Broaden The Circle Without Breaking The Bond

A Talk by Marya Hornbacher

Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, Madness, Wasted, and numerous other works was a keynote speaker at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held in Santa Monica, California in November 2014. This is her talk. 


00:03: Thank you dear. Hello, hello. I’m so glad to be here you guys, I feel like a cheerleader. Whoa! I was a cheerleader for like 20 minutes. It went badly for me, no atheistic cheerleaders in Edina. But it’s really exciting to be here. I feel like I did when I came into the first AA meeting when I was actually going voluntarily as opposed to courtesy of the state.


00:29: It really does feel like, wow, there’s a community here, there’s a community happening. One other thing we do need to clarify, tomorrow morning, the panel, first panel 9:30 AM in this room. The full title of the panel is actually, “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA.” Vic L, Roger C, myself, and Reverend Ewing will all be there. Vic, I think, no Roger told me, he said, “I’ll argue with you tomorrow.” And I went, “Awesome.” Okay. So I am forewarned.


00:54: One morning, some years ago, my father walked into my house, laid down on the floor and said, “Well kid, I’ve had a call from God.” And I went, Oh my God. My father was in his early sixties. My mother had just left him and I thought, this is the mid-life crisis from hell. ‘Dad,’ I said, ‘Can you like buy a fast car or date a 20-year-old or something because, Jesus.’ Nope, says, my dad staring peacefully at the ceiling, hands folded across his stomach. He says, “I went up Bear Mountain in South Dakota, and there I heard the voice of God.” “Awesome,” I said, “Do you want a drink?”


01:33: That was maybe in 1998, so I was still drinking or really still drunk most of the time though I thought myself admirably functional. I still drove, still worked, still thought it really weird that my wine rack kept emptying itself almost daily and my trick of collecting ever fancier wine to keep myself from drinking it had failed.


01:52: That morning my father had interrupted my ironing for which obviously one drinks white wine as opposed to red wine which is safer late afternoon because, who drinks red wine in the morning? My grandmother had told me when I was very small, that a lady never drinks before six, and I never did drink any sort of cocktail before six when the alarm on my stove would go off signaling that the day was over and the real drinking could begin.

My father was still lying on my floor and said, he would indeed like a drink and we spent the rest of the day drinking and fighting about God. In truth, I have no beef with God. I don’t myself believe there is one, but I don’t know very much, being neither more nor less than a mammal, an organism like any other organism. Mostly omnivorous made mostly of water attached by the foot to this beautiful spinning fragment of rock in this very orderly corner of space.

02:41: At the end of the day, I’m just a drunk, and I don’t run my own life particularly well, so I don’t and can’t presume to know if there is a God or if there isn’t. I think it’s a matter of preference and taste, background and culture, the ineffable things that together create the people that we are. What I believe, what I have the utmost faith in, is that, I don’t know. I won’t know. I can’t know what the powers that be, may be. I know the systems that govern our existence are manifold and magnificent. I don’t get God, but I do know awe and wonder and grace, I do know I am grateful to be here, and I do know that I’m deeply lucky to have found AA in you. The three principles that are the foundation for this fellowship, are recovery, unity, and service. The principles do not include, and this program does not require belief. So, the question for me isn’t, what do I believe. The question really is, how do I live?

03:38: The 12 steps give me a program for living. However much I may grapple with the language of the steps and I do, the actions they suggest got me sober and so far have kept me that way one day at a time. The principles upon which those steps are built are ones that teach me how to live. Those principles which aren’t written down anywhere that I can find, so in my book, they’re as subject to interpretation as anything else in this program, those principles that I’m asked to practice in all my affairs aren’t hard to get. Honesty, open mindedness, willingness, acceptance, hope, discipline, love. They’re the stuff of daily life, at least of mine. The stuff I struggle with, the ideals I reach for, they teach me, I don’t ever know but I begin to learn an ethical way to move through the world, and I do it wrong. More often than not, I totally screw up.

04:25 : I don’t come by an ethical life by nature. By nature, I am a train wreck, but if you give me a simple program for living, if you, my fellow AAs show me ethics in action, I can learn. When I was about 12 and doing that thing you do when you’re 12, which is contemplate the meaning of life, I became very concerned that I wasn’t getting it. I thought, well, maybe you’re supposed to believe in the hereafter and your purpose is to die in good standing. Or I thought maybe the purpose of life is to do sort of a Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, great, big, glamorous blow out sort of thing and die dramatically very young. Or a third option, one that really, really worried me. Maybe my purpose was to have babies or have babies and cook, or have babies and cook and clean, and be somebody’s wife. None of these was an acceptable option for my cosmic preteen question to wit, what was the meaning of life, and I became very depressed and lay defeated on the couch for many days.

