By Jan A
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.