But it’s their unflinching relentlessness that fascinates me. Each and every one of their 365 days is scheduled so that other activities work around the times for prayer. The invariable repetition of these worship sessions seems to relieve the participants of the burden of thought, doesn’t it? I sometimes think of them as addicts hooked on a drug, even as I realize that addiction involves a lack of control—the way I sometimes feel about going to the movies, or having a drink—unavoidable behavior that limits or diminishes you in some way.
While their behavior may seem constraining to the outsider (i.e., me), to the sisters themselves it’s that very constraint that’s the source of their most exquisite pleasure, the most empowering aspect of their lives. Their routine, yes, is a given: unquestioned, unquestionable, like breathing. Just as the boundaries imposed by the limitations of a particular form or style or medium have the paradoxical power to expand the creative imagination of an artist, the sisters’ regimented discipline brings them freedom. If my habits render me somnambulant, theirs are revivifying and joyous. The prison they’ve built for themselves somehow makes them queens of infinite space, and leaves them, in the best sense of the word, intoxicated.
Maybe it was my lack of intoxication that brought the act of pissing back into my awareness, for one of the several goodbyes I say when I enter the monastery each year—and perhaps the most significant—is to alcohol.
How can I describe my relationship to alcohol and the habit of automatic drinking that over the last four or five decades has characterized almost every meal I’ve eaten (and, often, the time between meals as well.) Voracious would be an indispensable adjective—a voracious imbibing whose mandatory next step after finishing a glass or a bottle would be to down yet another glass or another bottle. To the casual observer, only my suffering a thirst like that of a wild-eyed cartoon figure who’s crawled across the desert for days, utterly parched, and now, finally, has reached the edge of a heaven-sent watering hole could possibly explain how desperately I kept pouring and swallowing and pouring and swallowing whenever there was wine to be drunk.
But my thirst was purely metaphorical. Was there a reason for my habitual, almost furious, drinking? For every potential explanation I came up with there were at least three more waiting in the wings: to quell anxiety, numb a low (sometimes high) level of despair, mask social awkwardness, bury rage, satisfy an unresolved oral stage of development, punish myself, get high? Sure. And more where those came from. But maybe the real explanation was as mysteriously tautological as why my right arm—and not my left—went into a shirt first: that is, I drank incessantly because I had the habit of drinking incessantly.
Most nights under the influence I did no more than fade slowly away and eventually pass out without serious incident, but there were a number of doozies over the years that left me just this side of dead—bedridden for a lost day or two with excruciating headaches and remorse, three times in the hospital, aches, pains, hurts, hurt feelings, broken bones, blackouts, memory gaps, embarrassments. The pile grew higher as the decades wore on, and yet, despite all the times I’d wound up wounded or wounding others, I’d continue drinking, as mindlessly and automatically as if nothing had ever happened, ever could happen. Indifferent to the risks, I’d at times drive in a stupor (once for 40 miles past my destination) as if I were immortal. I was persistent and relentless in my inane self-destructiveness.
As I said, I had the habit of drinking incessantly—until I did not. At the monastery each year, I stop drinking. The stopping occurs automatically on arrival when that personality-transformation switch is thrown, and for 14 years I’ve returned home after a month of not drinking and found not the slightest urge to resume the habit. Time (a week or two) would pass before I’d even delicately sip a glass, savoring it. In control. Aware. A connoisseur, not a wino. But time would continue to pass and within another week or two, the raging omnivorousness would have me in its control once again and, aware but unaware, I’d soon be drinking glass after glass, bottle after bottle, as if compelled to keep doing so, as if each drink were my last, as if I were once again that unshaven cartoon figure who’d finally found his oasis under the baking sun, as if the alcohol were what was keeping me alive, as if the failure to have another drink would end my life. The whole cycle was as predictably certain to run its course as was the saliva dripping from his dog’s mouth whenever Pavlov rang his bell.
But this year, for probably no other reason than that I’ve managed to continue to refrain from having that first sip for several months, I’ve somehow managed to continue to refrain from having that first sip now for several months, thus rendering me sober for the longest period of time since the Johnson Administration.