December 29, 2017

Vagabond Traveler: The Promised Land…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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Living in the Promiseland,
Our dreams are made of steel.
The prayer of every man
Is to know how freedom feels.

There is a winding road
Across the shifting sand.
And room for everyone,
Living in the Promiseland.

—Willie Nelson, lyrics
___________________________

It seemed like an ordinary morning, a few weeks ago. Well, almost. It had snowed some, the night before. Just barely covered the ground. I grumbled to myself as I cleaned my truck, and got it all warmed up. Winter sure seems to be creeping in. I drove on down to Sheetz to grab my coffee, like I always do. And then I settled into my nice warm truck, to head to work. Such are my scattered memories, near as I can gather them, looking back.

I drove out and turned left. There was some light snow on the road. But I never gave it a thought. I accelerated out, then slowed up, to cross the railroad tracks. Bump, bump. I stepped on the gas again. And exactly right then, my world spun around and out of control. I’m talking literally, when you’re looking out the window.

My truck suddenly lunged out of the right lane. I can’t quite remember, it all happened so fast. I think my back wheels pushed around to the right. Ice. There was a layer of black ice under the thin blanket of snow. As the truck shot into the left lane, I instinctively stomped the brakes (big mistake) and yanked the steering wheel to the right. The wheels grabbed, and I was shooting toward the right ditch. So I reversed the wheel turning. To the left. The back was coming around. I was helpless. I haven’t felt that helpless in a long, long time.

There are a few things that happen, when you spin out on ice. Well, a few things that I remember. First, you grasp in a split second how utterly helpless you are. I remember that feeling of surprise and fear, when I realized my truck was out of control. And I remember one other thing about that moment. I remember looking ahead and around, to see if there was any other traffic, anywhere close. Thankfully, there was not. Not a car in sight, at least not anywhere close. So that much was established in my brain. If you hit something when you’re spinning, it won’t be another vehicle.

I don’t know. I was going twenty-five, maybe thirty. Not that fast, really. Except on ice, it’s fast. Oh, yes. It is. And the next two to three seconds were just about the wildest ride I’ve ever had on the road in any vehicle, anywhere. I had never, never had any kind of road accident before. Never, not even for a scratch. That history of clean driving was about to go the way of the dinosaur, for me. It was a wonder I ever held on as long as I did. But now it was over.

Big Blue kept sliding from one side of the road to the other. And then my truck just spun all the way around, clockwise. The tail end swooshed into someone’s yard, missed a telephone pole by less than six inches, and crunched into the little Railroad Crossing sign that was planted less than two feet from the telephone pole. The little sign flattened to the ground like a broken weed. The driver’s side tail light popped out and shot across the yard like it was propelled from a gun. And my truck finally shuddered to a stop, back in my own lane. Sadly, it was facing the wrong way.

Way back at the light on Rt. 23, several cars had crossed and were creeping my way. I blinked my headlights, then slowly crept off the road, into the drive of some commercial business. I parked and got out. I mean, I wasn’t hurt, or anything. But I was a good deal shook up. Whatever had happened wasn’t a fraction as bad as what could have happened. Had a car been approaching in the other lane, well, I could be with Jesus now. And had the rear of my truck crunched into that telephone pole, Big Blue would have been totaled. Those two equations shot through my head before too many seconds had passed.

There was a good solid dent bashed into the driver’s side, behind the rear wheel, just in front of the tail light. Looking at that dent, and what I did hit showed me how close I had come to smashing into the telephone pole. It was less than six inches. I calculated it all out later. Right that moment, I was worried about one thing. Did my truck still run, or was it damaged underneath, where I couldn’t see?

It wasn’t damaged underneath. I could still drive it. So I got back in and headed on toward my place of work. Very carefully and very shakily. And that little story is why I chatted with my Allstate agent later that morning. It’s also why I stopped at Enterprise and picked up a nice gray Jeep Wrangler (four-door) late that afternoon, and parked my truck at a local body shop in New Holland. I was turning in my first auto insurance claim, ever, for anything. And Allstate has been a real class act so far, I gotta say.

