Everything in its time. Calamity, sadness, inspiration, healing. The experience of my life in the weeks since I turned 40 was a time long in coming. Nine years ago this past weekend, calamity befell my hometown and in sadness I left it behind. I hadn’t yet begun to see the wreckage I was leaving behind in my own life. Not just nine years ago, but every single day since then.
The anniversary of September 11th is such a potent time for New Yorkers. The hole in the Gotham skyline still hasn’t been healed, and if recent tirades from all sides are any indication, after all this time many of my fellow natives still haven’t found a path to peace about it all. Time and again I’ve rehashed my 9/11 story on this blog, even recording it for national posterity. So I suppose a part of me still lives frozen in time on that day, too.
I recently spoke to my best friend in this lifetime, Peter Morley, after three years of silence on my part. Together we shared the awkward yearnings of our teenage years and the twenty-something headlong rush into real life. But we hadn’t talked since my failed, highly codependent attempt to move back to NYC in 2007. Hearing each other’s voice, it was like a moment had passed. A heartbeat. The blink of an eye. Yet one tinged with the knowing that three years of life had irretrievably happened, too.
Six decades ago, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, contained all of eternity in one day, if only man would stop and take notice. But slowing down enough to take reasonable notice of the finer points of creation historically has never been the forte of New Yorkers. Least of all this one.
Eight years ago, when I found Chicago, I thought I had left all my problems behind me. Five years ago, when I met a gifted photographer, Devyn, I thought he was the answer to all the same problems that had inexplicably crept back into my life. Three years ago, when Devyn left for New York without me, after I stopped blaming him, I finally had my first inkling that maybe the world wasn’t out to get me. Maybe I was really out to get myself.
Seventy-five years ago, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous. For the past three years of the recovery journey from codependence that began with Devyn’s departure, I’ve silently comforted myself with the thought that at least I wasn’t a drinker. Having arrived in 12-step in 2007 with a newly minted belief in God (which took me completely by surprise one day), I always figured I had a head start on the steps since I already had a “Higher Power” to rely on.
Taking your recovery journey for granted is a great way not to recover, though. Buddhism, my adopted tradition of the past four years, would suggest we concentrate on this particular moment in time, instead of living with our heads in some fairy-tale tomorrow. It instructs, with good reason, that the only point of personal power is in this moment. But while trying to live in the moment, it’s generally best not to live with your head in the sand, too.
Then again, it can be a good way to bottom out. Last year, my 39th by human reckoning but laughably immeasurable by the standards of infinite time, I stepped up my lifelong practice of trying to defend myself from the ghosts of my past by doing battle with innocent people in my present. From last year to this one, the bridges I burned personally and professionally went up in flames at breakneck speed.
Then last month I turned 40, and a funny thing happened. Everything changed. I can’t say how and I can only attribute the ‘why’ to the power of 12 steps. But one day not long before my birthday I let everything drop to the ground. Deep inside, I finally let it all go. In one moment that seemed to come from nowhere, I realized my responsibility for my own actions.
I began to work my remaining “nuts and bolts” steps, eight and nine–the healing steps. They’re the ones that call you to recognize and amend for your hurtful behaviors perpetrated on those you’ve loved (and lost) and befriended (and enmitized) throughout your life. For three years, I never understood the point of these steps. But very quickly, the value of doing them (and my amends will take a lifetime of doing) became clear. Realizing for the first time in my life that I actually understand and care about the emotional impact of my actions on others introduced to me to a growing humility and–finally–a waning sense of shame about my past.
Even with amends, some friends remain lost, and some hurts can never be fully repaid. But I know in my heart it would be very difficult to become the person again who set such hurt in action. I know I’ve caused a lot of hurt with my blog. How many people have I thrown under the bus over five years in these virtual pages? How often have I blogged at the expense of others? On September 1st, Outsidein interviewed me about my lessons learned as a local blogger. Last week when the interview ran, it served as a mea culpa to my online community:
Ok, folks: what is the #1 lesson Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle has learned in his 5+ years of blogging about Chicago, ADHD, blogging, not driving a car, technology and all aspects of his personal life? Hint: it’s not about managing his ADHD, nor is it some tip about how to come up with blogging ideas year in and year out. And it’s certainly not what you’d expect if you’ve ever spent some time reading Doyle’s blog. Give up? Very well. Here’s what Mike wants all you bloggers and wannabe bloggers to know:
“Don’t be a dick! Please, please, please quote me on that.”
