Sunlight of the Spirit
"Will anyone with fifty years of sobriety please stand up--that is, if you can," said the podium speaker in the banquet hall. The speaker scanned the ballroom floor.
"Forty-nine. . .? Forty-eight. . .?"
With growing anticipation, the sobriety countdown continued until the audience erupted at forty-five years, and Lou M. was demanded at the podium by thunderous applause.
Once behind the microphone, this ICYPAA veteran proceeded to regale the audience of 2,450 registered members with the tale of the Texas Ranger. Many years ago, he said, at one of the "old-time" AA meetings he went to, there was a Texas Ranger who sat by himself in the back of the room behind a pair of dark sunglasses, with his silver spurs propped up on the table in front of him, and his hundred-dollar cowboy hat tipped back onto his sunburned forehead.
Well, one day a young fellow showed up at the meeting in pretty bad shape. He was cut and bleeding, and what clothes he had left reeked of alcohol. Some of the older members of the group quickly got to their feet and ushered the ragged newcomer to the front of the room where they began to tell him what AA was all about. After a pretty good earful, the newcomer took a skeptical look around him.
"Maybe I'm too young for all this," he said. "You mean I have to stay away from the first drink, come to these meetings, and never have any more fun?"
From the back of the room the Texas Ranger's spurs clanked to the floor like a gunshot. He got up from his seat and a path cleared in front of him as he sidled up to the newcomer. The Ranger bent down, lifted up his sunglasses, and looked straight into the newcomer's bloodshot eyes.
"Son," he asked, "just how much damned fun can you stand?"
The next stop on the sobriety countdown was thirty-one years, followed by twenty-nine, twenty-seven, twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-three, and every year thereafter, all the way down to the brave newcomer who stood up to announce one day of sobriety. The chant broke out, "Keep Coming Back! Keep Coming Back!" while people all over the banquet hall scrambled to find him a Big Book. It was clear that one day of sobriety was the greatest blessing in the room that night. As Debbie S. of Des Plaines, Illinois noted, "We had a man who celebrated forty-five years of sobriety and a person with one day. The neat thing is that God loves them both the same."
"Sunlight of the Spirit" was the theme for this year's conference in Miami, Florida, and when the registration desk in the lower lobby of the Hyatt Regency opened on Thursday morning there was an excited, vibrant crowd in waiting. For many it was their first ICYPAA, while for others it was an event they wouldn't dream of missing, year after year.
Laura R. of Breckenridge, Colorado put it this way: "So many people have asked, 'What is it like?' Well, it is commonly referred to as 'conference-junkie fever.'
"For me, the trip to Miami had many purposes. First, I'd been sober only three weeks when ICYPAA came to my state last year. I saw the spirit then, and I wanted what they had. In Miami, I got it for myself and just want to keep passing it on. The second reason for coming was to celebrate my one-year anniversary in a special way, with a double treat--an ICYPAA and a dream come true. For ten years I sat on bar stools bragging about going to the Epcot Center in Orlando someday. Now I'm grateful to say that Disney World and the Epcot Center have become a reality--thanks to God, AA, and Florida young people."
While good old American folk wisdom has it that "Curiosity killed the cat," Rita R. from Kearney, Nebraska, saw it quite another way.
"I am a Big Book thumper and I believe what it says at the end of the Appendix on spiritual experiences, something about contempt prior to investigation. So, I went to investigate. But the theme 'Sunlight of the Spirit' bothered me a lot. I felt it was close to blasphemy.
"About three weeks prior to my arrival at the conference, I was involved in a personal inventory, reflecting on it and doing a review of it with pages 64 through 70 of the Big Book. As I was reading on page 66, I stopped cold. Realization struck as I read these words, '. . .we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.' I was immediately comforted but also ashamed I had had those thoughts about the theme of the conference. A spark within me ignited."
A woman from Illinois had this to say: "As I write this letter, I am 31,000 feet in the air reflecting on my second ICYPAA. I attended my first in Chicago and was reassured that young people's conferences did not necessarily mean just young in age, but rather anyone who was still willing to grow. I have been sober a little over six years and an important part of my recovery has been retreats, conventions, and conferences. In my opinion, I have not attended any greater conferences where there was so much love, warmth, people just having fun enjoying sobriety than at the International Conferences of Young People in AA."
