Turning Point, Part III

[This is Part III of the first chapter of my autobiography. You do need to read the first two parts in order to follow the plot here.]

From 1974 to 1976, I freelanced almost fulltime for Freeman. But then, in late 1976, when Gunder Hefta, my good friend from the poetry program at San Francisco State, who had become Managing Editor after John retired, decided to move on, the Germans sent Elaine (we have completed that loop), with orders to cut loose all those uppity editors with ridiculously high standards whom John had hired. Another editor, Michelle Liapes, who had been a year ahead of me at Tamalpais High, filled me in on the in-house machinations. Nevertheless, I found myself with no cash flow by the end of the year.

However, my good friend Peter Beren, whom I had met through the brilliant clairvoyant reader Helen Palmer, who had connected with Alta and me at the Berkeley Psychic Society, had earlier that year been offered a position as Managing Editor at And/Or Press, a new publishing company in the East Bay, on the condition that he get some hands-on training in copy editing. He asked if I could help him; so I had him work with me on editing some science monographs, until he felt confident that he knew enough to supervise the copy editors. He then accepted the position.

Now I went to him, told him what had happened at Freeman, and asked if perhaps he might have some work for me. Yes, he did.

And/Or was a rather odd company. It had been put together by half a dozen Jewish ex-dope dealers who needed something legal and interesting to do with their money. They would in the following years put out many reference books dealing with psychedelics, as well as radical politics, holistic health, and many “fringe” topics. Their authors included Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Jacques Vallee, Ernest Callenbach, among others. I co-authored about half a dozen books for them during the twenty years that I worked with them on and off.

The project that Peter needed help with was indeed a mess. The beginning of the book was already in page proofs, the end hadn’t been written yet, and everything in between was at every stage of the publishing process. Could I possibly get it straightened out?

Looking it over, I saw that I could. It was essentially an agricultural textbook; I had handled several of those for Freeman. With a great deal of hard work by many people during the following months, the book was published and became a huge success. The irony is that, starting at three months sober, I thus helped create the Marijuana Growers Guide. It was given rave reviews, as an agricultural textbook, by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the High Times. It has been used as the handbook for most of the marijuana grown in the USA for the last 35 years. It is still listed on Amazon.com, with my name prominently displayed as its editor. I have wondered just how much bad karma I thus accumulated.

Getting sober—more accurately, getting comfortable with being dry—was not easy. It never is, for anyone. I have not had an alcoholic drink since September 12th, 1976, but I had to totally restructure my life and my beliefs in order to persevere in that. My initial problem was that I was the only sober Pagan around. I had no idea how to use the Craft to work the Twelve Steps, and there was no one, in the Craft or outside it, who could give me any advice. I had the First Step down; I admitted with no reservations that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. But the Second Step? Came to believe? I then had no beliefs that were of any use for working the Steps. I understood that the program, that recovery, depended on rigorous honesty. It was not only useless but probably harmful to pretend to believe something that I in fact did not believe. So what did I do? I went to a meeting every day, and complained every time I spoke about how painful life was.

I had disengaged greatly from the NROOGD in late 1973, in order to free up time for my doctoral studies. Now I had to disengage even more. After the athame had been dipped into the chalice, which was then passed around the circle—those had been the most frequent occasions on which I had taken the first drink, and it was difficult to be in circle and yet not drink. On October 29, 1976 (according to the records that I have kept), Sarah was going to take her Garter as High Priestess of the Moebius Strip coven, and she begged me to come to the ritual. I was sorely tempted, but I knew it would be a rather high-energy evening, and Alta convinced me that I would in fact be risking my still very fragile sobriety. I apologized to Sarah, I declined, and I tried to explain. She could not understand my reasons and was furious with me. Fortunately, she was never able to stay angry at me for very long.

I began going to A.A. meetings up in the hills of the East Bay, in the wealthier neighborhoods, where the members did not think I was showing off if I mentioned my graduate studies or that I had read a book. One evening in January, after the meeting, Paul came over to me and said, “Aidan, you’re a lot like Samson. You’re going to kill yourself with the jawbone of an ass if you don’t learn to shut up at meetings and listen. You’re spending your time thinking up what to say when your turn comes, instead of hearing what everyone is saying. Do you have a sponsor?”

“Yes, Art N.”

“I don’t like the way Art sponsors. He’s too laidback. He’s not going to give you the kind of guidance you need.”

Paul went on at great length. When I got home, I thought about what he had said. I knew Paul was smarter than me; that was essential. I knew I could not lie to him, by omission, commission, or putting a spin on anything. He was half Icelandic, half Native American, Jesuit educated, and one of the best Oriental art dealers in America. I called him up and asked him to be my sponsor.

