by James Hannon | Jul 4, 2022
Once, a young man realized his mortality. Yes, of course Daniel was aware of human mortality, but this direct personal realization hit him like a truck.
HE was going to die, and not just go through dying but then be no more, for all eternity. NOT BE. He was less than a mote in a dust storm!
It was unbelievable! Daniel was bright and talented. His parents loved him, would do anything for him. He had friends. He had been with several women who loved him. He was in love at the very moment of his realization—with Deborah, a beautiful and sexually enchanting woman. How could he lose all that? How could he even consider this catastrophe?!
There was a trust fund. He would pull the drawbridge, buy a house for both of them in a remote location near the ocean and hire security and staff to cook and clean. Perhaps in Africa, on the Kenyan coast. But there were Somali pirates! What if they raided? And even if that was far-fetched, he could lose Deborah if she became bored of the isolation. Or he could not! They might fall more and more into a passionate love that surpassed all other connections and pleasures. And that would be worse! More to lose!
Their relationship couldn’t survive such stress. Deborah wanted to live in the moment, unconscious of the losing battle. The sight of her lovely face broke his heart. They broke up.
Daniel tried to bury his awareness in alcohol and drugs and sex with women who meant nothing to him. Helpful at first, but the horrors of the mornings after soon rendered useless the anodyne nights. So he became celibate and sober.
He went alone into macrobiotics and spiritual practice and stayed in his apartment, doing yoga for hours and reading spiritual teachers. Yogananda reported experiences of astral projection, traveling around the world in his spirit body. Many considered Yogananda a great teacher so maybe it was true. Some of what Yogananda and others wrote was metaphor or intended for a different audience, perhaps, but maybe death is an illusion and the body just a mortal coil. That was something to hold on to, although the loss of his beautiful body was still a terrible thought–and what good would be life after death if he didn’t have his own personality, his identity, his self?
Loneliness. Daniel saw the Krishnas chanting on Market St. They looked ecstatic. They believed. Like them he loved George Harrison and wanted to be caught up in the spiritual sky. The women were long-haired and lovely but safely untouchable and they seemed, like him, to have been burned by desire. Why not visit the ashram next to Golden Gate Park?
Nothing to lose, he danced and begged, then let them shave his head and give him a new name. Now he had companions. The chanting numbed his brain as did fatigue from the long days of work and little food. But one day he watched himself changing the clothes of the little deity dolls before which they chanted and danced and he was embarrassed. Besides, the food was terrible and some of the women were less untouchable than he had imagined.
There had to be a better way. Buddhism was cleaner–the reformation of the polytheistic mess of Vedanta. He read about Tibetan Buddhism but there again were deities and demons, and chanting in an unintelligible language. No, he’d have to go all the way.
Daniel went on retreat to a Zen monastery two hours north of the city. Serious. Thirty-four men and eighteen women but these women weren’t playing. Zazen, the sitting meditation, was hard. Physically painful; mentally torture. He let himself daydream at times but his daydreams had driven him here so he didn’t want to indulge them. So he tried harder.
He cleaned and helped cook, sat and meditated on impermanence, walked and meditated on compassion. Dharma talks included the value of grateful joy. Impossible. He cried sometimes in front of the others and felt like crying much more often. He didn’t know how to connect with others or whether he was even supposed to. He missed Deborah and his family and friends. Why did he have to suffer so greatly when so many remained happy idiots?
On the fifth day he met with the abbot.
“Why are you here?”
“I am forlorn. My life is a burning candle. I shall cease to be and this is unbearable knowledge that I cannot unlearn.”
“Who dies in this day and age?”
“We all die!”
“Me! Yes, I know, I’m self-centered, maybe a narcissist. I do feel pain for others but mostly me, yes. How can this ever change?”
“Who really dies?”
“Please, I respect you and the practice but I need help not games. Me! I will die! If reincarnation is real, I will be re-born but not as me! What good is that? All that has made me ME will be destroyed–my beautiful body, my genetic code, my memories. All will die! It’s a tragedy for all of us, or a joke, or random meaninglessness.”
“But you are young. When will you die?”
“Sometime! It doesn’t matter when; it’s inevitable. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man, etc. Everything I have ever experienced will be gone. I will not BE. It will be as if I never was. The void. I will be annihilated.”
“But not soon?”
“Maybe, if you decide to kill me. And maybe that’s what I want. If I am dead I will no longer suffer from this absurd existence, where I am supposed to learn, love, enjoy and serve, all to have it snuffed.”
“Have you worked in our garden?”
“Are you in a hurry to leave this monastery?”
“Well, no. Not really. Uh, I don’t think I have any place to go. You know, wherever you go, there you are and all that.”
“Ah, no. I have not worked in the garden.”
“I suggest you go to the garden. Do some planting and weeding. Follow instructions and observe carefully the living entities.”
Daniel had already decided to throw himself onto the tradition and seek refuge in the sangha. So he would go to the garden.
He followed the instructions of others, especially Busan, a middle-aged Asian man who was head gardener. He weeded. He transplanted seedlings — vegetables and flowers, many of them annuals. Surprising and silly. Annuals are mayflies.
But we are all mayflies! He looked at the cumulus clouds in the azure sky. Lovely. So what? The sky was eternal but he was not. Wait! Was even the sky eternal? The blue sky? He had read astrophysicists who explained that in time the sun would expand and turn the earth to an uninhabitable desert. And later the sun would absorb the earth completely? Who? The entire world! When? Eventually! There would be space but no blue sky!
“I could kill everything in this garden. Let me be Kali. I will be the executioner instead of the victim.” He recalled stomping on ants as a boy after another tongue-lashing from his crazy mother. He had felt like a god. But then he felt guilty.
So, ahimsa. No ant-stomping. But why pull the weeds? What was the point of gardening, or eating? Daniel could fast to death. He had heard this was a relatively painless death, once one got past the hunger.
He needed to think less, he got that. He would do as he was instructed.
Daniel’s father once told him, “don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.” He had thought of it as a metaphor–his father was an easily bribed government official. But maybe it wasn’t a metaphor. Daniel liked digging in the earth. Busan said he seemed to have a green thumb. Surprising.
He saw how important the weeding was for vegetables. Once he had cleared a section the next week’s growth was strong. This was true for flowers too. They were like pets. He admired the tall blue ones and the saucer-shaped flowers that climbed like vines toward the sun. He learned how to stake them and the other tall perennials that would fall over without help.
He was helping to feed people and he liked most of them. They were serious but few were grim. Some smiled and laughed and seemed not to be faking, although there was a dharma talk where they were encouraged to “fake it ‘til you make it.” It was confusing. For once, he didn’t feel like the smartest guy in the room. That was a relief.
After three weeks in the garden he met again with the abbot.
“How do you like the garden?”
“Yes, it’s good. Busan is good to work with. It feels good to get my hands in the dirt. I like helping to feed people, and I have come to appreciate the flowers as well.”
“You formerly did not like flowers?”
“Well, you know, ephemeral and not nourishing, especially the annuals.”
“Yes, but beautiful—the annuals are most beautiful.”
“Have you observed the fauna as well as the flora?”
“We work to keep them out.”
“You keep all of them out?”
“Well, not the bees and other bugs”.
“So, continue your gardening. And look more closely.”
Daniel bowed and left, thinking “Well, at least I didn’t get a koan.”
Midsummer in the garden was hot. Everyone wore a straw hat, shorts and sneakers. Not the uniform he had expected. There were large dry patches at the edges of the garden. He thought they could do more there, if they could water more. Busan wanted to conserve water but let Daniel dig up the dry soil and use a watering can.
He dug and found many worms and insects. Here’s fauna. He put down his can to observe. There were a lot of black ants running around like crazy people. Monkey mind. They seemed to be finding food and heading off somewhere.
He told Busan he was supposed to observe insects. Busan smiled and said, “say hello for me.”
Daniel followed the ants who crawled under and through the garden fence. They went through the grass and into the woods. Tracking was slow because their paths wandered as if they were lost. But not all those who wander are lost. He crawled along the ground, surprised at the length of their journey. Daniel was at it for over an hour. Eventually, he found hundreds of ants converging. Their nest must be nearby but he couldn’t find it. Perhaps there were many little trails leading to their home.
With his back aching and with dinner coming he turned to go. As he turned around he was surprised to his left by a mound of dirt and sand at least three feet high. This was it. There were ants disappearing into the mound, though not as many as he expected. The nest was underground, he knew, so this mound must be the dirt they dug up while creating a home. Impressive.
In the following weeks Daniel spent a little time each day with the ants. One day quite far from the nest he saw a stream of red ants and followed them. They encountered some black ants, maybe his, and the fight was on, like a psychedelic game of checkers but violent, a battle he could watch from a great height. A song came to his head: “Once turquoise armies lay opposite and ready, but wondered why the fight was on.” Hendrix and Axis: Bold as Love. And the album cover: Hindu deities, Krishna and Arjuna, the charioteer. Oh, no, not back to the Gita!
Transfixed, he watched the smaller red ants combine to attack black ants and seemingly paralyze them with venom, and then drag some of the larger black ants away. The black ants were valiant. They would come to the aid of a besieged sister, often to lose their own lives to a half-dozen red ants. Many black ants were drawn and quartered by the vicious red ants who seemed to take the defeated enemy as food. And it looked like they had captured the nest of the black ants–quite distant from the nest of his ants. The black ants were exiled but came back to the battlefield over the next two days to retrieve their dead. So touching!
Nature–us and them. Daniel thought of another song, “The rivers are full of crocodile nasties, and he who made kittens put snakes in the grass.” Well, he had let go of a personal deity when he left the Krishnas. But it was depressing to think how ants, so good to their own, had been warring with other ant species for a million years for food and territory. And humans had been at it for 200,000.
Hendrix had it right–there ain’t no life nowhere.
On his third meeting with the abbot:
“How is it going in the garden?”
