In the last weeks of outpatient treatment for alcoholism, my counselor talked to us about what was coming next. She felt it imperative that we find a weekly AA meeting that we attended no matter what. So she enjoined us to “just show up.”. If we were having trouble with the “God” word, just show up. If somebody at a meeting set our teeth on edge, just show up. If we were exhausted from a day at work and wanted to curl up with a good book or TV show, just show up. Her theory was you never know when sitting in some place with a bunch of assorted people might give you exactly what you needed to move more fully into recovery and toward something resembling a life. So in the months and years after stopping drinking, I’ve remembered that mantra and said “yes” to invitations to do things and go places that didn’t immediately sound like me. And the rewards have been significant and generous.
When a fellow AA member invited me to be part of an early morning group that walked in a quiet woodsy area near a big cemetery in town and listen for birds, I showed up though I knew no bird calls and had no binoculars. The hour we spent doing that was quiet and I learned what cardinals sound like at 8:00 a.m. It’s forty-three years later and I still listen for their distinctive call especially as spring creeps up on us in Minnesota and the big red males advertise themselves to any available females. When a friend from work wondered if I’d like to attend a lecture series at the local Unitarian Church, I showed up and enjoyed what I heard about what the Enlightenment made of ideas like the Trinity. Because I had firmly accepted that “God” could become anything he [sic] chose, I wasn’t thrilled by the humanist speaker who debunked the need for a universal force to take on human characteristics. After all, Zeus was always turning into some other form in order to have sex with yet another pretty lady. And John Keats had written a beautiful long poem, “Endymion,” about a peasant who fell in love with the moon goddess who fell in love with him. So I didn’t go to the rest of that series, but showing up helped me clarify an aspect of my own faith system.
Recently, I was reminded all over again just how wise my chemical dependency counselor was. A local dance group comprised primarily of black dancers augmented by other dancers of color and a few white people was giving a performance. I immediately asked a friend who also admires and enjoys their work if we didn’t want to get tickets and she said yes. After I’d ordered the tickets we found out this was not the usual format of the dance company’s performing at a conventional concert venue. Rather it was a collaboration between them and a well-known rock band from a neighboring state. We agreed that if the “stretch” proved be too much, we could always politely slip out of the refurbished old movie house. The result of that showing up is one of the most stimulating and moving performances I’ve seen in quite some time. The rock band agreed to write some music that stretched them because it was softer, smoother, more contemplative than their usual fare. The dancers pushed themselves to be extra athletic in some of their patterns and to push for stark unity in places where the music demanded a concerted movement because the lyrics spoke of the power of solidarity. At first, I kept thinking “Couldn’t they just turn it down a little?” since the degree of amplification was more intense than I’ve ever experienced, not having attended a rock concert indoors. By the end, as the lead band member stood and chanted words about how Jim Crow had denied people freedom of movement and expression and the dancers showed us what those denials might look and feel like, I understood through my tears that the music had to be that loud because not enough people are listening presently to words that are fraying the very fabric of our democratic society. And, because I’d put myself in that unusual context, I got the huge reward of seeing a pas de deux unlike the usual fare performed by more traditional ballet troupes or even contemporary modern dance groups. The two dancers were veiled in pale blue cloths that reminded me of Muslim head wear except both the man and the woman were so hidden. The rock band played music that tore at my heart by its sheer melancholy and lithesome tones. Again, I found myself weeping quietly as I understood that the two people I was watching stood in a direct line back to famous pairs like Nureyev and Fonteyn or the earliest French couples dancing to Petipa’s creations. It’s how I felt when Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature and I so deeply disagreed with academics who inveighed about what this decision meant to the very nature of “poetry.” Or it’s how I reacted when I heard just a week or so ago that for the first time a rapper–Kendrick Lamar–had won a Pulitzer Prize for music. I don’t want to get frozen into what can and cannot be called an art form or a serious aspect of cultural reality. So I must keep showing up and being open to who and what is offered. I may not like it all, but the only way I can experience what I did with the dancers and rock band members is to be where they are and let what they do enter my consciousness.