And my little spin-out that morning, well, I’ve looked back over it in just about every way there is to look at it. It was a tale of inches. Six inches one way, and I would have missed everything, would have driven off, blithe and scot-free. Like I always had, up until that morning. Six inches the other way, and Big Blue would have been totaled by the telephone pole. As it was, the little Railroad Crossing sign inflicted some damage and a lot of inconvenience. So it could have gone a lot better. And it could have gone a lot, lot worse. I guess I’ll settle for what actually happened and accept it. As if there is a choice. But still. There are different ways to calm your heart.

I’ve thought a lot about that morning, those road conditions, and what happened to me that had never happened before. Mulled over it a lot. And I gotta say. That morning was a microcosm of what my whole year has been like in a lot of ways. I was spinning out of control for more days than not, I think. I was walking calm, about half the time. At least I told myself that. But for most of the year, there was so much going on out of my control that I forgot to control the parts of life that I could. I’ve been there before, more times than I care to admit. And when I forget to control the parts of life that I can, it usually boils down to one word. Whiskey. Somehow, somewhere back there, I had chosen to embrace the one nemesis that can never be fully and finally slain.

It’s always a choice. Everything you do is. And there is only one person in all creation who is responsible for your choices. You. Always. Talk to me about addiction all you want, and how tough that life is. It still boils down to how you choose to deal with the aftermath of your previous choices. And no, that’s not trite or harsh. It’s just reality. I know what it is to be addicted. I know how hard it is. Trust me. I know, way better than I want to.

So, anyway. That’s where I was, for about the first eight months of this year. There was a lot of tension flowing around, for different reasons. My book was being shopped on the open market. And word from the field was sparse. There were other things going on, too. Other pressure points. There were. And I went for the “easy” way to deal with the stress of it all. I reached for the bottle. And I drank hard every day. It was a choice. It seemed like a choice I wanted to make. The easiest choice, on a table full of hard ones.

I had a heart checkup in June. About every six months or so, good old Dr. B summons me in. Does the basic stuff. Heart rate and blood pressure. And the big ten-thousand-dollar question. How’s your heart beating? Is the A-Fib back? I was nervous about that checkup, back in June, as the day crept up. So about two weeks before, I stopped drinking. Cold. As far as I knew, my heartbeat was pretty steady. But still. It couldn’t hurt to clean up a bit. Get the alcohol out of my system.

The day arrived, and I went in. And so help me, this is true. That very morning, I could feel my heart beating wrong. Erratic. I knew it before Dr. B told me in a sad voice. “You are in A-Fib.” We talked about it, and I told him I was nervous. He upped my dose of the one med I take, and told me to come back in six months. And this, too, is true. The next day, I checked my heart rhythm every hour for half a day. Solid and steady as a rock. Good grief. I called Dr. B’s office, and left a message. My heartbeat is back to regular.

But still. I knew the alcohol was affecting my heart in a bad way. I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it was. But I knew.

A little bunny trail, here. Sometimes you hear people say, when mentioning someone who passed on. “He drank himself to death.” And it is understood exactly what is meant by that statement. It’s something like this. Oh. That kind of man. Yeah, he sure didn’t have much self-control. He wasted his life away. He sure loved the bottle. He drank all that hard liquor. What a sinner. We can only hope he repented at the last second, and maybe just squeaked through the door into heaven. Probably not, but we won’t know for sure until we get there. If he made it, he’s probably stuck in a little room way down in the basement somewhere. We’ll have to go looking for him.

That’s what people think to themselves and mutter to each other. Not me. I don’t go there. I understand completely when I hear that someone drank himself to death. I understand the pain and loss and bitter sorrow that such a person could not face. I know the monsters that lurk in the recesses of the mind and in the dark corners of the heart. I know, because I deal with my own demons of what was and what might have been. I hear those voices calling in the night. I understand, because I poked my head through that door and looked around a bit. And I gotta say. It’s not a terribly scary place. I wasn’t frightened there, in that room where death is. I understand why people go there. And I understand why people choose to stay there.

