There are moments
Hough – 1966
I stand on the corner of Euclid and Liberty, the University at my back, the edges of the ghetto across the street and about a block away, the rotating flashes of cop cars at a blockaded intersection. It’s a little past the curfew, but I’d been pulled by some compulsion to come this way and have a look.
I participate in a summer college prep program that’s part of the president’s ‘War On Poverty’. Two nights ago, returning from a concert in the suburbs with a small group of students and counselors, we found the lights around the dormitories and in the courtyards mysteriously dark. The dorm entrances were locked, and everything was weirdly quiet. When we banged on the doors to be let in, a counselor furtively appeared and breathlessly asked us where we’d been. Someone earlier had heard gunfire at the edges of the campus and everyone had gotten quiet and had hunkered down in their rooms. Coming inside, we found the lights inside the hallways and in the stairwells also extinguished. So we hustled into the elevator and took it up to the second floor. When I started down the hallway toward the open door of my corner room, I saw that a couple of people were sitting on the desk and gazing out through the wide window. As I approached, I realized that the whole horizon of the city appeared to be on fire. The people in my room, friends of mine, had families living in those neighborhoods that were on fire.
The next few days were strange, as if we were living in a war zone. One evening we sat on a balcony, watching National Guard convoys streaming out from the college into the neighborhoods. Earlier in the day they’d descended from the armory up the heights and set up camp in the sports field next to the dorms. As darkness fell they proceeded, guns at the ready, from the wealthy halls of learning out into communities seen as epicenters of unrest. I’d begun to look at the architecture and arrangement of University buildings as a literal fortress against the poor. Troops and supplies were channelled down a wide highway into the campus. The university was like an island of higher learning, with the upper middle class heights at it’s back, surrounded on three sides by the ghetto.
Earlier today I watched a Guardsman playing Gershwin on a grand piano, in the student Union.
Tonight I have to be a witness, so I walk right up to the borders of a frontier, where the stores are closed and everything is tense, but quiet, in the aftermath of a receding wave of explosive anger. I can sense that there’ll be more waves, perhaps many more, to come. Given our history, maybe in 50 years the geography will have shifted, but we may still be under siege. At this moment, I stand in the shadows, on a quiet corner, watching a scene of roadblocks and paranoia, wondering whether its safe to cross the street.
Robert, campus shaman, student of medicine and law, late night DJ, always scruffy and aromatic, with lank and greasy looking hair and patchy beard, wears like a primitive vest the fuzzy unzipped liner of his trench coat. He stands behind me, holding a pair of wooden shoe trees, one in each hand, occasionally rattling them imperiously. We are thirteen stories up, on the roof of Robert’s dormitory, surveying a landscape of lit up buildings and the strange activity below. A group of our friends are wandering in a group that gathers to sit in a circle on a concrete plaza between the fountain and the lights. They’ve taken to howling like a pack of wolves.
A week ago we sat down during rush hour in the middle of the busy street that bisected the University, protesting the war. More than a hundred students joined us. Traffic stopped, the police arrived, and we spent hours being chased across the campus lawns, dodging cops on horses and clouds of tear gas. That evening Robert and I ran ahead of a mass gathering of demonstrators at the Student Union, to post ourselves on either side of a stairway leading into the ROTC building. As we sat awaiting the impending march, the president of the University and a coterie of deans and professors, having been roused from their evening cocktails, approached the stairs and asked us who we were. We dutifully replied that we were “Gargoyles”. The bewildered clique of administrators and elite instructors retreated, just ahead of the mob of students that soon arrived to occupy the building. As the excitement subsided and the party began, Robert and I walked over to his gig in the basement of the student radio station. All night we played ‘Carry On’, the first song on a new release by Crosby, Stills and Nash…”Carry On, Love Is Coming To Us All…”
This week ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ are in town for a national conference, organizing against the Vietnam war. A slew of delegates have arrived to share space in the dorms and make use of various classrooms and student facilities for councils and teach-ins. In advance of and perhaps in preparation for their arrival, the campus is awash with a plentiful supply and variety of cannabis and psychedelic product. When evening arrives, for the first time ever a general state of paranoia has vanished, towels as smoke barriers are removed from under doors, all doors are thrown open, music and parties flourish everywhere. Thus a great anti-war gala and political convention is launched.
Withdrawing from the celebrations, I retreat to my dormitory room, having ingested a quantity of LSD. I feel the need to be apart from the company of others while being launching into this chemically triggered revery. When I enter the dark room, all is quiet and empty and reassuring. Before I can take another step, the calm and familiar voice of Timothy Leary breaks the silence. It issues from the speakers on my stereo that I’d earlier left tuned to the campus ‘underground’ FM station. The voice sad, “Sit down Ralph”.
Frozen in motion and completely astounded, I obediently sit on the edge of the bed near the door, and listen.
