A Front Row Seat to Watch God Work; My Path from Hopeless Alcoholic to Recovery and Happiness.

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I used to be homeless. Now I’m not. 

I used to be a practicing alcoholic. Now I’m not.

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. That doesn’t mean I am cured of my alcoholism. It means exactly as I have declared; that I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. I have hope, clarity, and a body on the mend. I stay sober by helping other alcoholics to find hope – showing them the way out of misery, insanity, and some from the brink of jails, institutions, and death. I give away what has been so freely given to me. This is how I stay sober.

Five months ago, I was hopeless. I was absolutely shipwrecked on the island of despair. I was in a deep depression, drinking around the clock, and had lost everything. The tattered remains of my life, my soul, and dignity had landed on the bed in a hospital room, with nowhere for me to go. What remained of my life had nearly fizzled out on the floor of a convenience store where I had collapsed unconscious on the floor, bringing frenzied paramedics, and an ambulance days before. For seven days I was treated for extremely high blood pressure, alcohol poisoning and withdrawal, severe dehydration, and monitored for what physicians thought might be an eminent cardiac event. My once shapely, extremely fit body, had deteriorated to a sucked up mess.

After delusion brought about by alcohol withdrawal, and a body loaded with sedatives, had subsided, I had no longer believed I staying at a hotel. I had rising clarity, and clarity had been one of the things that eluded me for several months. The reality that I was hooked up to machines, and an I.V., laying ill at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley, California hit me like a ton of bricks.

About a month earlier, I had decided I wanted to die. I had reached out on social media, FaceBook, and specifically a group within the site dedicated to serving the locals of the county I live in Northern California, asking for someone to care for my cat, Isabella, should I spontaneously go through with carrying out the act of suicide.

Laying in the hospital bed, I decided to reach out to loved ones, on the same site I had posted that grim plea, that call for help, to let them know where I was. I had become such a tornado in my loved ones lives, and all who were around me during the last year of my drinking, I wasn’t sure if I was still loved by anyone.

A day later, still mentally cloudy, but experiencing more clarity than I had for a long time, a man walked into my hospital room who would become to be known as my guardian angel. He was a complete stranger. He only knew me through my posts on Facebook, in a group called Nevada County Peeps which has a membership great in numbers. He was warm and friendly. He offered up his own story of struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. He said there was hope if I had the desire to stop drinking, and wanted a new life. I did. And I once again felt hope. He became active at once, hooking me up with aid provided by the county’s behavioral health programs, and a drug and alcohol treatment program, and provided me with guidance with the skills he gained through his education in peer support counseling; ironically a certification I had been in school with, and graduated from. I just didn’t know how to help myself with those same skills. Clearly he knew how to help me.

After spending a few days in a mental health facility for evaluation and treatment, and a medication adjustment to treat my bipolar 1 disorder, I found myself in a drug and alcohol program in Marysville, California called Pathways. There, I learned about addiction, and was supported by caring counselors and peers. It was then, through outside meetings, I was introduced to a twelve step program, and it’s accompanying text that outlined the steps I needed to follow in order to achieve continued sobriety. The book mirrored every aspect of my experience that I knew as an alcoholic. It spoke to me – I could relate. It was a blue print for a new way of life I was about to be rocketed into. It outlined a solution that had eluded me.

My guardian angel, the man who came to visit me during my hospital stay, had remained in contact during my 30 day treatment in Pathways. When I had successfully completed the program, he found me at a temporary shelter for those going through mental illness crises, or those suddenly homeless, called the Insight Respite House in Grass Valley. There another miracle, the first being getting sober, occurred. He offered me housing in a clean and sober house, and a job. I couldn’t believe the kindness of this man who showed me that there was hope in a new life.

While at that house, I was able to undergo surgery to repair a shoulder injury I sustained while drinking months before I got sober. I was laid up for ten weeks, and in a device that kept my arm stationary. I also had to sleep upright. I was cared for by members of the house I lived in as well as good friends in the community. Weeks later I would move.

I became a manager for a new clean and sober house in Nevada City, California, owned by the same organization of the house I had lived in after my treatment, The Co-Living Network. Today, I help others who are homeless, addicted, and going through mental health issues. I am a peer counselor, coach, and mentor in the house, and I love every minute of it. Helping others provides me some of the greatest joy I have ever known.

