When I was thirty being homeless was quite rare And I could feel smug, sleeping in my car, As if I was special. I made my despair My brag. Now this sad world’s fallen far From those days; the rare have become many. Was I a pioneer? Testing waters The young now wade? And does youth have any Hint they seek like saints? Sons and daughters Lack mothers and fathers and sleep in cars. What know they of homes? My answer is: “Much.” I’ve bled as they bleed; been orphaned, seen bars Be my warmth, walked bleak streets where the soft touch Of home seems lost, yet such wounds can uplift. Blessed are the poor. You can’t purchase God’s gift.
The filthy rich think their filth is fine and anything else is foolishness. They wonder why people refer to their seeming magnificence as “The Swamp.” Or maybe they don’t. I imagine it is a topic they don’t want to broach. Why wonder, when you’re fat and happy? Like pigs in the mud, they are not interested in cleanliness. Even if you went through the trouble of scrubbing them, they’d head straight back to The Swamp as fast as they could.
In fact, the threat of losing their power and privilege can cause the wealthy to do deeds of far greater evil than a simple criminal does. That is what makes The Swamp swampy, rather than enlightened.
One aspect of this evil is the poor get poorer. The poor are experiencing the very state that makes the rich such cowards, and causes some rich to do desperate deeds of evil to clutch their piggy mires of wealth and power.
In conclusion, the poor know what the rich know nothing about. One assumes it is a bad thing, such as drug overdoses, but that happens to the rich as well. In fact, what the poor know is a good thing.
Now, do not expect me to go on at length about what is good. That is for me to know and for you to learn. But I will tell you this: If you learn it, you can leave the alley and even become a billionaire, without turning into a pig.
Here is a past post which tells a bit about how homelessness and poverty teaches even a fool like me of higher things:
With the economy teetering on the verge of a Great Depression, many who had hopes of joining the pigs in The Swamp may find themselves in tents on the street. Many who felt safely ensconced in The Swamp may also find themselves ejected from the pigpen of privilege. Therefore perhaps it is high time to broach a spiritual topic which the politically-correct dread.
When I look back over my education one thing I rue is my lack of gratitude, at the time, for teachers who did their best, and helped me in many ways, but who I felt compelled to reject. Twenty-twenty hindsight allows me to see that, even if their human imperfections made some degree of rejection inevitable, they still elevated me to the level where I became capable of rejecting them. Were it not for their labors I would never have become so high and mighty.
Not that I was actually high and mighty in worldly terms, but when you are seventeen you are a living legend, in terms of your own awareness. You have your whole life before you, and anything seems possible. You are less liable to be resigned than you are fifty years later, when you’re looking backwards.
One thing I looked forward to was freedom. School seemed like a jail and teachers like jailers. I failed to appreciate what discipline had done for me. Instead all that I could see was opposition, a power holding me back.
There are certain disciplines in life which feel like opposition, but which actually keep you uplifted. A good analogy is a tug-of-war. The opposition seems to be pulling the opposite direction from the direction you want to go, but if you let go of the rope you fall down. I assume it is for this reason that freedom often is not so sweet as it appears from the window of a jail cell. Partners think life will be easier after a divorce, but some later see how the opposition kept them upright. Men in the military crave the day their enlistment is up, but some wind up drunkards once they are free. Jailbirds wind up back in jail.
My teachers in Scotland were taskmasters, demanding far more from me than I felt was kind. But by demanding more they achieved more, and I saw I was capable of things I would have never known I was capable of.
One thing I had no idea I was capable of enduring was an intensely structured routine, where nearly every minute of every day was allotted to specific activities. There never was time to dawdle and dream, although I felt dawdling and dreaming were prerequisites of poetry. I often would march to my housemaster’s office and announce I’d had enough, and that my creativity was being stifled, and that I had to leave the school, only to be intellectually out-argued (and perhaps intellectually bullied) into accepting the fact great poets had overcome great hardships, and “that it is through struggle ones character is honed”, or some such thing. I actually have an old diary-entry describing such an episode:
Tuesday, October 13, 1970 As of now I am supposedly turning over a new leaf. If the past is anything to go by the only leaf I turn over will be the one I’m writing on. Yesterday I skipped a triple period of Physics so I could do my Economics and I got caught. It seems it is a federal offense in this school. I went to have a long talk with the housemaster. I couldn’t tell him what a drag Physics was because my teacher is his wife. So instead I bullshitted about how all the work is piling up and is crushing my creative writing (he is my English teacher). Time for Chapel FIRST PERIOD, I have a work period now, but think I am going to write in this before I turn over my new leaf. …is crushing my creative writing. The housemaster went on to tell me how many great writers wrote under fantastic pressure and how I would write no matter what if I was serious. Then he told me how important Physics is; not that I need it, but it would be great to have in my general knowledge as it involves a completely different type of thinking. Stop it! Stop it! Have mercy on this poor child. I know all that. Why do you think I took Physics in the first place? It’s just that I’m so tired and I wanted to quit Physics so I could have a little time to think. Yes…….I’m lazy…….I know I could do it all…….but it’s so much work and I love sitting around thinking…….Yes……Yes, conscience…….I’ll give it another try…….Yes, a new leaf……. Shit. I almost ducked my personal responsibility that time. Fuck the Housemaster. Fuck my weak will. I hate it when they are right.
The cheerfully schizoid nature of a-mind-facing-discipline is easily recognized by any jogger who has ever faced a steep hill. He owns a split personality; two voices, one of which states “keep going” and another which says, “quit.” It is the job of teachers and coaches and drill sergeants to encourage the “keep going” and discourage the “quit”, so that the jogger or student or recruit gains the great joy of “breaking through the wall” and experiencing a “second wind”. However in an odd way it is the duty of a poet to heed the voice which whispers, “quit”.
This is not to say that poets are quitters, nor that they are undisciplined, but rather that their discipline is often a sort of anti-discipline, a sort of antithesis to a thesis, seeking a synthesis. In the case of a jogger facing a steep hill, poetry asks the unwanted questions, “Is this necessary?” and, “Is there an alternative? Can I go around rather than over?”
Such questioning is not welcomed by a tyrant who wants all his troops goose-stepping in time, but my New England heritage included Henry Thoreau’s statement, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” and Robert Frost’s poem that ended:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Consequently I was in some ways brought up to be questioning, and even rebellious. My opinions mattered, just as my vote would matter when I came of age. This made me audacious in a way that now makes me cringe. I gave far more respect to my own first impressions than to the teachers I was meeting for the first time.
For example, I somehow managed to be tricked into attending a boarding school without having the slightest clue what such attendance entailed, and therefore was utterly appalled by the fact young men were basically disowned by their lazy (or busy) parents and thrown into the custody of strangers. This British system might be centuries old, and have roots reaching back to ancient Greece, but I, at age seventeen, did not approve.
I hadn’t been at the school much more than forty-eight hours when my housemaster ended his English class by filling a final fifteen minutes by requiring us to write a poem. He likely expected a couplet or quatrain of doggerel, and not what I scribbled:
FIST OF A SCHOOL
Hunger’s lonely turmoil Lives in flickers In the eyes. Feel the acne burning boil, Hair-cut, knickers… The baby cries.
Do not cry out alibis. Afraid of the rush You crush Your baby born strength. You’ll go to any length To hide: Drag your finger Nailed across Your blackboard pride. Your chalkish finger Points away But if relaxed It may say What burns inside.
So echo on down corridors, Prison tread on lonely floors, Oblivious of other shores.
Next time that you hear your voice Bleating what you didn’t say Remember whose subconscious choice Locked you up inside this way.
One nice thing about that school was that, rather than the class-size being roughly twenty, as it was in American Baby-boom classrooms, I think that class consisted of seven boys. Therefore I was able to scrutinize the teacher as the poems were handed forward, he leafed through them, and was given pause by the length of mine. After a further pause, as he read it, he shot me a smokey, piercing look. Likely he was thinking something along the lines of, “This chap is bloody talented, and is going to be a bloody handful.” At the time all I could see was that he wasn’t entirely pleased, and therefore was different from Audley Bine, who was more than entirely pleased by my poems, and would clap his hands and shout with glee as he read them.
Fifty years later I still like the poem, as it is a first impression. If there is any Truth in it, is the Truth of an honest child stating, “The emperor has no clothes.” It is not as judgemental as it may appear, for it is not directed towards the English Schooling System as much as it is directed towards my acceptance of such discipline. In fact, when I later went over the spontaneous outpouring, I couldn’t alter a word of the verse, but fussed over what the title of the poem should be, and one title I toyed with was, “For Myself, And All The Other Castle Prisoners.”
However it seems obvious the above poem is not the writing of a young man who is aware he is in need of discipline, and is grateful to the older men willing to supply the discipline he needs. Rather it is full of questions about the wisdom of the discipline. Such questions are related to the voice which whispers “quit” when a jogger faces a steep hill.
In one way this put me in competition with my housemaster. In a tennis match I was on the side of the net called “quit” while he was on the side called “be disciplined and keep going”. I’m glad he won most matches. For example, when I said, “Shakespeare’s archaic English is too difficult to read and I want to quit”, he demanded “Keep going”, and, just as a jogger has a “second wind”, I suddenly understood Shakespeare was brilliance personified. Shutters were thrown back and I gazed out over an amazing vista. However once in a while I’d win a match. I’d say something like, “If Shakespeare had only done what his teachers did he would have never been any different than they were, and they are not remembered as brilliance personified.”
My relationship with the housemaster was nothing like my relationship with Audley Bine. Audley Bine flattered me, which encouraged me to write more, but the housemaster was no more inclined to flatter than a drill sergeant is. Instead he was all about discipline.
In some manner the very reality of discipline creates a duality: The disciplinarian and the disciplined, which can initially look like a slave-driver and the whipped-slave. Because no man likes the indignity of being a whipped slave, discipline can create a resistance; a counter culture. The discipline of my housemaster created a sort of underground among the student body, wherein what the housemaster called good was called bad, and what he called bad was called good. If you obeyed and did your homework you were called a “suck”, which was a shameful label among the boys, but if you didn’t do your homework (and especially if you escaped punishment), you were a “skiver” and were greatly admired.
This duality struck me as stupid. It was too simplistic, and ignored the subtlety of reality, yet the teacher-student, boarding-school dichotomy was the reality I had to deal with. I got in trouble with the student body as often as I got in trouble with the housemaster. For example, when I was a “suck” and and disciplined myself to study Shakespeare, and abruptly saw the bard’s genius and raved about his writing, part of the student body regarded me with pity, and as a hopelessly mistaken lost-cause. On the other hand, when my reputation among the student body soared as a “skiver”, simply because I had detoured from a legal “community service” in a nearby town to a pub (which refused to serve a seventeen-year-old) and chatted briefly with a red-headed girl (who refused my advances) and teachers then learned I had strayed, and I wound up in trouble for my unsuccessful (and therefore harmless) detour, my housemaster regarded me with pity, and, if not as being hopelessly mistaken, as being disappointing. But me? I pitied both the student body and the housemaster. They were not as high and mighty as I, the poet, was.
This brings me back to where I began, which was, in case you have forgotten, the high and mighty attitude a seventeen-year-old poet has, even when he is in desperately need of discipline, not only from his teachers, but also from his peers. Fifty years later I am thankful for the advice I received from both sides of the duality, but at the time I only saw I was getting shit from both sides.
Neither side really cared for what I cared for, which was poetry. The next question should be, “But what is poetry”? Oddly, neither side wanted to face what mattered so much to me. My housemaster might rave about Shakespeare, and the student body might rave about the Beatles, but in my eyes they did so on a superficial level, and not on the deep level I felt I did. I wanted to be the next Shakespeare, or the next Beatle, and wished to blow the brains of mankind with the power of dazzling beauty. (Such aspirations are quite possible, when you are seventeen).
While I was outrageously arrogant, I was often unaware I was outrageous, for instead I felt misunderstood. Neither side of the teacher-student duality understood me, and I sought understanding by plunging into poetry. A blank page was sort of like a mystical crystal ball I looked into; I didn’t see blankness, but rather shapes which required expression. And the more misunderstood I felt the more prolific I became, until I think I must have been annoying to my housemaster. I was like a person who is too talkative and won’t stop yammering. He didn’t want me handing in damn poem after damn poem all the time, when I was suppose to be studying Milton’s “Samson Agoniste“. At some point he had to crack the whip and discipline me into doing the work required, if I was going to pass my A-level exam.
Of course, no English teacher is entirely comfortable with crushing the aspirations of a young writer; it just doesn’t sit well and pricks their conscience; they’ve read too many tales of bankers bloating while poets went unfed, too many tragic tales of poets dying young. They become a little uneasy when they are the one crushing the poet, even if the little punk deserves it.
While my housemaster was no Audley Bine, and likely felt the last thing I needed was any encouragement, he did make a little space for me and my damn poems. For example, he created a ten week poetry contest, which I promptly won because I was the only student who contributed every week. (The contest surprised me because I was unaware any of the other boys wrote poetry). But I suspected the contest might be an activity contrived to keep us boys out of trouble in our spare time, which there was precious little of, at that school (and we did enjoy our trouble). Most of our time was not spare, and was focused on the thing called “An A-level”, which, as an American, I’d never heard of before, and which therefore seemed quite meaningless.
Also the overworked man somehow found the time to produce a literary magazine, which I suspected made the struggling school look more prestigious. I wasn’t inclined to submit anything to it, as correcting my spelling sounded too much like extra work. However one day my housemaster came up to me and said, “I hope you won’t very much mind that I restructured one of your poems. It is too long when you only have one or two words a line. I think it scans as well with eight words a line.” I actually did mind, and explained I wrote it the way I wrote it so people would know how to read it, and he responded “Readers are not as slow as you assume,” and then handed me the magazine, opened to my poem:
Sunrise comes softly from somewhere below To the land that the moonlight was keeping; A coolness in the stillness where the thinking is slow In the land where the children are sleeping.
Oh how I wish the fog would go And how I wish a wind would blow Away the mist and blinding snow That keeps me here alone.
Sometimes I hear waters stretching away Beyond what I see through the mist, And in dreams as the blackness grows into gray I remember the color it kissed.
Oh how I wish the sky would clear And how I wish she would appear To sweep away my muddled smear That keeps me here alone.
I’m dreaming of sunrises gilded in gold, An in-between lavender sheen, And I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told For harmony’s never been seen
And sunrises cannot be sold.
I blushed with pleasure, seeing my writing in actual print, with all my misspellings corrected, but also felt a vague sense of alarm, wondering why my housemaster chose a song that said so clearly, “I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told.” It seemed a sort of standing challenge to all teachers: “I will not obey.”
If God ever grants me the time to write in detail about that school, a major focus will be the escapades of the boys. “Skiving” worked hand in hand with the discipline in a way difficult to describe, involving the tug-of-war principle I mentioned before. The discipline alone would have been too dry, and the boyishness alone too irresponsible, but together they created maturity, although when I first arrived and first looked at what was going on, both sides seemed utterly mad.
For example, when I first arrived at the school I had a fierce will to “get back in shape”, which involved exercising, eating, and quitting tobacco and amphetamines. (Oddly, I didn’t see marijuana as a problem). Amphetamines were easy to quit, for beyond strong tea there simply weren’t any available, (nor was there any marijuana), but quitting tobacco wasn’t so easy. Though I cut back on my consumption of tobacco from fifty cigarettes a day to three, at one point my diary mentions, “I haven’t quit entirely; it seems to be a social necessity at this school”.
Tobacco was forbidden at the school, but, my very first morning at the school, the student who was in charge of orienting me led me astray. There was a period of roughly fifteen minutes after we were dismissed from breakfast before the bell rang for the first class, allotted for collecting books and papers, but my guide turned out to be a “skiver”, and rather than showing me where to store my books and papers he took me down a bewildering maze of alleys and passages, down in the dungeons of the old castle, past black furnaces and dripping pipes, with everything dimly lit by dirty thirty-watt-bulbs and draped in spider webs, to an obscure back entry where the garbage was picked up, and where a group of roughly twelve young addicts desperately puffed at their “fags.”
The “skivers” seemed to very much like taking an ignorant American like myself under their wings and showing me how to break the rigid discipline, but my point is that every single cigarette was in some ways an escapade. And the skivers wanted to pack every day with escapades. When we were sent off to run four miles cross country, the route took us out of the eyesight of teachers, and stuff happened. But, if I digress into the wonderful topic of youthful escapades I’ll get lost and forget what my point is; my point being that there was a tension between teachers and students to begin with, even without whatever it was my poetry involved.
At this point I’ll skip ahead six months, from the growing gloom of the autumnal solstice to the blinding brilliance of spring’s. I am skipping all the hilarity and pathos of the ups and downs created by the tension between teachers and “skivers”, and arriving at a sort of high point.
Last chapter I described how becoming “straight” nearly led to my suicide. Getting “in shape” physically and mentally was not enough. One must also face a side of life neither physical nor mental, and get “in shape” spiritually, but this is hard to do, if you are an Atheist. As an Atheist it is hard to see anything can exist beyond the physical and mental. Your logic bars the door. However the process of poetry is a battering ram that can break down such doors.
One does not have to believe in spirituality to get in better “shape” spiritually. I know this because I have yellowing diaries and books of old poems, and can see that, even as I became somewhat ruthless with my logic, and more and more of a hard-bitten Atheist, I was becoming more spiritual. Eventually this culminated in a wonderful ecstasy.
I need to stress this high point, because it is followed by a confession, admitting a downfall. However a downfall needs to have some high place one is falling down from. Too many confessions are poisoned bouquets of blame, pointing away at other people and smearing them as being causes of the downfall. Too seldom is credit given to the processes and people who uplifted one to the high and mighty stance, which they later down-fell from.
As one’s physical “shape” improves one gives credit where credit is due, and hopefully thanks one’s coach or drill sergeant. As one’s mental “shape” improves one hopefully gives credit to their teacher’s. But who does one thank as their spiritual “shape” improves?
If one has the good fortune to have a priest or pastor who is helpful rather than harmful, that person will refuse to take credit, and instead will point at the sky and say, “To God goes the glory.” But such talk, as I passed my eighteenth birthday, made me want to puke. I sneered at believing in some Santa Claus superstition. I believed in Truth.
Fifty years later, I have come to the conclusion God doesn’t care what the hell you call Him, and that an Atheist who honestly seeks Truth may accidentally be more worshipful of God than the pretenses of a hypocritical priest can ever manage. Therefore an honest Atheist may get blessed even as a priest prays in vain. That is honestly the only explanation I can come up with, for the ecstasy I was blessed with.
If I bored you with the pile of poems I produced beforehand, showing the work which led up to ecstasy, you would see little respect for God, and nothing short of contempt for religion. Because I had grown up in a wealthy town I was well aware of the misery associated with money, and was disgusted with people who would do cruel things to gain such misery, and cling to such misery, and prefer such misery. I stated, (without any idea of how to get there), that an alternative to misery must exist. And my process for seeking the alternative was “poetry”, which, as I defined it, was to not seek money and to not prefer money, and rather to seek Truth, Love and Understanding.
Religion failed to further such a search, in my teenaged opinion. While I didn’t call religion “the opiate of the masses”, I did come right out and say the rich could not remain rich if the poor rioted, and it was the business of priests to keep the poor from rioting. Therefore priests were part of the process that misguided the poor, turning the poor into mere cogs in a machine that kept the rich sleek and comfortable. Priests were part of that exploitation, and sought money and preferred money, and priests therefore preferred misery. I preferred poetry, and joy, and human happiness. To me such idealism seemed an obviously preferable and superior goal, a “Truth”, and anyone else, who preferred cold gold instead, was a nincompoop. A priest was suppose to aim mankind towards sainthood, not turn people into cogs.
The problem with such radical ideas is that there are plenty of ordinary people who don’t have the slightest desire to riot. They just want to do a day’s work and receive a day’s pay, and raise happy families in humble homes. As long as they are left alone, they could care less about the miserable debauchery the rich invite into their mansions. If the rich want to suffer, that is their business. This complacency, on the part of the humble, struck me as in some ways being a problem, yet in other ways struck me as wisdom.
It’s surprising how many things in life can seem like both a problem, and a wisdom. As my young mind attempted to grapple with such issues it created symbols in poems which argued and swirled and fenced and danced, in a dream-like and perhaps sometimes psychotic way, as I attempted to see what the Truth was.
Fifty years later, I see such scribbling as the footprints of a spiritual search. Young poets may superficially dream of being published, and crave fame and acclaim, but in my opinion the deeper and realer reward they get is that they get in “shape”, spiritually. And the sign of such an attainment is sometimes ecstasy.
My personal ecstasy hit me on a sunny and windy Sunday just before Easter break. I’d done well on a series of exams, and that filled me with a sense of well being. Not that the the discipline of relentless cramming ever truly ceased, but it did let up a little just after exams, and “a little” felt like a lot at that school. In fact I have never gotten as much from “free time” as I did at that school, where there was so very little of it.
