April 18, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Last night’s Sicker than Most was delightfully DIY and fun! If you missed it, mark your calendar for May 16 at 7:30.

I enjoy hearing from each of you. A couple dozen Hope members have contacted me over the past month, and each conversation has been meaningful. Do keep (or begin) calling—not just me, but anyone you’ve got in your phone, and ask how people are doing. Really. Likewise with texts and Facebook messages. Human contact matters more now than ever.

When I do talk with Hope folks, three questions get asked almost every time. I’ll give you the questions and the answers here, but I want to continue communicating with you.

  1. How are you doing, Keith?

Honestly, I’m doing great, and wish everyone else was as well. Most of you know before I came to Hope I spent about a year living alone in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods, a few miles from the Canadian border. Given cold and snow up there, I got used to not seeing anyone else for days at a time, and since I was living in the Tiny White Box, I got really good at amusing myself by writing and reading and listening to books, music and podcasts. Most of you also know that in mid-February I bought a house north of  Concord. It’s a log cabin on a few acres abutting conservation land and with a pond across the road. Lucy and I, along with my oldest daughter and her two cats, are comfortably hunkered down and most of the boring parts of my job can be done from home using a computer and Zoom. The important part of my job—interacting with people in recovery and trying to make sure each of us makes it one more day without using—is what I miss.

2. How is Lucy doing?

Lucy is an extraordinarily adaptable dog, and seems to enjoy her life of walks in the woods, trying to terrify cats, begging for scraps and sleeping on the couch. That said, she’s also a mission-driven dog, and I know she misses her work at Hope, which I think she defines as making sure people are either sitting in the front or going into meetings. Overall, Lucy is doing as well as possible and better than many.

3. When will Hope Reopen?

Hope will reopen when it’s safe to do so.

I know how simple and unsatisfying an answer that is, and that it immediately creates another question:

  • How will you know when it’s safe?

Now it’s time for a longer, more complex and even less satisfying answer. We will know it’s safe when:

  1. Various government agencies tell us it’s safe. While the federal and state governments get all the press, it’s really the City of Manchester’s Health Department that carries the most weight in our decision. Anna Thomas, the city’s Public Health Director, is a great supporter of Hope and an even more dedicated advocate for public health. When Mayor Joyce Craig and Anna announce it’s safe for places to reopen, we’ll start considering it.
  2. We’ve weighed the safety in light of our membership and its health needs. Most folks enter recovery having ignored their physical health for a long, long time, whether because of the fog of addiction or fear of being identified by a health provider. Personally, I know I was 15 pounds underweight, hadn’t seen a doctor in two years and, although I didn’t find this out until two years into recovery, had Hepatitis C. Nobody knows the exact risks of malnutrition, Hep C or HIV on the spread or severity of Coronavirus, but I know Hope has an obligation to protect its members, especially the ones who don’t know they need protection.
  3. We’ve determined how social distancing will affect everything at Hope, from meetings to coaching to card games.  As a very simple example, the noontime NA meeting has regularly drawn 50 people, yet the large meeting room can only have 17 or so people if we’re going to maintain social distancing. 

(Math Check: a 20’ X 25’ room has an area 500 square feet. A circle with a diameter of 6’ has an area of about 29 square feet. Five hundred divided by 29 is about 17.2.)

Using technology, we’re preparing ways to make recovery meetings possible, meaningful and safe. The Hope staff is working thoughtfully and diligently to identify challenges and solutions to this and dozens of other areas where going back to Before won’t be possible.

Soon, I’ll be in touch with all of you through these letters, asking for advice, energy and insight into the most creative answers. Really. I believe in the wisdom of the crowd, and know some of you are among the smartest folks I’ve ever known. Things will change. Life will get better. And

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

April 18, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Most of us have had the experience of walking down the street and looking into a shop window, seeing a reflection and having it magically become . . . YOU! It’s jarring, the same way finding yourself in a group photograph provides a flash of recognition. From that point on, the picture becomes fundamentally different—it’s a photo of you among a hundred people instead of a group portrait. That frisson of excitement, for me at least, is a shock to the subconscious, as if they reminded me that I exist outside of my own mind.

Tarot cards do the same thing, at least for me.  

I like Tarot cards. No, I don’t think they predict the future or provide any mystical insight—and I rarely if ever involve anyone else in the process of reading them. Instead, they mirror my subconscious, giving me a different view of how my mind works, sort of like the three-sided tailor’s mirror that lets you see how a suit fits on you—or what either of your ears really looks like. Feeling my emotional reaction as I turn over each Tarot card offers insight to the deeper me, just like my response to music.

Over the journey across the Sea of Now, I’ve found my musical tastes and desires changing. While living in the Land of Before, I’d listen to particular songs or certain Bands. For instance, I might put on “It Makes No Difference,” then remember how much I like The Band, and set my phone to shuffle every Band recording from 1968 to 1975. Since the onset of self-quarantining, though, I’ve wanted to listen to albums with the tracks playing each song in the order it was first released. Whether this is a momentary quirk or the sign of some major change, I don’t know.

I’m thoroughly enjoying listening to music in this way. Usually, I’m painting while listening, or cooking or doing dishes. (I do long for my misspent youth, when I could put on, say, Brain Salad Surgery, and simply listen to it.) As a soundtrack to my day, though, listening to this music in this prescribed way has made everything a little easier to take.

In no particular order, here are 10 or so albums I’ve especially enjoyed during this period of anxiety and dimness.  The dates are when these records first entered my life, not necessarily their release date:
Bruce Cockburn. Inner City Front (1982)
Elvis Costello. King of America (1987)
Paul Simon.  Hearts and Bones (1982)
Lou Reed. Growing Up in Public (1980)
Tonio K. Yugoslavia (2000)
Bob Dylan. Street Legal (1977)
Dar Williams. End of the Summer (2000)
Ani DiFranco. Living in Clip (2000)
David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1977)
Todd Snider. Songs for the Daily Planet (1998)
Marianne Faithful. Broken English (1987)

Looking over the list, there are only a few commonalities. They’re not necessarily the best song collections by any of these artists, and they are almost certainly not the best selling either. In fact, other than Broken English, I don’t think any of these albums is likely to be the favorite of many fans. Instead, they’re songs that touched me in some way at a tender spot in my life. Since today is one of the tenderest spots in our nation’s history, maybe they’ll do the same for you. Whether they do or not, they’re still worth a listen. At least to me.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
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April 17, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Saturday night may be good for fighting. Saturday night may be the time you remember you ain’t got nobody. Saturday night may, if you’re a woman of a certain age be S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!

THIS Saturday night, though, is the Second Virtual Sicker Than Most Show! See and hear other folks in recovery sing, dance, juggle goldfish and who knows what else. While last month’s show was, in the words of one critic, “a fantastic fecal festival,” this month your musical host, the one-and-only Andy Ryan aka The Man of a Million Aliases may actually show up at the beginning of the show instead of 20 minutes in.

Seriously, Sicker Than Most is the best examples of creative community I’ve ever seen. From slick musicianship to clever comedians to heartfelt poetry to lip-syncing to Bruce Springsteen, Sicker Than Most has it all. What’s most exciting to me, though, is the audience reaction—every performer is gratefully applauded for taking the positive risk of standing on stage, or in this case, appearing on camera, and letting themselves be known. It’s truly beautiful. Join us!

Among my many secret hopes is that I’ve got talents buried deep inside me just waiting to be discovered. For instance, because I’ve never planted vegetables, if I did, perhaps I’d find out I can raise the best cucumbers in the Northeast. Or, if I just bought a harmonica maybe I’d be a great blues harpist. Even: given enough marble, a hammer and a chisel, maybe I’d unearth a stunning sculpture. My dreams nourish me as long as I never wake up and try to turn them into reality. When I do, those dreams usually but not always melt into stark reality.

Let me give two examples:

  1. As you know, I am an old man. Eighteen months ago, when I was a slightly younger old man, I turned 60 on November 17. The night before was a Sicker Than Most Show where I lived out a childhood ambition and performed seven or 10 minutes of standup. My material may not have been up to professional standards, and I’m sure my performance was stilted, but you’d never have known it from the audience. They laughed, sometimes at the right places even, then clapped much more than politely at the end. If my mother were alive, she would have been proud (and ashamed, since much of the material was, shall we say, blue). It was a magical evening of my dream coming true.
  2. Dawn Desjardins, the manic pixie dreamgirl who works at Hope, came up with a great idea earlier this week—the Hope staff performing as an ensemble at Sicker Than Most. Dawn’s idea was we’d join together in singing a song, an uplifting anthem. Dawn is kind and sincere. When we discussed it as a group the other day, the technical challenges of performing together on Zoom led to a different solution. Using the positive song Dawn had chosen, we’d each record our own version of it, then Dave Cote would edit it together. That was fine.

What wasn’t fine was my rendition. Despite no evidence whatsoever, I’ve always assumed, like gardening, harmonica-ing and sculpture, I might be a secretly good singer. Using my computer and phone, I listened to the song and sang along. In my head my performance wasn’t perfect, but it seemed pretty damn good. In my head. When I played back my isolated vocal track, I realized the truth: I sounded like a badly wounded animal howling at the universe. Not only did I have no rhythmic sense, any musical correspondence between my voice and the tune were purely hypothetical. My singing and any melody were like two ships passing in the night. It was, and I am, dreadful!

Join us tomorrow night at Sicker Than Most! Among a dozen or more performers, Hear most of the Hope staff sing an optimistic and upbeat song. Hear me attempt to slaughter that number and try to bleed out any beauty from its corpse. Mainly, join together with other folks in recovery and experience community.

After all,
You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

Join us for Sicker than Most
Time: Apr 18, 2020 07:30 PM Eastern Time
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 157 737 339
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April 16, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

In the past 12-plus years, I’ve spent a lot of hours in church basements, meeting halls, recovery centers and classrooms. This time was shared with other drunks and addicts who’ve given up drinking and using in favor of a more life-affirming manner of living.

I am my own kind of madman, and many other alcoholics/addicts are crazy people; in those often-subterranean rooms, though, we focus on our common humanity rather than our isolating lunacy. From the moment I walked into my first recovery meeting, I’ve been struck by the wisdom of the rooms, the insight into the human condition I kept hearing. Much of this wisdom was distilled into mottoes or slogans, and each time I heard a new one I thought the speaker had made it up on the spot—until I heard it seven or 70 more times.

I wish I could tell you the source of the 30 or so bits of insight into the alcoholic condition—I can’t because I don’t remember who said what when or wrote what where. All I can say is these aphorisms, slogans and one-liners align well with my view of life, and have helped keep me away from a drink or other mind-altering substance. I hope you find them helpful—or at least amusing.
•          Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less
•           The newcomer is the most important person in any meeting
•           If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got
•           If I could use socially, I’d get high every night.
•           If you’re not moving away from your addiction you’re moving closer to it.
•           Each and every addict—-clean or not—-teaches us some valuable lessons about ourselves and recovery
•           We came to these rooms not because we drank a lot, but because we drank too much.
•           Try to replace guilt with gratitude
•           Let go of old ideas
           Change is a process, not an event
•           I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you:The good news is that you’re not in charge. The bad news is you’re not in charge.
•           Take what you can use and leave the rest
•           The price for serenity and sanity is self-sacrifice
•           You can’t give away what you don’t have
•           It’s a pity we can’t forget our troubles the same way we forget our blessings
•           We are not human beings having spiritual experiences; we are spiritual beings having human experiences
•           Although we are not responsible for our disease, we are responsible for our recovery.
•           When you get sober you can write down all the gifts you get…when you go out you can reverse the pencil and erase each gift one by one.
•           If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
•           Quitting was easy. Staying quit was impossible.
•           I thought you were normal until I got to know you.
•           Nobody comes here on a winning streak.
•           Alcohol and drugs were my anti-me solution.
•           If I could drink like a normal person, I’d be drunk all the time.
•           My basic problem is me.
•           Most of my life was a reaction to a reaction.
•           I kept on “starting over” but  I never changed a thing.
•           When I’m drunk and things go my way, I throw a tantrum.
•           I violated my standards faster than I could lower them.
•           Winners do what they have to do and losers do what they want to do.
•           Recovery is made up of glorious years and some lousy days.

