How appropriate that on this day when some are inspired and overjoyed by the apparent success of the recent Trump/Kim summit and its possible initation of world peace, while others project the usual hate and judgment, assessing the summit as too much or too little, impossible to fulfill, I come across this old essay, written in response to the theme “Peace and Power” for the Summer 2001 edition of Sagewoman magazine.
World Peace Begins Within Me
by Ann Kreilkamp
In December, 1981, my life had ground to a standstill. I was lost and confused and had no home. Some friends called the place where I was staying to ask me to housesit, saying they would already be gone when I got there.
I drove to their house, found the key, and unlocked the door to the living room. A year’s worth of New Yorker magazines were on the coffee table. I sat down on the couch and listlessly flipped open one of them. There, in front of my eyes, was the title page of the first long article in a series, “Fate of the Earth,” by Jonathan Schell.
The article instantly galvanized me out of my lethargy. I was both shocked and astonished. And profoundly grateful.
Here, at long last, was an author whose sensibility, and whose feeling of being haunted by grief over the probable fate of Earth and all Her creatures was much like my own. In a tone both elegiac and funereal, Schell spoke of the nuclear miasma then (and now) contaminating the world, and of how this perverse presence has already corrupted our relations with each other and destroyed our ability to believe in the future.
The article was stunning in both its sweep and its compassion. Its author was not so much angry at the state of the world as despairing, deeply melancholy.
In reading that article I knew intuitively that something was about to change. That this was another pivotal provocative New Yorker article. That it would be instrumental in shifting the zeitgeist. In the late ‘60s, a New Yorker article about the Vietnam War had seized the collective imagination and helped trigger the national protest that eventually ended it. I sensed that once again this magazine was operating in a prophetic manner. The consciousness of the world was bout to undergo a profound shudder, as people woke up, came to their senses, and banished the nuclear menace.
In the long term, I was dead wrong: nearly 20 years later we still have many thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other’s throats. But I was right in the short term. Only months later, in May of 1982 one million people marched through the streets of New York City to protest nuclear weapons, and the Nuclear Freeze Movement was born.
My own response to this movement was paradoxical. I was hunkered down in Casper, Wyoming, having driven there from Idaho to escape a former husband who I feared was stalking me. So I was not exactly in an empowered position, and certainly not at peace.
Several months after reading all of Schell’s articles (by then published as a book under the same title), I saw a poster announcing a meeting to start a local Nuclear Freeze chapter. I was excited to find others also concerned abou the fate of the Earth.
My excitement was even greater than you might think. For I assumed that this would be the very first time in my life when I would be meeting with a whole group of people who shared my grief and horror.
I was unusual in that from the time I was very small I had consciously sensed The Bomb poised overhead, and as a result, what should have been a carefree childhood was destroyed.
Instead, I was Chicken Little, for whom the sky was always about to fall, and this chronic fear isolated me. I didn’t talk about what bothered me because literally no one else seemed to either know about it or care.
When I was 13 years old I fell in love with a boy who did understand my terror and the reason for it. He and I would pore for hours over fallout maps, trying to figure out where we could go to be safe. The entire east coast was blacked out to the Mississippi River. Much of the west was also black, or at least grey. There was only one clear spot reasonably close to where we lived in Idaho: the southeast corner of Oregon.
My boyfriend was the first and last person to whom I could talk about the dread that shrouded my life and that I intuitively knew shrouded everybody else’s too, though no one seemed to notice it.
So the idea of going to a meeting of many people who shared this nuclear awareness made my heart race with excitement.
Well then, you can imagine my surprise when I walked into that room and found myself shrinking. I wanted to hide! Inside, I was feeling shy, even defensive, obscurely upset. Why? My response confused me. Rather than openly and joyfully seeking camaraderie with my own kind, I was trying to make myself invisible, and with squinty eyes judging everyone as not serious enough, or smart enough, or informed enough, compared to me.
I realized later that my paradoxical reaction to meeting the people with whom I assumed I would automatically feel comfortable had to do with me, not them. Their very existence threatened my long held identity as a Cassandra figure, the Sensitive Outsider. A lifelong self-image of being the only one who understood the gravity of humanity’s probable fate had created the illusion that I was special. I was the one who understood, the much misunderstood heroine in my own drama.
Once I had identified the problem I was able to move through that strange emotional block. I then volunteered to edit our statewide newsletter and became great friends with the tall rangy woman who headed up Wyoming Nuclear Freeze.