“OK. We have eggplants and squash and melons are coming in, as well as the usual vegetables. And the delphiniums and morning glories are beautiful–you know, they need to be staked.”
“Yes. Good. Any fauna?”
“Well, I have been observing ants.”
“Ah, please tell me what you have seen?”
“Warfare, vicious warfare between black and red ants.”
“Yes, the Battle of the Ants, from Walden. Have you read Thoreau?”
“Only Civil Disobedience.”
“Of course. Yes, ants do battle. Is that all you saw?”
“Well, the ants cooperate, like they are a single organism. A complex society with all working together, but their solidarity does not extend beyond their colony, or species. And it’s not going to change–it’s been that way forever.”
“Would you like to be an ant?”
“Is that my next incarnation?”
The abbot smiled. “Would you like to be an ant?”
“Uh, no. They crawl all over each other and they are serving the colony just so the queen can reproduce. And it goes on and on with absolutely no purpose except mindless repetition.
But …. maybe we are all ants.
“How many are in your colony?”
Daniel thought for a moment. “Fifty-three?
Smiling more broadly, the abbot replied, “That is a nice number. How is your inner garden?”
“Weedy. I wander. I think of impermanence with great sorrow but I am trying to accept. Compassion is easier, even for the ants.”
“Is it? Please return to your garden. Soon you may be ready for a new name.”
Daniel felt freed from his study of ants. Good timing because it was nearing harvest time for many vegetables. Chomden and Lamon had joined the garden crew.
Chomden was a white woman his age, thin, blonde and blue-eyed with tattoos of angels and demons on her arms. She had scared him at first but he learned that her energy was warm and gentle though she sometimes grimaced and appeared to be in physical pain, as if she suffered from severe stomach cramps. He saw in the garden that the tattoos covered cuts.
There is so much suffering in the world.
Lamon looked Hawaiian or Samoan. Large, strong, and athletic. He seemed like someone whose worst day had been one with bad waves. Why was he here? In the garden he worked hard and seemed to have grateful joy. He would split a melon and eat it like an apple.
Lamon did not seem attracted to Chomden–perhaps he was gay. But Chomden smiled at Lamon like he was Jesus.
When Lamon wanted a break he would throw rocks from the garden at trees in the woods beyond. Chomden would clap when he hit one. Daniel played a lot of baseball as a kid. He had a good arm. So he joined Lamon and they were well-matched. Now Chomden clapped for both. Daniel urged her to try. She insisted she threw like a girl and laughed at herself. But Daniel and Lamon encouraged her and she soon managed to hit a few trees.
Daniel was good at inventing games but caught himself in time before constructing a contest with Lamon. Competition was not cool. Better to try to practice the Zen of rock-throwing, relaxed focus without attachment to the outcome.
He saw that he was making progress and allowed himself to be pleased. He had been right to come to this place.
Daniel reported to the abbot, “I have been thinking of Arjuna.”
“Ah, and duty?”
“Duty, obedience, caste consciousness, nationalism, war, once again into the breach. Men as ants, dying for their side.”
“Is the Gita really about war?”
“Yes, No, Yes, No. I was with the Krishnas for a while, you know. Devotion to the blue boy God. Emptying out oneself. In reality it serves the rulers.”
“Sunyata. The emptiness. I have read that Gandhi’s last word was “Rama,” an exhaled prayer in the second after he was shot by a Hindu nationalist.”
“A lot of good that did him.”
“Don’t you think he had transcended most of his fear of death? Don’t you think he had emptied himself of his own desires in order to serve the larger community?”
“Um, I read that he slept with young girls in the last years of his life.”
“Ah, always a scandal to keep us from our work. How much we like to find the clay feet, present or not.”
“Presente! There too often. But I want to be in reality, to know the truth. I saw with the Krishnas how damaging cover-ups could be.”
“Relax. You would do well to approach Gandhi. The Gita, the sutras, gospels, the practice, communal life–these are all about non-attachment to the false self, and sometimes the practice is simply to observe the insignificance of one’s false self, one’s ego.”
“I’ve been thinking of studying the Prajna sutra.”
“Study nothing but your attachments. Observe your critical judgments, your scandal seeking. Your self-importance. Your self-seeking. Your desire for Chomden and your schemes to find yourself somehow superior to Lamon.”
Daniel opened his mouth to protest but no sound exited. His mouth was suddenly bone dry. His heart was beating fast and loud and he could hear the blood pounding near his ears.
He knew that he was blushing. He wondered if he was dreaming, or tripping. Was he being deliberately shamed? Did the Abbott have contempt for him? Hate him? Where could he go now that he was despised here?
He wished he could faint but he did not. The abbot smiled, seemingly not in a mean or supercilious way. Daniel lost track of time.
“I feel sick.”
“This is all barely true. May I ask what you’re doing? Has someone said something about me?”
The abbot smiled again: “No one has said anything. Elementary, my dear Watson. It was predictable how you would react to their presence. None of this is to hurt you. This is all part of the process. We have all blushed in shame when we have been revealed, often without anyone’s assistance. There is no need for shame, only learning.
We can observe our hamster wheel minds as well as our monkey minds, without shame but with a laugh–how silly is our mind, how eager to deceive ourselves and others. How full of self-deception we can be. How we can congratulate ourselves when we are falling on our faces. And that is why we are here, or there, and on the path.
Now, forgive yourself, laugh at yourself, and go back to the garden and join your brother and sister and help feed us. And think about numbers.”
“Fifty-three is a nice number but it is not the right number.”
Daniel’s heart was still beating like a hummingbird’s. This was going to be a very difficult day, week–who knew how long. He was filled with fear but he did know how to begin.
He walked back toward the garden, hoping that he was not completely transparent to Chomden, Lamon, Busan and the few other garden workers. Busan waved as he entered through the melon patch and Chomden walked towards him smiling and holding something in her gathered hands. His heart started the tachycardia dance again and he prayed in the old way–please don’t let her say anything!
She reached him and opened her hands. Five nearly round rocks, perfect for throwing at the trees. She seemed delighted with the rocks and herself. “I’ve been practicing today. I hit three in a row.”
Oh, thank you, thank you to whomever, whatever. He praised the rocks and Chomden. He would just focus on doing everything well without overdoing it. He believed he would calm down eventually.
That night during zazen he allowed himself to think more about what the abbot had exposed. Yes, he was attracted to Chomden and he was competitive. OK, ego. He was embarrassed again. He said he wanted reality and the abbot gave it to him. He needed to acknowledge and forgive himself. Shame was more ego.
And he thought about numbers. Had he missed a new entrant or had someone left? No, that couldn’t be it. The abbot wouldn’t mean that.
Too small? Four billion people? It was probably more now. Was that too small? All sentient beings? Or was it 1. Just focus on myself?
Shit, this might be a koan. If so, he shouldn’t think too much about it.
Harvest time meant picking but also preserving. Squashes in the root cellar, preserving other vegetables, and tending the compost piles–learning skills he had never cared to learn. Daniel wasn’t that interested in learning them now. But he knew it made sense for the community and it kept him occupied and focused.
Still, he came back sometimes to the reality: food is grown and harvested, prepared, consumed and pooped. The sustenance is temporary and we have to eat again the next day. We have to organize ourselves and society to have regular access to food. Like the ants. And it was just as pointless. Lather, rinse repeat, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Well, maybe not ad infinitum.
Life is a tragedy. He knew there were philosophers who thought the same way though he could never keep the philosophers straight. Schopenhauer? He did remember Seneca from a college course: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”
We treat a child’s birth as the greatest moment but it is really a tragedy. We should treat death as the greatest moment, the liberation. Buddhists know this though we have to act as if every day is an opportunity for something. For learning how not to be reborn, that’s what. Not exactly an endorsement of life. Life is suffering, that’s the first noble truth. So stop reproducing!
Maybe the correct number was zero.
Chomden was getting better, as in less frequent stomach pain, more lighthearted. Lamon must have rubbed off on her. Not rubbed one off. Or maybe he did. Daniel would masturbate sometimes but not as much as he used to. Meditation reduced the sex energy and calmed him without the enervation that followed masturbation. He knew he was in the best shape of his life. Too bad he wasn’t wooing anyone. Well, no.
“You have completed a season—growing, harvesting, storing. What do you think and feel about that?”
“I feel good about it. I have contributed and learned some things. I think it is prosocial and that is good. I still sometimes think, what’s the point?”
“Isn’t the point to feed your community? And develop yourself?”
“Yes, I understand. I think I should stop complaining about the unchangeable.”
“That would be wise. I have decided it is time for your name.”
Whoa! Daniel had been very curious about his eventual name even though he tried not to be–what difference did it make?—but he had resented his name with the Krishnas—Vittesha, “the lord of wealth.” He had been too eager to please in his desperation for comrades and told them too much too soon. As a result he now had significantly less wealth than before he went to chant with them. The head of the ashram told Daniel/Vittesha that his new name was an aid to developing less attachment to wealth. Uh-huh, well he had less to be attached to, so yeah, that worked in a way, especially for them.
He knew Lamon meant “gentle” and Chomden was “she who overcomes the negative with positive.” Those seemed so fitting. He knew Busan was a city in Korea but had assumed the etymology meant something profound. When he asked, Busan had laughed and said it was the second largest city in Korea. Weird.
He hoped that his name would identify and reflect some essential quality of his personality or dharma but then he would stop himself. No ego, it didn’t matter.
So he sat patiently as the abbot smiled.
“Is my name?”
“And the meaning?”
“Go find Busan and ask him.”
More games. Just tell me, for God’s sake.
Ari? Sounded cool. Very accessible and international. But, shit, there’s Ari Onassis. Please no association with a shipping tycoon and Jackie Kennedy. That couldn’t be it. Short for Aristotle, because I’m such a philosopher? Ha-ha, he had learned spiritual names could be sardonic but no, please. And it didn’t seem the style of this monastery or the abbot.