I hope to see each of you at the second virtual Sicker than Most Show this Saturday from 7:30 to 9:30. Here’s a link:  https://zoom.us/j/157737339.

Setting the bar remarkably low, I’ll probably read some of my poetry, or do standup. I won’t sing, though, although the Hope staff may well perform as a whole.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
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April 15, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Funny how our experience leads to strength and hope. Anyone who’s sat in church basements recognizes the grammar, the story arc, of the recovery tale. The speaker begins by telling a bit about her past, including her drug and alcohol use, moves on to the darkest moments before the dawning of recovery and, often, its beginning stages, then describes how she lives her life today. Many of us have listened to thousands of such Cinderella stories—and they all end with a variation of “and today I try to accept life’s terms, practice gratitude and clean my side of the street.” As my first mentor in recovery described it, “Tell them what it was like, what happened and what
it’s like today.

As I continue in recovery, my connection or identification with any speaker is focused more on the last two-thirds of that story outline: what happened and what it’s like today. In early recovery, though, I wanted to hear a lot about what it was like—how drugs or alcohol affected the speaker emotionally and physically, how their behavior and personality changed not just while they were drunk or high but as a result of drifting into the life. Each time I heard a new speaker play the song of my life on a different instrument, I knew I was in the right orchestra pit. Once I settled in, I could focus on the common innermost feelings, the emotional turmoil and the doubts. In short, I could begin recovering.

Ponder the plight of the newly clean and sober in April 2020. In the olden days of Before the newcomer could travel to meetings at churches, community centers, hospitals, Farnum North and South, Hope or numerous other places. SMART, 12-Step, Recovery Dharma, Three Principles, All Recovery—all could be tasted fresh, the immediacy and closeness of the speaker making communication easier. Conversations could be held before or after the meeting, phone numbers exchanged, smiles met with smiles.

In these days of During, though, a newcomer must first taste recovery through a mediating screen, whether a telephone, tablet or computer. Imagine learning to knit or kiss or catch a baseball by using a computer. Imagine sharing in two dimensions the agony and small joys of early recovery. Imagine weeping softly while 30 strangers see you on a TV screen.

A couple weeks ago, in one of these letters, I vowed to pray for four groups of people, one of which was people in early recovery as we sail the Sea of During. I am no expert on prayer—the understatement of the week!—but I’ve found that a key to focusing my attention and energy is identification. Just as in a recovery meeting, I’m able to accomplish much more inside myself by looking for commonalities instead of differences, the things that make me similar to other people instead of the things that set me apart. In praying for folks in early recovery, I think back to how hard those first few days, weeks and months were, and how much I got out of simply being physically present with others sharing my goal—finding a way to live life without substances.

During this time, I also hope each of us can be especially kind and welcoming to the newcomer, reaching out the virtual hand of recovery and letting each and every person new in recovery know that things may suck now, and may even get worse for a while, but they’re going to get better.

And that goes for this pandemic as well.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
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April 14, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I am not an artist but I love to paint, love the feeling of moving colors around on a canvas, love the accidental sprouting of beauty from even my ham-handed efforts, love the moment I discard my effort by declaring it finished. If we were talking about chess, instead of painting, I would be known as a patzer, a poor player who bungles basics.

Lots of you at Hope know exactly the feelings I’m talking about. You’ve painted pictures—around 500 at last count—and seen them fill the walls of hallways and meeting rooms. You’ve taken part in the group projects, from the Hope mosaic in the front to the multi-visions of the reproduced Hope photo to the Poetry to Paintings demonstration to the Chaos to Serenity paintings. You’ve enjoyed the meditative peace that painting brings, whether the result stuns you or simply satisfies. Again, if we were discussing chess instead of painting, almost all of you would be known as shokh shpilers, simply chess players.

Both the patzers and the shokh shpilers among us are indebted to one man for Hope’s dedication to visual art. Through his love of visual media, his dedication to images, his encouragement of bunglers and players alike, this man has spread the virus of creativity throughout Hope Nation. He is a mensch, a person of integrity and mastery, even a zheni, a genius, he has done more than anyone else to spread the love of creativity, the joy of art, the satisfaction of moving paint on canvas. This one single person has changed dozens of our lives, opening us to the joy of beauty and the beauty of joy.

That one man, of course, is Dave Cote, whose email signature block reads “media-information-data-art,” but could just as easily be “cheerleader for the untalented-distributor of imagery-discoverer of beauty in every painting-apostle of art,” although that would take up a lot more space and wouldn’t fit into Dave’s self-effacing style.

I didn’t hire Dave—he’s been here much longer than I—but I did recognize in him, almost from the first, his gift for encouraging positive risk and his willingness to try anything creative. From snippets of things Dave has told me, I know his gifts were not always encouraged or even recognized. I am proud that, along with Karla Gallagher and me, Dave is part of Hope’s leadership team. (Also, Dave reads over and reviews each of these Dear Hope Nation letters before they go out, and has prevented many ill-chosen images in my writing.)

Today, I’d like to ask, encourage, implore each of you to visit Dave’s new website (drcoteart.com). Here, you can see Dave’s own artwork, its depth and breadth, in a collection of about 60 of his latest paintings, created over the last few years. As my own work aptly demonstrates, I don’t know anything about creating art, but I do know what moves me, and Dave Cote’s paintings give me hope and chills at the same time.

When you’re at Dave’s website, you’ll obviously find your own personal favorites, but here is a list of mine:
 Intensity
Northern Solace
Self Portrait (Attached and very much worth opening)
Watching
Parking Lot Present
En Route to Our Stroll
Longing

When you’re viewing Dave’s stuff, remember he is the man who looked at what you were doing and found something to legitimately praise, the one who makes sure all of Hope Nation has access to the tools of art, the quiet man behind the big computer screen. Remember that, and know that he matters, just as

 You matter. I matter.  We matter.
 Keith
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April 13, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

If you don’t like to read about depression, please stop. Really. Turn to something happier. Reread yesterday’s letter or wait until tomorrow’s. Write out that gratitude list you’ve kept in your head, bake chocolate chip cookies, play with your roommate’s cat. Again, if you don’t like to read about depression, stop now. You’ve been warned.

If you love to read depressing pieces about depression, please stop. Turn to something sadder. Listen to The Smiths or Nine Inch Nails. Reread The Bell Jar or The Road. This piece is about depression but it’s not depressing, or at least that’s not its intention. Again, it you love to read depressing pieces about depression, stop now. You’ve been warned.

Now that we’ve cleared out 95% of the room, let’s all pull our chairs a little closer together—while still maintaining six feet of distancing, of course. Settle in. Relax. Everyone who’s left in this space has likely tasted the ever-present-aspirin in the soul, has known life’s exhaustion, has felt the clammy hand of despair or what Churchill called the Black Dog. Like you, and you, and you, I’ve shared my life with depression for years, even back into childhood. While depression sounds as though it should affect the emotions, I’ve always experienced it in the brain more than in the heart. My thoughts become like falcons circling in the air, but instead of returning to me, they always land on the idol standing next to me, the statue called Suicide.

Many of you know the opening to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

While Eliot may have been speaking metaphorically about the meaninglessness of modern life, he also describes most of my Aprils going back to at least my teens. I have only attempted suicide three times—each in April. (I know the irony of that word “only” to the never-depressed, most of whom will never make an attempt at turning out the lights.) Whatever else it may mean to others, April has been for me a month of deadly nostalgia for a world that never was, a time where the mixture of memory and desire were like ammonia and chlorine. As we all know from childhood, mixing those two cleansers forms chloramine, a poison that kills.

You may remember from mythology units in junior high English class the Sirens, women whose beauty and enchanting music drew sailors off course to shipwreck on the rocks. The Sirens’ voices and playing were not just beautiful, but induced sadness and lethargy, so the sailors drifted into death more than sailed for it.

I am a lucky man, for suicide’s siren song has not played for me since I got sober. Oh, I still have thoughts of killing myself all the time, random suicidal snatches in my brain, but since May 21, 2007, I haven’t felt the gravitational pull of death, the sense of life being pulled down a drain, a huge tub emptying into nothingness. I can only guess at the reasons for this luck, and I’ll try to list them here without much description.

  1. I’m not practicing the “better living through chemistry” model of putting into my mouth, nose or arm whatever substances offered an easier, softer way to live.
  2. Seeming to contradict number one, I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and take an antidepressant as prescribed. The seeming contradiction here is the difference between taking drugs or alcohol and using medication, a distinction unclear to me for most of my life.
  3. I have other men to whom I’m accountable. I know they want the best for me and believe they can see my life with more objectivity than I can.
  4. I try to help others, particularly folks in early recovery, giving away what was freely given to me.
  5. I have work that matters, at least to me. While my current position at Hope offers obvious meaning, my first get-well job was in retail, selling computers at Office Depot. Somehow I managed to find inject meaning into each encounter with a customer or coworker.
  6. At the end of the day I review my actions, trying to see where I could have behaved better, or at least differently, then devise a plan to do so in the future.
  7. I pray, although in an unconventional way, saying “Thank you, God” at least a hundred times a day.

I could go on, and may at some future point, but for now I want you to know this April I don’t feel drawn to suicide, this April has hope bouncing across it like sun against the water, this April life is worth living. Just as I used to be a homeless drunk and could be again, I used to experience April as a period to, just barely, survive, and could again. For today, though, I am safe and sober and relatively satisfied.

Thank you, Hope Nation, for your part in that, and let me know how I can help you.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
________________________

April 12, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Forty-four years ago, I began Army basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Given my clownish nature, you might expect basic training would have been hellish for me, going against my improvisational style. You would be wrong.

I have spent a good amount of my life on various stages and in front of cameras, before and, especially, after military service. During my best moments in basic, I pretended I was a soldier and tried to act the part. After awhile, the difference between “acting” and “being” faded. When I put on protective gear and walked into a gas chamber, marched five miles or polished my boots for 20 minutes, I began by playing the role of soldier and ended up actually by being one, just as I’d hoped.

A little less than 13 years ago, I began a new life in recovery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. Given my clownish nature, you might expect early recovery would have been hellish for me, going against my improvisational style. You would be wrong.

I had lost my job, my home and my self-respect and found enough desperation about returning to active addiction that I tried any suggestion offered me by someone with more sobriety, I identified a spiritual mentor and took seriously what he offered and I listened instead of talking. Little by slowly, changes occurred, and I found myself a person in long-term recovery, just as I’d hoped.

At the 2008 Republican convention, former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani declared “Hope is not a strategy” in attacking Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s slogan touting “Hope and Change.” Guliani was absolutely right. Hope is not a strategy, for strategy describes the ultimate destination and a general route while tactics outline the specific steps you’re going to take.

Hope is not a strategy—it is not a goal in itself. Hope is a tactic, and a damned good one. If we think of the four classic military tactical functions—firepower, mobility, protection and shock action—hope is an audacious part of that last one. Nothing is more effective against the enemies of depression, anxiety, despair or pain than hope, the belief not only that things can get better, but the faith they will. Hope is the antidote to our fears, whether about life in general or Covid-19 in particular, whether about finances as a whole or current unemployment. Used properly, hope can defeat any negative opponent. Really and for true.