05:21: And then I was inspired, and I realized that the purpose of life was to own many books, the meaning of life was to read. So, figuring that I would start at the beginning, at least at the beginning of time as I was taught in Sunday School— I fetched down my Good News Bible and what it said was, in the beginning, actually I forgot what it says, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. I thought I remembered it saying, in the beginning, there was nothingness and the void. I was wrong, even Wikipedia gives three definitions. So, I’m going with mine.

As I outgrew the cosmic questions, I reconsidered, surely there was more to life than just books. There was more to life than acquiring knowledge. There had to be some kind of underlying meaning, some organizing principle, an Alpha and Omega, the be all, end and all of this whole thing. And there is. The be all and end all of life for a drunk is a bottle. The meaning of life is a drink. So, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of a bottle of Gallo. My search needed to go no further.


06:24: I had found the grail, the higher power, I would have fought a hell of a war for. Not long after, maybe in that instant, my ethical structures, as new and half formed as they were, began to erode. When I came to AA, I’ll say, I was spiritually bankrupt. And I do use the word spirit. I use it interchangeably with many other words. Wiser self, creative impulse, super ego consciousness, whatever substance makes up the shape and nature of what we know as the self. Just as you can translate the first line of the Bible in dozens of ways, you can use the word spirit or not. I do. I like the Greek translation of the word. Spirit just means breath.

07:05: And just as I say, I was spiritually bankrupt when I arrived, I say now that I’m granted a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. I take that to mean that I have a daily choice about how I will live and that by your instruction and example, I am learning to make the right choice. The image of God that lives in my head is named Walter. The actual embodied Walter was a kid from Phoenix who played the role of Christ in the musical Godspell.


07:31: It was the first in a really weird string of Jesus musicals. And here in the early 1970’s, it’s a hit from coast to coast. It’s been on Broadway for months and now it’s opening where I live in San Francisco. I’m five, I have learned the entire score word for word, and I fully intend to sing along. Godspell is heretical. There are nuns with picket signs. There’s a shouting, mass of people outside the theater. My father picks me up and carries me above the heads of the crowd so we can get to the show on time. And then from a corner of the darkened theatre, the sound of a single trumpet, the spotlight coming up and striding toward the stage, is Walter. So, for obvious reasons, that is the image of God that I have in my head.


08:12: I grew up in a fog of cigarette smoke wandering from lap to lap and sipping drink after drink. I never stole them, never skulked around drinking the dregs. They were freely given by absent minded artist types who thought I were cute, especially when I was plastered. I tottered around happily demanding olives from martinis and maraschino cherries from whiskey sours. My tender little brain soaking in scotch and whiskey. In the 1970’s, the amount of Northern California pot smoke alone would have been good for at least a contact high. And growing up in that world, it never, not then and not for another 20 years, occurred to me that alcohol wasn’t perfectly harmless, nor that there was ever such a thing as too much. And there wasn’t and there never would be, so long as I stayed drunk. Never too much booze, too many drinks, too many bars, too many beds, too many totaled cars, lost jobs, ruined friendships, trashed houses, trips to the ER, too many psych wards, track marks, withdrawals, there was never too many, never too much and never enough.

09:09: I even told and I’ve actually wondered if it’s true, that I was always trying to fill the God sized hole in my heart. I can buy that, I guess. I don’t presume to know, I have often wondered if it’s a matter of perception and language. Maybe some people do have a God sized hole and their God fills it in a way that nourishes them and makes them feel complete. As for me, it felt like a hollowness. A rattling noise where there should have been at least a semblance of self, a tin can with holes that you can never fill up.

09:36: Back up. I’m still just a kid poking around in the liquor cabinet sucking down the things no one else will touch. And this is the era of wine coolers, which fit neatly in a backpack with one’s lunch. Kid sized Kool-Aid and made especially for me. Later, I switched to flavored vodka, which was obviously was more efficient and a flask weighs so little, you can keep it in your Hello Kitty purse.


10:00: It’s unclear to me when I took that infamous first drink, it seems to me I was never not drinking. Alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful, and it seeped into my life without much of a fuss. Acting as if it had always been there, I learned to drink like I learned to tie my shoes or ride my bike. Somewhere along the line, it just happened. I can’t say I think I was an alcoholic when I was born because I’m not sure I was much more than a hatched zygote when I was born. And I think the whole predestination thing is more than a little sketchy. I was a drunk in training from very early on, but I marked my first drink as the one I took on purpose, the first one I took with awareness and intention, the drink I poured for myself and drank by myself, the first time I remember thinking to myself clearly, “Huh, I think I’ll have a drink.”

