Who cares? That’s the first phrase of page one of Step One in the 12 and 12. Who cares to admit personal powerlessness? No one, of course! Especially in our Western culture where information is power, knowledge is power, money is power — at least that’s what we’re told. So, I love how Bill Wilson refers to personal powerlessness, not general powerlessness. Because we alcoholics have tremendous power if we only know where it is and how to access it.
What could they possibly have in common? They are both sources of power and growth
My experience is that it is harder for women to accept powerlessness than men, because we do so much. We’re mothers and nurses and teachers. We keep house and take care of the kids and make sure dinner’s on the table. “How can I be powerless?” you say. Or, “Don’t you see I’m managing my life just fine, thank you?”
What if you traded “unmanageable” for “unbearable”? As in Step One:I have to take the edge off, can’t not take that first drink and my life has become unbearable. Now that works.
And what about Tiffany lamps and taproots? Personal powerlessness is real and lack of power is my dilemma. Yet there is an abundance of power at my fingertips if I just know where to find it.
What if you traded “unmanageable” for “unbearable”?
We all know Tiffany lamps are lovely works of art all by themselves. Brightly-colored cut glass shades and bases in Victorian styles are amazing. I can place the light in the center of my table, walk around it and bask in its standalone beauty. Like my sober life, so much better than when I was drinking — no arrests, no fights, things better at home and work — all because of not drinking and doing nothing else. But if I take the lamp’s cord, find an outlet and plug it in? Wowser! The room fills with light and color and the incandescent beauty once I plug into the source of power dazzles me. I discover there’s a three-way bulb. If I’m willing to do a little work and turn up the wattage, I am astounded by the ever-expanding brilliance and beauty. It’s just like my sober life once I find the source of power, plug in and do some work. “Proved beyond doubt by an immense experience, this is one of the facts of A.A. life” (Step One, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, aka 12 and 12, p. 21).
From this single source of power, the entire life is fed
So what about this taproot business? “The principle that we shall find no enduring strength until we first admit complete defeat is the main taproot from which our whole society has sprung and flowered” (12 and 12, p. 22). How many of us have read that sentence without ever really knowing what a taproot is? I am encouraged to look up any word in A.A. literature that I don’t understand. The words are so important. So, not being a master gardener, I looked up taproot. Think of a big round beet and that single long root extending from its bottom. That’s a taproot. Like A.A. and the 12 Steps, it’s what goes deep. From this single source of power, the entire life of the plant is fed.
Yes, I am personally powerless, but I’m never without tremendous power if I choose to tap into it. All I have to do is remember Tiffany lamps and taproots. Sobriety by itself is surely better than drinking. I plug that beautiful lamp of sobriety into the source of all power, a Higher Power I choose to call God. When I do some work on my steps with a sponsor and let that long deep taproot of A.A. anchor me, baby, I will shine!
Which is my favorite Alcoholics Anonymous wallet card? Every one. I stash them in my desk drawer and purse, where I used to hide my booze and drugs.
The life preserver card is “Just for Today.” This scrap of precious cardboard encourages me to “live through this day only … be happy … learn something useful … do somebody a good turn, and not get found out … look as well as I can … act courteously … have a quiet half hour all by myself … not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful.” It reminds me to accept everything, especially myself, to try to do better and to appreciate the gifts of a sober life.
We pause, when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action
The card I give away by the handful, especially to newcomers (or used to, before Shelter in Place), is “Sought Through Prayer.” One morning a speaker started to talk about the spiritual part of the program. “Wait a minute,” he chuckled. The spiritual part is the program.” And here it is, all on one card. Arrayed in elegant gold are the Serenity Prayer, the Third Step Prayer, the Seventh Step Prayer and the Eleventh Step or St. Francis Prayer. When a newcomer asks me how she should pray, I hand her this card and suggest that she try reading it aloud every morning. I do.
The card I keep on my nightstand is “The 24-Hour Program.” In silver and black it offers my sobriety schedule: “On awakening, let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead. We consider our plans for the day, we pause, when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action … humbly saying to ourselves many times each day, “Thy will be done.”
“When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life?” The best of AA, on three little cards, keeping it simple.
Clayton was educated at a public high school in upstate New York. He found himself academically over his head once he started college. There was also a change in social class. He worried about fitting in and disappointing his parents. Alcohol offered a release from those anxieties. He started drinking more in earnest and sleeping also became a problem. Wine provided a better night’s sleep and after initiating this treatment he became a daily drinker.
He was amazed how they knew what he was thinking
He was drafted into the military following college and once in the Army found drinking was an acceptable way of life with more opportunities to drink. Marijuana was also readily available. Once out of the military, he thought life would be easier and moved to San Francisco. He obtained a job in a credit reporting agency as a supervisor in the complaint department. Those old feelings of not fitting in and not doing well enough returned. He drank himself out of that job after a prodigious six-month bender.
After this experience, he was bound and determined not to drink. He invested in self-help books. Many focused on staying “off the sauce” and with their help he weaned himself off alcohol. A job with the tax board came along and things began to get better. He was given increasingly difficult assignments and assumed there would be promotions with his new tasks. This didn’t happen. He did not get a planned promotion and at the same time his girlfriend ran off and married another guy.
Clayton turned forty-five. He felt stuck on a dead-end street, going nowhere. He was angry as his life seemed more than half over. He sought a therapist who looked at his alcohol consumption and said, “You’re an alcoholic. Are you willing to go to any lengths? Go to Alcoholic Anonymous.”
Before you go to bed, know where your next meeting is
He began his sobriety at the Noe Valley Ministry’s Sesame Step Study Meeting on December 8, 1992. It was a speaker discussion. Clayton was amazed how they seemed to know what he was thinking. They shared intimately about drinking over angers, fears and problems. It was remarkable to hear such insights. Si Paine was present, and he said, “Before you go to bed tonight, know where your next meeting is.” Clayton took this to heart and found the Friday night speaker meeting and after that a morning meeting on Pierce and Clay. Going to any lengths, he went to meetings regularly. He found a sponsor who was a Navy Seal who took him through the steps, directed him to call every day and suggested saying a prayer for gratitude.
After the Navy Seal he found another sponsor who asked him, “When did the miracle happen to you?”
Clayton replied, “I’ve had no miracles.”
The sponsor said, “How long have you been sober? Eight months? Isn’t that a miracle?”
Clayton agreed and went through the twelve steps again. This time when he made his amends to his parents, he realized how his anger and selfishness had caused a lot of harm. When he made those amends, his parents cried.
Jumping into the program, he took on service commitments. He met more people and they in turn got to know him. His feelings of loneliness began to evaporate.
They brought phone calls to people uncomfortable with Zoom meetings
At one stage, he needed something beyond the usual meetings. David C. invited Clayton to join the Sunshine Club and asked if he’d like to make arrangements for those unable to get to a meeting, which is what the club does. This was before the pandemic. Just as he saw how he needed something beyond the meetings, he saw there were alcoholics homebound or in the hospital. He signed on as coordinator for the Sunshine Club.
There were many home-bound members who benefited from ongoing meetings, so along with Dorothy V. he started the Spirit of Service (SOS). He gave up his commitment as Sunshine Club Coordinator only to return, once again. There were few volunteers in Marin so he started recruiting members there. This involved traveling to Marin for meetings. He started giving orientations to new Sunshine Service volunteers and had up to thirty people ready to go.
At the beginning of the COVID -19 crisis, they brought phone calls to people not comfortable with virtual meetings. Members who can get on Zoom are doing it, but there are those who regularly attended meetings but now cannot get to any. Some are still using a flip phone. Today there are three members who get five phone calls a week from an SOS member and there is a phone tree set up to contact them.
Clayton’s focus today is on coordinating those who want to volunteer with those who need to get the program but cannot connect via Zoom or other methods. There are several recipients from meetings in care facilities, but there is always a problem identifying new recipients. Clayton attributes his willingness to venture out and recruit volunteers to his work as a tax collector. People were not thrilled to hear from him awhen he was doing that job, so he has no problem with this easier ask—pitching members to volunteer for SOS or Sunshine Club.
There is an easier, softer way, which means committing to myself to doing what is suggested. The first suggestions I ever heard in meetings were to keep coming back and to get a sponsor. This other big suggestion I learned after month three of sobriety was to be of service.