Today is Easter, a day of renewal, of resurrection, a day of hope. For each of you, whether your hope lies in the risen Jesus, the teachings of Buddha or Gandhi or the life force that “through the green fuse drives the flower,” I wish only that you cherish that hope, hold that hope firm to your breast and allow tactical hope to prevail against whatever demons trouble you.

After all,

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

If, like me you’re not much of a praying person, you may find meditation on high sentiments useful. Below are some quotes about hope. If I know who said them, they’re attributed.

  • “When the world says, ‘Give up,’ Hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’ “
  • “Walk on with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone”–Shah Rukh Khan
  • “A whole stack of memories never equal one little hope.”–Charles M. Schultz
  • “All it takes is one bloom of hope to make a spiritual garden.”–Terri Guillemets
  • “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.”–George Chakiris
  • “Beliefs create reality” ~ Melody Beattie
  • “What is broken can be mended. What hurts can be healed. And no matter how dark it gets, the sun will rise again.” 
  • “Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.”
  • “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”–Pablo Neruda
  • “The thought that life can be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”—Paul Simon
  • “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”—Anne Frank
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April 11, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

For the six months before we set sail on the seas of During the pandemic, I’d stayed off Facebook, not with some sacred vow but because I’d discovered what a huge time vacuum it was for me. Being isolated from most of the world—outside of my oldest and youngest daughters, my friend Tara and her son, and Lucy, my dog, I haven’t been in the same room with anyone for at least the past couple weeks—I decided it was time to return to America’s Yearbook. I may rethink that soon.

Promise this isn’t going to be an anti-Facebook rant. The platform is a good way to see what my one-thousand closest friends, even if I don’t remember where I met them, are up to. My problem is Facebook’s memetic and copycat nature. I see the same puzzles over and over, looking like algebra but having a “trick.” I see promises that if I hit the letter “c” 212 times I’ll have a vision of some kind. I see people begging to say brutally mean things about me if I send them my name. Mostly I see people who have been “tagged” by others to do things like:

–Name a song with the letter “d” in the third word
–Write an adjective that begins with the tagger’s initial.
–Show the 37th picture on their camera roll.

This tagging business annoys me, but not enough to prevent me from using it right now. Let me explain.

Out of the blue last night, I got a call from an old student of mine, Roger Wilkins. Roger knew me almost 30 years ago, when he was a teenager and I was a younger old man than I am now. According to Roger, when he was my student I had a life-changing conversation with him. Since he is now an admirable man, a fine father and a successful political consultant, I’m glad for any small part I may have played in steering him in the right direction. (Full Disclosure: Roger is a Republican consultant working on conservative campaigns and for conservative issues. I am radically moderate and hopelessly bipartisan. Still, I honor anyone who devotes his or her life to trying to make a difference.)

Roger’s call brought me great joy, for who doesn’t like to hear from someone with positive regard for them, and a fair amount of sadness because Roger is separated from his children because of all this mishegas. Roger’s kids live in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, as does he when pandemics don’t close down the world. Until this is over, Roger and his children have to make do with FaceTime and the like. Please, if you’re a praying person, pray for all of them. If you’re a focusing positive energy type, please bombard the Wilkins family with love. Thanks.

The annoying tagging mentioned above? Instead of using Facebook, I’ll rely on this letter and challenge you to remember someone who’s helped make you the best part of yourself, and pick up the damn phone and call them. Just remind them of how much they’ve meant to you and say a simple thanks. To begin, I’m going to call my mentor, Mark Roth, as soon as I’m done with this.

While I’m not going to check up on you, I’d love to hear about you experiences, either by email or text (contact info below.) Let the people who have mattered to you know they still matter, just like

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

Keith.howard@recoverynh-org
(603)361-6266
__________________________________________________

April 10, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Today is Good Friday. On this day in Jerusalem a little less than 2000 years ago, Jesus was hung up on a cross between two thieves, having been sentenced to death by Pilate, the Roman governor overseeing the Roman province of Judea. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens who’d committed one of three crimes: running away from slavery, piracy and sedition (advocating the overthrow of Roman rule). Because Jesus was not a slave or a pirate, it appears he was killed for being a political rebel.

Christians call today, without irony, Good Friday. If I were an etymologist, instead of a formerly homeless drunk with access to writing materials, I’d explain how the day of Jesus’ execution came to be called good. If I were an entomologist, I’d discuss the bugs that might have been found on the trees used for the wood in the cross. Alas, I am neither, nor am I a believing Christian.

I don’t think Peter, James, Andrew and the rest of Jesus’ posse saw Good Friday as good. They saw it as devastating. After all, they’d been riding with Jesus up and down Israel for the last three years, and although the Bible shows Jesus offering them a series of hints about his destiny, none of the disciples seems to have been insightful. Don’t forget, it was just the night before Peter, Jesus’ “Rock,” had denied even knowing the man. No, the disciples didn’t see anything good that afternoon.

It was Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

If the disciples had been listening to the man they called Lord, they would have heard him predict his death. And his resurrection, which Christians believe is the culmination of the single most important fact of human history—that God became human and walked among us for 33 years. Then, according to the Bible, we killed him, but he came back to life and was eventually taken bodily into heaven. It’s a lot to swallow, but billions of humans believe and have believed it.

Today is another Friday. With more than 10,000 Americans dead so far of confirmed Coronavirus, it’s easy to lose faith—in our leaders, in our country, in faith itself. It seems natural to cuddle up with despair or, for alcoholics or addicts, a drink or a drug. If you’ve been working hard at staying clean, cleaning house and becoming the sort of person your mom wanted you to be, it’s only human to throw in the towel in crisis, just as the disciples likely did.

I’m not here to tell you anyone is going to come back from the dead, but I will say things are going to get better, even if they get worse first. Life finds a way to live, and this pandemic isn’t going to stop that. I don’t believe in any particular religion, but I do know that for every Friday humanity’s ever lived through, there’s always been a Sunday coming.

(As a bonus paragraph for other old people like me, the choice can be summed up by two songs from my childhood, one by the Five Stairsteps and the other by Barry McGuire. I will always, always, ALWAYS take Oooh Child over Eve of Destruction. Things ARE going to get easier and I don’t believe destruction is on its way.)

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
_______________________________

April 9, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Since the pandemic began, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the universe, humanity’s place in it and other highfalutin topics. I’ve also been thinking about more mundane things like whatever happened to all the junior-high girls I had unspoken crushes on. Because I’m in recovery, I haven’t followed up and tried to search for them online. I know a bad idea when I see one. I guess navigating the space that encompasses both the transcendent and immanent is the human condition.

One topic I’ve not written about is the canine condition, or at least the condition of the one dog I know intimately, Lucy. Many of you know Lucy from Hope, where she’s been a fixture since I started. Lucy was brought into my life a little over eight years ago, placed with me by a close friend who has, alas, died of the disease of alcoholism. Lucy had apparently been rescued by my friend’s dog adoption agency from living in a truck with a man with end-stage alcoholism. Whatever demons he may have faced, he apparently didn’t take them out on Lucy, who is as even-tempered a dog as I’ve ever known.

When Lucy and I found each other, she was about three or five—who can tell, really?—and still had a lot of puppy in her. For instance, she had some very strong ideas about where various animals belonged in the universe. When she saw a bird on the ground, a squirrel out of a tree or a woodchuck above the earth, Lucy would make damn sure they got back to their rightful habitats.

Lucy is, according to my daughters, a Dutch Shepherd, a noble working breed first bred in the early 1800s. Dutch Shepherds are noted for their intelligence and work ethic. Although both Dutch and German Shepherds began as herding dogs, the Dutch is a medium-sized dog, always with a brindle coat.

For me, Lucy is the best dog I’ve ever shared my life with. She is a better dog than I had any right to expect and her presence in my life is purely an act of grace.  From conversations with Hope members, and from observing the way some of you enjoy getting to know Lucy, I know how important she is to the community, and I want to give you an update on how she’s doing, and a few pictures of her to show she’s not been taken captive.

Lucy appears happy overall. We no longer live in the Tiny White Box, having bought a log cabin in the woods with a pond across the road and a large forest behind us. Even on the rainiest and coldest days, she loves to explore, although she hasn’t gone swimming yet.

The pandemic has been hard on Lucy. She doesn’t get to hang out with large numbers of people at Hope. Although you may not notice it, Lucy seems to think she has a job to do, a function, a purpose. That job is more than shaking down members for snacks. If you watch her, Lucy roams up and down the hallway, making sure people are inside rooms, much like her ancestors did in the sheepfold. Once meetings have begun, she can then curl up and sleep lightly, waking up when any human wanders into the hallway. Without her job, Lucy’s time at home is, like many Americans, lacking structure and purpose.

You and I are luckier than Lucy on that last count. Although we may be trapped inside, physically isolated from others, we can still reach out to others, connect with them and find purpose in helping and accepting help, loving and being loved, encouraging and being encouraged.

You matter. I matter.  We matter.

Keith

April 8. 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about leadership in a time of crisis. This is not a political analysis and will have no finger-pointing of any kind. Promise. Since Hope physically closed, I’ve gotten praise—some of it even deserved—for my leadership “style.” I use the quotation marks because my “style” is being myself. Praising that is like flattering Shaquille O’Neal for being tall—he didn’t have much choice, really, and neither do I.

Since I was 28 and became director of an alternative school, I’ve spent years in leadership positions. In none of them was I a traditional, by-the-book, let’s-tighten-things-up-here-or-heads-will-roll leader. My friend, long-time boss, and mentor, Mark Roth, was once asked to give me a reference. At the end of Mark’s comments, the interviewer tried to sum things up: “Sounds like Keith’s a real no-nonsense kind of guy.”

“God, no!” said Mark. “You misunderstand me. Keith’s all nonsense; he’s just clear about what kind of nonsense he wants.”

Hence, a clown, and yet also a mystic, believing life has meaning, magic is real, and humans can transform themselves from empty bags of need to overflowing bodies, minds and spirits of generosity, as long as they don’t stop laughing at themselves and everything about them.

Still, having folks reach out to say kind things is better than a sharp stick in the eye—or indictments being handed down—so at some readers’ request I’ve dusted off a piece I wrote a while ago about nonprofit leadership.
Your results may vary.

1. Take responsibility for anything that happens in the organization.

Harry Truman was not our greatest president. Abraham Lincoln was. While I want to be Lincoln, that’s kind of like setting the Buddha as my goal: aspirational but not always helpful on a minute-by-minute basis. Truman, on the other hand, a man thrust into greatness, offers American pragmatic life lessons as prescribed by William James, John Dewey and Charles Pierce: an idea is true if it works.

“The buck stops here” is one of the most realistic and responsible statements ever uttered by an American leader, and applies to nonprofit leaders in particular. As the boss, I am responsible for whatever my organization does, and I take full ownership for that. It doesn’t matter if I was lied to or misled by people who work for me; it doesn’t matter if I had no idea what was going on; it doesn’t matter if I didn’t fully understand the implications of our actions: I put on the cloak of leadership so I wear the cold blanket of blame when things go wrong.

As you can ask any number of former employees, I will hold them responsible in private, including firing them. To the world, though, the problems of the nonprofit are mine.

2. When you make a mistake, admit it right away and try to offer solutions or ways to return to normal.

I am an alcoholic in recovery, and one of the first things I learned when I got sober is, “It’s not screwing up that leads you back to a drink. It’s refusing to admit you screwed up that gets you drunk.” Absolutely true, and not just about drinking. I make mistakes all the time and therefore I confess all the time. The funny thing is, when you’re honest about your mistakes, do your best to fix them, and try to find new mistakes to make instead of repeating old ones, the people around you start to look at you as good and honest and competent.

