Sunday, February 19, 2012

You Be Happening

The nursery rhymes my grandmother read to my sister and I were written by Shakespere, Whitman, Frost and Poe. I have loved the sound of language since before I could read or write on my own. The written word has always been a portal through.

I grew up in a family that had lots of opinions about everything. The adults readily voiced their opinions. This was during a time when children were to be seen and not heard. Unless we were asked a question or invited to take part in their conversation, we were supposed to sit and listen and keep quiet. I think this was because the adults had read books and because they knew a thing or two. When they talked; we listened. I'm sure they were hoping that we also might learn a thing or two. I think that is why I have always enjoyed the company of older people. They were so much more interesting than most of my peers back then.

My family was also pretty open minded. And they were capable of thinking a topic through and then talking about their point of view. There were heated discussions but only because the topics were complicated. No-one was made to feel bad about their ideas. We were encouraged to think for ourselves. I don't think a day went by when the Great Depression wasn't mentioned. And I don't think an hour went by when someone didn't say something ironic and funny.

I had grown up in the South, as a young girl. Mom was involved in the integration of schools there. She started an integrated pre-school. My sister and I were the only white kids in the school. I remember people talking about what would happen the first day. And I remember how during recess some of us touched each other's curly or straight hair. And then we got to playing and learning our alphabet and listening to stories from books and that was that.

I do remember listening to my mother and others, talking passionately about what some politician said or what they thought was going to happen or what should go on. And I remember walking in what I was thinking was a parade but now that I think about it; the people were talking to each other and there weren't any rides or animals so it may have been a civil rights march. But my memory is so slight since my brain injury that I can't be sure. So take it for what it was, a snapshot of being around a lot of thinking people who weren't afraid to see things differently and stand for what they believed in.

When we left there, we moved to a suburb on the western shoreline of Lake Michigan; where life was very different. Interestingly, not the thinking part. There were still lots of great discussions. But the houses were bigger and people went to Europe on vacations. And it seemed like everybody owned a business who lived there. Anyway, I was from the south and so I had an accent. The kids were always asking me to say something and then they'd laugh. And they were laughing at me. And I couldn't understand it. The idea of laughing at someone was so completely foreign. In fact, I had probably never seen that before, let alone experienced it. So I got self-conscious. And more introverted. If I could have had a sense of humor about the whole thing it probably wouldn't have mattered. But I didn't get that back then. I just felt, weird.

I'm so grateful I was raised to love reading. Because during the next few years I read lots of great books. And I experienced lots of highs and lows.

When I was old enough and could drive I worked and saved money and then I started to travele. I experienced a separate reality on more than one occassion and I helped to organize peace marches in the burbs and the city with people who wanted the war to end. I was in riots and blinded by tear gas and I remember running to get away from the cars that were on fire and the whir of police batons.

I also remember a different kind of growing up during these same years. Our grandparents had built a nice little cottage on a small lake in the country in Michigan during the Depression. It was a put together house with bits of this and that. There was no phone and no driveway. It was the one place that had been a constant in my life. We there in the summers, no matter where we lived during the school year. And I remember that we all loved it there. The winding roads. The tilted mailboxes crutched up in a stack of cement blocks or field stones. And I remember the sweet aroma of apples growing in the orchards nearby. Everything grew in Michigan; peaches, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, corn, tomatoes, beans, even me.

Summers during many of those young years were an uncomplicated oasis of nature and water and our grandparents. Grandpa was the sweetest man you'd ever hope to know. We had structure and chores and the best farm cooking on our table everyday. During our free time my sister and I roamed around the hillside and along the water's edge. We couldn't go farther than we could hear so that when we were called we knew to get to the house quickly. It was the berries to be there.

I also remember finding arrow heads. Every summer I'd put them in a container and every year I would add another arrow head or unusual rock that I discovered while out exploring. We played cards at night. And when we walked up the hill to check the mail we would stop along the way and grandma would visit our neighbors on the way up and back down the hill. Back then going to the mailbox was exciting because there were always letters inside. And we always had a few to leave behind for the mailman.