“Good,” he said. “I was hoping you would ask. Now that I’m running your life, this is what you’re going to do. At meetings, you will say, ‘I’m Aidan, I’m an alcoholic, and I pass.’ I want you to listen. I’ll let you know when I think you might be ready to talk. And if I ever hear that you’ve talked at a meeting I wasn’t at, I’ll come over and knock you through the wall. You know that’s not how A.A. works, but that’s what you need, and if you don’t like it, you can fire me.”

I knew it would be stupid to ignore the advice of a man with twenty years sobriety who obviously cared a great deal about me; so I began following his instructions. And I did learn more by just listening.

By March 1977, I could not stand the stress of circling but not drinking any longer and dropped my Craft activities entirely. Alta had resigned from our coven, Eurynome, in December and turned it over to Judy. For the next six months I went to A.A. meetings without any outside source of spiritual strength. It was as dry as living on a diet of sand.

After I had been silenced for six months, Paul gave me permission to speak at a meeting one night. Afterward he came over to me and said, “Aidan, you’re still not getting it. You haven’t connected with the heart of the program. You’re going to die drunk. You have nothing to prevent that.” And so on. His intensity frightened me. I did not doubt that he knew something I could not yet comprehend.

When I got home, I used a trick I had read about. I kicked my shoes under the bed, got down on my knees to pull them out, and while I was down there, prayed. It was a simple prayer, but one I meant: “God, please help me. I don’t want to die drunk.”

And while I was on my knees, it occurred to me that it was now nine months during which I had not taken that first drink. I knew I had no more power to avoid that drink than I had had on September 12. Somehow the impossible had in fact happened. Somehow what I could not do for myself had been done for me. One plausible explanation for this utterly improbable fact was that there was Somebody Up There (or in some direction) who did indeed care enough to do the impossible for me. And this was my story. This had happened to me. Everything else, the Gospels, every other scripture, was someone else’s story—but this was mine, my version of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum: I have not drunk; therefore I am alive; therefore God (or a reasonable approximation thereto) must exist. I had already had to totally rethink the philosophical bases for my life many times—and this time would need to be even more total than ever before.

I had not arrived at any firm decisions or conclusions before September. As my first A.A. birthday approached, Alta and I began discussing what religion we might try to raise Maeve in, now that we were no longer practicing the Craft. (Wayne told me that, since she was almost five, her religious proclivities were already firmly in place.) I suggested to Alta that we might try going to Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, down by the lake. I had heard that the liturgy was very different from what it had been back in the 1950s. Alta thought that was worth a try.

So, on Sunday morning, September 12th, 1977—which was also Alta’s 43rd birthday—we sat down in a pew in that church. For the opening hymn, I found myself singing “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” an English version of Freude, schöner Gotterfunken, the chorale in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and I began weeping. (I’ll explain later why that chorale has special significance for me.) The Cantor (that’s what he was in that particular church) led the congregation in amazing new hymns and prayers. Before the Nicene Creed, he remarked, “If the theologians can sing our songs, then we can pray their prayers.”

I was thinking, “So, the Reformation has finally caught up with the Church—or vice versa.” I had passed my doctoral comprehensive examination in New Testament Studies in the middle of 1976. I was trained as a Roman Catholic theologian—although, oddly enough, most of the training had been carried out by Protestant ministers. I didn’t think there could be a vast number of people in the world who knew even more about Christian history, theology, etc., than I did—but I knew that for me, all that learning was just intellectual information. That was one factor in what happened next. The other was Monsignor Clogher, perhaps the least likely vessel for the Holy Spirit that I have ever seen. I got the impression that he said this English Mass, in his thick Irish brogue, because Rome said he had to—but he didn’t have to like it.

At the end of the Mass, Monsignor was making announcements.

I was a mess. I had been crying almost uncontrollably during most of the Mass and did not have even a Kleenex with me.

Monsignor was encouraging the congregation to bring more family and friends to church.

I was thinking, “Can I do this? Could I come back to this church, with all I think I know about it? Is there room in the church for someone like me?”

Monsignor waved his arms at the empty pews, looked straight at me, and said, “There is room in the church for all who wish to come.”

The impact of his words was almost like a physical blow. That wording had little to do with what he was announcing. I could not doubt that those words had been addressed to me. I had never known or believed that a message could be delivered so forcefully and clearly, in plain sight, with no one else aware of what had happened.

As we walked out of the church, me with my nose running, Alta looked at me and said, “Kelly, you had better make your peace with the church.”

I nodded. “Yes, I think I must.”


Obviously, the next chapter of this serial autobiography will need to explain how I made that peace—for as long as it lasted—but I’m not going to do that right away.

At this point, I suppose some readers are asking, “Okay, Kelly, are you a Witch? A Catholic? Or what?” I warned you when I wrote my first blog for this venue: the one thing I’m not is a True Believer. I have noticed that some people are very bothered that I do not fit into any of their boxes.


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