One of the things I get to do as a volunteer is present graduates of the Guitars for Vets program with brand new guitars. I was doing that this evening at Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), and I stuck around to hear a couple of VVSD alumni talk to the 150+ VVSD residents about the incredible place they’re in.
(VVSD is incredible — for residential treatment and recovery, for job search and career counseling, for providing an opportunity for folks who have served their country to make a fresh start, free of addiction.)
One of the alumni spoke of the amazing place VVSD is, especially for Veterans who graduate. Her point, and the reason for this blog, was simple: “Don’t leave before the miracle.”
If you visited VVSD, you would find Veterans there in various stages of “recovery.” That’s the world’s term for it. I think there’s a better one: ‘authenticity.’ Dealing successfully with addiction is not pleasant, but it comes down to one thing: rock bottom. When you’re at that place, you get authentic real quick. The average new VVSD resident has been homeless, involved with the criminal justice system and addicted to one or more mind-altering substances. Deciding to change all that is a choice made in a very raw place — a place where the only options left are few. Deciding to enter the VVSD program is the first step toward a new life, and it is a hard step to take.
I have met new residents in their first few days of “coming home” to VVSD.
One of them joined the Guitars for Vets program within his first week; he took the practice guitar issued to him and sat there in the courtyard alone, just playin’ and singin’ like there was no tomorrow. Now he’s the leader of a Veterans rock band composed mostly of VVSD residents and graduates.
Another VVSD resident who had never played the guitar joined the Guitars for Vets program, practiced hours every day, graduated Guitars for Vets with distinction and was given his brand new guitar. He then left the VVSD program before completion. He hasn’t been heard from since.
The effort made by both of these Veterans was exemplary.
A VVSD resident can either graduate the program employed and recovered, leave voluntarily before graduation, or be “exited” for failing to remain clean and sober during treatment. By far the hardest choice is to stay in the program. It’s the hardest choice because, in the middle of transformation, the easiest choice is to relapse.
When nothing is left — rock bottom — and a tiny part of you decides that there is a chance of something better, that’s only the beginning. It won’t be until a long time later that you can even look back and know that transformation happened. Sure, you’ll see signs, but during the process, it’s hard to believe the miracle that is really taking place.
That miracle is YOU, becoming authentic. Stripping away the stuff that was how you behaved but wasn’t you. Laying off all the ways of being that aren’t the core — the real you. Coming to understand, maybe for the first time, how the real you looks, feels, acts. In that place, where it is all new for the first time, there’s no kind of trust that a miracle will happen — it’s enough for the next day to happen. It takes time to feel the power of leaning into the change — starting to open your arms and your mind and your heart to the possibility that something — anything other than same the old crap — could happen to you. It’s a tough place to be.
It’s not a place where a miracle seems likely.
I promise you: being authentic is hard work, but it’s hard work that pays off in ways you never notice when you’re less than authentic. Rescuing a fledgling bird that somehow found itself stunned in a busy walkway takes on a whole new urgency when you’re authentic. Being called “brother” by a fellow addict becomes a firm foothold for the next step forward. Watching a brother fall off the wagon again is like a death in the family. Authenticity can suck.
It’s also the only way forward. It hurts to change. It’s supposed to. Some of us humans are good at learning facts and figures; some of us only learn when there is pain involved. It’s a good motivator: pain. It forces us to make clear choices: more pain, or less pain. In places like VVSD, the option of less pain can be a better one…and it can also be painful.
As a piano player, I’m fairly useless when it comes to teaching guitar, but as a musician, I share some attributes with guitar players. Some of those are the way we respond to music…the way it changes us. Observing the change that happens to guitar players at VVSD is remarkable. The VVSD program is opening all the wounds and cleansing them; the Guitars for Vets program is soothing the rawness. It’s unbelievable to watch this happen. It affects me mentally, emotionally, sometimes physically. I cry when VVSD loses a resident who has been in the Guitars for Vets program; I’m overjoyed when someone graduates. You can’t make music together and not respond to another’s experience. Music allows for that — it’s all about a different sort of connection. It’s all about the miracle.
Of course, I’m powerless to force anything to happen. Music isn’t like that: it’s subjective. You make music, whether together or for some listeners, and things happen. Sometimes they’re what you wish would happen; sometimes they’re not. The authentic musicians just keep on making music, hoping for the miracle.
A musical project I am in is like that. Three of us — guitar, bass, keyboard — mostly improvise behind a singer who also improvises melodies, using as her lyrics the words of the poet Rumi. There’s no way to practice for this except to be the best you can at what you do and show up to see what happens. It only works when all of us are completely raw — completely authentic — and open to the inspiration of the moment and to each other’s authenticity. No sensible musician would take that chance on stage in an ensemble, but somehow we do. It’s like cliff jumping without a rope: you never know how far down the ground is or whether it’s water, or sand, or snow, or rock. It’s like choosing to enter VVSD: no promises of a soft landing.
The miracle is that, if we are all raw enough and open enough and authentic enough and lean in together just enough to feel each other’s presence…I can hear the guitar moving in just such a way and the bass boiling up under it, that a chord here or a melody there is just right. The singer takes it to another place and we all follow; the words inspire us to mirror some poetic nuance…and the miracle happens.
It can only happen when there’s no safety net. It can only happen when there’s no looking back. It can only happen when there’s no ego. It can only happen when…there is no other way left.
It can only happen when we show up — as raw as we can be and as ready as we can be — and anticipate the miracle. We can’t predict it; we just take the leap and trust that it will be there.
And do you know what? Many times, we don’t really know what happened. Something we did might have worked — seemed OK at the time as we played — but it’s only afterwards when the perspective of time has worked on us that we really get it — really appreciate the risk that was taken and how it paid off in some miraculous way that none of us on stage that night could have scripted or anticipated. These moments don’t shake the earth; they are intimate and appreciated only by the few of us who were there, but they happen. Often.
Being aware enough to say as the miracle happens — like it could make its entrance on cue — “And now, my friends, here is the miracle!” is fallacious. I suspect we aren’t supposed to know until later — maybe years later — the magic that happened to us at that moment. Usually it just feels benign. Only later, momentous. The bird was rescued from the busy walkway. The Veteran graduated VVSD. Some musical moment happened.
In that place, where, much later, we will look back and say “That was a miracle!” — that place is where the real work happens. VVSD is one such place. The paradox is that, until you are a VVSD graduate — sometimes many years afterwards — you won’t know that a miracle happened to you at VVSD. Only people who have been there before can tell you that, until. somehow, some day, by some personal miracle of your own, you realize that it happened to you.
I wish for everyone who read this that, sometime later, perhaps, you will look back into your life and know with the surety of your being that you have been blessed with such a miracle. Or maybe a few of them. If you have done the work, you are ready: you deserve it.