THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
In 1949, New York City in spring was as beautiful as any vaulted redwood forest might have been to a country child of three. Sunlight splashed on iridescent pigeon wings turning them into birds of paradise, and when the rain came to our brownstone glade, it made the pavement smell sweet and cool as it dripped from the elms that lined my block.
What I think of as solid facts are nearly impossible to isolate even in the present, and then the distant past echoes with such an enormous range of dream bytes that interlock so faithfully to themselves with tongues in grooves that they speak to me almost past meaning. A flavor happens, but my childhood impressions are so thoroughly mixed in with things that I remember, things I have heard and things that my nerves prefer, that I have no need for conscious fabrication. I do know that I remember big. My red wagon was the size of a stagecoach in the little garden that was Sherwood Forest. Feelings follow suit as they get lacquered back and forth from the present to the past, building up in layers until they glow alluringly like a black pearl.
I am told that I was a very sick infant with a convulsive stomach that brought me little agonies. Still my brother, Thom, who is twenty-two months older, tells me I was a mild child. He says he determined this in part as a result of an early art experiment that he performed when I was age two. Inclined from birth toward graphics and costume design, he used me as his constant subject. His medium in this particular case was a pint of liquid ox-blood shoe polish. This day, he had decided to paint me red, "like an Indian." He remembers standing me in the tub where he started out with just the war paint thing in mind. However, going off in the other direction from the sort of amateur barber who continues to shorten sideburns into nonexistence, in Thommy's search for perfect symmetry the effect here started to grow into total coverage.
After he had gotten through with my face and chest and then on to my back, the liquid polish started to drip down my butt and legs splashing luridly into the tub. Suddenly startled by the sight of his creation, he thought he had finally crossed the line and begun to kill me. Perhaps somewhere in his unconsciousness was imprinted the specter of human sacrifice, we don't know. It is true that he gestated in Mexico, but notwithstanding the possibility of some remembered Aztec codex, aghast and horrified he ran downstairs screaming of murder. He shrieked to my mother and her gaggle of afternoon guests that I was bleeding to death up in the bathroom. The assorted friends, who in all likelihood were gassed on afternoon screwdrivers, flew up the three flights of stairs to find me waiting passively for more detail work. But then, surprised as well and seeing the expressions on this horde, I must have realized that something untoward and probably dangerous was afoot. I immediately went square-mouthed into tears, stamping and looking wildly around for what the peril might be. I think I actually remember this part, as soon something started to sting.
My mother's friends, the New Yorker crowd, continued to have their cocktail hour at our home, and my brother maintained his talent for art. With fondness and a kind of pride, Thom tells me that at this age anyway, I somehow remained a stalwart and trusting sort, and that I accepted further experimentation at his hand without much blame or suspicion.
By four, I was accosting most everyone on the street with what I thought was my extraordinary ability to count to ten and spell my name ... "You wanna hear me?" Then, to amuse his friends, my father had carefully taught me to respond by rote to the question "What is the second law of thermal dynamics?" In what I am told was a deep froglike croak, I would answer, "Entropy always increases." Indeed it does, but precocious as I must have been, outside of breaking some of my toys, a real grasp of systems and the notion of an integral disintegration from order to chaos was difficult for a four-year-old to really cotton to. Nonetheless, I was well warmed and surely nuzzled in the glow of after-dinner conviviality and the adult enjoyment of this feat.
My father, with too much time on his hands, was given to developing a lot of theories about child rearing. He could be a very kind and wonderfully funny man, but he was also his father's son, and I think a too-casual admirer of ancient Greece. When his mind was idle, I'm afraid it sometimes turned toward Sparta. He had a feeling that training a small child to jump off a high chair into the arms of a parent taught one thing, but allowing the child to fall to the floor at random was the better and deeper lesson. With this grave instruction, a child might learn something about physics, but more importantly he would also learn about life: that the parent would not always be there for him and then he would be better "prepared" for any eventuality. This approach did not entertain the possibility of causing paranoia or bodily injury, so father was quite sure that this was useful and right. Taking everything into account it probably was good to be classically prepared when it came to surviving such a creative family as mine, though the invitation to jump into anyone's open arms remains a sticky business for me and I'm almost never to be found standing on a high chair.