Sundays began with the same blasted hand-bell jangling down the hallway, rung by a teacher who was a kindhearted choir director, but a sadist when it came to that bell. We got to sleep a little longer on Sundays, a half hour or perhaps a whole hour, but I never felt it was any later. I’d learned to do a lot without truly waking up: Use the bathroom, wash my face, comb what little hair I had, dress in the damn uniform, make my bed, and trudge down stairways and along hallways to breakfast, where I actually awoke.
By spring I had contrived to upgrade my amphetamine addiction from tea to coffee, and, while consuming as much food as was available (never enough, though I put on weight) the coffee stirred my creativity, which included my sense of mischief.
The “skivers” were always plotting their greatest coups during Sunday breakfasts, planning to ask teachers for permission-slips to spend their afternoon free-time studying species of lichen on mountain heights off school grounds, when in fact they planned to go visit a pub. I derived great pleasure from hearing of such plots, even when I was not invited, and was honored that I was trusted and not deemed a “snitch”. However before such debauchery was possible we had to go to chapel and pretend we were saints.
I was in the choir against my will, for the supply of talent was very limited, and I had made the mistake of singing in the shower, when I first arrived in September. Most everyone else was in the choir against their will as well, and I think that included the choir director. He was a man who appreciated music greatly, but knew he himself was not gifted, yet was forced to pound away at a piano while attempting to discipline mutinous schoolboys into producing some semblance of holy hymns. Often the result was such a cacophony of discord that I couldn’t help myself, and dissolved into helpless laughter. What made it all the funnier was that the choir director, whose piano-playing was dubious to begin with, could be counted upon totally disintegrating when things went wrong, and to pound out five or six very-wrong chords in a row. Of course the “skivers”, rather than helping the poor man avoid such embarrassment, would try to provoke such breakdowns. Usually this involved substituting a rude word which happened to rhyme with a holy word, in a holy hymn.
On this particular morning the choir did well belting out our first hymn, which most of the boys liked. For an Atheist, I was strangely stirred by certain hymns, and this one had a fine bass part, and let one express joy, in a sense bellowing, “I feel good this morning!” It was the old hymn that begins, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning I sing my song to you!”
The next hymn, however, was a complete shambles. It was a hymn where one or two boys could be depended upon to substitute the word “fart” for the word “heart”, but for some reason spring put mischief into the choir, and it sounded like I was the lone “suck” who actually sung the word “heart”. The entire rest of the choir were “skivers”, and sung out the word “fart” in four part harmony. The choir director then set a new record for the number of mangled chords he could clash in a row, and I had to sit down, flushed and streaming tears of shaking, silent laughter.
Sometimes laughing got me in trouble, and even once got me punished with a “caveat”, but laughter always seemed good for me and to improve my mental health. As an Atheist I even found it a little disconcerting that church could heal me and make me feel so much better, even if the healing was by unorthodox means.
On this particular morning I went unpunished for laughing, but did have to go to the locker room after chapel and put on my rugger shorts and then run around a fountain in the castle gardens for a half-hour, paying my debt to society, for a half-caveat I’d earned for some other infraction. (I can’t recall what that crime was.)
Jogging on a spring morning was not bad, and actually I enjoyed it, running backwards and shadow-boxing and generally turning the punishment into play, which was easy to do when you only had a half-caveat, and far harder for the truly dedicated skivers, who had to run around that fountain for hours.
After jogging I took a shower, which was blissfully long, compared to the hurried washes of weekdays, and then I heard the great news, as I got dressed: The British Postal Strike had ended, and all the mail from old friends in America, going back to the dark days of January, arrived all at once. I got quite a heap of envelopes, and ripped them all open without reading any, for I had the selfish hope someone had smuggled me a marijuana cigarette, but I was bitterly disappointed. Only then did I face the letter I’d saved for last, which was from a girlfriend I hadn’t heard from since October. She was not verbal, preferring to express herself with paint, and what she had sent was a hand-made card with a drawing.
My girlfriend and I had pragmatically agreed that a year was a long time to spend apart, and that we could remain friends even while dating interesting people, if we happened to meet any. In October she mentioned a fellow I knew named Dave. This caused me a paroxysm of jealous despair, as I figured Dave was richer, smarter, and better looking than I, and I was therefore “dead meat and history”. In November I was equally honest, and mentioned a red headed girl I was failing to seduce in the nearby town. I sent a few more letters, but had received none, and then the silence of the Postal Strike descended. I figured things were over between us, and we’d become that bankruptcy former-lovers call “friendship”, however, in the world of my poetry, the fifteen-year-old girl took on a symbolic, epic stature, and strode about like a goddess. But now an element of reality had crept in, for the goddess had sent me a card. It was a magic-marker picture of a tree with our initials carved in it within a heart, and a girl looking at the carving and smiling, and the single word, “Remember?”
I walked to lunch all warm and fuzzy, and was less interested than usual in the plots and planning which skivers were hatching for the afternoon. I was unusually disinterested in excitement, because I was unusually interested in serenity. For all my talk about Peace, Love and Understanding, I felt this was the first bit of true Peace I’d ever seen in my entire, fucking life.
After lunch I walked down to the ocean, walking in an odd way. I swung my arms, but they didn’t alternate. Both arms swung forward and then both arms swung back, and then I’d gambol a bit, like goats and sheep do in a pasture the first warm day of spring. My good mood was getting out of hand, but I went with it, rather than attempting to discipline it out of existence. My hiking became a sort of dancing, and, as easily as a schoolboy whistles while walking barefoot on a summer road, a song came to me, and required words. Here are the words, without the song:
Sunshine’s shining When a wild wind’s whining. They madly mix me By baffled beauty. Big, bad billows Of blue sky pillows Spin my head around; I fall to the ground. I see through the window But cannot get in.
Tree top’s talking The forest’s walking Quick to and fro, As they’re in the know. Great glad gusting I find I’m trusting The infinite sky. I do not ask why. I see the wind blow But cannot get on.
Do you ever try to try try try Grab a bolt of wind and fly… Why…? Wind! Wind! Wind! Whooosh!
Sunshine arrows Blow laughing sparrows Like leaves in the sky. I do not ask why. My knees are laughin’ Like a new born calf in Green by cow who lies; The calf only tries. I see the answer The question is gone.
We’re not the ones who run away a way. They make up rules and cannot play… Hey…. Wind! Wind! Wind! Whooosh!
See the sea gull; It climbs clear cloud walls And hear the wild cry And do not ask why. I know what the wind knows: Some day I’ll be gone.
As a young Atheist I possessed all the equipment I needed to cynically dismiss the above ecstasy as merely a “good mood”. Back in those days the word “bipolar” hadn’t been concocted, and instead the now-scientifically-discredited concept of “manic-depression” was all the rage. So I could sneer at my own joy as merely being “manic”, as if I was mentally ill, (in which case illness is something to die for).
If I’d been religious it might have made sense that, when I smiled at God, then God smiled back at me. However my Atheism made things far more difficult and abstract, yet the simple fact of the matter was that when I sung to the sky the sky sung back to me, and when I sung to the trees the trees sung back to me, and so on and so forth until I was drunk without whiskey, stoned without marijuana, and tripping without LSD. Just as a jogger, after fighting against pain, is rewarded with a “second wind” that makes running remarkably easy, and just as a scholar, after all the agony of cramming, is rewarded by facing a test with every answer easily at hand, so too is a spiritual seeker rewarded with an ecstasy.
Some might complain ecstasy is not lasting and fades away, and isn’t like gold you can hoard in a miser’s vault. But it is more lasting than gold, which robbers can steal, for it cannot be stolen. Nor can it be lost in the way we forget other things we crave.
I have a good appetite, and have craved thousands of meals, but do I remember many? For that matter, I have been lustful, and have had quite a number of orgasms, but I remember few, and for the most part all I remember about lust is that I want to do it again. Ecstasy is different, for you cannot forget it, even when it never happens again.
Ecstasy is a sort of milestone, marking a certain progress you have made on the spiritual path. A milestone does not say what the road ahead will hold. In my case the road ahead held a downfall, but I don’t want to spoil this chapter by going into details of that valley of the shadow. Let it suffice to say I had arrived at a very high place.
How high was it? Well, I am ordinarily shy, and reclusive, and when I sing I am most comfortable in a shower when no one is home. However for months after I experienced my ecstasy I was quite comfortable singing in public, and while walking between classes I’d burst into song.
How high was it? Well, where some need guns to battle the world, or gold, or political power, or lipstick, I reached into the arsenal of poetry and prepared to battle the world with sheer joy.
A swarm of brake lights on the highway ahead snapped my thinking from September 1970 to the present tense of January, 1975. As I slowed I sighed, for the traffic was coming to a crawl. Obviously there had been some sort of accident up ahead; the traffic was never heavy heading south into Massachusetts on a Saturday night; it must be a drunk driver, or a truck roll-over, or maybe both. The traffic slowed to a halt, and I saw I’d be bumper to bumper, just edging forward, for a long time. The accident was so far ahead I could see no flashing blue lights of a police car, nor the flashing red of an ambulance.
I drummed the steering wheel impatiently and lit a cigarette, wishing I’d brought a thermos of coffee, and tried to think of what sort of fuss might be causing the so-called “crisis” at Audley’s commune, but I knew whatever it was, it was likely lame and uninteresting. All the issues that brought things to a halt increasingly seemed like much ado about nothing, to me. I’d rather think about things which interested me, even if they didn’t interest anyone else.
So instead I tried to think about the characters Siegfried and Heinrich in my poem-in-progress, “Armor”, but that too seemed lame and uninteresting. My writer’s block was as bad in my car as it was at my desk.
Inevitably my mind drifted back to September, 1970, when my life in some ways was put on hold, or got stuck in a traffic jam, for ten months. Or that is how it felt to me, though I went through some major changes.
I knew I had to shape up, as my wild senior-summer had left me very scrawny and haggard, but I figured improvement was a matter of merely sucking in my gut and mustering some will power. There was not much awareness of withdrawal symptoms, back in those days, and the words “detox” and “rehab” hadn’t been invented. Also, I didn’t want people to know I’d done anything illegal, and, with the exceptions of cigarettes and coffee, all the things I was withdrawing from were illegal. Lastly, I had a great fear of being incarcerated in a nuthouse against my will like my father had been, and so, when I became shaky, I was very good at inventing excuses, such as “eyestrain”. When a sort of “battlefield flashback” (which afflicts users of hallucinogens) occurred, called “re-occurrences”, I just kept quiet about it, and was a bit like Audley Bine was when he managed to function despite hallucinating mummies, though my hallucinations were never so gross or graphic, and tended to involve firm objects shivering or melting a little, and white walls appearing blotched by faint hues of yellow and pink. In any case I was dealing with strange, psychotic stuff which people outside my skull were oblivious to, and I was glad people didn’t know me better. At the same time I felt very alone, and yearned to be better understood.
I suppose it is typical for teenagers to feel misunderstood, and to seek and find a sort of understanding, not by talking with anyone in particular, but rather by listening to the music of an artist who seems to speak what they themselves can’t find the words for. In my case the artist was Jimi Hendrix, and no sooner did I arrive in Britain when he drowned in his own vomit on the outskirts of London on September 18. Some stated the CIA and Mafia had killed him, but I felt misunderstanding had killed him. When Janis Joplin died of an overdose, three weeks later, I felt the same: Misunderstanding killed her. However I also had a strong sense I should be very serious about getting off drugs, or I’d end up like they did. It didn’t matter if it was the drugs or the misunderstanding that killed you; dead was dead. To be honest, on some level I became very scared.
It seemed the strangest thing to me that the very drugs that seemed to increase my understanding should increase my sense of being misunderstood, even to the degree where the loneliness threatened to kill me. I felt great empathy for Van Gogh’s crazed drama, when he so wanted to be heard he cut off his ear. I trudged about at times so moved by the violins of my own self-pity it is a wonder I didn’t walk into a tree, yet at the same time a far saner voice in my head told me to shape up and stop whining and to do ten push-ups. It made for some interesting entries on the now-yellowing pages of a diary, and for interesting poems as well.
To some degree poetry replaced hallucinogens. Despite the fact there was no longer any enthusiastic Audley Bine who wanted to see my poems, I wrote poetry far more than seems possible, considering the rigorous schedule of the school.
I felt like I had joined the marines. There were non-stop classes and exercises. You were never allowed to laze in bed, not even on Sunday mornings, and in a military manner you had to have your bed made and be on time for breakfast or you’d be punished with a “caveat”, which meant you ran around a circle during the one half-day of free time you actually were allowed, after Chapel on Sundays. You had to account for work you did even during study halls and “preps”, which led to some false accounting on my part, for when I jotted down that I had spent time reading assigned books I actually had written poems.
As a spoiled American from the permissive school system of a wealthy suburb, getting smashed into such a disciplined system was a shock, a boot-camp’s nervous breakdown, which involved withdrawal symptoms all its own. But one rather nice thing about the fierce discipline was that I had my nose pushed into the grindstone of British poetry. At first I was offended, but soon I began to understand the punishment was actually pleasurable. I was like an alcoholic plunged into a vat of cold champagne. I stopped struggling fairly swiftly, when forced to read Shakespeare and fifteen other British poets.
(Two things, which puzzled me about the old-school, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen of that time, were the facts that, despite seeming emotionless and macho, they all seemed fond of flower gardens, and poetry.)
Not that they seemed the slightest bit interested in discussing hippy topics like Peace, Love and Understanding. The teachers didn’t even show much apparent interest in lust, fame and greed (though they probably were interested, on the sly.) All that seemed to matter to them was passing tests called O-levels (which were the equivalent of a partial American high school diploma) and A-levels, (which were the equivalent of a partial American college diploma.) A teacher’s worth, his sense of self-esteem, was twined with getting recalcitrant boys to pass such tests, and there was greater glory in getting a teenager to pass an A-level than an O-level. After only six weeks at the school I was moved from an O-level curriculum to an A-level one, which hugely increased my work-load, as I had to learn in two terms what usually takes six, but also plunged me into poetry, poetry, poetry.
At the same time I was plunged into a society of roughly 120 schoolboys between the age of thirteen and eighteen who didn’t care about Truth, Love and Understanding, but also didn’t care about O-levels and A-levels and especially poetry. They were a counter-culture different from the hippy counter-culture, for neither sex nor drugs were available and rebellion had to take different forms. They had a jargon all their own. (If you did your work you were a “suck”, and the art of escaping punishment while avoiding work was “skiving.”) Getting slammed into this all-boy culture forced me to rethink many hippy concepts, for their ridicule was merciless, and having to deal with them also made me long for a woman. Not that I didn’t come to love my comrades, but I think even the most flagrant homosexual might have second thoughts if he had to put up with nothing but men, men, men; day after day, week after week, month after month.
It would take another book to describe the agony and ecstasy of that schooling, and the antics of my classmates. The two hundred poems I wrote would be a distraction, in this work. The three hundred escapades I was involved with would also be a distraction. Let it suffice to say that I did some hard thinking outside of the scope of the O-level and A-level exams. Much involved how the Scots differed from the English, how the upper class differed from the lower class, how teachers differed from students, and what made the American ideology of that time different from the English Empire’s fading glory.
To be honest, I would have avoided much of this hard thinking, if I could have. After two months I was ready to head home. I’d quit drugs, even cigarettes, and weighed more than I ever weighed before (or since.) I was back in shape, and eager to return to the fray. I lived for the letters I received from friends back in the States, which seemed too few and too far between, yet which gave me a sense that there was a sort of societal madness occurring in America, which I wanted to return to and fight.
Not only had Hendix and Joplin died, but the Beatles had broken up. No new albums would brighten horizons like dawn. However George Harrison had arisen from the ashes of the Beatles to write a hit song called “My Sweet Lord.” Also many hippies were joining a movement called “The Jesus Freaks.” At age seventeen this development, to me, seemed very much like a sign people had abandoned rational thought, and had stopped trusting first-hand experience. Where I would not trust any hallucination, they seemed to be trusting stuff without even a hallucination to back it up. Their so-called “faith” was, in my eyes, merely an abdication of responsibility. They needed to think harder, but preferred the sightlessness of blind faith. But I insisted upon seeing.
This involved me in a strange hypocrisy, for, though I knew I needed poetry like an oasis in the desert of life, I also deemed it a sort of mirage. Poetry was a hallucination, which rational thought might note, but also would disregard as “only a dream”. In a sense I was intellectually biting the hand that fed me.
My girlfriend turned out to be very bad, when it came to writing letters. She wrote a single letter in the fall, and sent me a card in the spring, despite the fact I wrote her a long letter every few weeks. Meanwhile my best friend wrote all the time, but wrote while high on LSD, so his letters held little that was comprehensible, and sometimes were a just smear of watercolors with no words. However a few other friends wrote scattered letters which mentioned things that piqued my interest, one of which was that Audley Bine had started a commune. I heard that “My Sweet Lord” was played on the commune’s stereo non-stop. I felt like I had missed something; obviously Audley hadn’t lasted long as a teacher at a boarding school in New Hampshire, but I received no answers to the letters I sent across the sea inquiring, and Audley himself never wrote me.
In a strange sense feeling so cut off from the people I had known turned them into dreams. My girl friend stropped being real and became a poetic image. I actually had vivid dreams about her and other old friends, and wondered a little if there was some sort of transatlantic psychic contact, but then I’d give myself a sort of slap and tell myself to get real. But what was real, if the people who meant so much could just melt away?
When I first arrived at the school the days were still a bit longer than the nights, but one thing that astounded me about that northern latitude was how swiftly the days grew shorter. If I’d been scientific I’d have noted that, where each day was three minutes shorter in New England, each day was six minutes shorter in northern Scotland, but rather than scientific I was poetic, and was struck by a sense of swiftly deepening darkness and growing gloom. Before I knew it I felt like I was fighting for my life, simply staying sane. The sun seemed to barely start rising in the sky before it gave up and went back down again, when you could see the sun at all, and it didn’t just rain. Some days were just a brief time when the blackness turned deep purple. Then, to truly test me, in the midst of this darkness the English postal workers went on strike, and week after week passed without any mail at all, from January to March.
Surviving the winter changed me. For one thing, I entered it seventeen years old and exited it eighteen, and eighteen seemed very old to me. I felt it was high time to stop being juvenile, and to grow up and be grim. But a problem with that northern latitude was the days grew longer with the same astonishing speed they’d grown shorter, and the increasing floods of intoxicating daylight made it hard to be grim and serious. I was given to manic moods and bouts of irresponsible behavior, which seemed less than mature to me, as my poetic inclinations warred with my newfound discipline.
I actually had achieved a lot, not merely in terms of becoming physically fit, but in terms of absorbing an amazing amount of intellectual stuff, (perhaps knowledge or perhaps trivia). While American schooling taught more, in those days, when it came to justifying thought (and coming up with excuses) American schools dropped the ball in terms of exposing one to other’s minds. Consequently I could write as if I was an expert on Mark Twain when I had read nothing but part of Huckleberry Finn, primarily focusing on my own thoughts, responses and opinions. The British schooling required far more actual reading, and I read more in a month at the boarding school than I had read in four years at an American high school. After an initial period of disdain, when I scorned being exposed to “old fashioned” writers, I suddenly became a sort of human sponge, completely absorbed in meeting a cast of witty characters who seemed strangely alive even when they’d been dead for centuries. My American teachers would have been astonished to see me work so hard, but the thing of it was: It often didn’t seem like work, any more than it seems like work to head off to a pub and hear an old sailor tell a good tale. It became obvious that, besides getting myself in physical shape, I was in good shape when it came to passing my A-levels in English, (and also Economics). However it was at this point that becoming sane came very close to killing me.
The weirder parts of my thinking had faded away with the winter darkness, and I’d climbed beyond the various withdrawal symptoms I’d suffered, and my thinking had become very “straight”. Not that I didn’t still venture off into poetic landscapes, but I knew poetry was just a form of dreaming-while-awake, and to some degree I belittled it as something that was less than “real”. I was increasingly a realist, and, until I could see some sort of proof beyond hallucinations, I was increasingly an Atheist.
One test to my atheism involved the castle ghost. Of course, you can’t believe in ghosts if you are a true Atheist, but a number of boys claimed to have seen the ghost, and I was not about to exclude myself from such fascinating discussions over some piffling technicality. Anyway, I could contribute to the discussion, though I called the ghost a hallucination, when I saw it.
The boys talked with great authority about the ghost, though they tended to disagree a lot about major details, and even about whether there was one ghost or several different ghosts.
