by Mariellen Gilpin
I could sense that Chuck was moved to speak, and then I was moved to speak. Here’s the message Chuck shared:
Chuck had heard the backstory of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Halleluia,” which has been played often in his memory after his recent death: Leonard Cohen had just come to New York City to seek his fame and fortune. He happened to hear a street musician who was playing 6 chords and a series of progressions that Leonard Cohen was especially intrigued by. He talked the guy into coming to Cohen’s apartment and teaching him the chords and progressions. The musician was a recent immigrant, I think from Rumania, and supporting himself by being a street musician. He came to Cohen’s apartment six evenings, but the seventh evening he didn’t come. Cohen made inquiries, and learned the street musician had committed suicide. Cohen made lots of use of those chords and progressions over the course of his career, but in his mind, his “Halleluia” was a memorial to that street musician.
I pondered Chuck’s story. I pondered it a lot. Finally I spoke, seconds before the end of our hour of worship. The message wasn’t completely together yet, but the message needed to come out of the silence, rather than spoken after worship was over. So, I spoke and let the message come together for the first time in the speaking:
“Recently I heard a saying that went something like this: Relapse is a stepping stone on the way to recovery. I certainly had my share of relapses on the way to my recovery. But I am not comfortable with the verb in the saying. It’s not IS. It’s more like the verb needs to be CAN BE: A relapse can be a steppingstone on the way to recovery.
“When I look back at my journey to recovery, I realize my husband’s emotional support was a very important factor. But I’m also remembering my grandmother this morning. I’m remembering when I was four years old and the two of us were walking hand in hand toward the gate that led to the hog barn. My grandmother always carried a stout stick, which she used to help her walk. She never talked about it with me, but somehow I intuited that my little hand helped her walk. It’s not that she depended on my hand to support her as she walked. I am now the age she was then, and I think probably holding my hand helped her know where she was in space—that I was a source of a little extra data that she needed to function.
“As we walked toward the gate to the hog barn, my grandmother told me I was not to go with her into the barn, as I usually did, to feed the hogs. One of the hogs was about to give birth, and was extra-irritable and might hurt me—and also lose her little unborn pigs. I was to stay outside the gate, and also be very quiet while my grandmother fed the pigs and made sure the mama pig was all right. A full-grown pig about to give birth probably weighed 350 pounds, and she had a mouthful of sharp and menacing teeth. Grandmother warned me the mama pig might come right through the gate out of the hog enclosure if she was upset. Then Grandma walked through the gate and shut it behind her.
“I stood there on my side of that gate while my grandmother disappeared inside the barn, alone with the pigs. I listened and listened. There was no sound while she was inside the barn. Finally she finished her job and silently came out of the barn and through that gate.
“Talk about profiles in courage! My grandmother was not only a profile in courage, but also a profile in empathy. Yes, we ate our pigs and sold them for meat. But my grandmother had a very strong feeling that those pigs were fellow creatures. I am also very aware that she took the time and thought, and empathy, to make me aware of the factors in the situation that made this particular journey to feed the hogs—a daily occurrence in my life—unusually dangerous. A little kid to an angry mama pig could look an awful lot like prey. My grandmother took care of me, not by protecting me, but by teaching me to be observant of the nuances in a situation.
“Whenever I had another relapse, I could have simply despaired like that street musician. I remembered my grandmother, and instead I thought about why I made the mistakes that caused the latest relapse. I chose to become more aware of the nuances—to look for the pattern and thus learn from my mistakes, and keep learning, so that a relapse could become a steppingstone to recovery.”