But when the new school year was about to start I always felt restricted and disinterested. Not in learning or reading. But just not learning in that way. It seemed like the focus of school wasn't about actually learning something. It was about testing well. I was two years academically behind when we moved. And I went through all kinds of tests. To see where I'd fit best. And it was decided my IQ was high and though I might struggle for the first year or two; there were tutors and willing teachers to help after school. I remember the discussions we had as a family were a lot more interesting and challening to think about than most of what I heard in the classroom.

I played the piano a lot back then. I loved to practice. And especially loved playing Bach and Mozart.

I wasn't into fancy clothes or wearing makeup or waiting around all night in case a boy I had a crush on might call. A lot of girls were like that. And come Monday morning some of them would cry because of something that happened over the weekend. I remember thinking, I am not going to do that. I'm going to live my life and not be someone who wastes time or waits around for life to happen. Yes, that was a trait that has been with me my whole life.

I started drawing and writing poetry and looking outside through the windows and thinking. Now and again I met people who were like that too. And it would be great because there was someone who could open my mind to think in new ways. That era was a lot like jumping rope at the edge of a great precipice. Challenging boundaries was at times exciting and at other times quite terrifying. I began to question everything. It was a thing back then. Questioning the status quq and wondering if we really needed all of these boundaries to exist.

I had been studying Confucius and Lao Tsu and Einstein and Latin during the summers with Grandma, since I was about twelve. My Grandma used to say, "If you love to read you'll never be lonely." My Mom used to say that too. And during those years when I felt so out of place; I found that to be true too. If I heard about a philosophy or political or religious point of view I'd go directly to the source of information, and study until I whatever I was reading became a part of my evolving perspective. Each book was a stepping stone to the next. I loved reading Steinbeck and Hemmingway and of course, Shakespere and Keats and Frost and Poe.

This was also the time when I began to step away from drugs and got into meditation. And that was a wonderful new thing that swirled around and through the me I was being and becoming. During this time I also studied the Buddha.

This was when I started to write.
I'd stand in a train station, waiting for a train and take out a small sketchpad and draw or write descriptively a particular trait I had noticed in the crowd of people going somehwere in Chicago.

It was also at this time that I began to take classes that really interested me. Like philosophy and sociology and history and economy and political science and the humanities. Yeah, these were all familiar to me and I thoroughly enjoyed my teachers and the discussions we were allowed to have in class during the late sixties and early seventies. It kicked.

It was also at this time that I became aware of the holocaust. And since most of the part of my family that I knew was Jewish, I related to this terrible event in history. The knowledge of the atrocities of the holocaust nestled there in my psyche and for the rest of my life would peek out and leave these enormous questions in my mind; like some kind of return prayer stuffed in the recesses of a wish for humanity. I kept trying to figure out why people would do such horrible things to each other. This led to more books about history and philosophy. And I realized that cultures did terrible things to each other on every continent of the world. We kept stubbing our toes and causing chaos wherever we went. To the planet itself, and to each other. And I wondered about that.

And believe me, as these thoughts were becoming a part of my anatomy the furthest thing from my mind was makeup, hair and boys. I didn't want to become entangled and not be able to live my life. And I didn't know any boys who were interested in getting out there too. So I was often alone. It was during this time that a thought occurred to me and it was this, "If life isn't happening around you, then you be happening." This became one of the sayings I have passed down to my children. If there weren't many peers who were into this different way of looking at life then it was a time to learn. To read more books. To understand and question and think some more. So I would be prepared when a truly interesting conversation arose. And that was great.

I rarely felt like I was a part of the social whatever back then. I'd have a couple of friends that I thought were interesting people. But I didn't care about being in groups and truthfully the whole idea of that to me, was boring. With so much going on around us in the world and so much that had gone on in our history, spending any time deciding what color to paint my nails seemed pretty lame.

The big question on our minds back then was, "Wait a minute, why can't we live in peace?" We've got enough nuclear warheads on this planet to destroy it hundreds of times. What's the point? Is it possible a whole lot of people were missing it, all at the same time?

Studying Ghandi made a huge impression on me. And listening to other people with meaningful, thoughtful things to believe and even dare to dream, was invigorating. It was like the possibilities were endless. We could do so much good. If only the tentacles of the oil industry and chemical plants and nuclear energy and big money weren't choking the life out of country by trying to force their agendas through so they could keep on making money, regardless what damage was being done for the sake of higher profits. Money and power and nobody listening. Yep, that was it.

