Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 21: The Bottle and Beyond

April 9, 2015

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Photo by Gene Turner / yesishotthat.com

Photo by Gene Turner / yesishotthat.com

“JE M’APPELLE MARCIA et je suis alcoolique.”

It sounded so nice in French. But it’s hard to understand and express the depths of ourselves in a language we didn’t grow up speaking. And that expression is what these meetings are all about. We have drowned and stifled and pickled our emotions with alcohol, and when we stop, we have to bring them out into the light of day and let them find their own way home.

Sometimes they come out disguised as something else. My strongest feelings came out as anger. I was a copper-bottomed bitch for more than a year; I don’t know how anybody tolerated me. I guessed Andrew would say it was better than being drunk.

I’d found a meeting (Alcooliques Anonymes) as soon as I got home. It was just after Christmas, a minefield of a season for alcoholics—or anyone whose life isn’t perfect. Besides the usual face-first-in-the-punch fears, people in my group were debating vinaigrette. Should they abstain? Was there enough alcohol in the vinegar to dictate a dry salad?  This was something I’d never thought about.

We had Ken’s vinegar jar, along with his the “vinegar mother,” which he gave us when he and Cindy left France. It was where our leftover red wine went, if there was any. When Ken died of cancer soon after their return, his vinegar jar became a shrine.

He had sent Andrew his beloved baseball cards before he died. I found Andrew crying over them on his birthday.

Cindy came back to visit when she recovered sufficiently, and I accompanied her as she delivered the sad news on her rounds in Grenoble. Her health was always precarious and she was given to sudden horrible nosebleeds. She was surrounded by children and grandchildren at home, but I worried about her traveling.

The vinegar issue, so minute and tricky, prodded me to look for an English-speaking meeting in case there was something else I was missing. The nearest one was in Aix. It would be a two-hour round-trip, plus the meeting hour, twice a week.

In New York, people went to meetings every day. I was advised to do that, at first at least. But this wasn’t New York and I had to go at France’s calmer pace. So Tuesdays and Fridays I jumped into our blue Kangoo and drove over the mountains and into the Mediterranean’s mild breezes to hear drunks speaking English. British English, Irish English, Australian English and, once in awhile, even American English.

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“Where I come from, it’s illegal to drive if you’re not drunk,” said the Irish poet. “After a few meetings, I said to myself, ‘You can do this! It’s the same as drunks sittin’ in the pub tellin’ stories, only there’s no beer.’ ”

This little group met in the basement of a church on the elegant Cours Mirabeau in Aix. They were mostly immigrants and ex-pats like me, with interesting pasts. But when it comes to stories, no one can beat the Irish, and we had two or three to keep us in touch with the humor and pathos of our situations.

On my one-year anniversary, I told my own story and received warm congratulations and a medal inscribed with the prayer that closes every meeting:

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,

The courage to change the things we can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

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A broadcasting colleague used to tell stories about his wife teaching in a ghetto school when they were young. Her strategy to keep order was to put the worst offender in the front desk and come down hard on him when anyone in his row acted up. He would then turn around and whale on the guy behind him, who would pass it on down the line. When I pulled myself out of the drink, I turned around and saw that the guy behind me who needed a smack was Lynne.

We shared a hard-drinking history; had even talked about it. Every time we’d gotten together over the years, one or both of us got drunk. She carried a flask on her travels in case she couldn’t find CC, her favorite blend. Breast cancer and its after-effects had given her reason to get numb once in awhile, but the last time she had visited us, she’d gone into a drunken rage, for which she had to apologize the next morning. I understood. She had brought some ladies from her Greenville social set, and had wound herself too tight trying to wow them.

When I broke my sobriety story and everyone was pouring out support, she had little or nothing to say. So when Sherry wrote that Lynne had been lying low with some kind of depression and not answering phone calls or even her knock on the door, my mind went to the liquor cabinet, and into her customized bathroom and the deep drawer stocked with serious drugs.

