Random Notes on Images Collected in Recovery

By Jan A

As my 34th year of being clean and sober comes to a close in a year of deep divisions, consternation, and chaos in the world, I’ve been trying to make sense of what I can do. The way I see it, my responsibility is to first acknowledge injustice such as racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other ways that we brutalize one another and the planet. Then I need to take action, do the right thing, show up, and speak up.
I know how important it is to stay hopeful, do good work, and take care of each other and ourselves. Following are some random thoughts and images as they relate to my program of self-care in this tumultuous time.

 

Water

Heraclitus said that you cannot step twice into the same river. Change has been the one constant in my sobriety. I was ready when I heard the refrain “don’t drink, go to meetings, and change your whole life.” About eight or nine years before I got sober, I was in a state of anxiety and despair when I saw Antonioni’s The Passenger. What impressed me most was the opening scene in which Jack Nicholson’s character takes on the identity of a dead man to escape his own depression and stasis. It struck me that suicide was not my only escape. I could reinvent myself. It gave me hope. I went about doing just that, although my drug addiction and alcoholism thwarted me at every possible twist and turn. So by the time a friend and colleague 12 stepped, I was game.

Darwin’s survival of the fittest means that it’s not the strongest, the meanest, or the brightest who survive. It’s the most adaptable. As Heraclitus said “Life is Flux.” I say go with the flow. Sobriety is a sea change—a transformation of mind and spirit. The water image here is of a shallow reflecting pool that surrounds the athletic building on the University of Oregon campus. It was a beautiful sunny day.

 


 

 Heart

Being very emotional and extremely sensitive as a child, I was always picked on. I had to try to toughen myself up and initially set about doing this with drugs and alcohol. No more tears. There were two other ways: one was to retreat into the intellect, and the other was to become very self-disciplined and defended. I would wind up being all bound up. Alcohol and drugs were a way to explore ideas and consciousness, but they were also my fortress, later becoming my prison.

This photo is of several metal coils I saw sitting on a table in the art studio at the local community college. It neatly illustrates being wound up, but are they tightening or loosening? They are also concentric circles. In geometry, two or more objects are said to be concentric when they share the same center or axis.

That’s who we are. We may experience a transformation or many Joycean epiphanies throughout our sobriety, but we have the same core, the same history. We have just built up many new layers of experience and a widening of who we are, what we have experienced, how we see the world and others. Hopefully, these rings or layers are authentic and not merely defensive. We look into the layers of ourselves. I can look at those coils and see different things. The symbolism of the concentric circles is that the circle is a soul or psyche or mind and the circles are levels of consciousness from self on out to the world, or perhaps the circular nature of past, present, future.  Loosening and widening.

 


 

No Mind

I had always messed around with photography, but one day my husband, a sculptor, bought me a camera and said to me “be Zen no mind.” And that was it. It interfaced very well with the way I free-wrote, the spatial improvisation of my dance years, the exercises of chance operations, cutups, letting things happen, happy accidents, timeless meanderings, and musings.

Take the action, turn over the result, which is one of the slogans I’d hear around the rooms in early sobriety. If we get beyond our minds enough to relax, productivity will follow. The accompanying image is a fish cleaning station at a campsite in Powers, Oregon. I was enjoying the blue hour of evening, the hour just after sunset. Later, when I put the image up on my computer screen, I was amazed at the power of water on steel. It was all stillness and silence.

 


Mindfulness

It has been helpful in my daily life to be more attentive to whatever is here in the moment. When I walk down the beach and shoot what I see, it is a physical act as well as mental. I am attentive to details, but I am not editing. Mindfulness implies a suspension of critical thinking and judgment in order to allow anything to enter the mind.

I used to consciously edit as I went along, but this kind of editing was restricting me from seeing. I was visiting a dear friend in Joshua Tree awhile back. She assigned me the task of cleaning a sack full of slightly moldy carrots as a courtesy to her wild jackrabbit and cottontail population. As it was a drought, I carefully wiped down each carrot with a damp rag and set them out to dry on two long benches. When done, I looked back.