What did service look like my first year in 2010 ? It looked like writing my number down when a women’s number card was passed around for a newcomer. It looked like me sharing at every meeting I went to because I needed to remind myself why I was there but also to share my sober thoughts entailing the ups and downs of this new life to others in the rooms who were either going through the same thing or who at one time had been through some treacherous life territory and lived to not drink or drug over it. It also looked like saying “yes” to complete strangers in the rooms who asked me to join other sober people for post-meeting coffee/tea or food (what San Francisco members call fellowship). It also looked like showing up to a meeting early.
I would show up early so I could also get baked goods before the meeting
I have a bad problem of being late to basically everything and anything. So, one of my new sober promises to myself was that I would show up to meetings on time and to do so I would show up early so I could also get baked goods before the meeting at this vegan restaurant right by the meeting. The great thing about showing up early to meetings is I get to read random stuff, meditate, or shoot the breeze with another random alcoholic about how they were doing (getting outside myself). To be honest though, my first act of service was in true self-centered fashion. I walked the coffee pot around at meetings because I am a restless alcoholic and hated sitting down for an entire hour.
Finally, after asking a woman with solid time to be my first sponsor and then working the steps, my service looked like offering my number to newcomers, to picking up the phone and calling other women I met in the rooms, to getting my first sponsee. Then it looked like leading my first meeting for three months. And that is when my life started really changing. While I could say working the steps totally changed my life because it did, what really started changing was that I was no longer stuck in my problems when I was of service. You see, I am exceptionally good at biting off more than I can chew, because I love the challenge and it is a sad sick thing that I like to prove to myself I can do the impossible. The only problem is: I have problems I get stuck in to remind myself I have problems. Crazy, right? So, committing to being of service at a meeting keeps me out of my problems. Seriously.
I walked the coffee pot around at meetings because I was restless
Fast forward to the first part of 2020, attending a meeting close to my place in SF for the first time right before lockdown (March 17th) and staying after to ask the trusted servants of Raising The Bottom for a service commitment. Shockingly the only major one available at the time was Intergroup Rep. I knew nothing about Intergroup. Seriously. NADA. Call it a blessing or a curse, but my ignorance or rather lack of knowledge or awareness on something sometimes saves me time and time again. This was another such time. This saving came in the form of me having to inform the group, “Hey you guyssss – you can count on me to show up week after week and report to the group what goes on at Intergroup to also share what the targeted message might be.” So then comes the pandemic and having to find a new way to do meetings, and luckily what was amazing was how quickly meetings went online. What was also crazy, was how this service commitment (I was offered by the Grace of my HP and agreed to) helped me get comfortable with Zoom meetings, and consequently with searching for and attending other meetings.
Since online sober meetings were changing rapidly in the early part of lockdown, I quickly realized I needed to attend and participate in more meetings than I was anticipating. Mainly because I personally needed the meetings even if I did not fully realize it and more importantly, I do not like being unprepared. Thanks to this service commitment – there was no way at nine or ten years sober that I was going to be responsible for a service commitment and only go to a meeting a week.
This service commitment and (my initial ignorance to Intergroup) saves me three different ways:
1) It forces me to actually commit to something other than myself – shocker.
2) It keeps me showing up week after week because I have a legitimate excuse and reason – I am there to tell you about Intergroup or whatever my commitment is. Even though, if I am being totally honest, there are sooo many times I have thought about asking someone else to sub for me. However, this program has taught me to not excuse my way out of things and my good ole character defects also told me I cannot be the person having someone sub for me.
3) It keeps me plugged in to being of service to others.
Can you imagine if every person who has worked the steps said I am so busy with this newfound sober life and cannot regularly make a meeting? That would mean there would be no AA. Better yet, can you imagine being the sober fellow who has 20 years and does not think a service commitment makes sense for them anymore? If there is something I know, it is that I do not carry this epic, amazing, sober life of mine without the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and if I ever think I am too busy or have too much time for a service commitment, please sit me down and remind me who helped get my life back. Other Alcoholics who were of service.
Since my AA fellows are great at calling me out when warranted, I will kindly call out anyone who has more than a year and uses the “I have so much going on with my work, family, and sponsees that I can’t take a service commitment.” Can you imagine that? That would mean every meeting would lack volunteers. Seriously. Let‘s be real. If you have worked the steps with a sponsor, cheers. You are more fortunate than most who come into the rooms via Zoom. Now pay it forward and carry the message by taking a commitment to keep yourself and others sober. And for those who have not worked the steps with a sponsor, please keep coming back, because I need to remember what it felt like my first few days, weeks, and months of sobriety to remind me that I only have a life because other people kept showing up to save their ass even when they did not want to.
When born, most of us come into the world untainted and perfectly innocent. From that time on, we are influenced by everything we experience in life, good and bad. If we are loved and nurtured we may develop a feeling of trust and safety, but if, as it sometimes happens, we get our hand slapped when we pick up something from the coffee table, it may trigger an attitude of defiance and resistance. These two opposites are just examples of the many conflicts we encounter in a lifetime. We are conditioned to think and react in a certain way as the result of the experiences we are exposed to.
This is probably the biggest hurdle we in AA must face
Newcomers in Alcoholics Anonymous, (A.A.) and even some seasoned veterans, often find it hard to grasp a concept of a “power greater than ourselves.” This is probably the biggest hurdle we in A.A. must face in our search for a happy and meaningful life. Once we get past all our resistance to the concept of a Higher Power, it becomes much easier to proceed with the rest of the program. What is meant by the word God and what God can do for us, can mean something different to just about everyone that is having difficulty with it, and if God alone was the answer, why do priests and ministers come to A.A. for treatment? Why not just go to church?
Alcoholics Anonymous is here for all alcoholics that want to get sober regardless of their approach to faith. Anyone that thinks that we are trying to convert someone into a religion or out of a religion is simply misguided. The Big book (Alcoholics Anonymous) and the 12&12 (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) have many comments explaining this, but unfortunately this old conditioning, bolstered by the ego, seems to block some of us from breaking down the resistance on this subject, or some members may just fake it to appear to be going along with the program, but never getting the results. If we denied the possibility of a God of the different religious groups, they could not have A.A. available to them, and if we made it a requirement that we picked one of those beliefs, atheists would be left out, and where would Buddhists stand? If a person believes that he does not have a higher power, I might remind him/her that alcohol was more powerful or else why would he need A.A.? With this in mind, I might suggest that he may only need to find a power greater than alcohol to begin with. Then, as it says in Step Two: To acquire it, I had only to stop fighting and practice the rest of the A.A. program as enthusiastically as I could.
As I look back on it now, I realize that that was exactly the way I found my way through this challenge. I find absolutely no conflict in any approach that one discovers on his own, only that he practices the rest of the program with enthusiasm. What it seems to imply is that if we trust the process and, just do the suggestions, we will find a suitable understanding of a power greater than yourself that you can do business with.
Step Two is the rallying point
I’m still not sure what or who (if you like) I am asking for guidance from but I’m open minded about these things. I have to let everyone find their own brand of enlightenment, without pre-judging anyone else’s approach on this matter. I believe that changing my perception was what put me firmly on the road to recovery. The only thing that I have to resist is my ego.
The way I do that is by living by sound and unselfish principles many of which are discussed in A.A. meetings, and many are assimilated through osmosis as I continue to put 2 and 2 together. It is not that complicated. If I don’t get caught up in the debate and just follow the simplest suggestions, it all works out fine.
When they pulled Ramone Luna off his plane at Los Angeles, he was talking to his wife back in São Paulo after flying overnight from Brazil. His jet was taking on new passengers before continuing to San Francisco. Two men in fine suits waded through the departing travelers and arrested him. They were polite and quiet, escorting him to the airport security center. He was detained in a small white room with a folding chair and a metal table. They took his carry-on bag, everything in his pockets, and his wedding ring. He waited there for several hours. There was no way for him to tell exactly how long. When a short man with thick glasses finally walked into the room, Ramone had been sleeping. They politely woke him up and informed him that he was being arrested for trafficking illegal narcotics. He explained that he was a Samba musician traveling to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit his brother and his family for Christmas. They cordially listened to his explanation then ushered him to a waiting patrol car for transport to a local detention center.