10:43: I cannot count the number of times I have thought to myself harmlessly, “I think I’ll have a drink.” That first time though, I was just spending a quiet evening at home. I threw some dinner together and as I turned to sit down at the table, the thought came, I’ll have a drink. I was 10. But having developed a better than average tolerance for a sixth grader, it didn’t go too badly. I hear horror stories from people who threw up, passed out, got alcohol poisoning, got caught, etcetra. I was really lucky in that all I did was dance around wildly by myself for many hours until the jug of Gallo was gone, and I was passed out on my green carpeted bedroom floor. And even then, it didn’t seem too strange.

11:21: So, I set out to become a fancy drunk. It was never my intent to become a gutter drunk. I do not, to this day know how that happened. To this day, it bewilders me because my intention, setting out, was to become a 1940’s film star, more or less, someone elegant and mysterious, very tall, someone who got to hold the martini all the time and smoke a long cigarette with a cigarette holder which Humphrey Bogart would appear out of nowhere to light and refill my drink.


11:47: So, I never did intend to wind up sitting in a snowbank at nine in the morning with an empty plastic vodka bottle, waiting outside my liquor store as patiently as someone’s pet dog. But I did, and like I said, I cannot fathom how it happened. It was never the plan. The plan was always just to have a drink, a drink, like anybody else has, a simple glass of wine for breakfast or a bottle of Schnapps before bed. You can take what your getting when you’re 10.

In 1982, my father found God. In and of itself, this wasn’t a huge issue. It wasn’t like we were suddenly struck Catholic, although I thought the Catholics were kind of cool. I mostly was relieved that we were not Pentecostal because I had gone to a few sessions of Bible School with my friend Andrea, and learned that women were not supposed to drive and men had the final say in all situations which seemed to me both ill advised and unfair. And then Jonah had indeed been swallowed by a real live whale, and besides when it came time for communion, they passed around these little thimbles of grape juice? And what the hell is that about? So I decided that going to the Episcopal church with my now greatly God-fearing father, was better than fake wine.


12:51: The Episcopalians aren’t bad, they’re a friendly, bookish bunch, liberal, generous, it’s the old church of England which broke from the Catholic Church when Henry the eighth wanted a divorce. More or less, it’s Catholic light. My parents, aging hippies from San Francisco, had to find something that would accommodate both my father’s new found faith and my mother’s utter lack of interest in all things religious and so Episcopalianism was it. We went to Church five nights a week and twice on Sundays. I have no particularly awful memories of church. I have memories of being teeth-gnashingly, mind bending-ly, bored. I sang in the children’s choir, I played in the Bell choir, I was a wise man in the Christmas pageant, I was an altar boy when they ran out of boys, tripping on the cross, running down in my all too long altar boy robe and I assure you both the priest and I were mighty fond of communion wine.

13:40: I went to Sunday school and later confirmation and high school church retreats, and sobbed meaningfully with all the other paperback Bible, quoting teenagers. I took Jesus into my heart, which wasn’t that bad or painful or abusive in any way, it wasn’t even that I disliked it, I just didn’t get it. I felt vaguely like I ought to, I ought to feel the Holy Spirit moving through me. I ought to feel serious, or angelic or holy, but what was that supposed to even feel like? I felt like a teenager and like any other teenager, I was miserable, sullen, and hormonally charged. God spares no one from the horrors of adolescence.


14:14: He gets his people across the Red Sea, rains down manna, sends plagues of locusts and frogs, but he neither prevents, nor explains gym class, Latin or bra snapping boys.


14:27: And it wasn’t even that I didn’t like the idea of God, I did. I thought believing in God would be kind of a relief. I just didn’t believe. I left home in 1989 and if I were a believer, I think I would find it telling that the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed almost immediately upon my moving out. [laughter] But instead, I figured it was just the world going about its usual impersonal disorder, and I was too busy with my very personal disorder to pay much attention to world events. My own world was beginning to close in around me and I had more important things to attend to like figuring out how to carry cocaine across the California border in my shoes.