In such a spiritually charged atmosphere, problems of money, housing, and transportation all became further opportunities for the Higher Power to remain anonymous, as "coincidence" after "coincidence" began piling up. Sandy R. from Vero Beach, Florida, sober less than two months, just happened to have a brother-in-law from New York who had an extra bed in his room. Another member who had a problem getting time off from her job was able to work out a combination of personal days, vacation days, and a "flex" day with her supervisor.
Car after car pulled into the Hyatt Regency. Baggage was unloaded, cabbies were paid, and anxious, squinting faces came out of the bright Florida sunshine into the cool, darkened lobby of the hotel only to adjust from the glare, recognize a face in the milling crowd, and greet an old friend.
Armed with T-shirts, coffee mugs, day-care facilities, and 400 pounds of coffee, the Florida planning committee was ready for the surge. Registration proceeded (representing 46 states, three provinces of Canada, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Venezuela, Ireland, and Saudi Arabia), and unless one was either extremely quick or extremely shy, a hug from the ICYPAA hospitality huggers was inescapable. There were sign-up tables, too, for snorkeling trips and boat tours, if one could find time amid the ample program of meetings, anchored in the Steps and Traditions, which was offered around the clock.
"Walking into the hotel that day in May, there were people, lots of people, sober people, all over the place. Feeling very overwhelmed and scared, I said, 'I need a meeting.' There was one going on not ten feet away. I went in and sat down. A man had the microphone. He was nervous, recently out of a treatment program, and had never been to an ICYPAA before. His mother had written to him while he was in treatment and his sponsor had suggested he share her letter with us. He did, and I was amazed, for she had written what was true about me, too--how my own friends had felt about my behavior and active drinking years. Those were the hard truths and realizations I was learning to face about myself in my sobriety. Wow! Lurking in my thoughts I knew I must share the truth too, but would I be able to?"
One woman remarked, "I was definitely ready for a weekend of making new friends, partying, attending super marathon meetings, and taking risks to grow and change. Everywhere I turned, people were hugging, and in the air was an overwhelming attitude of gratitude for being sober, alive, and free."
Others had similar feelings, even though they arrived late. "I arrived for the Friday evening activities, stayed overnight, and attended several meetings. There was wonderful fellowship just moving from coffee urn to coffee urn in the lobby area." For some, such as a woman from Margate, Florida, the rich program meetings offered an opportunity for a deeper kind of sharing.
"My boyfriend and I arrived at the Hyatt. We registered and took a look at the program to see which topics we would sit in on first. Since I had been involved in an incestuous relationship as a child, we decided to go to the sexual abuse discussion. After some confusing room changes, I finally found myself sitting in a room with three other people, wondering why I had decided to come to this meeting at all.
"As more people wandered in, a woman from New York started the meeting. Then people began sharing their stories associated with sexual abuse, both incest and spouse abuse. They all spoke so honestly, finally I got up enough courage to raise my hand and share my own story as honestly as I could. This part of my life had been hidden for some fifteen years, and after I finished I started to cry. I knew why I needed that meeting--may be not at first, but I knew after I had spoken that I was not alone. Other people had gone through what I had gone through, and I could finally talk about it."
There were others, more timid perhaps, who stayed on the fringes, unable to break the ice. Many said, "I can't take it anymore. I haven't shared at a meeting yet and I'm miserable. I know this is the only thing that will help, but I have so much fear."
"Fear, lots of fear," said a woman from Nebraska. "It was the same fear I had when I asked someone to be my sponsor; the same fear I had when I did my first Fifth Step; the same fear I had when I sincerely prayed the Seventh Step prayer.
"In my hometown groups I can sometimes deceive them about what's going on with me. I can corner a sympathetic ear--but not with my peers. For them to be sober seven years at age twenty-five, they have walked in my shoes. Yet nobody said it. Instead you could see it and feel it! And in equal proportion you could feel the love, the giving and giving and giving--freely, with no strings."
As the bikers started pulling in, one by one and in groups, from as far away as Boston and Montreal, the conference picked up steam and the coffeepots flowed freely. A twenty-four-hour pizza shop on the concourse of the Hyatt served to sustain the steady flow of hungry travelers, and the employees of that shop got a good look into the clear eyes of AA's future.
Being a large hotel, the Hyatt had lots of other events going on in the days just past, and the last large group of faces these employees had seen were those gathered for the Miss USA contest. In one twenty-four-hour period during the Miss USA competition, the pizza shop had gone through twenty-one cases of beer. ICYPAA changed all that.
