America: Folks so tough they don’t need a last name

EAST DORSET, VERMONT. “The Wilson House” is the birthplace of Bill W, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. Bill W was born in a small bedroom behind the bar in what, at the time, was a hotel run by his family. Today, the hotel has been restored as a country inn and a shrine for the thousands of recovering men and women who visit East Dorset every year. This 12-step meeting room at the back of the hotel often hosts meetings of more than 50 people. The dark plank mounted in the rafters above the center of the hall is the hotel’s original bar. The wooden liquor cabinet that once stood behind that bar now is used as storage for AA literature behind the main table in the room. Photos today: David CrummEAST DORSET, VERMONT. Bill W’s simple grave is visited regularly by recovering men and women who leave AA sobriety medallions and, in a large coffee can, leave cards, photos, prayers and notes.VERMONT. In the mountains of southern Vermont are lots of folks who deliberately shortened their names as they got down to the hard work of healing lives. No, we don’t mean Ben & Jerry. That ice cream plant is in northern Vermont.

Before we turned toward our Michigan home in our 9,000-mile journey, we made one last day-long pilgrimage into these hills famous for Yankee ingenuity. Our goals were sites that have become a shrine to Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W (William Wilson, a one-time stock broker) and also the Weston Priory, a monastery that has become a font of spiritual and musical innovation.

What does the 1935 founding of AA have to do with America’s crises in 2010? On Thursday, we joined the thousands of people each year who seek answers at The Wilson House, a 19th-century-vintage hotel where Bill W was born in a tiny bedroom behind the bar. The connection across 75 years was made in the AA archives there, where we perused early documents from Bill W and co-founder Dr. Bob (Ohio-based Dr. Robert Smith). Describing the earliest months of AA, Dr. Bob wrote years later that their cause was all but hopeless, because:

“We were, every one of us, so painfully broke that—well, it wasn’t a pleasant thing.” Then, Dr. Bob added, “Nothing could be done about it. I think now that it was providentially arranged.” In the end, everyone had to pitch in and make do with whatever each member could contribute, a decision that strengthened the overall AA movement.

That’s how AA operates to this day. Examples abound in the latest newsletter from Wilson House, a non-profit center that is not owned by AA but cooperates closely with the group. No Christmas cards will be mailed from Wilson House this year, the newsletter explained, because a new commercial freezer is needed and the volunteer staff made the “difficult decision” to put their money into that essential device. Wilson House continues to operate as a 13-room country inn, very popular with recovering men and women around the world.

The newsletter is full of items about volunteer efforts by people with names like David M and Wendy S. One item reports: “A new wooden fence now borders the front walk and a gate encloses the generator and tool storage area. Yard cleanup was completed early this year. Jim B did a great job!”

This small-town example may not exactly be what most Americans want to hear in the midst of their own major financial crises, but it’s obvious in the history of AA that lives, families and communities are restored one daily decision at a time. Powerful hopes about the larger purposes of living are fueled along that journey.

In The Wilson House archives, we found a piece Bill W once wrote about Dr. Bob and the lessons Bob taught him about prayer. At one point, Bill W wrote, he felt he couldn’t hope to equal Dr. Bob’s disciplined prayer life, but “I sort of depended on him to get me into heaven.” That’s a giant leap in aspirations from merely staying sober another day.

Both men became heroes to millions of recovering alcoholics. Near the turn of the century in 1999, Time magazine ranked Bill among its top 20 “Heroes and Icons” because of his “courage, selflessness, exuberance, superhuman ability and amazing grace.”

Bill W never read those words, of course, because he died in 1971. Most likely, what would have impressed him more than Time’s praise are the small tokens visitors keep leaving on his modest white tombstone. Lining the top of his grave marker are sobriety medallions, earned through years of painstaking sobriety. In a big coffee can are cards, photos, prayers and notes about lives transformed.

WESTON PRIORY, VERMONT. Brother Michael, left, and Brother John are key contributors to the monastery’s remarkable production of music, fine arts, books and writings about our relationship to the natural world.Just a half-hour drive from Wilson House is a casually dressed but equally iron-willed community of Benedictine monks, famous in thousands of Catholic parishes as the Weston Priory. These are the men who have produced more than 20 CDs of new hymns and folk-style songs for worship and daily meditation.

Like Bill W, the Weston brothers understand that the biggest challenges people face around the world are really an endless series of small, daily choices.

“The lack of hope so many people are experiencing today really stems from our anxiety about our financial system,” said Brother John, who is 86 and has been part of this community for 53 years. “This really represents just one small segment of life, the economic nature of our lives, but this anxiety runs deep because it is a fear that we may lose all that we possess. The danger, in this process, is that there are those who can use these fears to provoke people.”

Brother John and Brother Michael, who met with us, refused to name the “those” who may be manipulating fears to drive people toward various actions, these days.

But,  it’s clear that the monks of Weston Priory see themselves engaged head-on in the struggle for Americans’ spiritual health and healing. Even though they preserve one of the world’s oldest monastic traditions, the 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict, these one-named guys have strapped their sandals a little tighter and are working knee deep in the nitty gritty of contemporary American culture.

“We’ve pretty much changed our whole approach to distributing our new music,” Brother Michael said. “For a while we were just producing one CD after another, but that’s not the way most people access music now. So, for a while, we gave away free downloads of our new music with a PayPal donation button. And the downloads just flew out. Oh, we had so many downloads! But do you know that no one clicked the PayPal button and donated?”

Brother John said, “We began to think that it was not respectful to the music itself if no one pays for it.”

“People don’t value what they’re receiving if they don’t pay something,” Brother Michael said. “So, we’ve switched to the CDBaby service online and that’s working out quite well now. Of course, some older listeners aren’t comfortable with the Internet and newer music formats, so we still sell CDs for those who aren’t really up to date.”

We wondered: Today, would Bill W’s and Dr. Bob’s famous “big blue book,” the essential guide to AA, have started as an iPad app? Or a CDBaby spoken-word file?

Brother Michael intoned one word: “Engagement.”

Brother John nodded sagely.

“That’s what we really need today is new ways to engage people in ongoing relationships, connecting with them wherever they are,” Brother Michael said. “We have to find new ways to invite people to take part in this larger journey with us.”

Brother John nodded again.

After 9,000 miles as father and son, we nodded as well. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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