I have also worked the steps in the twelve step program that brings me continued sobriety, and secretary a young people meeting of that program in Grass Valley. I speak often about what keeps me sober as the chair person in meetings outside my homegrown, and at institutions. I have been interviewed on radios shows, and soon to be interviewed by a television news station where I will talk about the model for living I am a part of forming with the Co-Living Network.

A lot of people in the midst of their addictions express a yearning for their life back. For me, that notion is crazy. Who would want to return to a life that brought them to the very misery they seek to escape from? I enjoy a new, bigger, better way of living today. I get to bring my experience, strength and hope to those who are suffering, and want to achieve sobriety and continued sobriety. I get to work with those seemingly hopeless individuals and watch the light return to their eyes. I get to have a front row seat to watch God work.

The Many Layers of Homelessness

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Last week I volunteered at a local homeless shelter cooking and serving dinner to the residents. Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting for a local organization, Sierra Roots, where before the photoshoots took place for volunteers, we served lunch for the local homeless. What I noticed is that there were people there whom I observed on the streets a decade earlier; people who were getting drunk, and/or using drugs, creating public nuisances, or whom I saw being hauled off by the local police in public parks, and the Streets of Nevada City and Grass Valley. These homeless men and women, many of whom can also be seen panhandling outside businesses, and along the sidewalks are the faces that we often associate most with homelessness. However, in my experience in working with the homeless, particularly those in shelters, I’ve encountered many faces we can’t put to the stereotypical branding of the homeless. I’ve met the newly unemployed, families with children, the gravely disabled, seniors, teenagers, traumatized victims of crimes including human trafficking, over the years I have been observing homeless people and families. Quite frankly there are people who want to be homeless. And then there are those who don’t. I’m addressing the needs of the latter.   I personally am formerly homeless having suffered from mental illness, addiction, and job loss.  I didn’t want to be homeless.

Many if not most Americans are only two paychecks away from being homeless. Our economy forces many families to live hand-to-mouth. Downsizing, jobs that relocate to foreign countries, businesses that go bankrupt, businesses that pay their c.e.o.’s exorbitant salaries while underpaying their base workers all contribute to the problem of homelessness, as does greedy medical insurance companies and big pharma.

In dining with the homeless during one of my volunteer shifts, I met a family who was very low income who were displaced because their landlord decided to sell their home and the family has no funds for first, last, and deposit towards a new rental, and yet another individual who lost his place to live because his landlord decided to turn his studio over the garage into an airbnb. Again, these folks were only two paychecks from being homeless.

The prevalent services to the homeless lack depth. We aren’t simultaneously treating mental illness and co-occurring addiction disorder. We lack follow-up. We aren’t making sure those who need medications are receiving them or taking them properly. We aren’t issuing temporary passes on public transportation to get them to work, pharmacies, medical, psychiatric, social services, and work.  We are lacking, or limited in the areas of vocational training.  We are lacking in facilities for them to bathe even.  Some non-profit organizations, and cities have addressed these issues, while there remains a majority that do not.  All we seem to be doing on the large scale is feeding them or throwing money their way without looking at the bigger problems or providing a path to a permanent solution.

Giving help, providing meals, money, and medical services isn’t a bad thing at all, we just don’t realize that those things are not the broader overhaul badly needed to provide the means for the homeless to become self-sufficient. If we invest in the broader picture of solution, we will save money in the long run, improve our economy, and can feel good in helping our fellow human beings.

