The Raw Edges of Life   18 comments

I read this piece in tears the day after my dad’s funeral where we were all dressed in black dignity, smelled of shaving cream and lilacs, and spoke in polite, quiet voices.  This story by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, is raw and real and connects with the deep places in my heart that long for grace in the messiness of living.  The truest bonds come from sharing our brokenness with one another.

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 know 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.


Posted June 13, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

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18 responses to “The Raw Edges of Life

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  1. “‘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.'” May we always remember that this is who we are apart from Christ’s blood and righteousness.

    • The most beautiful and moving parts of this story describe the humility and gentle love of Christ revealed in Terry, who is “clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills:”

      -“I say, ‘I’m just scared,’ and he nods and says gently, ‘That’s right.’”
      -“He puts his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Wow,’ he says. ‘Looks like you got caught by surprise.’ And they both laugh.”
      -“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.

      In the Kingdom of Heaven, the last shall be first. The joy of that thought makes me smile.

      Thank you so much for sharing this story.

      • Yes, it’s true. “For such is the kingdom of heaven.” It is so sad that we constantly run from this simple, honest, humble calling. One of the reasons I love St. Francis of Assisi.

  2. i love your taste in writing janathan grace:) awesome story that is a perfect illustration of grace.

    • Thanks for hanging out with us here, Martha, and for joining in the conversation. We so want to have the benefits of grace without acknowledging our need for it, our bankruptcy. We want to use it as a spare tire when are whole car is up on blocks. We need grace just to accept grace!

      • so true! the older i get, the more aware I am of the stench that is involved in my need for grace. that’s why the story resonates with me. i’m a nurse. i have cleaned up many people who have accidents. when they are aware, the desire to protect their dignity is great…b/c it was an accident. but they are so embarrassed and disgusted by the mess and smell:( my way of offering them grace is to be kind as i clean them up…as the people were in the story…just as GOD has been to me!

      • Of course folks have very good reasons for feeling unloveable in the midst of their mess, since we are raised in a world of conditional love. What great grace to discover those who will love us as we are.

  3. Thanks for sharing the story from Anne Lamont. Grace cleans up shit. That’s as good a definition as any, I’d say. Yeah, I think funerals tend to be pretty clean. Even the ones I’ve done for drug addicts and alcoholics have been, but I’ve been to my share of AA meetings too, and they tend to be somewhat messy. Tom’s may take the cake, though! haha

    • Yes, I have no problem with cleaning up for special occasions as long as we are willing to be real when the suits are shed. I looked respectable, but no one but Kimberly knew that I was too fat to button my pants or the neck of my shirt, so the belt and tie had to hide each defect respectively. Of course, the false self can come out in a multitude of ways, even in deliberately looking a mess. Honesty is such an elusive treasure.

  4. Amen to God’s grace overcoming our brokenness and humanity. And to you, Janathan Grace. You and Anne Lamott are two of my favorite writers. And Pat Conroy.

  5. I loved this. Still crying. Thanks for posting.

  6. Thanks for sharing! I have read some Annie Lamont, but not a lot. What I have read, I loved. Your post encourages me to delve into her writings again soon.

  7. thanks janathangrace … amazing how god’s love/grace/goodness… just messes us up in a good way! i like what you shared! …want to go there, be that

    i bless with joy


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