Peter Yarrow talks about his recovery, his music and the truth behind “Puff the Magic Dragon”
|2010 - April|
Host of Recovery Coast to Coast
Peter Yarrow, one third of America’s legendary folk trio “Peter, Paul & Mary” is a grateful recovering alcoholic who recently spoke candidly about his recovery from addiction on RECOVERY – Coast to Coast. The complete interview, along with a musical performance by Peter will air on April 15, 2010.
I met Peter on a book tour in Seattle, where he was promoting his popular children’s books, including and an illustrated version of Puff the Magic Dragon and his most recent book, Day is Done. Several weeks later, while hosting RC2C in New York City, Peter invited me to his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to talk about recovery.
Peter is not just a musician; he is also a social activist. In 2000, following his recovery from addiction, he founded Operation Respect, an organization that combats school violence through civility and conflict resolution. An outgrowth of Operation Respect was the successful Don’t Laugh at Me programs, which assures each child a respectful, safe and compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social and emotional development can take place, free of bullying, ridicule and violence.More than 150,000 copies of the anti-bullying school curriculum have been distributed free to schools around the country. The program was inspired by the song Don’t Laugh at Me, which was performed by Peter and later by Peter, Paul & Mary. A free download of that song, along with Puff the Magic Dragon and other songs are available, free of charge, at www.operationrespect.org
Peter’s recovery followed decades of functioning as a high-bottom addict, able to perform onstage, but suffering greatly on the inside. It wasn’t until he discovered a community of recovering people that he was able to stop using and begin the healing process by dealing with the spiritual bankruptcy. “I believe that addicts have a very real ‘hole in the soul.’ Addicts try to feed, and at the same time starve, that insistent demon that says you are not worthwhile. Whatever your addiction, it’s all the same thing. It’s not about the drinking, druging, smoking, eating or whatever. It’s about that hole needs to be filled with love.”
He eventually came to find peace within the rooms, a peace he had not previously known. “The self destructive things that I was doing so destabilized my sense of being. I was unable to honestly feel the good that was within me.”
In his early recovery, the Serenity Prayer played an important role, as did The Promises. “Today, the Serenity Prayer remains a very real part of my recovery,” said Peter, “but The Promises are so integral to understanding recovery. It says that we will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. I found a measure of that peace that was never possible in my earlier years.”
Today he lives his life through a lens of real gratitude. “I see the very act of living and being ‘in this moment’ as a real blessing. It helps me to maintain my central core of caring, gratitude and love. If I have that, I’m a rich human being and I know peace.”
For Peter he had to come to terms with his addiction, attend recovery meetings, and become a part of the group. “In the group, you are one of many. Your value does not depend upon money power or fame. Within a 12 Step Program, because of the spiritual foundation of anonymity, everyone is equal, everybody is sacrosanct, and everybody is worthy of respect.”
Going to meetings is not always easy for a person who is quickly recognized for his musical achievements outside the rooms. “I have to go to meetings where I feel safe and where my anonymity is respected. There was one meeting I went to where I was approached and recognized and I felt unsafe going there because it might have injured my professional life.
Acknowledging that I am a person in recovery is a very respectable and wonderful thing, but it is crucial to have respect for anonymity, and knowing the importance of not taking someone else’s inventory.”
He is a strong proponent of recovery meetings. “Meetings help to transcend that selfishness, that aloneness, that fear, and those walls of isolation. Meetings are an amazing way to actually experience the road to inner peace. You automatically live the premises that you are not alone, you are valuable in the most profound of ways and so is everybody else. Within the rooms, people touch and feel what peace is all about. Once you have that perspective you have the foundation of living in gratitude.
People will often ask ‘why should I go to meetings?’ Many people will say it’s because they will keep you sober. That’s just the beginning. People go to meetings because it models the kind of perspective that ultimately leads to inner peace. “
In our extended conversation, Peter also talked about his music, in particular the legendry song Puff the Magic Dragon, thought my many to be filled with drug references. When I asked Peter about the song, he set the record straight, “Puff started as a poem in 1959 that was co-written by Leonard Lipton, who wrote a fragment of the poem that was an adventure story. There’s a point where the song changes from a happy tune to a sad song. ‘A dragon lives, forever but no so little (girls and) boys. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.’ That, I wrote, taking it into a world of sadness. In so doing, I was actually taking the world on my shoulders. I felt sadness in the world, which was projection of the sadness my mother felt after her divorce.”
As a small child Peter felt the responsibility for healing sadness and keeping the family together. “If you listen to Puff the Magic Dragon carefully,” says Peter, “that’s exactly what happens. The boy realizes that the world is falling apart and sets off to help heal it. In order to that he can’t go on living as a little child who doesn’t have a care in the world. The dragon has to morph. Instead of a fantasy dragon, it becomes a symbol of hope and a dream for a more just more loving, and equitable world. There’s a sadness in the recognition that the world is imperfect and it needs healing, more so now than at any time in our history.”
He is adamant that the song had nothing to do with drugs. “It is absurd to think of Puff as a drug song. It was written when I was 20 years old and a senior at Cornell and Lenny was Junior. Neither of us knew anything about marijuana. At the time, had I wanted to, I couldn’t have written a song with those implications. We were so square then. Later, however, I wasn’t so square! I will tell you honestly that there were absolutely no drug references at all in the song Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Peter has always been a believer in rigorous honesty. “There’s no point in writing something dishonest. Why would you do that unless you are doing something for the money? That never was the reality of what I needed to do with Peter, Paul & Mary.”
Today, Peter’s recovery is defined by his unlimited gratitude. “I am happier now than I was for decades,” he says. “And I have been happy for a long time because I have been in recovery for a long time.”
Peter Yarrow is a delightful reminder that “the bright side of addiction is recovery!”
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