(About the photo: Homeless man in San Francisco, Canon Rebel 35mm, Kodak Portra 800, f8)

Letting Go

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If you’re not an alcoholic, you don’t know what it’s like to NEED a drink. It’s quite normal for people who are non-alcoholic to say, “I need a drink” at the end of a bad day. Maybe they do. There’s nothing wrong with someone who can handle their booze winding down with a pint of beer, glass of wine, or a cocktail. I’m not referring to that. No, the kind of practicing alcoholic like I was truly NEEDED a drink. In fact, I could have died from withdrawal had I not thrown back a half glass of vodka when my body began to sweat and tremble. Non-alcoholics might experience a mild to heavy hangover, but it’s not possible for them to know the physical pain that sat in with me, or the helplessness of being so fearful, I could hardly think of anything else – the paranoia. Nor can they realize the intensity of my dry heaving that left me feeling like pins and needles were penetrating my skin – or the co-occurring migraine level headaches. And what a non-alcoholic doesn’t experience is the shame an alcoholic like me felt like handing over my last twenty to buy booze at a liquor store at seven in the morning; hands shaking so violently that I could barely place the money in the hands of the cashier. With vodka in hand, I remember the feeling of not being able to look at anyone in the eye as I left the stores. I hated myself.

In the wee hours of the morning, when I got to wherever I was calling home those days, or sometimes even beforehand, I would take those first couple of drinks. I felt more relief than any non-alcoholic can possibly imagine. It was then that the shakes would subside. My headaches, and body aches would go away. I’d stop throwing up. I would feel as though I had returned to some semblance of a human being who was well. But it would take more, and more alcohol for this reprieve of my sickness to happen. That is the progressive nature of alcoholism.

It was the increased need for alcohol that would eventually land me in the emergency room. It happened over and over until one day I was hospitalized or five days from severe alcohol poisoning and withdrawal.

Like many people suggested I do, I just could not simply stop. I could no longer live with it, or without it. I needed medical attention in order to live, in order to stop.

Today is day 50 of being stopped. I do not need to go to the liquor store at dawn anymore. I can look people in the eyes.

Alcohol was but a symptom for me. There was a lot of me that was sour underneath the mask of my alcoholism. I had deep emotional problems. I was battling bipolar disorder. I had a spiritual malady. I had strong resentments. In order to stay sober, I have to deal with all of that. I have to find out where I have been self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. Setting this to paper hasn’t been easy. It has required a lot of soul searching.

I’m currently setting this all to paper. Its part of my recovery in a twelve step program I am in, and I have to share it with my sponsor. It requires rigorous honesty on my part. It requires a thoroughness from me that is sometimes hard to swallow. But I remember how sick I was and the uncomfortableness of this process is quite worth it all to me. Some of the resentments are surprising like I have a resentment against my dear mother who has passed. I resented her not going through with a surgery that could have added many years to her life. I resented my sister in law for the same reasons. And then there were the resentments that were easier to put down, like horrible bosses, friends who have wronged me – these resentments are seemingly ad infinitum.  At this point, it’s quite clear that I was angry at nearly everything and everyone. Resentments will take an alcoholic out quicker than anything else. We simply cannot afford to harbor them.

Resentments are like chewing on glass. While I am doing so, the person I resent has no clue; he or she might be at home chewing on popcorn watching Jerry Springer for all I know. The point is, resentments are only harming me.

In setting all my resentments down on paper, it becomes easier for me to see exactly where I’ve been self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. Had I not been self-seeking in harboring resentments against my mother and sister in law? Sure I have been. Was I not dishonest and afraid in the areas of my resentments I carried against my bosses as well as those friends who I thought had wronged me? Sure I was. This soul searching is hard work, but it was much harder to live like I had been for so many years. I embrace this step with all my heart. I can begin at once to be free of all those cancerous resentments and emotions. I can begin to let go of the dishonesty, the fearfulness, and strive to be non self-seeking.

Life has taken on new meaning for me. When I look in the mirror, I see a noticeable sparkle in my eyes that have been missing for years. My whole being has changed. I am happy, joyous, and free.

Suicide Is Not For Me

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Before I got sober, I contemplated suicide. It was crazy. I was crazy. Now, I can’t believe I ever actually tried to end my life, but I did. As it’s said, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I don’t want the permanent solution these days. I’m in my right head. The idea brings a rightfully so terror in my mind theses days, and it took some counseling, sobriety, and a great deal of inward reflection to rid myself of suicidal ideation.

While going through deep bipolar depression, and in the midst of my alcohol addiction, is when the ideas were strongest in my troubled mind. The ideas were potent and powerful. They were overwhelming. They led me to the edge, quite literally.

