This is about visiting a church on New Year’s Eve.
Except it’s really about why visiting this church turned out to be a good idea for the end of a crestfalling year. Our happy group house broke up, with roommates going separate ways. A good job was ending. Most of all, my first new boyfriend in years broke off with me right away because my everyday habits were getting on his nerves. It was everything all at once: my bulky Afghan slipper boots and cape, constant chewing of loud high-fiber foods, strolling among the gravestones of total strangers, leaving stray pine cones and rosaries everywhere, embarrassing him in public by singing “Pure” by the Lightning Seeds while happily swinging around and around a lamp post.
Losing a boyfriend that soon left me in shock. For weeks I mostly lay around and whimpered. Then I rented a studio room. My friend Bill drove over a carload of my pots and pans and bedlinens, braving a sleet storm along the way. Bill rushed my boxes in and then headed home through the storm, dropping me off for Christmas in my new room with a housewarming gift, a large remarkably lifelike inflatable boa constrictor named Mr. Snakey.
The building super had put in a lot of work since showing me the room. The room had freshly polyurethane-varnished floors, freshly painted walls and windows (sealed shut), freshly applied cockroach spray, and oil heat cranked up to a constant head of steam. He couldn’t come back and fix the radiator or windows because he was working all hours, shoveling snow and fixing burst pipes and helping families with no heat at all.
There were three major snowstorms that week. The grocery stores were closed for days. The first night was hot and parched (the tap water was too chemical-smelling to drink). But I crept out next day to the 7-11 to stock up on drinking water and hummus and oranges, then boiled the rinds to help cover the smell of pesticides and polyurethane. The electric company couldn’t hook up my meter, because of urgent power outages all over the city. Besides, the last tenant got thousands of dollars of free power by using several assumed names in several apartments; now the electric company wanted a fax of my vital statistics and photo ID cards as proof of identity. Because of the blizzards, there was no business open with a fax machine and no buses or trains running. Only an electric company supervisor could make an exception, and all the supervisors were always out with repair teams. But the operators said that if I called enough times there ought to be one in eventually.
Then I got flu. I was too sick to walk through snow or to be anybody’s house guest even if they could risk the snow driving out to get me. Sometimes for fresh air I lay on the floor in a blanket with the hallway door open while the passing neighbors gave me funny looks. Or I locked the door and lay on the floor without the blanket or clothes, taking dips in a bathtub of water whenever the heat and fever were too much. With grocery ad brochures I swept up wave after wave of dying cockroaches, then would sit and look out the windows at the courtyard and watch the neighbors eat dinner.
As an attitude uplift I named my dark room The Beje, for the narrow cramped house on Barteljoristraat owned by the family of Corrie ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place. Little Beje became my personal retreat devoted to prayer and meditation.
Then the new phone began to ring as friends returned my messages. We caught up with good long talks. Several of them said “Talking to you is so refreshing. What makes you such a great listener?” I said “You have reached a person living with an inflatable boa constrictor on a blanket on the floor in the dark wearing a towel loincloth. Listening to you is a treat.”
Another lucky break was the electric company Muzak. Their phones kept me on hold day and night for 20 minutes at a time. I learned to hum along with some classical songs, especially the Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana.
Next in my pots and pans I found a bag of split green peas. I cooked them up, seasoned with the salt from the bottom of a taco chip bag. By then the building super had time to jimmy open one window. On New Year’s Eve at dusk it was a thrill to feel the clean air, to sit wrapped in a towel looking outside at all the windows in the courtyard, watching the steam from my breath and from the hot peas, dedicating my meal to Jesus’s birthday season. The meal and fresh air raised my spirits so much that I began to hope for a church, anybody’s church, with some nice holiday event.
Right up the street there was All Saint’s Episcopal. Once they’d hosted a large event for a well-known support group, one attended mostly by church ladies who tend toward soft loose-fitting sweatsuits and hearty laughter and hugs. Maybe some of them were meeting there this very night! I set out, scrambling over snowdrifts, full of eagerness. To my delight, outside the church there was a discreet business card tacked to a tree, saying “Share-a-thon.” Yesss!
Inside I found the fragrance of Christmas greens and spiced cider, the colorful lights (ooh, electricity!), and smiling faces. I stepped into an upstairs church hall. Immediately several people greeted me. “Thank goodness! Are you our speaker? Can you lead the meeting?” Sure! I’d led many of these meetings, and was happy to feel included.
As I took the binder, the large crowd (certainly over 100 people) fell silent. It did not occur to me to look out and notice that a majority of the members were men, not church ladies in soft knits. I greeted everyone, and opening the binder read a familiar opening and the words, “We welcome you to this meeting of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous…”
I looked up at the crowd. On the holiday these people came through cold and snow to pay full attention, waiting for me to share my experience, strength and hope in overcoming my sex addiction.
This felt like one of those dreams where we show up for a dissertation defense wearing lederhosen and flippers. Having no other recourse, I tried honesty. I broke the news about my being in the wrong event, and exactly how qualified I was to lead this meeting. The men began to laugh. They laughed so hard that some were wiping away tears and waving their hands in surrender, which in fact is a pretty good warmup for a public speaker. Meanwhile, an idea came along on what to say. “We may come to these rooms by very different paths, but weren’t we all seeking the same thing? Didn’t we all want to feel safe and comfortable, and still be close to someone else? Well, our programs can help us to work that out with each other by working around whatever addiction is getting in our way.” At the end everyone gave me a big hand, and the sharing marathon began.
Amazing, the wisdom in that room. For most of the night, people told their stories. It was a humbling revelation to hear the lives people had before, and their rigorous programs of honesty and boundaries and service to others. At one point there were friendly questions for me: what was I doing alone on New Year’s Eve, walking the streets at this hour visiting churches? I told a little about the big breakup and my sock-washing, celery-chewing, and other character defects. The men had a fine time with that. “If you were with a clown like him, you came to the right place. Better still, he should come instead.” Their insights and Program talk gave me a fresh positive perspective to take home with my cup of spiced cider through a fresh fall of snow.
Back at Little Beje before dawn, I changed into my towel loincloth and danced around the room with Mr. Snakey just as the lights came on. All the lights. Wait! Wait! I’d never used the off switches; where were they? Aaaaugh! I hit the floor to crawl into the bathroom for my clothes. Then I peeled my last orange and for a little music picked up the phone, dialed the Electric… huh. Put the phone down. Plugged in the cassette recorder to sing along with the Lightning Seeds, pure and simple for a better new year.