year sober, returning for the same reunion that I excluded myself from during inpatient. I recognized the faces of several men who were there the year before.

I realized, especially when they spoke, that their faces and their stories were etched into my memory. I learned that while I acted like I didn’t listen to what they said a year ago, I was hanging on every word, desperate for their message. I clung to their hope like it was a flotation device at sea, even though I acted like I didn’t care that I was drowning. Early recovery is a strange place to be in.

I sat on a folding chair in the middle of the room, eager to share about my one year sober. I had a job washing dishes. I lived in the garage of a Portland Oxford House and I loved it. Sobriety ignited my creativity and a passion for words and ideas.

I began my share by saying, “A year ago I was sitting in that corner over there and refusing to talk to anybody.”

As I continued, I saw the faces of the men turning to register me in their memories. A few gradually remembered who I was. Their faces lit up like they finally got a joke.

After the meeting, several of them came up to me.

“That was you!”

“I never thought you were going to make it.”

You stayed sober for a year?”

A burly man, his face a scuff of gray, lingered a little longer than the others. “I didn’t recognize you until you said you were the kid in the corner. I remember the kid in the corner. How’d you do it?”

I didn’t have an answer. In fact, in the moment, I hadn’t realized that I changed all that much. I didn’t feel better. But I certainly felt different. I wasn’t drinking or using, and I was experimenting with a brand of still comfort I discovered while washing dishes, reading books, and writing poetry.

The man persisted in probing the how of my transformation, and I continued to dodge the parts I couldn’t explain.

 

We are the last to acknowledge the change in ourselves. But we are the first to spot the change in others.

It’s not for a lack of wanting the change. In that year, my first clean and sober, I watched old-timers pick up chips to celebrate decades of sobriety. I’d do the math, estimate how old they were when they first got sober, take their sober interval and add it to my age to see how old I had to get before picking up a studded chip to a rousing cheer from a sugared-up, over-caffeinated crowd. I wanted that transformation. And I wanted it immediately. I fantasized about having it. I spoke like I had undergone it, using those phrases and slogans cliche to recovery circles.

I had spent so much time craving the monumental transformation that I didn’t realize the small changes that were working in my life. From making my bed in the morning, to showing up to work five minutes early, to reading books instead of watching TV. Of course, there was the big change in habit: I didn’t drink or use—no matter what.

The change was so gradual that when I had a year, people couldn’t believe I was the same person I was when I first walked in those doors.

That’s the sort of change I wanted, only it happened, somehow, overnight, when I wasn’t looking.

 

Much of it is human nature.

It took a week of bloody knees and bruised arms for my son to learn how to ride a bike on his own. I posted to the Miracle of the Mundane’s Facebook page about the experience. The process was gradual. And once he learned, he told me in broken four-year-old, “Now I can bike on the trail. Over the hill and the bridge. Now I can bike all the way to school. Like daddy!”

“Easy, bud. That all takes time.”

“Why? I want to bike to school right now. Bike to all my friends like,” he waved with a hand and face fit for a parade float.

“First, you need to learn how to stop.”

He didn’t even give me the time to tell him how immensely proud of him I was for sticking with it—a fact I’ve told him often since then.

We both—at different times in life—had to learn that change is a process, not a moment. He needs to learn how to break, restart, steer, navigate. In fact, balancing while pedaling is just the tip of the iceberg, just like getting sober for a year was the tip of my recovery’s iceberg.

There’s always more happening underneath the changes we see in ourselves. And the changes reveal themselves gradually.

Ice calving refers to the moment when sheets crack loose from an iceberg and fall into the water.

Wildlife photographers wait for weeks for a big drop. Observing the result is one of the great thrills in nature’s raw display of force. The result is sudden, but the process is gradual. Crevices must first form where water can channel in and slowly create a pressure strong enough to collapse a force of ice as tall as a twenty-story building.

While we wait patiently for those cataclysmic changes, it is more about the flurry of small decisions we make each day. And what those small changes eventually lead to.

 

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry.

I had his poem “The Country of Marriage” read at my wedding. I first read his collection around the time that I didn’t have an answer as to why or how I had changed so drastically.

Returning to old books, to poems on dog-eared pages is like the soul’s flip through old photo albums. 

I’m grateful this post lead me back to Wendell Berry. Flipping through his collection reminded me of the time that ideas and language saved my life. Nowadays they sustain it. The poem “Envoy” explains the joy of living on glacial time.

 

Envoy

by Wendell Berry

 

Love, all day there has been at the edge of my mind

the wish that my life would hurry on,

my days pass quickly and be done,

for I felt myself a man carrying a loose tottering bundle

along a narrow scaffold: if I could carry it

fast enough, I could hold it together to the end.

 

Now, leaving my perplexity and haste,

I come within the boundaries of your life, an interior

clear and calm. You could not admit me burdened.

I approach you clean as a child of all that has been with me.

you speak to me in the dark tongue of my joy

that you do not know. In you I know

the deep leisure of the filling moon. May I live long.”

11 Responses to “Glacial Time

  • Thank you for another emotionally inspiring post Mark. “We are the last to acknowledge the change in ourselves. But we are the first to spot the change in others.” This is so true. I think the fact that we are the last to see the change in ourselves is a good thing- otherwise the pride would carry us away- at least I for me. I feel just like the calved ice- although the complete and total 180 I’ve done since my final and absolute out of control drunk 7 weeks ago, the process has been in place for decades.

    • PS Thanks also for Envoy!

    • Congrats on your sober count, first of all. That is really great news! I’m glad you stopped by to share your thoughts on the whole change thing.

      I agree. If I could measure the change in me easily, it’d be like social media, charting the likes and clicks and all that sidetrack stuff.

  • Another lovely piece Mark. I am certain it will resonate with many.

  • Stopping taking drugs is just the beginning….that is too much of a concept in the beginning, but it’s so true. Thankfully we are taught to walk it out one day at a time. I loved the bike riding video and I really love that your boy is brimming with confidence. I so appreciate the story of your first year and being back at that meeting and everyone’s reactions to seeing you there a year later. I’m so glad you made it!

    • Thanks Annette! You’re right, about the ‘too much’ part of things. I know in my first year, I couldn’t handle such extremes.

  • Thank you. I wish your message for someone I know right now…. Hope is for everyone attached to someone they love. Or care about. Or just know.

  • Such an inspiring post, Mark. You are right it really is the little changes that matter and that add up. The taking responsibility, showing up early etc. The poem is lovely too. x

  • Thank you, Mark!
    It’s so true…I can see the changes in other people, but not as much in myself.
    It takes time, and who wants that. I want instant change to happen!
    That is super cool about the men not knowing you right away!
    And now, you have made a wonderful new life and you are helping people all over the world, as well as teaching kids!!
    xo
    Wendy

    • Thanks Wendy.
      Isn’t that wild? One year sober and I was unrecognizable. It’s like I was a sheep in wolf clothing, or would it be the other way around? Haha. Anyway, take care! And thanks for stopping by.

  • Saoirsek
    3 months ago

    Beautiful post. Thank you Mark🙂

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