I was in my mid twenties and distraught over a relationship gone south. The end of the relationship was to me at the time, infinitely too big for me to handle on life’s terms. And so I sat, on the edge of the window of my San Francisco apartment looking down onto O’Farrell Street eleven stories below. The thoughts of unworthiness, hopelessness, and loneliness raced through my mind, and were in a collision course with my residual sanity. My legs dangled out the window, and I had pretty much worked up the nerve to jump out. The situation reminded me when I was a teenager at the edge of a high rock at the South Yuba River in my hometown in California, feeling the peer pressure to jump off into the water one hot summers day. When I worked up the nerve, the spontaneity of it surprised even me, I just suddenly jumped, seemingly without self will, and found myself submerged in cool water before I knew it. I told myself to just do the same thing on that ledge of my San Francisco high rise that day – just find the courage to jump, and soon all my pain would be over. I thought spontaneity would take my life at any moment. I would be free.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a small puff ball was ambling towards me. It was the new kitten I had rescued on Haight Street from an animal rescue group. “Alice GET DOWN!” Alice was unsteady on the ledge. I crawled back into the apartment and coaxed her back down. I shut the window, sat on the floor cuddling the kitten, and just wept for a really long time. Then I could hear keys jingling and the door unlocking. I collected myself.

“Woha. Are you ok?”, Lisa, my roommate asked.

“Yeah.”, I weakly replied while getting up from the floor to run to the bathroom. My stomach was tight. “Just a little sick.” I wasn’t lying. I threw up in the bathroom. Nerves.

I had been up all night. I was weak and tired. I grabbed Alice, went to bed, and slept soundly for many hours.

It wasn’t the first time. My Father drove me to the hospital, racing through red lights of busy intersections after he found me in a bloody pool when I had slashed my wrists the I-mean-business way; up and down, and sideways. I was in my early twenties. I don’t even remember what was the triggering point of that attempt. The horror of a hospital stay, many psychiatric interviews, a five day stay at a mental ward in Placerville, California, and dealing with the tattered remains of my self esteem are indelibly stamped in my head.

February of 2017, I found myself once again thinking my life wasn’t worth living. I sat in a fifth wheel trailer, drinking alone. I lived with friends, who owned a bar and restaurant, and lived upstairs from it. I started drinking in the bar one night, Burgee Dave’s at the Mayo in Camptonville, California, when my friend Sandy, one of the owners, asked if there was something wrong with me, and added that she was concerned about my drinking. So, I had retreated to the fifth wheel where I could drink alone, undisturbed, without judgement. I drank a liter of vodka on top of my antidepressant and mood stabilization medications. I was then out of vodka. I decided to run to the  neighboring community to get more. I was going to take more of my medication and add a bottle of valium to get some permanent sleep. While on the way there, I ran my car into a ditch and totaled it. The CHP arrived, gave me a field test for alcohol, which I failed. I was handcuffed, fingerprinted, thrown in the drunk tank, and slapped with a D.U.I. As terrible as a D.U.I, and the wrecking of my car sounds, I am lucky to be alive. For that I am grateful.

People are trained to look for warning signs in those about to carry out the act of suicide, but those who really are planing to do it, are pretty clever. I tried to put on a much different face amongst my friends and the community I lived in. Nobody, not even my therapist, could have known that I was planning such a thing. I hid it well.

Bipolar depression, and hardcore alcoholism were once again the monkeys on my back, pulling at my hair, while pounding on my back trying to end my life.

I got help, but if was purely by accident. If left to my own devices, I’d probably be dead. I was pretty downtrodden that I was homeless for months, couch surfing from place to place, spending a few nights in my car, all the while telling people I had a permanent place of residence. I thought about these things as I laid in my hospital bed. Days before I found myself in the hospital, I had stayed with my former roommate, Jen in Grass Valley, California and then collapsed at a service station before I could say “help.” I had alcohol poisoning after drinking 1.75 liters of vodka for days on end prior. I had to be detoxed over a period of five days.

