Notes from an Eastern Trip
for William Shawn
They were half an hour late picking me up. I stood on the corner in Manhattan warm smog wearing a suit and feeling foolish. Not my thing, that, nor talking to adults, a convention of Unitarians. I hadn't prepared a speech. I tried to reassure myself that was because l owed them no less respect than I do my juniors and peers, even if they were paying me and whatever they expected.
“We're learning to place our faith and training, not in plans made in advance and maybe inappropriate, but in the ability of our people to respond appropriately whatever the context," said my loved friend Annie, once my "student," as she was switching over from campus ed-reform organizing to community-building among Berkeley's young hippy population, setting up Switchboard. I dig it, and I'm learning to work hang-loose and effectively with kids who are into making change, in their various ways.
But adults looking on, wondering how to perceive and cope with what's happening with us, are a different matter. What to say to them? I drove up with Lynn, the District Manager, and his wife. I pumped them about Unitarians, they pumped me about where it is with young kids and drugs, what I thought the ethics of it were. “They're going to encounter grass anyway, likely try it -- especially if they're where most Unitarian kids are, fairly flexible and inquisitive, and hip that it's harmless and subversive, Can you unbend enough to make home a free and receptive place for their experiments? Because if you can't ... " They listened; I couldn't tell if they bought it. But I dug on the way they talked about their kids: a bit over-protective, but solid. They should make out fairly well. So unlike the run of the delegates there.
When I got there a bunch of kids were setting up a lightshow, and we fell into an easy chatter amid glistening watch-glasses and incense. They all looked so much younger than they are (twenty-three, twenty-six, thirty), and so pretty, in a way I'm now familiar with from pockets of kids trying to build things all over the country. What can I say about it that isn't soppy? They all reminded me of my brother and lover; I wanted to hug them, hold them.
This was their first paying gig away from home. They've been working cooperatively, trying to live communally: seven of them, in Long Island, sometimes in one house, sometimes in two. "It's hard, man, takes a long time to begin to come together. , . you know how it is." We traded news: grass is scarce and twiggy on the Island, the cops tore up Haight Street last month with tear gas and clubs, "I was there in '66," said the kid with the dark ringlets of beard delicately framing his face in the warm backglow of the projectors, "I saw my first lightshow at the benefit for Tim Leary; I wanted to do one." He talked about how clubs, businesses, advertising were beginning to pick up on lightshows. They make enough to keep their show going, exploring, growing. 'That's enough, right?"
It was raining in Westport, Connecticut, long way from New York. Inside the laminated wood belly of this church-whale we met in a workshop of tools of light, in a quiet and warm recognition. I wished for some dope to lay on them, they were clean, Instead we talked about Chicago, almost casually.
“How long you staying on the coast here?"
"Gotta be home by late April, Stop the Draft Week; it may be bloody, October was; my woman, friends, community are there. Be in and out of New York till then, doing gigs, seeing friends."
"Oh sure. We’ll take a vacation, travel slow to get there. "
"See you there. I'm not sure why, but I know I have to go, to be there."
“The lightshow too?"
He grinned, and I wondered on what dark wall their images would flash, and all that delicate glass -- remembering how the lightshow at the Straight Theatre had gotten shattered when the cops filled the place with tear gas.
""What are you going to say to them, how?" I didn't know. We talked about that, the problem of reaching adults (no better term): most of the Unitarians were full middle age; the kids didn't expect any of them to turn on to the show. "They're used to words," said my sociologist, "which they usually treat as if they understand and whose impact they can control." Later I wondered: loud noises and bright lights frighten them?
Behind our talk, after I indicated how I travel and what kinds of scenes I touch, I seemed to feeI them asking what so many of ours do, in so many ways: say something to us, something that makes sense, help us learn what we know and what we're learning, and that we're not alone.
"I'm going to step our there and let them poke at me, let them find something strange, but only if they choose to," I said, thinking I would do that. And I laid a copy of Violence Poem on them, the nice green edition our people in Urbana printed up, and stepped out of their protecting screen as the show began.
Beautiful. They played images and noises in the style of the classical raga: wandering first in a largo of genesis through sunburst colors, fronds, and liquid shifting forms with alluvial sound; evolving; ascending the changes to a cascade of hammering, beckoning images of despair and glad tambourines and Rusk and pornie and soldiers advancing and childlike celebration; and then a coda slow down to darkness. Their beginning didn't hold. I learned from playing Purcell: slow stuff is hardest to sustain, takes peaceful strength. But their thing came together midway when they took to working with the present images and concerns of their hearts. Soon the vibrations of something real being created began to pulse in the room; I surrendered happily to the pull.