3. Keep behavior flexible while maintaining inflexible values.

I think almost anything is worth trying to see if it works. From good ideas (starting an improv theater with “at-risk” teenagers; organizing film festivals with movies directed by high school dropouts) to not-so-good ideas (six-hour long bus rides with teenagers to go camping; trying to make a working raft a la Huck Finn to float down the Contoocook River), I’ve tried to live by Truman’s credo: We’ll try some things, and if they don’t work, we’ll try some other things.

While behavior is flexible, values aren’t.

I believe every person with an addiction can find a way out, if not on the first or fifth try, then on the 20th. Hence, a mantra I’m sure people have tired of hearing me utter: Zero Tolerance but Infinite Hope.

In life, the means don’t justify the ends–the means are the end. What we do and why we do it matter more than our goals, because they determine our goals. The logic behind one obvious credo—you can’t lie your way to honesty any more than you can screw your way to purity—applies across the board. No matter what, you don’t lie—and if you do, you fess up right away—you don’t blame others, you don’t cut corners and you don’t bully. Behave like the person you want to be instead of the person you may have been in the past.

4. Seek a Vision. Nourish that Vision. Trust your Vision.

When you’ve got skin in the game, it shows. Your vision is your touchstone, your goal and your energy, helping you persuade instead of simply issuing orders.For not being much of a God guy, I do find a lot of good lines in the Bible, and one of my favorites comes from Proverbs: Without a vision, the people perish. And so does the leader. While the waves on top of my oceanic vision rise and fall, the currents and tides have remained constant for decades: helping create a community where people look each other in the eye with respect and regard, where learning and growth are fostered and praised, and where the weakest are protected from the stronger and the strongest are protected from themselves.

5. Energy and Attitude are Choices.

Simple. Simple. Simple. Be present. Be grateful. Demonstrate your passion. Give more than you take. Hustle and be the hardest worker on the team. We are what we do, and leadership grows from your behavior, not your position.

Paining by member – Natalie B
“Hope Is In The Air”


Reading over what I’ve written so far, I don’t disagree with myself, but I don’t see my love of goofiness, of lightness, of laughter for cripe sake. Life is short; death is long: laugh until your throat hurts, laugh some more, and then get back to the goddamned work of creating a community. And, finally: Dammit, you’ve gotta be kind.

Please excuse the length of this note. These are just some ideas that are really important to me.

And so are you.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

_________________________________
Paining by member – Natalie B “Hope Is In The Air”

April 7, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I am not a psychologist, sociologist, phrenologist or any other -ogist. I’m a formerly homeless drunk who observes life and jots down some of what I see and what I think about it. When it comes to the explanation of how things work or what it all means, you’ll need to look to theology, biology or scatology. All I’ve got is a pair of eyes and some paper.

That said, I’ve noticed the importance and power of habits in my own life and, I think, in others. As an example, I’ll use prayer. Although I am not particularly a praying man, last week in this space, I made a public vow about prayer. I said I would, until Hope reopens, every morning and every night:

  1. Pray for the institutionalized mentally ill.
  2. Pray for the actively addicted who are jonesing this very minute.
  3. Pray for the homeless, whether sleeping outside or in a shelter.
  4. Pray for those in early recovery, who began this journey within the past few months.

In the interest of full disclosure and transparency, let me grade myself on this effort: B-. Have I prayed twice a day on average for these things? Yes. Then why not an A? Because morning prayer upon waking has not become my custom or practice, Instead, at some point before lunch I’m hit by an “Oh shit” moment, and start praying then. It’s better than ignoring my vow, but my goal is not accomplished. Yet.

Once I’ve made this prayer part of my routine, it’s likely to stick as a habit. Habits become identity become character, and that’s why they are so important to me. As a man in recovery, I can look back on many habits I’ve had to give up, most obviously the “habit” of shooting dope into my veins. (As a side note, the word habit regarding addiction is ironic at best. I mean, to someone in active addiction, purchasing and using that favorite substance is no more habit than breathing or eating. But, as usual, I digress.) In recovery, I’ve practiced a lot of habits that, little by slowly, have moved through identity and, on good days at least, into my character. Some current habits

  1. Paying bills. To normal people, this may seem obvious, but when I was using drugs or alcohol, I viewed utility bills as being due when the service was shut off. If my lights didn’t work, it was time to call the electric company and tell them a series of lies, then pay the least amount I could to turn the lights on.
  2. Paying rent/mortgage.As above, paying rent was always voluntary and based more on the likelihood of being evicted than on any sense of obligation. In any case, not matter the situation, once I knew I’d be moving out in a few months, paying rent from then on was a sucker’s ploy.
  3. Keeping trash in the car. There is no logical connection between addiction and littterbuggery, but I used to view my car’s window as vent for trash. Drive away and my litter was gone. Since recovery, I can’t throw things out. Go figure.

These are habits I’m happy with. A future, much longer letter I’m sure, will describe some habits I’d like to remove. For now, though, I’m working to improve my B- to at least a B+, and trying to be useful to the world at large. If my goal is to be of service, I can develop habits to make that a reality. And so can you.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
_________________________________

April 6, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I’m always wary when people ask me certain questions, ones which I know are designed to elicit a stock answer so the questioner can begin his or her pitch. For instance, “Have you ever dreamed of being rich?” Or “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” or “Did you know the World Trade Center Towers collapsed at free-fall acceleration rates?”

These questions always lead to awkward conversational silence, since I don’t want to get involved in a pyramid scheme, debate the meaning of “born again” or discuss conspiracy theories about 9/11. Call me close-minded, but such conversations lead me to my worst self—the one that enjoys debating these issues. As with drugs and alcohol, I must steer away from heated debate over nothing.

A variant on this conversational tack is when people start explaining life by way of quantum mechanics. The explainer, typically someone who dropped out of high school chemistry when it got confusing, uses quantum physics to explain everything from stain removal to why he’s late on the rent. Noted wise man and wise guy Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say no one understands quantum mechanics,” but Feynman never met the guy who uses quantum mysticism to explain some New Age nonsense.

There, I’ve laid down warning markers.  And now I’ll probably violate them.

Lucy, the dog many of you miss, and I went out for a long walk first thing this morning. As often happens on these walks, I find a creative spot in my mind and hunker down there. Don’t ask me why or how, but that part of my brain feels like the sun coming through the window at my grandmother’s house, warming just me as I lie on the floor playing solitaire.

This morning’s creative vision had to do with the pandemic and its effect on time, or at least my experience of time. When Hope was a physical spot, when I drove into work and did things and wrote emails and talked with people, time felt like a stream of water coming out of a garden hose. The stream varied, of course, but generally the flow was comfortable, slow enough to drink from but fast enough to fill a child’s backyard pool eventually. Coronavirus has changed that for me.

Now, each day feels like its own drop, not part of a stream but a self-contained bead. Some part of me misses the stream of events, but at my best moments I really enjoy the chance to live each day for its own sake, to taste every food I eat, listen to each sound the universe sends me, touch every person I (virtually) contact. I know from the minute I entered recovery people have suggested I slow down, live in the moment, experience life. This pandemic has given me the chance to do just that, and you can grab that chance too. Really. Try to live the rest of today as if you were not guaranteed a tomorrow.

A long time ago I was in a production of “Our Town,” one of my favorite plays of the last century. In it, the female lead has died and has one more chance to experience life before departing for eternity. Her soliloquy on her return to the grave sums this notion up well: 

Oh, earth you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?

Please try to realize, to experience, to live the drop of water that is today.

And with a little bit of luck, you’ll be one day older tomorrow.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
____________________________

April 5, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Here in During the Pandemic, we don’t have all that much to anticipate. I mean, I still look forward to the weekends, even though they don’t taste all that much different than weekdays—maybe slightly less aspirin aftertaste. I visualize sunny days, although this week I’ve thought clear skies are just the after-effects of a fever dream. Still, I’ve spent too much time trying to play my hand and too little trying to figure out what’s in the cards. Until now. Tuesday, April 7, at 12:30, you and you and, especially, you are invited to the best party since . . . well, at least since Hope had to close its doors three weeks ago.

This lunch is informal—shirts are required and if you’re going to stand up so are pants. Just join Hope staff and members for a meal and some community.

If you’re frightened of either magic or tickets, you don’t have to click above. You can use this link: 
Join Zoom Meeting
https://zoom.us/j/744943683

If you can’t make next Tuesday, but would like to be part of similar gatherings in the future, please send me a suggested date (keith.howard@recoverynh.org) and we’ll make it happen. After all

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
_________________________________

April 4, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

A few days ago I talked about the Land of Before (say, three weeks ago), the journey across During (where we are now) and the land of After (what life will be like when Coronavirus has ceased to keep us locked down in our homes). My focus in the earlier letter was on our voyage across During, and how the ways we treat each other on this journey will help create the After we will inhabit.

Today, I’ve been thinking about After, particularly as it relates to recovery and the way we support each other once we arrive. For the 12 years I was in recovery in Before, recovery was passed on like a positive virus, primarily through extensive face-to-face contact with others. Whether your pathway was SMART, a 12-Step program, Three Principles or Recovery Dharma, a commonality was the gathering of like-minded folks to learn from each other, encourage one another and sometimes critique one another.

I am not a prophet or soothsayer (duh). Still, a couple years ago I was quoted in a piece out of the Addiction Policy Forum:

“Recovery is a socially-transmitted disease,” says Keith Howard, Hope for New Hampshire Recovery’s executive director. “It’s communicable through friendship, kindness, attention and love. Humans are designed to live in a community, and that’s what Hope tries to offer the sick and suffering—the power of peer-based support.”

The source of that power has always been found in one alcoholic or addict looking into the eyes of another and saying, with truth and empathy, “I know you. You know me. I know your pain, and I want to ease it. I’ve felt your aloneness and I want to help end it. I’ve seen life through your eyes, and now I want to lend you a new pair of glasses.” In short, the person in recovery was a physical transmitter of possibility, a beacon of hope over the surging storm of addiction.

Note the use of the past tense in that last sentence. I chose that because none of us can be sure that “was” can be transformed into “will be,” that recovery in three or four months will be able to return to the way things used to was. It’s likely, I think, the return from stay-at-home orders, unlike their implementation, will be slow and rolling rather than nearly instantaneous. Some folks will be deemed safe to return to the world at large sooner than others, but social distancing will still be the rule for the foreseeable future. What does this mean for the near term for folks in recovery? I don’t know for sure, but I know these are some of the challenges we face when we start to land on the shores of After:

  1. Meetings will have to be smaller if they’re to be held in the same space. I mean, NA’s Serenity for Lunch in the large meeting room at Hope averages 25 attendees and can surge to 50 or more. Given the social-distancing requirement of six feet in all directions, that room can only hold 13 people, meaning at least two lunchtime meetings held concurrently.  Multiply this challenge by the more than 50 SMART, 12-Step, Three Principles and Recovery Dharma meetings held weekly at Hope and it’s clear we’ve got some creative problem solving to do.
  2. For the foreseeable future, virtual meetings will be the primary means of recovery for many folks who are older, living with underlying medical conditions or just nervous about leaving their homes. How will these meetings be integrated into in-person meetings in a way that honors the needs of both those present and the virtual participants?
  3. The front of Hope has been the site of lots of cool stuff, from recovery-focused conversation to card games to painting to who-knows what else. How do we maintain this crucible of magic while also keep folks physically apart?

