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The story about the suitcase l Chuck’s World


August 22, 2018

Once a week or so, I get an email from James Taylor. This is actually from someone representing James Taylor, although I pretend it’s really him. I’m a fan, and I like to know what one of my musical favorites is up to.

This is where 21st-century sensibilities make things tricky. Are we fans, or followers, and what’s the difference? In a time when we wear our passions on our profile pages, it’s an interesting distinction.

I follow several famous people on various social media, for example, although I don’t have much interest in their careers. Sometimes they’re just witty people, or surprisingly eloquent, or weird in an amusing way.

I follow the writer Anne Lamott online, although with her it gets a little murky. I’ve read several of her books, and I’ve enjoyed much of her writing over the years. I’m not exactly in her core demographic, although we have a few things in common.

We’re about the same age. We each have a grandson. We both attend small Presbyterian churches. We could make small talk on a plane ride.

And this is what Anne Lamott said, once: “If you’ve lived a story where regular old screwed-up funny sad people like us have come through an anvil dropping on their lives, write it.”

We actually have something else in common.

Because I’ve seen a few anvils in my day. So have you. None of us escapes life without trauma, or pain, or sorrow. There are adversaries in even the easiest lives, and often we never see them coming.

And sure, if you’re a professional storyteller, and you have one of these anvil-dropping stories, you’ll be sorely tempted. That’s all she was saying. Find the stories, and share them.

I have a story. It’s not a secret, or heretofore untold. It’s not even all that interesting.

But it pops up every year around this time. It was in late August, many years ago, that I realized I’d somehow forgotten how to pack a suitcase. I guess sometimes you forget.

I sat on my front porch, early one summer morning, noting that I hadn’t been keeping up with the yard work. I actually hadn’t been doing any that year, as I recall, and I wondered what my neighbors must have been thinking.

Mostly, though, I stared at that suitcase.

It wasn’t even a suitcase; it was more of a duffel bag, and various items of clothing were sticking out, as if contemplating a prison break. It didn’t close, wouldn’t close, didn’t seem capable of closing, and it occurred to me that this was a new thing. I used to know how to pack. It wasn’t that hard.

Playwright Harold Pinter once commented on the difference between comedy and tragedy, noting that it was a sort of continuum. That is, everything is comedy. It only becomes tragedy when it’s not funny anymore.

This was what I was trying to avoid, I think, the unfunny chapter break in my story. It was possibly the worst day of my life, and yet that suitcase was pretty funny. It reminded me of a cartoon, needing only a caption contest, and then a friend drove up, tossed my comical suitcase in his trunk without comment, and we took off.

Anne Lamott and I are both alcoholics. Maybe I should have mentioned that part before. As I said, I don’t find it all that interesting.

What I’m doing here is considered controversial in some circles. I’m not trying to be coy – these would be 12-step circles, a recovery community that has sustained and supported many in this journey, including me.

I learned how to live again in unheated Sunday school rooms, drinking strong coffee and listening to stories like mine.

And there’s an 80-year tradition in this community of keeping quiet in public. There are good reasons for this, understandable and justifiable, although they were established when alcoholism was poorly understood.

If a former drinker proclaimed his cure in public, only to relapse, the nascent recovery movement could be fatally wounded.

Things change in 80 years, though. We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, heard the stories. Many of us have personal connections to addiction of some sort, friends or relatives, coworkers or, sometimes, that person staring back in the mirror.

This is why Anne Lamott’s story is interesting, and why mine isn’t, particularly. We’ve heard these before; the details matter, and mine are dull. I went to a treatment center. I asked for help and followed directions.

I drank a lot of coffee and shivered a lot. I haven’t had a drink in 12 years. I’m grateful, and I’ll tell the story to anyone, but it doesn’t feel special.

People are dying, though. Tens of thousands of overdose deaths are occurring every year now, and it can’t just be blamed on corrupt providers and greedy pharmaceutical companies. There’s also been a significant uptick in cirrhosis and other liver diseases recently, attributed to alcohol abuse.

It feels like a dangerous time.

So maybe it’s worthwhile to mention that I’m still alive. I once had 40 drinks a day, every day, morning until unconsciousness, and I’m still alive.

And if you’re someone who’s suffering, or cares about someone who is, and want to believe there’s a solution, that’s all I’m saying. There is, and the fact that I’m breathing, walking, and writing says so.

And I mow my lawn three times a week now. It’s kind of a funny story.


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