I sent her some exploratory e-mails and started a dialogue. I sent her an “Am I an Alcoholic” checklist, gave her links to AA information and a list of meetings in her general vicinity with the days and times. I asked her just to go, asked her to promise me. “You don’t have to do anything. Just listen and see if anything strikes a chord.” She said she would, but she didn’t, and she lied when I asked her if she’d gone.

Up till then I’d just been guessing.

I had no trips planned to the East Coast, so I asked Sherry to keep an eye on her for me. Alcohol was a familiar figure in our family.

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Andrew’s brush touches the canvas at a point in his scene where light lands, and he lays a luminous white-gold path against a dark stroke, giving it an eloquent form. He loads his brush and lays another path, thin and sinuous, ending it precisely where the form turns away from the light. This play of darks and lights has something to do with how his paintings manage to convey living presence, even in the depiction of inanimate objects. I never learned how he creates the effect of inner life on the insentient surface of canvas coated with primer. He must have been an alchemist in another life; his blue gaze seems to originate from a point far back in time.

How you see a color depends on the color that is next to it, he says. Then he asks you what is color? It has to do with light, you know that much. And you know what colors go together in a wardrobe or a living room—this year. You know how different colors elicit human response, and you have your favorites.

But his color talk is about something else. It has to do with oneness .

After my first year of sobriety, Andrew discovered that he too needed to get clean. Although his marijuana use was confined to brief periods when he was away from home, it had turned into serious binging, and when he returned from his latest trip, his hand shook uncontrollably. So he found a group, and a sponsor who advised him to quit wine as well as weed. Addiction is devious, and it can always find a way.

There we were, two Americans in wine country, drinking only Beaujolais américain. That’s Coca-Cola to you. Santé!

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Throughout my school years, I was the artist. I decorated the bulletin boards at Christmas, drew cartoons for the newspaper and motifs for the annual, drew pictures of people and their pets. In college, my weekly allowance was just seven dollars, sent by Dad’s secretary, so I was always scrambling to augment it by painting portraits for parents, and other tasks. My art always had an objective to fulfill, so when it came time to make a living, I slipped comfortably into advertising, where I could make money combining pictures and words to sell things.

It wasn’t until I came under Andrew’s influence that I learned to lose myself, and my conscious goals in the process.

The painter’s eye will take in a scene, process its visual messages in the context of life lived so far, and direct the hand to render a personal account. In that intimate act of expression, you show who you are. Leonardo da Vinci was a seeker. Van Gogh was driven. Rembrandt was frank. Picasso was canny. When I painted, I often caught myself red-handed in behaviors that, in their grander version, bungled my life—jumping to conclusions, going overboard and racing toward closure. That was me.

These are the kinds of thoughts that occur to you as you climb out of alcoholism and look around at a world that is sharply in focus, painfully clear and somewhat alien from what you’d come to know. You find that you have to revise the way you see and respond to it. You become fascinated with truth. You go looking for the original you, the one whose light was doused with drink.

I found mine straddling two cultures and two generations, split between artistic longings and business drive. Entering the third age without retirement plans or job prospects. I was where I was because of decisions I’d made during my drinking days, when they had seemed star-directed. I needed to challenge them and see how they stood up to sober inspection.

The decision to go with Andrew was one. We’d become comfortable with a permanently tentative status as a couple, and in jokey moods even made up scenarios of our future, when he would keep me in a back room, diapered and drooling, known to his wife and kids as “Granny.” He teased me about Alzheimer’s, and whenever I had a “senior moment” he would pantomime a prearranged phone call: “Hello, Ben? She’s at it again . . . better call the home . . . ” It was all very funny, but the reality was that Andrew had saved my life and he didn’t seem to be interested in leaving it. It still worked for both of us.

Going to live in France was another decision that was now looking—if not crazy, at least a little irresponsible. And I’d done it so definitively, selling my house and most of my possessions, cutting off all sources of income, breaking connections with people. Going back and picking up my career seemed out of the question. The industry wasn’t what it was; my peers were reportedly competing for little scraps of business.

Beyond that, America itself wasn’t what it was when I left. People were fearful and angry. I’d lost track of the fads and trends that had driven my business.

