I didn’t drink until I was in my thirties.
In part, I was staying faithful to my religious community. In part I was scared. Afraid of transgressing. Fearful of what I didn’t understand.
These days I really love a good craft beer. A fine whiskey. A rich red wine.
As I near forty, I’m loosening.
I’m starting to see my life in two parts.
The first part was a process of binding. Binding myself to institutions and creeds. Bonding with a small set of friends and family. Holding myself up to standards and imagining everyone was watching for me to slip. Submitting myself to others’ expectations of me.
The second part of life, which I’m still entering now, is a process of loosening. Releasing the pressure. Coming out from under rules I’ve held myself and others to. Loosening my judgements and beliefs. Making room for doubts and surprises. Untangling myself from lies I’ve been told about myself and the world.
I’m trying to let go of the wrong things and still be held by the right things.
I’m trying to be free, without walking away from everything.
I’m not alone. I feel this loosening all around me.
It’s the end of July and I’m sitting in a shack under the stars in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sipping whiskey with friends.
This particular whiskey is peach flavoured, and not very good. A friend of mine loves peaches. And loves whiskey. So this seemed perfect. She, like me, comes from a religious background where drinking is taboo. There’s a shiver of rebellion as we pull this bottle of oblivion from the shelves of the Saints & Sinners liquor store.
The whiskey is too sweet and too fruity for most of us in the shack, but not for my Christian poet friend. She’s fallen in love with peach whiskey without first learning how to pour a sensible amount. The sugary, smooth whiskey goes down too quickly and none of us notice.
We don’t notice because we are deep in conversation. A half dozen of us are reflecting on things we are proud of from the past year. One friend’s answer is unexpected. She’s proud of starting marriage counseling. Which is good. Her marriage is struggling. Which is not so good.
This friend, another Christian poet, comes from a religious upbringing with clear roles for men and women. In these communities, marriage is sacred, as is our place within it as a man or woman. She friend is chafing under these ancient expectations. She’s in pain.
Her story releases a flood of stories from Christian women whose husbands have not loved them well. Women who were held back and put down.
Another friend tells of a time when her husband (now ex) was given an assignment to spend 15 minutes with her each day for a week. 15 whole minutes of attention. She feels embarrassed at how exciting that was for her. Her husband didn’t complete the assignment.
As I listen I keep thinking how these women deserve to be loved. How we all deserve to be loved. And to love.
Earlier in the day we are driving the New Mexican countryside and confessing our theological doubts and hangups. More and more, we feel like we don’t belong, and like we want belonging.
Back in the tin-roofed shack, our solemn silence is broken by our whiskey loving friend, now tipsy and loud.
Over the next half hour, we watch her sway from teetering to toppling over as the liquor sets in. I hold up the bottle and it’s nearly half gone.
I get worried.
She starts telling us she loves us. And asking us if we love her. Over and over and over.
“Do you still love me?” she asks.
“I’m 47 years old!” she protests. “I’m a professional!”
“Do you still love me?” she asks? “You guys love me, right?”
We wait it out while she lies on the bench, moaning and asking if we love her. Of course we do. Beyond telling her this, we’re not sure how to help her. We are half a kilometer from her dorm room, down a steep hill. There’s no way we can get her there without a commotion and some bruises.
We stall for time. And then the miracle begins.
From a dark path, another friend arrives. A friend who does not appear daunted by any of this. A friend who springs into action.
She helps our poor poet to the bushes where she vomits up the poison, tries to pee and rolls down the cactus-scattered hillside. She’ll find new scratches and bruises for days.
Our hero gives water and some magical pills for later, when she’ll wake in the cold dark feeling awful. We make our way back to civilization and and others help our dear poet to her room while head off to bed, hoping to God she doesn’t die of shame or alcohol poisoning by morning.
I wake up thinking about all of this. Feeling the weight of it. Then a song pops into my head.
“Kneel down while I hold back your hair
no need for shame honey, we’ve all been there
I know nothing I say will make it seem fair
that pleasure and pain are so tangled together”
I grab my borrowed guitar, borrowed from one of these dear friends, and write the rest of the song.
Our poet friend wakes up with no hangover and we all believe in miracles again.
In the coming days we fill her in on the bits and pieces of the night she can’t remember and she’s embarrassed but not ashamed. She can laugh about it. I write my song and another friend writes a poem. There is no judgement. There is no sitting in the past. Only moving forward. There is only grace. This is beautiful and for some of us, new.
Somehow the madness of this night draws us together. Somehow this captures where we are in life right now. Removed from bright lights, out in the unknown under the stars. Testing the fences and pushing the boundaries and failing and getting back up again to find ourselves capable of holy love.
“We are shaking off shackles
Trying to be free
Without walking away from everything”
Here I am performing Trying To Be Free.
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