 



Habit

My best advice to myself is to stay in the creative habit. A daily practice. A photo, or a poem a day. And if not a poem, a line. And if not a line, a word. What did I make today? Get up, wake up, stretch, meditate, work out, free-write for 10, 20 or more minutes. Or try for 3 pages, or more, if there’s time before having to trundle off to one of my two-day jobs. Or maybe it’s the weekend.

Daily work and discipline are not about the end product, but the process. The journey, not the destination. The quest and questions, not the answers. No stop signs. No excuses. But moreover, more important than anything is the habit. And there is no perfect place or time or desk or circumstances. My pockets are full of slips of paper with jottings throughout the day. Or I make notes on my phone. I’ll never be rich or have a trust fund. I’ll most likely have to work until the day I drop. So what. I am still so fortunate. I am sober, I never have to go to bed hungry. I’ve never been held hostage. My only experience of torture has been mental and self-inflicted. Being grateful is part of that daily habit.

Teetering on a stool, I took this overhead shot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s typewriter, The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois.

 



Openness

Another acronym I like from AA is HOW: honesty, openness, willingness. Openness particularly resonates with me. Auto-didacticism. Lifelong learning. When I was a kid, the real learning started after we came home from school for the day and my older brother and I would meet in his room and pore over maps and the World Book and Britannica Encyclopedias. Since then, I’ve kept reading, observing, listening, ear to the ground with the exception of the years just prior to my bottom. But thanks to my sobriety, I got back on track.

My primary 10th Step question is usually “what did I learn/observe today?” Like the analogy in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, let me be the flea on the rabbit that crawls out to the end of the pelt to take a look around at the world instead of burrowing down into the dark.

Central Park, NYC on a very cold day, after having just spread a dear friend’s ashes.

 


 

Laughter

Humor, irony, acceptance, joy. Smiling as exercise. The heart is a muscle. Smile every hour. Laugh every day. Really belly laugh. Add tears. Laughter really does heal. And laughter in recovery is the best.

Highway 101, Coos Bay, Oregon.

 


About the Artist

Jan A. got sober in AA on February 15, 1984, in NYC. She currently makes the southern coast of Oregon her home in a rainforest paradise, three miles from the Pacific, with trails, a creek, three springs, five dogs, two cats, a vegetable & flower garden, lots of books and art, and her artist husband. She enjoys writing, dancing, traveling, taking photographs, gardening, reading, going to museums and art galleries, and spending time with friends and family. She and her husband have a daughter living in Portland and a son living in Los Angeles. She is a freethinker, not bound to any particular worldview, but instead, open to possibility, and is a member of the growing Secular AA community. She has illustrated several AA Beyond Belief articles with original photography.

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  1. Galen T. November 10, 2017 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Thank you, Jan, for this lovely photo essay.  I particularly like the picture from Central Park with the winter light washing over people as they ascend the steps through the center pillars.  For me, openness has been a light gradually illuminating my closed and self-absorbed soul.  In recovery I have gained an attentiveness to the world around me and the other people in it.

    Along with Doris, I look forward to meeting you in Toronto.

     

  2. susie t. November 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for this, Jan. Your photography expresses the vision of an eye that is seeing outside of self, yet comfortable with self, and possesses a generous spirit. Your commentary adds a whole other dimension, and I love the way you start with learned wisdom and then reveal the way in which it connects with the photo. Thanks for sharing this with me!

  3. Gerald November 7, 2017 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    These random thoughts and images were a great way to hear your story. A program of self-care, yes! A sensitive kid who took refuge in the intellect, till it became my prison, the intellect, actually, became my prison rather than the drugs & alcohol. Concentric circles of new & improved authentic Self, yes! The Real Me, who took soooo long to get to know himself. And at x years sober, why should any of our stories still sound like the first 164 pages? AA’s simple program of action is an atheistic spiritual practice for me, including the prayer. How do I practice AA without God? It’s easy. Non-belief is actually no impediment to humility. Pride prevents humility, not non-belief. I know the irony is lost on the culture-bound, ethno-centric religious types that … ethnocentricity … (wait for it) … is a form of s.e.l.f.c.e.n.t.e.r.e.d.n.e.s.s. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Duh!

