If you were to ask me about my life, how it worked out, I might answer: unconventionally. My accomplishments have appeared in no alumni column and there have been scant few brushes with greatness. There were instead the hospitals, the joblessness, the poverty, the loneliness and times so dark I thought I might just close up shop. Like 10 million other Americans, I have battled alcoholism most of my life.
Like others, I always felt I could beat this thing alone, somehow get the beast back in the bag. But in the end I had to do something really difficult—ask for help. And in the end, there were two sets of footprints in the sand. I’ve been sober several years now and real peace, a sort of détente with the demons, has arrived as that mysterious by-product of a faith I never thought I had.
I was just a scared kid when I got to Notre Dame in 1965. It was a different place. No women. Compulsory Mass and home games. In the halls by 11 p.m. Ara. Blah, blah, blah. I was simply overwhelmed. I didn’t even understand how football was played. By 1967, resistance to the Vietnam War, recreational drugs and playing the guitar had become my main pastimes. I saw “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and dropped out after three semesters.
With my rock band, Captain Electric and the Flying Lapels, I began a new life as a professional musician, joined by three fellow Domers also anxious to slip the harness. We played ND and the Midwest two years, and build South Bend’s first (and last!) psychedelic night club. The band got signed and made an album, played 1,000 bars, moved to Los Angeles and worked together four hard years. We made money and made pretty good headway down that hard road every band faces. Those were unforgettable years, and I’m presently finishing a book about the experience.
By 1971, I’d had enough though, and I returned to school. I don’t know why, but something drew me back: the big elms and oaks on the quad, a feeling of family, a newly developed desire to study. I read quietly in the library and drank away the nights at Corby’s, graduating in 1974. People like Ron Weber and Dick Sullivan taught me about this America of ours, how to absorb, how to reflect, how to write. There’s a sheepskin around here somewhere.
A slow descent into drug addiction proceeded, and in those bittersweet years a secret army of demons kept me company. This gave way to a more conventional demise, good old standard alcoholism, which I battled into my 40s. Everything—school, jobs, women, success, failure, the Smirnoff ads—seemed to say that being a nice-guy drunk would be just fine. My initial hard drinking at school set the foundation for a life propelled by booze and a popular nasal inhalant.
I have been, on and off, a Christian, a father, writer, editor, photographer, sailor and musician, though carpentry has paid the bills. At times I wandered around the States, hoping a change of scene would life the gloom. I sat in motels in Los Angeles. I sat by the ocean on the north coast of Iceland, staring at the passing icebergs. I had become one of them, isolated and unexplainable.
The walls were closing in, and my world was getting smaller and smaller. But the bottle took care of the guilt and could be counted on to present a dozen grandiose schemes a week. For two decades I was a full-blown alcoholic. Plenty of people rode that same merry-go-round, too, seeing their dumbfounded faces reflected in the glass eyes of the wooden horses, unable to stop the circus clowns from calling their names.
It was the look on a dog’s face that finally go me sober. The dog lay at my feet and glanced up at me. In her eyes was a question: “Are you all done yet?” I knew that day the jig was up. I had run out of excuses, was very ill and thinking of suicide. Worse, I was beginning to get on the pet’s nerves. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. For me it was the grace of God. You see the years going by and eventually just pray for the willingness. A lot of us didn’t make it.
But let me tell you about today.
I’m driving my old Jeep up island as the March morning sun pours through the fallow hay fields framed in stone walls. The Jeep’s 17 years old; I’m 50; the walls about 200; the island, ages. The ocean encircling us is calm today. When I first came to live here, offshore of New England, this is why I stayed. The stability and silence, the plain beauty and ease of landscape, the ocean, the privacy. Here was peace and quiet I had long searched for, and, of course, it was a perfect place to drink.
My arrival here was an accident. That first curious weekend turned into a summer, then a winter, and now 20 springs. After graduating from Notre Dame, a few years as an editor in New York City provide to me what I didn’t want to do with my life—live in a congested area, sit behind a desk and accrue those vague accomplishments associated with nameplates and letterheads. I bagged it all and moved offshore, permanently.
I started my education all over, first with a shovel in a ditch. In time I learned to frame a house, absorbing the trade from salty New England carpenters, men whose fathers had been carpenters. I saw it as a continuation of my American Studies degree: developing an appreciation for the hand-held tool and indigenous craft, with a newfound horse sense and a nose for New England weather. I also knew carpentry was all I could manage.
Now I’m many many houses down the line. The quiet passage of friendships built with years of shared challenge, shared laughter and shared problem solving has had an appeal all its own. When I see Bob Vila on TV I have to smile. It’s a show you might watch if you still smoked pot: a whole house built in sound-bites and done in a week. Huh.