But where was the audience? Impossible to telI; their bodies and faces didn't betray them. How was it hitting them? Were they trying to understand its meaning, make the images make sense? All that seemed clear was the delicate trance of people under unaccustomed bombardment -- so different from the state of people actively digging that intimate sensory sauna.
I gave up wondering, stood by the big speaker, arching my ears to the fireplace warmth of its volume, vibrations through my body, digging the images. Six people came in late, sat down nearby, slowly realized the uncomforting intensity of where they were, moved away from the speakers, as if at a picnic avoiding the discovered wasps' nest.
De gustibus non est disputandum. I went outside to turn on, where I could still see the show through the terrace glass door. Getting pretty good at that, scraping off little flakes of hash and putting them on the cigarette-coal, by touch in the dark yet; swiffing in that sweet acrid smoke. Enough for one Marlboro, a seven-minute turn-on, safer to carry this way.
Why grass, the images were turning me on? I talked twelve hours with the chicks at Manhattanville the day before; it was gentle and very natural, very trusting, especially when we came to how to raise children free. I got stoned from digging them almost immediately, also about half of them were grace to my eyes, and I wanted to ball them all. No need to smoke. But these convention people were mostly stone distant unknown, not like my hosts, And by then I'd decided what I was going to do. I needed an amplifier, couldn't count on drawing feedback energy from an "audience."
Blow their minds. The lightshow kids were giving them a sensory and cultural overload thing that was clearly penetrating them. I decided to continue the overload, shifting the medium: words and drama and desperation. No conversation, no letting them probe me, not this time. Try to break through, to make an impact that cannot be translated into words and the familiar, with whose troubling unnamable echoes inside their world they will have to contend. Hefting the proud lance of a Theory, I scarfed the last drag, regretting there'd been too little to share, popped a mint to ritually satisfy my paranoia, and wandered back in.
I stood behind them, the last part of the show. "They told us thirty minutes," said the kid with the sideburns, "but it didn't make sense if we cut it under forty-five." My body danced to their tape, echoing the way they moved with quiet growing grace and efficiency tending their machines, embracing moments of relaxation tucked between changes. When the blonde bird handling the delicate watchglasses and their cleaning was free, I asked her if they could throw a soft spot on the screen when they ended, so I could go on without pause.
"Violence gathers in America," I began, and laid out the heaviest and most heartfelt chunk of words in my artillery, went into what should have been an evoking performance. It wasn't. Every so often I'd lift myself out of the poem to check for response: but there was no feedback, mostly only a stony attention I didn't recognize. Here I was, trying to sing what it's like to see the vectors of the war, the breaking black thing, the incipient hippy pogrom focus on our heads, and us on the streets of Oakland and at Bonnie and Clyde for the third time, trying to learn what to do next while the culture decides to eat its young. And absolutely no sense coming back to me, save from a few mavericks, that the people there made any connection of this with their own lives or spirits. Nowhere the welcoming signal you speak for me speak on! So I'd plunge back into the poem's ten-minute eternity, willing it alive for me and trying to project, with nobody hardly helping on the other end, oppressed by the blankness.
"Give them something to think about," Lynn said earlier, after I told him how I dug it, that he'd set up this thing, the lightshow and me, to keynote the convention and its business meetings. It's his last set-up as a bureaucrat, a rump affair; soon he's off to become a free-lance ethical traveler. "I wanted to try to give them an experience that would shake them, that would let them know they'd been reached, before I left."
I tried, coming out of the poem without letup, talking about the deep anger that throbs in America, about the classrooms as factories of despair where new life is being strangled by behaviors that don't change fast enough to permit life for the newness they control, of a unique culture whose prime product is change in its own human stuff, and of beginning to learn to build in the face of the death this impends.
I tried to put all the love and despair I feel into my rap. It was heavy going, I blessed the grass that helped me tune to the string of strength within me, as long as it lasted without fueling from outside. I wound up my half-hour by talking about the lightshow, how it had reached me and touched me, and about the kids who did it: my sense of their beauty, and the sketch of their bare brave beginnings. "It's all there, in the images; but if you can read them, you don't need these words, and if you can't, these words won't help you ... " And my throat went dry, and I went for water. I could have come back, but we'd done our thing, the lightpeople and I.