The majority opinion was that the ghost was named Margaret, and that she was the daughter of a Duke who ruled back in the 1600’s. Margaret wanted to marry her true love, but the Duke wanted her to marry some person she did not love. He locked her in the top of the castle, but she planned to elope with her true love. As she started to escape, descending out the window on a rope, her father barged in and caught her, and she was faced with a choice of being hauled up and captured and forced to marry someone she didn’t love, or letting go of the rope. She chose death, but didn’t get to go to heaven, and instead had to hang around the castle trying to live out the rest of her life without a body to do the living with. She’d been at it three hundred years, and apparently still had more disembodied living to do. The boys claimed they saw her ghosting about the upper floors of the castle. Some boys said she cried out for her lover, and others said she moaned because she’d realized suicide was a bad choice, and that a couple decades married to a jerk was preferable to centuries stuck upstairs in a castle.
When I had my own hallucination I told no one about it, for I figured I’d just get put in a straitjacket if I did so. It was only months later, when I knew the boys better, that I entertained them with my tale, and was promptly mocked and derided, because they insisted no self-respecting ghost would ever haunt in the manner I described.
For one thing, my hallucination didn’t take the form of a young woman, and rather just was a black shape. It occurred in the fall, when the days were still getting drastically darker and a wind was roaring off the North Sea and beating against the windows of my dorm. The dorm had originally been a single, vast, guest-bedroom for the wealthy, but now had five, small metal beds scattered about, with foot lockers at the bottom of each bed. My four roommates were breathing the soft serenity of sleep, but I was tossing and turning in some private agony, yearning for sleep to come spare me. I flopped over and glowered out through the open door into the yellow-lit hallway, and then noticed a small, black sphere just hanging in the air by the door. I thought it must be some mote in my eye, and blinked to make it go away, but rather than going away it assumed the shape of a small, black, blunt comet, spiraling around and growing larger, speeding up, and then rocketing away down the hall. I swallowed, decided screaming would do no good, and flopped back over to my other side, and yearned even more desperately for the oblivion of sleep, and was granted my wish.
The other boys especially disliked my dismissive attitude. Somewhere I had read that people saw black shapes just before a migraine headache, and even though I hadn’t had a headache, I decided the black shape was one of those.
The subject of ghosts and suicide came up again one mild spring evening, when there was suddenly daylight after first prep and before dinner. We had a tiny bit of free time then, fifteen minutes when we were suppose to put books needed for first prep away, and take out the books needed for second prep, but actually was a time the boys used to hurry away into the castle grounds, just past the view of teachers, for a cigarette. I had fallen off the wagon, in terms of tobacco, and joined a group as it slouched down a groomed path through budding rhododendrons, puffing small, silver clouds of smoke that hung in the calm, until we paused by a small graveyard for the past’s various dukes and duchesses, noticing a relatively new grave just outside the wrought iron fence that marked the consecrated ground. Apparently a teen aged child of the current duchess had taken his life while away at boarding school, and apparently suicides weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. The boys were discussing their theories about why this rule existed, when one boy became exasperated.
It was Peter, a short young man with red curls, amazing freckles, big ears, bright blue eyes, and an amazing wit. He was an adept “skiver” who seemed to dislike study, but to be very smart, and to enjoy holding the most unlikely opinions. If there was a new way of looking at an ordinary thing, he’d go out of his way to find it, as if he found life boring and was trying to spice it up a bit. His dorm was on a different level of the castle, and I never had gotten to know him very well because he avoided all sports, the same way he avoided all study, and also because he hung out with a different group of friends, but the little time I spent with him was always rewarding.
Peter had spent five long years at the school, and I assumed he had never seen the ghost Margaret whom others talked about. If he had, it was inconvenient for the stance he chose to take at that moment, which was a stance of fierce Atheism. He spread his palms and shook his head and loudly wondered how his fellows could be so unscientific. Then he insisted at length that science had never grasped a ghost with calipers nor noted a change in temperature in haunted places, but instead had proven without doubt that life was only a coincidental concentration of electricity within a complex chemical reaction. When we died we just reverted to the chemicals we’d come from, and then, to prove his point, he nimbly pranced to the side and stood on the green grave of the suicide, stooped over, plucked a blade of grass, and claimed, “This grass is chemically no different from any other grass, and this doesn’t make me a cannibal”, and then he chewed the grass. The other boys exploded into exclamations over how disgusting and gross Peter was, as he laughed in delight, and I strode to his side and called the other boys cowards, stooped, and chewed my own blade of grass. Then we heard the distant bell ringing, snubbed our cigarettes, and hurried off to dinner.
After my initial delight over Peter’s antics faded away, I was struck by a profound wonder over how utterly meaningless life was. I shared a cramped study in a small turret with two other older boys, but for some reason both boys were away, and I was alone there, doing my studying, when the wonder overwhelmed me. I looked out the window at a beautiful view of green springtime by a benign, azure sea, aware I’d triumphed over the darkness of winter and the impossible work-load necessary to pass my A-levels, and it all seemed completely worthless. What did it matter, if in the end I’d just die and turn into chemicals feeding green grass? Success or failure, victory or loss, it all came to the same end; in the end it amounted to nothing. So why was I putting it off?
I smacked down my pen, stood up, and walked down the halls past the deserted dorms to a dorm with a window that overlooked a three story drop to a stone terrace. Why was I putting it off? Far away I could hear a house senior yelling at the rowdy boys in a second prep classroom, shouting that he’d give them all caveats if they didn’t pipe down and study. Was there some sort of caveat given for suicide? Through my brain drifted Hamlet’s soliloquy.
“…….To die, to sleep– To sleep–perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause…….”
Must give us pause? Why must it “give us pause”? Was the “pausing” not all due to superstition? There wasn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up the taboo against suicide. It was just an inbred fear of death, some biological advantage that kept chemical reactions going and breeding and continuing to put off what was inevitable: Death. But why put it off? Why wait fifty years for what could be done now?
My poetic side had no answer. My pragmatic side, which had helped me survive all the symptoms as I went through drug withdrawals, had achieved a total victory, and I had become a complete Atheist. All poetic thought was dismissed as mere hallucination, all spirituality was swept into a dustbin made for all things irrational and unreal.
I leaned further out the window and dared myself to just do it. Why be such a chicken? Just do it. Why wait fifty years? It will all be over in just a second.
Just then, as I teetered on the brink, a black shape came through the wall at ground level and hurtled up at me. Startled, I fell back from the window. Then I hurried back to my study and went to work as if nothing had happened. It was only after five minutes that my stunned brains were able to wonder, “What the fuck was that?”
My pragmatic side immediately went to work explaining it away. I decided fear-of-death is a powerful instinct, a product of countless millennium’s worth of survival-of-the-fittest, evolved into a power ingrained into human biology and chemistry that defies rational thought. If you try to push against it it pushes back in a powerful way. What I had seen was that power manifesting as a striking hallucination, for I had felt no physical wind as the blackness hurtled up towards me.
But in a schizoid manner my poetic side was utterly unscientific, and mused, “I wonder if that was Margaret? She would know suicide is not an escape, I suppose. Maybe that was her way of advising me against it.”
Thirty years later, during a school reunion, I returned to that window, looked down, and shuddered. I alone know what a close call it was. The odd part is that there was nothing particularly wrong with my life at that time. There was no reason except that I had no reason.
At the time I still thought of myself as an Atheist, but the experience was a wrench in the works of my pragmatic certainty. A flaw existed in the diamond of my “straightness”, a fatigue in the metal of my will. It shows up in my poetry with the appearance of illogical things, like ghosts. It reappeared in my life as the desire to find some good marijuana, and to go back to error, seeking a window to another world.
Audley Bine’s appearance in the sanctity of my home struck me as an imposition, but I also knew it would be futile to protest to my mother. He didn’t have to put on his very-good-student face very much at all to wrap her around his little finger, for he was a man who had graduated from Harvard, and also could speak with a hint of an upper-class accent, and these two things automatically raised a person in my mother’s estimation. It also didn’t hurt that my mother’s grandfather was also a Bine, and she and Audley may have been distantly related. They also may have shared some unspoken common heritage due to the steep decline of the Bine family fortunes. Audley was a go-getter clawing his way out of poverty, and my mother was also a social climber. Though she’d been born poor, I thought my mother saw herself as a sort of Eliza Doolittle. She had cultivated a faux-English accent, and was thrilled at the prospect of moving to England for a year to mingle with the upper classes.
Though facing an unwelcome mandatory retirement from Harvard, my stepfather had accrued sabbatical time which he still could access, and discovered Oxford University didn’t mind that he was over seventy. He was therefore going there as a guest-lecturer, and also to study differences between English and American law. As he, my mother, and my two younger siblings lodged down in England, I was scheduled to be shipped north for a postgraduate year at a boarding school up in the northeast tip of Scotland.
In only six weeks my life as an American suburbanite would come to an abrupt end, and I had a sense there were things I wanted to finish. The last thing I wanted was some old person around the house getting in my way, and Audley struck me as old. Though only twenty-six he struck me as a person-over-thirty who I shouldn’t trust, and perhaps even a “narc”. He wore a sports-coat even in hot weather, which was definitely a bad sign.
I gathered from my mother and oldest brother that Audley needed a no-rent situation to help him through a lean time between his graduation from Harvard and his first paycheck. He had landed a job as a teacher at a boarding school up in New Hampshire. I liked him less for that, for I had an involuntary aversion towards most teachers because, in my opinion, all but a few teachers I’d known in school were unfriendly, unsympathetic, unimaginative, and some were downright nasty. Rather than help me learn teachers seemed an obstruction to my investigations (because much I wanted to investigate was, if not taboo, beyond the bounds of ordinary scholarship.)
It was difficult for me to express exactly what it was I was studying, or what it was I wanted to “finish” before I left for Scotland. Some things were admittedly crude; for example I wanted to “finish” my virginity. But most things were problems I sensed in a largely intuitive manner, involving how my community of suburban teenyboppers might survive in a world that seemingly wanted us extinct.
Suburban towns of that time felt under no compunction to make a place for the children they created. The town expected you to depart, either to college or Vietnam, and the only reason my idea, (that a community of youth might like to remain a community,) was not deemed laughable was because it never crossed most people’s minds.
I felt that such a heartless attitude was part of an old world, but that I was part of a new world which was going to replace such heartlessness with Truth, Love and Understanding. My blithe naivete seems a bit ridiculous, fifty years later, but I honestly believed I was living through a sort of spiritual revolution. Problems might surface, but problems could be solved. One of my favorite occupations was to sit around with my friends and solve all the world’s problems.
One of the world’s problems was pills. Despite my gross ignorance concerning the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I had only to look in a mirror to see that pills were not healthy. Admitting this simple fact forced me to admit that the purveyors of pills were liars.
Pushers always gave pills some sort of romantic-sounding nickname such as “strawberry starshine”, and advertised them as being “a real mellow mescaline”, when in fact most often they were amphetamines, barbiturates, or worse: One pill was called “black dot”; it was described as being “peyote”, because it made one vomit (and hallucinate after vomiting); in retrospect I think “black dots” were likely rat poison. Such pills were gobbled by trusting youths at parties, and dealing with the consequences of such indiscriminate trust was part of my life.
Even though I myself very much liked amphetamines, we all knew “speed kills”. We could see how swiftly certain musicians aged from album-cover to album-cover, and I didn’t like seeing similar aging starting to effect my seventeen-year-old face. Around the time Audley moved in I had decided to quit pills, and to stick with smoking leafy herbs, and also to eat more, regain lost weight, and to get back in shape by lifting weights.
A second problem was far more complicated than merely quitting an illegal drug. It was an awareness that sprang out of my enjoyment over hearing others “tell me their story.” I became aware that my community of teenyboppers were predominately from broken homes.
This realization came as something of a shock to me, for when my own parents separated in 1964 divorce was a rarity and I felt ashamed to be from a broken home. That shame became such a part of my life I didn’t notice times changing. In six short years divorce had become so commonplace in wealthy suburbs that less shame was involved. The divorce rate had leapt from 0.5% to nearly 50%, and in some cases divorce was even taken for granted. I heard kids ask other kids, “Your parents divorcing yet?” What was formerly unmentionable could be freely discussed, and being able to talk liberated me from the shackles of shame.
However this is not to say my peers were happy about divorce. Divorce didn’t seem to involve the Peace, Love and Understanding which was our ideal. In a way (which I think few saw) it was our parents who were choosing an “alternative lifestyle” when they renounced traditional marriage, and we supposedly-radical children were actually the reactionary conservatives, in that we wanted to embrace some sort of wholesome fidelity.
Of course the subject was not all that simple. Some, both men and women, very much liked the idea of gaining the pleasures of sex without the responsibility of marriage, while others wanted a love that was true. Some disliked marriage because they saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by marriage, while others saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by their parent’s failure to behave married. And me? I tended to be wishy-washy, and to see both sides as having their points. To be honest, I was more interested in getting others to “tell me their story” than in standing in judgement.
This landed me in uncomfortable situations, for in “telling their story” people tended to badmouth and backbite others. Then a second person would “tell me their story” and it would involve badmouthing and backbiting the first. I called such situations “triangles”, and they made me very uncomfortable, for I felt a pressure to take sides. Taking sides was not the same thing as the “Understanding” I desired.
In a sense the two sides were like the two sides of an arch, and required the “keystone” called Understanding. Without the keystone the two sides fell to a heap of rubble and made a mess, but with the keystone the two sides held each other up. This was something I could see but could not grasp, yet I was aware that at times I myself could be the keystone, though I wasn’t aware how I did it.
For example, one unpleasant aspect of using drugs was a certain paranoia it involved. This was especially apparent when a person at a party left a room for a while and then returned. There would then be an awkwardness, as if the person had been talked-about-behind-their-back (and fairly often, but not always, they had been.) It was as if a societal ice had formed while they were away, requiring a societal icebreaker. I tended to be the icebreaker, even when I myself was the person who had left the room. Often it involved merely filling the returning person in on what-they-had-missed, thus allowing them to get back into the flow of the conversation, but at the time I had no clue how I did it. I just recognized misunderstanding was occurring, and intuitively ended it.
I also intuitively knew that the strength of a community is based upon building understanding, and felt an urge to strengthen the foundational understanding of my own gang. As the end of the summer approached this urge became akin to desperation, for I knew our teenybopper community would need to be very strong to withstand the challenges presented by a suburb which basically wanted to throw us all out.
Therefore I was pleased to hear my mother and stepfather were leaving for England, to reconnoiter the situation where they’d live and work, in and near Oxford, and after that to tour Scotland. They’d be gone a month, and I was looking forward to being the king of their castle while they were gone. I felt it would be a great opportunity to develop understanding in my community. My mother begged to differ, for where I saw “developing community” she saw “one big party” and envisioned holes burned in her carpets. Therefore she went out of her way to cramp my style.
First, she put her car in the shop and loaned my stepfather’s car to my oldest brother, leaving me without transport. Second, she gave me a list of chores, such as mowing the lawn and packing things away (as the house was to be rented while we were overseas), which seemed unfair to me, as she was burdening me with the chores of a castle while denying me the benefits. She told the live-in maid Margie to keep an eye on me. Lastly, she invited my oldest brother to stay, as well as Audley Bine, which crowded my space.
It did not seem to occur to my mother that I might not be the only one facing a “Senior Summer”, a final time free before plunging into a less-than-appealing future. Audley Bine was also facing an end to liberation, a switch from the company of brilliant minds at Harvard to the company of boring boys at a boarding school. All my mother saw was a very serious-seeming and sensible Audley who nodded at all the right times and only smiled when it was proper. (Where my mother saw great promise in Audley I must admit I didn’t think the fellow looked too promising.)
The first sign my initial impression might be incorrect occurred even before my mother and stepfather left. I’d gone trooping down to my bedroom with a group of my friends late at night, with everyone chattering like a flock of grackles, and once in the room I’d shut the door and opened the windows, to let the songs of summer frogs and owls in, and the smoke out. Just then the person closest to the door made a “hisst!” noise and raised an index finger. There was an instant silence, and then we all heard it: A tapping at the door, as if someone was knocking with a single, pointed finger. Swiftly all illegal substances were removed from view, as I sauntered across the room. After an appraising glance about at my friends all looking guiltily innocent, I opened the door. There stood Audley, wearing his very-good-student smile.
I fully expected some version of, “Could you keep the noise down; I’m trying to sleep”, but what he whispered was, “Could you sell me a nickle bag of Mooner?”
A friend nearest the door laughed, and then turned to explain to the others, “He wants Mooner!” The tension in the air dissolved to palatable relief. Part of 1970 was the experience of seeing many people you thought of as “straight” switching sides and “turning on.” I could hear my friends beginning to exclaim about the phenomenon, and the words, “He wants Mooner”, being repeated, but I was the one who faced going to jail for selling drugs, so I was not so quick to drop my guard. I brusquely asked, “Who said I had Mooner?”
That seemed like a fairly safe recommendation, but I was not about to reveal where I kept my pound hidden (down in a heating duct accessed by removing a grill on the floor). I simply reached in the pocket of my jeans and handed him my personal supply.
Audley looked at the plastic bag. “That’s too much. More like a dime than a nickle. Here. Let me remove some.” He then stepped further into the room and opened the bag on the flat top of a bureau, produced a packet of “Zig-zags” from a pocket of his sports coat, and with impressive speed and deftness rolled three cigarettes, which he handed to me. Having impressed everyone with proof he was no novice, he handed me five wrinkled one-dollar-bills, pocketed the rest of the marijuana, nodded, and left.
Despite this evidence, I still entertained the view that Audley was an intellectual and likely a “dweeb”, (though I deemed a dweeb who smoked pot better than a dweeb who didn’t) but that view also needed to be adjusted, shortly after my parents left for England.
The fact Audley wore a sports-coat in summer weather seemed part of an effort he made to present himself as being more wealthy than he actually was, and put him at odds with my gang. We scoffed at fashion. Around a year later signs began appearing on the doors of restaurants, “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service,” and I always felt that sign was a personal affront. My view was that feet were far more healthy when bare, and that sunshine and dryness killed athlete’s foot, whereas shoes nourished the fungus. Furthermore we often visited Walden Pond, and the readers in my group liked to quote how Thoreau stated a man only needed two pairs of pants: One to wear and one to wash. Audley’s belief that how you “presented” yourself mattered was in direct conflict with our belief that it was what you were on the inside that mattered. Therefore it was with some relief we noticed Audley drove a battered Volkswagen bus that looked like it cost him fifty dollars.
Fifty years later I’ve noted such buses are nearly always portrayed in movies as a form of hippy-transport painted with flowers and peace symbols. Few actually were. (Many hippies couldn’t afford paint.) Hippies coveted the buses because they were very cheap even when brand new, and much cheaper used; they endured for years and could be repaired with a hairpin, so there were a lot of cheap Volkswagens floating about.
They were not a powerful vehicle. Whenever I saw one slowing down to pick me up hitchhiking I always felt a little guilty, for their air-cooled engines were so pathetic that I always felt the added weight of my body would force the driver to downshift, going up hills. Audley’s was especially ancient, and seeing him drive off in the huffing old wreck in the morning made him seem especially mortal and humble. But one afternoon we heard the far-off approach of a roaring car that squealed around distant curves of our country road, getting louder and louder. It was definitely not a Volkswagen. I was lifting weights outside with my older brothers, and we stopped to listen to the approach with interest.
My stepfather’s house had a circular drive with six apple trees in the middle, and the weights we lifted were in a turnaround off the circle by the garage. Abruptly, flashing bright orange against the green summertime background down at entrance, appeared a Lotus sports-car, which swerved sharply in and came around the circle six times faster than I’d even seen a car go on that circle, and then lurched to a halt in front of us. Audley was in the passenger seat, radiant and beside himself with laughter. The driver, a tall, elegant-looking young man with styled blond curls, swung out of the other side and walked over to my brothers, who were standing apart from me. He talked briefly with them, and they both shook their heads and jutted their thumbs over their shoulders at me. The man looked at me, and I thought I detected a trace of incredulity flicker across his face, before he walked over. “I’ve tried some of your Mooner. Excellent stuff. I’d like a lid.” He offered me a very crisp twenty and a very crisp five.
I hesitated, measuring the man. He wore a golf shirt rather than a sports-coat, but something about him oozed wealth and privilege. I decided a narc wouldn’t be so rich, nodded, took the money, and walked off thinking I was committing robbery, for usually I charged only twenty for an ounce.
I did notice one odd thing about the man’s sports-car as I departed. It seemed to have bits of cornstalks stuck in odd places: Behind the side mirrors, and in the grill, and hanging from both the front and rear bumpers.
As I returned with the contraband Audley was finishing a story that explained how the Lotus wound up in a cornfield. Audley seemed very enthusiastic, and appreciative of good driving where I thought bad driving must be involved. Rather than negative about failing to negotiate a curve Audley was extremely positive about avoiding a stonewall and a tractor. The driver inclined his head modestly, and then they hopped back in the Lotus and roared off.
I decided Audley likely wasn’t a dweeb. Dweebs don’t roar about in an orange Lotus.