When a new home is framed here a small fir branch is nailed on the butt of the ridgebeam. The Roof Tree is good luck, a symbol the house has reached its full height and a local tradition that shares the house’s progress with neighbors and passersby. It is a culture here of cooperation and community awareness, rather than one bred in the baffling ennui of cities: a thousand single souls scurrying up a ladder to “success.” I’m dumbfounded how anyone can live in those places, however stylish they sometimes seem. Conventional success, measured in money and trappings, seems to me a soulless plateau, one I’ve never understood. I believe I would have died of boredom in such a spot. But, live and let live.
Islands are insular and exciting. They either draw you in or push you away. On them, as John Fowles says: “One is lured by challenge, the iron bound chest, the outside chance, the jackpot—one becomes Crusoe again.” Well, with a few more bills to pay. The wealthy people who hire us to construct their trophy houses feel this pull too, I am sure. That we are worlds apart socially and economically seems to pale when a storm is headed our way and people start calling around for plywood, someone’s low on fuel, or an older couple can’t get to down. Islanders are instinctually aloof, but in a crisis, they appear on your lawn at once to help. I like this. They are hard-shelled people, but soft inside.
What draws the lawyers, doctors and Wall Street scions here in the first place is a position in the showcase of success, a position ranked, they are sure, by the immensity and cost of their new getaway homes. But what they really want is a share in our community. They drink in the small-town familiarity and neighborliness like people lovesick for a simpler way of life. It takes them a while to slow down to the island pace, a tempo more tuned to circumstance than agenda.
But most of our visitors are, for all their trappings, pretty swell people. Inside, you see, they are all like us, like children caught in the act. One wealthy family often invites me to dinner whenever they’re here, and I go. I tell stories and they claim they haven’t laughed so hard in months. I dress nicely and let them call the shots. We all like Gershwin. Another couple I know have several boats on moorings in front of their house, ready to go. They call me up and ask why I’m not sailing one or out fishing in the other.
Come Labor Day, they vanish to New York City, Connecticut or New Jersey. Their interest is fair weather, as if the dream were imaginary or its true content too much for them. I do not fault them. I have given up judgments and have as many summer acquaintances as year-round ones. It takes many violins to make a good symphony.
Besides, were we entirely alone out here, not only would we be terribly poor, we’d be lonely, I think. In the words of author Robert Jack: “like islanders in winter, who prefer to sit by their stoves, brooding over imaginary grievances.” We’d go a bit nuts and less appreciate the blessings we often take for granted.
Most of my friends are sober now, and I’ll tell you, the carpentry goes a bit easier. It’s a privilege to work for the upper echelons, where the designs are superb and the budgets limitless. It’s a nice big palette, and know what we build will long outlive us is a great satisfaction. I’d like to show Bob V. some of our “starter palaces.’ They are built not with sound bites but thousands of hours of work, often in weather so bad the dogs just stay in the truck.
I’m as baffled by my recovery as I was with the dark times, but I no longer take credit for it. I’ve slowly learned the credit goes upstairs. I wouldn’t trade my new freedom for anything. Ironically, the very same landscape, this island that once provided the coveted isolation all alcoholics crave, now provides the nurturing physically beauty that daily renews me. And we have good meetings.
Not everybody gets the chance to live two lives in the same body, but I have had that blessing. I am amazed at this chance God’s offered, however disguised in circumstances and coincidence, and I don’t find it exasperating He saw fit to have me spend several decades sorting through the deck. I am happy.
You may think an island too remote, and you’re probably right. It’s not for everyone. But I’m staying. It is not necessary to really move anymore, it is the end of the running. I value my time above all—the time I have to work on my book, write letters, help others in recovery, talk to you. Through the years I have kept close touch with my best friends, mostly Notre Dame people: artists, architects, builders, producers, musicians and writers. We get together. These friendships weave a tapestry of our individual journeys since school, and the quality of this cloth is rich.
The changes in my life, the lessons and the learning, are the ripples of experience, like the circles within circles when you throw a pebble in still water. The road signs are sometimes uncertain, but we keep moving on, nonetheless. That’s our nature.
The Jeep is stopping now at the country store and I’m standing on an old wooden floor in the back with the regulars, drinking coffee. We are talking lumber and weather. We are talking about relative humidity. Like all humans, we like to stall as long as possible before going to work. Two yellow labs are wagging around outside, cruising for stray doughnuts.
After coffee, I’ll go on up island and start hanging a house full of custom mahogany doors. A friend made them, and I’ll cut the mortises and locksets in. You only get one shot, but I think I can pull it off. The owners, of course, are in a terrible hurry.
On the way I’ll pass those walls, laid up by farmers a long time ago, before Jeeps and trophy houses, before you and me, before Notre Dame, stone walls laid up on another set of tides and in another time. I’ll look south, as I always do, over the Chilmark hills and over the still gray ocean. There’s a small uninhabited island in the distance, called No Man’s Land. In the 1800s a small settlement briefly took hold out there, but it soon disappeared, life there being too remote, too hard. On a clear day with binoculars you can still see some of the old shacks.