15:05: I came to AA for the first time in 1990. I arrived by cop car at the behest of the state of Michigan which had suggested that I might give AA a little try for a minimum of six months, which I did. I don’t remember in those six months ever having encountered the Big Book, the 12 and 12, the concept of a sponsor or the steps. I don’t actually remember noticing the presence or absence of an idea of God or God talk. I came to enjoy AA coffee, a special skill, and buzzed away from every meeting feeling much better indeed. I realized that I was oh my god, an addict; flushed my drug stash and was cured. I didn’t go back for 10 years because it takes a minimum of a decade to grasp that your ego, your ethics and your actions are out of control, or at least that’s how long it took me. At about this time, I guess I should have been partying like a normal alcoholic. I hear tell of keggers, and beer drinking contests and cans crushed on foreheads and games of quarters and body shots and jello shots and Long Island iced teas, none of this fit into my 1940’s film star dreams. I wanted no part of puking in bar bathrooms or falling out of my own ditsy shoes, because that is embarrassing and gross.

16:11: My single foray into normal college drinking consisted of an evening at one Quigley’s bar in Washington DC where I found myself stuck on the dance floor with some kid wearing a baseball hat and a silk tie, which would have been ridiculous, if he hadn’t been buying me drinks, in which case I figured he was alright. Somehow by the end of the night, I was being carried into my door room by a nice pair of young men who thoughtfully placed a garbage pail next to my bed and then stood around, arguing about whether or not they should remove my shoes, which in the end they did not.

Here I should pause and say that I am incredibly grateful for the many times I got so lucky and for the many people who were kind to me when I was being an unbelievable idiot. I wasn’t that lucky every time and I suspect neither were you, I’m grateful for the sheer human kindness that has saved many of our lives. I like the idea of angels. People, one might call angels are to me simply proof that we are better creatures than we know and can do much more than we have ever believed and owe much more than we often give.

17:12: Suffice to say that night at Quigley’s was quite enough college partying for me. I took my drinking seriously and I figured that as with anything else if you want something done right, do it alone. That was my primary rule as I went careening into the rest of my life at high speed, do it alone, drink alone, work alone, live alone, also move every year, if not twice a year, pack up, pick up your life, pack up your stuff, put the furniture in the alleyway, stock up at the liquor store and take off for the next stop on the nationwide search for something like a life. Get married, get a divorce. Repeat, as often as you want.


17:46: By the time I was married that first time, it had come to my attention that I drank perhaps, a bit much. The thought had crossed my mind quite briefly on two separate occasions, once immediately after that wedding, when I realized I had been steadily drinking for 14 hours and had not barfed or passed out, even once, with which I was quite pleased and I didn’t get any wine on that pretty white dress. And once when I came downstairs to find my young husband having a beer by himself, I shrieked that he shouldn’t be drinking alone, or it would mean he was an alcoholic. So, I sat down and had a beer with him that way neither of us would be drinking alone and neither of us could be drunks. And what did it matter if we drank a lot or whatever, everyone we knew we drank a lot.

And booze still worked. That was the thing it, worked like it does for us. It just works. I can’t pretend otherwise. We had planned our wedding in a bar, got married in a vineyard, and now we’re young and newly wed and playing house with the only person who drank as much as we did, playing house is fun and playing house consisted of not having to hide how many bottles I was throwing out because it was after all my house.

18:48: And in my house, I had the spoils of a first wedding, primarily glassware. Get this, four different kinds of wine glass, glasses for sherry, glasses for cordials, brandy snifters, beer steins, and little glasses for aquavit, martini glasses obviously, and martini shakers and a variety of vintage crystal decanters with those little etched signs that say on them, “Bourbon or whiskey,” whatever. In short, it was practically a 1940’s movie. And he was practically Clark Gable, and I was almost Vivien Leigh


19:15: A few years sloshed by, and I developed a pressing need for God for a variety of reasons. And lo, I found that God would come when called and would meet most of my specifications and demands. And virtually anything that happened, good or bad, could be considered His will. This is the God of unplanned pregnancies, the God of parking spots, the original foxhole God, a good-natured God who guided my hand as I drove from bar to bar while blacked out, never, thank God, killing anyone with my car. This God and I were on good terms. I liked Him. He was mostly unconcerned with humankind, but available for consultation upon request. If you press the point, it had to be admitted that He wasn’t perfect. For example, He had failed on any number of occasions to keep me from getting drunk on days I had specifically asked not to become drunk.


20:04: I guess you could say, I drank to numb pain. You could say, I drank for comfort or for old times sake. I turned to drink though because I’m a drunk. I turned to drink because that is what I have always done and that is all I knew to do. I turned to the bottle because I am what I am, not because it is God’s will or not. And in this case, I drank because I had an excuse. I always had an excuse. A few months later, my marriage, thankfully, dissolved. My mother left my father and my father showed up in my apartment, laid down on the floor and had reported that call from God. I heard later that the bottom comes when your situation is deteriorating faster than you could lower your expectations.