Several days later, in the detention center, Ramone began to worry about whether he would ever see his wife again or be released. He explained several times that he never messed around with drugs except for beer, cigarettes, and occasionally some rum. He asked to see a lawyer and call his family. He was told that his requests were being reviewed. Finally, one day, he was escorted to a small concrete room where he waited for over an hour. The room had a small toilet with a sink and a concrete slab extending from the big-enough wall for him to lie down on. There was no light in the room, aside from a small window on the door.
When two men arrived in the room, Ramone was lying face-up on the slab. Both men wore suits. One was considerably bigger than the other. The smaller one was of African descent while the other seemed from European lineage; otherwise, he couldn’t tell one from the other.
“Getting comfortable?” the smaller man asked, “If we may, we would like to have a short conversation with you, Mr. Luna.”
“I apologize,” Ramone said, sitting up, “Of course, please let us talk and excuse me again.”
“Not at all,” the short man said, “My name is Ron Williams, and this is my colleague David Curtis.”
“Very pleased to meet both of you.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any good news for you, Mr. Luna.”
“What is wrong?”
Williams glanced at his partner. “From what we learned, you are an awfully bad man. We have determined that you are more than likely working for Maranhão Cartel as a lieutenant. We are fairly sure that you’re using this trip to see your brother as a cover to travel to California for other business. We don’t know what that could be.”
I’m afraid we don’t have any good news for you, Mr. Luna
Upon saying this, Williams walked over and sat next to Ramone.
“Here’s the good news,” he continued while patting Ramone’s shoulder, “If you could provide us information about why you are here and who you’re meeting, we can mitigate a transfer to a more comfortable place with supervised access to phone calls.”
Williams paused and looked him in the eyes. “What do you think, Mr. Luna?”
Ramone could feel his skin crawl and didn’t know what to say. He knew he wanted to get out of that place as soon as possible, go straight home, and never return to the States. “Please, I will help you by any means possible and tell you anything I know. But please understand I am not with any cartel aside from the São Paulo Samba Fellowship.”
Williams smirked and looked over at his colleague. His stillness was unnerving to Ramone, who felt sweat dampening his shirt. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that. We need to know why you’re here, and we need to figure out the Maranhão Cartel plans. We don’t have time. Some of our people are in danger.”
“Please, I will help you in any way I can.”
“Then tell us the real reason you’re here.”
“If you fear your employer, you should know we can give you full protection and bring your family here from Brazil.”
Ramone tried to remain as calm as possible while he chose the right words. “Mr. Williams, please. I just wanted to see my brother. I don’t like to even take medicine from the doctor.”
Mr. Williams glanced at his partner again. Frowning, he got up slowly and stood over Ramone, looking him in the eyes. “Okay, here is where we’re at. We have to know what’s going on within the next couple of months, and we can’t bullshit with you. So, we’re going to keep you in this room for an exceptionally long time. We’re going to keep you until we decide that you are ready to be honest.”
At this point, Ramone was both mortified and angry. He wanted to get up and throw a punch, but he realized the consequences and kept himself in check. “I have! I swear to God, I have. Please!”
“We will be back, maybe in a week or maybe in a month. Until then, you’re going to stay here by yourself. You’ll be fed, and you’ll be kept warm.”
At that moment, Williams pointed to the vertical glass slit that acted as the room’s window. “See the slit in the door? That is your source of light.”
Williams then pointed at a horizontal slot under the window with a small table attached below it. “See that closed slot underneath? That’s where meal trays will be dispensed.”
“Please,” Ramone said, raising his voice further, “What can I do to make you understand that I will help in all ways I can?”
“Oh, that reminds me. David, could you bring in the mattress?”
Williams’ companion quickly left the room and returned promptly with a mattress that he propped up against a wall. He pointed at the mattress. “This is your bed. Please don’t have an accident on the bed, Mr. Luna. You will not get a replacement. You can use the sink to clean yourself and drink water. You will be given a fresh roll of toilet paper every-other-day with your breakfast.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Luna. I hope you think hard about being honest with us the next time we talk.”
“But what am I going to do till then?”
“Use your imagination, Mr. Luna. In fact, I’m feeling generous.”
Williams riffled through his pocket and pulled out a pack of playing cards, throwing it at Ramones’ feet. “Here’s a pack of cards I bought at the airport. Take it to kill time while thinking. And think hard about being more honest next time we speak.”
Ramone ignored the pack of cards and left them on the floor where Williams dropped them. He was in shock and felt satisfied lying on his mattress, meditating on scenarios in which his probable release would be realized. Between moments of contemplation, he slept.
Days blended together until he lost track of time. He moved only to eat and use the toilet; otherwise, he lay docile, lost in his ideas and dreams. Finally, an hour after awakening from a nightmare, he picked up the pack of cards and dealt a game of Klondike.
He could barely see with what light entered his room. Regardless, he began to play. He lost. He dealt another round, and he won. He dispensed another and gave up halfway through the game. This continued off and on for several more days, at least as far as he could tell, having lost the awareness to comprehend the passage of time.
This continued off and on for several more days, at least as far as he could tell
Eventually, Ramone began to feel the effects of solitude and started talking to himself. These informal conversations mirrored his thoughts. There were also times when he would awaken from vivid dreams and continue discussions that he began in his sleep.
He became restless, lying around and playing cards with himself. He started exercising randomly throughout his hours, which eventually evolved into a regular routine before meals. He slept less and thought more. His conversations with himself became more complex as his ability to sleep vanished. Soon, he couldn’t tell when he slept and when he was daydreaming. He hadn’t seen or heard from anyone for what appeared to him a long time—maybe days, maybe months. He couldn’t make sense of time anymore. At some point, he decided to change things around.
He’d been playing the only solitaire games he knew—Klondike and Pyramid—and it had become stale. The cards were worn now. He had memorized and studied the pack design, which was all red on the back with a cheap illustration that featured an airline jet lifting off. He examined the font on the playing side—a basic serif—and the artwork on their fronts—detailed but typical. He was bored. He needed something different when he couldn’t stand lying on the mattress or running through his exercises.
He decided to play a simple hand of poker with his brother Miguel. This was challenging since Miguel wasn’t there nor a gambler. But Ramone was confident that the game would work since Miguel understood the basics of poker. He realized this was crazy. But in light of his situation, he felt he needed to do something before things got worse—before he got worse. Besides, there was no one around to notice his insane behavior.
He dealt two hands of five-card draw. Miguel sat across him in Ramone’s mind’s eye. Miguel was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, green khaki shorts, and those aviator sunglasses he liked so much. Smiling like an idiot, he was sure to win the first hand. He was right and took his phantom winnings with a cock-sure grin.
“Good game,” Miguel said while smiling, “Let’s go again.”
He dealt the next hand and was able to win again. Miguel smirked but wanted to continue playing. This went on for roughly three more hands until Miguel was down to his last chips. No one was frowning now. He went all in, swearing under his breath. Ramone saw him lay a pair in front of him. Miguel had three of a kind and took the pot for the first time.
Ramone dealt again, and once again, Miguel went all in. Ramone took the bait. Miguel took everything a second time. Ramone was trying not to frown but went all-in on the first bet. Miguel saw him and showed him a pair of eights. Ramone had nothing.
“Son of a bitch,” Ramone muttered, putting his cards down, “I hate when you pull that kind of stunt. When did you learn to play?”
“You’re too gullible, brother,” Miguel replied, taking the imaginary chips, “I play Texas Hold ‘Em at Artichoke Joe’s with Gina all the time.”
At this point, Ramone became tired of playing make-believe, deciding he had a masochistic streak. There was no way Miguel and Gina went to Artichoke Joe’s. He had to drag them in there the last time he was in town just to look around. Putting the cards away and laying back on his mattress, he wondered if he would see either of them again. He asked where Dalinda, his wife was now. Was she worried? Has she called the Brazilian consulate yet? If she has, what was the consulate doing? He thought about his Mom and Dad back in Mexico City. What would they think?