Given our joint wisdom as Hope Nation, I’m sure we’ll come up with creative and cool solutions but only if we start thinking about these things now. For all of our sake, please use your free time to ponder, analyze and offer solutions for the challenges we will face. If you’d like to talk with me about this, just give me a call (603)361-6266. If there’s enough immediate interest, we’ll set up a Zoom meeting and try to get some things down on paper.

Until then, remember

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
_____________________________________________________

April 3, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Many of us are now spending 24 hours a day with people we would not have chosen, or would have chosen until we actually had to spend 24 hours a day with them. Musical chairs is not a fun game when the rules are altered to remove all the open chairs and to require sitting in the same damn chair day after day after cursed day. While loneliness can be a challenge, in a lot of ways it’s easier than being lashed together with people who annoy the hell out of you.

I’m thinking particularly of folks living in so-called “congregate facilities” and the like—treatment centers, recovery residences, transitional living situations. I spent five years as director of a small veterans housing program—the program was small, not the veterans, who were all different sizes. At least daily, I’d have one resident come to complain about a housemate or, particularly, a roommate.

“Keith, you don’t understand how awful Tony is! He’s a mouth-breather who never brushes his teeth. Our whole room smells like whatever he last ate!”

“You’ve got to do something about Wes He uses up all the toilet paper in the second-floor bathroom and never replaces it! And he lives on the first floor, so I know he’s just doing it to annoy me.”

“Please kick Aaron out! He never does any work around here—never cooks, never cleans, never puts anything away. Not only that, he always shouts out the answers during Jeopardy. “

During my own time living in a shelter, I know how little things can build and snowball and multiply until they are absolutely huge—at least in my mind. At least I was always able to leave for work or meetings. With most workers furloughed or fired, with meetings only available online and with a state stay-at-home order in place , the stress of sharing limited space must keep tick-tocking away. I know of only one solution for anyone trapped in that situation.

Begin with yourself. Work on yourself. End with yourself.

You are the only thing in the world over which you have any control—not coronavirus, not your past-due rent, not your sponsor, not your crummy roommate. For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts worth considering—instead of exploding or imploding:

“I can’t change the world/but I can change the world in me/if I rejoice”—U2 “Rejoice”
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”—William James

“Self-observation is the first step of inner unfolding.”—Amit Ray

“If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap whence everyone must take an equal portion, most people would be content to take their own and depart.”—Socrates

“You’re twice as dumb and half as smart as you think you are.”—my old Army roommate

Taken together and well mixed, the message above is I (or you) (or anyone) can’t know what demons plague our fellow humans, can’t see the apple on our own heads. We see the outside of others but the inside of ourselves—and are only too prepared to offer excuses, explanations and special pleadings. So . . . the next time you’ve had it up to here with your roommate, housemate, cellmate, husband or anyone else, remember the best revenge.

They have to live with YOU.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith

__________________________________

April 2, 2020

aDear Hope Nation,

One of the beautiful things about working in a peer recovery center like Hope is I don’t have to pretend to be anything more or less than I am. I am a person in long-term recovery who has had love affairs with all kinds of chemicals over the years. With each new chemical, I thought I’d discovered the thing that made life make sense.

The first time I smoked weed, or at least the first time I got truly high, I never wanted to feel any different than that ever. I then spent years chasing that first high. Likewise with acid—where I ended up in an emergency room pumped full of Thorazine and raring to trip again. Each time I dropped acid after that, I was searching for that first magic. Moving on through pills and meth and dope, I kept thinking I’d found the One Ring to control all of life, only to discover I was back in the emptiness inside the ring. My love for booze lasted longer—until I was 47—but drinking never brought on feelings of completion or accomplishment. Drinking brought being drunk, which was its own reward. Until it wasn’t.

Working at Hope, I am a peer—as are you and you and, especially you!—a man who’s taste for escape led to the need for recovery. Some of you may have noticed the only certification of any kind that I keep in my office is a gag diploma from the “College of Bad Breaks and Misunderstandings” declaring me a Formerly Homeless Drunk. That’s what qualifies me to be director. Forget about education, experience, extraordinary good lucks and my other attributes—if I weren’t a formerly homeless drunk, I would not deserve to be here.

This is all a long way around to get to the point. The Hope staff has been having lunch together every day for the past week or so. Using the magic of Zoom, we all log in at the same time and shoot the breeze, tell some stories, mock each other’s taste in foods. We are a community.

And we’d like you to join us. Next Tuesday, April 7, at 12:30, we’d love to have any Hope members, visitors or wanderers to join us for friendship, conversation and whatever food you’re eating for lunch. Just click on this

Magic Ticket

And we’ll see you then, because

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
_____________________________________

April 1, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

In a previous life–and I know this is hard to believe–I was a Baptist minister, a born-again Christian. Really. Today, my spiritual life is very different, and not something I’m going to bore you with right now. Suffice to say I am not a traditional praying man, and would be loathe to prescribe any spiritual practice for anyone else.

 I don’t begin or end my days on my knees, don’t face Mecca five times a day for Salah, don’t pull out the siddur to guide my prayers. Instead, my prayer life is more like what St. Paul describes in First Thessalonians, my prayers constantly reoccurring (not “ceaselessly” as often mistranslated). All day, every day, my mind is flooded, and my lips are moved to say, “Thank you, God.” Really. It has become an automatic response to each change in events, even if that change is just my getting bored. This simple “Thank you, God” has replaced my previous mantra: “I f-ing hate this.” Whether this change is a cause or an effect is up to the theologians to decide, but I know my life is significantly better than it was 13 years ago.  Gratitude is powerful stuff.

My prayer life suffices for me for now, but I know many folks in and out of recovery like to keep a prayer list, an actual inventory of those for whom they intend to pray. If you are one of those folks, may I make a few suggestions for additions, folks for whom you may wish to pray?  Like many of you, I’ve lived in each of these circumstances, and may again. My possible additions to your prayer list:

  1. Pray for the institutionalized mentally ill. Twice in my life I’ve been in psychiatric hospitals for two months or more and a third time for a couple weeks. Each time, I wanted to be dead. Each time, I felt alone in the world. Each time, I never thought I’d feel any different, and certainly couldn’t picture feeling better. Pray for strength for these folks, to keep holding on—until their pain subsides, their meds kick in, they find the therapist who can help them unlock the solution. Pray for them at night, when things are often worst, and even more in the morning, when things are supposed to feel better but don’t.
  2. Pray for the actively addicted who are jonesing this very minute. Think of needing to catch your breath in a vacuum and you’ve got some little idea of separation from the substance that keeps you human. While much of humanity is worrying about the effects of Covid-19 on life, the addicted live in an eternal unbearable NOW where each shot simply resets the timer for the onset of the next dose of hell. Pray their needs are met, not necessarily for that next shot but certainly for an end to the pain and the beginning of recovery. 
  3. Pray for the homeless, whether sleeping outside or in a shelter. Either way, it’s hard enough to have no home, but imagine being part of a group that’s seen as high-risk vectors for this pandemic. Not only are people around you judging you for your attire or the bag on your back, they now see you as today’s Typhoid Mary. Please pray these folks find homes and peace and respect.
  4. Pray for those in early recovery, who began this journey within the past few months. They’ve gone from being told “meeting makers make it” to needing to physically distance themselves from all those who have what they need—the secret to staying clean and sober for today and to reducing the odds they’ll use tomorrow. Please pray they recognize that while online meetings are not an acceptable long-term substitute for face-to-face meetings, they will help save your lives. Online meetings are not what we’d like, but they’re what we have for now. We live much longer on reduced calories than on no food at all.

(Click Here for local or regional online meetings

Since I began writing this, I’ve made a decision I’ll now translate into action. I said truthfully I don’t pray in the morning and evening. Until Hope reopens, whether that’s three weeks or three months from now, I vow to begin and end my days with prayers for the four groups listed above. At some point habits become identity become character. Maybe when this is over I will have become a traditional praying man. Regardless, we know

Words matter. You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
________________________________

March 31, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Three weeks ago, without knowing it at all, we lived in a different world, the land of Before. In the land of Before we could live our lives without compulsive hand-washing, daily government briefings and closed everythings. With a few government edicts, we departed Before and we’ll never walk its shores again. Before is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Today we sail the Sea of During, having set sail from Before. Our trip across During is not just uncharted but would have been nearly unimaginable last month. Other than survivalists, few of us dreamed During even existed—until we found ourselves gone from Before, the knowledge slowly dawning that we’d never said goodbye; in fact, we’d never even known we lived in Before.

Before is behind us. During offers the only route to After. Unlike a journey from Spain to the New World, though, traveling from Before to After isn’t simply a matter of arriving and discovering. Columbus sailed looking for copper and ended up finding gold, but that’s because the gold was already there, buried in the ground. Instead, it is how we enact our journey to After that will determine the copper, the gold or the wasteland we will find there. Columbus didn’t know what he’d find when he set sail, and neither do we. Columbus’ journey, though, didn’t determine destination—ours does. Let me try to explain.

None of us knows how wide the lake or ocean of During is. We can’t guess how long we will be locked in our cabins or, better, our individual boats lashed together by history, by circumstances, by the universe. If on our journey across During we are kind, considerate, gentle, loving and lighthearted, we will discover an After where these things are valued and encouraged. Likewise, if our journey values selfishness, blame, shame, anger and deceit, that is the After we will discover, for that is what we will have created.

On this journey we test drive the philosophical system on which to build our After.  If we search the history of Before, we can find justification for an inhuman utilitarian model.  From Robespierre (or Napoleon or Lenin, depending upon whom you believe) we have, “You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” From Machiavelli the same sentiment “The ends justify the means.” In both, we find the greater good, as defined of course by the speaker, outweighing the value of the individual or commonplace ethics. This “greater good” always fails to define either “greater” or “good.”

On the other hand, our journey can be person-centered, ethical and joyful. We can be the action we want, we can model forgiveness, we can stretch out our arms to the world while maintaining a six-foot distant. We can know the means are the ends, what and how we live the journey determines where we will arrive.

A few days ago, I quoted Walker Percy at some length, words some correspondents thought were dark or harsh. I thought they were stoic, but that’s a different conversation for another day. Today I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors. Please sew it into pillows, write it on your lintels, engrave it on your heart.

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”—Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Followed by a quote from one of my favorite songwriters:

Don’t let us get sick
Don’t let us get old
Don’t let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight
Don’t Let Us Get Sick
Warren Zevon

Amen and amen and amen.

Be kind. Make us play nice. And remember

You matter. I matter.  We matter.

Keith
____________________________________

March 30, 2020

Not well but enthusiastically. That’s how I paint and, most times, live my life. And that’s good enough for me. 

Dear Hope Nation,

I’ve learned a lot in recovery—about the universe, about humanity and, most of all, about me. Learning about the universe has been almost uniformly delightful; practicing acceptance and gratitude really does make a difference. Learning about humanity has been enlightening, given that I’d viewed all the other folks in the world as impediments to me getting what I wanted. By the end of my active use, of course, what I most wanted was to find a way to escape the toxic swamp of my existence. Oh, yes, the learning about me. That was no fun at all, since I’d been running from myself for 33 years of active use, using chemicals of all kinds to create various Keith escape vehicles. Most of what I learned about me was difficult, painful and required me to change the world by changing myself.

Today, though, I’ve come to grips with both my strengths—and I do have a few—and my weaknesses. I’ll never be—no surprise!—perfect, but because I can love your imperfection I can love mine. To, allegedly, quote Marilyn Monroe: “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” I am imperfect with a touch of madness and a willingness to be ridiculous. And that’s okay.