The third bit of evidence that Audley wasn’t fitting my preconceptions was actually the start of our friendship, though one would think it was a good beginning to enmity, because it sprang oddly from the fact Audley liked to do yoga in silence in the morning, while I liked to bellow songs at the top of my lungs in the shower. As we passed each other in the hall outside the bathroom, me dripping in a towel and he slightly cross-eyed because his yoga involved trances, there seemed to be a gradual recognition that we went to a similar mental landscape, albeit in highly different ways.
As far as I was concerned yoga was a way to make your joints hurt; if I was going to seek such pain, I’d do stretching exercises before I lifted weights. Yet it was obvious Audley did it to get stoned. Not only were his eyes slightly crossed after he did yoga, but he leaned against the wall of the hallway as he walked. I found this intriguing, because getting stoned in any way, shape or form interested me. (I even tried out sitting cross-legged for five whole minutes, one time.)
What intrigued Audley about me involved the fact I seemed gifted, and could apparently do things without any discipline whatsoever. I’m not sure what first caught his attention; perhaps he overheard me improvising words to a song in the shower; in any case he became interested in my scrawls and doodles, and found them theoretically impossible. I wrote poems without any corrections (often with spelling mistakes) which Audley felt should have required six or seven drafts. To Audley my creativity seemed effortless, a fruitful trance that didn’t involve first sitting cross-legged, or controlling my breathing, or twisting my mind into a repetitive mantra, or any such discomfort.
Actually, after thinking about it for fifty years, I think my so-called “gift” involved huge discomfort, a discomfort greater than the contortions of yoga, a discomfort that went on and on and on for twelve years, a suffering which could make even subjects I delighted in become agonizingly dull, called “public schooling”.
Because my home was full of books I learned to read early, and therefore started grade school early, but being younger than others couldn’t make “Dick and Jane” interesting, or make classmates read any faster. Where the text read, “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” a classmate would stutter and mumble, “Sss-suh-suh. Eee-eee. See. Duh-duh-ih-ih-kuh. Dick.” By that point I was flipping ahead, and when my turn to read came I had no idea what page we were on, so the teacher assumed I couldn’t read at all, and put me in the slow-group. (I don’t really blame the teacher, who was dealing with baby-boom classes of over twenty-five small children.)
In essence I was on the wrong page on the first day of school, and spent the following twelve years on the wrong page. Rather than gifted I think I was lost, but, whatever I was, it was boring as can be. I had to find some way to keep my brains entertained. Therefore I developed my ability to doodle and scrawl rhymes. It was not effortless, for it took twelve years.
After I graduated it might seem that, without the reason to doodle and rhyme, I would stop doodling and rhyming, but at times life itself became as boring as algebra class, and I felt the same need to keep my brains entertained. To some degree I may have done it to also entertain my friends, in the same way I entertained my back-row buddies (who were as bored as I was by algebra class), but it didn’t really matter if anyone liked it. It was a joy in and of itself, and I did it because the person in need of laughter was myself.
Then Audley would wander by, and perhaps see a notebook on the kitchen counter opened to a page like this:
Such doodles stopped Audley in his tracks. He was fascinated, and whenever I was writing (in various places around the house and yard) he often came drifting up behind me, to look over my shoulder casually, and to ask what I was composing. Depending on my mood (or what drug I was on) I might be unwelcoming, or a chatterbox who volunteered far too much information, but Audley always listened with his very-good-student smile.
One time I was looking over a long poem called, “Exercise In Expressing What Hasn’t Made Itself Clear.” It was a mess, moving down one side of a page, sideways along the bottom, and upside-down back to the top, using up ever bit of available space with either writing or garish illuminations:
I was very dissatisfied with my effort, sneering at the page, but Audley wanted me to read it to him. I made various disparaging statements, but he insisted, so I read the entire thing.
It was actually fun to read to him, for he’d interrupt and ask me what I meant by certain statements, and then ask me to read the passage again. Also he’d exclaim or laugh, sometimes even shouting, and then I’d stop and demand he explain what he was making noise about. After I was done on this occasion he said, “Read part twelve again,” so I read,
Take the time To be together Then cry a little Sigh a little Raise a little hell. It will work in in any weather And in every case I know It works out Well. Take some time for understanding. Give a little reassurance to a friend. Protect yourself but leave him standing. He may be the Alka-Seltzer in the end.
Audley commented, “That actually has a unique meter. Dum-de-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. But it seems familiar somehow. How did you come up with it?”
I laughed, “It’s from ‘Deck The Halls’. The Christmas Carol. You know, fa-la-la-la-lah fa-la-la-lah”
He looked astonished. “Why’d you chose that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The poem just seemed to be getting too down, too heavy. I thought I’d lighten it up a bit.”
Audley chuckled, “So you stuck in the tempo of ‘Deck The Halls’?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to get too serious when you’re going fa-la-lah”
Audley shouted a laugh and shook his head. “You have no idea how fucking amazing that is. Look here.” He jabbed a finger on the page. “You don’t even correct a word. You just write down a complicated meter like it’s a grocery list.”
I scoffed, “It’s not complicated. It’s practically a nursery rhyme”, and Audley looked at me incredulously, shaking his head.
It is a very nice thing to discover, every now and then in life, that someone thinks you are a genius. But I had mixed feelings about Audley’s admiration, for I didn’t feel I was the genius. What I witnessed when high was the genius, whereas I was the incapacity, the one constantly attempting, and constantly failing, to show what I saw.
Despite being young and naive I did suspect some sort of ulterior motives might be involved in Audley’s praise, however Audley wasn’t the sort who sweet-talked when face to face, and badmouthed behind your back. Word leaked back to me he was going around and telling people he had discovered the next Robert Frost.
This was a bit embarrassing. Also I didn’t much like the concept of being “discovered”, when I was the one doing the exploring. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella might be able to say they “discovered” Columbus, for he couldn’t discover America if they didn’t fund his ships, but my discoveries didn’t need ships. Not that I worried all that much about who got credit for what. Occasionally I might feel a passing wave of drug-induced paranoia, and fret about people “stealing” my ideas, and be hit by the urge to copyright everything in sight, but then I’d remember copyrighting would involve bureaucratic paperwork, and I’d be repelled. In my book paper was for poetry. Lastly, there was something absurd about the idea of copyrighting a poetic vision; it would be like attempting to plant a flag in a sunrise and claim the dawn in the name of a mortal king.
But it was difficult to dampen Audley’s enthusiasm. When he was hit by an impulse one tended to be blindsided and carried away.
For example, one day I had a whim of my own and, because I had no car, was planning to hitchhike to the trolley to go into Boston to its dilapidated waterfront to see my sister, who worked as a secretary in a warehouse on a pier that had an old, sunk, wooden fishing boat tied to it, (which I thought was “really cool”), and also to check out “Andre the seal” at the new Aquarium being built as “urban renewal” a couple of piers down the waterfront. It seemed a simple enough schedule, but then Audley stepped in.
Audley first asked me where I was going, and kindly volunteered to drive me to the trolley, but then decided, before we were halfway there, that he might as well drive me all the way in to Harvard Square, and soon afterwards stated that as long as I was in Harvard Square I should meet a Harvard poet he knew. I found the change to my plans bewildering. One moment I was going to see my sister and a harbor seal named “Andre”, and the next I was going to meet a genuine Harvard poet.
I was a little in awe. I’m not sure what I expected; (perhaps an austere old man who wrote with an eagle’s plume).
Audley’s Volkswagen bus puttered up to a seedy old building and jolted to a halt double-parked, and he flew out the van’s door and trotted up two flights of stairs to a stark apartment with almost no furniture, with me taking two stairs at a time to keep up. He barely paused at the door, banging loudly on it three times before bursting in without waiting.
I was very impressed by the poet, though unfortunately he was too occupied to grant me an interview. He was busy suffering, walking about with the back of his hand pressed to his forehead, striding swiftly yet aimlessly from window to window, looking out and up at the sky with an expression of anguish.
Audley instantly forgot all about me, instead trailing the poet, making sympathetic noises. I stood politely waiting in the stark living-room as they passed to and fro, to the far bedroom window and then to the kitchen window, repetitively. After a while standing hat-in-hand grew tiresome, so I looked around. The couch seemed to be the front bench of a car, and the coffee table in front of it was an old steamer trunk with brass trim. On top of it was a pamphlet of poems, so I sat down to scan the pages.
Much of the poetry seemed to employ gimmicks, such as sheets of pink paper, or the word “I” spelled in the lower case, and much seemed written in the tremendously stoned state wherein the inconsequential seems profound; a butter knife seems as amazing as Shakespeare. For example, one poem was the single typed word “stars” with typed asterisks strewn over the rest of the page. There were also some simple ideas made difficult, when I thought poetry was suppose to be the other way around. However there were also some very nice images, and I was intrigued by the word “Avalon” that appeared here and there, used in a loose and unspecific way.
Suddenly I noticed the footsteps had ceased crossing back and forth in front of me, and glanced up to see the poet looking down with his arms folded and a challenging look in his eyes, almost as if he was daring me to be critical of his poems. Instead I innocently inquired, “What is Avalon?”
A brief, smokey look of respect filled the man’s eyes, and he answered, “It is where you are young.” Then a look of anguish began to fill his face, and his eyes lifted to the far wall and looked through it to some distant space. “Everything is green there.” Then he raised the back of his wrist to his forehead and went staggering off.
I excused myself shortly thereafter, but as I took the trolley over the river and then underground to the Boston waterfront I found my mind had become more fertile, due to this meeting with a genuine Harvard poet. The person seated across from me in the subway might have wondered why I kept mouthing the word “Avalon”, but by that evening I was busily doodling. Soon Audley came by, curious about what I had written. It was a poem about yearning for a lost childhood, and began,
Swim on up the river And Avalon is mine. The water’s moving five miles While I do four point nine.
“Perfect!” shouted Audley, making me jump. Then he looked at me innocently and said, “Proceed.” I ventured on, and several stanzas later read a stanza that stated,
I think I was in Avalon Before my memories end. I wonder if my place was saved By some pre-fetus friend.
Audley gave another shout and burst into delighted laughter, pounding his knee.
I felt a little indignant. That stanza was not suppose to be funny. “What are you laughing at?”
“Pre-fetus”, gasped Audley, “Pre-fetus”.
“What’s wrong with “pre-fetus”?
“There is no such word.”
“No, you made it up. You coined it, but it’s perfect, I tell you; it’s fucking perfect,” and with this Audley vented an odd whoopee, like a cowboy.
I regarded him a bit coldly; my poem was about a significant philosophical question, (whether there was life before birth), and here he was getting all sidetracked by a dumb word. However as I watched his enthusiasm I couldn’t help but smile. At times Audley single-handedly seemed like a congregation of about fifty, all shouting “Amen” at a preacher’s every utterance.
Audley and the Harvard poet and Avalon had coalesced into a thought-form my mind played with, yet it was only one of the many thought-forms drifting through my parent’s house while they were away. My oldest brother Halsey had other friends, and though he himself didn’t talk much he often would improvise elaborately at the piano for hours on end in a way strangely like a sermon, creating thought-forms without words; the piano became the background music of that time.
Also my other older brother Hurley appeared out of the blue, about as opposite Audley as possible, for he was in violent reaction to orthodoxy in all its forms. (He’d been the most practical and “square” member of the family, a pillar of strength midst the ruins of my parent’s divorce, but all that ended in a flash when my mother remarried.) He had a black girlfriend Iris, (which shocked many, both black and white, back in those days), and Iris was warmhearted and had a loving laugh and was kind to me. The keystone of Understanding brought Hurley and Iris together despite a vast gulf, and furthermore the two of them got on well with Audley, which made no sense to me, for the yoga Audley followed was orthodox. Hurley was more in the mood to throw all rules and regulations out the window. However the keystone of Understanding brought the two men together, (perhaps because Hurley didn’t entirely reject discipline; he was disciplined about disliking disciplines). I liked to sit back and watch them debate whether rules were wise, or whether rules were merely an invention the wealthy used to control the poor with.
The only person-over-thirty in the household was Margie, a fifty-year-old live-in cleaning lady and cook from Canada my mother had employed for seven years. She had a ne’er-do-well husband with a “bad back” and six grown children, whom she visited in a poorer part of Boston every weekend, but during the week Margie had become part of my family. With my parents gone she felt an unstated responsibility to keep some semblance of control over the household, and if I was sitting on the couch with my girlfriend watching TV I could expect her to be a nuisance, coming through the room with armloads of laundry though it was after dark. She felt it was urgent that she chaperone because she had seen some of her sons forced to marry girls they had gotten pregnant, and she wished to save me from a similar fate. She also wanted to save Hurley and Iris from such a fate, and, when they went arm-in-arm into the woods behind the house with a blanket, Margie promptly trotted to the edge of the woods and began calling Hurley’s name. Hurley tried to ignore her, but when she persisted, calling and calling, on and on and on, he became annoyed and walked out of the woods stark naked and demanded, “What the heck do you want!” Margie ran back into the house as fast as she could.
I felt sorry for Margie and went into the kitchen as she had a cup of tea and four cigarettes. (She actually did this every day at “tea time”.) As we talked the spirit of Understanding walked into the room, and even though she was a person-over-thirty we had an amazing conversation.
Margie was a Catholic, and had a peculiar relationship with my mother, for she had remained faithful to her husband where my mother chose divorce, and she disapproved of birth control and abortion while my mother approved. Before my mother remarried they had been two women attempting to raise their separate families of six children with unhelpful husbands, one in a slum and one in a posh suburb. Neither could have made it without the other. My mother liked to see herself as the charitable one, helping Margie with immigration paperwork, and helping her get false teeth when her entire face swelled up, but there was no way my mother could have worked graveyard shifts as a nurse without Margie watching her children at home.
After four years my mother’s remarriage changed things. My mother had come to dislike Margie, as she became aware Margie didn’t approve of remarrying, and this dislike hardened when she became aware Margie told my Dad what his children were up to, which seemed like “spying” to my mother. As a consequence, at the end of the summer, Margie was going to be out of a job. This gave our chats a certain poignancy. This woman, who had been part of my life since I was ten, was going to vanish.
On this occasion Margie put down her teacup and casually wondered what drug Hurley and Iris were on, and, without anger, began to ask me what being “high” was like. She seemed particularly interested in hallucinations, and I did my best to describe them, whereupon she surprised me by describing similar hallucinations she had experienced without the help of drugs. She took me back to her youth.
She had been living in a London slum in the 1950’s, on a street which still had not been entirely rebuilt after the Blitz, in a house they had to evacuate from time to time as a UEB unit came by looking for an unrecovered and unexploded German bomb under the street. This danger was especially stressful as she had many small children and was pregnant yet again. She was clinging to her faith in her husband’s ability to provide, but he was breaking that faith on a regular basis. Because his back was bad she had signed him up for correspondence courses, but when the lessons came in the mail he scorned them. Finally it hit home to her that her man was not going to step up and be the hero she saw, buried deep inside his bloating beer belly, and that was when the wave of emotions and hallucinations overcame her.
The thing that was surprising to me was that she didn’t find the white walls turning colors and moving particularly unpleasant, nor did she stop caring for her children. Somehow she got the family back home to Canada, where they could at least grow better food than post-war London offered, and then she left her children with relatives and immigrated down to Boston, initially as a green-card worker just for a summer, and then moving her husband and children down when Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” promised better welfare than Canada had. One way or another she “got by”, and now, at long last, even her youngest was grown.
She was going to miss my family, which in a sense was her second set of six kids, but in another way leaving was going to be a relief. She lit another cigarette, and mused that for the first time in many years she’d have some time for herself, cocking her head to listen as Halsey began playing on the piano in the background.
I lit a cigarette of my own, appreciating yet another thought-form drifting through the household, and wondering if there might be a poem in it.
My own gang of teenyboppers like to come by and hang out, slightly in awe of the “old people” (who, besides Margie, were all under twenty-seven), and I never knew what sort of conversational chemistry might occur. I didn’t even know who might be home when I got home. I only knew that something marvelous was occurring. Our household became like no other home I visited. No one got too stoned or too drunk, nothing was ever stolen or broken, dishes were washed and the lawn even got mowed, and the entire time wonderful conversations were occurring. The Understanding I so deeply craved seemed to have moved in, and I yearned that It would feel welcomed and stay.
Even my girlfriend became involved, which seemed impossible because she was so very “straight”. She came from a solid family where her parents were able to argue without divorce being an option, and in some ways I liked keeping her separate from my hippy friends, as a secret serenity I could go to, to escape the turmoil and wildness of non-stop partying. I could depend on her parents to be strict and keep me from getting her in trouble, but suddenly they slackened the reins, and she shocked me by being less “straight” than I ever expected. For example, though she wouldn’t take drugs, one August afternoon we went swimming at a lake, and to my astonishment (and joy) she swam topless. However what shocked me most was an understanding I witnessed occur, which I had deemed utterly impossible.
My best friend, (one of the Three Musketeers I was part of), did not at all like my girlfriend, and she did not at all like him. They were irreconcilably different, part of a “triangle”. He was a “bad influence” and wanted to be free to take any drug and pursue any lust, and wanted me equally free, but she felt such “freedom” was addiction and slavery and would make me sick. The moment they set eyes on each other their eyes narrowed, and I felt sad and helpless because I liked both of them. When they arrived at the house at the same time in separate cars, I’d squirm. Yet so great was the Understanding flooding through the household that August that they decided that they could both like me without glaring so much. They could agree about something after all. Perhaps it was due to the fact I’d very soon be gone, in exile in Scotland. The sight of me packing perhaps prompted them to drop their differences, but to me it was nothing so simple. There was magic in the air.
Not that there were not differences, even with a persistently agreeable person like Audley. He did things I objected to. One was that I felt he tended to over-improve; Audley didn’t know when something was done.
For example, one time he sat down at the sheet of paper I laid out on the living-room table during parties, picked up some pastels, and with about twenty strokes of the chalks produced a beautiful landscape, in only thirty seconds. It was a rainbow over green hills, but what was most marvelous was how he captured the phenomenon of falling rain made silver by sunlight; it was mostly done by leaving the white paper white. I told him, “Stop right there,” but he insisted upon going on. I told him to stop a few more times, and then gave up in despair as he destroyed the picture with additions. He made funny “ick” and “eww” noises as the drawing grew worse and worse, and finally, when the rainbow was brown, he looked up at me sheepishly and admitted, “I should have stopped.” However he then bellowed laughter. (There was something about the atmosphere of the house that escaped recriminations).
Somehow it felt safe-to-be-open in that house, and one way Audley contributed to that that sense was to counter my self-disparaging remarks with affirmative encouragement. I didn’t always like this, for sometimes the origin of the disparagement was a person I respected. Yet, without the critic present, Audley would leap to my defense, indignant any should be so crushing towards a sensitive poet like myself, and he would verbally demolish the other person’s disparagement.
To be honest, I didn’t entirely mind hearing how those who criticized me were insensitive barbarians, especially when the absent people being rebuked were my sometimes-scornful older brothers, but on the other hand I loved my brothers, and felt put in a “triangle” that lacked understanding. However, for the time being, the understanding I was gaining far outweighed the lack-of-understanding I sensed was also present.
Perhaps the most destructive thing Audley did was to tempt me with drugs when I was trying to quit. Not that it took much persuasion; my spirit was willing but my flesh was weak. I recall at that time I developed a hacking cough, and one day, in disgust, I dramatically shredded a pack of cigarettes in my girlfriend’s back yard, but then, within fifteen minutes, found myself hurrying down the street to buy a fresh pack.
It was easy for Audley to lead me astray; all he needed to do was crook a finger from the doorway of my older sister’s old bedroom, and I’d postpone mowing the lawn. He liked to sit cross-legged on his bed and hold court, as I slouched comfortably in an armchair, looking out through a big picture window at sky and tall white pines reflected in a dark forest frog-pond, only forty yards away.
I recall Audley smoked a water pipe from Nepal that looked like it cost four times as much as his Volkswagen bus. It was made of sterling silver with an ornate, etched design, with inlaid turquoise and red coral. Our conversations went places I greatly enjoyed, no matter what we discussed, and often he would want to see what I’d written that day.
Audley was appreciative of art even when he was straight; when he was stoned he could be downright absurd. For example one time he asked me to read a poem I had decided was far too belaboringly mushy, and was disgusted with. It went like this:
Ah, cry wind. Sigh wind, And people say you blow. And learn, summer sun, To burn someone Before its time to go.
Anger grows, Throws Caution to the wind.
Frustration burns Turns Everything dry.
and we haven’t sinned…..
…Wind sighs Sun fries People catching Butterflies And pinning them down Unsatisfied To have them around. Wanting Control.
The wind cools the sun While the sun Warms The wind.
We haven’t sinned.
Butterflies Beautify Sparkle the land Touch the sky.
Couples lie Blue sky Butterflies Wind sighs Dew cries It’s time for sun to go.
Why is it we want more? When at sea you seek the shore But when on land we yearn for waves again… …Daddy shaves again Removing his animal hair Thinking if it isn’t there No one would dare Ask him to share His world With the wind And sun And he won’t have to run From the natural Animal.