20:43: At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I had hit bottom or that there was going to be another bottom and another one, and another one, and that I would keep hitting bottom until I was dead or until I got lucky. And I got lucky, I got you, but not yet. Free as a bird now that I’d cut ties or burned bridges with family and friends, quit and/or lost my job, ruined my reputation such as it was, I could take off for anywhere I chose. I was looking for something still, I don’t think I was looking for God. I think I was looking to ease an ache or scratch an itch and do something about the restlessness that I had always felt. Minneapolis to Detroit, Washington DC to New York, New Mexico to Phoenix, to LA, to San Francisco, where in 1998, I came screaming to a stop.

21:26: In San Francisco, at the height of the tech boom, I hit bottom for the first time. The bottom hit my butt pretty lightly. I just realized one day that I was drinking quite a lot. I was drinking more than I meant to. I was counting drinks and losing count. I was drinking at all hours of the day. I was drinking so much that when I was out that I couldn’t get home. I was spending the night with whoever happened to have a bottle to last me the night and a bed. So I went online, this nifty cool new thing called the Internet, and looked up alcoholic. I took the test, I didn’t meet all the requirements, which is to say I was not drinking at work. So that is proof that I’m not an alcoholic. Right?


22:03: So I get a therapist. A few months go by, the bottom bumps me again, I’ve woken up in the wrong country. I make it home, hide my passport from myself and canceled my membership in the wine club. I join a gym instead. I’m a teacher and work goes better for a little while. My students are great, my colleagues are great, but by the end of the term, I’m holding my afternoon class in a bar and fixing martinis at lunch because it’s summer after all and hot out. I love my students, I’m a hit. I’m sleeping with my students, so I’m really a hit, which concerns me because all of them are alcoholic, but then they’re young. I come home from work each night, stopping at the liquor store, conveniently located in my very own building. People start to look at me funny as I trot through the building with my daily case of booze. The liquor store cashier knows my name and my brands, which feels very neighborly to me. Drunk, again. I take, again, the online alcoholic test. I have never gotten a DUI, so I’m good.


23:00: The bottom, again. An evening at home, I’ve eaten my can of chicken soup and moved onto the after dinner cocktail. I’m reading a poem which is cracking me up, called Praying Drunk. It goes like this, “Our Father who art in heaven, I am drunk again. Red wine, for which I offer thanks.” I laugh and I laugh and I then I think, “Oh my God, it’s come to this.” I decide there’s nothing for it but to pray. “Dear God please, please, please keep the pedestrians safe from my car. Please let me be sober by morning.” My friend, the next day says, “You really ought to go check out that AA thing.” Which is funny. My dad said the same thing, but nobody used this word alcoholic. So, I’m good. I finally give in, the day I am still drunk at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon from the binge the night before, and I have to give a lecture on mental health.


23:49: I drive there drunk, I lecture drunk, I answer questions drunk. I stagger out the door and find, these are cool, a phone booth. There is still a phone booth, and there is still a phone book, and I look up AA. I called, I say, “I think I need to find a meeting.” There was a meeting not six blocks away and I was taken directly to the emergency room. Alcohol poisoning. I take this as a sign. If God wanted me to go to AA, I wouldn’t have been taken to the ER.


24:16: Not a drunk. So, God and I are back in touch. I have met a Buddhist, and I become a Buddhist. I go to a drum circle. I go to a Wicca Winter Solstice party. Evenings, I have dedicated to religious study, which actually I do like. I hunt around for the Bible, come up with a Torah and read that instead. Night after night I study Native American Spirituality, women’s spirituality, Judaic women’s spirituality. I read The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet and find a great deal of wisdom there.


24:44: I try interpretive dance. I meet a jazz bassist and soon join the church of St. John Coltrane. I’m not kidding, that exists.


24:51: It’s in San Francisco.


24:52: My therapist supports my spiritual quest and assures me that I am not an alcoholic and should take as many tranquilizers as I need [laughter] to control my uncontrollable shaking, which of course is the result of anxiety.