Today is Day 15 of Hope’s closure, which makes it also the 15th day I’ve been home with few visitors and few excursions out. This experience has taught me one thing I’d never really accepted before. I am embarrassed to share this with Hope Nation, but I do want to be transparent, do wish to reveal myself, warts and all. Please don’t laugh or mock when you read my confession, Dear Reader, but accept it the way you might a revelation of a secret shortcoming.

My secret shame?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t watch television or movies. There. I’ve said it. I find video of all kind boring and unwatchable. As I talk or otherwise communicate with friends, they’re all full of chatter about the shows they’re binge-watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime, the movies they’ve discovered or the YouTube tutorials they’ve learned from. I’ve got nothing to bring to the conversation, because I haven’t watched much of anything, even though I’ve tried. Really I have.

When I moved from the Tiny White Box into a house, I bought a large television and a Bose soundbar, intending to discover the joys of video. An Amazon Prime member, I also signed up for a free two-week trial of Netflix. Day after day and evening after evening I meant to devote at least an hour to watching television, but the world always held something more interesting. Washing dishes, walking Lucy, listening to music, writing, reading—all these things kept me from my appointed task—learning to love video. Within 10 days, when I hadn’t watched anything on Netflix, I cancelled my subscription. Still I had Prime, but video never made it to the top of the list.

Then 15 days ago, Hope was closed. I was self-quarantined. Now, finally, I would have the time to embrace video the way everyone else did. Except . . . I haven’t. In the last almost 350 hours, I’ve watched about 20 minutes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and . . . nothing else. That third of an episode was entertaining enough, but I lost interest when I remembered my paints and easel. I turned off the television, put on some music and painted, not well but enthusiastically.

Not well but enthusiastically. That’s how I paint and, most times, live my life. And that’s good enough for me.  And you, because

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
___________________________________

March 29, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Today is Sunday, a day of rest, so my message will be a series of short sharp shots.

First, if you didn’t see any of the Sicker than Most Show last night, you missed a great example of community gathering together. Not an example of a well-organized video production. Not a thematically-linked evening of performances. Not a group of exquisitely talented artists—with a few exceptions—demonstrating their skills. It was a community gathering together; around isolated glowing screens a couple dozen folks had a chance to connect—talking crap about each other, joking, and sharing some time as well as some talent. From Nicholas’ poetry to Bionic’s playing and singing to Nate’s a capella singing from his basement bunker, it was all good and everyone was beautiful, whether we’d showered or not. While I hope next month’s Sicker than Most will be at Hope, I know this tradition will continue online if necessary. That makes me very happy indeed.

Second, many folks have inquired about Lucy’s safety and physical and emotional health. (Not to focus on resentments, but significantly more than have asked about me. To be fair, I am a human and in regular communication. Lucy is a dog who can’t even talk on the phone much less text. Finally, she is way cuter than I.) So . . . Lucy is doing grandly! As some of you know, we left the Tiny White Box a little more than a month ago and have settled in to a log cabin in the woods across the street from a pond. It is, in short, a perfect home for Lucy. Thanks, all, for asking.

Finally, A few years ago, before I went into seclusion in Pittsburg, I traveled to London for a couple weeks. This was right after the London Bridge killings where more than 50 people were killed or injured. Call me morbid, but I sketched out funeral plans in case I died in London. Part of that plan was a reading from one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy. This passage sums up my view of life in a nutshell, and while it may seem fatalistic, it’s also a dummy’s guide to Stoicism.

“I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me.

Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fiber of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”
— The Moviegoer

In conversations with many of you, whether through text or phone, it is clear to me we are combatants fighting the good fight. Keep up your spirits and keep on battling. After all

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
____________________________________

March 28, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

In recovery, we are a people of that name. We carry hope, that spiritual virus that drives despair into the light, where it is revealed as nothing more than the scary shadow play of our childhood beds. Having clung to despair ourselves, using it to fuel our addictions, we recognize it was all along a wet blanket, drawing heat and leaving no comfort.

No matter how unusual and frightening our current circumstances may be, we choose hope. Covid-19, unemployment, self-quarantine, social isolation and the other surprises of today suck and we can’t control how all this will unfold. We do have control over our response—and that response is ato ccept events with hope. Given the same set of facts, the story of hope leads to life while despair’s story can drive us back into our old dead existences.

We reach out to the silent sufferers, offering concern and support to our friends and those we’ve never met who still use. We remember active addiction, the loneliness and despair it breeds, and identify with that pain. Identification, though, is never enough—we also bring a solution, not just for the addiction but for its root. Alienation, the sense one is different and incapable of being one among many, is that root, and the Hope community demonstrates the lie at the heart of that alienation.

As Hope nation, we have learned not to entertain despair, not to offer it a cup of coffee and an easy chair. Despair is the enemy, and we know how to drive it away. Despair has been our companion, but now we live in a community that reveals the false promise of despair. As a people, we have made a truly radical choice—hope is possible and despair is unconvincing.

Please excuse the preaching in this message. Some things need to be said repeatedly and very clearly. One of those things is:

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith
____________________________________

March 27. 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

We all have heroes, sung and unsung. Today, I’d like to tell you about one of my strangest personal recovery heroes, describe what he’s doing tomorrow night and invite you to be part of it.

I am a 61-year-old man in long-term recovery from both opiates and alcohol. Think of it—61-years-old! When I was shooting up, we actually used glass syringes, the same kind used back in the 1600’s. Artisanal addicts we were, able to trace our history back to opium dens and Civil War veterans strung out on morphine. In fact, before I ever shot heroin, I spent a long time smoking opium to come down from meth runs. But I digress. Before even beginning.

Given my history, you might think my  heroes would exclusively be Ebby Thatcher, a pre-founder of AA, or Charles Anderson, one of the first Washingtonians. but you would be wrong. My current recovery hero is a bizarre man in his 30’s with a taste for disturbing/disgusting art, filthy language and multi-colored Mohawks. Andy Ryan (aka Ragety Andy aka the Big Andizzle aka whatever nonsense springs to his mind next) represents my ideal of what recovery can look like. Andy is as straight-edge as they come in his recovery but as f-ed up as can be in his art and life.

Andy is also the artist behind my favorite album of 2019—“Better Days” by Ragety Andy. A weird combination of Michelle Shocked, Lou Reed, Billy Bragg and John Prine, Ragety Andy sings his heart out, having used his mind to craft funny, sensitive and insightful lyrics. Really. It’s available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and whatever torrent service your currently stealing with. Listen to it. Whatever Andy does he does with passion, although often without focus or the stick-to-the-damned-script mentality that makes it easy to work with an artist.

Andy Ryan and Duke Mulberry are the visionaries behind “Sicker than Most,” the long-running music show at Hope. Sicker than Most presents a stage for people in recovery to play and sing music, perform standup, read poetry or juggle goldfish. All it takes is showing up and signing up. While shows are typically from 7:30ish to 10:30ish the third Saturday of each month, last week’s show was cancelled due to Hope being closed and the end of the world. This Saturday, March 28, Andy and Duke present a first in tasteless entertainment and gratuitous swearing: “Sicker than Most” online.

While there is a Zoom invitation for YOU at the bottom of this page, details on the show itself are still sketchy—have I mentioned Andy is notoriously opposed to any kind of normal planning or foresight?—please watch Hope’s Facebook page for more details on how to log in, become offended, log off in disgust, then log back on because what else is there to do on a Saturday night? The show will begin at 7:30ish, and Andy claims to have talent from all over the western world.

Oh, yes, he’s even got a submission from a 61-year-old man in long-term recovery performing an original song. Not good. Not even really listenable. But original and called “Pus Theory.”

Do be there. Be prepared to sing. Or dance. Or just clap.

At Sicker than Most, as in all of life,

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

Join us!
Sicker than Most
Time: Mar 28, 2020 07:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting

https://zoom.us/j/157737339?pwd=M1EyTHNKMEQwUXFQemdVTVJ6SVE0UT09

___________________________

March 26, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

 “There is nothing new under the sun.” King Solomon in Ecclesiastes

Old Solomon was absolutely right, on this and many other topics. As long as people are people and the earth is the earth, nothing new appears, just the same things in new relationships. Likewise, in recovery on whatever pathway, the foundation doesn’t change over time. From SMART to Three Principles to AA to NA to HA to Recovery Dharma to any other mode of recovery a through-line exists: the importance of gratitude, a fundamental endorsement of identifying and listing things for which we are grateful. I don’t keep going to meetings of various kinds with the hope I’ll learn something new. I do it to prevent my forgetting the things I’ve already learned, to remind myself of what has worked in the past and is likely to go on working.

When I first got into recovery, my first mentor uttered a sentence that would have been true for Solomon, applies today and will likely work for my great-great-grandchildren: “a grateful heart will never use.” That’s so important, let me repeat it. “A grateful heart will never use.”

I know life in the US today is tough, with millions out of work, almost a hundred-thousand infected with coronavirus, thousands dead and an uncertain future. Still, when we reflect on our blessings–and we still have many—we find comfort. When we complain, we find none.  Given the choice between warm comfort and cold judgment, only a fool would choose the latter.

Let me take the example of coronavirus in New Hampshire today and try to squeeze some joy out of this seemingly poisonous fruit. My gratitude list, with no items that were true 13 years ago.

Gratitude List 3/26/20

  1. I can call friends and fellow recoverees for support, friendship or just to shoot the breeze.
  2. I have enough food to last me for a while. None of it is outdated or just plain disgusting (e.g., no canned beets, canned meats or leftover Halloween candy).
  3. I have enough clothes to wear, sometimes for two or three days in a row. Still, they keep me warm and are in good repair.
  4. My house is heated.
  5. I have a flush toilet and a working shower.
  6. I have a dog who really loves me.
  7. I have enough money to get through today
  8. I can look myself in the eye with pride rather than disgust.
  9. I can finish each day with pride and begin each day with excited anticipation.
  10. I don’t need to drink or use today.

And neither do you! If you’re feeling like using, please, please, please reach out for support and help. Go to Hope’s website (hopefornhrecovery.org) and get hooked up with a recovery coach! Text or call a friend. Text or call your sister. Hell, if you’ve got no one else, text or call me (603)361-6266. You don’t have to use.

Be thankful for today. It is a beautiful day! Really! None of us have seen this one before and none will ever see it again.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
__________________________________

March 25, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Keith trying to grow a beard

After 10 days of seclusion, I’ve recognized one lie I’ve told myself for years. Back when I was using, I assumed I’d eventually be locked up by the state for some period of time. My vision of, say, five years in prison—always, for some reason, in solitary–would be that I’d spend 12 hours a day doing sit-ups and push-ups, six hours a day reading the classics of literature and six hours a day sleeping. By the time the warden gave me my walking papers and bus ticket, I’d be insightful, witty and buff as hell. When I got into recovery, I changed the scenario so I was now falsely convicted, but I still worked out and read and got released a new man.

Ten days into my solitary sentence, though, I’ve yet to do a single pushup or sit-up, and the closest I’ve come to reading the classics is listening to the audiobook of an old favorite. However long this period lasts, I’m not sure I’m going to change myself completely, whether physically or intellectually. I do, however, have some lighthearted suggestions for ways to pass time as we await whatever the future holds.