Busan was at the compost pile.
“I have a Buddhist name!”
“Ah, very good. Who are you?”
Busan laughed and came closer to Ari and hugged him.
“Such a good name. He is good at this.”
“Ant. It’s Japanese.”
Ari thought nothing and said nothing, for about five seconds, a personal record. As if coming out of a dream, he laughed.
“It is a good name.”
Ari helped Busan with the compost and with cutting some trees in order to expand the garden space for next year. He thought about ants, his ants and the other ants. All the ants. Sentient beings? Was that a stretch? Able to perceive, to feel. They could see and find food but they could not perceive the future, could they? They could not “perceive” their mortality. Or the fucking futility of their instinctual choreography.
They were pretty loyal, though. Give them that. Serving a queen? Ha-ha, up the revolution! He would have to think a lot about ants. There sure were a lot of them. Even after nuclear holocaust there would be ants and roaches. We will rule!!
While clearing brush he thought about numbers again, for the nth time. What is the number, Ari? He loved this name.
He remembered something from college, or was it high school? A number is an idea; a numeral is its name. He wasn’t asked about a numeral. Was that significant?
What’s a number without a numeral? Sounds like the first line of a joke. Oh, shit. Was that it? What is that?
Pi? That’s a symbol not a numeral. Is Pi a number? Yes, sure. There is no numeral for a …. an irrational number! I think too much and I try to label. I should be less rational?
An irrational number can repeat infinitely. Crazy! The same futility of ant life. All life.
Infinite repetition? Infinity. Is that a number with no numeral? What is infinity? Thinking about infinity made him ill as a child—over and over and over and over. To be sent to hell for all eternity. Infinity and eternity. But the sun ….
Ari went to the monastery’s library but needed more. He received permission to take one of the cars to Sonoma State to do some research there. Something….that symbol, but something more.
He found what he didn’t know he was looking for. “Don’t tread on me,” he laughed. He made a copy to bring back to the abbot.
A regenerative infinity/eternity?
“I pursued irrational numbers—that are endless, and came to infinity. I learned that it is not a number, but a concept But what a concept! Beyond rational and irrational. Then this came to me–infinity regenerating infinitely. So, I haven’t answered your question ….”
“Maybe not a number but you have done something with the question.”
“I eat my tail. Good for an overthinker, like a dog who chases his tail. But also like a yin-yang–male and female united. And rebirth. Reincarnation. Nourishment and regeneration.”
(a big smile) “Nice, Ari.”
“Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
“Stay with us a while and continue to nourish us.”
Ari blushed for the second time in the abbot’s presence. But now it was also Ari’s turn to smile.
“Uh, I love blueberries, and they are very healthy. I think we should get some bushes and plant them to the east of the garden.”
A: (laughing). “Fair enough. You can tell Busan to prepare to put blueberries on the menu.”
I woke in the middle of the night to a vision I didn’t know I had desired.
A young, dark-skinned woman in a light blue hijab and long white robe took my left hand and slowly drew me through my bedroom window. She wanted to show me something. I knew at once I would follow her anywhere.
We floated slowly it seemed but the ground passed quickly beneath us. Looking down through the night sky I had many questions but I soon understood her silent language of movement and gesture. Trust me completely. Be patient.
Her free hand would sometimes extend toward the ground and we would descend to see an illuminated family, children at play, other children crying.
We stopped to hover over a vast forest. Slowly my vision grew more focused. I saw men and women running through the night, carrying their children who were crying and screaming. As they ran fire fell from the sky. The forest ignited behind them. I couldn’t tell if they would outrun the flames. My chest tightened as did my grip on her hand. She floated closer to me and kissed my forehead. I felt my chest break open like a shell. I was overcome with love and pain.
She released my hand and pointed to the ground with both hands. Her eyes probed mine. What? I wondered. She held my gaze with loving eyes. I felt her response. How will you help?
The merry go round broke down. The painted ponies are back in their stalls.
Of course, everyone misses the music. In the evenings folks gather on the platform, and we try to move it with our butt muscles. It’s an isometric exercise. We know it’s not gonna start up again, at least not anytime soon. The good news is we’re getting much better prepared to absorb another kick in the butt. You could say we’re making lemonade! I’m not surprised but I’m still very proud of our community.
As the country continued the descent into fascism, mainstream media maintained their both-sides approach. After the right-wing gained control of all three branches, they declared a national emergency — a left-wing conspiracy to seize power through computerized election theft — and placed unprecedented restrictions on the press. The publications that defied these restrictions were shut down. Journalists who found other ways to protest this previously inconceivable assault on the press were arrested and jailed. As the remaining press parroted the government line, a majority of the public came to view the censorship and imprisonment as necessary steps to ensure democracy.
(A Five Minute Read)
As the American frontier expanded there were many communities that had no real health care. In these rural areas folk remedies, most of limited or no effect, were the only treatments. Indian medicine men and women had more knowledge of native plants than the few and distant physicians and apothecaries, who in any case were more inclined to bloodletting with leeches, but Indians were ignored as savages
There were many dangers in frontier life–violence, accidents, and a lack of hygiene and sanitation and the diseases that followed. As a result, life was typically nasty, brutal, and short, as well as tedious and difficult. Eager, even desperate for medical assistance (and entertainment) settlers were a receptive audience for medicine shows.
An entrepreneur with a flair for marketing would travel from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon or two, hauling cases of “patent medicine” and a small group of entertainers. The doctor-cum-maestro would call out to the gathering crowd, announcing a new cure for constipation, rheumatism, syphilis, and other often serious ailments. He would also promise them eye-popping entertainment–song and dance, trick-shot artists, maybe a flea circus. In between acts he would sell his feel-good bottles which typically contained alcohol, cocaine, and/or opiate derivatives, but nothing with curative powers.
But yes, sir! You could feel something happening when you drank this elixir–it wasn’t sugar water! It had an impressive effect. As the crowd became more delighted with the show and more affected by the elixir they would scrape together some more money for more bottles or a case. At the end of the evening the good doctor and company would toast the crowd’s future good health and ride away.
I imagine that on a maiden voyage the doc and his crew would assume that these shows had to be one-time only. They wouldn’t plan to return to a town where they had scammed the residents.
But mouths must be fed and with travel costs and a limited number of settlements even in a large area, a return trip at some point would become necessary. And some of the hustlers were not unfamiliar with the placebo effect, or the variation in which those who have been flimflammed resist coming to the realization that they’d been had.
In fact, medicine shows seldom met any hostile crowds on their visits. Showmanship and salesmanship go a long way to obscure the fact that there is nothing valid in the product offering. A song and a dance, a pretty girl, and a special sale price on the new and improved elixir can smooth the waters. This was especially true for a savvy maestro who praised the remarkable fortitude of the settlers, their progress over the course of a year, the way they were so badly treated by bankers and East Coast railroad elites, and their courage in the face of the constant danger posed by hostile savages.
That’s all it took. More applause, more bottles sold, maybe enough for a second wagon or a third
Of course, there were some townsfolk who caught the grift. They urged their friends and family to see past the showmanship, to recognize the danger in putting their faith in something with no scientific basis, with no observable effects. They may have noted that there was never any decline in the incidence, prevalence, or severity of the illnesses the elixir was promised to address. But nobody likes a party-pooper.
Medical science did improve. Frontier nurses and physicians could demonstrate success with certain illnesses, and improved transportation made it easier for patients and providers to come together. Schoolteachers could question more successfully the charlatans and con artists of the medicine shows. And just as importantly new forms of entertainment became available.
But all of this took lots of time and patience and persistent effort on the part of the educated and informed who had to tolerate a great deal of resistance in the face of the evidence.
The more things change
We had to get out. Out of college, out of D.C., out of Amerika. 1972 and the war went on and on, just like the racism and rape of Mother Earth. We had to get back to the garden.
I had started at Georgetown four years earlier because I wanted to be in the heart of the action for politics and protest–and because the drinking age in D.C. was eighteen. Since then, I had been gassed and jailed in anti-war protests, worked and boozed in a high-end bar, served as a poll-watcher for Medgar Evers’s brother in Mississippi (and got seriously threatened with a lynching), and smoked and sold a lot of weed. I dated some wonderful women and became friends with a few student radicals and a lot of Paul Manafort types who wanted only to be rich, powerful, and protected. I lived in a black neighborhood where I babysat for my upstairs neighbor when she was busily involved in illegal activities. I even went to half my classes.
I passed on the opportunity to fight in the jungle against peasants who were successfully resisting a superpower invasion. The first draft lottery took place sophomore year and I pulled 276, a number I have no trouble remembering. I can’t help it if I’m lucky–luckier than some of my friends, hundreds of thousands of other young Americans and millions of victims in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
But now it was time to move, for me and my girlfriend, Cathy, and for others who wanted out of Washington, which felt like Babylon after four years of the Nixon administration. Hippies and lefties had talked up Vermont for a few years. I first heard the call at Woodstock three years earlier. The underground press covered the ongoing, quiet migration. A pastoral lifestyle, a history of independent thinking, and proximity to Canada (just in case) formed the perfect foundation for the experiment—a transfusion of peace, love, and cooperative economics into a favorable host.
A few months before graduation I scanned the Boston Globe for a summer rental in Vermont and found a house that could fit six in Brookfield, the dead center of the state. On spring break, I went north as an advance scout. There I stood, knee-deep in April snow for my first flash of a new Eden. Looking downhill my view of the house was a splash of red against drifts of white — a barber pole, a peppermint, Santa Claus.
By June we were in, amazed at our good fortune, with no college debt and graduation cash from parents who were relieved we had managed to graduate on time. Cathy and I transferred our relatively new romance. John had dropped out junior year and beat the draft with legit hypertension. He worked in Boston killing termites but drove up on weekends. Our high school friend, Kevin, and his girlfriend Darina would flee Boston when they could. We explored the mountains, creeks, and valleys, land so beautiful I wanted to dive in and eat it. We planted a huge organic garden, our lack of experience compensated by decades of subterranean cow shit. John planned the plots and set out the guideline strings. I led the prayer to the four directions.