His Dad was irritated that he immigrated to Brazil so he could play Samba professionally. Ramone was entranced by Samba, which his father found pathetic. There was something with the way the guitar mixed with rhythms and accented the lyrics and melody. It was like a dream seeping into real life through rhythmic playing, a festival of color and energy. When he was a kid, he would listen to Samba CDs and envision casinos and clubs with exciting women. He’d see fights breakout and escapades untangle during the length of recordings. He’d imagine canvases and houses on cliffs and beaches—young and old intermingling their secrets, crimes, and lusts. He never forgot about those visions. When he grew older, he put his hands on a guitar and another on a plane ticket, leaving his hometown for the streets of São Paulo. That’s what he had going for him while lying on the thin foam mattress in his narrow concrete prison— his wife, his guitar, his Samba.
Ramone became restless. His exercise routines throughout the day were beginning to get dull. He was more aware of his narrow cold world. There were times he thought he would scream at the top of his lungs as hard as he could until his throat was raw. Other times, he would cry long and hard. Nothing ever happened. No one ever came. No one cared.
His food was delivered regularly, and every other day he was given a roll of toilet paper. He tried for a while to attract the attention of the person who pushed his tray through his slot, but it was like there was a robot on the other end. He pleaded and complained, but nothing happened. He cried and threw his tray back against the door, but nothing happened. He carried on one-sided conversations with the door, but nothing happened. He prayed to the food guy, begging for mercy, but nothing happened. His food was delivered regularly, and every other day he was given a roll of toilet paper.
Eventually, he passed beyond that phase in his misery, discovering true despair. It was then that he remained in his bed indefinitely, except to relieve himself—he hadn’t forgotten what that son of bitch Williams had said about his mattress. He didn’t take his trays anymore, nor did he exercise. Ramone laid their defeated and empty, barely having the energy to use the toilet. He lost weight and became weaker every time he awoke. Eventually, he stopped sleeping but remained in this half-awake state of being, a kind of self-hypnosis, which made time passed rapidly. He didn’t know how fast but noticed his whiskers exponentially grew as he laid still. He completely lost track of days and truly didn’t know if weeks or months had passed.
At some point, Ramone decided to eat. They just delivered his meal, and it smelled really good. In fact, it tasted wonderful—even though it was the same kind of stuff they had been providing him. After finishing, he saw the pack of cards lying on the floor where he left them; it felt like an eon since he played with the cards. He decided to play a couple of more rounds with his brother.
He sat down on the cold floor and began dealing two hands of Texas Hold ‘Em, just to entice Miguel. He looked up, and there, his brother was sitting on the floor across from him. This time though, it was more than Ramone’s imagination constructing a ghost in the nothingness. Miguel was there. And Ramone didn’t question his presence.
Miguel was wearing the same clothes he wore the other times. He was stretching out like they were about to play some tennis instead of cards. Ramone shook his head and thought about how much his brother loved to ham it up around him.
“You ready to go, buddy?”
“Let’s do this.”
Ramone stretched out to get himself ready and realized that they were no longer in a concrete cell. They were sitting in the sand right outside Clube do Paraíso, where he had regular gigs. It was near sunset. There were a handful of people at the bar and a solo player performing. Ramone figured it was the middle of the week. It was then that he felt something was wrong.
“Miguel, for some reason, I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.”
Miguel took his cards. “The club doesn’t own the beach or the sand, brother. No one’s going to bust us.”
“Oh, okay. That has reason.”
They played a couple of hands. This time Ramone was aware of Miguel’s skills, and things were a little more even.
“Shouldn’t you be in San Bruno with Gina? I mean, are you both here, or is it just you?”
“We’re here on vacation,” Miguel said, lying down in the sand, “Remember?”
“My apologies. My head has been in other places lately. I think I got a concussion or something.”
“What do you mean? I’m getting a concussion listening to you.”
“No, it’s just I swear I was in jail before we started playing.”
Miguel sat up and looked at Ramone. “In jail? This doesn’t look like a jail. Were you in jail recently or something like that?”
“I thought so. I don’t know. Where’s Gina?”
“With Dalinda. Let’s get a drink and catch a cab home.”
They walked over to the bar and ordered some beers as the sunset receded into the twilight. The beach was warm, and the lights of homes in Guarujá’s beach community were visible. Ramone sipped his beer and looked towards the ocean. It was then he realized that none of this experience was really happening. He was still in his narrow concrete room. He was staring at his cell door. Beyond that was the mysterious landscape of the detention center. Beyond that was the world at large. Beyond that were Dalinda and Brazil. It was there that that beach was located in the coastal town of Guarujá near São Paulo. But Ramone was still in his narrow concrete room.
He lay on his mattress for a couple of hours, trying to process what happened. He had been in his cell for a long time, but then he hadn’t. He had been on the beach in Brazil with his brother. It was real, but so was his life in the concrete room. Ramone wondered what life was and what was fiction, then considered whether it mattered.
He looked back at his door and noticed they had served him another meal. It seemed like he just ate, but he also felt burning bangs of hunger as if he hadn’t eaten for days. Getting up, Ramone took his tray, devouring its contents. He drank some water from his sink, used the toilet, and cleaned up. Soon after, he exercised again for the first time in a while, feeling rejuvenated and spry.
The problem was what to do with his energy. After playing a couple of more hands of Klondike, Ramone thought about how long he had been in the concrete room. It must have been months since he was imprisoned, but then he decided it couldn’t have been that long—maybe only several weeks. He couldn’t tell but felt that his jailers would return soon. He focused his thoughts on that. Specifically, what he should do when they returned.
He quickly decided he was going to have to lie. They didn’t want to hear the truth; they wanted him to tell them they were right. The problem was how he was going to play them. He thought about this a lot while playing solitaire until he grew tired and went back to his mattress. He lay down and tried to rest, but he was too restless. He sat up on the side of the bed and looked at the opposite wall, then closed his eyes and prayed.
“Hey Ramone,” a voice said in the quiet of the concrete room, “You aren’t sleeping, are you?”
Ramone sat up, opening his eyes—looking in the direction of the voice. There was nothing but his toilet and sink. He looked to the cell door, which was the same as always. He clamored toward it and looked through the window slit. Nothing was there but the wall adjacent to his cell door. The voice seemed to come from his room, though. He went and sat back down on his mattress.
The voice seemed to come from his room
His nerves were fried. It seemed like his hosts were messing with him now. He closed his eyes and prayed some more.
“Hey Ramone,” the voice said again, “Wake up; we’re almost there!”
Ramone slowly opened his eyes and looked around his empty concrete room. He considered whether he was talking to himself and not aware of it before dismissing the notion as crazy. It was then that something happened that he truly never expected to ever occur in his life, though consciously he was expecting and hoping for it to happen. His cell door opened.
He blinked his eyes several times from the glare of light in the hallway. The brightness was overwhelming, and he could barely see the silhouette of the two men outside the entrance. The larger of the two men walked into the room. Ramone noticed his uniform and recognize him as one of the detention guards.
The guard kept his game face on and looked at him as if beckoning him to make a move. Ramone looked into his eyes, which were as cold as the concrete in the cell.
Soon after, the other man walked in. He was about Ramone’s height and wore a maroon medical scrub. He had a serious expression on his face but more in-line with someone focusing their attention on a task at hand. He looked at the guard briefly.
“Mr. Luna,” the guard barked, “Thank you for your continued patience. Please allow Dr. Brand to perform a momentary examination to determine your ongoing health. This is mandatory, and any unexpected behavior deemed hostile will be dealt with in a swift and meaningful manner. Do you understand what I have said, sir?”
Ramone wondered if this was another fiction his mind had created. He didn’t know what to say and was far from making a movement or any bullshit like that.
“I repeat. Do you understand what I have said, sir?”
The medic then went about performing a complete physical on Ramone while he sat there completely still. Ramone had no energy to move and was in shock by the sudden appearance of other human beings. Also, he contemplated the veracity of their existence in his concrete landscape.
After the medic was finished, he asked him some questions, which Ramone answered briefly as the medic made notes. Most of the queries were simple. How was he sleeping, and was he experiencing anything unusual? This question made Ramone laugh to himself. He also asked questions like his name, including basic information about himself and where he was now. The guard stood behind the medic, stone-faced and glaring. When the medic was finished with his questions, he looked at the guard then walked out of the room.