  1. Discover if you have a green thumb! Plant whatever seeds you have lying around into dirt and see what happens. (If you’ve chosen a path of abstinence from weed, please do not look through your old hoodies to see if any seeds ever dropped down into that mysteriously deep fold at the bottom of the pocket.) I am not able to try this, although it sounds like fun, because the only seeds I have around are poppy seeds, and I’m in long-term recovery from opiates.
  2. Grow a beard! What can be more exciting than springing out of bed each morning to see if the unshaven mug you laid down with has been transformed into a beard? This activity is even more challenging for women, making it suitable for longer-term isolation.
  3. Tag for 1! Everyone’s a winner is this variation on an old childhood game. Sit or stand with at least one finger extended. Touch yourself on one part of your body and shout “Tag!” After cursing your luck, tag another part of your body, shouting, “Tag!” This game offers both upper body exercise and a chance to meet the authorities likely to be called when your neighbors hear you.
  4. Word Games! Try an old favorite like many as many words or phrases as you can out of a phrase. For instance, given “Hope for NH Recovery” and a bit too much coffee, I came up with:
    –Phony chore forever
    –Honor chef over prey
    –Very hoof horn creep
    It troubles me to say those three lines are as poetic as any I’ve ever written in my life

I do hope these activities will help you pass the time. Even more, I hope this silliness helps you recognize how much you miss gathering together with other folks in recovery and sharing that energy we generate as a group. In the meantime, please, please, please reach out a hand to others, whether to offer or to ask for help. We are all in this together. Really.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
___________________________

March 24, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

By the time you finish reading this, you will have experienced the creation of a new word! Read on to become the first kid in your neighborhood to utter these syllables and grasp their meaning.

My friend, Tito, is very impatient, so I know he wants to read the word first, then learn what it means. For Tito:
Hopemore.
Hopemore.
Hopemore.

Now, a brief introduction.

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved words, oftentimes to my detriment. When I was four, for example, my maternal grandfather, an inveterate outdoorsman, took me fishing for the first and only time, bringing me home after 15 minutes on the water because I would not, could not shut up. I imagine my chatter went something like this:
“This boat is red.”
“Apples are red and they float, like when you’re bobbing for them.”
“What other red things float? Goldfish aren’t red, they’re gold. And they don’t float. They swim.”
“Think there are any goldfish in here, Gramper?”
“If you painted a goldfish red, do you think it would float?”
“If you painted me gold, do you think I’d know how to swim?”
“Where do you keep your gold, Gramper? Do you remember pirates?”
“Did pirates all know how to swim? Did the gold help them?”
Et cetera.

I have no memory of spending any time alone with my grandfather during the next 30 years of his life. Because of words.
Hopemore.
Hopemore.
Hopemore.

I love the sound, the meaning, the feel of words. Among my favorite-sounding words are: slither, serendipity, epiphany, defenestrate, plasma and cashmere. Each one of these (or all of them together in a bouillabaisse—and add that word to the mix) can be used as a meditative aid. Simply say them calmly over and over and they’ll lose all meaning, helping you to relax into the mystic—or get locked up as a lunatic

Some very pretty sounding words, though, can carry dark potions indeed. While “defenestrate” above means “to throw another person out a window,” it’s not a poisonous word—who, really, worries about windows? No, dangerous words suck the life out of you, convince you you’re not any good, born to lose, bound to lose. It’s those words I hate, and those words I aim to replace.
Words like: meaningless.
Words like: useless.
Words like: hopeless.

I know they’ve each got their antonyms, their opposites—meaningful, useful and hopeful–but the three poisonous words have so much power, drain so much out of the human spirit, those -ful words seem like empty boasts. Although all of us have experienced a complete emptiness, a void of meaning, a vacancy of use, a vacuum of hope, few of us have experienced being filled to the brim with any of them and none save the saints have lived life full of them .

The best most of us can hope for is more: more meaning, more use, more hope.
Hopemore.
Hopemore.
Hopemore.

Even in these uncertain, dangerous, calamitous, insert your own adjective here, times, we need not be hopeless. We can choose hopemoreness over hopelessness, can opt to focus on the good that exists and may yet populate the earth.

My wish for each of you is that during those moments of feeling hopeless you remember you can choose to be hopemore.

And that you remember you read it here first.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith

March 23, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

One of my favorite books of all time is Middlemarch. Written almost 150 years ago by a woman whose pen name was George Eliot, it tells the story of a small English Midlands town, primarily through the eyes of Dorothea, an orphaned young woman who has an impact on the lives of many folks in the village. Here is the concluding sentence of that masterwork:
“[T]he effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

You are, I am, we are lucky enough to be in contact with a number of folks live faithfully hidden lives, or at least not lives filled with showiness, histrionics or fuss. Instead, the staff members at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery quietly and responsibly make sure that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been.

In no particular order, I want to hold up the staff and volunteers for, if not a standing ovation—for who would hear it but your neighbors—at least a tip of the hat and a prayer of thanks.

First, Bob Mortimer, who’s been with us for about 11 months. Bob is a man in long- term recovery who has been able to expand his understanding of any and all pathways. Also, although he looks much younger than I, he is actually a little older, keeping me from being the lone old man here.
Second, Dawn Desjardins, who started as an employee about the same time as Bob, but who had been volunteering here for more than a year. Excitingly, Dawn has just become a student at Southern New Hampshire University, demonstrating how her recovery has an impact not just on drug use but on opening up options that had seemed closed to her.

Jill Kyzer, a teacher by day and recovery coach by night, has been at Hope since nearly its beginning. Jill is an avid student of the recovery process and provides some of the formal supervision required for recertification as a Certified Recovery Support Worker (aka Recovery coach).

Those are the paid front-end staff, but we’ve also got three practically fulltime volunteers who also performed unhistoric acts like greeting newcomers and oldtimers, making coffee and keeping things positive. I use the past tense of “perform” because none of us knows what the future may hold, but now each of them is chomping at the bit to use the telephone to provide recovery support to our members and potential future members.

Sharon Vertigans has been a Work Employment Program (WEP) volunteer for a few months now. Energetic and bubbly, Sharon is open about her own recovery and has a gift for developing relationships with other young mothers in recovery.

Ashley Papatola just began as a WEP volunteer shortly before the recent events, as did Lissy Mudgett, but both are in recovery and wanting to share what they’ve been so freely given. In Berlin, Lisa Kenney holds down the fort, providing recovery support to members and visitors alike.

Finally, Dave Cote and Karla Gallagher, the smartest and most levelheaded of Hope’s three-person leadership team. Each of them has been with Hope since nearly the beginning, each is a talented professional and each works hard to get things done, Dave with art and social media and Karla with money and personnel and all kinds of things I value but don’t understand.
Please, please, please . . . add these folks to your daily gratitude list—and you ARE physically writing out that gratitude list, aren’t you?—knowing that they are the ones that keep Hope alive so the rest of us can keep hope alive.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
________________________________

March 22, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

It’s Sunday, so this letter will be a bit shorter than previous ones. One other difference is it’s taken completely from things I’ve heard in various church basements, meeting halls and repurposed classrooms. Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but usually, I try to rearrange thoughts and words to make some kind of point. Here, the words are the point.

One of the first people I met when I got into recovery told me about a slogan he’d printed and taped to his bathroom mirror. When I heard the slogan, I thought, “What a complete lack of self-esteem this guy has! Why the hell does he want to begin his day with that thought?” Over time, as I cracked and peeled off my outer shell to discover the nut within, I recognized his wisdom and today it is taped to my mirror. The slogan?

“You’re looking at the biggest problem you’ll face today.”

Today, in this world where unknowns rule and knowns terrify, that slogan is still completely true. It is my response—spiritually, emotionally, physically—to the world that controls the problematic nature of the universe. Whether it’s a temporary lack of flour, the possibility of coronavirus infection or the certainty of death, I alone respond—with anger, denial, acceptance, resignation, gratitude, curiosity or wonder. While I want to see what tomorrow holds, even more I’m glad to be present and alive today.

And I’m happy you are too.

Slogans are recovery’s shorthand. Phrases that can sound hackneyed and shopworn when repeated over and over in a particular meeting by the same person can take on new wisdom when given a new setting. Here are some slogans I’ve picked up, authors unknown to me. Take what you need and leave the rest behind.

  1. Drugs gave me the illusion that I might be alive.
  2. The secret to long term recovery: Don’t use, don’t die.
  3. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides
  4. Our defects of character are the bars of a cage. The central point is not to study the bars, but to get out of the cage.
  5. Take an action, then let go of the results.
  6. If you hang around a barbershop long enough, eventually you’ll get a haircut
  7. Expectations are preconceived resentments
  8. Addiction is nothing but voluntary madness
  9. The chains of addiction are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
  10. It’s hard to spot a spiritual crisis: Usually it is disguised as a crisis in our relationships, finances, career, or family.
  11. Look for the similarities, rather than the differences
  12. In recovery, first we remove the anesthesia, then we operate
  13. Relapse begins long before you pick up the drink/drug
  14. I thought I wanted to commit suicide, but all I needed was a cheeseburger.
  15. The most natural state of an addict is irritable, restless, and discontented.
  16. Every recovery from addiction began with one sober hour
  17. The road to disappointment is paved with expectation
  18. If you want what you’ve never had, you must do what you’ve never done.
  19. You are not responsible for your disease, but you are responsible for your behavior.
  20. Insanity is not doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results; insanity is doing the same thing over and over again knowing full well what the results will be.
  21. The healthy person finds happiness in helping others. Thus, for him, unselfishness is selfish.
  22. You don’t get drunk making mistakes – you get drunk defending the mistakes you’ve made.

I hope one or more of these speaks to you, helps you make wise choices or at least reminds you that online meetings are WAY better than no meetings, and at least you’ll have a chance to see a new face passing around the same old wisdom.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
____________________________

March 21, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I think we can agree these are not the best of times. Many of us are out of work. Many are forced to stay inside, away from others. Many are broke without a vision of how to get unbroke. Regardless of our material condition, an anxiety blankets the earth unlike any in my lifetime. No, these are not the best of times. Neither, though, are they the worst of times. Really.

Those of us in recovery have the memory of active use, particularly at the end of our addiction, to look back on. Those were my worst of times. I remember the knowledge, deep in the bone, that there was no friendly direction anywhere, that no human would be happy to see my face, that I was alone in a lifeless land with booze my only companion. That was a legitimate worst of time, desperately crawling through a void. Today, cradled in the recovery community, I can get through just about anything, and so can you.

In late March thirteen years ago, though, life was very different. I’d started–through theft and cunning–to organize the materials I’d need to destroy the world, or at least the Keith portion of it. I’d put together a suicide plot, or at least the best plot I could come up with. By May, I was ready to implement this plan.

From my journal on my first day in recovery, a recovery I didn’t think I needed and I suspected was impossible:

May 21, 2007
When I got out of bed this morning, I had a plan. Not a perfect plan. Not a foolproof plan. Hell, my plan could have snapped apart like a small tree branch trying to support a bear cub across a swollen May river. Still, it was a plan.
I was going to take a bus to Dartmouth College, start heading south on the Appalachian Trail and not stop until Georgia. With just dried fruit and oatmeal to sustain me, I would walk the bottom four-fifths of the AT in two pairs of sneakers and a pair of sandals.

Every plan has loose ends, space for contingencies, room left to breathe in the design. In an excellent plan, the paragraph above would present the final problem: How will I equip myself for this three- or four-month journey? The perfect plan would include the application of a credit card or cash to expenses at an outdoor apparel shop. A good plan would answer the question in a thornier manner, involving difficult budget decisions and a willingness to compromise on any given food’s flavor for calories.

Now that we’ve covered what that second paragraph would be in a perfect and a good plan, let me now share with you what living on oatmeal and ending up walking a hundred miles barefoot is in a truly fucked-up, horrible, wretched plan–it is the heart, the clockwork, the settled part of a doomed plan. That was my plan.

I was going to walk away from everything I’ve known, take on a fake identity, a “trail name,” and, eventually, kill myself out on the trail, thereby saving my three beautiful daughters from the shame of being related to a suicide. Instead, they would have been related to one of the disappeared. That was my plan.