The radishes came first. One can eat only so many radishes, though these were the best we’d ever tasted. Then the peas — amazing. The neighboring dairy farmers noticed our efforts and invited us to help with their first haying. We all went for a couple of days unmarred by chatter, although my hay fever created a consistent soundtrack. We worked up to the top pasture under clear blue skies, raking hay for the baler, and hurling bales up into the conveyor. We felt like real Vermonters. The next day we found a large box of vegetables outside our back door, heavy on the zucchini. Their garden was further along but ours would catch up. We knew things would work out. One of our teachers had already told us, “All you need is love.”
Shuttlecocks whizzed back and forth on the lawn before and after meals of our own vegetables, radishes in every salad, red and green peppers, red clover (the Vermont state flower!) and daisies in jam jars on the table. We could smell the hayfields and the rich soil. Red-winged blackbirds sang from the field that extended up above our house to a ridge of maples and oaks, and even higher to abandoned pastures. While cooking and eating dinner we would listen to records—Nashville Skyline, Sticky Fingers, Eat a Peach, and the soaring violins of It’s a Beautiful Day — “for those who love, time is eternity,” For sure, we had cast off the repressive culture of our Irish-Catholic families and discovered a timeless truth about innocent love and joy.
Cathy and I had a work-free summer where the days and nights flowed into each other like the hollows and hillocks all around us. We were living in circular time. We heard Mick sing:
Did you ever wake up to find,a day that broke up your mind,destroyed your notion of circular time?It’s just that demon life that got you in its sway.
Well, no. Not really. I figured Mick and Keith had been doing the wrong drugs.
Cathy and I were the primary hosts for visitors from the Bos-Wash metroplex, including her younger sisters and brother from Jersey City. We read books to the kids and told them why it was better to work for peace and justice than to try to get rich.
Some of our guests had never been deep in the country and were spooked by the silence. We would ease them into it, beginning with daytime hikes and then long walks in the dark, fragrant silence. Cathy’s mutt, Jake, was part hound and would howl on our walks so we all took to howling at the moon.
At night, sometimes during the day, the sounds of sexual pleasure would carry through the house from one of the thin-walled bedrooms. We were happy for each other.
What didn’t grow in our garden we got from the food co-op where members unloaded shipments from organic farmers, took orders, and bagged and boxed food. It was a great way to meet native Vermonters and other newcomers. At the co-op we could feel the changes we knew were happening all over the state. We were changing the relations of production! We even had our own political party, Liberty Union (Bernie Sanders was a leader there), that demanded an end to the war and promoted democratic socialism as the way to achieve economic justice and a healthy environment.
Fresh off theology courses I decided to read the entire Bible, a set of books about sin and punishment, tribalism and slaughter in the name of God, but also about love and grace. What did it mean when it came to my soul and making the world a better place? I had read MLK, Dan Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Merton and Tolstoy. I knew I had to be part of the resistance to Moloch, Mammon and the American empire. But how? And how could I make a living while doing it?
I couldn’t become a priest or monk because the Church was completely broken, and celibacy was out of the question. Many newcomers to Vermont were becoming craftsmen and skilled workers but I didn’t see myself down that road. I had a psychology degree so maybe I could work in the state mental hospital or in a low-level counseling job. I’d need enough time to be an activist and to write. Growing and selling weed was not out of the question. Short growing season but man, that soil!
There was a .22 rifle at the house. I was a fascinated stranger to guns. I shot at trees and was amazed at the accuracy. The rifle became more functional when I entered the kitchen late one night and saw a huge rat eclipsing our toaster. I went for my gun and shot him dead. I felt triumphant. That country rat invaded the wrong kitchen. He was the first of many to go by poison or gunshot. I didn’t feel quite as triumphant when I tested myself against a house sparrow on a distant branch and saw it drop like a rock.
The drinking and weed hadn’t stopped with graduation. Buzzed on Budweiser late one August night John and I decided to drive to Montreal. I was behind the wheel two miles from home on a gulch road when a doe jumped down from the hill in front of his VW bug. I knocked her down. She jumped to her feet and scrambled up the other side. We were relieved but unsure how to read the cervine augury.
Hungover on arrival we wandered around and wondered why we were there. We looked down on the city from Mount Royal, smoked some weed, ate some baguette and cheese, and headed home. A half-hour hour south of the city we picked up a young Quebecois hitchhiker who spoke no English. He was all in black and seemed to be on the same drugs as Jagger. John’s Francais was limited and I spoke none so it was hard to tell.
Two minutes from the border John remembered that we had two cellophane bags of weed. He stuffed the bags in his pants (we were going commando) and we pulled up to the crossing gates. The guards took the kid from the car–we never saw him again. They searched the car and found the bowl of a pipe. They brought us to an interrogation room and told us to strip.
Hungover and high we were more amused than concerned. We dropped our pants, and nothing happened. I wondered how John had managed it—a miracle or sweaty groin? But then the bags dropped. We broke out laughing. He was arrested and the car was impounded. John was still laughing, cuffed in the back seat, when they drove him to jail. I was set free to hitchhike to St. Alban’s and wire friends for money. I hung out in the town common, picked up the money and hitched back to bail him out. We split his fine and the cost to get the car out of impound. Nothing could touch us.
September was even more fantastic. Brilliant trees on perfect days. Apples split and covered in cheddar. Cider and doughnuts. Touch football replaced badminton. Our hikes went farther from home. We were learning more about the terrain and our comrades in other hills and valleys. But graduation gifts were spent, our savings were gone, and our lease was up at the end of the month. The others said goodbye to Vermont, but Cathy and I were hooked.
We left the red farmhouse and found a battered house with a weak furnace in Randolph, the larger market town. Cathy put her nursing degree to work in the hospital. I got an organizing job with the community action council in Montpelier and started a telephone hotline for anyone who had troubles. I also worked at a factory in the next town. We customized stock vans with shag carpeting, a wine rack, and stencil paintings of nature scenes on the exterior—the kind of vans that would later sport the bumper sticker: “Don’t come knockin’ when the van is a-rockin!”
Power saws and woodworking were as unfamiliar to me as guns. My Catholic prep school had no use for shop, though we did have four years of Latin. I was fascinated and frightened by the huge circular saw I was working, along with other saws and tools equally new to me. A large, tough-looking dude in his late thirties, fresh out of state prison, joined our crew. He knew his way around a shop, so I called to him one day when I was stumped about a new saw. He yelled back that any moron would know how to work it. Determined to demonstrate how healthy assertiveness can peacefully resolve conflicts, I told him there was no need to talk to me like that. He responded with a threat to run my head through the saw. I considered an assertive comeback but went with self-restraint.
In between my two jobs I was going door-to-door for McGovern. Wasn’t it time to end this war, to bring the troops home? Didn’t women have the right to control their own bodies? Shouldn’t we do more to address poverty in the richest country on earth? Surely Vermonters understood the need to protect the environment. The hippies agreed. Long-term Vermonters not quite as much. I may have persuaded three voters in my part of town.
By mid-October I was trying to make sense of a looming landslide in the face of an ongoing war crime. 20,000 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of southeast Asians had died since Nixon became president. How could this guy get re-elected? I was feverishly consuming newspapers when Cathy asked me something about the furnace. “Shut up!,” I yelled. I had to figure this out!
Early one morning I was out food shopping and picked up a hitchhiker. He looked sad and shaken and kept nodding off. I asked if he was OK, and he barely mustered a “yeah.” I dropped him off by a low bridge over the White River in Randolph. A few days later there were missing person posters for Carl Richardson all over town. I called the state police to let them know where I had left him. A trooper came to my house to take my statement. He brought with him Carl’s father-in-law, a rich guy named Adams who owned a nearby ranch where he bred Morgan horses, Vermont’s equine pride-and-joy.
Adams told me that Carl was a farrier who lived and worked on the ranch. After a late party Carl had driven away from the ranch and left his car on the side of a road after what appeared to be a minor accident. I had picked him up a few hours later. It seemed I was the last to have seen him. I told the trooper and Adams that Carl had acted strangely and may have been injured. Adams seemed determined to find him. He wouldn’t. Two hunters would find Carl’s body during a March thaw, in the woods two miles downriver from where I dropped him.
Shortly after I reported on my encounter with Carl, the magical, lyrical snow I had seen the previous April returned, heavily. Fall ended in a day. Our chilly home was in a valley, so sunrise came late and sunset early. The clocks fell back a week before election day. Night was coming on hard.
By December It was very cold. One moonlit night I went for a very short walk. The thermometer attached to the outside of the house read -35. My spit froze in the air and fell like an arrow. My boots made extraterrestrial sounds on the packed snow in a vista as white as a Hindu funeral. The black sky alone provided relief and even there the rich array of stars broke through with a dazzling white light.
That kind of cold makes survival a challenge. Emotional survival too. Cabin fever in a chilly house is depressing. We were also poor and not used to it. My grant-based job ended. Cathy was only part-time at the hospital. We still had the food co-op but had to supplement at the Grand Union, not nearly as satisfying as harvesting our garden. We were also out of weed. On some days we had hot water, but the air temperature made bathing less than ideal. Cathy started wearing the same clothes every day and wisely gained thirty pounds for insulation. The mercury of my libido was tracking downwards.
In February someone knocked for the Heart Fund and pitched me that heart disease was the nation’s #1 killer. All I could say was, “doesn’t it have to be something?”
Commune members from over the mountain would come by to visit and use the bathtub. One of them was Dana, about thirty and pretty, but clearly very far out there as were many of her fellow communards. She insisted on staying over one night when Cathy was away. We seized the opportunity.