It was pretty normal, what I thought to myself and what I spoke back then, when I was drinking hard. Let the book deal come through, I told God. Let me get it written, and then I’m done. I don’t care, after that. Just let me last that long. That all I got to live for. That’s how far I had stuck my head through that door. To get to where it seemed rational, such thinking. I knew it was a lie. But it was a lie I chose to believe. It was like my truck was spinning on the black ice, out of control. I felt helpless and hopeless.

People around me could tell there was something going on inside me, and that it wasn’t going all that great. Nobody said much. Not until two close friends told me, separately and privately. “You are not well. Your eyes look bad. The whiskey’s getting to you.” The weird thing was, those two friends didn’t even know each other. They still don’t. That jolts you, to hear two voices saying the same thing from two completely different places like that. And you hesitate, in mid stride. I have to at least hear what was spoken to me. Is it true? Be honest with yourself. And right there it is, one of life’s hard and fast rules. Be honest with yourself. I fought hard, not to be.

Somehow, a few slivers of light penetrated my brain. Just enough so I drew back from that destructive door I was hell-bent on walking through. Stop. Make sure this is where you want to go, before you step through. I mulled the thing over in my head for weeks. And I saw it. There. That other door is the one you want, not this one. And I wasn’t real sure how to get from the wrong door to the right one. Or that I actually had what it took to open the right door, once I got there.

I didn’t set out on a big, majestic quest, or anything. I just turned from the wrong door and stumbled along aimlessly, without a lot of hope in my heart. And then, one day, the right door inched open. And from somewhere, there came a mustard seed of faith. It was almost lackadaisical, how I chose to step through that door. I just decided one night. I’m going to quit drinking until I get a better handle on things. That’s it. There were no promises. No vows. Not to God. Not to myself. Not to anyone else. Just a simple, almost offhand decision.

And in the distance, the dragon of fear stood to block my passing, belching all the fire and smoke and noise and rage that only such a dragon can. I clutched my sword and tried to look brave. It was hard, not to turn and flee.

I remember the evening clearly, when it happened. Or didn’t happen. It was a Tuesday night, the last one in August. And I told the guys at Bible Study. There’s something going on. I’m not sure what. But I’m going to have to get a grip on things. The whiskey. It’s getting to me. And we talked about it openly, me and those guys. I would trust any one of them with my life. They would support me, they said, without judgment and without expectations. They meant it, too. If things got too hard, I could call on any of them at any time of any day or any night. I walked out of there, still not quite knowing. That night, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a drink when I got home. You can always make it through one night, I figured. I guess the future will take care of itself.

And it has. I have not had a drop of alcohol since that late August evening after the Bible Study. It’s always for today, that I’m quitting. Maybe tomorrow, too, but for sure only today. There are no promises. There are no expectations. There is only a man, walking along, with a heart of gratitude to God for all of life. That’s it. That’s all.

I don’t know where it will end, or how, or if it even will. I do know this. I’m the type of guy who can be cruising right along. And then, without a whiff of warning, I can go and buy a bottle of single malt scotch and knock it back in two nights. I can easily do that. And so far, I always have, at some point. But until such a time approaches, until temptation calls relentlessly from the old door, I’ll keep walking.

A long time ago, the Lord’s people were wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. They had fled Egypt decades before. And there were many misadventures. This had happened and that had happened. The people were compelled to wander the earth for forty years, until all of the old generation had died. And even their leader, Moses, was barred from entering the Land of Canaan. But before he died, Moses was led up to a high place on a mountain. “Look over there, across the valley,” he was told. “That right there is the Promised Land. The land where I will lead my people.” Moses got to see. But he never got to enter.

The first few days were the fires of hell. Being dry, I mean. And the first few weeks, as well, in waves. The thought was constant, gnawing in my head. A drink. I need a drink. After work, it was all I could do to wrestle Big Blue straight home, instead of heading over to Vinola’s. Somehow, I hung in there. I talked about it before, here on the blog. Almost immediately, the weight started washing from me. More than a pound a day. And that’s what kept me on the right path early on, I think. The weight. I was ashamed and beyond weary of being a big, fat slob. I was done being embarrassed at how I looked in polite company. Never again. That’s what I told myself. That’s what I thought. I never want to be this slovenly again. And day followed day, as night followed night.

