It’s the first week of spring, temperature about 70 and the redbud near the back door is eight feet tall, its branches flung out like the arms of a joyful child. In this, its sixth year of life, it is blooming for the first time – whitish pink blossoms in ten tidy clusters.
I’m rather fond of the redbud. It showed up one spring, a single pitiful stem with one rounded leaf that I could have wiped out with a pass of the lawnmower.
But I’d taken out a mature redbud the previous fall because it was undermining the foundation near the front of the house, and I felt bad about killing it. To have a volunteer of the same species – and, I liked to think, perhaps from the same tree – felt appropriate, even poetic.
So I drove a stick into the ground and looped a string from it to the seedling, and for the next few years protected it from dogs, cats and pedestrians, but not much else. Other than an occasional watering and feeding it a couple of times with indoor plant food, it was on its own.
For five years, it has survived; now it’s beginning to flourish, and I can’t help seeing the symbolism.
The redbud’s progress, and the rotation of seasons, are a reminder that life is not linear, that growth and change are the natural order of things. And that some things take a little longer than others to blossom.
It was also six years ago that I was laid off and began what I hoped would be a new and independent life working for myself. It has not unfolded quite the way I thought it would, and the difficulties could be summed up as “perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis.”
The quote is from a book called “Courage to Change,” which is subtitled “One Day at a Time in Al-Anon II.” The passage very nicely encapsulates my situation: a life-long perfectionism that has kept me from daring to do many of the things I wanted to do; putting off what I didn’t want to face; and, at times, a baffling inability to function.
But in late January, I accompanied a friend to a men’s Al-Anon meeting out of curiosity. I’d been pondering my all-too-joyless existence, and when I heard a guy that morning confess that he was “addicted to feeling shitty,” I knew I was in the right place.
Every week since, someone has said something that hit home: one guy had spent his life convinced he was “a fuck-up.” Another had been cold and aloof with his wife and children. One had a terrible fear of making the wrong decision. Another was cursed with his father’s perfectionism.
But as meaningful as I found the group I wasn’t convinced that I really belonged. Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics; Al-Anon is for the families and friends of alcoholics, and I didn’t have a “qualifier” – a wife, child or friend who was an alcoholic.
“Forget the war stories,” a friend who used to be in Al-Anon told me, “if you identify, you belong.”
Finally, I called my cousin in Detroit and she told me that, indeed, our grandfather was an alcoholic “and a mean one.” I wasn’t around him much, and didn’t see him after I was 11. But I was raised by his daughter, and Al-Anon veterans nod knowingly when I say this because it establishes my bona fides.
Not that it entitles one to any rights and privileges pertaining thereto, and, frankly, I’d rather I didn’t belong. I’d rather be highly evolved, motivated and accomplished.
Failing that, I’m glad I’ve found Al-Anon. To one extent or another, most of the people I’ve encountered – and I’ve attended co-ed meetings, as well – are committed to overcoming the effects of the disease in their lives. It’s a spiritual program, and six of the twelve steps refer in one way or another to God as the only thing that can “restore us to sanity.”
I’m dismayed that it took me so long to find something that worked. But I’m encouraged by what I see, and by an email from a friend who wrote “those 12 steps have changed my life. Actually, given me a life.”
A friend sent me a birthday card recently and on the front is a black-and-white picture of a little boy. Judging from his outfit, the photo was taken in the 1930s. He’s holding the reins to a horse, and his arms are flung open with joy.
I hope that card, like the redbud in the back yard, is prophetic. My childhood was not joyful. It was repressive and sometimes scary. But on the way to my 27th high school reunion, I saw a bumper sticker that encapsulated my hope: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
What I’m learning is something I saw in the redbud: this is a process that takes time. But it works.
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