    Thanks,

    Gerald in Japan

  4. Diana November 5, 2017 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Jan, your photography and your writing are just incredible. I felt both intrigued and calmed by your words and images. Thank-you so much for sharing this with us. I also will wish for a book!!

    • Jan A November 6, 2017 at 12:48 am Reply

      Thank you for your kind words, Diana.

  5. Cope C November 5, 2017 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    What a treasure, Jan. Your photographs give me pause, a reflective moment, and your words are truly wise. Thank you. I’ll go back over these again and again.

    • Jan A November 6, 2017 at 12:47 am Reply

      Thanks, Cope. Love your work, too, btw.

  6. John S November 5, 2017 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    This was truly amazing. Thank you, Jan. I am in awe of your talent and grateful to you for sharing it with us. I love the sentiments you wrote with each photo. I in particular like what you wrote about habit, and how our daily work isn’t necessarily about the end product, but about the process. That’s how I try to approach life today. In almost any situation that life throws at me, I try to think about what I learn as I work my way through it.

    I place a lot of value on continual personal growth. It makes my life more fulfilling and meaningful.

    Thanks again. This was a wonderfully generous contribution. Everything you do is incredible!

    • Jan A November 6, 2017 at 12:45 am Reply

      Thank you, John. Understanding habit in the context of the daily discipline and routine of our work has been a true benefit of sobriety.

  7. Herb Yussim November 5, 2017 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    I’m with Thomas…there is a a collected book of daily reflections here. Not only are the photos inspiring, but the accompanying notes are quite thought provoking. Many of us may need this type of artistic and thoughtful approach to navigate our sobriety. Some, who may not be attuned to the arts, may discover a beneficial alternative to trace that thin emotional thread that keeps us from falling apart all together. Beyond the work you presented here, you have been most inspirational in founding the first Broad Highway meeting in our neck of the woods. It has become a lifeline to some…my most sincere thanks…

    • Jan A November 6, 2017 at 12:24 am Reply

      Hey Herb, it’s a pleasure to be on the highway with you every Saturday morning. Thanks for being there! And thanks for all you do.

       

  8. Pat N. November 5, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Thank you, Jan! This is a keeper.

    • Jan A November 5, 2017 at 12:58 pm Reply

      Thank you, Pat. I’m happy that you have found these reflections helpful.

  9. Oren November 5, 2017 at 8:38 am - Reply

    Thanks, Jan.  I love your beautiful description of creativity in recovery. Excellent writing and images. There are many parallels between your story and mine. I’ll be sending your article on to friends and family.

    • Jan A November 5, 2017 at 12:57 pm Reply

      Thanks, Oren. I would love to hear your story!

  10. Thomas B. November 5, 2017 at 8:38 am - Reply

    Ah Jan, fellow New Yorker (once), fellow traveller of roads in Oregon (which Jill and I miss terribly, but are content living in her childhood home in the middle of the now fallow corn and soybean fields of central Illinois), THANK YOU, T h a n k   Y o u, thank you !~!~! For these most magnificent reflections, which remind us so poignantly in words and pictorially with photographs about the myriads of gifts each of us can possibly experience during each passing moment because we have been gifted with recovery.

    You have potentially here, Lady, an excellent book percolating among your daily reflections upon a life worth living sober in secular AA recovery — just saying . . .

    • Jan A November 5, 2017 at 12:56 pm Reply

      Thank you for your ongoing support and encouragement, Thomas. You are a power of example to us all. Cheers to you and Jill.

  11. Doris A November 5, 2017 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Jan, if this morning I only saw one of these photos with its corresponding reflection it would have made my day.  I will come back to them through the week as my daily morning reflection.

    While I have never met you in person you are definitely a person who has what I want.  Also, I love the photo that ends the piece.

    • Jan A November 5, 2017 at 12:53 pm Reply

      Thank you, Doris. We’ll meet in Toronto for sure.

  12. John L. November 5, 2017 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Wonderful article.  Very fine photographs.  Sobriety should be life, enjoyable and productive.

    • Jan A November 5, 2017 at 12:51 pm Reply

      Agreed. Thanks for the opportunity.

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