Instead of following out one of the stupidest plans I could have come up with, I checked into a VA hospital for treatment for my depression. I had tentatively called my trail journal, “Tomorrow is a Good Day to Die: the last days of a suicide.” I’ll now have to come up with a new title, something with a similar pizazz and, dare I say, optimism.

I’ve mentioned working on an incomplete memoir. It may never be completed, but it does have a filename. What is that working title?

“Today is a Good Day to Live”

And it is.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
_______________________________________

March 20, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

This morning I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine, a minister who also works in recovery. Michelle, who is much smarter and kinder than I—but not as funny—expressed her concern for folks who have never had to be alone before, but now are living in, for all intents and purposes, isolation. Maybe you are one of those people, a born extrovert now looking only within. If so, I may have a trick or two, based on years of experience.

That experience is not in life as an extrovert. Those of you who know only the glad-handing, back-patting, chucklehead on the outside may not know how I prefer to be alone, with at most one or two others. On any personality inventory, I’m in the 99th percentile for introversion, drawing energy not from others but from recharging in solitude. How else explain the Tiny White Box (TWB) and my 30-month affair with it?

Many of you know I lived alone in a six-foot by 12-foot converted motorcycle trailer, the TWB, first for a year in Pittsburg about five miles from the Canadian border and more recently in Manchester. (Those of you unfamiliar but interested can go here to see a video. The new photo header at the top of the page is the home I just moved into a month ago.) That time alone in the Great North Woods helped me learn a bit about being alone but not lonely, being productive with no paid work and being happy without distractions.

  1. Self-labelling matters. Take the difference between “isolation” and “solitude.” Isolation, I think, brings with it thoughts of desolation, confinement, forced separation and punishment. Solitude, on the other hand, seems like the choice of a well-rounded human, Thoreau going into the woods, Jesus going into the wilderness, Superman going to the Fortress of Solitude.
    I live in solitude and so can you.

  2. Learn to laugh at yourself. Really. Be willing to observe yourself, looking for the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies that make us human. Alone in a box in sub-zero blizzarding weather on the outside, I loved the power of self-directed belly laughs when I’d look in the mirror and wonder if my hair looked goofy. It did, of course, but that I would care still makes me laugh.

  3. Define your day in advance and take pride at nightfall in accomplishing what you’ve completed. In the TWB, my daily tasks might be as simple as a) writing a 750-word column/blog post and 3,000 words of a still-incomplete memoir, b) making a meal that included vegetables (frozen and outside, natch), protein (from a can, of course) and starch (crackers, usually), c) bundling up to walk at least four miles on the coldest days and d) driving the three miles to the nearest Wi-Fi spot to post the column to my website . No matter your situation now, you can set and accomplish goals and pat yourself on the back for doing so.

  4. Maintaining communication with distant others. For most of the time I was in solitude, I didn’t have onsite phone or internet service, so I’d write emails to friends off-line and send them when I posted my blog. Almost every day I’d find emails awaiting me, sort of like . . . what’s that called? Oh, yes, the mail.

  5. Express gratitude. All day. Every day. The Apostle Paul got it right when he told the church at Thessalonica to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Letting thankfulness flow out of you is the best spiritual enema imaginable.

    In closing, let me give you one question to ponder: the future can be reached by two different paths, hope and despair. The choice is completely yours. Which will you choose?

    You matter. I matter.  We matter.

    Best,

    Keith
    _______________________________________

March 19, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

If you’re reading this, congratulations! You’re alive! Most people aren’t. The BBC estimates about 107 billion people have ever lived, EVER. If there are about 7 billion people walking the planet today, about 15 people are dead for every living soul, and you’re one of the lucky ones! Maybe life is not all you’d dreamed it would be—and if this time IS your dream time, you may want to have your medications checked—but life still goes on and you’re still on its team. Again, congratulations on being alive. Give yourself a pat on the back and keep on going.

On that pat on the back business, last night I had a dream come true, a real dream, a good dream. For silly but necessary reasons, I had to fill up the Hope van—the Barneymobile typically parked across the street from Hope—and I walked into a 7-11, clean rag in my just-washed hand to open the door and pick up a receipt. Out of the blue, a hand clapped me on the back and a voice said, “Has anyone given you one of these today?” It was Don, a Hope member who’s returned to recovery and seems to be doing well. He worked yesterday, he was abstinent and he had the kind of smile dope and booze just can’t manufacture. That pat on the back made not just my day or week, but my whole year! Small acts of kindness like Don’s, Mitzvoth to my Jewish friends, lighten the world and brighten our existence.

Many of us have been displaced from work, from shopping for chocolate chips for cookies, from our friends and from Hope—but not from hope, for our separation is finite but our hope is infinite. This period will end just as Before ended, for all of life is endings and beginnings, but the hope of a better future is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” the gumption we need to keep on going. Our hope in recovery, to paraphrase a government definition, is that we may change, improving our health, living self-directed lives, and reaching our full potential. In short, hope is the fuel that animates our days, drives our recovery and makes life worth the living.

You are alive. Check. You have hope, or at least most of the time you have some hope or know where it can be found. Check. With life and with hope you’ve got all the ingredients you need. Maybe you’re lacking the chocolate chips, but life and hope are all that’s needed to make that future a better place.

You can begin with a verbal (from six feet away) pat on a stranger’s back if you’d like.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
__________________________________

March 18, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Although these days are dark, we still have each other, even if the word “have” exists only in a virtual sense. Still, think of how lucky I am to be able to write these words, far away from you, and know they can reach your eyes. The telephone can be a moon coming out of the blackness. How miraculous I can talk with you, you can talk with her, they can talk with us! Goddammit, let’s use this tool not just for checking Facebook for the latest rumors or snapping pictures of ourselves, but to connect as best we can with others in recovery or having a hankering to get into recovery.
Some phone calls I’ve had over the last day.

–A woman trying to support people in recovery through phone calls, emails and Facebook. We both delighted in the fact that although we are segregated from the world at large we can still find meaning in our days and sleep in our nights. Because of the work each of us can do in reaching out, we can lie down at day’s end, looking back with a sense of accomplishment and forward with a sense of anticipation. That experience is available to each and all of us. All it takes is a desire to help. Really.

–A delightful and spunky woman, living in recovery housing, saying almost everyone there had been laid off from work and their food supplies were getting low. She’d gone to the local food pantry, but a bag of groceries doesn’t go far among eight women. Luckily, the house she lives in belongs to NH-CORR (NH Coalition of Recovery Residences) and help of some kind is on the way, not quickly enough to make supper tonight, of course, but at least a sense people care.

–A man who’s been in and out of recovery for years, the allure of crack and meth always drawing him back in. He’s working (for now—a phrase that can be added to any statement today), he’s in recovery and he’s trying to address some of his mental health issues. The last time I talked with him, he’d been tricking for drugs or money to get drugs, so this news represents progress, not perfection.

–A woman whose partner, and the father of her children, overdosed 11 years ago. She’s working for a political group that wants to increase support for folks in recovery. Even though we’re both working from home, sheltering in place, we both believe we’ll meet on “other side” of this pandemic and that the planning we do today will be meaningful.

–A government official checking up on the health and safety of folks in recovery in Manchester and the surrounding area. I had to say everyone we’ve heard from is doing at least okay, but that many folks may have slipped through the cracks. If you are one of those who needs help or assistance, please contact me (603-361-6266) keith.howard@recoverynh.org so we can try to help.

Yes, the days are dark, but each of us can spread a little light. After all, looking back on the various wreckages of our pasts, each of us has a 100% survival rate so far. Let’s maintain that record.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,

Keith
__________________________________

March 17, 2020

Dear Hope Nation:

True Confession: I am an odd man with odd interests, particularly when it comes to history. I know more than any normal person should about major-league baseball of the 1920’s, the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840’s, and controversies in the early church.

More darkly, I’ve read much too much and spent more than a reasonable amount of time studying the Plague (aka the Black Plague, the Pestilence, the Great Bubonic Plague and the Blue Sickness). While I could bore (or intrigue) you with details on the Plague’s spread, its societal or economic effects or the church’s response to it, I instead want to share some of the proposed cures for the disease:

–Rubbing a chopped-up snake on the buboes
–Drinking arsenic, mercury or 10-year-old treacle
–Living in a sewer
–Becoming a flagellant, whipping yourself with ropes or branches
–Crushing jewels, particularly emeralds, and eating them

Today, in our enlightened age, we recognize the nonsense of these “cures.” Unfortunately, we may be enlightened but we’re still terrified of the unknown, and no one knows nothing about Covid-19, its future spread or its long-term impact on society. Without leaving home today, I have been emailed, messaged and texted the following bogus information:

–FALSE drinking water will protect you from Covid-19
–FALSE garlic prevents the spread of Covid-19. (This may be partially true, in that eating raw garlic contributes to social distancing.)
–FALSE the United States government created and spread Covid-19 to “cull the herd”
–FALSE inhaling hot air from a hairdryer will cure Covid-19

Luckily, we do know some things that will slow the spread of Covid-19, potentially keeping us from grinding our jewels, living in sewers, or burning our throats and lips by sucking on hair dryers.

These things are:
–Stop handshaking! (Try encouragingly patting people on the back instead.)
–Wash your hands!
–Keep your hands away from your face!
–Stay at least three feet away from other folks, especially if they’re sick!
–Don’t gather in groups larger than 10! Period!

This last one is hard for many of us in recovery, I know. It’s just not the same to have the “meeting before the meeting” in a Zoom space. There’s no pleasure in asking folks after the meeting if they’d like to group text about the good times they had at Chili’s or the pizza place. I do understand. Really.

My first year in recovery I went to a meeting every single day—or went to two meetings today to make up for one I missed yesterday. Meetings kept me sober, and I feel for those new to recovery whose meeting schedules have been disrupted, whose chance to develop face-to-face relationships has been ruptured, who have to rely on real support in a virtual setting.

“It sucks.”

Yes, it does.

“It’s not fair.”

You’re absolutely right.

“And don’t give me that crap about ‘acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.’”

Whether it’s crap or not is open for argument. Let’s go with “We are here. It is now. The rest is all moonshine.” Choosing to live in reality means, unfortunately, living in reality.

Please, Hope Nation, stay away from gatherings of more than 10 people, but don’t stay away from the support they used to offer—and will again! Reach out and support each other. Call a friend in recovery. Call your old second-grade teacher. Hell, if you don’t have anyone else, call me (603)361-6266.

Also, don’t suck on hairdryers.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Best,
Keith
____________________________________________

March 16, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

As we await the unfolding of the coronavirus here in the United States, I want to remind you of something you know but may be in danger of forgetting: You don’t have to use.
If your work is canceled and you’ve got time on your hands, you don’t have to use.

If you’re working 16 hours a day at your job, you don’t have to use.

If you’re tested for coronavirus and the results are negative, you don’t have to use.

If you’re tested and the results are positive, you don’t have to use.

As a man in long-term recovery from opiates, alcohol and any other damn substance I could use to escape myself, I know the temptation to pick up. I, like you, know how to feel significantly better for a short time—using a needle, a bottle, a straw or other instrument—but I also know I don’t have to use.

And neither do you.

Please, please, please don’t pick up anything but a telephone, and use it to call for help and support. Call a friend in recovery. Call your sister. If you don’t have anyone else to call, call me (603)361-6266.

Just don’t call your dealer or the liquor store.

We’ll get through this. Really we will. We just need to stick together emotionally and spiritually, even while we remain physically apart.

You matter. I matter. We Matter.

Best,

Keith