Addressed to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on the topic of
It's often amusing to my friends and family when I claim to have Inner Peace, perhaps because they associate the term with a cool calmness and serenity. I have had moments -- at the beginning of a semester, for instance -- when I've appeared to my students to be calm, serene, dignified, but it doesn't take long for my true style to emerge. I am frenetic, sometimes scattered - unprepared, rude, crude, and all over the place, politically, philosophically, and physically. My students write in their evaluations of me such praise as "never boring," "passionate," and "energetic," but they've never called me "peaceful."
I've always wanted that calm Robert Lewis Stevenson once described, praising someone who remained calm in chaos, "like a clock in a thunderstorm," but the amazing thing to me is that in spite of a long history of alcohol and other drug abuse I am not, as many of my friends were and remain, years later, assigned to psychiatric units or prison cells. Though I am often deeply sad, at center, I have come to often feel a deep peace.
I can't answer the question "Is Inner peace Worth Seeking?" The question implies that it is something that can be purposefully sought and found. It seems to me that what peace I have has come about because I have a low pain tolerance and a high need for fun. I don't like being unhappy or even restless, and I try to escape depression like a child pulling away from a whipping. I think that inner peace, like happiness, is not attainable except as a byproduct of time plus experience, plus acceptance. In fact, for me, inner peace and happiness are synonymous. I am not always peaceful, and I don't expect to be, but compared to my days of being a manic barfly, a "speed-freak butterfly," one friend called me, I am today the epitome of peacefulness.
I couldn't tell you "how inner peace is attained," since what Serenity I have is through luck, not management, so I'll describe a few places I've been and processes I've worked through in the past few years. You may not know more about inner peace by the time I sit down, but you'll know more about me.
I spent many years in active addiction feeling sad and sorry about my childhood. This poem tries to explain:
these losses choreographed my last three years
other incidents, accidents, crises - always something - lay
behind today's sadness, this week's disaster: hysterectomy,
bad business decision,
bankruptcy, another divorce
Impossible love affairs: hunters, drinkers, poets, painters,
motorcycle racers and repairers, one insurance salesman
lost jobs, abandoned jobs, lost and abandoned children, hunger, anger
then the children's drug
addiction reflecting my own
alcoholism, frustrated counselors, discouraged friends, angry
fluky suicide attempts that don't bear up under examination
narrow escapes from violent truckdrivers and David Lucas' hat
hanging from a light cord
in the living room and his death
Six and a half years wasted with a distant though intelligent soldier,
another four to a penurious poet and before that
five to a cowboy who knocked me around.
One child came of each marriage and one out of wedlock
Before I kept track, I remember my life was never about me
but only about what
happened to my family, to me and around me
I went to 13 schools in five years as Mother searched for a way
to support her sense of adventure and six children after she made
Daddy go away and leave us alone and never come back so that
we would only see him
sometimes at Grandma's and sometimes
leaning up against the bank building across the alley from the
movie theatre where we would turn away from him as we stood
in line afraid he might recognize us, stumble over and try
to talk, ask us about the
baby, or ask
If our mother had a boyfriend yet, which she didn't back then
though a few came round later, often bringing groceries
we joyfully accepted. One had a pick up truck and always
brought bananas and potato chips and soda pop.
How I wished he would marry
It wasn't until years later she told me he was already married
to a woman who owned half his construction business so
even though he loved my mama they knew that friends was all
they could be but they were
much more until he died
Oh, I heard you insist I somehow invited disaster and I told you
that like my house my life was clean under all the mess,
but I see now even the most cursory look shows clearly that under
all this mess is more mess,
and none of it ever invited, I swear
April 17, 1992
I idolized my father and when he died in 1974 of alcoholism at 54 years of age, my age, my older and younger brother and I stayed drunk for a week, re-inventing him, & sharing our memories of his brilliance and neglect. Twenty years later, a poem came out of that wake:
His ghost outside the door
Of my room tonight
All they gave us? All he left?