Out in the corridor Lynn and I agreed: break them into workshops, see if they could deal with however they'd been reached, don't allow the impact to settle with a question/answer bit. An experiment, right? It didn't work so good. There was indeed a busy buzz in the lobby, but less of substance than relief. Me, I just heard it as background because I was feeling uncomfortable and confused, silently fending off this dame who told me three times with lengthy slight variations how she had been like that too and she wanted to understand and she wasn't guilty and of course I was making sense but she couldn't be expected to respond to those other hippies, the lazy ones, who don't work or articulate with university polish. Every place I talk to olders, I tap into that stream of confused guilt.
Anyway, about the experiment. Most people didn't meet with their groups and most who did didn't expose even in that small public much of where they were with themselves and what they'd experienced. Most disliked both the lightshow and me, being put off by the noise of each. Most also thought that I was "another of those high school kids doing the lightshow" when I stepped out to do the poem. Several had been quite upset until, after rapping for twenty minutes, I identified myself in passing mock as Your Keynote Speaker. Strange habits, these natives.
I talked with the kids, packing their show: they had to travel, had a gig tomorrow at a club. "What are you doing after this? Come to our place on the Island, stay a couple of days, smoke some tea, clear your head out. And thanks for the words, man." "l've only got two days to see friends in the city," I said with real regret. We went out into the dark, said soft casual words with each other, drove off. "See you in Chicago," said the oldest one. Yeah.
Then I went downstairs to sit with Lynn and his wife in the moist nightlight till 4 A.M., talking quietly of lives and change. That was good, I really needed to talk with him, it fucks my head around when I can't come on straight with the authority figure in a scene, but he's cool. And I dig talking with people warm and loose in bed together, it's cozy.
I had groggy breakfast with the people who got me this gig by showing around a mimeographed letter I sent to friends; they'd gotten some second-generation Xerox. We nourished each other with news of friends and good changes growing. "We didn't come to hear what you had to say," said Caroline, mother of an SDS Peace Corps daughter and a son doing the intentional community bit at Morningstar back home, as they dropped me back at the motel and prepared to split for Cape Cod's sunwaters, ducking the afternoon session. "We just wanted to meet you, see who you are. Come by if you have time, we have plenty of room."
I watched them drive off, feeling somewhat more alone. Vern came to pick me up, and as we drove out to the church for the second round I tried to tell his wife Dottie about why so many kids are into magic and similar vocabularies these days, discovering energies they have no names for and must name. I don't get it, everybody keeps telling me how optimistic and warm I seem, nobody's hip that I think we're all going to die, I mean I say it but they don't believe me.
What to do for this second round, given what had happened in the first? "They will not talk about what concerns them," Caroline said, and Dotty embroidered that text with gruesome details, as we sat talking, digging the air, waiting for the business meeting still going on inside.
Soon these two kids, Bill and Jackie, came wandering by and joined us. They'd stayed around last night to try to help a discussion group, they wanted to tell me they really dug on what I said, and told me how they saw the others: "they don't want to hear." We came on with each other in a gentle upfront manner, buoyed by that same sense of recognition. It was worth it, that conference, to meet them. Deep sideburns, pure bloom; direct luminous eyes; they look like nineteen or twenty. Curious, I asked. "Twenty-five, twenty-six. But we're not our age." "Smoke a lot of dope?" "Yeah. What can we do to make something happen here?" "I don't know. You know these people better'n I do anyway: what should we do for them?" "Just sit and talk, maybe?"
I went off to check the meeting. It was still going and my despair became complete as I basked in the sun in the church's plaza, watching the three pink-frocked serving lasses in their artless chatterdance: alike as 15 1/2 x 3, as different as snowflakes. I relaxed enough to take out the camera, pick up on their chatter … ouch! what could I say to the adults inside, if they couldn't hear it from these their own kids, so knowing, so unknown?
They spotted the camera, posed poised in grave effortless grace. "For a magazine or for you?" "Me mostly, I dig pictures. It's like stationary lightshow. But writing's my thing; I'm supposed to say something to them inside about changes, can you talk with them?" One shrugged, they all smiled small and secret. "Smoke grass?" I asked. They counted each other with eyeflicks; looked up, nodded. Parents know? (Of course not) What percentage of upperclassmates? (30 %) "What changes has it put you through? ( ... ) Maybe the massy purplechord necklace Karen made me is a talisman: they were absolutely easy and open with me and my klutzy sociologist probing.