The guard began backing out of the room. “Thank you for your cooperation and continued patience. Have a nice day.”
“How much longer till I can leave? I mean, how long until I will have a follow-up conversation about my case?
The guard closed the door. “Have a nice day.”
Ramone was again alone in his concrete room. The silence was unbearable. He lay back down and thought about what he should do next. He considered over-analyzing what just happened but couldn’t get his mind to focus on anything aside from the silence. It beckoned him into a meditative state of emptiness, both in thoughts and feelings. He found it refreshing and began to feel a vibration around him. Thinking it was because of the shock he had a moment earlier, he began to recognize the shaking as a sensation he felt while driving.
He opened his eyes and confirmed what he felt. It was warm and humid. He was sitting in an SUV on the main road back to São Paulo. His brother was driving casually. There was some kind of Mexican Hip-Hop on the stereo. The stench of Miguel’s cigars was everywhere inside the truck.
His brother said, glancing at him, “You were sleeping like a rock, Ramone. When’s the last night you slept, buddy?”
Ramone was confused but slightly relieved. He sat up straight and tried to clear his head. “I had some crazy dreams.”
“No,” Ramone replied, glancing at his brother, “Just like this situation where I get locked up in the states when I was trying to visit you and Gina.”
“What? Did they catch you with drugs and stuff?”
“No, but they thought I was a big shot with some cartel.”
“Huh. Well, that sucks. Did you even get some dream time partying it up when they got you?”
“Well, that really sucks.”
“Hey, where are we going again?”
“So, like, don’t tell anyone I said anything, but we’re heading to this bar to have a drink.”
“Oh, what does that mean?”
“It’s a surprise party, dumb-ass. Dalinda rented out the whole place, but it is supposed to be like I’m taking you there for some drinks for your birthday, just you and me.”
“Oh, it’s my birthday?”
“Oh man, you better go back to sleep, buddy.”
Ramone felt someone nudging his shoulder and looked over at his brother. But he wasn’t there. He looked in front of him and found himself staring at the wall of his concrete room. He was nudged again, and this time noticed Ron Williams standing beside him while he sat on his bed. Williams had a concerned looked on his face and silently examined him for a moment.
“Mr. Williams? Are you real?”
Williams was alone this time. His partner wasn’t there, nor was there a guard. The concrete room’s door was open behind him. Williams scratched his chin before saying anything. “Mr. Luna, do you realize you were talking to yourself just now?”
“No, I was asleep.”
“With your eyes open?”
“Well, Mr. Luna,” Williams said, sitting beside him, “You’ve been doing that for quite a while, and, in some cases, you’ve been shouting out loud. My associates are beginning to get concerned.”
“Oh, are we going to have another conversation? Because I am ready to tell you everything.”
Williams brushes his knee and stretches. “That will not be necessary, Mr. Luna, we have cleared you, and you are no longer considered a person of interest. Frankly, the Brazilian consulate has been lobbying for your release after everything that has happened. We sincerely apologize for such long incarceration. There have been several amnesty organizations that have also been petitioning for your release. I am afraid that we have made an extremely serious error. And I sincerely and deeply apologize for your treatment. We will fully compensate you for any health-related expenses you may have incurred, including mental health treatment. I am also authorized to provide you with an extremely generous financial compensation package with your signature on several liability release forms. We can discuss those items and a couple of others at a later time once you have had a chance to recover.”
“May I call my wife?”
“Well, that, unfortunately, is the bad news I have for you. It appears your incarceration has reached the cartels in Brazil. Apparently, a rival cartel took it as an opportunity to take hostages as leverage against the Maranhão Cartel. I am afraid they were able to locate your wife and daughter.”
“Are they alright?”
“I am sorry to tell you that both were killed once Maranhão Cartel refused to cooperate with the other cartel. I am so sorry, sir.”
Ramone said nothing and continued to stare at the wall.
“So, if you wouldn’t mind,” Williams said, getting up slowly, “Could you please remain here for a short while longer. I will leave the door open. A medical examiner will be in a few moments for a quick check. He will then escort you to a very nice room with a patio where you will reside for a day or two until we can finalize your release. I am authorized to take you wherever you want. Your passport will be in your room, along with all your possessions. You are more than welcome to continue your journey to San Francisco to visit your brother. We can also transport you to your remaining family in São Paulo. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
“Thank you. I guess.”
Williams left quietly.
Ramone continued to stare blankly at his wall. He looked for something in the concrete that might reveal that this was just another fiction created by his mind. That he was still trapped in his small home while his family was safe in São Paulo. He couldn’t convince himself of anything, though, as the hallway light poured into his room from the open door. He squeezed his eyes tightly together to block the light. He began to pray.
“You know,” a voice said, “No matter how much you pray, life will continue unchanged.”
“What do you know?” Ramone muttered, opening his eyes and looking at the concrete wall.
“I know that you wanted this moment to happen for so long,” the voice answered, “Only to realize how much it has cost you.”
“I never was told the price,” Ramone said to the wall.
In fiction, things are the way we make them
“No one ever is. That is life, as they say. In fiction, things are the way we make them. But in life, this is not always the case.”
“This is not very comforting. You’re not helping.”
“What do you want me to tell you? This is life.”
Ramone thought about this for a second. Then he looked around him for the source of the voice. He was alone. He thought maybe if he closed his door, he would see who he was talking to. It would at least make things more comfortable. And so, he got up and closed the door. Returning to his mattress, he waited for the voice to show itself, but nothing happened. Ramone closed his eyes.
“Well,” he whispered to the empty room, “If this is life, then give me fiction.”
It was then that he heard a woman singing a plaintive note to some Brazilian ballad before the Samba orchestra began performing their rhythmic melody about beach sunsets and the coastal moan of the ocean.
Ramone opened his eyes to see the club Miguel had mentioned. He’d been there before. He recognized most of the people. The band was on a small platform, and the middle-aged woman singing had a broad smile. To his left was Dalinda in her lavender party dress walking towards him. She walked over with a drink, and they kissed. They strolled together to the dance floor, where couples had already begun to dance.
He could hear a voice echo from somewhere far in the distance. It was Williams’ voice. He was talking to someone else. There was a concern in his tone. Ramone couldn’t make out what was being said and lost interest; instead, he focused on Dalinda and the music.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Dalinda whispered in his ear.
Nothing, my love. You look wonderful tonight. You’re just as I always remember in my mind’s eye.”
Ramone smiled, humming along with the samba music. He danced with his wife and bantered with his brother and some friends. The twilight dimmed the sky above. The warm and humid air saturated the packed club. It was such a great evening that he never wanted to leave São Paulo again. Yet William’s voice beckoned. So Ramone closed his eyes, held tight to his wife and sang along with the Samba performers.
I hated losing mom’s books. A writer friend mentioned Portrait of a Lady and I winced. The Henry James classic had lived on her mahogany bookshelves along with Shakespeare, George Eliot and a rotating cast of library novels. Some of them had mom’s name—Estelle, or star—written in longhand on a flowery bookplate. Victorian language lulled her. Classical constructions thrilled her mind and tantalized it with how the other half lived. She sat and read by her French windows, whose top sills curved out from the center like open wings—it’s a style you don’t see anymore. In the next room, her crystal chandelier’s prisms looped up like open teardrop earrings.
When I was a toddler mom read to me. She sat me on a towel in our house’s central patio for sun baths. Words sounded sweet when she said them, her voice a low flute that built its own harmonies. Celestial light and pink geraniums swaddled me. Well-kissed by the sun, I felt happy as a cat curled up with the secret of joy. Soon I read on my own for the warmth. When I got older and asked questions mom shot back, “You don’t know what that means? Well, write it down and look it up.”
Books were her survival strategy
Estelle’s history began at St. Vincent’s High School in Vallejo. The nuns said there was nothing for her in America and she should go back to the Philippines. They told the boy with the second-highest GPA he was the valedictorian. In his speech to the class, he said, “Estelle should be standing here, not me.” Yet she spoke fondly of St. Vincent’s and loved that I chose Vincent for my son’s name. In class reunion photos Estelle was the one who stood sideways like a lady, one foot forward, graceful and lively at the same time. Her swing dress was a splash of color against the whitewashed background. Her bright-burning nature soared.