The good ‘Doctor Tim’ takes me on an amazing guided tour of my own nervous system, the surrounding universe and the whole history of evolution that leads to the miracle of my human DNA. As he speaks my mind is gently and relentlessly forced to open, in stages. I hitch a ride, from the perspective of our amoebic ancestors, through the unwinding narrative of the evolution of my brain, on to a transcendent vision of a common destiny that’s beyond all space and time. The whole time, out of time, I hardly move a muscle, sitting on the edge of the bed as the story unfolds. Finally I’m talked gently into a safe landing, back in the room I’ve never left, and in the present dimension.
I carried the puzzled surprise and synchronicity of that evening in my imagination for many years. At times I questioned whether the experience was just an elaborately constructed hallucination. Otherwise I viewed it as some kind of unexplainable and secret initiation. Decades later I came across the account of an early psychedelic session, guided and taped by Timothy Leary with one of his grad students at Harvard. The student’s name happened to be Ralph Metzner. Mystery solved?
Hitchhiking across the deserts and plains of the southwest, between California and Utah, I’m stranded in a small town with a growing band of fellow travelers. We’ve stood around for hours, having left Salt Lake City going east, descending on the other side of the Wasatch Mountains into a community at a crossroad for tourist and trailer park families. As our numbers keep growing it becomes increasingly unlikely that anyone in middle America will stop for a scary looking gaggle of long-haired young people.
Fortunately there’s a U-Haul agency in town. Someone has the inspiration to pass a hat, in which is collected enough cash to rent a truck, big enough to hold us all, pay for gas, and pick up a few stragglers along the way. We load up and cruise through the night, across the sage covered flats of western Colorado. We finally arrive in the early morning at Granby Reservoir, near the base of the high Rocky Mountains, where a growing campsite of wanderers gather for their walk up mountain trails to the site of the first Rainbow Gathering.
Negotiations have commenced with nervous ranchers and farmers that have set up a roadblock on the road between this camp and our destination. With the help of a sympathetic rancher the barrier is dismantled and we’re able to complete this last short stretch in our pilgrimage. We’re ferried by school bus up a dirt road, from the outskirts of the small town of Granby to the borders of national parkland. A steep winding trail leads us up to a wide meadow that borders a small alpine lake, surrounded by pine forests and overlooked by snow covered peaks. Strawberry Lake. A banner stretched across the final leg of the trail welcomes us “Home”, to this temporary collective refuge in the wilderness. Pilgrims arrive from all directions, most of them escaping the cities in this crazy nation with its crazy politics and prejudices, after years of frustrating struggle in the political trenches. We were looking for some better way forward, or maybe some kind of magic to manifest in the natural world.
I take off along a narrow trail that skirts the edge of the valley, hauling my rucksack and heavy sleeping bag, looking for the perfect spot to set down. In my pack are copies of the first Whole Earth Catalog and the Oxford Annotated Edition of the Bible. I walk beneath pine forests swaying in summer breezes, listening to the soft whisper that carries the sound of not so distant drumming, and the scent of community cooking fires. Finally I come upon an inviting patch of level earth beneath a sheltering tree. The ground is flat and covered with a carpet of pine needles, a little elevated from the path. I decide this is my place, and lay out my sleeping bag and pack. Carefully collecting small pine cones, I place them in a border around the space and outline a welcoming path to enter for anyone who might pass by. I’ve claimed the spot as my own magical circle in the wilderness. All are invited to share.
For hours I sit, listening to the constant sound of drums that come from clearings around the meadow, were people gather for food, conversation and rest. Through the treetops I can see distant snowfields just below the mountain peaks that loom above. Where I come from there aren’t any mountains, except in movies and fairytales. After absorbing the awesome landscape for a bit, I walk down a path that continues to the center of the meadow and the shore of the lake. A council, made up of whoever chooses to attend, gathers continually to tell stories of their journeys, to relate prophecies and mystical visions, and to discuss plans for the days and the ceremonies ahead.
We are dreamers who grew up in the shadow of violence, wishing for a better future. Many like me, had been to the Woodstock Festival or something like it. We’d witnessed the sheer power of our collective will, for better and worse. We hoped that here in the wild, away from the electricity and the crowds and the dependent delusions of civilization, we might encounter some revelation to guide us forward on a path toward some sort of universal peace.
On the last day we gathered in wide prayer circles on top of a high plateau that had been sacred to the displaced people who once lived here. I stood in a wide circle, surrounded by all of these mountains, and hundreds of people praying or chanting or being silent. We were all are waiting for a sign. In the middle of a moment of collective silence, the voice of a single person interrupts. The voice comes from a tall dark man with a shaved head and an incredibly open smile. He’s wearing saffron colored robes, his accent is rather thick, and his presence suggests simultaneously calm wisdom and innocence. For many, the voice is a rude interruption. For others it’s a guide.
For me, I came to realize in the years that followed, it was the sign.