And then they just started talking, and I stood there awed by their analytic song. They talked about conferences, the ones they threw: what made for their being learning-events and what didn't. (They run their own, like on Zen and on the War, and have a much more sophisticated sense of structure than their elders do.) And then about schools: comparing them with conferences as environments, describing with precise candor the games that adults play and impose, and their dysfunctionalities. The chick who was laying out the most straight words about learning is a bobbin with bands on her teeth, her parents are down on her because her grades come back C+. Yet Friedenberg's perceptive analysis of the social system of high schools is a hippopotamus beside her deft sketch.
Learning might be possible without those games, I suggested; there are people who're trying to make it so, here and there. You know it all already; but it might be possible to put that knowledge to use. They absorbed that, however they did. Birds. They need to know inside what you've said to me, you know, I said. They nodded. Will you come help make a conversation about it? Wise slight shakes of their heads. I laid copies of Violence Poem on them from my portfolio/knapsack. Sorry to give thee such grim coin in trade for thy grace. But you need to be clear on this.
I found Bill and Jackie again. After quick coffee we slipped off down the hill, to sit on sunwarmed concrete over spring water laced with leaves and share a joint in the lazy light, talking quietly about community and recognition and how to keep cool and keep moving on. And about the conference, deciding reluctantly to go back to the church early, to pre-empt its open space and try to build.
We decided simply to sit and talk in the center of the rows of seats, pulling a few around for a first circle: to talk about our lives, their process and form. Lynn came along and stood listening. I was worried: this meant twice we'd pre-empted his program. But he was easy with it, open and curious: just by being himself and asking his questions he was helping build the conversation about learning and change that we wanted: and we went on, with him, open for others to join.
But it was absolutely impossible, no human tone of voice could survive in that place. The acoustics of the church's architecture were impermeable to anything except Speeches, only a bellow could be heard beyond four rows. Any sensible conversation would lie on the warm lawn anyhow. But almost everybody was determined to play Audience, their expectations frozen into Speeches, and medium hostile. So Bill and Jackie and Lynn and a few others sat back, receded from me, as the geometry reshaped from circle to Totalitarian Platform. Trying not to look into their eyes only, I spilled myself to that Audience of mostly older uptight Annual Unitarian Conventioneers, stone trying to make them recognize a difference. I tried to lay out some of my fragments. What I'd seen in the Haight, of our acting out the dreamed lip-liberal values of freeness and touching. Where Karen and I are, with not being sexual property. How the graceful intellects of their children may move when mature, and of my own incapacity already to quite follow them. What their kids know about learning that they don't, and how the Birchers were right about Rock undermining Respect For Authority. And about where it is with drugs now; I0,000,000 smoking and scorning a stupid hurtful law, and I0,000 in jail.
It went better than I'd feared; some nice action got going toward the end. This teacher stands up to read a beautiful letter from some seventeen-year-old chick that says what I've said but in clean talk of her own. A young black teacher in quiet excitement begins to lay out for us from his new classrooms these luminous snapshot experiences, saying scornfully painfully openly "Why can't you believe us, believe in us?" And this older black maverick from some congregation, two front teeth missing -- we'd met and dug each other at a glance before -- stands up and says, "Hey now, waitaminute there, man. Lemme hear you straight on this, you dodging. Is you saying we can do maybe a little reform here and a little there? I mean tell me where you are, about working within the System as they say. Or does it all hafta come down?" "Down, down, it all hasta come down," I yelled in glad answer and exposure, "we gotta clear it all aside and start up from scratch, that's where it's at, brother." "Just wanted to getcha to say it aloud, 'saIl, glad to hear it, brother." And we slapped hands and cracked up together, and some few laughed with us. There was a nice warmth in the room when we split up, many intricate and genuine goodbyes. But those who hadn't been near being reached or opened had been long gone since early afternoon, most of them.