By some bizarre twist of fate, though, the hotel's scheduling called for one of the meeting rooms in the lower lobby, directly across from one of the larger AA meeting rooms, to be the location for the Scotch Whiskey Information Center's reception and tasting session on Thursday night, the opening night of the conference. Participants on both sides of this unusual pairing of events mingled in the hallways, casting skeptical looks back and forth. The odd mixture of tasters and ex-tipplers did, however, afford an opportunity to carry a powerful message of love to at least one drinker.
As the evening darkened and the cooler night air settled over the patio outside the lower lobby, a number of AAs had gathered outside to talk and share. Suddenly, a man with a drink in his hand appeared at the top of the patio steps. He stumbled fell headlong onto the patio bricks. Within seconds, he was surrounded by a group of AAs who had seen the fall. By "coincidence" two registered nurses (Lori K. from Detroit, Michigan and Kathie M. from Joliet, Illinois) were in the crowd.
Though the fellow never did fully regain consciousness, the two sober nurses stayed by his side until the Miami paramedics finally arrived. Judging from the fall, it was hard to determine whether the fellow had simply staggered from the drinking or had actually had a seizure of some sort. In either case, someone thought a little reminder wouldn't hurt when, and if, the fellow regained consciousness. Since a Big Book wouldn't do under the circumstances, someone ripped off the cover of a May Grapevine (the "Rock and Roll Sobriety" issue) and stuck it into his pocket with the hope that the Twelve Steps printed on the inside of that cover might someday be of help.
As the meetings continued into the night, there was "an energy, a force--very powerful, very dynamic. Yes, it was the spirit! Those people (me) were possessed with a sense of power and direction. Sharing it and giving it away. Just as the sun emits its rays, the Spirit of the Universe, Creative Intelligence, the Great Reality--all those things the Big Book talks about--were alive in each and every one of us."
On Friday, with temperatures creeping up into the low 90s, young AAs, Al-Anons, and Alateens spread out along Miami's streets, avenues, and highways to shop, to Miami's Cuban cuisine, or simply to wander. Snorkeling trips and went, and ad hoc groups piled onto buses or into cars for the beach. Meanwhile, back at the Hyatt, the poolside fellowship that was to continue throughout the conference was shifting into high gear, as one of the fringe benefits of this year's site selection--unlimited tanning--came to fruition. "My wife will think something's funny if I don't come back with a tan," one New Yorker was heard to say.
But, by the time eight o'clock rolled around, and the sun-ripened bodies were scrubbed clean of tanning oil and perspiration, a crowd began to gather at the banquet hall for an speaker's meeting. For most, it was the first unveiling of the giant conference banner--a banner traditionally passed on from one host city to the next. Spanning the width of the podium platform, the banner served as a stirring backdrop as speakers from Boston, Maryland, and Minnesota shared their stories.
Again, as in the smaller meetings, the mood of participation and honesty was strong. The meeting opened with the Preamble, "How It Works," and a reading of the Twelve Traditions. Familiar as these passages are to many AAs, one of the more appealing, revealing, customs of the big meetings at ICYPAA breathed a new vitality into these important readings. It was clear that the majority of those present did not intend to be passive recipients of the AA message, but rather were hellbent on taking an active role.
In the reading of "How It Works," for example, following the words "Here are the steps we took. . ." the audience "helps" the reader by shouting out the numbers of the Steps in unison.
"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable."
"Came to believe. . ."
"THREE!" and so on all the way through the Steps, until the audience overreaches itself and shouts out "THIRTEEN!"
This impulsive addition, however, is met with a resounding and collective "BOO!"--putting to rest one of the common misconceptions about young people's groups.
Then, finally, in the phrase following the words, "Many of us exclaimed. . ." the audience again chimes in, right on cue: "'What an order! I can't go through with it,'" adding, however, an emotional addendum not written into the original text in response to this blatant form of denial. Can't go through with it, you say?
On Saturday morning, the long-awaited bidding session for year's conference took place in the Hyatt's auditorium. While excitement was high and regional enthusiasm at a peak, the point at which money and spirituality must mix had finally arrived. With ten cities or regions presenting formal bids to the ICYPAA Advisory Council (made up of fifteen elected members--three from each host city of the past five conferences), matters of practicality and reason began to prevail. One member who had some serious doubts about what he was doing at the conference was reassured by the powerful energy generated at the bidding session, "All of a sudden it felt like AA, and I finally knew why I had come." Another member noted, "I wish political conventions would take note of the bidding session. It was organized and impressive, but with the spirit of joy."