Mom chose our house in 1958 when it was the only one on the Baden Street hill. This was before there was a Glen Park BART station a few blocks away, and you could buy houses in San Francisco for $20,000. Later she could still remember it nestled in greenery before the freeway took the trees. “Before you were born,” she said. The child I was wondered how it was for her then and traced the length of its walls with my eyes. They glowed harvest gold all the way to the soft cream trim. My early years were warm with amber sunshine.
All my life, my parents promised me the house on Baden Street. It was like cash in the bank as I protected my head from Dad’s kicks and escaped to college. Mom shrank from my father’s violence but stuck up for me in unexpected ways when I wanted to study the clarinet, switch to the piano or go to college in Southern California. My friend Richard said, “Your mom made you a fighter.”
Mom told me, “You’re so lucky you have a mother. My mother lost hers when she was born. You have no idea what it’s like.” I didn’t believe her. I was still mad because when we were watching The Waltons on TV, a daughter on the show asked her Grandma if she was pretty. Grandma replied, “No, I don’t think you’re pretty. I think you’re beautiful.” I had looked at my mom right then. She said, “I know what you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it.” If she caught me looking too long in the mirror, she’d say, “You think you’re so cute, don’t you?”
Mom never talked about pain. Literature was her survival strategy and she skipped the plot points she didn’t like. She waited until her 70s to tell me about when she was a little girl and her mother beat her so badly, neighbors broke down the door to pull her off the dirt floor. If I asked why she never hugged me, she said, “Mommy’s not like that.” But even though she never talked about family directly, she still had Shakespeare for her touchstone. She took me to see King Lear at the Palace of Fine Arts. Its lines lurked at the back of my mind for years.
The only way to write about the end is to rename dad’s sister Aunt Goneril, after King Lear’s power-mad scion. Dementia, diabetes and dialysis had stolen my mom’s formidable defenses. On bad days she called for her mama, like her mother had on her deathbed. My dad put Old Goneril in charge. Auntie G put mom in a chair with no seatbelt, wheeled her down the steep Baden hill and dropped her on her head. Mom died soon after. I moved like a wraith through the funeral, unable to tell if my family’s motives were malice, dementia, greed or all three. I asked the law school dean to reschedule my community property final. For the first time since I was three I wasn’t able to read. Writing an obituary never crossed my mind.
Dad’s friend Edmund, the one with white power bumper stickers, convinced my father to forgo physical therapy even though he’d been falling a lot. The bastard convinced dad that if he went to his doctor appointments, the staff would confine him to a wheelchair. Dad didn’t believe anyone else. His legs got weaker.
“Lenox and Waterford are good names,” she used to say
A stranger’s face got mixed up with my final memory of mom’s books. It was my last chance to retrieve Portrait and the others. I hadn’t expected anyone to be home and startled a big man in the living room. He threw things into boxes like they were destined for the dumpster. I had to reach him somehow. He had a thin moustache, a paint-spattered T-shirt and the buttons on his jeans looked ready to pop. I searched for the phrase from Spanish class, Cuál es tu nombre? His name was Mario. I struggled to say it was my house, those were my pictures on the floor. I picked one up and waved it at him—see, this is my mom! His eyes avoided me and he sat down heavily. Maybe he had a family of his own to worry about. When I snapped photos with my phone, I startled Mario. He ran out to his truck and called someone, probably Edmund.
Mom’s bedroom was stripped bare. So was the dining room. Gone was her cherished china set with brush-stroked roses in teal and magenta. “Lenox and Waterford are good names,” she used to say. I grabbed her Tragedies of Shakespeare and my eyes blurred.
As dad’s mind dissolved, he confused flattery with friendship and bullying with strength. Aunt Goneril filed a restraining order against me in my dad’s name. Cousin Regan blinded the family court judge with pages of perjured figures and took my dad’s Power of Attorney to sell the house on Baden Street. Their henchmen ripped out mom’s prized central patio, chopped up her French windows and wrenched the brown-sugar bookshelves from the walls. Her sunbathing spot became a tiny, dark bedroom to raise the house’s purchase price over a million dollars.
When dad passed, I wove mom’s life into his obituary. From the outside they were the ideal couple. Hank met his wife, Estelle, when she was on stage in a play at International House. They loved to entertain in their Mediterranean-style home with crystal from Estelle’s custom cabinet. Hank was elected Men’s Club sergeant-at-arms at St. Finn Barr and volunteered at parish Pancake Breakfasts. Estelle prepared gourmet meals and showered in-laws with fancy-wrap gifts from The Emporium. They loved to sing, especially standards like “I’ll Be Seeing You.” They enjoyed classes at the Fromm Institute, held museum memberships and appreciated San Francisco restaurants of yesteryear like La Piñata and Celadon. Their generous spirits encouraged artistic achievement in everyone they met. Tidbits from their past recorded family history for my son. In the end our wealth was memory.
Henry James said, “The finest natures were those that shone on large occasions.” Estelle had adapted Victorian work ethics, defeated nun stereotypes and survived. When she was young, her grace helped her sidestep Aunt G’s chaos. She must have cared about me, after all, before my dad’s rage threw her back into the mind of a crushed child. To love her is to see her strengths and to shore up her weaknesses.
All was forgiven when mom’s shade slipped down to earth, hovered by my son’s dresser and protected him while he slept. Her shape had no face and looked more like a faint silvery light than a person. I recognized her anyway. When she was alive, her eyes had lit up every time my son walked in the room. On good days she cooed, “Vinnn-cent,” as happy as the nestling doves outside.
In the last week of her life, I had checked her insulin. The sun streamed through her garden window and she said, “What a beautiful girl.” I looked behind me to see who she was talking about. When I looked back at mom she beamed at me, the same way she glowed around my son.
My writer friend gave me her mother’s hardcover Portrait of a Lady. I’d resisted reading it for years, and it took 100 pages for me to stop complaining about the pages-long paragraphs. Then a Zoom class revealed some of mom’s secrets in the Victorian character sketches. She had leaped into the world like one of Henry James’ belles, in love with the world, hungry for life.
Five miles and four years away from the house on Baden Street, the dog and I checked on new plants one morning in the backyard. Light broke through the fog onto riots of geraniums, Mexican sage and purple-velvet princess blooms. Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments, as the bard once sang. I imagined my mom sunbathing by her Christmas cactus in Mediterranean-patio heaven, then telescoping down to hummingbird size and alighting on my son’s shoulder. She whispers in his ear how to steer through the next stage for the family, finishing her own portrait in the process.
Our traditions were hammered out on the anvil of experience. AA has worked for us all these years, so let’s not louse it all up (I’ve been sober since 11/7/11, thank you, God, ODAAT). Bill W., Dr. Bob and the good old-timers paved the way for us: keep it simple. Returning the $140,000 is the sober thing to do. If we have to justify anything, it’s wrong.
Thank you for your love and service.
Live Easy But Think First, —Kimberly
I don’t know if you are soliciting responses about the Bequest of $140,000 received by the Central Office, but I’d like to put forth the following solution: The Bequest could be turned into a Trust. The annual donation amount suggested by AAWS/GSO could then be given to the Intergroup/Central Office, with the remainder left in the Trust. The Trust would be otherwise untouchable during the year.
Opposition Statement: $150K Bequest
To the Editor,
The excess bequest of $140,000 cannot be accepted by IFAA because it violates both the wording and the spirit of our Seventh Tradition. The long form of Tradition Seven states “acceptance of large gifts from any source … is unwise” and is reinforced by Warranty One of Concept XII, which says we should refuse to take outside contributions and hold each individual’s gift to a modest figure. We only take support from members, and we only take it in limited amounts.
The limits set for contributions are regularly reviewed and voted on at our General Service Conference, meaning that they represent the actual voice and effective conscience of our entire Fellowship, and are stated in our GSO publication AA Guidelines on Finance as well as in the pamphlets “Self-Support: Where Money & Spirituality Mix” and “The AA Group.” In 2018, the limit for a one-time bequest was set at $10,000. IFAA has adopted this limit and has posted it on their website. This is our current policy and it requires substantial unanimity to change it or make an exception.