Before, when we'd first gone into the church, in a silence I had blown on the flute a bit, the blocky bamboo tones ringing oddly off the laminated curves of this place hostile to talk. My fingers itch for music whenever I get stoned, slide into it easily; I played for Bill and Jackie from their warmth. Later, Bill said, "That music, it makes me think of a sparrow, flying over the ocean, just on and on" - his hands fluttered on and on -- "and he knows he's going to make it …"
The image rang me like a bell. Ten years ago, when I first dimly sensed the change we've since entered into with such totalness, I was into Maxim Gorky a lot. Partly it was spiritual kinship with my exiled Bolshevik grandfather, partly I was turned onto him at fifteen by an old CP'er who'd fled the McCarthy purge to become a chicken farmer in Petaluma. Anyway, his Stormy Petrel, waterbird harbinger of revolution, symbol of the Baltic sailors and their brief, brave Kronsradt revolt, fluttered through my romantic fantasies, my prosepoems: "But someday our wings shall be free of this night . . . And what a wind shall blow, when first our wings spread free!" Ouch, brother: you catch me right in my adolescence, still alive and kicking, like a corporeal homunculus, perhaps in my right cerebral hemisphere (I am right-handed).
I rode back down from Westport with Bill and Jackie, sweet swift afternoon. He works driving heavy construction machinery, cranes and cats. They both finished high school, live in a working-class neighborhood, try to work inside a congregation but find it just archetypically hard; no one wants to learn. The isolation has made them almost self-sufficient. They looked blank when I asked, Do you have your community yet?
And they talked about learning and love and the freedom of balance and being able to move: in deft simple words, economical as lichen. I ached for a tape recorder, all my cumbergrand theories translated into human language, escaping. Their children are two and four; they're raising them freely. "Our kids aren't destructive, you know. Though they like to draw on things. Our friends come over, they can't understand, they ask us, 'What do you do? Do you hit 'em a lot?'" Soon the oldest will be in school. Jackie said, "School will kill them. I'm afraid."
Bill pulls $250 a week, when and where he chooses; they own their own house and are easy with the idea of chucking it and splitting. "If you travel, try West," I suggested, "there may be more people to cooperate with, we need to learn to work together." I promised to put them in touch with people who might know about existing free schools, and to connect them with a college that might be able to shelter one. Harris's College really needs to know that people like this exist, and to meet their needs, even give them degrees in some humane way should they happen to want them. For they're about set up to learn whatever they choose to learn next, balanced and free. So nice to be able to connect, even maybe. "Look, if you can ever make it to Long Island, we have an extra bed, and a friend who grows his own ... " From the back seat I leaned over them in their easy Detroit buckets, drinking warmth from their nearness to that center we so inadequately call peacefulness. Whirl is king; will I see them again?
Night, Cambridge. I go walking with my brother Jared; he is moody and bothered. His trial is going slowly, not well. The cops gave money to children, told them to buy the paper: but this is not –- legally -- entrapment. And his conviction for "selling obscenity to minors" may stand even if the paper itself is judged not obscene; stupid law. Scholarship freshman at Harvard; felon-to-be. My strong paperboy brother is learning about America.
But something other troubles Jared's face as we stride in the dark through the wind off the Charles, talking about change. He hasn't seen Andy in months, her place in him is locked away, unmeasured. Last week his two ardent California correspondences turned up the same message in chorus: I dig you're confused, but don't fuck my head around with it; I'll deal with you as you are, but don't dance your blind whirl to play me unfairly with my longing and expectations. "I had expectations," Jared said, "I got every course I wanted, what more could I ask for, right? But it's the same scene with them all, papers, schedule, it's not what I need. I got into Lorca in one course, just when we were doing Nietzsche in another, and something clicked; I want to do a long thing on Lorca, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, together. But already I'm two poets behind in the Spanish course, I'm supposed to be doing an assigned Nietzsche paper tonight, I keep getting whirled off in a million directions ..." Are your grades good enough to get you any leverage? "I dunno. I made Dean's list, found that out 'cause they wrote the folks; I didn't go pick up my grades, I'd worked so little, it was meaningless. I think I'd, I'd go to Europe or somewhere, next year, if I were free. But there's the Army ... " "I think he would have done it," said our sister Leisa to me the day before, "I was with him on Resistance Day, you could just see how he was suffering, watching each of the kids walk up and turn in his card." I flashed on how totally involved he'd been last summer back home, working as a key organizer for the Vietnam Summer Project. "Once he even started to move up with them, but he stopped. If it wasn't for being in that trial, he would have done it.”
