“I’ve saw thousands of dogwood trees, but I’ve never saw one that looked like that”.
My sponsor walked me out to my car after my 5th step. Prior to, we sat in his study for 2 1/2 hours.
I’m a land surveyor by trade. Though I now enjoy the drafting side, and rarely make it into the field, I spent the better part of 15 years in the woods. From the extreme wildlife of Louisiana, the rocky, rattlesnake prone Alabama National Forest lands (Talladega National Forest specifically), to the Blue Mountain foothills in West Virginia, I’ve been exposed to the wilderness on a very diverse level. I’ve been surrounded by trees my entire life. Here’s why. Having the ability to get a job has never been a challenge. Keeping one on the other hand, a magic trick. It’s never been my ability to remember what to do and how to do it, it’s my inability to forget. It’s the illusionary ball and chain that I’ve carried for decades.
We were painting boundary lines for the USFS in Talledega National Forest, sometime around 2007. Rattlesnakes in high altitude, steep slope, rocky terrain environments are very common. Which is convenient, because that is exactly where we were. Prior to this experience, I’ve had several encounters with snakes, spiders, bees, aggressive bulls, even a rooster pulling some sort of kickboxing maneuver on my leg. Just becomes part of the job. Nonetheless, there is something true and deadly about the rattlesnake. Things get real-real fast and in a hurry. The guy with me that day, Matt, being fairly new and not accustomed to the outdoors, was very naive to the grave nature of the situation. I watched him step down from rocks that have a slight overhang creating a perfect dry, cool spot underneath. A black hole if you will. So I’m half-ass paying attention to him, probably a quarter-ass paying attention to where I’m walking, smoking a cigarette and carrying equipment on my shoulder. The air is very clear near mountain tops, so sounds carry well. While I was taking his step inventory, I should have been taking my own. This particular rock was very typical. Most look like God threw them into the side of the mountain and they stuck. I was on top, and knowing better, I stepped one leg off the front onto the dirt below, in front of a black hole. Then the rattle. As my sponsor says, it’s not the sudden piece of cold metal to the side of your head that scares you. The real fear is thinking they may pull the trigger. I had turned sideways to scale myself down the rock, so at this point I had one leg on top of the rock and one two feet lower at the ground. On a forty degree slope, in an awkward physical twist, with a rattlesnake a foot from my calf, I ran out of ideas. So I prayed. The gift of desperation.
Matt, meanwhile, is having a come apart. He’s asking me what to do and I didn’t have an answer. I was most definitely beyond human aid at that point. The rattle had become so loud and intense it was paralyzing. Keeping the “target” leg still, I slowly started shedding my backpack, took the GPS unit off my shoulder, and sat down on the rock. I think I even lit a cigarette. After about 10 minutes of not moving, other than an uncontrollable shake, the rattle started to lose its intensity. The volume slowly went down as well. Then it just stopped. I told Matt to walk out in front of the rock to see what she was doing. She had backed into the hole about 3 foot, so I picked up my leg and stood up. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a powerful first step experience for me. I had a 100% lack of power. Also, my normal reaction to life was (sometimes still is) based on an impulsive emotional reaction. In this case, the emotional reaction (Matt’s for example) would have been either pull my leg back or step the rest of my body down, in a panic. This would’ve been a fatal mistake. Having had several encounters with snakes, I had obtained just enough wisdom to know better. Most decisions I make, if not all, in emotionally charged situations cause me pain. Sooner or later. I can easily see how that is a root cause of my unmanageability. Emotion versus wisdom seems to be the challenge of the day.
As instinctual as it is for the rattlesnake to rattle when her security is threatened, has prayer become instinctual to me. She rattled by instinct. I prayed by instinct, even being agnostic with no religious background at the time.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Powerless situations. Though I prayed, I’m unsure that I believed those prayers would save me. I did it anyway. In the past 8 months, I’ve simply did it anyway. But instead of praying a hail-mary “please don’t eat me” alligator prayer, I pray for the understanding of the alligator. I pray for the crew guys that are in the mountains today terrified of a rattlesnake encounter. I used the word bizarre for the first three months. Today the miracles I see happening to me and around me aren't bizarre at all, very natural I suppose.
Last week I did my 5th step with my sponsor, who, being 3,000 plus miles from his hometown, has guided me every step of the way. I’ve never fully understood how he hides his wings in public, but somehow he does. Afterwards, he walked me out to my car, thanking me for sharing my story with him. When we got to my Camry, he pointed out the dogwood tree that stood alongside the stall I parked in. It was daylight when I arrived, dark when I left. It was around 7:30. Being the month of April, in Nashville, the flowers and trees have just began to bloom. Portrait perfect. I think he noticed my fixation on the tree due to my inability to engage in our conversation. At 27 years sober, having done many 5th steps, I’m very curious if he knew that was going to happen when he pointed out the dogwood tree. Truth be told, between the color zoom and the object isolation ability, it was almost comparable to a mushroom trip experience in nature. Just sayin.
I’ve struggled with myself for over 24 years. Multiple trips to rehab, multiple stays at sober living homes, multiple early recovery relationships (as my sponsor says, two sick is just too sick), several half measure attempts at the steps, and way more than 2 geographical changes. More like 12. The term “fully give myself to the program” was Greek to me. Today it is not, in part due to the fact I keep the focus on right now. Some days it’s simply showing kindness in every human interaction. Pets too. It seems I have been granted the serenity to do so as a result of an under developed instinct-called prayer. One of my favorite artists is Damien Rice. He a song named “Cannonball”. One of the ending lyrics, and my personal favorite says “it’s not hard to grow-when you know that you just don’t know”.
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