Could I still make a living there? Yes, if I had to. Would I get caught up again in the frenzy of acquisition—the gotta-get-it mentality, first-second-third-mortgaged up to my eyeballs? Of course I would—I’d been right there in the forefront with flags waving—“Charge! Buy NOW!”

Okay, going back voluntarily got the buzzer. Now, what were the new prospects for an American in Old Europe?  The bloody mess in Iraq had stained whatever luster your nationality once lent you. You are now assumed to be ignorant and shallow until proven otherwise. The kindness you get from strangers is based on sympathy. You’re a mercy fuck.

While I was bemoaning our poverty, our buddy the innkeeper came by with a tall athletic-looking gal from North Carolina with a wild red mane and a bicycle helmet. Her name was Nancy, and the thing she wanted most right now was a little place in France. I showed her the studio apartment, still as stunning as it had been when Don put on the finishing touches. Nancy burst into tears. Before I knew it, she’d bought the apartment and given us a few more years to live above the poverty line.

The apartment would remain exactly as it was, and would continue to be a guest room except for the weeks when Nancy could leave her real estate business and spend time enjoying it. We agreed to manage the rentals and oversee the housekeeping and maintenance for a percentage. It was a lifesaving deal, and if I felt a tinge of remorse at letting go of my hard-won property, I could content myself with the fact that I could afford a rental apartment in Paris for weeks at a time.

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One of the things Andrew brought back from a Stateside visit was a book my father had given me while he was still lucid. Fresh into his Third Age preoccupation with genealogy, he’d tracked down a branch of his family who had compiled their history in a book. He presented me with his annotated copy and I accepted it with feigned interest, put it away and forgot about it for years. I don’t know what made Andrew pull it out of the stacks in our storage unit—it was no longer the stonerage unit—but now that I was pondering the trail that not only brought me to France, but led me to drink, it was exactly what I needed to read now.

Like so many Americans, I am descended from people who, for various reasons, put behind them the life they knew in their native country and reached for whatever they imagined to be possible in the New World. Mine came from England, Scotland and Ireland, and this book began with the story of one John Lewis of County Donegal, Ireland.

One day early in the eighteenth century, Lewis picked up his shillelagh and bashed the brains out of his lord. In most accounts, the lord had surrounded the Lewis house with a band of ruffians, intending to repossess the property and had discharged his fowling piece, injuring Lewis’s wife, who was holding their child. Lewis was not immediately arrested, but suddenly the prospect of going to America, where there were vast spreads of lord-less land, looked like a good alternative to waiting in County Donegal  for the law to come get him.

Around 1730, John Lewis showed up in a vanguard of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had made their way from Pennsylvania to settle in Virginia on land granted by King George II to a gentleman named William Beverly, a kind of early American real estate developer. In 1739, for the price of 14 Pounds, John Lewis acquired the largest tract of Beverly Manor and devoted himself to raising his family and driving off the savages who claimed the woods and streams. His sons fought in the Revolution; his descendants spread clear across the country and today number in the thousands.

But the interesting thing to me was this: John Lewis came from a Huguenot family by the name of Louis, who must have fled to Ireland from France. There was the connection I’d felt with this land. My blood had made a round-trip!

The Huguenots were French Protestants, members of the Reformed Church founded by Calvin. In 1536, a general edict was issued in France encouraging their extermination, launching the Wars of Religion, which raged for the next three decades, until Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, bringing a fragile peace. But after Henry IV was murdered in 1610, the persecution of the “dissenters” resumed, and when the Sun King, Louis XIV,  ascended the throne with a policy of une foi, une loi, un roi (one faith, one law, one king), he revoked the Edict of Nantes. Huguenot churches and houses were destroyed, their bibles and hymnbooks burned. Emigration was declared illegal. Many were imprisoned, burned at the stake or shipped to sea to serve their sentences as galley slaves.

Somehow the Louis family made it to Ireland, became the Lewises, emigrated to the New World, prospered and flourished, making it possible for me, a couple of centuries later, to make it back to France.

It was time to consider what exactly I was meant to do here.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 



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