The next morning I felt bad about that so when I next saw Dana in town I said no more hanky-panky. She did still want the occasional bath and sure, solidarity, cleanliness, of course. She came over the next Saturday (bath day, I guess) when Cathy was working second shift. I was in the kitchen when she emerged topless from the bathroom and said she had forgotten to bring shampoo. Well, that can happen. I got her some shampoo. Two minutes later she walked out naked and asked for help with the plug. Cathy came home early and found us together in the second bedroom. This was not good for our relationship. She claimed not to care about Dana but in the following week she did start getting pretty loud with the pots in the kitchen. At some point in March, we found ourselves kicking each other in the shins in the living room. Something had us in its sway.
I finally cooled it for good with Dana, but she still wanted to hang out. Two weeks after Carl was found she invited me to come with her to this cool ranch where we could maybe ride some horses. She had become friendly with the owner. I could imagine how. It turned out to be a large Morgan horse ranch with several barns and houses on the property. I recognized Adams as he walked up to us.
A few minutes later we were joined by a pretty and sweet-looking farmgirl. Adams introduced her as his daughter, Amy Richardson. Adams explained to her, “this is the young man who gave Carl a ride the morning after the party.” Her face twisted in a grimace and her head turned down and to the left. She croaked, “I’m sorry.” I felt sad, guilty, and frozen. Why was she sorry? I should be sorry, and I was. She took a tissue out of her back pocket and wiped her eyes.
From the nearest barn strolled a guy who looked out of place in Vermont, never mind a horse farm. He was tall, blonde, handsome, and well-built. He looked like a surfer dude. He joined Amy and the two of them walked back to the barn. Adams then led us on a tour to see the rest of the ranch and the beautiful Morgans we never got to ride.
As Dana and I were driving out from the ranch I saw a VWKarmann Ghia, with a for sale sign, parked next to a trailer home. I knew my car was on its last wheels, so I stopped to take a look. I saw Amy watering a small garden next to the trailer and then surfer dude emerged. Sure enough, the car had California plates. He said he’d been working at the ranch since the past summer and had recently decided to stay in Vermont, at the ranch, and realized he needed a better vehicle for the dirt roads and winter. He told me about the car, but the price was beyond me. I didn’t get the VW but I did catch a feeling about why Carl had looked so down.
I was right about my car. Two weeks later it finally died and I had to hitchhike to work at the factory. I knew it was time for an escape plan, so I went to the default: law school. I had been accepted at a reasonably good one in San Francisco. Great city and someone I had fancied at Georgetown now lived there. Why not? Cathy and I were hanging on as friends. Neither of us planned for her to go to San Francisco. At the beginning of May we moved back to the Brookfield woods–to a cabin with a single wood stove for heat. We got work writing a report for a survey of nurses in Vermont. We split the work, split the wood, and got ready to split.
I bought another car for $50, a station wagon with a broken emergency brake. When had I ever needed an emergency brake? One August afternoon in Montpelier I was parked facing upwards on State St., a long and very steep hill. I was planning a dump run on the way home so there were a lot of stuffed garbage bags in the back. As I pulled up to the stop sign at the top of the hill, I pushed the brake pedal to the floor with shockingly little effect. As I started rolling backwards, I found it hard to see through the garbage bags to the back window. I picked up speed and then spotted a group of kids playing in the street downhill. I chose to pull off into a driveway, hoping to slow down sufficiently before I hit a garage, figuring all the damage would be to the piece-of-shit car. Actual contact disproved this hypothesis—the garage jumped backwards half a foot.
A stunned woman about thirty-five came out of the house. I started sneezing and didn’t stop for five minutes. Her husband, who came home from work during my sneezing attack, was apoplectic. I explained about the kids and the brakes, which he got, but he was quickly and understandably deeply into the “why me?” stage of grief.
The car was towed. I hitched home and hoped for the best. A week before leaving for law school I got a call from a claims adjuster, telling me that I was clearly liable. The home-owners insurance company had paid to fix the garage and now wanted to collect from me. I had no insurance or money, just a promise of first-year law school tuition from my parents.
To keep it simple, I told him I was about to enter a monastery and had foresworn all earthly goods. He didn’t know what to do with that. I couldn’t help him.
I saw the balloon man for the first time on an autumn evening in 1968. It was at that annual twilight moment of saturated salmon sky when I finally smell winter coming on and realize once again that I’m not ready for it. He was strolling slowly up the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, just north of M St., in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., the fed-a-rahl cit-tay, as my friend, John, and I liked to call it then, in our desire to be urban, black, and hip instead of suburban, white, and middle-class. We were freshmen at a nearly all-white Georgetown University, the year after Bill Clinton graduated.
The balloon man was not a Georgetown student. He was very black and very strange.
“Buy a pretty balloooon. They are red. They are blue. They are byooteeful.”
A man somehow of indeterminate age, he carried dozens of helium balloons and seemed at least as high as his product, but this was not our kind of high. He wasn’t looking for things that weren’t there. He was refusing to see things right in front of him, things like us. He would look past us and nod, apparently without meaning, like his balloons on their sticks in that cool Autumn air.
We learned to keep an eye for the balloon man. Every couple of weeks or so, as we were bar hopping, we’d see him and he would remind us of something, though we weren’t quite sure what. It was an experience like that of Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway as he drove past the bespectacled billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.
But he was really more out of Ellison’s Invisible Man, which we’d catch up to as sophomores. Was he making fun of us with his “byooteeful” like the drunken white woman who kept asking the “booful” invisible man to rape her? Was he letting us know how dispensable we were in his world?
In the Fall of 1968, we were constantly reminded of our absurd dispensability. We were too young to vote but old enough to die in a jungle. And fat chance of that. We were anti-war and anti-government. It was the year of the Tet Offensive and total clarity for us. We knew more about the war than anything Johnson, Humphrey, McNamara, Westmoreland, and Colby had to tell us. We knew that our lives were in the hands of liars and fools. It would take McNamara thirty years to admit what we could have told him over a few pitchers of beer. To be eighteen and know more about a war than the leaders of your nation is an experience of permanent impact.
Or maybe we just cared more.
1968. MLK finally killed by racists after years of attempted blackmail by closet queen J. Edgar Hoover and empty posturing by Eisenhower and Kennedy. Paul Monette would later (Becoming a Man, 1992) honor Hoover, Cardinal Spellman, and Roy Cohn as the homo death squad—postwar division, “three closeted mama’s boys, ensuring that the Aryan dream of elimination would continue.”
A decade earlier, Eisenhower, the laissez-faire president, had said, “You can’t legislate morality,” in the face of vicious racism in Little Rock, thereby prolonging the struggle for school integration. Strange, he had found it a lot easier to use force to overthrow democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Iran. Ike, if you can’t legislate morality, what exactly is the purpose of a law? Were these politicians really that stupid? Or mendacious? Or both? If both, in what proportion? This would become a different question with Nixon. How many parts liar, and how many paranoiac?
Our man, Gene McCarthy, tottered on the edge of whimsical egotism. He would reveal himself as someone unworthy of the passion so many of us brought to his campaign. Bobby Kennedy, a vindictive, articulate chameleon and opportunist, sold himself to a starstruck press as a liberal hero, but lost his head. George McGovern, a decent man and progressive, wouldn’t get traction ‘til ’72. We were left with Hubert Humphrey, his balls in LBJ’s pocket, and George Wallace, for God’s sake, and Richard Nixon–the new Nixon with the secret peace plan. If Amerika was dumb enough to fall for Nixon’s bullshit, we were smart enough to drop out of Amerika.
We marched and they gassed us. We chanted and they beat us and jailed us. We weren’t their children anymore. We didn’t belong to their nation. We were finding our own in Chicago and Berkely and Oakland, in Madison and Ann Arbor, in Brooklyn and at Woodstock, and in hitchhiking all over America and finding that most people were all right but just too buffaloed by all the crap they’d learned in high school and seen on television.
I heard the definitive on Nixon’s election while taking a shower in my dorm. Secret peace plan, my ass. I started thinking about it would feel like to have a bullet rip through my guts. Hey, there was no way I was fighting against revolutionaries, especially those inspired by the Declaration of Independence. Phil Ochs sang, “We were born in a revolution and died in a wasted war…it’s gone that way before.” We screamed at the president as we marched past the White House, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Meanwhile, the balloon man did his thing like a guard at Buckingham Palace or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In his minimally communicative chant, he represented some fragile majesty that would be deflated by conversation. He had the dark shades of the jazzman for whom music was the only possible expression. Talk was cheap and getting cheaper every year.
But my friends and I were in a world of words. In the classroom, in books, and at demonstrations where long-haired orators jockeyed for position before the microphone or bullhorn. We postured for position, for prominence, for glory and for the chance to score with Grace Slick or Weatherwoman Bernadine Dohrn or someone who looked like them. Or maybe someone a little less threatening.
Someone like Marian, a friend we had made at Trinity College, a small Catholic women’s college–we called it a girl’s school then. Marian was a feminine, pretty, almost hippie who could never quite let go of her upper middle-class, Indianapolis, Republican roots. By 1976 she would be an enthusiastic Reagan supporter. But that was not surprising-she always came to embrace the politics of the last man she embraced. In 1971, after several sad affairs with mustachioed drunken radicals, she started hanging out at the Watergate complex with middle-aged men from the outer circles of the Nixon administration. She became a bit male-identified, in the language of the ’70s.
We called each other Brother Jim, Brother John, Sister Pam, Sister Marian. Who were we then, Sherwood Forest outlaws, robbing the corrupt sheriff? Or disciples of Christ, robbing the Romana, the Sanhedrin, and their lackeys of legitimacy? Or Black Muslims? Or white Negroes?