We’d smoked a hefty amount of Mooner before I read the above poem to Audley, and Mooner was strong marijuana (for those days) and Audley was very stoned. He made such a racket as I read the above poem it became ridiculous. I read it slowly, with pauses, and he filled the pauses with yells and whoops, but what seemed like going-too-far to me was that each time I read the word “butterflies” he’d make a cooing noise, all but clasping his hands and prancing about on twinkle toes. I was getting used to his demonstrative behavior, but if I’d had friends around I definitely would have been embarrassed. I blamed the Mooner. (To be honest, Audley wasn’t the only one acting oddly; I was reading with the panache of a rock star on a stage.)
Besides performing poems I also liked to just talk about things, for Audley was a walking encyclopedia of historical trivia, especially when it came to incidents in the lives of famous people. It seemed he hadn’t just read one biography about a man such as Beethoven or Napoleon, but ten about the same man, and therefore he knew scores of factoids about their darkest moments, which made what they overcame all the more thrilling.
I had far less to offer in return, but he seemed fascinated by how my mind worked, how I arrived at conclusions without needing to undergo the bother of researching in any ordinary manner. Audley would ask me questions and get me wondering about things I ordinarily never thought about.
For example, what some called my “creativity” actually seemed a sort of “following”. My mind worked with connections that stated, “If A, and if B, then it ‘follows’ that C will result”. In other words, I was not the creator, I was the follower. This seemed weird, when I thought about it, for what was I following? Something good, or something bad? I had no idea, and if pressed I likely would have been wishy-washy and answered “both”. Sometimes my mind wandered towards hell and I felt queasy in my gut and “heavy”, and then would veer towards heaven and feel uplifted and “high”. But I didn’t feel all that creative, and rather that I was “following” a stream of logic, almost as if I was taking dictation as muses spoke.
Audley would make a great fuss and say what I was doing was impossible, when it seemed like no big deal to me.
For example, Audley would poke fun in a friendly way over how I refused to spell words correctly, even when he told me the correct spelling multiple times. I insisted on spelling “disgust” as “discust”. He got all psychological about it, and stated some bad teacher had stunted my memory-skills, for I was downright mulish when it came to refusing to memorize. I had to agree. I had flunked learning new vocabulary words in French 1 classes for four straight years. Something about learning by rote made my skin crawl. Audley stated I displayed “avoidance” and “resistance” and various other psychological things, due to “trauma”. But a few minutes later I would blow him away with my ability to remember, when I wanted to.
For example, one time we were sitting about on the back patio with my friends, having the sort of wandering, free-association conversation which smoking Mooner generated, and the talk moved from topic to topic until someone burst out laughing, and they wondered how on earth we had begun talking about the cooling power of hats in hot sunshine, and wound up talking about the ability of a Voltswagen bus to climb hills carrying a heavy weight. Everyone was very stoned and suffering amnesia and had no idea, so I explained our progression:
Hats and hot sun had led to the topic of the tops of ears being sunburned, which led to other ear-injuries, which led to deafness, which led to Beethoven, which led to Beethoven playing a piano with all the strings broken, which led to how hard it is to move a piano to a repair shop, which led to describing loading a piano into a Voltswagon bus, which led to describing how an overloaded bus had to downshift to first gear to get over a hill.
After I was done describing our progression I noticed Audley looking at me with his jaw dropped. “How the fuck did you remember all that?” he exclaimed, “You can’t even remember how to spell ‘disgust'”!
I suppose the simple answer is that how to spell ‘disgust’ didn’t interest me, but what-followed-what did. It doesn’t matter if you use the word “follows” or “consequences” or “progressions” or “reaping-what-you-sow” or “Karma”, we are all like meteorologists and want to know what the weather will be tomorrow, and, if possible, we want to control that future. We may not control the weather, but we want to avoid starvation by avoiding planting thistles, if we want to harvest wheat.
Of course it is easy for me to say that now, fifty years after the fact. At the time I was just facing the end of a wonderful summer, and didn’t want it to end. My mind was casting about desperately for ways to keep the teenybopper community and wonderful household I was part of alive.
If you are to have any hope of altering the future, you need to look at “what follows what”. Scientists call this “cause and effect”, and religious people call it “reaping what you sow” or “Karma”, but I just called it “what follows what”. I simply was exploring, seeing where things took me, following some boss called “creativity”. I myself had no idea what might next be produced by my pen, and Audley found my production fascinating, for apparently I was freely accessing subconscious images it was, according to his books, very hard to access. At times the images in my doodles were more interesting than the words, and one time Audley insisted on getting a xerox copy of a illustrated poem containing a surrealistic, quasi-Salvatore-Dali example of “what follows what.”
It made me uncomfortable when Audley desired xerox copies of doodles and became very intense, in his desire to figure me out. He’d want to know why, in my doodles, I had certain things turn into other things, and what my symbolism symbolized, when I had no idea and no answer beyond, “It followed.” However he’d keep questioning, poking and probing with cross-examinations until at times I felt like some sort of laboratory rat. I just wanted to do what I did without thinking about it.
One time an issue involving staying-home-versus-leaving-home was preying on my mind, and I produced a troubled poem which ricocheted around four topics: Staying home; Staying home but preparing to leave; Leaving home intending to bring back a trophy; and Leaving home for keeps to make a new home somewhere else. To me it seemed that no matter what choice you made you would wind up someplace where you had to make the four choices all over again; no home was permanent; no jail could keep you from eventually escaping through the bars by dying, and after death I could see no reason one didn’t face the same four choices all over again in a different sphere, and my poem concluded:
You can never be completely together until you die Because you can’t give up Until you’re completely together.
Audley looked at me with a disbelieving half-smile, and inquired, “Do you really believe that?”
“Um…well…it just seemed to follow…”
“Have you studied any Buddhism?”
“Studied any philosophies involving reincarnation?”
“Um…well…there is that Crosby, Stills and Nash song that goes, ‘We have all been here before.’ What’s it called? Deja Vu?”
Audley laughed. “And that is the extent of your research. And yet here you scribble a poem that traces the concept of Nirvana not being achievable until one gives up on the rounds of dying and dying and dying over and over and over again.”
Sometimes I worried about Audley, and even felt a little guilty about the possibility that my poetry was driving him mad.
However, even when research is aimed at high things, (and Understanding is a high thing), such research can be quelled by a limitation called “time”. And we were running out of time.
Things started to come to a head as the end of August approached and Audley began packing, to head off and teach at the boarding school in New Hampshire. He stopped smoking pot and grew more serious, and even a little sad.
I fought off my own melancholy by planning a final party in the woods, but my gang of teenyboppers all seemed busy shopping for school clothing the day I went out to gather dead branches for the fire, so I spent an August morning in the woods all alone.
It was hot even in the shade, and the paths were dusty and parded by dabs of sunshine. I noticed the dabs moved, though the air was still where I worked, and when I paused and looked up I could hear a slight breeze stirring the treetops. Into my head came the beginning, “Walking through a forest where the wind won’t go…”
It was a beautiful patch of forest, on the divide between the Concord and Charles rivers, and had seen many come and go over the centuries. An old Indian trail crossed the land; Henry Thoreau had hiked the landscape; farmers had made a living there and later failed, and left prehistoric, red-rust-iron tractors with trees as thick as my thigh growing up through their archaic engine blocks, and also left cellar holes and an overgrown corduroy road through a boggy place. All these things seemed part of “my” woods, but when I looked over at our fire-pit I saw dead leaves blown into it, and even a few fresh forest weeds overhanging its edges, and had the sense I too was a fleeting phenomenon, an object to someday be regarded with nostalgia. A louder breeze stirred the treetops, and stirred my creativity, and when I got home I sat on the patio and wrote down what I’d been humming to myself.
When I was done Audley said, “Amazing.” His mouth was around two inches from my right ear, so I jumped a foot. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching over my shoulder as I wrote. He continued, “I don’t see how you can do that: Five stanzas with only one correction.”
“Oh, it was pretty much done when I sat down. I wrote it while I was walking.”
“And you remembered it all?”
“But you can’t remember how to spell ‘disgust’.” Audley shook his head, and didn’t give me time to defend myself. “And, by the way, that’s not how you spell ‘corduroy’.”
I responded, “And, by the way, you sound like a teacher at a boarding school.”
He winced, and then replied, “Well, I suppose that is what I now am, or am about to become. And you are about to become a student at a boarding school in Scotland. Are you ready for that?”
“No fucking way. I feel like a coward. I’m only going there because I don’t want to earn a living. What I really need to do is write a hit song. That would earn a living real fast!”
Audley didn’t get much peace and quiet to do his yoga in, the next morning, because I was using up all the hot water writing a hit song in the shower.
If Audley had really wanted to become fabulously wealthy he would have quit his job at the boarding school and dedicated his time to making me fabulously wealthy, as my agent, but instead he lugged his suitcase out to his Volkswagen bus and went puttering off to New Hampshire. Little did I know, but with him went a level of appreciation I have never since received, for my doodles, in fifty years.
Shortly after Audley left Halsey also left, in my stepfather’s car to pick up my parents at Logan Airport. I can’t say I was in a welcoming mood to see them again, though I did my best. After all, it was their house.
I could tell my mother was actually quite pleased to find the house was not only still standing, but quite clean. (We’d used copious amounts of air freshener, and had the windows open all summer, to hide the smell of smoke.) Not only was the lawn mowed, but the first fallen apples of fall were removed before they rotted. However she did not praise, and instead simply had to comment how our weather was inferior to the weather in England, which was weather which was never, ever too hot or too cold.
I found myself quietly grinding my teeth. My mother had a way of saying things in a practiced manner, and I knew she had her comment about the local weather worked out before the jet actually landed and she actually knew what the local weather actually was.
My younger brother and sister arrived home only hours later, after spending a summer at my father’s farm in New Hampshire. My little sister had an uncanny ability to merge into whatever culture she was with, and her accent caused my mother to exclaim, “Whatever has caused you to start speaking in such a ghastly manner?” I writhed, because my sister’s faux-New Hampshire accent was nothing compared to my mother’s faux-English accent.
My mother’s dislike of all things American seemed so extreme that I thought she was something of a traitor. I saw loyalty and patriotism as good things, because Understanding grows through time. The better you know people the more you understand them, but in my mother’s case familiarity seemed to breed contempt. Where I was grieving over the thought of leaving the teenybopper community I’d grown up midst, she was rejoicing over leaving the awful town behind.
Not that I couldn’t understand her wanderlust. I myself had a hunger to hitchhike away from the more sterile aspects of suburbia, but I had also glimpsed a way to end the sterility, with Truth, Love and Understanding. I wanted to stay and work on what I had, but my mother seemed seduced away by people she didn’t even know, but was infatuated into believing were better. Everything English was better, to hear her talk. She was so besotted it seemed useless to even reason with her, and there seemed no way she could understand how I felt about leaving the town I called home.
Therefore I cursed silently when I saw her pausing over my notebook, which I’d foolishly left open on the dining-room table. I had started a new page, and there was nothing but a short poem and some doodles in the upper left-hand corner, but I expected nothing appreciative from her; nothing like Audley’s reactions. When she read my poems there was never any humor over my spelling “disgust” as “discust”, but rather a wincing horror beyond disgust, and she was so troubled by such spelling she never commented on a poem’s passions, even to call them “ghastly”. I was pouting at her as she read, grouchily thinking to myself that no true American ever uses the word “ghastly”, when she utterly astonished me by looking up and stating, “You know, though you spelled ‘evening’ and ‘paradise’ wrong, I rather like the sentiment in this one. This phrase, ‘To be fair to the other side’, is especially good.” As she walked away my jaw hit the floor, and I walked over to the page to remember what the heck I had written.
I scratched my head. It seemed the Understanding still lingered in the house, and perhaps my mother had caught just a whiff of it. But then I heard my younger siblings exclaiming in delight. Rather than taking a jet to England they were learning we were going the old fashioned way, by ship, aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. This made me feel grouchy, as if we were in some way being seduced, and were selling out. I even felt a little ashamed. It was not that Understanding was deserting us; we were deserting Understanding. We were turning our backs on the most beautiful thing, for gaudy glitter and glamor.
Disgruntled, I slouched off to borrow my stepfather’s car to drive to town for some hotdogs, and then headed out to friends and a campfire in the woods.
Only nine came to our final party in the woods, and only four stayed until dawn. It was a somber affair and a chilly night. I had the strange sense the “underground” had seen it’s summer in the sun, but now had to go underground again. I fear I was not much fun to be with, and bewailed the way people had turned their backs on the most beautiful things.
Most of the young woman in my gang had been strictly forbidden from attending such parties, as parties earlier in the summer had become legendary, but there was was one young woman there who may have been as young as fourteen, yet decided I could use a gentle scolding. She suggested I should count my blessings. After all, a trip aboard a luxury liner wasn’t exactly the end of the world. I sighed and thanked her, but it was the end of my world.
The next few days were a blear of packing. Even my notebook of poems-on-graph-paper got packed away and locked in a storeroom. Even when I thought I was done I was asked to help others. I caught a cold and smoked too much tobacco and was miserable, until, on the afternoon before the dawn I was to depart, two cars arrived, one dropping off my girlfriend, and the other driven by my best friend. They’d both come by for a final farewell, which would have been awkward enough with each all alone, but seemed especially awkward with the three of us together. What can you say? All words seemed stilted.
Just then it occurred to me I had something that would spoil if packed away for a year, and asked them if they would help me use it up. It was a birthday present some ill-advised person gave me when I turned seventeen. Wine improves with age, but champagne does not.
They agreed to help me use it up before it went bad, and I snuck the bottle from the house. (Though the drinking-age had been lowered to eighteen because of Vietnam, I was still too young to legally drink.) We casually and innocently walked around behind the house to a steep slope overlooking the frog-pond, and I shot the cork at the frogs.
I actually didn’t approve of alcohol, seeing it as an obsolete drug used by people-over-thirty, which likely explains why the bottle was passed around as if by soldiers, and became empty so inappropriately swiftly. And then it was like the spirit of Understanding came out of the house and down the hillside to us. The triangle gained three keystones. My girlfriend and best friend, who long had been worst enemies, became utterly charmed by the brilliance of each other, and together we three laughed. Lord, did we laugh.
Somewhere up among the bureaucrats of heaven, the angels in charge of keeping records sat up straight. Something unusual was happening on earth. Three teenagers, who had absolutely no reason to laugh, were rejoicing. Why? Because being what they were in that moment in time, brief though it was, was enough.
And then, it was over. My best friend drove off, and I borrowed my stepfather’s car to drive my girl friend home, and we sat in the car in the night outside her house to say good-bye for ten months, at least.
For teenagers, we’d been very pragmatic about the chances of our relationship surviving being an ocean apart. We’d given each other permission to date others, if interesting prospects appeared, but promised to remain “friends”. All that remained for me to do was to say some baritone adios, hopefully more profound than, “Don’t take any wooden nickles”.
I completely blew it, because all that came out of my mouth was unexpected sobbing. Once I started I couldn’t stop, as my girlfriend regarded me in frozen alarm.
Why did I cry? I think it was because deep down I knew that once you turn your back on beauty, it can be a long haul before you see it again. Turn your back on Understanding, and do not expect reason, or for life to make sense. If I’d had more guts at age seventeen I’d have stayed, but I lacked such guts, and I left.
As I drove I-95 south through the New Hampshire night I had to shake my head, recalling what an amazing year 1969 was. In April, 1969 I’d been on the same highway, but over a thousand miles further south, hitchhiking to see my Grandparents in Florida. I came to a place where I-95 was not finished in southern swamps festooned with Spanish moss, and had to cut across country to where I rejoined another completed section of I-95 further south, traveling narrower and more curvy roads through a landscape of sharecropper’s hovels where plows were still pulled by mules. I was picked up by a battered, old, green Ford pickup holding a grizzled black farmer and his grandson. It was, (according to my diary), “ride eighteen” of the twenty-six it took to reach my grandparents, but in my memory it stood out as the best.
All the way south northern drivers had warned me about southerners and blacks and especially cops in Georgia, yet this was my second ride with black southerners. The first was three brothers who warned me to watch out for northerners and whites and especially cops in Georgia. (When I eventually was picked up by a cop in Georgia he kindly warned me to watch out for southerners, northerners, blacks and whites.) But the black farmer didn’t warn me about anything, and instead asked questions and told brief tales and laughed a lot. He’d been in the Army, years earlier, and knew not all white people were bad, and seemed to be trying to demonstrate this truth to his grandson, (who silently regarded me with round eyes, as if I was from Mars). But what I remember most is how quickly our nervousness melted to understanding and even friendship, though it was the brief friendship of a hitchhiker.
All twenty-six rides were like that, examples of people’s goodness and kindness, for even people’s distrustful warnings about others were a demonstration of their caring and concern for me. The world seemed full of beautiful people. In my memory the United States was bathed in some sort of beautiful, purifying light.
Some later equated 1969 and its so-called “Summer of Love” with sex and drugs, but the twenty-six rides involved no drugs and no sex. Therefore, in my mind’s eye, I separated 1969 from hippy drug-dogma. When I hitchhiked in 1970 the rot had already set in and the experience seemed different, and strangely tainted by filth. Therefore I cannot claim the evidence that drugs are harmful was not there.
If I’d been wiser I would have quit drugs sooner, but I was a fool. I found drugs very attractive, but even at the start my stomach felt a queasiness, an intuition which should have alerted me. I suppose I needed to suffer to learn, but by the end of 1972 I had become a rabid reactionary, and felt that for every good there is a push-back of evil, and that the purity of 1969 had been betrayed by tricked people, (among whom I included myself), and that drugs were the Trickster.
Drugs were a devious Trickster, for it was impossible to call “getting high” anything other than “high”. I had a terrible time attempting to convince friends that what they could see was obviously “high” was actually a sort of optical illusion. I couldn’t find the words, (even though, where my friends might be excused because they suffered amnesia regarding the “high” they had experienced, I had notebooks full of reminders that prevented me from forgetting, which I could refer to). It was a source of great frustration to me that my reformer’s-zeal sounded so prissy and preachy, and that I was the object of scorn.
One problem was that people desired objective science. They still do, but even after fifty years of research and amazing technological advancements the human brain remains a shimmering, flickering map of a billion pathways, like a busy city seen from above at night. Certain general areas can now be identified pertaining to certain emotions and certain activities, and it can be seen whether it is “rush hour” or not, but the structure of individual thoughts and of crucial insights remain hidden in the complexity. Understanding remains what it was fifty years ago, more subjective than objective. The best way to understand a mind is to use it.
Therefore, to explain the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I resorted to poetic symbols and analogies, which are not scientific and can be dangerous. I would say “A drug-high is like X while a natural-high is like Y”, and my observations could be scoffed down in flames with the two words, “Prove it.”
For what it’s worth, after decades I came up with the symbol of an arch with a keystone. Before the keystone can be put in place the two sides of the arch must be raised, and it takes considerable energy, in the form of disciplined concentration, to keep the two sides from falling, but once the keystone is in place all that energy is freed, for the two sides support each other. The sensation of having freed-up energy is pleasurable, a “high”. When a person does something as simple as a crossword puzzle they are presented with a problem and are enjoying the “high” of finding answers.
Often, once an arch is completed, one doesn’t need to think of it any more. Learning to walk or drive a car involves considerable concentration, but later we walk or drive largely on a sort of autopilot, without thinking about what we do. In fact at any given moment our awareness is a laser focus on one spot, even as an enormous amount goes on in autopilot in our subconscious. Millions of individual arches involving millions of keystones are involved, and major arches are built of countless smaller arches.
Besides times of building there are times things need to be taken down. A useful analogy is a desk that gets so messy it becomes impossible to work, so work must cease and a new work, cleaning-the-desk, must be done. While this can be experienced as a pleasurable event like doing a crossword puzzle, it is often experienced as a depression of sorts. We’d rather eat than wash the dishes. We are creatures of habit, and prefer doing what we enjoy, and some of the greatest crises of our lives involve stopping what we enjoy, and doing what we don’t.
Using my analogy of an arch, this involves removing the keystone of an old arch. Immediately the energy of the two sides is released. One had better be prepared, for otherwise the arch collapses into a heap of rubble and much energy does little more than raise a cloud of mental dust, (which may be a good thing, if the old arch was a bad habit causing serious problems). If one is prepared, one has some sort of new-and-improved arch they are trying out (perhaps very tentatively). In other cases one may backslide, reverting from a better behavior that feels new and uncomfortable to old, tried-and-true behavior that has negative consequences.
Like all analogies, the “archway-keystone” analogy has shortcomings, but one thing I liked about it was that it explained why a drug-high was negative. Drugs removed keystones in a higgledy-pigglety manner, freeing up energy without regard to what arches were involved. I noticed that drugged people were initially very “liberated”, in that they were able to abandon old ideas and accept new ideas, but at times this merely meant they were suggestible, and willing to accept new ideas that seemed downright dumb. The discipline of careful thought was abandoned, and, in the long term, rather than carefully crafted new thoughts they tended to backslide to the old. Consequently they were able to say “drugs haven’t changed me”, when change in fact is a crucial component to growth, and failure-to-change is the fabric of frustration, and even madness.