Do nine years divide us? I remember that spring of I960. Bruised and jagged from a year of tease and denial with Tina, I wrote Kathy long letters of my confused heart across a continent. Long-distance love: it had its advantages; it kept that paralyzing ribbon of need confined to quarters, and so freed enough of my inner space for me to go through the changes that were upon and within me. And plop! out of school, starting to realize for the first time that my need was to know myself, rather than to train willingly for an elite role in this mad technological culture. In that spring when polities -- Chessman, HUAC, the Bomb -- first deeply engaged and jolted our lives: my senior year. His time comes so much more quickly.
I say him a poem written during that season:
Walking like weary camels on cobblestones, holding hands, for the moment the constant tug-and-play of young strength between us lapses. We talk about grass, as a clarifier and facilitator of changes underway. A passing cop gives us a queer glance. We drop hands. I tell him about Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution, about the wrenching shifts of world-view that companion scientific change, which is not at all the patient grain-on-grain-of-continuous-knowledge-accretion business portrayed by our official propaganda. And I leave him with my concerns. Why do we lie, why does our cultural mythology proclaim that scientific and social change are (and must be) continuous rather than abrupt and disruptive? How is this mythology rooted at the level from which ideas are nourished, in the way we perceive our own individual lives and the problem of change within them? Is there a deep connection between our notion of a rigid adulthood tolerating no serious change or discontinuity, and our rigid America, now beginning to crack with pain? And how do we learn to break free, to turn and step off the cliff of the Known, fall into change without breaking with fear?
Exhausted, we rest on his co-op's steps for five minutes, before going off to late dinner with Leisa, siblings reuniting. Six hours of walking, scant opener on months of distance; tomorrow I leave. Face to your fear, I say, look at it clearly and measure it. How do you feel? Do me a metaphor. "A bundle of pickup sticks, not thrown for the game. Racked billiard balls, before the break shot." Another. "Separating an egg yolk, using the shell to do it. Blowing up a balloon, stopping short of popping it." Another. "Waking up at 7: 59 and reaching over to turn off the alarm clock set for 8:00. Watching the guy with the cymbals raise them above his head and draw his arms back. After the lightning flash, waiting for the thunder." You'll make it through to summer, man, I say, let's go eat.
At the Dartmouth conference on Experimental Education, the older Establishment of this frontier met those of us who were fast becoming the new Establishment. It was our first mass public encounter, and was just too heavy for words. But after, I rode down to Boston in the back seat of a Falcon with Libby and Ronnie, these two girls from Simmons, and we had this fantastic conversation.
In the conference's terrific tides of opening energies, sprung from polar conflict, they suddenly turned on to whole strange spectra of interaction and ways-of-knowing. When I touched Ronnie at that late night party she cried out Oh! he has electrical vibrations coming through his fingers! But since there'd been so many people trading flashes of that new contact with them, they couldn't lay the strangeness off on anyone in particular and were forced to take it objectively, struggled to deal with their own participation in it.
We talked a lot about that, how kids all over are getting tuned in to the fact that our culture has repressed whole categories of experience so thoroughly that our language has lost its words and power to describe them. Their real experiences cry out for naming, and so they rummage in the closet of discarded languages and metaphors, checking out Tarot or astrology; or go to the kids in the culture next door, asking, "Can I borrow your Ching, your Tao?" Or, in a few places, try from scratch to construct new words to name the new.
Anyway, I was trying to help them help reassure each other that they'd experienced what they'd experienced, that it was real; and I told them some vocabularies shared by others tuned in to the same phenomena. My recipe bag! Ronnie, stone felt strips opaque over flashes of pure desperate joyful energy; Libby, a slow and deepening glow. (Was I crying to them love me love me?) Libby has decided to drop out of school. That gentle kid Fran got to her; he was the only one in the whole conference who up front said to turn our feelings to a ritual of action on the second night, when King was assassinated, and did. The rest of us were all locked into the hypnotizing terms of the conversation we'd created, which absorbed all power and death, yet somehow shocked into life.
You are each very beautiful, I said to them, as I drew their shoulders tight to me above their clasped hands and we formed a triangle of touching, and I'd like to make love with you both, and you must learn to help each other, to survive. And I watched with a sadness only my eyes betrayed, while their faces changed as the car and its uptight blonde driver sped us toward Boston, the stone set of fear invading their features, working its ugly changes even in the bone structure -- I've just learned to see that -- as they struggled to invent or recreate a protective buffer of disbelief against the openness they'd experienced. For they knew what was coming, as we sped toward one of the eighty cities where that night fire engines ranged through streets of shadow smoke and broken glass.