We lived in a four-story brownstone on East Seventy-eighth Street in Manhattan. Though it was surrounded by large apartment buildings, our house sat alone and even had a little wrought-iron fence right on the sidewalk in front and a large pebbled yard in back. All spring and summer, morning glories mixed in with ropes of ivy covering the entire front of the house.
The subway was still elevated on that part of Third Avenue and the sound of the "El" had a comforting quality that made me feel connected to all sorts of strange and exotic things and also to the characters who came walking off the train and up the street. Though some of these folks muttered angrily to themselves and jousted at invisible enemies, New York was a safe place. You could sleep in Central Park without fear.
Organ grinders with monkeys and photographers leading ponies came past my house like a circus train, along with ice cream vendors, hoboes, and tinkers who could fix anything. I watched and saw that the hoboes would make secret signs on your front steps or near the door to signal to other floaters that the family within was good for a cup of coffee or maybe even a sandwich. Since I was often unsupervised and it was the only thing I could make, I was a master of a Blue Plate Half-Pounder baloney special. We got a lot of hoboes.
In summer, everyone talked about the beach and something called Coney Island. The name told me that it was probably the home of ice cream. There was also some kind of a field apparently owned by a Mister Ebbetts where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball. This was really very important to know about if you wanted to get a smile of benediction south of a place called the Bronx. There were mean and bad people called the Yankees way up there in the Bronx.
Though we lived right in the heart of the city, hummingbirds drank nectar from the flowers by the balcony outside my third-floor window. Once I woke up to discover a praying mantis on my pillow case. It turned its wonderful head to look at me, I swear it smiled a hello, and I saw it was enchanted.
There was real magic everywhere I looked. Most of it I didn't understand. I became quite busy trying to, but the fact of the matter was that it was impossible to get the world to stay the same long enough for me to figure some of it out. There were a lot of mysteries.
Eager to get a handle on the big stuff, I snuck into the local church on a weekday. After going as high as I could by the stairs, I found a dusty ladder and searched around for God way up in the rafters. I had seen the priest often point and say He was "up there." I was disappointed at not finding Him or much of anything but some old light bulbs and newspapers. I really sensed that the priest was earnest though, and I knew that only big important people read the newspapers, so I figured that God had probably just gone out somewhere. Shopping? Getting groceries maybe?
I was fairly convinced that there was a landlocked crew of desperate Em-pirates on top of what they called their "State Building," and when people complained that they had to make money, I couldn't see in my mind's eye what was so bad about standing by a machine that probably stamped out all those shiny bright coins that could buy candy. But no matter, I could count to ten and spell "Johnny," my mother was pretty, I had a brother named Thommy and a cat named Doctor Lao from Siam.
I don't remember winter as much. I expect this is just an attempt to block out the agony of galoshes and snowsuits and vaporizers, as well as the bizarre emotional calamities that percolated all through the holidays with the spiced cider. Any four adults obviously had at least twelve personalities. It was deeply confusing. In spite of all the nice smells, the atmosphere sometimes just hung dangerously. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's were for me an immediate source of primal apprehension. They were always festooned, but with a weird melange of turkey dressing, hurt feelings, pine needles, scotch and soda, anger, gifts, violence, and tears, and all of this was called a celebration. Now that was especially hard to figure out. The God thing was much easier. The presents helped a lot though, and anyway, I know my parents tried. I felt sure that they were very smart and presumably knew best. After all, they were very big, and all grown up.
My parents were divorced in 1949. After a while Dad fell in love with Aunt Elaine and moved to his own brownstone six blocks away on Seventy-second Street. Mother had been a singer, and my father wrote about the dusty song of eternal hope that common people share with their dogs. She never forgot a tune, and he could repeat to perfection the tones of the stories that he heard. He heard them so often that eventually he could just make them up and they remained true. She had perfect pitch, but without any sin, she was just compelled to lie. He wrote skewered parables, while she was a paradox. For the most part hers were haunting lies, intended to make the listener wonder and shiver with her hints of magic. Both he and she were rich with wide-eyed fantasy and inspiration despite their own deep and hidden despair and a glimpse of impermanence. Either way, it was the song and the stories, and the karma of words that drew them to each other; and then, it was the wine with its sorry bite that severed the eloquence and the charm and pulled them apart.