During my hospital stay, with and IV in my arm, and oxygen under my nose, I had moments of clarity. I realized how much alcohol had played a part in my suicidal ideations. It had to go. I opened up my laptop and shared with friends and the community that I had bad thoughts in my head and I had a problem with drinking. A stranger who found me on Facebook, came to my aid with a powerful message. He shared his story. It was not unlike mine. He went out and took care of things I was worried about, arranged for a county social service worker, alerted  behavioral health, and had arranged for my stay at a drug and alcohol treatment center. The stranger had done all that. I dubbed him my guardian angel.

Today, I am 42 days sober and happier than I have been in a long time. Me and my cat, Isabella, have a permanent place to live, I have a job, a huge support network, in a twelve step program, and live happily, joyously, and free. I have a newfound spirituality. The monkeys are off my back, but as I have said before, they lurk in the shadows waiting for me to let my guard down. I must remain forever vigilant. I have to think about those I love; those I would leave grieving for their lifetimes should I choose to exit this plane in such a horrific manner. I’ve seen what suicide does to those who are left behind, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone; especially my little brother Gordon. As long as I can keep the plug in the jug, me, those who love me, and Isabella can live happily ever after.

(About the photo: I shot this using 20 year old Chinese made film. The numbers are the film back of the camera that have been burned into the film by decaying chemicals. Shot with a Diana at F11. )

I’ve Got a Lot to be Thankful For

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Today, I cease fighting anyone or anything. I’ve come to know a new peace. It’s not just a rainy, cloudy, cold day here in my hometown in the Sierra Nevada Mountains – it’s a beautiful spring day as far as I am concerned. The rain is bringing renewal. The wind is spring cleaning. Both the wind and the rain feel exhilarating when it hits my face. From what my doctors have told me during my hospital stay last month, I’m lucky to be alive. This morning, during the predawn hours, I sit with my whiskered friend, Isabella, with a warm cup of coffee nearby, and gratitude in my heart.

I know there are horrific things going on in the world. I did not, however, start my day by reading the news in the Huffington Post; not today. I do not wish to have my blood boil. I don’t wish to participate in any negativity at all. Instead, I turn all that over to the Great Spirit. He’ll sort it out. Just for today, I will stop and see the beauty in what is clearly all around me. Everyday, even when its dark outside, the sunlight of the Spirit shines brightly through the clouds and I am grateful to be walking in it.

Today I am 37 days sober. This morning, I thank the Great Spirit for continued sobriety as I did yesterday. And yesterday, I stopped the day for an afternoon in my own Utopia as well. I noticed the little things I would never have noticed when I was hammered on alcohol. I let a Daddy Longlegs Spider crawl up my arms. I noticed its many black eyes and the grace and perfection of its design. I noticed the small, bright red berries on a shrub in the garden that nourish the birds, and bring new growth. And all the things I detest, I almost liked; the country music coming from the neighbors sound system even – I noticed the slide guitars playing in harmony, and the talents of a fiddle player. The crowded, noisy grocery store, a place that usually offends my senses, was a place to connect with my fellow community members and share a joke or two. I even see the positive aspects of my Bipolar Disorder which brings with it creativity, energy, and talent, allowing me to channel it for the betterment of my fellow humans in anyway I can.

I am about to begin another work day that will allow me to learn new skills, and to shelter me and Isabella in a beautiful home that is new to me – something we didn’t have in the preceding months. But, before I do, I will ask the Great Spirit with gratitude, peace in a restless world. I will hear the Great Spirit’s voice in the smallest things, and try not to drown it out with all the noise I like to make. May you find peace too, today, and every day.

Living on the Ceiling

Under the Bridge

I walked around angry and sad for years. I walked around with a monkey on my back that was tugging at my hair, pounding on my back, and blocking me from the sunlight of the Great Spirit. The monkey was vodka. Vodka was also my God. I worshipped vodka around the clock.

I had another monkey on my back that occasionally caused me to be either deeply depressed, or highly manic. The two monkeys are evil twins, although not identical. This second monkey is named manic-depression, or what is now known as bipolar disorder.

Today I am 39 days sober. And of my manic depression, I am symptom free. The monkeys are off my back and hiding somewhere in the darkness waiting for me to let down my guard. Psychiatrists have named the twin monkeys Bipolar 1 with Co-occurring Substance Abuse Disorder. I am the type of alcoholic that the Big Book of a twelve-step program I am working reads “There is the manic-depressive type, who is, perhaps, the least understood by his friends, and about whom a whole chapter could be written.”