Who to be? How could we be anything but what our parents insisted that we be? And our parents wanted us dead, or at least dead before dishonored. Our fathers were Abraham dragging Isaac up the mountain. But where are we going, father? Have you thought about this sacrifice, father? Have you bothered to ask for a second opinion? Have you asked me how I feel about this? Hey, I don’t hear any voice. Hey, old man, maybe you’re just crazy: And no, I don’t care what your colleagues and neighbors will think if I avoid the draft, or whether you will lose your exalted position as a headman, you son of a bitch.
During those years we partied and protested with longhaired young vets who returned from Vietnam to the Crazy Horse, a rocking county bar on M Street, right across the Potomac from Virginia, from Dixie. Should we do some crazy horse? Could we be Crazy Horse? American Indians were cool. We would wear our hair like them, get close to the land, the Great Spirit, a spirituality before the advent of the machine men, the hollow men,,our fathers. We would go back to the land to annihilate the Great White Father in our heads.
Or Confederates? I walked through the battlefields of Gettysburg in October 1969 and believed for the first time in reincarnation. It was all so familiar. In my fantasy I had been there as a rebel, but one opposed to slavery. Hey, it was my fantasy. I would have fought against the cold Northern industrialists–the rational, the modern, the heartless. I was Virgil Cain.
In our own reading we rattled around with Hesse as wildmen bouncing between the bourgeois life and the magic theater. As Siddhartha waiting and willing nonattachment in a world of empty pleasure, madness, and sorrow. As Narcissus, the ascetic intellectual in his sane and safe microcosm. As Goldmund in the whirl of the senses and seasons, the artist in search of his anima. Or as Knecht, the servant, trying to learn that we could find our lives only by losing them. Does it matter at all or is it all a dream, we wondered, through nights in our own opium dens. Cheap wine and pot, hashish from the big harbor in Baltimore, crystal meth, cocaine, sex, and a rock and roll fantasy. What.is reality? And should we care? Do we dare?
We had dreams–of endless highs, endless sex, and power to make the world a big park. Earth Day every day just as long as we could still have our burgers and beer. Dreams of escape, freedom, and rebirth. To be born again in the derangement of the senses, to bring an end to the smug and complacent rationality that could calibrate mutually assured destruction. We believed there was no other way to get out alive.
In our sophomore year, John and I moved to a roach-filled railroad apartment in a ghetto neighborhood, a decade or two before gentrification. Most of our Georgetown friends wouldn’t even come to a party at our house. Too fuckin’ scary, man. Of course, at that party, some neighborhood brothers fresh out of Lorton prison wanted in and we said sure. A half hour later one of them pulled a knife to scare a white boy and we had another urban encounter in the middle bedroom..Ours was a first-floor apartment beneath Shirley and her three sons. Shirley was up from Aiken, about twelve miles from Augusta National, home of the Masters and the green jacket. What a place to grow up black. Achin’, South Carolina, and what did she do to be so black and blue? Shirley received occasional male visitors during the day to supplement welfare. This made her man, a sad drunk named Pee-Wee,rather black and blue himself. Pee-Wee? Man,,what a handle.
One night her man-in-waiting, named James,,came by in the service of natural selection. He was takin’ Shirley to bed when Pee-Wee objected. James went upside Pee-Wee’s head with a Louisville Slugger and sent him bouncing down the stairs to slam against our door. We found Pee-Wee bleeding and sobbin’, “Shirley doesn’t love me anymore.”” Given that Shirley didn’t arrive downstairs for about fifteen minutes, that was solid speculation. We called an ambulance as soon as we found him, but Shirley got there way ahead of the ambulance. Hey, it was in the ghetto. And his mama cried.
A lot of heroin addicts in Mt. Pleasant. We looked down at them–they were doing the wrong drug, a drug of death. We were into LIFE, man, like Tim Leary. LSD. When we discovered acid we blew past the balloon man. We saw our own balloons. Beautiful balloooons and Aztec patterns everywhere. We were Indians, yes! Like Mexicans in Michoacan, where the best weed grew, or Mayans from long ago. Yes! we were the beautiful people destroyed by the white men with their metal swords and horses and cannon. We were more beautiful but they had better weapons.
We struggled to feel with the Indians, with the Vietnamese, with the brown, red, and black people of the world, the agony of seeing our women and children raped and murdered by these inferior beasts. The humiliation of our own helplessness against our fathers who knew so little but controlled so much. The keys to the car and the liquor cabinet. He who controls the car keys controls our sex lives: Father? Yes son? I want to kill you. And mother would rather give herself to me than you. She has already given herself to me and I reject both of you.
In time we grew up, and time made monkeys of us all. Man, what we didn’t know. There was no revolution around the corner. We couldn’t get enlightened by messing with our serotonin levels (although related interventions would prove quite useful years later when we struggled with depression). The more sex wasn’t the better. Discipline mattered. We couldn’t easily rid ourselves of our social conditioning. We couldn’t will ourselves out of jealousy, envy and competitiveness. It took a long time for us to realize how well we could jive ourselves to get what we wanted right here, right now.
The political and personal disillusionment was a killer. Some of us were lost to depression and bitterness for a long time, or forever. Some felt they had already seen it all and just waited for death and the astral plane or sought out gurus in the most preposterous forms. Some ran to alcohol to stay high without legal exposure or simply to numb their disappointment and heartbreak.
When the “Sixties” ended, let’s say in ‘75 with the end of the war, some of us raced to get back into the mainstream. Shit, what the hell am I doing way out on this limb? Some began the work of organizing for victories we wouldn’t realize in our lifetime. Some began the work of responding to grace. Slow, painful work. We could have learned from Flannery O’Connor: “Reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost.”
Some got really lost in the booze or drugs and couldn’t find their way out. By “76, Phil Ochs had become the drunkard who staggers out the door; he mocked his own sell-out and hanged himself. Abbie Hoffman would kill himself much later during a depressive episode, after surviving years as an underground fugitive from a coke bust. I went to his funeral in Worcester and walked in a procession with Jerry Rubin and Bill Walton. Rubin was in a fabulous suit and his hair was perfect. He would later get run down by a car while networking his way across a Manhattan avenue. Oh man, no wonder we had wanted so much to stay high.
As for myself, after I graduated from Georgetown, I joined the “back to the land” movement by heading to Vermont and a chance to find myself in a special place and on a human scale. Then on to graduate school in Madison, the torturous path to a Ph.D. and a teaching career until I discovered AA and sobriety and slowly moved toward work as a therapist. But you know most of that story.
There was something about the balloon man that I couldn’t comprehend when I was eighteen. He wasn’t on top of the world, but he was out there, making a living and giving people something beautiful. He knew he was entertaining us. I like to think he knew he was slipping deeper into our consciousness. Most of all he was out there, even when it was cold for balloons. We could tell he had been through a lot and had maintained something essential about himself. He had endured. Maybe more than endured. Have you read Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus? Or Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If not, you might want to check them out.
The balloon man seemed to have patience and some sort of hope, despite the difficulties of his life. In my youth I wanted most to be subversive of unjust authority. I still do, but now I see despair as an equally formidable enemy. I have seen too many of my heroes and friends taken down by it. I have survived, at least ‘til now, to keep trying to walk that razor’s edge between presumption and despair. Thank God I got vaccinated with Gerard Manley Hopkins at a Jesuit high school and at Georgetown. No, carrion comfort, despair, no feasting on thee.
Today, in what I kid myself is the middle of my life, I identify with Janus, looking simultaneously to the past and future. I mourn my youth and the friends I have lost with age and disagreements too essential or too long-lasting; and other friends lost to booze, resentments, and narcissism, theirs and mine. As for the future, I don’t want to live through my children and most of my friends don’t want that either. That was our parents’ trap. We may try to be superparents to avoid the normative abuse and neglect that many of us experienced, and we know we may be screwing up in ways different from what they experienced or feared. But in the end, hard as we try, a generation can’t help but measure its progress by looking at the next one.
So, I look at my children, at you and your young sisters. I hold these daughters, barely able now to fit them on my lap, and I am grateful beyond words for their existence. I look at all our children. You are young, you are bold, you are beautiful. The turnings so painful and important to me and my peers mean so little to you. But whatever victories we achieved have made your lives a little bit better. If we are saner than our parents, our children are happier and less burdened.
You are a bright and principled young man who can feel and express his feelings, a college student of a new era, one without a war, without a daily nuclear threat, and without the kind of segregation we experienced. You have grown up in a culture less sexist, less racist; not perfect, but better.
The pop sociology of the day suggests that your generation has an identity crisis and an inferiority complex, that you don’t have a cause to inspire you as we had, that you are nostalgic for a period before you were born. I don’t think so.
You and your friends seem a lot freer to me, with more friendships across the gender gap, less homophobia, less angst about life in America. You seem to recognize the problems of inequality and racism, of environmental damage and risks. Maybe it’s because the women are so much more empowered, and that men and women take that empowerment as a given, but your generation seems less paralyzed by rage and self-doubt.
I hope you can learn from our experience, although I always had to learn the important things from my own mistakes. I’m struggling now to make the transition to learn from your experience. And I hope you can do for us what we’ll need you to do, more and more as time goes by: pay attention and share with us everything you’ve learned even when we don’t know we need it.
This will require a lot of patience on your part, but that is something worth cultivating. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “nothing that is worth anything can be achieved in a lifetime.” I guess at the time he wasn’t thinking about parenthood.
Stay in touch.
James Hannon’s first collection invites us to enter into his compassion for self and others. With language succinct yet casual, he mines experiences as parent and child, teacher and student, tourist, lover, betrayer, friend. These poems thrive on irony (‘my suffering/their iniquity/divine justice”) as well as juxtaposition (“the love of ice cream/the iconic baseball team”). Some draw on a psalm-like repetition, others on the rhymes of childhood, but most fall into the easy rhythm of short lines of free verse. Often a sense of metaphor carries the poems in unexpected directions.
The Year I Learned the Backstroke offers a harvest of vivid reflections layered with self-examination, a labor of love toward both present and past.