By the time I was five years old, under some East Side Knickerbocker's stewardship, I, too, drank a lot of champagne to ring in the New Year. So it was, that on the first day of 1951, I woke up from my first blackout in a little ring of vomit, but by then I could count much higher than ten and entropy was definitely increasing.
Salinas, California, today looks like many towns, almost any town in the area. Though he wrote about it, and the valley that shares its name had almost mystical significance for him, Salinas was not my father's favorite place on earth. And even though today we have the Steinbeck Library, and a Luncheon Club signals the institutionalization of the house where he was born, when he was alive, John Steinbeck was never his town's favorite son.
My father's grave site is in an old, run-down cemetery, near the Shillings Spice Company's truck yards. It's by the highway past a small airport, in the shade of a spreading Denny's and various warehousing concerns. His ashes are under a cracked slab with those of his mother, Olive; his father, John Ernst Steinbeck; and his little sister, Mary Decker. The scene in this tiny Hamilton family plot is more apt than the monumental hypocrisy of the people who swear they knew and revered him.
My father was by many accounts a bad boy, and the only boy in a brood of four. His three sisters spoiled and idolized him and though two of them were older, he was the family's hero. The family was Welsh-Irish-German. My paternal grandmother, Olive, was the Irish daughter of Samuel Hamilton of East of Eden fame, and almost as humorless as her mother, Liza, though she was more refined and loved books. By all accounts, Samuel was a strong and extremely decent man. My father's interest seems to have dwelt on Samuel and his aunts and uncles far more than on his own parents or siblings. Precious few people can recall my dad ever talking much about his parents or growing up with the girls. The exception was his beloved sister, Mary.
My father's Aunt Dessie, Olive's sister, appears in some detail with her brother Tom in the Hamilton sections of East of Eden. Tom was Dad's favorite uncle. Since Olive was made of sterner stuff, Dessie was the sweet Hamilton girl. Sadly, she died of appendicitis while staying out in the country alone with Tom, a tragedy for which he blamed himself unto suicide. Apparently, thinking it only a tummy ache, he gave her a bromide and before morning came, both their lives were fatally ruptured.
Tom was in his early thirties when he died, but he was a lost child in his generation. He was a lovely man caught up in a time that was becoming mechanical in a way that he did not choose to understand. The industrial haughtiness of the day had a withering effect on his being and he retired away from town until his soul finally winked out in grief. And in truth, my older brother, Thom, who bears his name, is another man with his heart in a more graceful past.
There were a lot of stillbirths and fatal childhood accidents in the world of the Steinbecks and the Hamiltons. This was true in the Old World that they had left as immigrants a generation earlier, and carried right through into California where three generations of John Steinbecks lost lots of sons to disease or misadventure. My father, too, almost died of pleurisy shortly after his birth in 1902, but a drunken country surgeon tunneled into his chest by way of his armpit, and drained his lungs in time.
In the Salinas Valley, life could be very raw, even for what passed as the middle class. That term simply meant that you knew where tomorrow's meal was coming from, a condition that more and more resembles today. Nonetheless, long before the Great Depression, times could be hard, and small accidents could prove lethal.
Most people couldn't wait for John Steinbeck the writer to leave Salinas. His books, which used his hometown as background, reminded them of their foolishness. He made delicious mention of their whorehouses and the people's ambient racism, too. His deceptively folksy attitude also spooked them with the possibility of just plain spontaneity coming from ... why anywhere! It somehow frightened them. His personality had a prankster's twist to it that would last a lifetime in one form or another. His mad, merry eyes exuded it. When drunk, he sometimes spoke mischief under his breath in a mumbled darkness.
Though in person Dad was considered a shy man, today he would be described as distinctly passive aggressive. In any case, the town didn't trust him and they didn't like him much. People aren't stupid; they knew this man had real resentments, and could explode on them, possibly with reason. Indeed, eventually he did; and he did it memorably, with his fine craft, even cunning. My father always had a taste for the grapes of wrath and he knew a revenge of good vintage with just one whiff.
