This is going to be my last column for a while, as I've decided to get to work on another novel. I am not sure what the new book is about yet, or even the names of the main characters, or what they carry in their pockets or purses or bedside tables. But they know, and I believe they will let me in on this soon, and in the meantime, without much to go on, I have come to believe that I am supposed to try to tell their stories.
I have been staving this off for as long as I could, trying to stay one step ahead of it, but it has finally caught up to me, like someone in a dream you keep trying to dodge. I'm almost sure this is what I'm supposed to do -- or I may just be having a massive nervous breakdown -- but not long ago I prayed for knowledge of God's will for me and the power to carry that out, and then next thing I knew, I had come to believe it was time to start a novel.
I learned all this 30,000 feet up, on the way to Jackson, Miss.
I did not want to go to Jackson. The national weather reports indicated that it was several hundred thousand degrees there but months earlier I had agreed to give a lecture at a writing conference, so that is where I was headed. Of course, I couldn't remember why it ever seemed like a good idea to go to Mississippi in July. I think I must have been convinced at the time that it was God's will for me.
Plus, I probably also needed the money.
Anyway, there I was in the sky over Jackson, having left Memphis well over an hour before, which is noteworthy only because Jackson is theoretically 40 minutes by plane from Memphis. But there was a problem. I don't know why I end up on so many planes that develop major issues, but I do. This time we were in a lightning storm. The pilot had announced that we had 40 more minutes of fuel left, so if we didn't get to land soon, we would have to fly back to Memphis. Curiously, I was not panic stricken. A tiny bit edgy, but not panic stricken; not Blanche DuBois. I'd say more like Harvey Fierstein on mild tranquilizers.
The reason for this, I believe, was that it was my 13th sobriety birthday, and the fact that I could go 13 days without a drink, let alone 13 years, had convinced me that miracles do happen. It's not just that I believe in them; I rely on them. Also I had learned a little about God's will along the way -- that there is your will, and there is God's will, and your will doesn't matter. So I figured that if it was God's will that my plane go down over Jackson -- well, fine. What are you going to do -- drink over it? What if you thought the plane was going down, so you had some Jack Daniels, and then the pilot pulled out of the nosedive, and you lived? In your new current condition? And you had to go back to how you used to be, and your kid had to see you weeping about the cat that had been put to sleep 30 years ago. That couldn't be God's will.
If you hang around sober alcoholics long enough, you will hear at least a few of them pronounce that God's will for them is to be happy, joyous and free. I personally believe that this is a bit of a stretch, or at any rate, a very American conviction. My priest friend Tom Weston says that God's will for each of us is to have a life. "And it is up to us to go and get one. Find some work, some love, some play. Taste things. Be of service. Feed the hungry and clean the beaches and clothe the naked and work for justice. Love God, love your neighbor. Help build a world where it is safe to be a child, and where it is safe to grow old. And love cats, and the occasional dog." I think this pretty much says it.
When Arthur Ashe said, not long before he died, "God's will alone matters, not my personal wants or needs. When I played tennis, I never prayed for victory in a match. I will not pray now to be cured," it literally blew my mind. This was a guy with a small child, right?
I have looked at the quote every day and I happened to remember it as we flew back and forth over Jackson, with lightning crashing all around, so I only begged a little to land safely. This is true.
I felt unnaturally calm, for me. I kept saying to God, "Thy will, not mine, be done" -- and about half meaning it. I hummed little hymns and grimaced with burlesque worry at the other passengers, and listened for panic in the pilot's updates over the PA system, and for the screams of the flight attendants, and not hearing either, I sat and tried to breathe deeply. And it was while breathing, and beaming away, that it came to me that I was supposed to get started on a novel.
It was clear as a bell, as if there was a voice mail message playing inside of me. I was not hearing God's voice, per se. I mean, the voice I heard did not sound like Burl Ives, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rather, I heard a voice that had no sound. And I said, "Well, for goodness sake." Then, awhile later, "Well, then -- great."