—Jesse Brown, author of Lucky and What We Don’t Know We Know
In the title poem of his superb new collection, To My Children at Christmas, James Hannon writes, “I am giving you my heart,” and what a gift this is! In these pages we discover the heart of a spiritual seeker, a storyteller and healer, an astute observer of human nature in all its beauty and brokenness. With lyric intensity and narrative skill, Hannon guides us through “full catastrophe living” and “terror incognita” toward a place of hard-won wisdom. Along the way he asks what it means to be human, each moment, in the face of violence and suffering — from the personal sphere to the planetary, and invites us to consider: “How will you help?”
This book shimmers with practical, playful counsel for living: “The sharks are here to stay. / We’re learning to live with them.” “Breathe./Breathe again./Open your hands./Laugh at yourself./Begin.” “With love there is no shame or fear.” As a psychotherapist who has known the shadow, and as a Quaker contemplative living into the Light, James Hannon the poet reassures his reader that “the dark will not last forever.”
This hope is grounded in poetry and ancient wisdom, in love and family, and in the healing powers of the natural world: “in time our land will be restored, and I will leave to my children a garden.” For the generous gift that is these poems, and his encouragement to see our world anew, I join with the poet who “asks only to live today… to sing/thank you! thank you!”
—Alex Kern, editor of the anthology Becoming Fire, and co-editor of the interfaith/intercultural publication Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts
I was a student at Xavier High School in Concord, Massachusetts from 1964–68. It was an all-boys Catholic prep school, founded and staffed by Jesuits (Society of Jesus), known among Catholics as the intellectual heavyweight religious order. At our fiftieth reunion last Spring my friends and I wondered, not for the first time, whether any of our faculty would ever be implicated in a scandal we found distressing and depressing. On January 15, 2019 the Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus finally published the names of fifty priests determined to be guilty of sexual abuse of children.
And there they were: Revs. James Ennis, Philip Moriarty, and James Sheehan. Abuses committed by Ennis and Moriarty extended from the year before they came to Xavier through their years there. Sheehan’s abuses were committed while he was at Boston College High School, years after Xavier.
Moriarty taught Latin and Greek and made the students in his Freshmen honors section come to class fifteen minutes before school was supposed to start — a great way to establish his pre-eminence and power. He engaged in what I would later recognize as grooming of his favorites and he displayed annoyance at those who resisted his sarcasm and flattery. He seemed to me, by the time I was a senior, to be a man without a shadow — in other words, no recognition and integration of the dark sides of his psyche, and therefore, no remorse for his cruelties.
Ennis came to Xavier late in his career — as the dean of discipline. Oh, he could be tough. Sheehan was a more likable guy but had an obvious problem with anger management — he would occasionally yank a student by his hair and he kicked one down half a flight of stairs.
We couldn’t know how shame and frustration might have driven them.
The deeper shame is institutional, and I think largely attributable to clericalism. Clericalism led the faithful to give excessive deference to priests and led priests to develop greater loyalty to their brothers than to the people, including the children they were supposed to serve.
The vows of poverty and obedience were as problematic to the abuse crisis as the vow of chastity. Like other priests, Jesuits vowed to obey their superiors in the Society of Jesus and the larger Church. Unless they had wealthy families, they were also financially reliant on the Society. If they had been priests for many years, they could ill afford to leave and/or blow the whistle on offenders and the cover-up. This financial reliance can be infantilizing.
Xavier alumni have engaged in an e-mail exchange in the past two days. Two of them, following the argument of many Church leaders, indicted homosexuality as the problem. They also described indictments of the institutional Church as anti-Catholic attacks. Others have shared the research that shows gay men are no more likely than straight men to abuse children. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice report, commissioned by the Church, also concluded that homosexuality was not the problem. Gender of victims was determined by proximity and opportunity — and priests clearly had more access to boys, as in the case of Xavier. We may also hear more about the male-to-male abuse because we are relatively and tragically inured to the sexualization (and abuse) of post-pubescent but underage girls.
In the 1970’s I helped develop and staff the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Boston. What I saw there, in addition to some solid and dedicated priests, was emotional immaturity on the part of many priests and seminarians.
The celibacy requirement lowers the bar for admission to seminary and the priesthood. Here’s an analogy: baseball pitchers are typically not good hitters because they have a valuable attribute that makes irrelevant their ability as a hitter. By the 1960’s, if not earlier, seminaries were accepting men who were neither particularly talented nor emotionally mature but had the rare attribute of willingness to forego family life and a commitment (on the record) to be celibate for a lifetime (starting at age 18–22).
Among the fifty members of the Justice and Peace Commission were three Catholic women who had attended divinity school or a doctoral program in theology. They were all spectacularly well-qualified to be clergy though they knew they would likely never be eligible for ordination as priests. It’s hard to overestimate how greatly women priests would have changed the Church over the past fifty years. I am convinced they would have been more vigilant about the possible sexual abuse of children — and would have undermined the patriarchal form of clericalism that still infects the Church.
Married clergy would also loosen the bonds of brotherly solidarity that made cover-ups nearly universal— on the part of peers as well as the hierarchy and leaders of religious orders.
Our alumni group agrees on one thing. We had some great teachers at Xavier. We were well-educated in many ways, and we are grateful for many of the priests we knew there. Some of us went to them for spiritual direction in subsequent years and benefited greatly from their counsel and wisdom.
But one last note. When we were seniors two Freshmen were found engaging in sexual acts in a bathroom. They were expelled immediately. The hypocrisy and lack of pastoral care was and is breathtaking. Some of us on the student council who heard of this expulsion were outraged. We thought we should do something about it but we didn’t know what or how. The administration had all the power. So, we didn’t do anything.
I don’t blame us. But that’s how this all worked — denial, repression, homophobia, the various types of victimization, and the cover-ups — for many, many years and for many thousands of victims. I am very grateful to the survivors, whistle-blowers and journalists who fought for the truth. As we learned at Xavier where Latin was a required subject — Cognoscetis veritatem, et veritas liberabit vos. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
If you were a victim of clergy sexual abuse, or want to help or learn more, please contact Survivors’ Network of Those Abused By Priests at SNAPnetwork.org.
Clericalism is a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of their moral superiority. In the pithy description of Pope Francis, it’s when “Clerics feel they are superior, [and when] they are far from the people.” Yet, as Pope Francis wrote, clericalism can be “fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons”—laypeople can fall into clericalism, too! Lay people can fall into thinking that their contributions to the life of the Church are only second-rate, or that in all things, surely “Father knows best,” or that priestly virtue exhausts Christian virtue.
(Sunday in Watervliet, Michigan)
The town consists of thrift stores and empty buildings except for the Burger King, Taco Bell, and the casino–thank God for the Paw Paws.
Mary Jane Miller is this year’s Blossom Fest queen. There’s a golf course at Paw Paw Lake but it’s a struggle. The Brewery Restaurant is closed.
Wikipedia’s Watervliet has a lovely downtown with antique and gift stores that draw tourists. They must mean the thrift shop and the Dollar Store. My wife and I seem to be the only tourists and we can read the street signs at the corner of Meth St. and Opioid Ave. I think I see two O’s (one sick) and one M, who is crashing.
The Blue Roof Church has a full parking lot with the drive by billboard: Dare To Be All You Can Be. In the end, it’s Percocet or the preacher.
The population was down 6% in the last census so you can get a real good deal on a house here. Banks will lend at 2.99 but there are many for sale signs and lots of lots for sale. It’s a farming community–good peaches and pies but not too many jobs. They’re in Asia and Central America where governments and death squads supported by U.S. tax dollars killed the unions, literally.
We drive from Watervliet to visit a nephew in Chicago on a tree-lined street. He’s 31, an Ivy League grad who trades currency on some downtown money exchange. Dollars for rubles or marks or donuts. He has a big house, worth a million bucks. He’s got a girlfriend but not sure he wants kids — he thinks he may be too selfish. He supports gay rights and access to abortion but he’s a Republican because he likes the lower tax rates on the top 2%. He works for his money.
These finance guys scrape a little off the top each time the money changes hands, which is quite often. It’s their tax on us. They create few jobs and destroy more. They have no room for loyalty. And they run for office, like Michigan Mitt, on their business acumen.
For Watervlietians to think about why their lives have crumbled must be quite difficult. After all, Americans are completely responsible for their own outcomes.
In Lansing the Republicans control both houses. Taxes have been cut to stimulate the economy. It doesn’t seem to be working — at least not to create jobs. If they are lucky the good students go to Ferris St. The University of Michigan is mostly for someone else, from Birmingham, Bloomfield, Grosse Point, the East Coast. And who can afford big college debt?
In Watervliet the Dutch Reformed Church is strong — predestination is double here.
The young people can’t stay but if they leave they lose their families, community, way of life.
There are many Muslims in Michigan. They’re a threat. And the Democrats want to take the guns away from white folks.
The military is still a good option-the power of one, a few good men and women to fight to protect our freedoms. In the military everyone is a hero instead of a loser in a broke-down town. Let’s stand to honor our brave men and women who are defending our freedoms overseas.
But don’t come back broken because the Republicans cut funding for the VA and will find a way to blame the Democrats who we all know are anti-military and not pro-life because they want abortions and free birth control for sluts.
We can’t break through and it seems incredible that so many vote against their own interests and listen to Hannity, Carlson, and Rush when they are so clearly full of shit. If there’s a radical break in this country who can believe it will be to the left when we’ve known for years that when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.
Obama won Watervliet’s county (Berrien) with 52% in 2008 but Mitt got 53% four years later. Trump got 54% four years after that. Despite Gretchen Whitmer and Debbie Stabenow’s wins in 2018 Berrien County gave Republicans candidates a 9% win in the senate race and 7% in governor’s race. And they re-elected their House member, Fred Upton, Whirlpool heir and uncle of supermodel Kate Upton, to his seventeenth consecutive term. Fred is worth $11 million.