25:05: I determine that I need to do a cleanse. I go to a nude healing waters resort, I go to a sweat lodge, I go to a spa and then I take the alcoholic test again. Today for the first time, I’m an alcoholic. I call my father, he will know what to do. This is what fathers are for. They fix things and know things and are pretty much the same as God. He tells me to go to AA. I hang up and I do as I have been instructed, I find an AA meeting. Someone asks me the last time I drank. Someone asks me the last time I ate and hands me a banana. [chuckle] They are very nice. I sit in the back. It feels strangely comforting to be here. I know that I will be sober for at least an hour today. I try to read the Steps on the banner on the wall, they make no sense. And I read, “Higher power, God, God, Him, prayer, God, Him, praying, spiritual awakening.” And I take my newcomer packet and cry all the way home.

26:04: The steps are tough. They aren’t easy to work and at first they aren’t to understand. If I ever think I fully understand them you can find me at my local bar. But the language of the steps can be alienating. I wish so much that I had seen a sign in that AA room that said, “Nothing more than, Step One, gave up. Step Two, had hope.” That’s as far as I would have gotten but it might have been enough to bring me back the next day. This isn’t the fault of the steps or the program or the people who work it. The steps in the program and the people do have, in themselves, the capacity to heal but some of us do not speak that language. We need a way to bridge the gap that lies between us and the principles these steps ask us to practice in all our affairs.

26:43: The day I finally passed the alcoholic test to my own satisfaction was February 15th, 2000. That morning I came out of a blackout and found myself sitting in a snowbank in front of my liquor store, holding an empty plastic half gallon bottle and wearing pajamas and a coat. I remember pulling my phone out of my pocket and calling my father. I said, “Dad, what do I do?” And he said, “Jesus Marya! Put the bottle down!”


27:07: And I went, “Oh my god, for real? I have never heard something so brilliant in my life.”


27:11: I was floored, this had never occurred to me. This had never crossed my mind. I didn’t think, just put the bottle down. My father was a genius and I did as I was told and set the empty bottle carefully in the snow. And if I ever do decide to believe in God, there is one reason why I would. That morning right in front of me, next door to my still closed liquor store was the office of the Minneapolis AA Intergroup. It said so right on the door.


27:39: I didn’t know what an intergroup was. I would love it if the next part of the story was that I walked in there and have been sober ever since, because that’d be a great story, but I don’t know what day I finally got sober. It wasn’t the day I stopped drinking, wasn’t the day I hit bottom. I honestly don’t believe there is a bottom. We stop when we stop, not by magic or destiny or design. We stop when we make a decision to reach out behind the confines of this all consuming self and toward a community that possesses the power to teach and to heal. I think we sober up by some measure of chance, some measure of hope, some measure of sheer desperation and some faith in the possibility of a different kind of life. I think we get sober by finding our way to these rooms, meeting the humans who can translate for us, meeting the real human angels, feeling the miraculous kindness of strangers and working the steps to the best of our ability.

28:28: When I got sober I went back to church. Actually, I checked myself into a convent because I wanted some peace and quiet. So I found an order of nuns, who had taken a vow silence, and I stayed with them looking for God until I was done being quiet and I went home. I wanted comfort or community, or ritual or relief. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted. I just wanted to stop drinking. I had a desire to stop drinking and that meant they’d let me into the rooms. And I could sit there sulking if I wanted or sobbing if I wanted, or talking or not talking, and the coffee was free and I could still smoke and I could take what I needed from what they said and leave the rest. But the longer I stayed, the more I worried.

29:06: I was repeatedly told that I would need a God, pronto, to stay sober and comprehend the word serenity or regain the sanity I had clearly never had. I was told that I, alone, could make no real change in my life. I would need the hand of a higher power in order to get things done. I wasn’t opposed to the idea. I didn’t find it upsetting, didn’t take it personally. I was entirely prepared and willing to throw open the doors of my heart or my soul, or do whatever I needed to do. I read some beautiful books. I watched a very great many sunrises. I traveled all over looking and listening and waiting for something to come.

29:38: Eventually, I realized that the practice of listening to the silence and waiting for whatever is to come is the spiritual practice that I need. So, how did the miracle happen? When did I have the spiritual experience of the lightning bolt or any other variety? When did I get down on my knees and give it to God? I’m actually not being very sarcastic. I absolutely believe this works for people. I have no reason to doubt it. I can’t explain their sobriety any more than they can explain mine. And I have no problem with getting down on my knees, I have done it, I did it the other day with my sponsor because she told me to, and periodically I shut up. But there are a whole lot of alcoholics who get on their knees every morning and stay drunk. I have no problem giving it to God. If God’s a thing, and He wants this shit I keep in my head, He can have it.


