Another wonderful section of Mary Karr’s memoir of addiction and recovery, Lit, tells of how God chose to speak profoundly to her through the mouth of a total nut (and fellow addict). Obviously the Bible offers great precedent for this kind of thing (what we like to call The Nazareth Principle), but it’s nonetheless remarkable to hear of such occurrences in more modern contexts. Of course, Alcoholics Anonymous–the subject and setting of much of the book–embodies this idea. Crazy people in AA meetings often say smart things. Balaam’s ass might as well be the movement’s mascot.
In this excerpt, Mary recounts the experience of trying to invalidate the AA program by revealing that the crazy people in AA are incapable of offering sound advice. In it, she seeks counsel about her failing marriage from a schizophrenic named Jack. Whether or not you agree with Jack’s “advice”, it’s obvious that, to Mary, who happens to be an accomplished poet of the highest order, the unexpected expression meant a great deal, cutting through her baloney like a knife. It’s also a powerful description of the paradox of surrender, namely, we should, we can’t, then we do. The recollection begins as Mary is en route to an AA meeting, ht JZ:
“In climbs big-footed David, red bandana around his head, along with a guy from our group named Jack.
Jack of the red curly hair, skitter-eyed Jack, who – on being introduced to me first – explained that he had a little touch of the schizophrenia, as he held his index finger one inch from thumb. Mostly he stays medicated enough to hold down a job at the box factory. But he once showed up to arrange chairs with tinfoil over his head molded into a knight’s helmet with a kind of swan shape on top, convinced his girlfriend was beaming messages to him through the radio. It’s a tribute to the radical equality of the room that I never overheard anybody ever challenge the reasoning…
I think with rue of (my sponsor) Joan the Bone’s injunction to ask the first person I saw about my marriage. I’m still angling to prove what crazy bullshit her much vaunted surrender-to-the-group concept is. Whatever Jack’s brief spells of clarity, he rarely goes to a meeting without jabbering out something nutty.
Eventually, I wind down and ask, what should I do? And I wait for the word salad of his scrambled cortex to spew forth. Instead, his eyes meet mine evenly, and he says – as it seems everybody says – You should pray about it.
But what if I don’t believe in God? It’s like they’ve sat me in front of a mannequin and said, Fall in love with him. You can’t will feeling.
What Jack says issues from some still, true place that could not be extinguished by all the schizophrenia his genetic code could muster. It sounds something like this:
Get on your knees and find some quiet space inside yourself, a little sunshine right about here. Jack holds his hands in a ball shape about midchest, saying, Let go. Let go. Surrender, Dorothy, the witch wrote in the sky. Surrender, Mary.
I want to surrender but have no idea what that means.
He goes on with a level gaze and a steady tone: Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It’s a cathedral. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on. And pray to be an instrument of peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is conflict, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope…
What if I get no answer there?
If God hasn’t spoken, do nothing. Fulfill the contract you entered into at the box factory, amen. Make the containers you promised to tape and staple. Go quietly and shine. Wait. Those not impelled to act must remain in the cathedral…
He kisses his index finger and plants it in the middle of my forehead, and I swear it burns like it had eucalyptus on it. Like a coal from the archangel onto the mouth of Isaiah. (pp. 230-231, 233-234)
On separate Mary Karr-related note, she and Rodney Crowell released an album of songs this past week! Titled Kin, and featuring performances by Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, among others, it sounds amazing.