The results aren’t surprising because white, older, poorer and less educated Michiganders (and Americans) vote Republican and Watervliet and Berrien County are disproportionately all of the above.
But. Fred Upton had his closest race in thirty-four years — a 4% win. The margin in the last senate race (2014) was Republican +18 and the governor race was R +14% so the margins were cut in half by 2018. So, we think once more that maybe movement is possible, and that there is an emerging Democratic majority, or people are waking up, and we try again because what else can we do?
It was September of my junior year in college, a week after Jimi died from a barbiturate overdose and a week before Janis would drop from heroin. It was two years since MLK and RFK had been killed. Nixon wanted us to continue the crusade against the insidious and inscrutable Vietnamese peasants who dared to believe they could decide their own future without the firm, guiding hand of Uncle Sam. There didn’t seem to be much to risk in risk-taking.
I felt so psychedelically experienced after a dozen trips that I agreed to drop acid with this shady guy, Deck, who I knew had a car and high-quality stuff. The Georgetown student body was extremely wealthy. I didn’t fully get that ‘til senior year when I had a lovely and loaded girlfriend from Palm Beach. Deck was a furniture heir and more self-centered than most of us. He was attracted to fun experiments – he once anonymously deposited 10K (68K in 2022 dollars) in another student’s bank account. Ha-ha!
There were three other Georgetown guys with us on this trip. Deck brought two remarkably nerdy housemates I had never met and another junior whom I knew from freshman year when he was introducing himself as Gale Sayers, superstar footballer. His real name was Daniel McCormack. As a junior psych major, I realized retrospectively that Dan had struggled some with Erikson’s fifth stage of psychosocial development: identity vs. role confusion.
We wanted to trip on the beach at dawn, but we left late — around 4:30 after some nighttime booze and weed. It took two hours to get to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. On a nicely hidden dune we dropped the acid and smoked some PCP. We lifted off around 7:30. We found a good spot on the beach to drop our stuff and I started wandering by myself.
At some point I was waist-deep in the ocean. The sunlight was shining across the water, right at me. As I considered the significance of this reflected sunbeam and the cumulus clouds above, I began to see that I was the son of God, that we were all the sons and daughters of God, just like Jesus except that Jesus really got it. So, the trinity really comprises the creator(s), all of us humans (and more?), and the Holy Spirit!
I was very grateful for this revelation and inspired to follow Jesus more nearly–not to worship, which wouldn’t make sense, but to follow and then accompany.
As I began to return to temporal consciousness I turned from the ocean, now my Jordan river. I asked the time from a thirtyish woman in a beach chair. I had dilated pupils, crazy long hair, and was wearing nothing but boxers but she was cool. She told me 9:30, which seemed impossibly early. I had been here only two hours?
I walked slowly back toward our base to process my experience. Dan approached me and asked, “do we all have to drown now?” Ah, I thought, the psychedelic meltdown. This will be a challenge. Good thing I just learned that I am a child of God and a channel of the Spirit. I reassured him we didn’t have to drown–we need not even wade in the water.
I asked Dan why he thought we had to drown. He told me when he was six, his family was at a beach and his four-year-old brother drowned. So, it seemed fair that now was his turn.
Oof. I quickly and silently asked for help from the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, St. Patrick, and Jiminy Cricket because I figured that Deck wouldn’t care and the other two didn’t know Dan and were too befuddled.
I told Deck we had to leave. We all walked over the dunes toward the parking lot where I saw a melting mass of multi-colored metal which was not as pleasant as the gently breathing turf I had enjoyed on previous trips. I was concerned by how high I still was. I felt at the limit of my ability to maintain myself, never mind take care of Dan.
Sunday traffic. Lots of it. Four hours to return to D.C. I was in the middle of the back seat with Dan, reassuring him that he was safe, that all of us were safe in our slow-moving car and that we would all get back to our homes. I wondered how the hell Deck was able to drive. It hit me later. He probably hadn’t taken that much of the drugs—it was another experiment where he could observe us. Or he had been tripping so often he had high tolerance and couldn’t get off that much. Or he was the devil.
We finally got back to DC., in the come down fatigue state. Dan was still struggling with survival guilt and the cosmic blues. I brought him into his house. Fortunately, two of his housemates were there. One went upstairs with Dan, and I filled in the other guy. It seemed like a safe handoff.
Dan didn’t finish the semester. He had to take a medical leave. He went home to South Bend and later graduated from Notre Dame.
I went back to my dorm room exhausted but warmed by the glow of my oceanic experience.
It didn’t take long to develop some reservations about an LSD/PCP facilitated revelation. I figured I would need to nourish my spirituality more carefully and possibly step away from combustive drug mixtures.
It took me twenty years after college to get to an AA meeting and sobriety, a relationship with my higher power, and eventually a career as a therapist. More has been revealed but the Rehoboth experience has stayed with me. I still follow the radical rabbi and ask for guidance from the Spirit, but I no longer speculate on what theologians would call the trinity’s ontology of relations. I don’t think that’s hurt me any.
In the visiting room four children gaze
ardently at the face of their father.
He twirls the red curls of the baby whose
arms are wrapped around his neck.
A pre-teen girl holds his hand and
leans on his shoulder for an hour.
His little boy is draped on his back
and a ballerina dances around them all.
When they leave their mother is smiling
and the children walk in rhythm, arms
around each other.
It’s so touching a scene that I almost forget—
what about the victims?
At the Air and Space Museum
my daughters and I learn
how the death of a star
can birth a new solar system,
just as kernels of wheat
fall to the ground
and scatter their seeds.
As we walk the galleries
with our astronaut ice cream
we meet two space travelers–
Pershing II and Soviet Pioneer,
nearly banned by treaty
in the year of Eliza’s birth.
I hold her hand and hear
Russian spoken to my left.
A middle-aged couple
in black ushanka hats look
at me and offer a tentative smile.
I answer in the same language.
And then I picture the activists,
here and there,
who kept heart and mind
open to the terror
while others built shelters
of demonization and denial.
They lost years, their careers
and their freedom for peace.
Now they must hear
how Reagan won the Cold War.
Will their sacrifices,
ever be acknowledged?
Muttering to myself
I follow my skipping children
to the carousel on the National Mall
where locals weave through tourists
and wind tosses snowflakes
over the poles of furled flags.
Long raven hair like Spanish mossgrabs a runaway slave in a Louisiana swamp —bound fast to the mastfor his siren song,like a horn through the fogof a bayou bog where Morgan Le Fayrises again from the mistof his boyhood dreams.
Somehow, he pulls freebut his head is shorn—like a nameless prison inmateor a tonsured monk rebornwith a safer and holy name.In the numinous lightof the piney woods,nel mezzo del cammin(as he understood)he follows the trail,like a well-bred hound,of the sanguinous scent driftingtoward the ground.
When he gets to the crossroadshe tosses his bonesand to no one’s surprisethose single point dicestare up at him like the Siamese eyesthat called him out with a smoky smile.She said some go that way and some go this.He tastes her again when he bites his lip.
He had laughed years before at a bright-eyed manwho pulled his coat with a trembling handand rolled out a story of the horrible tollof the triple Scorpio who stole his soul.The broken man had sighed and lethis calling card reply—Blake’s etchingof hell and an experienced verse:the road of excess (may first make things worsebut it) leads to the palace of wisdom.
Stare at the sun.Stare at a womanwho knows what she’s doneand hasn’t a single regret.Reach behind yourselffor something to throwthrough those black mirrored eyes.
Hear the blood rush in your ears.Feel your feet tingle.Feel your arms shake.Scream ‘til the raftersthreaten to break.
Open your hands.Laugh at yourself.Begin.
I brought you red carnations
and white Romanian wine,
and in the cool shadows of your room
you brought me to my senses.
Your voice slipped into my blood.
In an hour, it’s true, we lived forever.
Out in the summer sun
our love seemed to wither.
Glare stabbed our eyes.
Heat baked our skin.
The sidewalks were burning coals,
like the eyes we passed on the street.
We were drenched in sex
and they sniffed us like angry dogs.
We shaded our eyes and scanned
the scorching street for a wife,
a husband, for dangerous friends.
We longed for a cloak of darkness.
You had survived this passion
more than once and shared with me
the arcana, how to drink the night like wine
and sleepwalk through every day–
’til the night when the pain breached
the walls of my heart and I learned
where those stories began.
on the beach
melting cliffs within
the ghost of the killing machine
Here is your damned white whale.
take up a jawbone
and tell yourself a story—
and join the ranks
of those cursed
to wear the donkey head
to be crippled
It was the year I quit coffee,five years after boozeand four years after smokes.
I shoveled the whole drivewayIn a January blizzardand my middle-aged, momentarilycaffeine free heartmade not a murmur of protest.I felt like a righteous Mormon,Brigham Young on the edge of the desert.I wanted to go back in the houseand make another baby with youbut it was past time for that.
Susanna bundled out to helpplowing through snow almost to her waist.We heard crows complaining overheadas they always do in snow.A blue jay hopped by, ignoring us,and chickadees screamed at the feederacross the street.
It suddenly struck her,“Haven’t they gone south yet?”I told her that some stay all year.She finished a pathwith her bright red shoveland went back inside.
In a minute I felt tiredand wanted a smoke.I watched the snowfall slowand collect on my glasses.
I caught for a moment that smellof wet childhood winters,stamped my bootsand started on the cars.
Gritty and graceful, you bloomwhere you’re not planted and provethat a tree can grow anywhere.Unabashed by your surroundings,never scandalized by your companionsand so well-adjusted to the smogand sooty view.
I find your virtue tiresome.
But like fireworks each of yourexplosions renews the wonder.How could a tree grow there —on dust, on asphalt, through a fence?Do other trees demand too much?
I could unearth you and toss youinto a rusty dumpster but you’donly take root and mock my ill humor.I would ignore you but you take meby surprise with my resistance loweredas I round a darkening corner and
catch you waving in the corner of my eye