She walks into the classroom. Her hair hangs carelessly like a curtain around her face. She is wearing blue jeans rolled up below her knees. I exhale. We are in the lecture hall of a state university in northern California. As she stumbles through an introduction and sits on the edge of the stage, swinging her legs, I wonder—how did she get this way? I had met her through a professional organization online. She was to speak to my class about designing websites for a well-known firm in San Francisco. Yet somehow I have this incoherent, confused woman in front of 40 undergraduates. I am aware that my class is restless, squirming in their old-fashioned wooden seats. After another rambling 15 minutes, my guest asks for questions. The students sit, mute. Finally an overachiever in the front row asks about software. As my speaker responds in a voice too low to hear, I think to myself, "I wish I could disappear." I smile weakly as the room finally falls silent, and I vow inwardly never to use a guest who I have not personally interviewed.
Six years later I am climbing the stairs to a detoxification center in San Francisco. I am part of a team of volunteers who try to help—mostly we sit and listen. A young woman makes eye contact during the meeting. She is sitting next to a couple who is coming off of heroin. Her face is familiar, but I cannot place her. As we file out, leaving the clients on musty secondhand leather couches, the young woman catches up with me.
"Shari Dinkins." The sun falls through buildings to light up her eyes. "From Sonoma State University."
I am unable to speak.
"I’ve been sober for two years now," she answers, before I can ask. We chat for 15 minutes. Two girlfriends beckon for her to get going. I hug her, grateful to see her, still shocked by the difference in her demeanor. As she makes her way across Howard Street, I think of the change. Her appearance is neat and stylish, but it is her smooth, reassuring voice that affects me most. I e-mail her the next day. She is surprised to find that I am still teaching—she tells me that she too has caught the bug. Thanking me for the inspiration, she asks if she can speak to another class I teach.
I hesitate before responding. I think about it, pray that night and e-mail her the next day. "Yes," I type, though I am not confident. Four weeks before the engagement, she has e-mailed me three times and called me twice. She wants to be sure that she will deliver information that will really help the students. She wants to present well. I send her a packet of information about the class, a map to the campus, a parking permit. We talk once more the evening before her presentation.
The next night, she sweeps into class, a laptop in hand. A young woman follows her. I smile and nod. My class is ready. She hooks up her computer to my projector. I notice her tasteful outfit and appearance. Stepping down to the "pit" in the front of the room, she turns to the class.
She is terrific. Twenty undergraduates lean forward, shooting questions when she pauses. She moves from lecture to onscreen samples of work. Finally she runs through a smooth Flash animated Web demo. My students are transfixed by her presentation and scribble notes as quickly as they can. She is smooth, yet approachable—more than I had expected. I think of her for days.
What would have happened if I had approached her six years ago? What would I have said? "Is there something going on?" I might have mumbled, "I mean, are you all right?" Could she have told me about her life, about her hopeless adventures? I had been without drink or drugs then for over six years. But could she have heard me? I don’t know if I was confused or afraid at the time, but I said nothing. She must have driven back to San Francisco unaware of her effect on my class and not knowing that I’d been embarrassed.
I chose to keep my mouth shut. And she had found her way years later, without my input.
It’s a valuable lesson for me: Shari the fixer, the advice-giver. I have learned to keep my mouth shut. And the reward is that my family and friends are able to make their own way. I have learned that God’s direction does not often come from my mouth. My sarcastic remarks, my commentary and advice, my frustrated exhales do not help. As someone once said, "Take my advice; after all, I’m not using it." And so, after numerous missteps, I have decided to become a witness, rather than a critic.
I’m sure there are times for me to step in—when people are too young, too infirm, too old to fend for themselves—but more often than not, the call is for me to shut up while others process.