That responsibility brought me to Jackson Hole (where I still live), initially to attend a tri-state meeting with other nuclear activists, and then to impulsively and with great excitement co-found Heartland, a publication to network peace activists in our three states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
That’s when some serious learning began. I moved in with the woman who had started the magazine with me. Her male partner also lived there. She and I, despite his constant and heartfelt objection to smoke, proceeded to chain-smoke cigarettes as we brainstormed and put together the magazine.
Our override of her partner’s needs should have been a clue that we were not exactly walking our talk. Peace was abstract and pure, not to be confused with the messy details of daily life.
One big difficulty we faced was how to probe the cold secret technical facts in the military/industrial complex without becoming numb, depressed, enraged, or paranoid. We had no spiritual practice to balance our focus on the negativity we tried to force down everyone’s throats. And the more we talked about our opposition to the patriarchy, the more that conflict started to infect our personal relationship.
Within a year, she had left town, and I had moved to a house where I gathered others to live with me and share the job of producing the magazine. By this time I had stopped smoking. Though everybody I lived with did smoke, I knew I couldn’t take even one more puff without starting that habit again; I also realized (I was beginning to get a glimmer of understanding of how karma works) that I couldn’t judge others for their smoking, that I needed to have compassion for them. I knew from my own experience that they hated themselves for smoking; to judge them would not only make them feel worse, furthermore it would boomerang and I would start smoking again.
Besides our magazine, other projects had sprung up in the three states as a result of the tri-state meeting. I wanted us to all connect and cooperate, but none of the other groups seemed willing. This puzzled and frustrated me, and I spoke hotly of the inappropriateness of territoriality in the nuclear freeze movement. In our own group, the endless discussions about numbers and kinds and kill-ratios of nuclear weapons tended to sap our energy and poison the atmosphere.
One of my tasks was to go on the road and speak to groups. Time after time, faced with uncomprehending or resistant stares from one more disappointingly small audience, I would become enraged. Demanding that they recognize the urgency of what I was talking about, I would insist that they drop everything to work for the nuclear freeze.
Finally, after another year of emotional and intellectual rampage, my inner fire had burned out. I was exhausted. I needed to leave the house and the magazine. I could do no more.
I had become aware that I was part of the problem. That I was a violent peace activist.
My focus on outer violence had turned 180 degrees; I needed to focus on my own inner violence.
On January 1, 1985, I moved into a 20-foot diameter yurt in Kelly, 15 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming, directly across from the Grant Teton, home to wild animals and their calm, present, healing ways. From January through April I sat in my yurt directly in front of the fire and stared into it. The flames took shapes that triggered images from the past. Memories of my own violence flooded through. I was driven to explore every little nook and cranny of my mind and heart that held memories of which I now felt ashamed. I needed to fully acknowledge the shame, and then sacrifice the memories to the fire.
Those four months were the most intense inner process I have ever undergone. I learned that peace must begin with me. Unless I could make peace with my own past, the internal war would continue to generate conflict in my outer world.
At the end of that process I knew that I had just begun. And I figured it would take another six months to two years before I could complete the transformation I was seeking.
I was wrong again. The transformation is ongoing, though I can say now that the first seven years were the ones in which my main job was to transform myself. Though I worked as an astrological consultant, and had friends and plenty of fun, everything else during that period of time was peripheral to this unswerving inner dedication.
I remember the day that I stood at my sink, peeling carrots, and actually becoming quiet enough internally to notice a subtle current of anxiety running through my nervous system. This was the very first time I had ever stilled myself enough to notice it! I realized then that this current was always there, undermining everything I thought and did and said. That this low-level anxiety was probably the residue from my fear of the Bomb as a child. I thought then how wonderful it would be to actually just be standing at the sink, peeling carrots. Nothing else. Just that. To be that present.
This subtle, gradual process of coming to peace within myself, sensing the power of the present moment and allowing that moment to unfold, continues. Whenever I reach a point of complete surrender, the present moment opens; my inner sensing becomes more acute, and I discern even more subtle aspects of myself where peace is lacking, where I still hold on to control, still need to make people do things my way, still think the outer world is to be judged or blamed.
Each entry into a new dimension triggers a eureka moment of mixed shame and anticipation. And each time, the willing descent into shame propels me through it.
My life is a flower, opening to the Sun.
My life is a fountain, spilling up from the deep.
Peace, I am discovering, is not a state of being, but a process of becoming.