While IFAA isn’t part of the General Service structure, it’s still part of A.A. Any deviation from A.A. principles should be undertaken with the utmost transparency and consideration. Given the magnitude of the issue this would involve thorough discussion, input, and substantial unanimity from the groups through their IGRs to change our stated policy. This did not occur yet the Board accepted the $140,000 bequest in April 2020.
While the funds could undeniably be put to good use to reach the still-suffering alcoholic, we can never fulfill one tradition by violating another. No matter how worthy the uses of the funds, we can’t accept them at the expense of our principles; it’s a classic case of the good being the enemy of the best (Tradition Two). If the SF/Marin Fellowship at large deems these special projects worthy of support, they can be submitted in the budget and appeals can go out to the fellowship to assist in their funding. This is the time-honored method for self-support and, tempting as it may be, we cannot take the easier, softer way.
If A.A. were to follow the common non-profit practice of cultivation of wealthy members for large contributions, it would ultimately lead to a shift away from dependence on the groups. This is exactly what Bill was speaking about in Tradition Seven with the example of the wealthy benefactor. Quite obviously we wouldn’t be obligated to the deceased donor who left us the money — but we would be dependent on that methodof support. The concern was as much about to whom we would ultimately be accountable, as it was about whether the benefactor was a member. “Compared to this prospect the $10,000 under consideration wasn’t much, but like the alcoholic’s first drink it would, if taken, inevitably set up a disastrous chain reaction,” Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Tradition Seven, p.164.
The argument that taking the money doesn’t violate the Seventh Tradition because the funds are for a stated purpose simply doesn’t hold water. In the example cited above, do we think there wasn’t a stated purpose for the money in 1948 when A.A. was struggling to keep the New York office doors open? (“The Foundation was really hard up just then,” Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Tradition Seven, p.164.) We alcoholics are well-experienced in eschewing principles to justify our wants. No doubt, we could all think of many splendid purposes for even more money, but it doesn’t justify ignoring the principles which have seen us through the past 85 years.
A note of relevance from the US/Canada Virtual Forum held on 12/19/20. A member asked the question, “Under the current financial policy and limits for contributions … would GSO, or any of the Central Offices on the panel, accept a one-time bequest of $150,000?” The answer from the GSO General Manager was immediate and unequivocal: “GSO would not accept a bequest in an amount more than the Conference-mandated amount.” Period. No extenuating circumstances or qualifications about how much they need the money or how much good it would do. Note: Our General Service Office (GSO) in New York will never tell another service entity what to do because they don’t govern (C-XII, Warranty Six).
The precedent to accept these funds threatens A.A. as a whole and cannot not be supported. We owe our lives to A.A. Personal ambitions and impressive plans (Rule 62), no matter how well intentioned, must always take a back seat when weighed against the sacrifice of our traditions.
The IFAA Board did not accept the bequest on behalf of IFAA. Rather the IFAA Board made a recommendation that Intergroup make a one time exception to the $10,000 limit on bequests which was then discussed and adopted by Intergroup Representatives at the March 2020 meeting (Intergroup Meeting Agenda 4/1/2020, p. 5 [Intergroup Agenda – March 2020 – 3]). Intergroup adhered to the consensus model of decision making by discussing the matter, taking stack and ultimately coming to a unanimous consensus of the Intergroup Representatives present. The consensus model allows any voting member to block the item or to request continued discussion. There was neither a block nor a request from the Intergroup Representatives present to return to their groups for continued discussion.
The Board reports transactions for any given month one month behind, e.g., April transactions are reported to Intergroup at the June meeting, May transactions at the July meeting, and so on. The contribution in question was entered as income under the line item of Individual Contributions – unrestricted and placed on the balance sheet as Asset – cash. For purposes of reporting to the Intergroup, this information was segregated and presented under the header Special Projects Fund to call attention to this contribution and its special purpose. Intergroup agreed that the contribution would not be used for our normal operating expenditures.
The IGRs were asked for our reaction. Some expressed opposition to accepting the bequest. Some expressed interest in more information, and some expressed no opinion. Few, if any, expressed strong support for accepting a bequest. The reality of what happened at the March 2020 intergroup meeting doesn’t change.
From December 2020: The Loyal Opposition
To the Editor,
Our local A.A. Fellowship is currently facing the single biggest issue I’ve seen since I got sober in 1987. Should we accept large bequests in excess of our seventh tradition guidelines? The seventh tradition is very clear on the two aspects of self-support. It’s also mentioned in the A.A. Guidelines on Finance and our pamphlet “Self-Support: Where Money and Spirituality Mix.”
We don’t accept any outside contributions from non-members, and
We don’t accept gifts from any member in amounts greater than $5,000 per year for individuals or $10,000 as a one-time bequest.
Warranty One of Concept XII says we should “refuse to take outside contributions and hold each individual’s gift at a modest figure.” The six General Warranties of Concept XII are part of the A.A. Conference Charter and require the written consent of three-quarters of all directory-listed A.A. Groups to be changed. These amounts are reviewed regularly at our annual General Service Conference. Per Concept II, it represents the collective conscience of our entire fellowship. At the 2018 General Service Conference, the one-time limit for bequests was raised from $5,000 to $10,000. The Intercounty Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous (IFAA) has that limit posted on their website.
Nevertheless, last April the IFAA Board accepted a bequest which was $140,000 in excess of those guidelines. While the IFAA Board has the right to make decisions about administrative matters, it certainly doesn’t have the right to make decisions which deviate from either the collective conscience of A.A. or from our Traditions. If considered at all, such a deviation should be considered only with the utmost transparency and caution. Given the magnitude of the issue this would involve thorough discussion, input and voting from the SF/Marin groups through their IGRs.
The issue was discussed briefly at the Intergroup meeting in March, 2020. Either a consensus was agreed upon or it was agreed to continue discussing the matter. According to the meeting minutes, the motion was not stated nor was an official vote taken. The IGRs were not encouraged to bring the matter to their groups for full discussion and voting. The matter was never advanced as Old Business, never put in Targeted Messages. Questions arose at the October 2020 business meeting.
Regarding financial reporting, it was announced in June that funds had been accepted in April. The income was entered on a separate Special Funds balance sheet, which was to be reported quarterly. The regular Income Statement available monthly has a section specifically for contributions, but the income was not entered there nor was it entered in assets on the regular monthly Balance Sheet. Alcoholics Anonymous has always held itself to a higher standard of reporting accountability than may be legally required. Our General Service Office in New York lists all contributions, no matter what their intended purpose, on their regular Balance Sheet for transparency.
The argument that this situation is the fault of groups’ not having IGRs simply isn’t valid. In the 33 years I’ve been a member of A.A. and actively involved in service committee work, service committees have had the same complaint. Yet when an issue of vital interest to the fellowship arises, groups will rally. That’s the reality of participation.
The plans for spending the money sound worthy but are irrelevant if they require that we violate our traditions in the process. It’s a case of the good being the enemy of the best and sets a perilous precedent. If we can ignore the principles which have seen us through the past 85 years to justify this deviation, then I can think of a million good justifications for other deviations. We alcoholics are pretty experienced with justifying our wants. As now-sober alcoholics, we should never do so at the expense of the traditions on which we rely for our very survival. If those wants are worthy, the SF/Marin Fellowship will contribute toward them in the proper way, not by breaking our seventh tradition.
Where’s our gratitude? Due to these bequests we legitimately have $20,000 that we would not otherwise have had to spend on Special Projects. Rather than being thankful for what we have, why would we grab for more than we have a right to?
The IFAA board is accountable per our second and ninth traditions. They are trusted servants and they do not govern. Nor do they decide which traditions will be upheld and which won’t. And finally, there’s the issue of the motion itself. For the information of A.A. members who weren’t at the November business meeting, the motion we passed by substantial unanimity was to revisit the March decision on the issue of whether IFAA should accept a $140,000 bequest in excess of the A.A. Guidelines. That motion was reworded in an email to IGRs 11/12/2020. Eleven days later, the board sent out a further communication to IGRs stating a different motion (“Intergroup should return all but $10k of the $140k bequest”).
