SALT SPRING ISLAND—From here, it all looks so normal: a field of tents and tarps, RVs, and picnic tables. Yet I know the membership fee can be life or death. Some will be here with only a blanket and the clothes on their backs. Others will be sleeping in cars or not at all, because their sobriety is measured in the minutes and hours of withdrawal. We’re not camping, we’re counting.
I’ve just turned off Rainbow Road and into the dirt driveway that skirts the tree-lined pastures leading into the Islands Farmers Institute fairgrounds on Salt Spring Island, BC. The crop of tents sprouting between apple trees and outbuildings is here for this August weekend’s fifteenth annual Salt Spring Island AA rally. For weeks, I’ve argued with myself: You’re twenty-two years sober—you don’t need to go to another rally.
Recently, I’ve finished a summer writing course taught by Susan Musgrave at the University of Victoria. Of the craft’s discipline she said, “It’s no secret—you’re at your desk writing when everyone else is at the beach.”
Salt Spring Island had Robert Bateman beaches and a Saturday morning market that was an apostolic banquet. What about working on your book? The debate had capitalized on the morning’s ferry line-up leaving Victoria. You really can’t afford this trip.
The driveway curves into fairground parking, a short walk from the main hall. Well, I’m here now. I park the Honda and stand for a moment in the full sun, hoping to melt the feud between my dour muse and the loneliness that has driven me here. Writers need solitude. Laughter carries from the hall. I need this too.
The international tradition called a “rally”or “round-up”is a celebration of recovery: the host town’s AA membership extends a general invitation to share “experience, strength and hope.”Some members rally-hop all summer long, as I did a few years ago, one town after another: Port Hardy, Ucluelet, Powell River, Courtenay, Campbell River. A rally is a revival meeting of the spared and the sober; an unlikely flock of head-butting individualists now dry under the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous and their Higher Power.
I’m welcomed at the registration desk and given a small wooden lamb for a name tag. It’s appropriate: Salt Spring Island is renowned for the quality of its sheep. A pamphlet published in 1902 by the Islands Farmers Institute describes their sheep thriving, “secure from beasts of prey.”In local parlance, crippled or nonambulatory sheep are called “downers”when they are unable to bear their own weight. Here in the fields, 105 years later, the lame and the grafted still lean on one another.
“We’ve got felt pens on the table over there for you to decorate your lamb with,”says one of the women. A few members are already hunched over and giving their lambs fancy polka dot and rainbow treatments. I pick up a green felt pen and print my name in block letters unevenly across the body. A pink eye. A red mouth. Done. At least a half-dozen of these lambs from years past rattle around in a drawer back home. And every one of them has in some way marked me.
Lamb pinned on my shirt, I step outside. A row of chairs lined against the wall is punctuated by sand-filled coffee cans for cigarette butts. Old-timers smoulder in the shade, squinting at the newcomers to sobriety—talking too loud, too fast, or not at all.
“Hey—how are you?”I open my arms wide to be hugged by an old friend. “When did you get here?”
“Last night—a whole group of us were on the same ferry from Swartz Bay.”
“Do you want to walk down to the market in the morning?
“Sure—I’ll see if K. wants to go, too.” Over and over, my belonging is affirmed, every pair of arms around my shoulders defying alcoholism’s deep call to apartness.
In 1939, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote: “We aren’t a glum lot . . . We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”This lamb jams. It will tromp through field stubble, dirty-toed and tapping, to impromptu guitar-and-harmonica blues late into the night. It will dangle over a shared bathroom sink while I spit toothpaste and then shuffle along a pancake breakfast lineup. It will drift and gab through daytime service announcements until stung by firepit smoke and whiffs of singed flesh, the highlight Saturday barbeque: Salt Spring Island lamb.
After the feast, the entire assembly meets in the hall for the main speaker and dance. But first the sobriety countdown. The lamb is my applause when the chairman counts backward—fifty years, forty-nine years, forty-eight years—and each person stands up for their years or months or days sober. We clap faster and louder in unison to thirty days, twenty-nine days, twenty-eight days, right down to the last day, today, as someone rises to walk through a standing ovation to the podium where the old-timer with the longest sobriety waits to give the newest newcomer a word or two and the textbook Alcoholics Anonymous. Their conversation is rarely heard, but profoundly witnessed, as we whistle and holler and stomp unashamed, for this day, we are all sober.
I believe in the Holy Spirit’s power of Deep Audio Disruption to heal the soul’s diseased marrow. Alcoholism is generally beyond the pale of still small voices.
When the evening’s guest speaker is introduced, this lamb is my place in a chair and a story. Somewhere, I fit. Themes are repeated by a foreign tongue, often from Los Angeles or elsewhere in California, but in a language we all understand: stay close to the fellowship, follow the program, stay sober, and stay alive. Some 350 chairs scrape the concrete floor while the speaker is thanked, then the committee and cooks, and next comes the crush to the bathrooms and, for the smokers, to the doors. The podium gives way to the local band.
My lamb will do the chicken dance sober. I will dance with anyone or alone and get bumped around. Forget talk. The lamb is a 1 a.m. dance too close to the speakers, too close to the electrical for someone so wet with sweat, but I don’t give a damn. Faces I know and love appear and disappear in the gyrating elbows and backs and my body is freed of alcoholism’s relentless whine, you’re all alone and there’s not enough. Take a look at this, you demon drink: the barn is full and the crop is in.
Sunday morning I’ll drive back onto the ferry, my tent rolled in the trunk. Soon, the fall term at UVic begins and I’ll be hunched over the keyboard coaxing out words that balk at grades. Night will find me alone, grazing through the kitchen cupboards, resisting sleep. In a drawer, almost forgotten, Pink Eye will count.