30:20: But until He does, I have the steps. Step 12 reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps… ” It does not say, “Having had a spiritual awakening and then working the steps… ” If we do this in order we work the steps first. And we will have better luck with the whole spiritual awakening thing. Step 12 also doesn’t say, “Once we believed in God, we also believed that these steps were magic and would only work if we did them exactly according to the book.” Which does not even tell you how to do steps one through three, but we do them that way anyway, because that’s how they are done


30:52: At the risk of repeating myself it says, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps… ” And it doesn’t say what a spiritual awakening is or isn’t, it doesn’t say what a spirit is or isn’t. It doesn’t say how it awakens or what a woken spirit looks like. We have the infamous “Chapter To The Agnostic,” with all its weirdness and we have the corrective to that in the appendix on spiritual experience in which Herbert Spencer is famously quoted as saying something someone else said…



31:19: “We get ourselves all indignant, and tied in knots about the people who take the Big Book as divinely inspired final say on all things ever.” But there are people on this earth who believe this earth is only 6000 years old, and we just say, “What the hell.” And go on with our day. We are people who would not ordinarily mix.


31:39: And we get stuck on the first part of the step. Once we get past the word spiritual, the steps suggests a really simple action, like all the steps do. We’re supposed to carry this message to other alcoholics, and we are supposed to practice these principles in all our affairs. Never says what the message is, never says what the principals are.

The internet has the dozens of lists of possible principles ranging in length from three primary principles to 44, and there are surely more. The eight I’m most conscious of on a daily basis are the ones that hit closest to home. They are the ethical principles by which I didn’t live and couldn’t live while I was still drunk. There are things that helped me curb my character defects. They help me do the next right thing. There’re things I see in you: Honesty, hope, willingness, courage, integrity, discipline, perseverance, awareness, service, and love.

32:31: Those are ways of living, not tenets of any faith. These actions we take are not rules by which we abide. They are things I want that you have, and I practice them because you show me how. From “How It Works,” I know we don’t love “How It Works.” “No one among us has been able to practice anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.”


32:54: I recently got into a particularly ridiculous argument about the word spiritual with a professor of law. Who is terribly famous and impressive, if that’s your sort of thing. He informed me that my concept of spirit, indeed my whole theory of spiritual practice, yes, even the idea of spiritually itself, was flawed. I agreed. He said, “How can you defend this absurd argument about spirituality when you do not even have a working definition of what the spirit is?” I said, “I can’t.” He narrowed his eyes at me and leaned in and said, really meanly, “Madam, your notion of spirit is vague.”


33:36: Oh my God. I laughed all the way home. And I thought, “Dude, your notion of law. Let’s not even talk about your notion of law.”


33:43: Each morning I wake up and I call it a spiritual awakening. Good news, I still exist. And there is something in me that’s capable of change. Each time I run into a bear when I’m hiking, which by some cosmic conspiracy has happened more than once, and it turns out bears are bigger than you might think, is a spiritual experience. Each time I’m alone, each time I’m in a group of strangers or in the company of friends, each day I’m not drunk, each day we… Each time we slap a newborn infant into life, and she takes her first breath and leaves one animal state for another, joining the rest of us animals here on our spinning rock. Spiritual experience, as I understand it, is nothing more than an encounter with something vaster than myself. The critical moment when I’m aware of my own tininess and become truly right-sized, when I’m reminded that I am a flicker, a blink, a breath.

34:35: So I return to the Greek translation of the word spirit, the spirit is breath, the thing that is alive, the thing that causes us to think and feel, create and break down. Maybe in a year or two, we’ll know that the word spirit is accurately translated as your brain. Whatever it is, it is the stuff of human experience, perception, emotion, causation, reflection, impulse, action, dream. Spirit, I think, is the thing within us that can change. There are other much better arguments for the physics of change, entropy, times zero, chaos, fancy math. But I am just not that smart and I count on my fingers, and math does not yet tell me how to live. The principles of this program as you practice them do.

35:17: But who do I mean when I say you? Who are the people who have what I want? Do I mean you collectively, all of you? Or do I only mean the few? Do I mean those with whom I agree and those with whom I don’t? Do I want this program? Does it have anything to offer me anymore? If I see instances of intolerance or ignorance, or arrogance or prejudice, if I feel I have to hide my belief or feel the language shuts me out or feel that it would be nice to just once have my spirituality or lack there of recognized as my choice, and as a valid way of being in the world.