Beyond all of that, he is now remembered with a kind of reverence by many. In a lot of ways, my father convinced people that it was all right to read. When he was a boy, among the people he grew up with, if you had time to read it meant you were probably lazy. Most people needed that time to do their chores. Abstract thinking, or thinking too much was the Devil's work. The Bible was the only book that really required reading, and that was reserved for just before you went to sleep and a little bit on Sundays. If you weren't lazy, then you were probably an "egghead" and that was just a little bit better than being a queer. Reading was something done by city people or the schoolmarm, and anyway, books were probably difficult to begin with and the ideas that they contained were for great men, or dangerous men. But underneath this there was the fear that one wouldn't be able to understand a real book.
My father wrote simply; not in the way that Hemingway is thought to be "simple," but rather he wrote about common things, things that everybody knew to be true, and if they weren't offended by the truth, they were glad to see these things written in books by this man. It sort of legitimized them, and John Steinbeck became their voice ... in books!
By the time my generation started exploring their truth in the post-Hiroshima environment of the day, another reactionary loop had developed. For a while, history was not kind to John Steinbeck, especially during the sixties, when he lost favor for supporting the war in Vietnam. Hurt, reacting to this rebuff, he at times seemed to begin to take on some of the values of those narrow-minded folks that he wrote about; the ones who actually hated his books and had given him hell when he was young, for wasting his time by indulging in the demonic enterprise of literature.
Driving around Salinas, I was reminded of a time not so far back when I was flat broke, and without any health insurance. I spied a car with a bright red bumper sticker emblazoned with a common AA slogan amended to read: EASY DOES IT IN STEINBECK COUNTRY. I was in bad shape and thought of applying for a loan at the Steinbeck Credit Union to get some cash to pay for drug/alcohol treatment. It was my plan to apply to still another local facility with the really unlikely name of the John Steinbeck Recovery Home. When, incognito, I called up to see if they had an open bed, I could barely believe my ears as I was transferred to the office of the clinical director, a Ms. Hemingway. I was sure I was losing my mind. She must have concurred on general principles, as not knowing who I was, she sagely advised me to come on in and get help immediately. Most of their clientele were alcoholic migrant farmworkers from way south and future candidates for membership in Alcoholicos Anonymoso. After some consideration, and feeling sure that the credit union would never believe my story, my disease and I took a pass on the whole thing, and swallowed another percodan with a tequila chaser. It was all very strange. I was very strange, but my predicament was anything but new to the area.
The Civil War had brought laudanum, and soon codeine and morphine into wide use, thus introducing the possibility of controlling all sorts of pain and despair from physical or situational difficulty. Self-medication was common, and with the help of the village pharmacist it became ultra-strong folk medicine. Opiates had a powerful and revolutionary effect on the way people began to deal with outrageous fortunes. We can follow this trail in letters from Coleridge, to Cocteau, to O'Neil to Burroughs.
Of course, these things were old as man, though they were not as available as alcohol, the barbiturate of Ferment and the potion that could often cause it. That was the real stuff that satisfied a bunch of repressed German Protestants. It had also heated the Welsh-Irish gene pool since the days when we painted each other blue and wore seductive fur on our backs, as well as our tongues. In my particular case, adding further to the Welsh-German-Irish brew, my mother, Gwyn, also brought some Indian blood to my family's outrageous potlatch.
When I close my eyes I can summon up my mother's face and the tide of her moods a little more quickly than I can my father's. People have always said that physically I resemble Gwyn more closely than I do John, though, with little effort, I can feel both of their departed beings move inside my own. As a child growing up in her household, there were many moments, indeed whole weeks that filled me with terror and surprise. However, there is a singular episode that has always stuck with me like the bubble gum I use to fall asleep with, only it was possible to have that cut out of my hair in the morning.
On a beautiful spring day in 1953 I came skipping home from the Allen Stevenson School which was barely a block away from our house. I remember the year because even at six years of age I had been struck by the impact of the adult world's reaction to the death of Stalin. I had watched the funeral over and over again on our new Sylvania TV, which, with its special glowing border, made nearly everything that appeared on it indelible in the vivid creche of childhood memory.