I had been in the same position as my guest speaker. How many times did I sit on a barstool, stumbling into a stinking bathroom to retch my dinner? And the times that a drinking comrade might have said, "Have you had enough?" Or an ill-advised waitress who might have refused me another scotch, saying that I’d had enough. Did I stop then? No. I continued for years, unable to admit that I was killing myself. I could not stop—and those kind people who tried to hide my liquor, steer me away from the local tavern, put me in a taxi—I hated them. With the help of those who had sobered up be-fore me, I was able to stop. One morning, after I had spent yet another night in and out of blackout on my couch, I stumbled into my shower crying. A phone call brought me the support I needed.
A year earlier, my aunt had stopped drinking, too. She claims that she drove by my apartment dozens of times and offered to take me somewhere to get help. I refused. Later I blocked out the memory. Yes, my father’s sister, the funny, approachable woman who’d known me since I was a squirming baby, could not help me. I would not let her. I wasn’t ready.
Three weeks ago, a good friend, Lisa, came to me with tears in her eyes. Her husband has asked if they could seek sexual partners outside of their monogamous ten-year relationship. Confused, shaking, she repeats the conversations they had. I listen. I am torn. Part of me wants to march to their house and rip him to pieces. Another part of me wants to tell her what to do—not because I want to be in charge, but because I want her pain to stop. In the end, I don’t say much. A few innocuous comments asking how the change is for her; whether they are practicing safe sex now. We walk on the beach in the dark. I can see Orion’s belt, the Little Dipper. Later that night I pray for Lisa. I grudgingly pray for her husband, with anger in my heart. Every day I pray for them both. I hope to find some clarity. I finally talk to a trusted girlfriend who does not know them. My heart hurts, but I do not unload my anger on Lisa. She is in her own painful process. And I remain open to her. I call her often, sometimes every night. Just to be sure—that she is still around, that she is coming to grips, that she is moving in her own decision-making.
Her process does not resemble my decision making. That is why I hold back. I realize she had not told Jean, a friend we both have in common, about her problem, because Jean would judge her. Jean would tell her to dump him. She would vent and drop her anger like an anchor in the conversation. Lisa would have to deal with her own marriage and Jean’s reaction. I believe this would be a heavy burden, and that is why Lisa has confided in me instead.
I am grateful.
It’s funny—I know that Lisa does not believe in God. She has sworn against any religion or spiritual avenue. But I am certain that God lovingly watches over her, whether she believes or not. That is why I pray for friends and family every morning and every night. It helps me shift the burden to where it belongs—to God. I am too human, too invested to know what to do with these too-human problems.
I have asked my aunt about the year that she had embarked on a path of recovery from drink—before I caught on. She says that she had prayed for me every day. In effect, those around me had asked for guidance. They knew I would not take direction, even if my life depended on it.
They did not nag, plead or threaten. They prayed me into a spiritual life. Prayer is a powerful tool.
I often meet a woman who is thinking about trying something different, about putting down the bottle. I give her my phone number, then ask her about her life. But I do not chase her down. I let her do the thinking. If she comes, she will come in her own time—not mine. I have learned to live with the discomfort. Yet my faith in a higher power relieves me of that, too. Every time I pray, the worries are shifted and I move into God’s world again. I can witness without bossing; I can listen without interrupting; I can hear a story without trying to feed lines; I can sit and just be—with a friend nearby. And the beautiful news is that my friends do that for me, too. Listen to my tales of my teaching job, my confusion about dating, my complaints about my family. Yet they do not reach in with a monkey wrench to adjust, to fix, to bang around where they cannot see. I ask sometimes, "What would you do?" Then they measure before they speak. They don’t boss. They attempt to try on my confusion, to imagine. They answer honestly, "Well, I can’t imagine being where you are, but I might . . ." That is as close to advice as I will see. It is a relief not to try and position myself to please them; to twist and shape my life so that they are not uncomfortable. The beauty of this connection is that they know I have a God in my life; I know that theirs is active, too. So there is no call to fix. No call to judge. Just to witness. And that is the kindest act.