To be honest, left to my own devices, I would have destroyed my physical brain with drugs in the manner some of my closest friends did, for I would have tried harder and harder to get high and stay high until the damages became too great. I can’t take credit for the fact I could compare being on-drugs with being off-drugs, while reviewing old notebooks, because I wouldn’t have ever quit. The grace of God did the quitting for me.
The first period off-drugs was due to my stepfather, (who could see what drugs were doing to students at Harvard). He tricked me into going to school in Scotland. I thought the school would be “far out” and “groovy” because it was in a castle, but when I got there I discovered it was like joining the marines. In my view there was far too much exercise and far too much study. There were no drugs available and no way to run away, as I couldn’t figure out how to hitchhike across an ocean. Then, when I finally returned to the States, I could see my friends had been strangely damaged, but instead of blaming drugs I blamed President Nixon.
The second period off-drugs was due, strangely, to my incorrect conclusion that what was damaging friends was economic pressures, which could be solved by making heaps of money buying drugs very cheaply and selling them sort-of-cheaply, which involved me in an escapade aboard a “borrowed” yacht, and two months at sea with no drugs.
Even despite the evidence I received by being able to compare periods on-drugs with periods off-drugs, (which was a blessing and likely saved my life, if not all of my brains), I refused to blame drugs, and therefore went to hell a third time, perhaps experiencing what scripture describes as being “given to your sin”. My notebooks show me learning things the hard way:
Even as I insisted upon being stupid I recall my conscience nagging me, and also I kept being quietly harangued by incidents in reality, such as someone walking up to me in Harvard Square and handing me a pamphlet that had been kicking around since 1966:
At that time Meher Baba’s face had a habit of popping up unexpectedly, for example briefly in the movie, “Woodstock“, or midst pictures on the cover of an album by Peter Townsend. Meher Baba was definitely opposed to drugs:
“Tell those who indulge in these drugs (LSD, marijuana, and other types) that it is harmful physically, mentally and spiritually, and that they should stop the taking of these drugs. Your duty is to tell them, regardless of whether they accept what you say, or if they ridicule or humiliate you, to boldly and bravely face these things.”
As I started to toy with the idea of going to India I discovered I would not be welcomed by Meher Baba’s disciples unless I had been off drugs for six months. At first this meant I simply wouldn’t visit them, though it had become increasingly obvious to me drugs were failing to get me as “high” as they once had done. The problem was that I had become completely dependent, and without marijuana I couldn’t get “high” at all. Therefore, (though I knew I could quit as I’d quit twice before), quitting drugs meant I’d face a gray time (I had no idea how long) when I’d have to go without the very poetry which the Trickster had used to attract me to drugs in the first place. The fact I eventually went through a gray period without poetry may not seem like much, (especially among those who deem my poems a good reason to rush screaming from the room), but in retrospect it was one of the braver things I’ve ever done.
I went through this chaos between age sixteen and age nineteen, and it was during this time Audley went through a similar upheaval, and also was the time we became friends.
I eventually decided the Trickster was especially effective right after 1969, because there was a sort of afterglow due to the “natural” event, an event which was some sort of worldwide “revival” or “jubilee” or perhaps what they call a “darshan” in India, and people on drugs noticed this effulgence and gave drugs credit when drugs deserved none. In 1970 I simply and naively decided a “revolution” had occurred and the world was changed forever, and I went wild.
The second half of my senior year of high school turned into one, long, accelerating party, and I barely graduated. The parties extended into the summer, as if everyone knew their time living pampered in a wealthy suburb was drawing to a close, (not one of us could afford to even rent a house in such a town), and everyone wanted to have one final, crazy binge. There seemed to be an underground network that determined whose parents were away, and that house would be where the party was; in a wealthy suburb hard-working parents deserved breaks and could afford many vacations, and therefore many homes became available; sometimes I attended three or four parties a night, unsure what town I was in by dawn. When I looked in a morning mirror, the face I saw I looked nothing like the youth I was in February, when I placed sixth in my weight-class in the state wrestling meet. My face was becoming a papery hue of ashy gray and I’d lost fifteen pounds, though I was thin to begin with.
While I cringe slightly, looking back and seeing debauchery and decay, it is important to remember the Trickster was aided and abetted by older people, (some merely fools but some truly evil), who stated we were “expanding” our consciousness. I truly felt I was a pioneer on the frontier, and that, if I was clumsy, it was because I was inexperienced, and that further experience would result in further learning. Jimi Hendrix’s album, “Are You Experienced” (1967), made me feel a sort of smug pity for those who were not “experienced” (although the hit “Purple Haze” was not about drugs; it was about a dream, and was written before Hendrix tried LSD). The problem was that drugs involved amnesia. It is hard to learn from experience when you can’t remember what the experience was.
The sense I had at that time was that the inner world was especially loaded with inspiration. I could hear it when guitarists freed themselves from the constraints of sheet music and simply improvised. Therefore, on one hand, I wanted to be free from constraints, while on the other I wanted to record the improvisations, which imposed a new constraint. I had fascinating talks with people who wondered if attempting to record, write-down, and in a sense make-a-map of the new landscape was detrimental to exploration of that landscape. Some suggested my note-taking meant I was “up tight” and failing to “go with the flow”, however it was in my nature to keep notes. I asserted the notes themselves were a sort of musical instrument like a guitar, full of poetry and art that spilled onto the page spontaneously. During parties I’d place a large sheet of paper on a table with colored markers, so people could improvise what came into their drug-addled brains, so we could remember later, even after the amnesia set in.
I especially liked getting to know others better. It seemed like I’d spent years on my best behavior, walking around prim and proper and constrained, while secretly and deeply desiring to get the hell out of town to some place where I could be myself; now suddenly people were more open and honest. Even some “people-over-thirty”, (a term-of-scorn originally aimed at old, gray communists at the Kremlin (1964), but later a catch-phrase covering all “square” adults, used by radicals such as Abbie Hoffman)(1968), turned out to be people-over-thirty who were interesting. When parents came home unexpectedly early and discovered their children having a party some surprised me. Where I expected such parents to blow a gasket some sat down and talked, telling interesting stories about how they came to be wealthy. A few even smoked marijuana, which struck me as shattering all rules and preconceptions.
Despite all the joy of all the parties I sometimes felt deep exasperation, because people didn’t all improvise beautiful music or pontificate profundity. Some seemed purely focused on the physical sensation of a “buzz” or “rush”, or on the gluttony of the “munchies”, or on how hard it was to order fast-food when they were so stoned that they couldn’t read the illuminated menu above the counter, (they got lost in the menu’s dazzle), and my exasperation leaks into my notes:
...My friends: They all are saying
Things they've said before.
Deep inside I'm praying
They'll say a little more...
We were so stoned,
I mean really wreaked,
And everything was so funny.
We walked into this place
With all these librarian
And they were all
STARING AT US
And we were really stoned,
And we started laughing
And had to leave!"
More more more more!
The stuff they see is such a bore.
Unless they stop to investigate
They'll feel so small
And break and fall
And it will be too late...
For those who doubt the veracity of my claim (that I kept scientific notes which included noting my increasing frustration), I’ll include a picture of the page that held the above fragment. (Proof that the notes were highly scientific is that they were inked onto graph paper.)
Freudians informed me my frustration was due a thwarted sex-drive but, in terms of sex, while I felt sheepish about my lack of experience, I simply lacked the craving others had. I recall walking into a party where everyone was naked and painting each others aroused bodies with day-glow paint under black-lights, and, after watching for a while, I decided the conversation had no intellectual merit and was downright boring, and left to find a better party. I felt no tugging lust or hankering, and while some shamed me, and I myself felt embarrassed for being “sexually repressed”, I was merely innocent. Now that fifty years have passed I think that rather than “repressed” I may have possessed a degree of something called “purity”, and should have been praised for incipient spirituality, rather than shamed.
Not that I was a saint; I did have a girl-friend, and we did experimentally “fool around”, but the petting was secondary to our other problems and disagreements, one of which was that she didn’t approve of drugs and most parties, a second of which was that I often would rather write poetry than talk with her, and a third of which was that I had around seven other girlfriends.
I think these “other women” simply recognized my innocence made me sexually nonthreatening, and a good confidant. They were all a year or two younger, and a few years later might have represented a considerable temptation, but at the time I can honestly say they were more of a bother, like little sisters with problems that seemed to be all fuss and drama. I endured hearing their woes about boyfriends, and also hearing their boyfriend’s woes about them, but I’d rather be out with a couple pals my age, driving about pretending to be full of braggadocio like The Three Musketeers, when in fact we were quite shy. My pals were a year older than I, and sometimes we’d become competitive in terms of physical prowess, or in terms of our prowess in sweet-talking girls from the windows of cars, or in terms of our artistic prowess. I’d often feel inferior to them, which was odd because I had a girlfriend and they didn’t, and I had seven girls seeking my advice, while those same seven girls were a bit wary of my pals.
This all stewed together into what I suppose was our “community”, or perhaps “gang.” It was a precarious association, because we had no place of our own, and there was a vague awareness that the wealthy suburbs wanted us ejected, because we were in fact too poor to live there, without our parents. Perhaps no other community on earth rejects youth to the degree those wealthy suburbs did, (although scripture speaks of a Canaanite god “Moloch” which demanded child-sacrifice). To me going to Vietnam seemed a sort of child-sacrifice, and even going to college involved the shattering of our community, which had existed since kindergarten. All in all we felt unwanted and unwelcome, which in an odd way pushed us closer together and made our community stronger.
Besides finding houses where parents weren’t home, we found a place out in the woods. There was several hundred acres of overgrown farmland where the towns of Lincoln, Wayland and Weston came together, and, though developers had plans to turn the area into a country club and vast golf course, for the time being we called it our own. We even entertained plans to somehow get rich quick, and buy the land. Perhaps it awoke some ancestral memory of times when the young simply moved further into the woods to start a farm of their own, but we moved out into the forest and had parties out where no one was bothered by us. The parties were wonderful barbecues, with people playing guitars and flutes in firelight, involving long conversations, some deep and some whimsical and full of laughter, until birds serenaded the green light of dawn.
Unfortunately word spread about how nice our parties were, and each party was larger and more successful, until several hundred people showed up. This caused parking problems along suburban streets, and caused suburbanites to be dismayed by long-haired, garishly-dressed strangers entering and departed the woods via their backyard trees. Back in those times a party was deemed successful if the police showed up, but our biggest party had the officers from three towns wandering the midnight woods, meeting lost youths who also wondered where the heck the party was. To me this suggested our “community” had a problem, accented by the fact that after the biggest party the parents of seven young girls strictly forbid their daughters from ever attending such parties again.
I wanted to get away and think about the problems that were surfacing, but got no relief. This was in part due to my being a sort of missionary of the counter-culture, which was in part brought about by the fact my business of importing fireworks from the inner city to the suburbs evolved, in a perfectly natural way, to importing drugs from the inner city. (Suburban marijuana at that time was heavily laced with alfalfa, and a cigarette would barely get one high, whereas marijuana from the black, urban neighborhood of Roxbury was “the real deal” and earned the suburban nickname “Mooner.”) While I saw little difference between fireworks and drugs (they both let you see pretty colors) the law begged to differ, and the risk I blithely faced was considerable jail time, which led me to scrutinizing people and wondering if they were “narcs”. At the same time it became widely known, “Mooner is the best stuff”, and friends were constantly introducing me to strangers, young and old, some of whom had never smoked marijuana before in their lives.
I had a strangely developed sense of responsibility about the mental health of novices, for a criminal. Some novices were as young as thirteen, and I worried they couldn’t handle the “expansion” of their brains. At worst I suppose I was selfishly afraid they’d “spill the beans” and land me in jail, but I’d insist that if they smoked that they first smoke with me, so I could oversee and guide.
I suppose it was because I was a “guide” that it came to pass that when someone was suffering a “bummer” or “bad trip” people brought these suffering souls not to a hospital or parent or priest, but to a seventeen-year-old me. I was cock-sure I could handle such cases, and this arrogant attitude was furthered by the fact I was strangely good at waking people from their bad dreams. I’m not sure how or why, but I just was unafraid of their schizophrenic states, and jollied or bullied or distracted them from the mental ruts they were in. In one case it was as simple as taking the bummed-out person outside to watch some fireworks; the dazzle in their eyes made them utterly forget whatever their nightmare was.
Another time a girl was slouched on her haunches in an incredibly ugly way, with her head between her knees, softly wailing, “I’m ugly.” She was repeating, “Ugly…ugly…ugly” when I intruded, “You’re not.” I was so firm about it she sat up straighter and looked less ugly. “I’m not?” “No, your not.” She smiled, and didn’t look ugly at all, and just like that her “bad trip” was over.
One time, before school let out, some younger students had come rushing up to me exclaiming “Agatha is bumming out! Agatha’s having a bad trip! If the teachers find out they’ll call the police!” I had no clue who Agatha was, but went where I was led, and saw a girl in a chair, her back against a wall and her arm folded, pouting with her jaw thrust out, wearing an olive-green army jacket and looking very militant, as she glared out from under hair that hung over her face. I dragged a chair over and sat next to her and folded my own arms, looking sidelong at her. Her friends all watched anxiously from the distance. After a while the girl looked sidelong at me, and I smiled and inquired, “Something wrong?”
“Yes, They’re annoying me.”
“They keep saying I’m bumming out!”
“I’m not bumming out!”
I laughed, And Agatha looked at me sharply, and snapped, “Why are you laughing?”
I said, “I’m laughing because, if you’re not bumming out, it means they are the ones who are bumming out. Just look at them. I think they are.”
She looked over at her friends, who were all gnawing their nails and looking very worried, and then looked back at me, and then a wonderful smile slowly spread across her face, as beautiful as dawn. Then her friends, of course, could see we were both smiling, and all were immensely relieved, and they all started smiling as well. I stood up aware my reputation as a bummer-buster was sustained. Once again I was a super-hero who had saved the day, through doing next to nothing.
By summer I was finding the business of doing next to nothing increasingly tiresome. Particularly wearisome was the fact my stepfather’s old house had two wings, a parent’s wing and a children’s wing, and my friends felt walking into “my” side of the house without being invited in, or even ringing the doorbell, was part of the new world, a world without property or borders. I often had dinner with my parents, and would walk down to my bedroom expecting to retreat and write, and instead would discover between three and seven members of my “community” in my bedroom, eager to see me. I never told them to buzz off, but at times I wanted to. I suspected they were using me, because I always had Mooner and was generous, (and in fact my records show I never made money as a “pusher”, because marking-up prices was “exploitation”, and not something one did to one’s friends.) I also suspected they were using me in another way, liking the way I did “next to nothing”, but never doing “next to nothing” in return.
What was the “next to nothing” I did? I couldn’t find the words, and even poetry was failing me, and poetry was “next to nothing” personified. I felt in touch with something hugely important, but unable to grasp it. And perhaps this is the most wicked evil of the Trickster. He allows one to glimpse a shore from a ship moving the wrong way: The energy that allows one to see is gained by knocking out keystones that enable one to grasp. I was unable to grasp what was happening to me, but knew I wanted to grasp.
One event struck me as a sort of final straw, or perhaps as a pebble that precipitated an avalanche. It involved a time I was being one of The Three Musketeers with my two buddies. Lord knows what pill we were high on, but we were on a hill overlooking a small lake, looking down on people by the shore who seemed very tiny as we felt absolutely giant. And while in this exalted state my two buddies became involved in a competition about who was more huge, in intellectual terms. One would say, “Aristotle said…” and the other would counter, “Yes, but Plato said…”
I stood back and felt small, for I knew little about poetry and nothing about philosophy; I knew who Shakespeare and Robert Frost were, but poets like Keats and Shelly drew a blank. Philosophy seemed boring and useless to me, so I had no interest in Camus or Nietzsche, yet my buddies seemed like authorities because they could name and quote people I knew nothing about. I felt younger and less educated and quite inferior, in this boyish competition, yet I had something they lacked. I had “next to nothing”.
There was no getting around a simple fact: No one really liked the poetry they wrote, while mine had won an award. It was handed out during our graduation ceremony. It came with no money and involved more trouble than it was worth, for though my best buddies tried to shake my hand and congratulate me I sensed they resented my five-minutes-of-fame. In the strange, competitive world of adolescent youth I was guilty of a crime, for I had won with “next to nothing”.
I couldn’t fathom what I sensed; I could see but could not grasp. In a troubled mood I just wanted to get away and think, and followed a whim, loading up my backpack and leaving town.
My hitchhiking wandered west across upper New York State and up into Canada, with my aim not a particular place but to “get away.” However I had the definite sense 1970 was not like 1969. Perhaps, because my hair was longer and my skin was less rosy, a different sort pulled over when I stuck out my thumb, but I had the sense some sort of push-back was occurring, opposed to the sheer beauty of 1969. The world did not seem full of beautiful people. The beautiful light was still shining down on the land, but clouds were gathering.
I can’t truly tell of the details of that trip, because the notebook dedicated to that trip was lost, but perhaps my recollection of how I came to lose that notebook will give the flavor of the journey.
Back in those days crossing the border was usually quite easy. The official would ask you if you had anything illegal, you would reply you didn’t, and that was that. However the young driver of the car stuffed with young men I was hitching a ride in, heading back into the United States, became sweaty. He was nervous because he had three cases of illegal beer in his trunk. When the bored border-agent asked if the driver had anything illegal to declare the driver, for some guilty reason, replied in a strangely strangled tone, “No, but he…” and he jabbed a thumb back at me, “…is a hitchhiker”. The border agent seemed to wake midst a yawn, looked at me with interest, and inquired, “Do you mind if I look in your pack?”
What could I say? I very much minded, for I had drugs in my pack. However I hoped he wouldn’t find them, as they were secreted in the aluminum tubes of the pack’s frame. So I said, “I wouldn’t mind at all,” and swung out of the car and handed my pack to the man. And then, before I could reach back into the car for the overnight bag that held, among other things, my notebook, there was a squealing of tires and the vehicle whipped away. The young driver who had demonstrated compassion when he picked me up had run out of compassion, and had left me in the lurch.
As I turned back to the border agent my mind was working very fast. I didn’t want him to search my pack, and my mind intuitively seized upon a way to stop the search. I looked the man in the eye, as he looked after the swiftly vanishing car with a perplexed look, and protested, “They drove off with my other suitcase!”
The man looked at me with a sort of vague horror, as if I was presenting him with a problem he didn’t want to deal with, and his immediate response was to shove my backpack into my arms, swivel, walk into a little office beside the road, and slam the door.
As I walked south from the border, chuckling and feeling a bit smug about the fact the pack I shrugged up onto my shoulders hadn’t been searched, I couldn’t fail to notice that two men, the driver of the car and the border agent, had both turned their backs on me in roughly thirty seconds. Two men had seen me as a problem to avoid.
Not that I blamed them. As I turned to walk backwards, dangling my thumb out at a long string of cars, every car that passed without slowing represented a person who saw me as a problem to avoid. Most couldn’t be bothered, and the cars that slowed were the kindly exception to the rule. But there seemed to be more kindness in 1969 than 1970.
What was so very different? There was something about 1969 which didn’t involve anyone turning their backs on anyone, and instead involved seeing “everyone is beautiful in their own way.” 1969 was like the keystone of an arch that brought both sides together and freed up energy. Was it something so simple as “Love”?
By the time I got out of a car by the toll booth on the Massachusetts Turnpike, back in my home town, I was aware my trip had been a success, in that it was full of adventure, but an utter failure in terms of “getting away”. In 1969 I had escaped my boring town into a wonderful world of especially kind people (because that is who picks up hitchhikers), but in 1970 I seemed to be seeing the same problem my hometown had, in different people, no matter where I went.
In fact one 1970 ride set the record for the fastest I ever traveled while hitchhiking. A big, burly man had “pegged out” his wide, swaying Cadillac (over 120 mph; 193 km/hr) on I-81 between Watertown and Syracuse, New York. He was jovial, and kept telling me, “Relax, kid. What’re you so tense for? Here, have some more whisky.” The whisky didn’t help. I was tense because I didn’t like the way the big car floated and drifted and was never quite in the center of the lane, and I was also tense because, while 1969 witnessed the freedom of falling shackles and chains, 1970 seemed to be a constant reminder that how you used that freedom might kill you.
The toll booth was about as far as I could get in town from my home, and it was around three AM. I shouldered my pack and faced a six mile walk beneath streetlights, from pool of light to pool of light, up and down hills. Now, fifty years later, such a hike, without dinner and without sleep, would probably kill me, but at the time I disparagingly muttered to myself over what bad shape I was in.