35:50: Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” As we go forward, I think we would do well to remember that we do belong to one another and we do belong to this Fellowship, and no one and nothing can change that fact. No one’s trying to, no one’s threatening to kick out all those crazy atheists. I do not feel that subjected to someone else’s religion when he introduces himself, as Lyle, and says that by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ, he’s sober today. If he wants to say that he can. I’m perfectly welcome to say, my name is Marya, and by a chance confluence of cosmic factors, I’m sober today. But that would be equally obnoxious and in both cases, we are probably wrong. The beauty of this program is that Lyle and I are both allowed to be wrong. As loudly and completely wrong as we want and can find a meeting in which to be wrong at any hour of the day, somewhere in this world that everyone in that meeting will recognize our wrongness and understand our story. And if we say, “I want to drink,” they won’t walk away.

36:48: The rift around religion and spirituality is hardly new, but I think now there may be this critical mass of people, whose desire for an international, non-theistic recovery community has grown intense enough that we need to make the community really come alive. But what would that community look like if we were to create a space for it and foster it’s growth? As a group, what would be our common goal? How do we fulfill our primary purpose and help the suffering alcoholic? What does unity mean if we’re setting ourselves apart? Are we deliberately causing controversy? Are we bringing in outside issues? Are we self-will run riot en mass? There are just a couple of questions that an agnostic AA community would have to face. But what we really need to know is, can we broaden the circle without breaking the bond? I think we can.

37:36: AA has gone through seismic upheavals before and survived and strengthened as a result. Most of these upheavals have been set off by issues of inclusion and exclusion. Many people have felt like outsiders in the rooms of AA, and many of them made the decision to work on healing the program from within. Countless marginalized groups have created a place for themselves in the Fellowship and have made themselves quite at home. Because it is home. They belong here, we belong here and we need to make ourselves at home as well.

We’ve been working toward inclusion in our own cities and towns for years. But this conference is a critical mass of people searching for a recovery community, that not only allows us our beliefs, but fosters our free thinking and challenges us to live better lives. This is not ultimately about agreeing on a point. This is not about what we believe, but about how we live. And this is not something that begins and ends this weekend. There is a process of building ahead.

38:30: We need an office, we need a central website, we need people who can answer the phone when the newcomer calls, people starting new meetings to welcome that newcomer, people able to make those 12-step calls. We can’t keep hiding in the corner of the room, we need to become more visible. Too many suffering alcoholics still walk away without hearing the message of recovery and hope. We need to give them a place to go. We need to be that place, that community of people who are broadening the circle so that AA can remain vital, inclusive, and alive. I want to send us out with two prayers, hold up, two wishes, two blessings, whatever you want. First, the Buddhist saying my therapist makes me say every day, which I say everyday. “May I go out into this world with curiosity and gratitude.” And the other from the theologian, Thomas Merton who wrote, “The only necessary prayer is thank you.” Thanks.



Marya’s Website

Marya’s Author Page on Amazon


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  1. John R. June 25, 2018 at 10:20 am - Reply

    btw, her book is the first one i recommend to newcomer women looking for another source besides the masculine oriented BB or 12×12.  Delightful.

  2. Gerald June 24, 2018 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Great! Just what I needed this morning to get my day started.



  3. Thomas Brinson June 24, 2018 at 9:34 am - Reply

    So wonderful to wake up this morning and to read, understanding for the first time, Marya’s warp-speed address to us in Santa Monica. I understood maybe 50% of what she said in Santa Monica because she was reading so fast. I marveled at how anyone could read that fast and still be somewhat intelligible. She’s a wise woman who gently and with great humor, mostly about herself, demonstrates to us what ideally we in Secular AA can potentially be.

    Again, thank you John for sharing with us the featured speakers from Santa Monica and Austin. It’s a perfect way to prepare us for our gathering in Toronto . . .

  4. Nancy W June 24, 2018 at 8:22 am - Reply

    Oh my. So your book has been on my nightstand for 8+ years. Suggested as good reading for a newly sober, non-believing person. For some reason, it still sits, waiting . . . . But these words today, the transcript, the back-stories, and then the two closing quotes? All I can say is wow, I think I’ve had a spiritual awakening. 👍🏻 So I’ll blow my nose and wipe my tears and say “Thanks”. Thanks.

    • John S June 24, 2018 at 8:28 am Reply

      I agree. Marya’s writing blows me away and this talk was great. I was there in the audience when she gave it, but as I read through the transcript when preparing this post, I gained a new appreciation for the effort she put in or must have put in to preparing for this talk. She is really an amazing talent. The book Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power is an excellent read and perfect for a secular person who is interested in working the Steps. Our group in KC used to read from it regularly at our meetings.

      Thanks for listening and reading, Nancy.

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