Forty-five days. That’s what Sam the Counselor told me years ago, when I was thinking about putting the bottle down for a season. Forty-five days is how long it takes for your body to break free from the physical effects of drinking. After that, you’re clean. After that, you’re free, if you can stay that way. So that’s what I focused on, there at the start. Lord. Let me have forty-five days of freedom. Let me get to that place. And then, let come what may.

After those first few days and weeks, the fires of hell diminished a great deal. I watched what I ate, and didn’t eat a lot of that. And somewhere in those early days, I talked to my buddy, Mike the Barber. By then, I was grooming up a little, starting to take pride in how I dress and how I look. And I told Mike. I put the bottle down. I’m quitting, for now. I don’t know for how long. But it’s here and now. I got some serious writing coming up, I think. The vodka is done. And Mike cheered.

He’s a few years older than me, and he came from a similar place, years ago. He drank hard, every day. And he went to rehab, whatever that is. I’ve never “gone to rehab.” Not saying I shouldn’t have. I just never did. Anyway, Mike got himself cleaned up. He was told he would have to attend AA meetings for the rest of his life. He wasn’t having any of that. He figured it out for himself. I’m not knocking anyone who goes to AA. I’m just saying Mike didn’t. And that day, when I told him what I was doing, or wasn’t, he spoke life to me in a way that few people ever have.

He looked at me. And then he said. “When you wake up with a clear head, each morning is a new high.” I absorbed those words. It’s a code I have claimed and lived by since that moment. Each morning is a new high. It is. It really is.

And moving along, then, in this little tale of trucks spinning on ice and the Promised Land. The days moved on, then the weeks. And after six weeks or so, the pounds slid off a lot harder. I looked at the situation. And I thought to myself. If you’re gonna get down to the weight you want, you’re going to have to starve yourself. I don’t see any other way. And then we all know what happens when you quit starving yourself. All that big fat slob weight will come roaring back, the same as if you had never lost it. That’s what happens.

And so I was open to another road. Standing at a door leading to I knew not where. And just about then, my good friend, Ava Shank, came strolling along and nudged me online. “Here,” she said. “I’ve been walking this path over here, and it works pretty well. You should try it. I think it’s exactly what you need.” The path she pointed to? Intermittent fasting.

It was almost as lackadaisical as my decision to quit drinking was. I checked out the links she sent me. Researched things a bit. Eventually, I even ordered the book. Fasting is very much the “in” thing these days. It’s trendy. But does it work? That was my only concern. And then, back in early November, I decided to do it. I went to eating one meal a day. It was no big deal. I’ve never been a big eater. The alcohol was what made me bloated and heavy. So it was very simple for me to cut back to one meal a day. And the thing about that is, there are no limits. For that one meal, you can eat whatever you’re hungry for, and as much of that as you want. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the last seven weeks or so. Eating as much as I want of whatever I’m hungry for, once a day. I always finish off with a big old bowl of ice cream, topped with butterscotch. Now that’s the kind of “diet” I can wholeheartedly endorse.

Ira black vest

I love it. All the weight I had lost before has stayed off. Plus a little bit more. Not that I weigh myself much. But I’ve dropped a total of thirty-five pounds. Heading for forty. I’ve been shrinking where I need to shrink. My face is thinner than it’s been in decades. I keep notching up my belts, making new holes with a leather punch I bought for that reason. I’m wearing jeans that had been stacked in the corner, never to fit me again. But they are fitting. My winter coats are getting baggy. I figure to make this a long-term lifestyle. Although, like the alcohol, the less I think about it or plan, the better it will go, I figure, too. I feel great. Actually, I feel fantastic. Better than I’ve felt in twenty years. And Mike the Barber’s little observation holds true. I feel it, breathe it, when I wake up every day.