When I would have bipolar episodes of either mania or depression, I would often self-medicate with booze when prescribed medications failed me. Alcohol could mask or exacerbate the symptoms. I’d often lie to my psychiatrist when he asked if I used alcohol, causing him to scratch his head in wonder as to why medications were not working.

Manic-depression and alcoholism have amassed much havoc in my life. I was a tornado in the lives of others as well. I had lost jobs, friends, vehicles, family and a whole lot of dignity. By the time December of last year rolled around, I was homeless too. My drinking entailed swallowing 1.75 liters of vodka over a 24 hour period.

I was lost, alone, and afraid.

I had crashed my last vehicle into a ditch in Camptonville, California and was arrested for a D.U.I. After I got out of jail the next morning, I went straight to a bar and spent the afternoon throwing back long island ice teas, then straight Stolli. I was soon, mercifully, hammered again.

I spent months couch-surfing at the homes of friends. Then, when I felt my welcome was wearing thin, I’d resort to staying with other practicing alcoholics and addicts where I wouldn’t stay long because no one cared. Finally, a friend, a good friend, my ex-roommate Jen, offered her home up for a few days. She was shocked over how much I was drinking. She left me alone one morning and I slugged back nearly half of a 1.75 bottle of vodka in record time for me, and ended up having great pain in my chest. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. I thought that maybe another drink would take away the delirium tremors, but the pain was new and different for me. I stumbled across the street to a Chevron on South Auburn Street in Grass Valley, California where I had collapsed before I could even utter the word help. I found myself next at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, admitted to a room, with and I.V. in my arm, and oxygen under my nose. I would stay there for five more days before a living guardian angel, William W, arranged for a bed in a treatment facility for me.

When I entered the treatment center’s, door, Pathways in Marysville, California, the first person I ran into was a homeless person from back in Nevada City, California who looked pretty good for himself. This man, who I will call Bob, was arrested 156 times for being drunk in public. He was arrested in front of me at least twice. He was the cause of public nuisance over and over, and could be seen panhandling for booze outside Bonanza Market as soon as the store opened every morning. My own cousins took him in once, and after a few weeks, had to ask Bob to leave as he was drunk all the time. Bob made no attempt to quit.

I was in disbelief when I ran into him in treatment. I was happy to see him sober! I was so happy to see him looking great and speaking with coherency. I thought him an intelligent man – a kind man, a well mannered man.

Fast forward to last night, day 38 of my sobriety. I was volunteering at a warming shelter for the homeless in downtown Nevada City. The temperature outside was in the low 30’s and the skies had begun spitting out snow. Our curfew is 10:00 P.M. and I had begun to lock the doors, and dim the lights. Then, someone knocked on the door. I was horrified to find Bob outside, dripping wet, and stinking of booze. What had happened? I was instantly depressed. I had such high hopes for Bob. But I knew this was the vicious cycle of the chronically homeless.

When we were in rehab, I had shared with Bob that I suffered from a mental illness, and he relayed that he did as well. He suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. When I had begun to feel symptoms of my own illness begin to manifest, I asked the treatment center’s doctor for a medication adjustment. I was told that I needed to focus on my sobriety and to talk with my doctor after I graduated from treatment.

It is clear how Bob fell through the cracks of the system. Currently there are very few alcohol and drug treatment centers that treat both addiction and mental illness at the same time. I feel that residential drug and alcohol treatment programs should be denied of any state funds unless they offer treatment for co-occurring mental illness as well. It’s a what-comes-first, the chicken-or-the-egg situation. Does mental illness cause alcoholism, or does alcoholism make mental illness worse? They go hand in hand, and it’s not rare at all for people to suffer from both, in fact, its common.

Today, I walk around with a heavy heart, and angry thoughts even though as an alcoholic I can’t afford resentments now, or ever. For Bob, I’m hoping for the best but expecting the worse; jails, institutions, and death. Today, I only ask one thing of the Great Spirit; to save Bob. The Great Spirit can move mountains, but unfortunately, he will still expect Bob to show up with a shovel. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.