We need to keep consistent wording for motions which were passed. Period. Otherwise a motion for censure may be in order. The Twelve Concepts for World Service mention “the force of tradition and the power of the A.A. purse” (Concept VII). Some may wish to place their contributions to IFAA on temporary hold until this issue is resolved. I urge all groups to engage in thorough discussion on this matter, to arrive at an informed group conscience and to put that group conscience forward through their elected Intergroup Representative.
To Revisit Acceptance
To the Editor:
I am writing about two emails that IFAA Board Chair Alan G sent to Intergroup reps. In the emails, the Board Chair misstates the motion that is up for a vote before the Intergroup at the December 2 meeting. This motion was submitted and accepted at the November Intergroup meeting to be taken back to our groups for their informed group conscience. The motion is simple: “To revisit acceptance” of the additional $140,000 above the $10,000 limit set by General Service and adopted as policy by SF/Marin A.A.. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “revisit” as “consider again.”
In the first email, the Board Chair says that the motion is whether to continue using the Special Projects Fund created by a $140,000 bequest (part of a total bequest of $150,000 by a deceased A.A. member) to upgrade systems at Central Office. Initially the Board accepted $10,000, but declined the $140,000 above the limit. Later they reconsidered and ultimately accepted the additional $140,000 as well.
In the second email, the Board Chair asks Intergroup reps if we presented yet another version to our groups: “Intergroup should return all but $10k of the $140k bequest.” This is also problematic because the initial bequest was $150,000, not $140,000.
The Board Chair has now sent out two versions of the motion to be voted on in December. Neither of them are the motion that was actually proposed and accepted for consideration by the groups. People were there when the motion was made. We are witnesses. We heard the motion. We took notes. We know what happened. Special Projects Fund is a puff piece presenting the Board’s version of events, including the mythical strong support that never happened at the March 2020 meeting and the ongoing discussions with the groups that also never happened.
The real motion is simple: to “revisit the acceptance” of the $140,000 over the limit (in addition to the $10,000 within the limit) set by General Service and adopted by San Francisco Marin A.A.
1. If acceptance of the additional $140,000 and creation of the Special Projects Fund was proper, vote Yes. What has not been spent of the $140,000 stays in Special Projects Fund.
2. If acceptance of additional $140,000 was not proper, vote No. Then $140,000 goes back to the estate.
Nothing in the original motion mentions whether to continue spending the Special Projects Fund and all the wonderful things that would accomplish. Nor is it only about whether to return the excess $140,000, but also whether the Board acted improperly in accepting it in the first place, necessitating that $140,000 should be returned. My group voted that the acceptance was not proper and the $140,000 should be returned to the estate.
How Do We Not
To the Editor:
How do we not f*** this up? The primary issue is whether it is consistent with the A.A. Traditions for Intergroup of San Francisco to accept a bequest of $140,000 from a donor who named A.A. as a beneficiary in the donor’s will has certainly drawn the attention of the greater San Francisco A.A. community. Thus far, Intergroup has used some of this fund for repairing and updating A.A. of San Francisco’s digital infrastructure and created a free-to-use PDF generator that can be used for intergroups around the world.
Before delving further into analyzing why I think Intergroup should keep this bequest, what I think maybe people are not seeing here is that ALL parties concerned, the board of IFAA (Intercounty Fellowship of A.A.) and the individuals representing the groups, the constituency that the board represents, are coming from a position of love. We all want what is best for A.A. as a whole, and to serve the newcomer as our primary purpose.
The most readily applicable tradition in this issue is Tradition Seven: “Every A.A. group ought to be be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” In the portion of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions concerning Tradition Seven, the authors state directly that the Alcoholic Foundation had faced a similar problem concerning whether to accept a gift from “[a] certain lady [who] had died.” The Foundation had determined not to accept the gift because it would set a bad precedent regarding outside donations. The Foundation was concerned with donations from the general public. “[A]t the slightest intimation to the general public from our trustees that we needed money, we could become immensely rich.” Such riches could have an outsize influence on the Foundation and cause it to abandon its primary purpose. Thus, Tradition Seven, and the attendant principle of corporate poverty, was created to head this off at the pass.
Let’s break that down a minute. On p. 163 of the Twelve & Twelve, we read, “A certain lady had died.” The text explains that taking money from outside sources could make the Foundation beholden to the donor. “Whoever pays the piper is apt to call the tune,” it says, referring to these outside sources. If the fear is that whoever pays the piper is apt to call the tune, it is unclear from a practical perspective how this applies to contributions at the death of a member that have no conditions attached to accepting the gift. How is a dead person going to call the tune at all?
Nobody has really spoken about the donor in this case, the estate of a local person, whose life was presumably saved by the Intercounty Fellowship. This person is not an outside source. This is A.A. being fully self-supporting, and it’s a fine example of what we do when we are able.
The nay-sayers cry, “It’s breaking the traditions” and “It’s a slippery slope!” IMHO maybe part of it is being uncomfortable with something happening outside the scope of normal experience. The fact that the board has used the funds to repair and update a crumbling software infrastructure, and created a PDF generator that can be used for intergroups around the world, says to me that the principle of corporate poverty is being upheld. The money is being used. It is not being mis-used. Nobody is buying new toys, going out to dinner or hiring drivers to get themselves around town.
Should the IFAA Board be more transparent in their decision making? Absolutely. I’ve more than once been irked by decisions made behind closed doors.
Should we take the issue to all our groups that care enough about governance to be a part of the process? Hell yes! Should we return the money to the estate of the donor? No, that would dishonor the wishes of the A.A. member who so freely gave what was given to him/her. I am aware that this is going to be an unpopular opinion, but nobody is saying it, so I guess I need to. Pretty please let’s stop yelling at each other.
— JBH / IGR
Right of Participation
To the Editor:
Some members believe they were not granted their full Right of Participation when the board accepted a $150k bequest and established a Special Projects Fund. Some saw this fund as a departure from our seventh tradition and requested the Board give back the money. At two subsequent meetings to discuss the issue, most IGRs asked the board to rescind their decision.
At the IGR Meeting November 4, a motion was made to revisit the acceptance of the $140,000 bequest (above their/GSO policy gift limits). After discussion, it passed and the board agreed to provide clarifying language for IGRs. The board emailed material for IGRs to convey to the groups, which included this version of the motion:
“Should Intergroup continue to invest in improvements to the delivery of local services, via technical and operational upgrades through the use of the $140,000 Special Projects Fund? A yes vote means we will continue; a no vote means we will return all monies to the estate and pause all work on systems upgrades.” The implication is that those opposing the fund do not wish to carry the message or see this project completed. The statement, “We do not see a realistic path to having the $100K estimated all of the upgrades would require” could incite fear. As an alternative, many members suggested asking their groups to pass the basket for this self-support.
The board mentioned they are available to visit meetings to explain the issues, claiming IGRs confused consensus or misunderstood plans for accepting the funds. It’s a worthy desire to carry the message, alleviate the funding burden and share this knowledge with other Intergroups. Yet we must carefully reflect if this deviation from our traditions and the consequences to our unity are worth it. In the collective conscience of the fellowship, some see this as “an ego feeding proposition.”
Experience tells us A.A. will continue to reach the still-suffering alcoholic without compromising integrity or seeking money, power and prestige. Groups can vote no for the well-being of A.A. as a whole. The Board may join us in good faith and restore our confidence in IFAA’s trusted servants. The silver lining for everyone will be witnessing A.A.’s traditions & concepts at work.
In All Our Affairs
To the Editor:
I am concerned about the principles practiced in the SF/Marin Intergroup. A room full of plainly troubled IGRs, old and new, was told we were going to proceed cautiously, and to ask what groups thought of the notion of “revisiting” the original bequest, and whether or not taking the money is an option. The board appeared to want to keep the money, and had the desire to have this issue resolved by year’s end for tax purposes. It’s like doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. They discussed, voted on, and passed something without properly informing the groups they represent. It was wrong to withhold information. Giving the money back is the amends.
The change in behavior is to not make a decision without proper vetting or consultation with the groups they represent. If they see that as being excessive then it may be the time has come for the spirit of rotation. We need to avoid making decisions based on self which step on the toes of the membership being served. The doublespeak must end or the job of the central office is not being done. I hope A.A. as a whole gets its eyes opened. We need to let the board know how we feel, and we are earnestly asking that the board practice our principles in all its affairs.