Gwyn Conger was a bright and witty Wisconsin girl who had been a big band and radio singer in California before my father married her in 1943. Then, after their divorce she had her own fame as the ex-wife of one of America's most loved authors. With this dubious credential and the traditional half of the couple's sympathizers, my mother had begun her new life. At this particular point she embarked on the slippery career of a socialite and community organizer. For important widows or the celebrity divorced, this role was the standard then as it is now. Though she was quite brilliant, my mother was not from a particularly sophisticated background. I don't think she had a clue as to what this type of society figure would actually be like other than what she might have seen in the feathers- and-patent-leather movies of the thirties and forties. Also, by 1953, bitter about the choices she had made, she was a thorough alcoholic. When under the influence of spirits, my mother became somewhat grand and pretentious. This trait is shared by others in my family and it is common to many alcoholics of a certain type. She also could become rather troublesome when she drank. To put it mildly, eventually I would understand the awful pith of this phenomenon from the inside out as it ripened and rotted in my own life and behavior.
As I ran up the stairs to the living room this day, I stumbled in on my poor mother's latest Titanic adventure; the doomed maiden voyage and grandiose first meeting of what they called the Albert Schweitzer Brownstone Committee. They were gathered to try and arrange something in support of the celebrated humanitarian's clinic in Africa. Enthroned on the huge divan under the many oil paintings by her drinking buddy Luigi Corbalini, darling of the social set, sat my mother in a beautiful silk caftan. She was surrounded by recorded organ music and six or seven neighborhood patrons and matrons of the arts.
As she fixed me on top of the landing, I could tell by the slack line of her jaw and the "you better not blow this" look in her swimming eyes that she was positively plowed under with screwdrivers or some other polite beverage. I should have known when I didn't see the family Siamese basking in the downstairs kitchen window that the cloudless spring afternoon would be dismantled in one way or another. In a voice that was completely unrecognizable as that of my mother, she introduced me to the assembled company as "Young Master John," who had just returned from my "studies at the Academy." The only way I can describe it was that she had that theatrical European accent, like some tortured Hungarian-Irish-Spring-Mueslix commercial, with all the false tones of a bad Mission: Impossible episode. Then, to my horror she began to speak to me in what she thought might resemble French. Now even at six, with only a little Babar under my belt, I blushed with embarrassment at this sad attempt to be Continental. Perhaps sensing this, she turned to the assorted members of the Albert Schweitzer Committee and explained that she had told me to express my gracious farewells and then retire to my room to continue my studies in Latin. Getting this cue, I happily squirmed away with what I thought would be a helpful Au revoir, and ran for my life upstairs to the third floor. After I shut my door loud enough so that it could be heard, I crept back to the top of the long curved staircase to watch with morbid fascination for what would happen next.
Mom had obviously tried to vanquish her deep-seated self-consciousness much too early in the day. She had begun to soar, and was becoming enthralled with her own jokes and the increasing bite of her insight. As I watched and listened to her tongue get thicker and begin to repeat its stories over and over again, I sensed a change in the atmosphere of the room. I saw the people begin to look sideways at each other and become uneasy, even as they laughed with polite enthusiasm.
Though very drunk now, Mother was no fool. That same self-consciousness made her wary, and she sensed the dead sea change too. She was caught in a situation where she was not in control of her behavior but conscious enough to see its unwelcome effect. Then, a fury came rushing in to satisfy the gap. Like a scorpion stinging itself in paroxysms of self- hatred, her humors turned darkly sarcastic and corrosive. Projecting the rapacious demons inside on to anything that moved, she began to openly disparage the folks in the room as if they were but feeble ghosts spoiling at her stabilities.
Soon, the committee began to excuse themselves. Her American vernacular had returned like a squad of Marines. Mother's language and temper had now turned really foul. When the synapses shorted out and finally erupted into a full-blown brainstorm, her adult dose of Flathead Indian blood caught fire. With that potential engaged, anything could happen. Within a few minutes, I saw an old-fashioned glass explode against the wall near the head of the last of the Schweitzer group to beat it down the stairs and out the kitchen door to the street. I watched as my mother continued to curse and scream and begin to break up furniture and throw more things. That continued on and on to the majestic background of Notre Dame's monumental organ with Dr. Albert Schweitzer himself performing Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." But now, even that, too, had begun to malfunction and skip on the 78 RCA record player in concert with the increasing havoc.
After a while Mother collapsed in sobs and I ran quickly to my bedroom. I had learned that it could be dangerous to try and console her when she was in this condition. Just in case she came to and went hunting, I locked the door and slipped under the bed where I was greeted by the huge eyes and tense hiss of Dr. Lao, the Siamese cat.
