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Ascension February 26, 2007

Posted by Benji in Journal.

          We could smell it on his breath. Less than 100 feet from where an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was to take place, the priest had had enough red wine to lace himself in its sharp but sweet aroma. Diego rose from his chair to receive a cross of ashes on his forehead. We had driven to St. John’s Church in Waterbury for one of the handful of AA meetings that was conducted in Spanish. It also happened to be Ash Wednesday. I remained seated, my gaze drifting from each pane of stained glass to informal knit scarf that tumbled over the priest’s pot-belly. He looked at me expectantly, his thumb pressed into the ashes, waiting to mark me as well. “What are you? Pagan?” he asked in a half-joking tone that nonetheless implied I had no faith at all. He turned back to Diego to offer Communion: a broken piece of wafer as the body of Christ and a sip from a shared chalice of wine as His blood. I wondered quietly how an alcoholic could take Communion: it was ironic that the wine represented a life force, and it was something from which an alcoholic would have to abstain.
          The smudge of black on Diego’s forehead represented the dust from which we arise and to which we return. The symbolism was irreversibly tied to that of the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, though the order of events was reversed. As we walked back from the chapel to the meeting hall, I wondered what had caused the self-described alcoholics to “flame out” and to be reborn. What was their breaking point?
          Wooden folding chairs arranged in a rectangle quietly awaited occupants. Only two men were present: one seated behind a long table in the front, and one taping up an “Alcohólico Anónimo” poster behind a gurgling coffee maker. I think the actual etymology is different, but it’s fitting that, at first blush, the Spanish word for “sobriety” (sobriedad) looks related to the word for “over” (sobre). It gave me a sense of optimism that a person could rise above his or her addiction. I found it interesting, too, that the logo for AA featured a triangle with the word “recovery” along the bottom edge. “Unity” and “service” were along the diagonals, again suggesting a person could triumph over alcoholism, and that “recovery” did not necessarily mean “sobriety” or an end point.
          Indeed, unity was a strong component of AA. Originally, I could not tell whether the man seated or the one standing was in charge of the meeting. Both greeted Diego and I warmly, and both introduced themselves as alcoholics. It was a routine pairing for them, a reminder of their weakness but also that they as unique human beings came before their disease. I guess it was logical that the meeting should be run internally by an AA convert. Though each person’s story was different, the brotherhood was hewn from experience that an outsider could not fully understand.
          As the congregants filtered in, some made a point of greeting everyone, others said hello to and only hugged a few, and another set merely dropped papers on the front desk (ostensibly a form asking for proof they had attended the meeting) before sitting down. As the ritual started, the man who had been standing started to read the guiding principles of AA from his manual. The religiosity I had been told to expect from AA began to emerge: a small group of devout, like-minded people – with a few skeptics in the audience – gathered around a text that strongly encouraged a particular way of living. The reflexive call-and-response nature of personal introductions and the regimented structure of the meeting (guiding tenets followed by personal news, requests for help from those who were struggling, and then open discussion) helped to paint the religious canvas already supplied by the meeting’s location. By definition, it was religious, though not necessarily spiritual: a mix of shared beliefs and practices as well as individual faith. Though G-d was mentioned – sometimes in blame and sometimes in strength – He just represented another force in the universe. Those in the communion who spoke up stated that they felt ultimately responsible for their life, but that they weren’t alone. They looked to forces greater than themselves for strength. Their religion, instead, was AA.
          I noticed that Diego was the only one to have been marked with ash. Although it gave me a small sense of relief that these alcoholics hadn’t been tempted by the ash-and-Communion combination in the next room, it did make me keenly aware of standing out. We were outsiders to the reality of alcoholism: Diego, with a dark smudge on his coco-colored forehead, and me beside him, dressed in tan but ashen by comparison. In this group of 15 people, I was the only non-Hispanic. Did I actually stand out as much to them as I thought I did? This insecurity made me wonder if they, too, felt a similar anxiety when faced with non-alcoholics. Did they feel like they had a mark on their skin that betrayed their disease and their efforts to overcome it? On the one hand, they wore a Scarlet Letter that set them apart, but by acknowledging it here, in a welcoming group of peers, it lost some of its taboo.
          To this end, the open discussion was a group confessional. I wondered how many times the speakers had recounted their struggles, or if this was the first time the spoke the words aloud. The words came so fluidly from the three congregants that it seemed that they had been through this before. In each of their cases, going from “having it all” – a car, an apartment, a job, and money – to nothing and back to rebuilding, took several decades. They had had a lot of time to think about their choices in life. It still brought tears to the eyes of the only woman present. A Peruvian man spoke almost entirely to me, gesturing as he went to make sure I understood his words. Indeed, in both language and events, it was foreign to me.
          Though speaking was cathartic, it also seemed to be an effort to educate the newer recruits. It was what the more “learned” alcoholics could give back to their peers. Since the neophytes had probably already experienced some of their own drama and had at least recognized that they might have a problem, I wondered how story-telling could be useful. It was all a testament to the human comedy: circles of Hell and songs of joy. In knowing others had struggled and were continuing to face their problems, maybe those a few steps behind could find the strength to push on.
          A small basket was passed around – a collection plate whose charity supplied the meeting’s coffee. (I wondered, too, if the church requested payment for use of the meeting space.) It was another opportunity to give back, but it also underscored AA’s religious feel. And just like church, at the meeting’s scheduled end time, the attendees popped up and disappeared out the door and into the chilly night. I didn’t even have an opportunity to wish them luck in their journey.



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