Each Breath a Gift – Review
By Jan A.
Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.
~ ee cummings
The first quote is used as the tag line after Thomas’ signature in his emails. I always want to respond with Rilke’s quote, but it’s not as pithy. It’s the difference between poetry and prose.
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
In Thomas’ memoir, Each Breath A Gift, he gives us both: poetry and prose. He provides us with a glimpse into the life of a 45-year long recovery of a 74-year old sober man who is still examining, seeking, sharing, questioning, sustaining, helping, and fostering connections with others in this world of recovery. It is a 328-page qualification following the usual structure of what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now culled from years of keeping journals which delineate the arc of his “long, strange trip” as he himself quotes from The Grateful Dead. The reader gets a view into a life in recovery that spans nearly five decades, something that one cannot find in the Big Book of AA, nor at most AA meetings. He has lived the examined life, a life worth living. Let it be an inspiration to us all.
Divided into three parts, Part One, “How It Was”, brings us short snapshots of his childhood and adolescence in Mississippi, through his experimentations with alcohol and his introduction to the alcoholic dichotomy of grandiosity and low self-esteem. But Thomas is careful not to parrot the AA claptrap of “I was so bad, then I saw the light and now everything is amazing (perfect!), thanks be to God. Yay, rah, rah!” Through his college years, his work in the theatre, early marriage, service in Vietnam, return to the States and family, career change, divorce, remarriage, DC, NYC, etc., he gives us the picture of a complex human being, intelligent, trying to love, but caught in his addiction and jammed between doing the right thing and wishing to die. All the while he is self-medicating his PTSD from his dysfunctional childhood, war experience, and marriage of circumstance with his drug of choice, Colt 45.
Part Two, or “What Happened”, is a fascinating look into his early days of sobriety set in the 1970s in NYC where there are roughly 1,000 meetings a week practically around the clock, and where at nearly every meeting the mantra “take what you need and leave the rest” was a staple. In a more liberal environment, the emphasis was on “don’t drink, go to meetings (whether your ass falls off or turns to gold), and help others” instead of the more fundamentalist prescription of “clean house, trust God, help others.” We meet a cast of characters who help keep him sober including Elevator Tom, and also Peter, his longtime and one and only sponsor who relapsed and is now deceased but with whom Thomas has carried on a relationship through his writings to this day in the ongoing “Missive to Peter.” Peter was one of the founders of the After Eight meetings in the NYC area where featured speakers with eight or more years of sobriety were encouraged to discuss the challenges in long term sobriety. No one had to sound good for the newcomers and attendees were free to tell it like it was. In that spirit, I read Thomas’ book from cover to cover. A day at a time. A breath at a time.
Part Three, or “What It’s Like Now”, is replete with deeper examinations into intimate relationships, into self and mental health, philosophical and spiritual influences and readings, and concern for social justice in the world at large. He marries for a third time and becomes an addiction counselor, raises a son, and two step daughters, strengthens his bond with his daughters, continues his service work in AA, divorces after a twenty year marriage, ships off to another war zone in Sri Lanka as an unarmed peacekeeper for several years, and despite surviving conflict and a tsunami, returns to himself, to the States. He settles in Woodstock, where he continues to study the relationship between war veterans and addiction, and on a personal level, his ongoing challenges of his own rage and resentments. At every turn, he offers insight as well as a practical tip. I will always grab his catchphrase to “pause when agitated” and to take deep breaths all the while repeating the mantra used by soldiers in Vietnam “Don’t Mean Nothing!” over and over. He meets his wife, Jill, and they wend their way to Oregon, down and up the coast until finally settling in a small town in Illinois when they inherited Jill’s childhood home.
What strikes me most about reading Thomas’ story is that he is doggedly determined to unite people. And to do the right thing, create community, whether it be by doing service, being of service, traveling long distances to just sit with an old friend or relative. He doesn’t just shoot an email, he jumps in a car and drives, sometimes for days, just to provide an authentic moment, to be a true friend.
His honesty regarding his anger and rage issues is admirable. His own defenses wear him down and by the end of the book he is ready to pare down even further towards his catharsis. What you see in the long span of sobriety is the evolution of his coming to terms with his own hubris. The little boy who can lock an old man in his house and walk away is now the grown man who can now accept another human being as a separate entity, not an extension of himself, or merely a player in his drama.
Thomas walks away less and less. If he does, it is more of a détente, and he returns to make it right.
There are some gems that stand out: his description of travelling to Vietnam as a self-pitying, shotgun-newlywed young man, hung over and with a history of suicidal ideation on a plane to war. An accelerated surreal look into how quickly one can be catapulted into a different reality. The orphanage in Vietnam and his witness to the devastation of the TET Offensive, a drunken blackout night on leave at a businessman’s opulent home in Saigon, his activism in college, his service as a veteran and water protector at Standing Rock. He is a natural born storyteller.
I am honored that Thomas asked me to review his book. His reason was that I am also a poet, have some long term sobriety, got sober in New York City, and am one of the growing numbers in the growing secular movement of AA.
I met Thomas at a poetry reading that he and his friend Herb organized in Coos Bay, Oregon. I was a recent transplant from the New York, and I immediately felt a comradeship with two other New Yorkers. Later, I found out that Thomas was also in AA. Soon afterward, he moved up the coast and would still make the long trek for our once a month readings. Sometime in that period, I was so fed up with traditional AA meetings, that I googled Atheism + AA and found AA Agnostica. I sent off a query. Thomas emailed back.
Each Breath may be a gift to Thomas, but this book is his gift to us.
Here’s what stands out for me: His sincerity, his continuous self-examination, his willingness to tell it like it is, not from a pink cloud, but from the feet firmly planted on the ground. He shines a light into the dark corners of his past and present and we hear him still wrestling with the questions of his life. Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question. There is a surprising power in the beautiful question when it affects a change in the way we think about something, or see something.
A few years back, when Thomas and Jill were still living in Seaside, Oregon, Ken and I met them at the Portland Beyond Belief meeting, had lunch, and then agreed that we would drive out the next day to visit them in Seaside. Just before we parted, Thomas slipped me his chapbook of poetry titled “Love & War”. It was a slim volume of 21 poems, 8 written during his year in Vietnam, but 13 written in the years spanning 1983-2009, when he then published it. I cherish that modest collection because with few words, I received a gift that could only be repaid by writing an answer in the form of 21 poems around a defining event in my life.
After reading Thomas’ book, I hope it satisfies him to know that perhaps there will be many readers for whom the best review will be writing their own story with the same candid, courageous, and thorough manner that Thomas has mirrored. La Chaim, Thomas! To life! Viva! I am grateful to you.
And thank you for dedicating your life to love and service, and for the following dedication of your book to us all:
To anyone, anywhere who has a desire to get sober and who reaches out to AA for help, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.
Jan A. got sober in New York City in 1984, and is a writer and photographer. She currently lives on the southern coast of Oregon with her husband, five dogs, and two cats. She has a number of grown children — bio and step — from Portland to Cape Town. In May of 2015, she started the Bandon Freethinkers Group which meets on Saturday mornings at 10 AM as The Broad Highway, a secular AA meeting open to all alcoholics and addicts regardless of belief or lack of belief.
The high points of her AA life are her sober friends near and far, attending meetings and conventions all over the US and in over 25 countries, and finding AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief, and the secular AA community.
The featured image at the top of this post is a photograph taken by Jan.
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