We arrive on a special flight from Denver to Orlando to attend the event, on a plot surrounded by Florida forest, a couple of miles from Disneyworld. We work in a community grocery store run by Divine Light Mission, an organization built to spread the words of our teacher and master. To keep the store running during the week long celebration, a skeleton crew is left behind during the first half of the event. We tend the shelves and counters and listen in the evening to the talks and music broadcast across a short wave connection in a downstairs office. For the final days we’re brought across the country to fully take part in the festivities.
The first morning after arrival I’m assigned the duty of porta-potty supervision and sanitation. By late afternoon I’m switched to service in the darshan tunnel, where I attach gardenia blossoms to the silky blue fabric of the walls. Through this fragrant space each one of the thousands of devotees will walk, to receive a moment of attention at the feet of the teacher. From toilets to tunnel is a journey of a few yards that feels like a journey between dimensions.
The Florida weather is clear and immaculate, an occasional bird or butterfly drifting overhead in light warm currents that carry the scent of ocean air. I sit in a grassy field next to a row of my traveling companions, at the front of an audience of several thousand people. On stage before us is a colorful throne surrounded by flowers and framed by cascades of cloth drapery. Just below the front of the platform a small band of amplified musicians sings and plays a mixture of devotional tunes, interweaving elements of American folk and rock with Indian themes. Everything harmonizes in this soundtrack for a large summer celebration.
The music weaves a rapturous spell over the crowd. A vacant field is transformed into a village, in a corner of heaven. From nothing we built a small community in a matter of days, with campsites, showers, latrines and international kitchens. A multicultured army of people that spoke every language on earth, shared a common will, to celebrate life and love together and have an opportunity to be with the one who brought us together.
In the afternoon we sit, entranced in a state of near ecstasy and expectation, until the teacher, dressed in a ceremonial costume evoking a Hindu deity, steps from behind the drapes and takes his seat upon the throne. As the band launches into an electric version of an ancient hymn, he beams down at his audience, like a rock star overseeing adoring fans. Suddenly, a young woman, dressed in a colorful sari, stands up from our row at front and center, and begins to dance. As she gracefully sways to the music, her arms in the air above her head, the colors she wears swirling around her, the teacher stands in resplendent grace, and begins himself to dance.
In that moment for me the time stops, the birds and butterflies for an instant are frozen in flight, and the sunlight and breezes pause in expectant silence. All of my attention is carried by the dance, and all of time and space stops as witness, and there is no separation between anything that exists in the world.
The child held her hand as they cross the road in the middle of the valley. Where I stand, at the edge of a forest where the highway begins to climb on its way toward more distant heights, the wide alpine valley is in full view. In its center is a row of buildings along the strip, tiny in the distance. There are the resort cabins where we sleep, beside them a restaurant and convenience store, all perched above a meadow bordering a meandering creek. Across the asphalt what passes for a village includes a widely scattered collection of residences, a real estate office and a clinic. Behind the town and clinic is a small lake bordered by wide pastures, that eventually ascend to the edges of forests which sweep in graceful steps upward toward the distant Sawtooth Mountains, arrayed in sharp display against an endless sky.
The woman and child below are my wife and four year old son. They cross the road to climb a short path toward the clinic. Having come down with a mild but persistent cough that afternoon, and having a history of asthma, my wife decided to take him to the doctor for a cautionary checkup. Meanwhile, I take this short walk in the hour before dinner.
Before I come to the edge of the tall trees on the top of the ridge, while I watch my young family below, so exposed amid this enormous vista of primitive majesty, when my sense of time and space is suspended. Beneath these vast mountain skies, in the shadow of these mountains, I feel something within me expanding far beyond the usual boundaries of affection. For a moment my feelings embrace it all; people, mountains, valley, stream and village. More than at any previous moment in my life, everything I witness is enveloped within a boundless atmosphere of love.
Then I turn again toward the trail, and that feeling is lost to the winds.
Living in the middle of a White Sea
I apologize to John Mike Thom Daryl Sonia Jamal Ken
Nicolle Tameka Jolene Diane Erika Barclay
Malcolm Shirley Joshua Sergia Nathaniel
so many more
To all those who succeeded
Who got to their goal
Because they were brilliant and creative
and got lucky
And those who didn’t
And those who died going under
While I didn’t do anything special
floating in a world of white dreams
white luck white privilege
Because I could
Because I am
Because I’m lucky
I am sorry so sorry
You were my friends
I allowed myself to be pulled away
and lost you
I forgot your names
but remember your faces
Now I live on a mostly white Island
Far away from you
Your streets your beautiful homes
Your inviting arms and spaces
I don’t know how to return
The night I drank too much ‘Orange Flip’
and threw up in your basement
on your mothers dress
You drove me back
To my house on the West Side
The white side
Where it was dangerous
for black boys to be seen
we were boys
You left me on the front lawn
Because it was after dark
Now I know that you were afraid
The women used to run their hands
through my hair
amazed at how light and fine it was
I would offer it now