And then the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Bobby Kennedy and Malcom X and demonstrators happened. What was going on? It was like a few people had decided to stop the freedom train because they just couldn't understand what was happening. The issues of the day back then were the same as they are now. Pollution and corruption and police brutality and equal rights for every freakin' body became something a lot of us could relate to during those days. We couldn't figure out why we were being stopped from trying to make a difference. We couldn't understand why an honest conversation wasn't taking place when we were clearly on the eve of destruction. And this was truly heartbreaking.

I decided it was time to get out there and meet people and travel. It was time to get my feet wet. I decided not to wait around for traveling companions. I just saved up enough to put some gas in my car and tred on the wheels and then I'd get up one day and think, I'm going to go to New Orleans or Colorado today. And I just did the damn thing. I got a job at a temp agency as soon as I got to my destination and either stayed with friends or stayed in a commune or rented a dorm room for real cheap. I worked and got to know people made it a point to always leave things at least as good if not better than I'd found them. A lot of us were living this way and it was great.

During this time I was also going to Columbia College in Chicago. It was a revolutionary school really. Lots of different kinds of teachers. Different races, different religions and different partners. At Columbia it none of those things mattered. What did matter was that the teachers were professionals at what they taught. So a journalism teacher was a journalist. And a good one. The ages of the teachers were different too but they all had one thing in common, they loved what they did and they taught us a bit of what they knew. It was so the best place for me. Even so, I couldn't wait to leave it. So much was going on out there and I wanted to be a part of it.

There were long breaks in the winter and summer. During those times I would take long trips and climb over another mountain to see what I could see. On one such trip I went to Boulder. Some people I knew had gone there and only came back to the burbs once or twice after that because it was so beautiful there. And the people too, they were so - groovy. And I so mean that in the very best sense.

One day I met a lovely human being there. A lovely, wonderful human being. And we became friends. Our friendship would last for many years. He told me that he and a some people were starting this college and eastern philosophies and approaches to knowledge and life were going to be taught there. And would I like to come to lunch and meet some of them. And I thought, cool. He didn't drive. He had a driver and a Mercedes Benz. So we got to this restaurant in Boulder and got a table where a lot of light came into the room. And my friend sat at the head of the table. I think it might have been a round table. But everyone positioned their chairs toward Chogyam Trungpa. That was the affect he had on people. I think Allen Ginsberg sat next to him on his left. And there might have been one or two people on that side of the table and then there was me and on the other side of the table were these bald headed yogis wearing all white.

Allen was wearing black pants and a regular white shirt. This was who Rinpoche wanted me to meet. Allen was helping him start Naropa University. I thought Allen was a lawyer when we first met. Isn't that funny? You'd think the beard would have tipped me off but I knew lots of men with beards who were doctors or lawyers or professors. I had no idea Allen was a writer. I knew nothing about him. But we clicked and had the best time talking. Allen talked in code. Everything meant much more than just what was being said. We shared a lot of the same interests and read a lot of the same authors. Oh I don't think we ever talked about who we liked to read. The traces of these authors and these thoughts were left in our lives. The significance was that we had shared a common reference. So when we talked and when we listened to each other we heard what the other was saying. Rinpoche too was getting a kick out of what was happening. He was just beaming.

Chogyam didn't say much. But when he did speak, everybody listened. The men in white robes didn't talk much either. It felt like they were trying to figure out what I was doing there. Trying to figure out if I was somebody. But Allen and I were having a blast. Because I got exactly what he was saying. And he got me. And he was just who he was. And I so dug that. We talked about all of it. And I'll leave it there for anyone else who gets it.

Yeah, that was a great day. A great first impression. One that thankfully, stayed with me all these years since.

So yeah, so anyway, that's when I knew that it was true. All of the reading and preparing for life and being a student of life may have at times felt lonely. But when I did meet someone who was also completely engaged with life, an instant, unspoken, comradery was born. And that's how I learned that it was all worthwhile. "If life isn't happening around you, than you be happening." And when you learn how to go with the flow you will eventually swirl around and through another like minded person who
gets it too.

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