Such disparagement was uncommon in my poetry, but all through my diary entries, which is likely why they required separate notebooks. The poetry spoke of hope and high places, while the diary spoke of how I needed to shape up and stop being such a damn fool. As dawn broke, and I trudged up the front steps of my home, I was in the mood to reform. I felt burned out (partly because the final ride had been from soldiers on leave racing to get back on base before they were AWOL, and they were handing out No-dose (pure caffeine) like they were mints, but the pills were wearing off). I needed food and water and most of all sleep, things my mother was good at providing.
My mother was up early, and, much to my astonishment, when I walked through the door I faced her ire. Before I could say a word I learned that, while I was away, she had heard a noise after she’d gone to bed, and when she walked up to my end of the house she discovered a party going on, and that the air, as she put it, “reeked of marijuana”. When she asked my friends what on earth they thought they were doing, they blamed me, insisting I had invited them. Then she folded her arms and tapped her toe, as if demanding I explain.
I was too tired to explain, and anyway, the only explanation I could think of wouldn’t have sounded good: “When I said I was leaving town they must have thought I said you were leaving town”. I just winced annoyance and shook my head in disbelief and spread my palms. Then I swung my pack from my shoulders and turned to head off to bed.
She added, “Please keep the noise down. A friend of your brother’s is sleeping in your sister’s old bedroom.”
“Oh really? Who?”
I winced again. The lady made no sense. She got all bent out of shape when my nice friends were in her house, yet felt it was perfectly fine to put one of my brother’s creepy friends into the bedroom next to mine.
In any case, that is how Audley Bine became my next door neighbor.
Considering the economy of Maine was ordinarily depressed every year, once the warm weather and tourists departed, and considering the national economy was suffering “stagflation” as it struggled to recover from the Arab Oil Embargo, and considering unemployment was near 10%, you might think thatas soon as I heard there might be work at a sail loft in Portland I would have rushed to be there as soon as it opened the next Monday morning. But considering my tendency to procrastinate, it was somewhat amazing I made it by Thursday.
It may not be fair, but I did the psychologically-correct thing and blamed my mother. She had an amazing ability to derail my initiative. Rather than encourage me she always seemed to see problems in my plans. Part of that problem was that I often couldn’t be bothered with plans. I preferred spontaneity. I felt I was a man who could fly by the seat of his pants, but my mother tended to feel I couldn’t do that unless I first remembered to put my pants on.
It really won’t do, to go into too many details; after forty-five years there are things which lose their urgency; they pass beyond staleness and enter the realm of absurdity. Back-breaking straws are seen as what they actually were: Straws. Let it suffice to say that though we loved one another we weren’t always constructive. Her advice was unwanted, and I was not good at accepting advice.
For a woman over fifty she was remarkably well preserved, smooth skinned and slender, partly due to ointments, creams, lotions and potions that littered her bedroom bureau, and partly due to her insistence upon serenity. A serene face stays smooth. As a trained nurse she could remain calm midst blood and gore. Therefore it was something of a wonder to me that I could age her ten years in a flash, simply with the bad spelling within a poem. And my plans had the same effect.
One way she achieved serenity was to be extremely well prepared. She had grown up during the want of the Great Depression and had experienced the rationing of World War Two, and was careful to keep shelves well stocked, not merely in terms of food, but in terms of hand-lotions and lipstick and soap and detergent and floor wax and vacuum bags and nails and bolts and screws and bandages and medicines and toothbrushes and scissors and paper and pens and brake fluid and spark plugs. If World War Three had broken out, our home would have been the place to loot, (perhaps to prepare for such a contingency, she did have a gun permit, though I never saw an actual pistol.) She had savings and stocks and also other investments which wouldn’t crash if the stock market crashed, and she paid premiums on ordinary insurance as well as some insurances for odd misfortunes which it never occurred to most people to insure, (for example, for obscure diseases, or for earthquakes in New England). She avoided all debt; she and my father had bought their first home with cash, and she’d never had a mortgage.
One preparation she did not make was for nuclear war; I remember she and my father discussing building a fallout shelter, while walking around in our cellar when I was small, but I think they deemed the likelihood of survival too small to be worth the investment; their noble plan was to send us children far off into the hinterlands, if possible, and then to die in Boston treating the burned.
The only other thing I can think of, that she didn’t prepare for, was the waywardness of sons. There was no telling what we might do. Sometimes we might take off just to escape being prepared, because at times her preparedness felt as stifling as an OSHA horse.
Despite the suffocating aspect of being overly prepared, I really liked my mother’s serenity. There was something comforting about being in her presence; you just needed to approach her with care. Sometimes I had the delicacy to say absolutely nothing. I’d walk into a room where she was smoking and reading, meaning to ask her if she’d seen where I left my shoes, and decide not to bother her. Instead I’d pick up a magazine and light a cigarette of my own, and just sit, enjoying the comfort. Eventually she might murmur, “Yes, dear?” But what was really odd was occasions where I had forgotten what I came in to ask, and had become totally engrossed in the magazine, and she murmured, “By the pedals of the piano”. I was absolutely certain I hadn’t said a word to prompt such a response, but when I went and looked, that would be where my lost shoes would be. The woman was mildly psychic, yet was completely unaware of it.
Having now raised five kids myself, I’m more aware of the complete shambles the young can make of the most carefully constructed plans. I had less pity for parents when young, and called my mother “too withdrawn”. But I likely can’t imagine what it was like for an only child (like my mother was) to be confronted with the utter ruination of a parent’s idealism which six children are capable of achieving. However I do now know there are times an exhausted parent simply needs to zone out, to become comfortably numb. It need not involve alcohol or drugs; a good novel or prayer will suffice. In any case, it is unwise to press a parent at such times.
My Dad used to joke that, when my mother was smoking and reading, she would respond “Yes, dear,” to whatever we children asked or announced. If we said, “Mom! The back yard is on fire!” she would dreamily murmur, “Yes, dear.” He also would joke we had a “statute of limitations” and should not confess to fiascos which occurred while camping, or to having capsized our sailboat, until at least a year had passed, because, rather than enjoying hearing of an adventure, the tale would “disturb the peace.” However in the end he himself “disturbed the peace” too much, and was shown the door.
All six of us kids had tested her limits, and were all well aware we could push the serene woman too far. Her dreamy eyes were capable of blazing. It did not happen often, but partly that was because once you witnessed such eyes, you did not wish to ever see them again. As a result there were certain subjects we were extremely careful about, if we brought them up at all.
This resulted in a wrench in the works of communication. We kids were not blatantly dishonest, but there is something which, if not dishonest, is distrusting, about doing things behind a mother’s back.
One technique we utilized was the fait accomli. One brother came strolling in to dinner at age sixteen and mentioned, “Oh, by the way, I’ll be living in Germany this summer as an exchange student; a German kid will be coming here.” Such announcements can be disconcerting, if you are a parent who is big on careful planning.
Another technique was borrowing-without-asking. This caused no problems if the borrowed item was stealthily replaced in good condition, but my mother was not pleased if we forgot to put things back, or used her silver forks for can-openers and put them back looking like they were having a bad hair day. And there are some things you simply should not borrow-without-asking, such as a car or a rich neighbor’s yacht.
But now I was twenty-one, and figured I’d left all the goofs of youth in my past. I was grimly determined to make no further mistakes. I’d studied my dreams and motives with five different psychologies, and had decided that the best psychologists were poets, and Shakespeare was the king. I’d dabbled a bit with reading scattered scriptures, and then abruptly surprised many by dropping Atheism and by stating I was convinced there was such a thing as a Loving God, and that, even if I couldn’t solve every problem, I had a Friend who could. I not only felt I had a clear vision of my own gifts and weaknesses, but also thought I had everyone else weighed and measured, and that included my mother. Therefore it was surprising to me that, despite my supposedly advanced maturity, my mother could still completely derail me.
She might say something innocuous, such as that I’d be wise to get my hair trimmed before applying for the job at the sail loft, and it would feel like a insurmountable stumbling-block, because I had no money for a haircut. I’d then have to have a “session”, (with my self as my psychologist), sifting through all my rude and inappropriate responses for the appropriate one. This could take a long time, if I allowed it to, for I liked looking into the past at childhood memories (and quite obviously do to this day, and am doing it now.) The study of faded traumas, and the cause-and-effects of karma, is much more interesting than getting a job (to me). Also a change-in-life such as getting a job could result in odd dreams, and those dreams, if analyzed, were a gateway to the landscape of poetry, which was (and is) a beautiful place and felt more like home than some grim brick warehouse down towards the waterfront in Portland. However I was also self-aware, when it came to understanding the excuses I could invent to justify procrastination, so I’d be my own drill sergeant and tell myself to get off my butt and quit worrying about my hair. I’d just borrow my mother’s scissors from her hair-cutting supplies, and trim my own hair, and also write a reminder to comb it carefully when I applied for work, tomorrow. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
I could have used a bit of coddling, I suppose, but I had become aware of my need for encouragement and was sick of it. I felt I should be able to do the right thing whether people appreciated it or not. Maybe a little child needed reassurance and support, but I was an adult, and had quit promiscuous sex and drugs even though my hippy friends booed rather than cheered. As I looked in the mirror and trimmed my hair my face adopted an expression that was rough, and tough, and sneered.
Another wrench in the works involved the simple fact my shack down by the water had become too cold to live in. Keeping the pot-bellied stove going involved scrounging for driftwood along the shore, and I’d have no time for that, if I was working from dawn to dusk. Therefore I’d have to move up the hill to my parent’s basement, for at least the time it took me to get my first paycheck and could afford firewood.The prospect of informing my mother of this move made me nervous, as it would derange her order, but I was a rough, tough man, so I took a deep breath and tried to be bold without sneering. After all, in the poetry of Aaron Hill, way back in 1750, it stated:
Tender hearted stroke the nettle And it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle And it soft as silk remains.
It often turns out actions aren’t as terrible as one envisions beforehand. I had only gotten as far as venturing, “It’s…um…getting sort of cold down in the shack…um…and…um….I was wondering…um…” when my mother surprised me by swiftly responding, “Oh, good.” Then she continued, “I was hoping to get you to move up to the little cottage and keep its pipes from freezing, at least until I can convince your Grammy to move up from Massachusetts.”
The “little cottage” was one of two cottages crammed onto the hillside between the Main House and the dock. A dark haired waitress named Allison had rented it during the summer, but when the restaurant where she worked closed for the winter she’d been unable to come up with the money to pay the rent, and recently moved to a friend’s. I became busy packing up my papers, typewriter and clothes and moving them up the steep stairs to the cottage, rather than applying for work at the sail loft. In the process I found a couple of rumpled dollars and lots of loose change and, with $6.35 to my name, didn’t feel so broke any more.
Ordinarily it would take me a long time to pack papers. I seemed compelled to linger over each page, thinking and sorting. Also I had a reluctance to put away things undone, and one poem required a rhyme for “orange.” This would then involve taking my Mom’s two dogs for long walks by the water, looking thoughtfully at the sky. (Over forty years later I explained this dilemma to my youngest son, and it took him four seconds to respond, “door hinge.”) (However I’m still looking for a rhyme for “silver”.) Fortunately it was so very cold in the shack I was able to pack papers far more speedily than usual.
I had the good sense to avoid unpacking my papers. I knew that could take as long as packing them could. Instead I took my dirty clothes up to my parent’s washing machine, because I figured I wouldn’t have time for laundry once I was working. Then I headed back down to the small cottage and took out a notebook and planned out schedules and budgets I might adopt, if I got the job at the sail loft. It was at this point I heard a metallic clashing behind the cottage, and went out into the early evening to investigate.
It was Mort. Mort was one of the Tradesman who Tubs and Slim had gotten my mother in touch with, as she shouldered the task of renovating the property, and adding improvements.
Mort rebuilt brick chimneys, and was the perfect fellow to find, for initially every chimney on the property had seen better days, and the chimney for the little cottage was crooked and crumbling and looked like it might totter and fall in the next good gale. Mort had set to work the spring before, up at the main house, which had a three story chimney connected to two fire places and was a major job, and then worked his way down the hill, and now every chimney on the property looked new; to me they almost looked too good, too perfectly orange and straight and flat and neatly mortared and perfectly square; I figured a chimney ought to have a certain roughness or it lacked character, (though of course I kept my opinions to myself).
The little cottage’s chimney had been the last one he’d worked on, and there was some minor detail he’d been unable to get to before the arctic blasts hit, and he occasionally showed up during thaws trying to complete the task, which required temperatures above freezing. (Also I suspected he liked chatting with Allison, though she was a third his age.) Now at long last he was done, and was taking his aluminum ladder and two big tool boxes home.
I liked Mort, for he was the only tradesmen who didn’t automatically look at me askance, assuming I was a long-haired hippy and therefore hopelessly effete. Mort seemed strangely blind, in that regard, and always seemed glad to see me, and to chat about a vast repertoire of inconsequential topics. He spoke with a rich, coastal Maine accent, clipped rather than a drawl, and he also had the ability to make nearly any subject interesting. He appeared to be around sixty, was wiry and hale but also a bit arthritic, and usually had a young go-for with him to do the heavy work, such as lugging bricks. They never lasted long, as such lugging is hard work, but he would laugh he never blamed them for quitting, ” ‘Cause I can’t affawd t’pay ’em maw than peanuts.”
One helper, Sammy, apparently would return as soon as he had spent his paycheck, and Mort would chuckle about how mad Sammy would be to find he had been replaced, and how he’d tell Sammy to be patient, for the new help wouldn’t last. Sammy wasn’t to be seen, on this occasion, and other help had apparently all gone back to school, and Mort was regarding his ladder and two toolboxes with a sad, wry humor. Without even thinking, (because I had found religion and believed in random acts of kindness,) I offered to help lug stuff up the hill, saying I had to go up the hill to get my laundry in any case. Mort grinned broadly. For an effete hippy I was very strong, and could hoist the ladder to one shoulder and lift one heavy tool box with my other hand.
As we started up the steep hill Mort wryly and somewhat sheepishly explained in his clipped speech, (wonderfully turning some dropped “R’s” into entire syllables), “I da-yah not puttah my old truck down he-yah, fuh fe-yah, that with the drive icy, I’d be stuck down he-yah ’til May.” Then he glanced sharply up the hill, where another tradesman was shifting the topmost, flat field-stones of an enormous retaining wall. Mort called out, “Good aftahnoon, Mistah Cappatelli. ‘Bout finished?”
“Yep. Fool’s Folly’s ‘ficially finished. And by Gawd, I’m glad!”
“Fool’s Folly” was my stepfather’s name for a rose garden he had promised my mother. Because it was built on the steepest slope of the hill, the field-stone wall had to rise nearly twenty feet to extend a flat garden out thirty feet. The wall Mr. Cappatelli built was the biggest wall he’d ever built in his life, and perhaps taxed his engineering skills. His first effort had come crashing down when nearly completed. Undeterred, he rebuilt a better footing and the wall arose a second time, but it was the talk of the town, (or at least of the post office, where I learned details after I returned from India). It then was back-filled with subsoil, then topped with peat moss, and finally Grubby Douglas, the neighborhood gardener, came and planted a collection of roses in rotted horse manure and covered them with white, Styrofoam cones, to await the spring. Great things were expected, though I thought the white cones made the garden look silly.
Although the job was complete and Mr. Cappatelli had been paid, he seemed to like to come by during the off-time of winter and tweak the positioning of the flat, topmost stones, and also to anxiously regard the doings of frost heaves down by the footing, and perhaps to quietly gloat over his accomplishment, (and lastly, I suspected, to be invited in for a drink).
He was a very strong man, pushing forty, with curly black hair and a flashing white smile. He was not as tall as me but very muscular, with massive arms twice as thick as mine. What was most intimidating about him was his habit of looking you squarely in the in the eye with his big arms folded. No one called him “Raphael”. Even when he smiled I tended to look away.
I looked away as the burly man folded his arms and flashed a grin, stating, “Well Mort, looks like you got better help than those puny runts you usually hire.”
“Aye-yup, but ’tain’t hired. This’s boss’s son.”
“Really!” That was all Mr. Cappetelli said, as he scrutinized me from head to toe. Then he turned to Mort, “The boss has invited us in for a snort of hooch. Will you be joining us?”
“I may drop in t’ chat, but my daughtah’s comin’ by with grandkids, so I think I’ll steeah cleah of booze.” After a pause he added, “And boss tends to twist the wrist ‘n’ tip the lip far ‘n’ long.”
“Oh, he’s liberal all right” agreed Mr. Cappetelli as we passed. Both men seemed to find my stepfather’s trait a virtue.
I lifted the heavy toolboxes into the back of Mort’s battered pickup and hoisted the aluminum ladder to an odd roof-rack made of wood, thinking the ladder looked too modern for the truck. Mort was petting our two black dogs, opining about whether the winter would remain mild, (though it didn’t seem mild to me), and I talked about the jet-stream. Weather was one thing I could talk knowledgeably about. After Mort expertly roped the ladder to the roof we headed in, “to pay owah respects”, as Mort put it.
I had to pass through the kitchen and dining-room to the stair down to the laundry in the basement. I did so slowly, taking in the warm atmosphere. Mr. Cappetelli had already made it in, through the back entrance, and my stepfather was already making him an Old Fashioned. Slim and Tubs were also there with two women I didn’t know but assumed were their wives, along with Grubby Douglas and an elderly woman I recognized as the postmistress. Everyone seemed to be talking at once and laughing a lot. My stepfather gestured towards Mort silently with a big half-gallon of Old Crow, pointing at a glass invitingly, and Mort shook his head and laughed, “Thanks but no thanks. If I had one I’d need six, and my grandkids are comin’ by for dinnah.” I slowed slightly, thinking my stepfather might invite, but just then my mother loudly informed me, “Your psychologist called. I gave him the phone number for the little cottage.”
To me it seemed the room became instantaneously quieter and that everyone regarded me curiously, except for Slim, who took a step back and bit a knuckle. I lost all interest in staying, nodded to my mother with a smile, and continued on to the laundry. I imagine my face became quite different the moment I was out of eyeshot.
I was fuming. Why did she have to use the words “your psychologist?” Any other time she’d say “Audley Bine called”. Was she trying to make me look like some sort of dorkus? Irritated, I seethed with absurd rage when my clothes weren’t in the washing machine. Rather than being thankful that my mother had put them in the drier I was angry that they had cooled before they were folded. Was she trying to make me look all wrinkly when I applied for work? I turned the drier back on with a self righteous twist of the dial, folded my arms, and sneered down long avenues of idiocy as I waited.
It wasn’t until I shouldered through the door of the little cottage with my arms full of laundry that I came to my better senses, because my eyes fell on a motto under a picture the size of a credit card, taped to the fridge.
I had taped the picture onto the fridge as one of the first things I did upon entering the house, though it was a picture I took a fair amount of grief for. One friend told me he thought Meher Baba looked like he could make a good pizza. Another asked me what city he was mayor of. Yet I taped the picture up because I was rough and tough and didn’t need the encouragement of my peers. Also I found it hard to be crabby looking at it. On this occasion, however, it made my shoulders sag slightly.
I walked through the tiny kitchen into a surprisingly large living room, which held a bureau that smelled vaguely of Allison because the bedroom, which also smelled of Allison, was so tiny it belonged in a train. The living-room also held a small wardrobe because the bedroom was too small for a true closet, though it had a flat cabinet you might hang a shirt sideways in. As I hung my four shirts in the wardrobe, which smelled vaguely of seaweed, I muttered to myself, “I can’t believe I let Mom do it to me again”. Then I smirked and mimicked her voice in fallsetto, ” ‘My psychologist’. ‘My psychologist’ Why’d she say that? Audley hasn’t been my psychologist for a year, but with the postmistress there the whole frickin’ town will gab. But…but…but what the hell do I care what anyone thinks?”
Of course it was right then the telephone rang, and of course it was Audley Bine. Instead of “Hello” he said, “Why the hell didn’t you call me!”
“Call you? Was I suppose to call you?”
“That was the message I gave your mother.”
“You did? All she told me was that she’d given you my number.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Oh.”
Audley was becoming a bit of a pain. I spent more and more time listening to his problems and complaints, as he grew more and more impatient with mine. If anyone paid anyone for being a psychologist, he should have been paying me; I’d long since stopped paying him, and therein lay a problem.
I had worked for Audley, and it seemed to me that, although perhaps a trainee should pay for the training he receives, that should stop when the trainee is trained; then he should be paid for the work he does. Audley’s problem seemed to be that he wanted to keep being paid, and didn’t like to pay, though he could become quite angry when I told him so. I had become like an apprentice who has become a skilled journeyman, and wants to set up a shop on his own.
Not that I wanted to do what Audley did. He was a idealist who was forever collecting groups of followers and attempting to create a perfect society, but they all tended to be communes that crashed and burned. Being associated with him was a sort of roller coaster ride which I initially found inspiring, (when I believed the communes might succeed), and still found fascinating, (though I suspected his latest commune was failing).
