The greatest enemies of us alcoholics are resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous - page 145
The seven deadly sins: Envy. Pride. Greed. Wrath. Lust. Gluttony. Sloth. Any one of these seven deadlies can run me around, but I struggle with envy the most. I’ve been quite blessed in this life but sometimes, maybe because I’m an addict and we always want more! more! more! I get envious. And when I do it feels sharp and mean. Recently I was on a photo shoot at a beachside café in the south of France. Scattered about the cafe were framed photographs of a 60-ish year old man. He was a tall and gorgeous man with a deep tan, sparkling blue eyes and an air of mischief about him. He looked like a lion, with a gorgeous thick mane of shoulder length blondish hair streaked with gray and a smile that made me smile just looking at it. He was so charming, so charismatic, even in a photograph, that I simply assumed the man in the photos was a some sort of French celebrity. Perhaps one who had a home nearby. I asked a member of the waitstaff in halting French who this stunning man was. Was he an actor? A singer? Maybe a yachtsman? “Non. Non” the maître d’ informed me. “This is the owner's father. Tragically he died last year. This is his daughter's café and it has become sort of a shrine to him. To his life. To his legacy. The photos remind us all of him and we keep on going, staying optimistic and hopeful, as he always did. He was quite an amazing man.”
Later in the week we drove an hour or so to a vineyard with an attendant château to see if it could also be a good location for us. The owner, sipping a tiny little French-y glass of gorgeous looking red wine, met us at front doors of her home. Her enormous sandstone pile rested on a hill above the vineyards…acres and acres of perfectly manicured grape vines. The owner was the sort of French woman I have always envied, nay despised, on sight. They are a type; chic, petite, classic and cool. This particular breed of French women have always made me feel huge and clumsy, like some sort of bumbling Shrek-esque American field-serf - in stark contrast to her fabulous petite Frenchness. Her name was Nadine and she was wearing the casually applied but perfect shade of French-woman-red lipstick. She wore jeans, a cashmere sweater, and the most sublime espadrilles. The absolutely perfect shoes for tottering around your gorgeous French château’s grounds. But this woman was not tottering. She was striding, bristling with a competent sort of organized energy. She was a dynamo. An absolute force of nature. She wanted to show us her house, in case we might want to use it as one of our locations as well as the grounds. The house was huge. Immaculate and pristine and decorated with a clean, provençal, yet wildly original taste. It looked straight out of the pages of The World of Interiors. When I told her this she laughed and told me that it had, in fact, been photographed for several different magazines. She told us that she was an interior designer and had done the house herself. And because it had been photographed and admired by so many and so often and there had been such an amazing response, she opened up a store in a nearby town where people can buy, among other things, the same pieces that she used while decorating her own château.
So I envied her. A sour bile-tinged taste rose in my throat. I began to hate her. Because of her togetherness. Because of her openness. Because of her style and her store and her house and her ability to have a glass of delicious red wine (from her own vineyard mind you) at the end of a long day with no horrific consequences. She could have that glass of red, to relax and soothe her nerves, somewhat frazzled (but not too much) by running a vineyard, a château and a highly successful shop and decorating business.
As we were leaving she asked us casually, while perfectly perched on a perfect stool in her perfect kitchen with her perfectly rouged gorgeous French mouth, where else in the region we were shooting. We mentioned a few places (she seemed to know them all) and when we mentioned the beachside café she clapped her hands and said “fantastique! That's my daughter's café". There and then, in the blink of an eye, I stopped hating Nadine. Stopped envying her nonchalance, her chicness, her lovely red mouth and her impeccable French. As we drove out of the driveway I asked the producer about this woman and was told the story. She and her husband had left chaotic Paris and had moved to the south of France into his family's derelict château and adjacent vineyard. They were going to work hard and make something out of it. And they had. As neither of them were the sort to ever retire this was to be their second act. The vineyard, the château, the relaxed vibe of the south was where they planned to spend the rest of their lives. Together.
And now he was dead. And this woman was living in this huge and drafty cavernous house, alone, with all the attendant responsibilities. She was responsible for the vineyard now and all of its employees. She was responsible for this enormous house with the endless rooms. She had, she told us without any trace of bitterness, recently started leasing out the house as a rental property for tourists. I couldn't begin to imagine the burden of owning and running this massive property by myself. And yet, having been somewhat recently widowed, she was doing it. Where did her strength come from? Her fortitude? Her seeming optimism? She had been so lovely, so welcoming, so ready to help us out in any way that she could. “My house is yours should you need it" she sang to us as we left.
Years ago, when I was reading a lot of Buddhist parables, I came upon the story of the sesame seed. It’s a long story but what I remember is that a woman named Kisagotami is frantic to bring her dead son back to life. In desperation she goes to Buddha for help. He tells her he will bring her son back to life if she is able to bring him a sesame seed from any home in the kingdom. There is only one catch. The sesame seed has to be from a home that has never experienced death or grief or pain, of any kind. And so Kisagotami goes out through the kingdom looking for a house that has never once experienced even the tiniest bit of sorrow. And then, unable to find that in her kingdom she goes out to all the other kingdoms on earth, searching in vain for a home that has never experienced the pain of loss, even a minuscule sesame-seed-sized bit. And she is unable to. She goes back to Buddha and reports to him what she has found. But he already knew that she would never find that house. Buddha knew that her son was dead and would remain dead. And that grief and loss and pain are simply part of our condition, the human condition.
I remembered the parable after meeting Nadine. A woman whom I envied, whom I had chosen to hate at first sight. I was envious of her because of what I saw on the surface. But the surface alone is a terrible way to judge anyone. This woman had known loss, had known grief, had known a sorrow that I could not even imagine - and yet it had not destroyed her. She had lost her husband, that gorgeous lion I had seen in all the photos at the café. But she did not seem crushed or grief-stricken or even depressed. We spent almost an hour touring the house and grounds and she never even mentioned her "sad" story. She was moving forward, not living in the past. She was fighting. She was going to live her life and keep going it seemed, no matter what.
Envy wanted me to hate Nadine. Even encouraged me to hate her. Instead I ended up admiring her. She reminded me, once again, of that beautiful Buddhist parable that I had long ago forgotten. A parable, thousands of years old, telling me that life has its own nature, one that is all-encompassing, from the very best to the very worst. Meeting Nadine reminded me that although I can try to run and hide from grief and loss (or dull its sharper edges with drugs and alcohol) I will never be able to. Eventually I will just have to face the facts. I am human. And unfortunately or not, loss and grief and sorrow are a part of the package. A part that I cannot avoid. But I don’t have to let it crush me. I can feel the pain, hold the pain, experience the pain, have some curiosity about the pain, and keep going. Knowing that witnessing others' pain and even experiencing my own will enable me to be more empathic and compassionate in the end. And compassion, over envy, is a smoother, more refined, and ultimately more delicious vintage to swallow