With serious considerations of a practical nature before it, the Advisory Council listened carefully to all the bids. A considerable investment of time, energy, research, and hard work had gone into each of the bids, and some sites were bidding for the second or third time. While banners, bumper stickers, buttons, and slogans had been passed around from day one of the conference, and regional chants had spontaneously broken out at the most unusual times, finally it was facts, figures, intuition, and need which guided the workings of the Advisory Council's group conscience. One member of the Advisory Council put it this way: "We prayed a lot, and then prayed some more."
Following the bidding session, Saturday afternoon brought two special service meetings. In an hour-long informational meeting, the first of its kind at an ICYPAA, the art director and associate editor of the Grapevine led an informal session designed to open the doors of communication, answer questions, and highlight some of the history and hopes of the Grapevine.
When the question "How many of you have ever thought about writing an article for the Grapevine?" was asked, nearly every hand in the room went up. And yet, when the corresponding question "How many have actually done it?" was asked, no hands went up. It was suggested that this was precisely the purpose of the Grapevine's participation at ICYPAA--to try and bridge that gap, and to offer young people an opportunity to voice their experience, strength, and hope to the Fellowship.
After the Grapevine meeting was a General Service Trustees workshop, held for the second year in a row. Leading the workshop was the regional trustee from Arkansas, who provided some background information on the duties of a trustee, and shared some personal experiences as a trustee and as president (since rotated) of the AA World Services board--one of the two publishing arms of AA's General Service Board (the other being the AAGV). Also at the workshop was Mary R. from Boston, Massachusetts, a delegate to the 1986 General Service Conference and delegate chairperson of that Conference, who provided a digest of highlights from the April proceedings. The third speaker at the workshop was the past Pacific regional trustee, who, with the trustee from Arkansas, had been at the ICYPAA in Denver last year. Most impressed with the enthusiasm shown at ICYPAA, she likened the spirit of the conference to the spirit of "old-time" AA. There was, she said, "a sense of newness," a freshness so welcome on the AA landscape, a landscape where AA is so well known and so readily available that many often take it for granted. "ICYPAA is unique," she said, and later noted that any AA event that could negotiate free coffee around the clock was most certainly to be commended.
While most of those present were service-oriented, it was hoped that those members would carry back to their home groups the enthusiasm and commitment of ICYPAA, and through their example might influence other young people to participate in the service structure of AA as a whole. The workshop closed on a powerful and sobering note with a statement from the Arkansas trustee affixing responsibility for the future of AA just where it ought to be: "If AA goes to hell, it'll be your fault, not mine," he said.
As the hour moved closer and closer to the traditional Saturday night banquet and dance--and announcement of the 1987 conference site selection--the tension and excitement began to mount. Poolside bathers returned to their rooms only to emerge moments later in elegant dresses, jackets, and ties. The crowd milled around the banquet hall in anxious anticipation, as state by state the doors were opened. Waiters in black pants and ruffled shirts scurried to and fro, setting up tables and taking care of last-minute details. Faces, once bent and twisted in pain, like the face of the young newcomer in the tale of the Texas Ranger, were now radiant and bright. The hard work of the Florida planning committee was now bearing its fruit.
Emilio M., from Florida, was the banquet speaker, and finally with the tables cleared and the after-dinner coffee poured, the program moved toward its peak as Larry Y., chairman (since rotated) of the Advisory Council took the microphone. In a classic, almost slapstick snafu, Larry was interrupted on the podium while a birthday cake was presented to him and the audience sang a rousing "Happy Birthday." Somewhat baffled but unruffled, Larry graciously thanked everyone for their support, while quietly noting that his birthday was in fact in November, not May. With that expression of the group's right to be wrong neatly out of the way, Larry called the two regional trustees to the podium along with Gordon Patrick, the nonalcoholic chairman of the General Service Board.
Offering tangible evidence that ICYPAA is in fact part of AA, in accordance with the Seventh Tradition Larry presented Gordon with a check made out to the General Service Office for $7,300.00.
Visibly moved, in accepting this donation on behalf of the trustees of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gordon tripped himself up--as many before him have, and many after him will too--on the initials making up the acronym "ICYPAA." It came out "Ippy-Kaa." With understanding, yet firm guidance, the audience lovingly corrected the chairman.
"ICKY-PAA! ICKY-PAA! ICKY-PAA!" they chanted.