I walked Ronnie into the dorm. Hard yellow walls, bright and harsh with the familiar timbres of cop and trivial anger and despair. She stopped for a long listening moment. Then the impact caught her and she actually crumpled, acting it out in her body. She spun to me with this stricken look, and said desperately: Then it was real, wasn't it, all that? I nodded yes. What could I say? I grimaced. I wanted to hold her, but I have a touch that kills. Libby came back with her roommate, the student president, who was all a-chatter about the post-assassination festivities. Come on, said Ronnie, let's go out for coffee, we can't stay in here. "If you're dying," I said to them, wondering how many times in the last wandering month I'd said it to people, "get out. Let's find something to eat."
I stayed with dear friends in New York; it was really dismal and only compounded my heavy trip. Tom I met three years ago when he was special assistant to a Peace Corps director. Now he was a special systems analyst for New York's Bureau of Budget, no shit, a Lindsay Bright Young Man. But I love him anyway, skinny gentle nexus of people and information.
Tom was hurting and recuperating a year earlier, when he descended with a bunch of us on a Southern campus to do a two-day crash educational reform shot. He had just split with his wife and radiant daughter -- his giving of himself to his work kept him absent, they grew in different directions -- and he was taking it hard.
And there was Judy, deft chirpy girl, Southern chick bred to the charming art. When we got there, she was a pert industrious senior, friend of the girl student body president who'd invited us, and affianced to staid somber lawyer Derrick, to be married that summer. Our manic entourage hit her nest of girls like a whirlwind breath from another culture of possibility. Educational organizing goes on on all levels: after the seminars we demolished their virginities with fine grass, news from the outside about what was really coming down in America, and the Airplane's new album, Surrealistic Pillow.
Once when he was out West on Peace Corps errands, I turned Tom on to the Airplane, I took him to the FilImore in its live youth. He learned to dance there, during his first total immersion in our high culture. Converted, he returned East spreading the word, moved by a vision only whose memory he could remember. It burned in him, his legs echoed motion whenever rock stained the air, he dared to sing with the music, and inflamed his contradictions.
He danced that night with Judy after the seminars, and touched us into dance on the intricate bright carpet of sound. And he and she made elegant hand patterns of play in the candle air. And then were gone, smiling.
Early morning, bound for the bathroom, I watched her lying casually rumpled in the tender sheets, breathing unaware somewhere away. Wondered where her changes would bring her, wanted to write her a poem. Found a paper towel, did, rejoined Tom and the others rapping in the kitchen.
Three months later Judy was alone in New York with her roommate -- a college friend -- and Tom. Bye-bye Derrick. Completely unprepared, she opted for change and away from a life whose predictable closure suddenly terrified her into motion. Tom had taken the Lindsay job, and was struggling with alimony and debts and guilt and the ponderous social catastrophe of New York City. The two of them huddled in a small apartment on the West Side, trying to armor its walls with color, to survive in that stone hostile environment.
When I came East last fall, Tom and I bundled would walk snow streets, pulling the endless taffy question of where and how one works for change. I was merciless: genuine beginnings were being made in the West, our strong young talent was needed there, to invent and fill new tasks: why drain life trying "to shore/the wreckage up that made an age before"? I was the stout post against which he sharpened the catclaws of his self-doubt. And I was sort of a shit; I gave him long air time but didn't really listen with an open self to what he was saying of his roots and how they fed, guided, and constrained him. Something drove me to lay my trip on him. But his real pain at this was willing: it served some cruel psychic function or balance.
At night, when Tom, wizard connector, was away connecting -- we need that talent -- Judy and I would talk, with stark tender tears, of being uprooted in our floating time. The only comfort I could offer her was clear recognition and description of the simple desperation of her position, irreversibly detached from the culture of her nurture, with all its training that had not prepared her to connect with anything (she was "earning a living," as our society expresses the matter, as a design firm secretary).
What can you say to another human being in this time, except that you recognize and share their struggle for life? Each new event, major or minor -- an assassination, our campus visit -- tears more of us loose, to learn, change, and build, or die. I told her I was sorry I lied in the poem: our brothers and sisters flutter helplessly too in the air of change; there is no easy habitation of flight. We held each other wordlessly for a long moment while soot blew in the open midnight window, then went out for a doughnut.