And they did. And you know what? I really don’t want to be that blogger any more. In place of the selfish anger and punishing shame, I’d much prefer the sense of humility, other-directedness, and God that I have consistently felt in my life since my heart turned around. I was thinking about this, rolling it over in my mind, during a 30-minute ride on the Brown Line. When I got to my stop I realized it: I wouldn’t be a Buddhist much longer. For four years I’d done a torturous calculus to try and make my belief in God fit into my God-silent Buddhist practice. That practice brought me a sense of my center and a great understanding about the ever-changing nature of the world, but if I was going to maintain my emotional sobriety–if I was going to continue to recover–I knew I needed something more.
Even before Devyn left, even before I came to believe in God, I found myself searching for a religious practice. A fellowship of people with some common belief about life and perhaps about ways to make the world a better place. I knew that fellowship would never be a Christian one. I was raised Roman Catholic and even as a small child knew that I would never be a believer. Christianity has great beauty in it, but it has never spoken to my heart. A lifetime of Eastern spiritual beliefs eventually led me to Buddhism. Now I knew something inside was leading me on.
Last week Rosh Hashanah arrived, a holy time of great importance to many close friends of mine. For the first time, the holiday felt relevant to me, too. The ten “Days of Awe” from the arrival of the new year marked by Rosh Hashanah to the day of atonement of Yom Kippur are the most important on the Jewish calendar. During them, God opens the Book of Life and decides whom to inscribe in it for the next year. Judaism’s highest holy days are all about taking stock, making amends, and embracing life instead of pushing it away.
There are other things I find personally relevant, even touching, about Judaism. A tradition that doesn’t see doubt as sin but, instead, supports the right to wrestle with God and struggle with faith. The experience of the Divine in the mundane. The reliance on study and conscience. The importance of taking care of each other here on earth. The mission of tikkun olam, to “repair the world.” The family-centric holidays and rituals centered on deepening the everyday sense of God.
The covering of the challah before the meal on Shabbat eve so you don’t hurt the bread’s feelings when you bless the wine first. I smiled a long time over that one.
After that Brown Line ride, it took me a day to realize Judaism spoke to everything I have felt my entire life about God and wanted to believe about man’s relationship to his fellow man. It was a realization that felt like coming home to a home I never knew was mine. It took me a month of soul-searching to decide to begin a new and wondrous journey. I have, I hope, half a life left to take it.
Last week, I told my Conservative-raised childhood friend, Barbara, about my interest in converting to Reform Judaism. Although it’s unusual, I told her I’d probably be one of the rare Reform Jews who wants to wear a kippah (the skullcap most non-Jews know by the Yiddish word, yarmulke.) There’s no religious law about wearing them and Reform Jews generally don’t. But the idea is that a kippah on your head reminds you of your conduct, humility, and God.
Barbara suggested I consider getting one and wearing it alone while I study to see how it feels. A Chicago friend lent me one soon after and I wore it in private while studying to see how it felt…
And it felt like me.
Not so long ago, I remember laying down and sobbing for an hour, mourning that I didn’t have a religious tradition to return to in my past. Even so, the idea of choosing one almost overwhelmed me. Just because it feels right in an inexplicable way, makes me feel like I’ve discovered something about myself that has always been there waiting for me to find it, how can I know that I’m making the right decision? A decision that will set into motion months of formal study and a commitment to both a tradition and a people?
I made peace with my decision when I read these words in Daniel Gordis’ famous essay on Jewish spirituality, God Was Not in the Fire:
“There is no one specific faith-claim we have to make in order to start. And it is never too late. All we need is the desire to led Judaism take us on the journey.”
I have that desire.
When the shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashana marking the beginning of the Days of Awe, the third blast is called the Teruah. A staccato series of nine notes serving as an alarm, a warning to move onward with the work at hand. Nine years on from 9/11, I don’t have any more tears. I came to Chicago to try and escape my sense of loss at that awful event. I’ve lived every year since then perpetuating a sense of loss in my life by pushing everyone dear to me away. No more. I’m ready to make peace with my past–all of it–and move on. I consider my decision to do so my own, personal warning shot across the bow of my former blindness about life.
It took me 40 years to get to this point. I’m humbled when I think of the time I’ve wasted. But when I think of the love I feel in this moment coursing through my life from the people I share this planet with past and present, I am awed.
So to old friends who have been there from the start and new friends I’ve met along the way, L’Chaim! To life! This time next year, with help from a power greater than myself, may I have maintained my emotional sobriety for my sake and the sake of our relationships with each other–relationships which I treasure more than I can express. May I recall standing on the outside of my life looking in as a distant memory. And may I learn to love the phrase, “Yes, I was born Jewish, to Roman Catholic parents.”
But next year seems an eternity away. Right now it is enough that in this moment and in my own skin, I know I am finally home.