Gordon caught the wave of proper pronunciation and joined in the chant, beating time to the rhythm. "I think I've got it," he said with a smile.
"I came, I saw, I was conquered," he later wrote. "When I first heard the acronym ICYPAA in reference to young people in AA, I thought it was a new obscenity, dreamed up by those crazy kids who drank too much and used drugs. I also heard old-timers in AA imply that ICYPAA was a threat to AA unity from yet another special interest group.
"Fortunately the enthusiasm of regional trustees Natalie S. and Wayne P. persuaded me to attend and to see for myself what the young people were up to.
"What did I find? An impressive demonstration of AA's language of the heart at its very best--more than 2,400 exuberant, joy-filled young people sharing in an extremely attractive way how they carried the message to other young alcoholics. They worked hard and played hard, but always in the forefront was AA's primary purpose and careful adherence to the Traditions. The conference was a masterpiece of planning and organization."
While the contribution of the proceeds from this ICYPAA was not a "one-shot deal" (ICYPAA contributes to GSO each year), Gordon placed emphasis on this contribution when it was seen in the context of AA as a whole. Noting the shortfall of group contributions to GSO over the last few years, Gordon expressed his concern not so much over the dollars and cents of the situation, but rather over the disturbing implication that individual AA members seemed to be taking the traditional principles of self-support for granted. The ICYPAA check, then, was exciting evidence of the active and vital role young people were willing to take in helping GSO to carry the message of Alcoholics Anonymous worldwide.
With a final thought, Gordon concluded his reflections on the 29th ICYPAA: "Our higher power has done it again! Those beautiful young people, most of whom have used drugs, have no problem keeping the focus on recovery from alcoholism at all times. As I see it, the attitude of these young people is in harmony with the attitudes of Dr. Bob and Bill W."
Once again at the microphone, Larry Y. reached into his coat pocket to extract yet another envelope, signaling that the 1987 site selection was about to be announced. The banquet hall exploded into a cacophony of chants.
"SOBAH! SOBAH! SOBAH!"
"Tennessee! Tennessee! Tennessee!"
"ICYPAA! ICYPAA! ICYPAA!"
When the envelope was opened and the final selection named, nearly a quarter of the audience rose to its feet as one in wild, unbounded celebration.
"SOBAH! SOBAH!" the slogan of the Boston bid committee rang out, making clear once and for all just what a regional accent will do. Quite sober, "SOBAH" will be the theme of the 30th ICYPAA.
Sunday morning, Joyce M. from Florida capped off the conference with a moving qualification, in which she related the characteristic statement she made to members of her home group, early in sobriety, when it was suggested that she get involved in service, perhaps even making the coffee: "Who do I look like? Mrs. Olsen?" Needless to say she became the group's coffeemaker.
When the final meeting of the conference came to a close, in a swaying chain of linked arms, the conference joined together in a rendition of "Amazing Grace."
"Right now I am still 31,000 feet in the air on my way back to Chicago," wrote Debbie S. "But there is no greater natural high than to hear several thousand young people say the Lord's Prayer together followed by the singing of 'Amazing Grace.' I feel as if I've experienced another spiritual awakening, and for that I am truly grateful."
And yet, even the long trip home afforded some the opportunity to continue carrying the message, as Jo Ann B. of Columbia, Tennessee noted.
"Our plane was unable to take off on schedule, due to bad weather in Atlanta, and when we finally did arrive there were no more connecting flights to Nashville. But my friend and I met two other young people who were also stranded for the night. One of them asked us where we had been. After a slight hesitation, we told them about ICYPAA. About two in the morning one of them pulled me off to the side and asked me a lot of questions about AA. So we had an all-night meeting in the deserted airport."
And finally, talking about some backfired plans that landed his brother at the conference, Fred W. of Cincinnati, Ohio captured what may be the essence of ICYPAA.
"I met my brother in Key West to go diving on Saturday. We couldn't make the dive, so I brought him up to the conference. He's not in AA and doesn't qualify for the Fellowship, so this was a totally new and unique experience for him. It blew him away. Whenever I introduced him to someone they first of all asked him if this was his first conference and then they gave him a big AA hug. At first he was embarrassed, but as time went on he could see and feel the closeness of the fellowship and I know he understands. When I dropped him off at the airport on Sunday, we hugged for the first time in our lives. Two men, and brothers to boot."
Note: The editors sincerely thank the Florida planning committee for their help.