Each morning is a new high.

And I saw it coming at me, as December came knocking on the door. It was soon time for my six-month checkup for my heart. Time to go see Dr. B again. It was on my mind some. And that morning last week, when I got up, I told myself. Stop being nervous. You are feeling great. You should be good to go.

Early afternoon. I drove to the Heart Group in Lancaster and signed in. A nurse led me to a little room and checked my vitals. Blood pressure was totally optimal. My resting heart rate was sixty-one beats a minute. Sixty-one. That’s the lowest heart rate I can ever remember. The most relaxed I’ve ever been.

And then Dr. B came bounding into the room. We shook hands. I told him. I’m feeling better than I have in a long, long time. Decades. I told him about the lifestyle changes I had made in the last few months. No alcohol. The intermittent fasting, I told him about that, too. I have one meal a day. He looked at me, astounded. And he checked out my heartbeat. Deep breath, front, front. And deep breath, back, back. Perfect. We kept on chatting. I told him about the offer for my second book. I’m getting ready to wade in, to tackle some serious writing. He got all excited about that.

And he told me, “You look fantastic. You look alive. Your heart is strong and steady. Whatever you are doing, keep right on doing it.” He went on. “In my practice, almost all the people I see are sliding downward, at one speed or another. Some are slipping down slow. And some are sliding fast. It is beautiful and rare to see you actually grasping life, and making great choices. You have good things happening, here. I love it. Keep it up.”

I figure to do that, I said. Life is a beautiful thing. Each morning is a new high. It really is. But I’ll tell you right up front. I make no promises about anything. It is what it is, today. That’s all. Nothing more, and nothing less. Today is all I got. It’s all I ever had. He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I understand. But you will never let the alcohol control you again. That’s what I’m sensing.” Yes, I said. Yes. That. The whiskey will never control me again.

We wrapped it up, then. He reduced my one remaining med to practically zero. Then he told me to come back for a checkup in a year if I want to. There will be no more summons. The ball is completely in my court. I thanked him. I’ll drop off a copy of my second book when it gets published, I told him. We high-fived on that note. And then I floated on out of there. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I don’t dance, but I felt like doing a little waltz, out there in the parking lot.

I’m not sure what the Promised Land looks like. The land where milk and honey flows. The land where you know how freedom really feels. The land Moses saw, but could not enter.

I don’t know what that land looks like. But I figure it’s probably something close to the world I’m living in right now.

Happy New Year to all my readers.

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(14 Comments) »

  1. We all pass this way only once, and it is good to look up and live and be able to feel inside the way God meant you to feel. You are so blessed that you have been made whole again and can be an inspiration to others. People can tell if you know Him by the way you have chosen to live. All of us come to this crossroad, but few pass out of the darkness into the light.

    Comment by carol ellmore — December 29, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

  2. Great blog, and I’m looking forward to the next book!

    Morale is a hard thing to quantify, but it is one of the most real yet unspoken things we all have to deal with, I’m thinking.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — December 29, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

  3. Some years you just sense that it’s time to take stock of where the heart and brain are, and that the alignment needs to happen now, before it’s too late. My issue isn’t addiction but it is a negative thought process nonetheless. I am committing myself to tackle it once and for all. We only have today to make that promise real. But God gives us today. And the ability to make the change. What else could we ever hope for but that gift and a new year to be even stronger in that life that has goodness as its center. Stay strong, Ira!

    Comment by Pam Moore — December 29, 2017 @ 9:04 pm

  4. I feel fat – and just getting fatter. Everyone tells me “Walk, just walk.” But it doesn’t happen. I am always tired. I love food. I told the Chiropractor I was buying an exercycle. He said “if you won’t walk, you won’t use the bike.” My wife agrees with them. But I will exercise. If you can do what you have done, I can too. I will workout on the bike – today.
    Thank you, Ira.

    Comment by OSIAH HORST — December 29, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

  5. Glad you are okay after that harrowing experience. We all have something in our lives we have to overcome. Thank you for showing us it can be done one day at a time. A happy, healthy, and blessed New Year to you. I leave you tonight with the following quote from Stephen Covey:

    “Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.”

