Addressed to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on the topic of

Inner Peace

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:

Long before

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 her.

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:

#

My Father

His ghost outside the door

Of my room tonight

Wants what?

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, cigarettes

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

Generous Sensitive

Witty

Smart

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 for good

One day when I was twelve

He was at my grandparents'

Unexpectedly

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

The Ringmaster

 

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

In ecstasy

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

us

My father was a street drunk, beloved

Of other drunks

And whores

And his children

Who invented him

Memorized his face

Like he memorized the poems of

Robert Service

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"

#

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.

Peace

Heywood Williams

presented in Boise, Idaho, January 12, 1997

 

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