A cardboard box
Two T-shirts, three nickel notebooks
Crabbed notes about hay
Horses, plans to summer next year
At a sheep camp
I wore those shirts into rags
Hug my chest under the fabric
Hold my breath
Pretend his actual body
Press my face in them Breathe
Imagine Old Spice, whiskey,
I would tell anyone who would listen
My father is more handsome
Better looking than Bogart at his best
Tony Curtis Glen Ford
At the movies I'd see him in the stars
My father is like that, yes
Laughs at danger
Your Old Dad is so handsome
The red haired woman says
At the Green Mill we love his stories
I see him through a smoky window
Semi-circle of ocher and sepia faces turn
He holds court
Women's faces open
Men laugh, shake their heads
How do you remember it all
What was it like to have such a father
He didn't come home much
When he was home, he slept
When he woke up he left
Unless they were fighting
When I was eleven he left
One day when I was twelve
He was at my grandparents'
Sober in the middle of the day
Grandmother called him
in from the yard
Told him to come in and
talk to us
He sat on a chair near the kitchen door
my brother and I on the couch
On a crazy knitted afghan
Now he had a dog,
a delirious little collie mix
And the dog jumped up
Lay down Rolled over
Played dead Shook hands
Talked and sang dog songs
My father's dog danced on
tiny hind legs to
Entertain two small strangers
Enthralled and almost close enough
To touch the animal trainer himself
He murmured praises and amazement
What a smart little dog
What a pretty little dog
What a good little dog
And he petted the dog
And he talked to the dog
As the dog whirled and yapped
My father's face
Looked loving at his dog
I remember the laughing sound
of his words
His wry sideways speech
But the meaning was bitterness
His dog was all he had
The small sharp grief of my father's words
Stays with me
He could have had
My father was a street drunk, beloved
Of other drunks
And his children
Who invented him
Memorized his face
Like he memorized the poems of
And Rudyard Kipling
May 1, 1995
So I grew up just like him, having my first drink at eleven, getting drunk for the first time at 14, discovering Codeine at 15, having my first child two months past my 17th birthday, and drinking daily until I was 36, continuing other drugs until I was 41. I ripped through three marriages in the sixties, three divorces, having three more children, going to college (taking 15 years for my bachelor's).
Over the years I neglected and abused my children, though I had sworn never to treat them as I had been treated. And I became numb to the kinds of things many alcoholic women experience -- being beaten and raped were regular and unremarkable occurrences.
I thought that none of this had affected me, and after I quit drinking in 1978, through the intervention of a judge and the wonderful support of a 12 step program for Alcoholics, I had an attitude of, "Whew! I'm glad that's over. But it had only just begun.
By the end of 1983, I had used drugs for the last time, and as I joined another 12 step fellowship, one specifically directed toward addicts, I began to try to grow up. This involved a process of going into my memory of my history through counseling sessions and meditations to learn how to become present in my own life as a responsible and loving adult. When my oldest son died in a car wreck in 1989, I had been clean for five and a half years, and though his death devastated me, returning to drugs did not occur to me. I cried and talked and wrote my way through the shock and sorrow. And when my childhood -sweetheart newly-become-boyfriend again, died in a plane wreck in 1992, when the shock wore off, I cried and talked and wrote "curse-god-and-die" poems, for three more years. It's only recently that I am able to write again about anything other than grief.
Today I think of my grandmother's attitude about death, which I know has come through and has helped me survive. I remember her laughing, when she turned 60 and I asked her if she was afraid to die. "Die? That's the last thing I want to do!" She would often remark that "Worrying about dying can sure waste living." She taught me that humans have been dealing with death of those they love since the beginning of time. What others have done, I realized, I can do too.
I'm still working on growing up, though I've always known that middle age was too high a price to pay for maturity. I figure I'm about 15 now, and just in time, since my granddaughter is almost 14 and showing every sign of passing me up. She and her sister have lived with me the last three years, testing every process I've been in, until last fall when the younger sister returned to live with her mother. The testing, however, lives on with the remaining granddaughter.
Though I had given my
children away some time before, this time with my son's children
has been part of a healing process for the child I was and for
the damage my own children suffered. I have begun to re-establish
a relationship with some of them and with my other grandchildren.