Audley and I had a swift and somewhat brusque conversation. I learned the commune was in crisis, which didn’t surprise me, for that tends to be what you get when you form a commune of people in need of psychological help. Audley wanted to “seize the bull by the horns” and demanded I come down for a “group session”. He could be a bit of a bully when in his go-getter mood, and refused to take “no” for an answer. My problem was that I couldn’t lie. When I told him I was broke and couldn’t afford gas, he asked if I was really broke, I confessed I had $6.35 to my name. Audley did some quick calculating. Gas was 56 cents a gallon in 1975, and my tiny Toyota got 31 miles a gallon. I could drive to Newton and back to Maine for four bucks. What was I so worried about? I needed to get away from my mother’s worrying, because…
I cut him short, because I was in no mood to be psychologically dissected like some sort of frog. We shifted to the topic of whether I should be looking for work rather than saving a sinking commune, and Audley pointed out tomorrow was Sunday and Sunday was not a good day to find work, so I might as well go for a drive. Next I protested I could do no good, and at this point Audley shifted to wheedling. I couldn’t stand that. I didn’t want to hear how I was a “moderating influence” when I didn’t feel moderate, but in the end I caved,
The surprise-ending for this chapter is that I don’t end it by applying for work in a sail loft, but heading south towards the suburbs of Boston. When it came to procrastination, I was a master.
Actually I’ll begin the next chapter roaring south after dark on the Maine Turnpike in a tiny, tinny Toyota that screamed like a deranged sewing machine at seventy mph, for a night highway is a good place to contemplate the phenomenon of Audley Bine. I’ll conclude this chapter with me dashing into my mother’s kitchen and making myself an instant coffee at the boiling-water tap at her kitchen sink, for the drive down.
The party was still going on, but I figured I should tell my mother my plans. “Heading down to Boston. Lights are off, and heat’s down to fifty-five, in the little cottage. Be back tomorrow.” I tried to dart out the door and not see I had aged her ten years.
Over the years I have held well over a hundred jobs, and gradually came to very much enjoy job interviews, as the prospect of rejection grew less intimidating.
I think I first stopped being terribly intimidated in New Mexico at age thirty-three, when I was required to show proof at the unemployment office that I had applied for work in at least three places every week, in order to obtain tiny unemployment benefits of $32.00/week. (The benefits were hardly worth the effort, but I continued to bother spending a day each week walking around fulfilling the requirements, primarily because I knew my getting benefits irritated my mean, crooked former-boss.) It was benign summertime, and the rest of the week I was busily writing in a campground where the rent was $25.00/week; I had absolutely no desire for the interruptions caused by the nuisance of employment. To make certain I wouldn’t accidentally get a job, I applied for work at the oddest places, and adopted an attitude of curiosity where it didn’t matter that it became immediately obvious I wasn’t qualified for the job; I asked questions because I was interested in learning about a job I couldn’t do. I became more like a reporter than an applicant, and for some reason most (but not all) interviewers liked the tables being turned, and being the one interviewed, and we’d sit for half an hour “chewing the fat” over coffee. They seemed surprised a shabby drifter was so articulate, (and I liked the free coffee.)
But when I was young and terribly shy it was a completely different matter. Looking for work was a humiliation and a hell.
It wasn’t so bad when I ran my own little landscaping business in the wealthy suburb I grew up in. I walked up and down streets putting a file-card-sized advertisement in mail boxes, with big lettering that inquired, “Spring Cleaning? Need Muscle?” and then had details and a phone number in small lettering. Then I sat back to wait for others to call me. Rather than like asking others to dance it was more like the phone rang and others asked me to dance. (In my list of jobs-I’ve-had I don’t know whether to count this business as being one job, or twenty-five; rich and interesting people asked me to help with all sorts of interesting tasks, but that is a tale for another time.)
It was quite a different thing when I looked through a newspaper’s classified ads for the help-wanted ads, and had to go fill out an application. Then it was like asking a girl for a dance, and I was never very bold in that respect. In some ways it could be worse, like asking a girl to dance when you didn’t know how to dance, and she’d be required to teach you.
(As an aside, during my first date with my wife we attended a Cajun barbecue with Cajun music, and were both surprised to see people begin dancing in a way I supposed was Cajun. I said I didn’t know how to dance, and she said she didn’t know how to dance, and then we decided to invent our own dance and danced joyously for ninety minutes straight. I knew then I had found someone special. However I was thirty-seven when that happened.)
At age twenty-one I was gruesomely uncomfortable when it came to job interviews and “selling myself” in any way, shape or form. “Tooting your own horn” seemed somehow immodest, even rude. But in January, 1975, I was flat broke, which is a state good at pushing a man past his self-imposed limits.
My mother knew something was up when she came downstairs and found me plunked at her dining-room table, sneering distastefully at the small local paper, which was opened to the help-wanted section. She was, as she put it, “all gussied up”, which meant she was dressed up in tweed to go to some sort of cocktail party; fragrant with subtle perfume; tall; her short, dark hair perfectly styled with gray wings at her temples, and wearing dangling tear-shaped earrings of green jade. She radiated an aura of pleased serenity, but the moment she summed up my situation her serenity became creased by concern. The fact I apparently needed a job suggested there was a problem, and she did not like her children to have problems, especially when she was about to go out to a party.
She veered carefully away from the topic of my prospects, and instead inquired if I would sprinkle some salt on the icy front walk before my stepfather came home. I was glad to escape the dismal want-ads, so I got up to do it, aware he’d be home any minute.
It was just getting dark as he pulled up to the side of the street, even as I sprinkled the salt, which I decided made me look good, as he didn’t often see me working. He smiled at me as he gingerly got out of his Saab, an elderly man with only a fringe of grey hair left, but with his baldness hidden beneath a checked, deer-slayer hat like the one Sherlock Holmes wore. I thought the hat looked silly, but never told him so because he so obviously enjoyed wearing it.
My stepfather was 28 years older than my mother. His friends had told him that marrying her would either extend his life or kill him, and initially we kids did our best to kill him, and he actually did have a heart attack within the first six months of adopting six troubled children.
Immediately after the marriage I’d done my best to be polite, but when the old man accidentally offended me I began to refer to him as “the fossil” behind his back. I deemed him an old fool, and even a home-wrecker, for I preferred being a struggling family on the verge of having to move out of a wealthy suburb, to being mere used baggage bought by an old coot who wanted a trophy wife. But then things changed. Somewhat amazingly I began to feel like a trophy stepchild.
He had been a Harvard Law School Professor, and fit the mold: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” He would speak with long pauses, as if he was a very learnéd man and all the world breathlessly awaited his thoughtful opinions. He seemed quite blissfully unaware that the mannerisms he felt were charming were in fact dreadfully dull.
During our first dinners together as a family I attempted to bat my eyes politely as he took forever to say even the most inconsequential things, “I think…..I would like….some mustard.” My ten-year-old and eight-year-old younger brother and sister would have none of it, and would interject silly things into the old man’s pauses, completing his sentences for him: “I think….I would like….to tap dance?” Then they would dissolve into helpless laughter. My stepfather initially was infuriated by the affronts to his dignity, but his manner of punishing them was to rise in wrath and stalk silently away from the table, which made my younger siblings only laugh all the more helplessly, as my mother regarded them with horror. I hated dinnertime. But after six months, and especially after his heart attack, I began to notice something. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old man dropped the long pauses.
The late 1960’s was a tumultuous time, with disrespect of elders in fashion. My two elder brothers were away at college, and both dropped out to join a commune two thousand miles away. My older sister had a scandalous relationship with a married, older man and got thrown out of our house, which I thought a bit hypocritical of my mother, considering she too was living with an older man. At age fifteen I decided to tell my mother what she was doing wrong, and was rewarded with a slap across my face I likely deserved.
In retrospect my stepfather seems slightly mad to have walked into such a buzz-saw at retirement age. Having been a stepfather myself, I now have a better understanding of the problems stepfathers face, but at the time I had no mercy. I loved my father, felt my mother should have stood by her man, and saw my stepfather as an interloper.
My father had been a famous surgeon who had at least five major trauma’s simultaneously occur in his life, not the least of which was the fact the woman he’d had six children with didn’t love him any more, (and perhaps had never loved him), which led him to begin raving and drinking too much. But the specific trauma that intellectually hit me hardest was the simple fact he couldn’t do what he once had done. He’d been an amazing surgeon, able to suture the ends of severed arteries back together with twenty tiny stitches and tie the knots with one hand. No other surgeon could do what he could do, enabling him to make what, in modern terms, was roughly a half million to a million dollars a year. But then, (in the same manner that even Babe Ruth reached an age when no team wanted him), my father hit the wall at age forty-four.
This contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer. I wanted to find a vocation I’d never be too old to do.
My stepfather went through a similar crisis, which for obvious reasons I watched with interest, (if not compassion). When he hit age seventy Harvard College retired him. He was as mentally sharp as ever, but it was simply the college’s policy in 1970: When you hit seventy you were out the door; no discussion.
I was somewhat incredulous that he should be hurt or angry, and puzzled that he became as crabby as he became. In my eyes getting a job was more likely to make me crabby. He had a fine pension and plenty of money saved and could just kick back and laze as happily as a clam, but instead he was miserable. Was it possible a man could want to work?
Then something nice surprised him midst his bitterness. Three of his former students had formed a law office in Portland, Maine, and they came to him and very humbly inquired if he might be so good as to consider helping them out by becoming the law office’s senior advisor. I have never seen an old man stop being crabby so fast. He seemed to feel like a man granted a reprieve on the gallows, and accepted the job as a very great blessing, and seemed to never forget he was blessed, gently twinkling like morning stars in the afterglow of glory.
I think it was my older sister who first understood that the old man deserved appreciation, which was a bit surprising, as she’d become a fiery feminist. She made me walk on eggs, for fear I’d offend her. I didn’t think she’d put up with anyone over thirty. Yet when she visited she took to greeting the old man with demonstrative hugs. He most definitely was not a man prone to hugging, but he seemed to like hers, especially during the days when he was unemployed and crabby.
I myself didn’t hug the man. I’d tried it one time, the first breakfast after we became a new family. I came downstairs and gave him a hug as he sat at the table reading the paper, and he gruffly stated, “Don’t feel you have to do that ever again.” I recoiled, and it was only after four years, (when involved in some sort of “express your inner feelings” pop-psychology), that I confessed I’d been hurt, and he apologized, saying he only intended to free me from feeling I had to display any sort of artificial affection. At the time I took him at his word, and stayed away from him.
I didn’t approve of my younger sibling’s irreverence at the dinner table, and tried to frown at them, although they were so funny I sometimes couldn’t manage it. For my part I politely discussed weather and sports with my stepfather and then excused myself; I left the table as swiftly as I possibly could. I assumed he didn’t care for me. At age sixteen I ran away from home for a week as a sort of grandiose gesture, and was a bit taken aback that he never really noticed, because my mother never told him; he just assumed I was off visiting friends.
Only gradually did we become interested in each other. I think the first common ground we discovered involved a love of puns. Then, because my mother had a large dictionary on an ornate stand by the dining-room table, we shared an interest in the derivation of words. The closest I ever came to being so bold as to argue with the man involved words. One time I ventured I didn’t approve of the word “niggardly”, and he protested the word had nothing to do with race, so we looked the word up. Usually he was correct and I was not, but, on the rare occasions I knew something he didn’t, he always behaved appreciative rather than offended. That surprised me.
Then, as I became a hippy and began hitchhiking around the country, he actually supported my adventures rather than attempting to prevent them. The police tended to investigate smooth-cheeked hitchhikers, to see if they were runaways, and I was able to show them a permission-slip from my stepfather that I carried in my wallet. (I don’t think it was the illegible handwriting that impressed the officers, as much as it was the fact the stationary read, “Harvard Law School”, at the top.)
Though I hitchhiked because I was restless, and the suburbs were sterile and bored the hell out of me, I always pretended I was doing it “for a school project” or “for an English paper.” This caused a bit of a problem when no such papers were forthcoming. However I did produce one paper, a “senior project”, which drew a strange response from the old man.
What I did was to overcome my shyness and interview every member of my senior class I could get to talk with me, during lunch in the cafeteria. I asked them to describe what cliques they had belonged to, going back as far as they could remember. Then I wrote a paper with the title “The Evolution Of Cliques In A Suburban High School” which I got in trouble for, (because I handed the same paper in to both my English and Social Studies teachers, blithely unaware such redundancy might present a problem). The paper contained a fair amount of sarcasm, and was vain, for it described hippy poets as the “most highly evolved” clique, and my stepfather was completely enchanted by it. He took it in to Harvard and showed it to all his friends, even making extra copies of the badly typed document. We never talked together about the paper, but I could see the man was delighted. I found the experience strange, for I didn’t tend to think of myself as being delightful, at age seventeen.
When I was eighteen one of my older brothers “borrowed” a rich man’s yacht and we sailed it south, intending to load it with marijuana in Jamaica and get rich quick. We made it as far as Nassau before the Law caught up with us. We deserved jail, but my stepfather fought for us, and he got us off with a slap on the wrist, though it cost him a pretty penny. Sometimes having a stepfather who is a boring professor of law isn’t all bad.
Now I was twenty-one and had known the old man for seven years, and not only had I failed to kill him, but against my own will I found myself liking him a lot.
He had become very careful and methodical in his old age, to avoid falling or losing things. He stretched little ice-grips over his boots, and followed a three-step process when leaving his Saab to make certain he did not forget his briefcase, keys, or to turn his headlights off. Even though I had salted the front walk, he took all the care of a man on a tightrope, gingerly walking to the front steps, and then, after entering the house, went through a similar process, reminding me of Mr. Rogers in the way he always hung up his coat and deerslayer hat in an identical manner. He was particularly slow and deliberate when hanging up his car keys on a particular hook. Then I shadowed him to the dining room table, where he would open his briefcase and remove the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. He was well aware of my tendency to lurk like a vulture, and handed me the papers with a smile.
He was also slow and deliberate with his questioning (though he had dropped the long pauses,) and was very observant. As a lawyer, he knew how to cross examine, and despite his caution he’d learned to think quickly on his feet. A lot seemed to happen in his silences, at times giving me the sense he was psychic.
On this occasion he must have noted I didn’t reach for the Times, and instead for the Press Herald, and noticed that rather than opening to the weather map I opened the paper to the “Help Wanted” page. He also may have noted the town newspaper was already open to “Help Wanted”, on the table. He looked interested, and inquired, “Any work?”
I pretended to find the situation humorous. “Well, there are three jobs in the local paper. I can pretend to be a mechanic at the cannery, or pretend to be a cook at the diner, or pretend to be an expert at veneering the decks of yachts, at the marina. The trick would be to get at least one paycheck, before they fired me.”
My stepfather didn’t say anything, but he did give me a slightly unnerving, very penetrating glance with his very blue eyes, before my mother came bustling in and said it was time to go.
Then abruptly the house was gruesomely silent. A sterility I knew all too well was pressing in from the black windows, as I faced a Friday night alone. I swiftly glanced through the help-wanted ads in the Press Herald, not expecting to find anything and having my expectations confirmed. Then I began to pace around my parent’s house, trying to find something to think about, to escape my despair.
Sometimes escapism is too obvious. I could click through all the shows on the T.V., and nothing would grab me. I could glance over the spines of all the books in the ceiling-to-floor wall of books in the living-room, and every author would be dull. I could go to the piano and try to lose myself in a song, bellowing at the top of my lungs because no one was home, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. All the symbols of wealth in the plush home were sucked dry of value, and became empty trinkets. There was no escaping a poverty that came creeping in from black windows like ghouls, so I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and went out to walk in it. Something about walking in the darkness was soothing to my soul (and it wasn’t because, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”).
The soothing was a bit of a mystery to me, and still remains a mystery, when I see a young man striding along a highway when I’m out driving after dark. I’m sure the police are curious as well, but when they pull over to ask a young vagrant what he’s doing or where he’s going, I doubt they get a good answer. (The best answer is “going for a walk”, because then you don’t have to explain). However the real answer is, I have decided, something which involves levels of our being beneath the superficial skim we call our intellect or our “our rational”. Even in the pitch dark we are “communing with nature”.
I found hiking-in-the-dark annoyed psychologists, for they were like the officer questioning the vagrant, and always wanted to know exactly what I was communing, demanding specifics when there were no words. (Also perhaps they were annoyed because when I went for a walk I didn’t have to pay them to be healed). But what (or who) the healing involved was always a mystery. In a sense it was like talking-in-tongues, words that sounded like babbling but were the super-conscious speaking to the subconscious, without granting the conscious mind permission to eavesdrop. Or that’s the best I can do to explain the inexplicable. The simply fact is: After-dark hiking made me feel better without any excuse for feeling better.
One psychologist explained that I “burned up excessive hormones through physical activity”, and I’ll allow that, if it makes him feel less insecure, but he was never in my head in that darkness.
There definitely was a physical component, especially as the walking became striding (which hippies called “trucking”). I’d become caught up in the rhythm, the way feet sounded scuffing over the tar, the way the streetlight pools came and went and bobbed up and down as I strode, the way my striding shadow shortened and then lengthened. Then out of the rhythm would come lyrics, and sometimes the melody of a song. Often it was an old song, for example I might find myself humming a song that came to me when walking home from my girlfriend’s, (back when I had a girlfriend), the evening before I set sail as an outlaw with my brother, when I was well aware I might die at sea.
The night is cricket’s velvet. My cigarette is glowing. A police car whispers by. I have no way of knowing Will my baby cry When she finds me going Going going…
The world is swimming softly. The cool night air I’m drinking Brings me softly down From my happy thinking. I cannot turn around Though the happiness is shrinking Shrinking shrinking…
The streetlight pools are nodding. The steady pavement’s flowing Surges as my march is on. Can she see I’m knowing This could be my ending song? Oh am I really going Going going gone?
Other times the song would be a new song, and I was always a bit mystified where they came from. Not that I worried about such things. Instead merely I enjoyed the sensation. I now blush a little to think how unselfconsciously absorbed in my own emotions I became, and wonder what people sleeping with their window open thought, as a crooning crazy-man approached on the street outside, and then faded away. But I myself became wonderfully carefree, sort of drunk without alcohol, and within a bubble where I felt most like myself, and free of the person I had to pretend to be when applying for some job I really didn’t want to do.
On this particular occasion it slowly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do before daybreak; there were no offices accepting job-applications after dark, and therefore it was a waste of energy to worry. It then occurred to me that, if I couldn’t find a job, perhaps I could join the clam-diggers I saw slogging out over the mudflats from the window of my shack, as the tide went out. In the bitter winds of January it looked like a miserable job, and I had noticed there were fewer and fewer of them as the weather grew colder and colder, but as I paced in the darkness I found the idea strangely appealing. It would be a job with no boss. But they didn’t dig clams in the dark, so it was no use starting right away.
Eventually I found my way along the waterfront to my shack on the dock down below my parent’s house, but it was bitter cold inside. The fire had gone out in the pot bellied stove, and I’d neglected to get firewood or split kindling. That was another problem to deal with in the morning, but in the meantime I decided to grab my notebook and to head up the hill to my parent’s warm abode, and to jot down a poem that had come into my head as I walked, and eventually to sleep in their warm basement.
When my parents returned from their cocktail party they found me scribbling and smoking at their dining-room table, as if I’d never left. I was feeling much better, for my poem pleased me, and also I had decided I had a job. I’d be a clam-digger. My mother didn’t ask about my poem or job, but rather to please clean up all the newspapers on the table, so I did it, after clipping the weather-map from the Times. As I did I idly inquired if the party was fun. They both seemed a little flushed, and I suspected they’d had more than one cocktail.
My mother rhapsodized about some client of my stepfather’s she had met who had opened a place that made sails, in Portland. My mother could be quite dazzling at a party, but she was equally charm-able, and I gathered the businessman had charmed her.
Listening more carefully I learned she had absorbed details of the sail-making business like a sponge, and could even become righteously indignant about people who had caused the businessman a problem and to require a lawyer. Apparently there was some government grant aimed at enticing businesses to Portland, to lower the high unemployment rate, but some disgruntled employee had tattled about some “i” the businessman forgot to dot or some “t” he neglected to cross, in order to qualify for the government grant. The man found American employees very ungrateful for the work he had brought to their city, and it was then my ears perked up. I immediately assumed the man must be from some foreign place that had Queen Elisabeth on their stamps, and must speak with one of several British accents that my mother could never resist, (even if they weren’t the King’s English). Sure enough, when I inquired I discovered the businessman was an Aussie.
For the most part my stepfather had remained silent, merely nodding and smiling as my mother chattered in her musical voice, but suddenly he turned to me and I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, even at a cocktail party. His face grew serious and he said two dreadful words. “He’s hiring.”
I sat back, a bit stunned. Me? A sail-maker?
Oh well, I hadn’t really wanted to dig clams in January, anyway.