After they were asleep, I lay on a rug in the other room, reading The World of the Formerly Married. This work of unconscious pop sociology, intended as an introduction for the newly divorced, lacks only a self-conscious framework to constitute a study of an emerging new cultural institution: a different modality of sexual liaison, whose social and cultural ramifications are already well developed. We are moving, blindly and painfully, toward some group or floating arrangement, beyond the couple: there are many linked indications of the trend.
And I lay comforted against the rain by late radio, reading this book about people coping with their reaching and pain, thinking of my far life with Karen, and of how much of the unrooted future of this century I already felt named and calling in my bones, and of the merciless desperate way I learn from my friends.
Now it was spring come round again, and my spin had brought me to New York, vibrating like a clapper in the sounding bell of my life. I was open to all pain, resonant in sympathy, and to be with Tom and Judy almost tore my head apart. In that barren city Judy had sunk not even temporary roots, clung to Tom as only source of warmth and other-to-her-self. Her only comfort was to comfort his pain, but her comforting was pain to him.
He was desperate for distance, too tied up in his sense of failure as husband-and-father to soothe her unsoothable sorrows. He held her and armored himself; they went through the stormy tender rituals of touching, and the silence between them was deafening, they could say no simple word about their pain.
To top it off, Tom was utterly downcast at what he felt was his impotence in the job, at which he'd worked his bright ass off. I had made a long apology about not listening openly before and how it had preyed on my conscience in the months between. And I started off willing to grant him his due: that such semi-freestyle working within the System as he was attempting was a coherent and maybe even viable option, for people whose roots and heads were in the appropriate place.
Bur when he spun out to me the intricate tale of his motions between the Bureau's bureaucratic maze and a despairing suffocating citizenry, and when I saw how his sense of energy dissipated and impotent closed the crushing ring of failure upon him, and saw their trivial agony together, his face sallow and weary, hers dulled, all bird gone, I simply cried out with grief and anger; I took it all back, all my liberal reasonableness about where to lay the tender heart of man's work.
I said to him, fuck your plea for my understanding, I have no patience with your roots, you've got your head up the blind ass of history and you've got to pull out fast or you'll die. How much pain does it take to convince you? You're spending your precious karma and all that rushing accomplishment in a System that does not work. No matter how many Bright Young Men they give how much freedom to run around with, that System will not produce humane results: it mangles, and at best you can rationalize -- not even comfort -- the processing of the powerless. They gave you all the latitude you could ask for, right? "Make better," they said, and no one stood in your way, you could stretch preconceptions. (But it is necessary to break them radically.) And you shouted yourself, poured all of your beautiful energy into that machine of despair: stand waiting for some echo of a voice less alone. It's useless, the architecture machinery damps all human sound. And you take the blame upon yourself, call it your failure, that with all your love and curiosity you can't, you can't, you can't. Impossible! It tears me apart, I hate you for your reasonable self-torture. All the evidence is long in, when will you look to see what is written? it reads: Up against the historical wall, motherfucker; change or die. All you know is ways that won't do, and you long for work to be an affair of the heart. It is the only choice possible: go with your newness and start new, though it promise you nothing but love and sorrow. 0 leave the State of New York, which is Death!
The old forms will no longer sustain life. As far as couple-marriage goes, statistics already back up the premonition. And in the massing social debris of people for whom that institution has crumbled or faded, new modes of sociosexual interaction already begin to flourish, life energy seeking new form.
Some directions are clearing. Tom and Judy can't hang together as man-and-woman unless they're embedded in a deeply supportive community (and more and more it's looking like such group connections will be not only intense, but sexual). Isolation is out this season, in work as well as love. They must also find or form a community of work, or perish as social beings.
If that's the present imperative, they moved with it. A month later they were gone from New York, to run with the state-hopping McCarthy caravan, smoothly tying together webs of communication in a mobile community of work, unrooted and rejuvenating as summer love. When they reached Berkeley, after the California primary and Robert Kennedy's assassination, their faces were alive again, their psychic geometry recharged though unchanged. Balanced on that moment of history, we lit the candles and listened to the Airplane again, floating on gold, and wondered with helpless youth and vigor what to do next.