This poem is called "Magpie"
In the mirror I catch for a stark moment
a graceful older woman, suddenly and at last
the mother of these children's father
telling stories in colorful black and white
Not, as 25 years ago, loose in my speedfreak
rainbow widesleeved short short dress, purple
widebrimmed felt hat, acid tabs in the hat band,
roachclip book marks, turquoise rings,
Pot in the bong, candle wax in the carpet,
in the oven an enormous communal tub of rice
and war protest, and ten hippies crashed and
burning in my house, one in my bed.
Today I am Grandmother sweeping and swooping as
my whole body shows these children how Magpie
shrugs her shoulders and stretches out her thin
rubberized legs to skid into the gravel at the
Edge of the road. Important to get the skid,
the gravel spurt, the gathering up of body
and the wing's wag. Magpie is not only beautiful,
I tell the girls, she serves an additional
Purpose, though being beautiful would be enough.
She calls our attention to the dead things
at the side of the road caught and killed
by our need to move quickly, cleans them up
For us, takes their spirits into her own,
Magpie gives an appearance of simplicity, of
stark black and white like tile on a modern wall,
but close up, look carefully and you'll see
Irridescent wet black oil in sunlight,
turquoise, silver, pink in sunlight,
visible only in sunlight, captured against
black feathers, erased against the white.
March 27, 1990
I feel as if I have been on a long journey, and have come a long way. My grief counselor once told me that being raised in an alcoholic family was like being born in a pit. Often the only tool we're given to get out of the pit is a shovel. Through luck, 12 step recovery groups, the love of friends, and what I believe is a biological urge toward wellness I've found myself moving further and further away from its edge. From time to time, seeing my children still there, there is a temptation to fling myself back in, but I know that the only way they will even want to climb out is if they see me here, on level ground, in the sunlight, laughing, making loud noises, and enjoying my life. So now that I have discovered how to enjoy life, I am obligated. I owe it to my children and my friends to have a wonderful life. There is no alternative for me.
I have come to accept the past and my inability to change it, though I am involved in an ongoing process of making amends for the consequences of my addiction. I have come to not be afraid of the future, knowing if a time comes when everything falls apart, I will probably not be any worse off than most folks. And in the present, I would like to think that my behavior has been modified by learning good judgment, but more likely it's because, as my grandfather pointed out for many years, "Old age will cure what religion cannot touch."
This last thing occurs to me. Sometimes when I talk about my recovery from drug addiction people say, "You're very brave. It takes a lot of courage to confront one's demons and become willing to do battle, " and I have to respond that I think "courage" cannot be the right term, unless you could apply the word to someone who finds him or herself drowning in a churning lake and reaches out in terror toward the sky. It doesn't take courage to thrust an arm out of the water toward the rescuers in the helicopter hovering above; it isn't brave to not want to die or continue to suffer and cause suffering. It is sheer desperation. Today, looking back, I feel a profound gratitude that happy laughing people in recovery extended the hand of fellowship to me and demonstrated and continue to demonstrate to me and others the practical application of the 12 steps. And it isn't Courage or Bravery that inspires those of us firmly in recovery to offer that hand to addicts still in those churning waters. This is also a matter of enlightened self interest. If I don't carry the message of recovery, I'll forget it, and if I forget it, I'll fall back in the pit. I've seen it happen over and over again.
I remember the words of my friend Tip, who died clean about 10 years ago. He was also uncomfortable when praised for falling into recovery. "Praising an addict for not using drugs," he often said, "is like praising a man with hemorhoids for not riding a horse." Of course it's in my own best interest to not continue doing something that was killing me and hurting those I loved, but it's not bravery that helped me out of the pit any more than it was cowardice that kept me in it. Addiction is a terrible incurable and terminal disease that is not within the power of the addict to cure. Self-knowledge is of no avail, nor is self-condemnation. The only cure is surrender to the recognition of the existence of the disease, a committment to life-long day-at-a-time-abstinence from all drugs, not the least of which is alcohol, and a dedication to a process of finding other ways to experience and express unresolved pain other than to try to medicate or suffocate it. Telling my story is to me what taking insulin is to a diabetic. It may be painful, but it saves my life, and my life is worth saving today only because of others who set this same example for me.
presented in Boise, Idaho, January 12, 1997