This is exactly what I said when I understood 10 years ago that God's will for me was to have the baby I was barely pregnant with. I'd prayed for knowledge of God's will, and I got my answer. And it has indeed been great, albeit hard sometimes, and weird. I think writing a new novel will be great too, or at least, great-ish. And hard, and weird.
So I took some notes for a new book that I've had in mind, and we circled above Jackson, and then right before we would have had to turn back to Memphis, we were given permission to land.
It was 678 degrees when we landed, at 10:30 at night.
Fast forward: I had a thick Southern accent by noon the next day. I was being driven around by this nice caseworker named Mark, whom the conference had assigned to show me Jackson and to take me to a book-signing and attend to my needs and make sure no one tried to get me to like grits, which people in the South are always trying to do -- like you've just never had the right grits. Like theirs more closely resemble actual food. So in the course of driving around listening to Delta blues and avoiding grits, my caseworker asked what I wanted to do that afternoon, and at first I said I felt like taking a nap. Then I changed my mind: I found myself saying that it was my 13th sobriety birthday and maybe he'd help me find someone newly sober, with whom I could celebrate my birthday.
He said that there was a mental hospital nearby that had a drug and alcohol ward and that maybe I could rustle up an alkie or two there.
A mental hospital; in Jackson, in July? But then I heard the voice with no sound inside, and it said I should go do exactly this.
Which is how I ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Jackson.
It was 95 outside, and perhaps 35 degrees inside -- freezing. You could hang meat in that waiting room. In the strong Southern accent I now sported, I asked the receptionist if there were any alcoholics or addicts around who might need to spend time with someone who'd managed to stay sober for a number of years, and she said, Yes, in fact, there was.
And that is how I happened to spend the afternoon of my 13th birthday with a handsome black man of 30 or so named Jonathan.
He had been sober for several years, happily married, gainfully employed, until two weeks before. He had gotten out of the habit of hanging out with other sober people because he was so busy with work, and his wife liked him home at night. So on June 26, he was heading to a cousin's wedding in a bad mood, as he and his wife had had words, and while driving along, he suddenly had a good idea. The idea was that, since it was so hot and humid, he would have one beer in the car on the way to his cousin's wedding. Just one beer on a very hot summer's day -- would anyone begrudge a guy one lousy beer?
What happened first was that he ended up having a few more than that; and then by the time he got to the wedding, he'd missed the ceremony, and everyone was annoyed with him. So he had a few more drinks because almost everyone was making him feel so bad. Then it turned out that one relative had the merest bit of crack cocaine, so they smoked that, and then the two of them left the wedding and Jonathan ended up selling his car so they could buy more crack.
When he woke up, his wallet and ID were missing and he was in the psych ward of the hospital in which we now sat talking. His wife was furious and wouldn't sleep with him, and he was so hurt that he decided to just have one more beer before he tried to get sober again. So he had a few beers, and then he found a crack rock he'd had the foresight to hide three days before, and when his wife went to bed, he smoked the rock and then sold her car for more crack. He tried to get $200 for it, but could only get $150, and his wife was apparently a terrible sport about the whole thing.
Jonathan and I talked for an hour. He was very confused, because he remembered having that one good idea about the beer, but he had a week clean and sober, and really wanted to make it. He was truly, deeply, madly willing. So I told him every single thing I could think of that had helped me stay sober over the years, and I told him stories of when I was still drinking. I got him laughing, and crying, and then laughing again. It was great.
I gave him my phone number, and my promise that the people of my church would pray for him every week. I know that if it's God's will, he will be able to stay sober. The way it works is that one day, when it is hot and he needs a nap, he will instead go looking for a barely sober alcoholic or addict who might need someone to talk to. And he will find one; maybe it will be someone you know. Maybe it will even be you.
At any rate, I began to feel that God had jiggled a plane ticket out of the writing conference to get me to Mississippi, because He or She needed me to help this man stay sober for one more day. And en route, I discovered, or at least came to believe, that I should start my new novel. So that is what I will be doing in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, thank you for everything. God bless you, and y'all take care now, you hear?