    Comment by Rosanna F. — December 29, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

  6. Another great story of the Gospel in blue jeans! Redemption of the crooks and crevices in our bodies and lives. Real physical stuff you can hang your hat on. Or vest and tie. Or belt, however the case may be. And your heart and soul. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”

    Comment by Ava — December 30, 2017 @ 10:51 am

  7. I can read the excitement and joy in your post. So very happy for you!

    Comment by Luann — December 30, 2017 @ 10:54 am

  8. I think as adults we are accountable and responsible for the choices we make. The things that happened in our childhood, we are not responsible.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — December 30, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

  9. Thank you for this post. It was an absolute joy for me to read. One more time you wrote something I needed to hear. Thanks.
    God Bless and may you have a Very Happy New & Prosperous Year.

    Linda

    Comment by Linda Morris — December 30, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

  10. Happy New Year to you, Ira. My ‘whiskey’ is different. It’s food. Thank you for gifting us with this raw and beautiful blog.

    Comment by J — December 31, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

  11. You’re feeling good and looking good, too. May this good time for you continue during 2018 and beyond.

    Comment by forsythia — December 31, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

  12. Thanks for your share. Like someone else said we all have our “somethings”. Brennan Manning wrote “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and I recently read his memoirs which dripped with grace. That’s something we Christians struggle with. It’s hard to believe we as humans can and do spit in the face of a Father who loves us beyond our comprehension, who thinks about us every second of the day, who delights in us, who hurts when we hurt, who has promised to never leave us, who gives us all sorts of wonderful things we don’t deserve, and who died so that we could one day live in paradise with Him. That after we (His virgin brides) are done prostituting ourselves out to everything that will kill us holds His arms open and weeps for us when He sees us walking up the lane with our heads hung in shame. Every single time He welcomes us back.
    Our many sins point to one thing-His grace.

    Comment by Francine — January 2, 2018 @ 2:51 am

  13. Many times the people around me have heard the words.If it still worked,I would still be doing it,in reference to my relationship with King Alcohol.There were many good years with him,fun times,great times actually.He helped me forget the things I didn’t like about myself. Introverted, shy,never knowing what to say,and feeling like I wasn’t a part of whatever was going on around me for instance.He took care of the fears and anxiety that seemed to come out of nowhere.He was a magical elixar,the greatest thing since sliced bread ,I thought.And so it went,this relationship,for almost 20 years.Then,over those years things gradually started changing.He started taking charge.If he wasn’t a part of my life on an almost daily basis,the fear,anger,rage almost,and anxiety,along with paranoia popped up.Quickly.Deep seated stuff.And King Alcohol ,well,he wasn’t very good anymore at taking those feelings away.In fact,he became the one bringing them.What to do?Darkness.Incomprehensible demoralization.The realization that thru those years there had been church memberships.Four of them.Old Order up to liberal Mennonite.There was a spiritual path in them.Just not mine.And deep down I knew it.What was wrong with me?A family member made some suggestions.A group of people,an organization that dealt with alcohol problems.Really?Me,the one who had all the answers,go to a place like that?Nah,they couldn’t help.They didn’t know where I came from or who I was.I was special.But,I was at a place where a struggle was going on.A big struggle.Did I want to live or did I want to die?Living finally won out and I went.Grudgingly.Didnt want to be in those rooms or around those people.It was more to try to get the wife back,going to those meetings, especially in the beginning.And yet even in my darkness,I sensed power, moments of clarity,a spiritual path,the God and his grace I had rejected,when I hung around those people.They knew how to live.They told me to keep coming back.Its been close to three decades now.Life has been up and down.Its not gone the way I wanted it to go,rather the way God and his grace wants it to go.I am connected today.To God.The people around me .Life and all it’s situations.So,Ira,you poured out your heart.I get it.One has to do it to fully know it.And I hear you.Peace to all….

    Comment by lenny — January 2, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

  14. i’m happy for you

    Comment by lisa — January 7, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

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