“Well, we could get stoned before we decorate the tree.”

My wife, Marcia, had just spoken words the rest of us had not expected to hear.

The kids, 18 and 17 (boy and girl), had, before this comment, been communicating a respectful dismay with slack shoulders, shallow breaths and averted eyes.  They, of course, would rather be doing anything (with friends) than trim the tree.  I’d already concluded that silent, passionless cooperation was the most that my wife and I could hope for.  But Marcia’s words had ignited sudden, deep inhalations and bouncy demeanors in the two teens.

“OK,” I said, and I smiled.

With a giddy, awed reverence the kids indicated that purchasing and decorating the tree would be a special day for them.  Then they noted how horribly expensive marijuana was now compared to when Marcia and I were familiar with the prices.  I handed them a 20.

It’d been over 20 years since I had last smoked pot.  I’d been drunk twice in that same period–the last time at Easter supper three years ago.  This occurred because a massive toothache, untouched by medication, had condemned all my attention to my mouth and there were no dentists on Sunday to flee to.  It was before supper and we were playing board games.  There was wine being shared between my wife and a friend, so I decided to test its medicinal reputation.  The children stared, stunned, as I poured myself a glass.  (Alcohol makes me sick, so they’d always seen me abstain.)  Then another, and a third and on.  The pain abated!  I noted more and more laughter (not mine).  Playing a charade-type game I never quite could understand, I was marginally intelligible–unable to line up three thoughts in a row.  The kids thought the circus had come to town.  They had not been aware that I could be entertaining.  This went on for hours.  Our teens were reveling in a family event.

After the obligatory late night hours at the porcelain altar, I awoke the next morning with the pain still gone.  Trading pain for the heaves seemed a remarkably good deal.  The evening, though, was a blur.  And for three years now, I’ve heard stories of How Fun Dad Had Been on Easter.

And now the children would get to watch me stoned for a Christmas event!

At the center of my social self is an almost bottomless abyss of insecurity.  Over the 35 years of my adult life, I’ve managed and attended to this mixture of fear and self-effacement until I’ve achieved my present state of higher consciousness–Thoreau’s quiet desperation.  I stopped getting stoned because I grew weary of standing and swaying over the abyss as I listened to the rage and self loathing characteristic of my internal dialog.  I couldn’t stand to get stoned because I couldn’t bear to hear what went on inside my head.

So, though I might be a happy drunk (before I get sick), I was a frightened pothead.  I estimated that getting stoned that day during Christmas decorating, at 50 (just 50, actually–one week after my birthday), might be an opportunity to note how far I’ve come in 20 years.  Had I been successful at covering up my inner torment–to have the twisted nature of my insides revealed by the drug–or had I learned enough about myself that some serenity might be revealed?  The teens were looking forward to being entertained.  I was not so confident.  One thing seemed destined to occur.  The ornaments would get on the tree, and the family would be doing it together–reverently–from a heathen point of view.

It was a large joint.  Bigger than I remember joints being.  My daughter lit it and passed it to me.  She sat by the fireplace, I on the couch, my son on the piano bench and my wife across from me in the rocking chair.  I inhaled deeply.  Too deeply.  Way too deeply.  I coughed for two or three minutes.  The children were most amused.

After two more inhalations of the herb and a hit off my asthma inhaler (my lungs were stunned and required a familiar drug to get them working smoothly without constant attention), I let the wave of the altered state pull me down beneath the surface of the everyday.  What lay there was exactly what I had abandoned with dismay two decades earlier.

I was faced with an immediate decision.  Do I vocalize the whole of my internal experience or just a censored version suitable for family viewing?  This was a Christmas Family Event.  One does not trim the tree while listening to Leonard Cohen with Schindler’s List playing on the TV.  I decided to compromise.  I would simply note the negative aspects of my experience while discussing the other, less revealing parts of what was occurring to me.

The girls seemed incredibly normal to me.  As social and sensitive to what was happening to others as always.  My son was monosyllabic, fascinated by his internal states and delighted to share them.  He and I compared notes.  He and I tend to be percussion obsessed, constantly tapping out rhythms.  We found we were both sensitive to the percussions of the bloodstream as the heartbeat pulsed against the body parts.

As the evening progressed and I examined the details of the Edvard Munch landscape of my internal self, I once again was presented with a battle waged many times.  Do I take to heart the things that I am saying to myself and the anguish/rage that I feel because they are being said, or do I let myself say them (letting them be), being aware of their sources and their effects?  I did some of each.  While doing so, a sort of triumvirate appeared.  I experienced myself in three distinct places.  Place 1:  I was terrified and judgmental, evidenced by a difficulty in trusting all forms of internal or external communication without heavy censoring.  This was standing by the abyss.  Place 2:  I was aware of what was occurring, able to impartially observe and even sympathize and had no opinion.  I was simply present.  Place 3:  At the edges of my experience was a staggeringly vast, unknowable realm of my biological and social self.  Interacting with my family, I found that the mechanics of word formation and creation was totally unconscious.  So was my ability to interpret communication.  So was the nonverbal mirroring of others’ communications.  So was my heartbeat, my body operations, my imagination, etc.  The vast majority of my experience was operating outside my conscious awareness.  I felt humbled by how little of me my identity actually occupied.

Over the next few days, my mind often returned to that evening, looking to gain some insight as to how much I’ve changed over the last few years.  My conclusions are mixed.  Fear still heavily informs my everyday activities.  Yet acceptance is far more characteristic of life at 50.  It’s almost as if the terrified younger me is very much still present.  Yet an older me stands by him, unflappable and trusting.

There is one thing that I’ve concluded without effort.  This thing I know for sure.

Trees don’t get decorated by four stoned people paying close attention to what it’s like to be stoned.  Our tree stood bare until two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, when I put the ornaments on while my wife baked pies for the next day’s feast.  But something must have gone right.  My wife and I are considering making stoned tree trimming a tradition.


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