What appears to serve justice or even humor in some situations can be experienced as genuine cruelty in others. I for one am often appalled and perplexed at some of the "inventive" and hazardous nurturing that I received at the hands of both my parents. But when I look back at this with self-pity, or reach for my preferred uniqueness, there is also something vaguely insulting in the realization that in so many ways, my family, with all its maniacal behavior, was not too much different from other folks that I know.
After Prohibition, the Depression, and the happy conclusion of World War II, the majority of Americans, including my mother and father, were like grown-up kids, gleefully dancing on broken eggshells and gobbling the shards in a brave new world. Part of their generation had escaped drudgery into the life of the mind. Art, writing, humor, and just plain thinking was now a fine and proper birthright. The Depression had forced my parents to become extraordinarily creative. Mother's family relied on her precocious beauty to generate the income she received from her performances on radio and in nightclubs. Accompanied by her mother, fifteen-year-old Gwyn came to Hollywood from Wisconsin, where, in 1939, she met Dad, who was riding high on the acclaim of The Grapes of Wrath. Mother was twenty years old and Dad was thirty-nine when they fell in love.
America was at the end of its greatest expansionist era. World War II intensified nearly everything, as wars will, and when it was over the ticker tape only signaled the beginning of our sundance.
We were the richest country in the world. Floating on a mixed genetic alloy in the melting pot, we were a powerful recipe for great assets and heroic joy. Anything was possible and everything was fast, but now, thanks to Hollywood, it was even in technicolor. It was to get a lot faster in my generation, but at the end of the war in 1946 when I was born, the short-term-goal ethic had already been institutionalized as the essence of modern living at its best. Things like ecology took it on the nose of course, but no matter; there were new and great things ahead. We were certainly a lot more enjoyable and just plain more fun than our real ancestors or the Teutonic and Slavic types that we had sent scurrying into the endless winter of Eastern Europe.
Life was sleek, and in the postwar euphoria Americans were destined to be slick. Though a bit dated, Nick and Nora Charles defined intelligent affability in their Thin Man movies. Maybe it was something in the martinis, or were they whiskey sours? Whatever, it was very impressive and urbane stuff for country folk who caught on quickly and adapted a veneer of sophistication.
Alcohol was the leading character and even the hero of a number of movies that I loved along with my parents. I don't mean just the green whiskey westerns, but films like The Philadelphia Story. Why, if Katharine Hepburn had not gotten drunk and embarrassed everyone at her high society wedding, she would never have gotten back together with old Cary Grant, now would she? People really thought along those lines. I know I did! We were rich and right and free and not to be contradicted.
With a mixture of zeal, ignorance, and fear, many of my parents' generation also felt that they must swim for their lives in this basically immature and bruising society of ours. Of course they called it opportunity instead of the blind panic that America's new power carried with it. The seeds for today's ethical predicaments were deceptively optimistic, even uplifting in a Deco sort of way. Like Sea Biscuit, the famous racehorse of the day, America was coming up fast on the outside, with lots of opinion and lots of style. We had also become the self-appointed spokesmen for social, though not individual, morality. But this was all still long before the days of "personal issues," or even much reflection for that matter. All anyone knew in the late forties was that Lucky Strike had gone to war and come back a winner, but it had come back with little patience for reflection, and less foresight.
There were also all of the new babies and we whippersnappers had better not contradict too much either. After all, we had not lived through the Depression or known war. Democracy, the Founding Fathers, GI Joe, and our parents were the source of our lush success.
In what increasingly feels like a lifelong search for equilibrium in these matters, it has occurred to me more than once that everyone is the child of a famous father. When you are little, he is the opening to the outside world and he actually begins to represent it. No matter if he is the postman or the shoe salesman or whatever. If he is the shoe guy, the postman knows him and can't work without knowing him. If father is the postman, the shoe salesman gets his mail, maybe even all those boxes of shoes from your dad, and so on. When I was a kid, the other thing that amazed me was that at least in the other kids' minds, their mother was the prettiest woman they knew. I know mine was, and when my best friend told me that his mom was the prettiest, I was struck dumb. He wouldn't lie about such a thing, you know. Somehow his dad was more famous than mine, too; perhaps because he was a painter, and his grandfather was famous, too. This stumped me. I didn't know anything about that, but then again I wasn't hurt or anything since nearly everyone was essentially famous to me.
Realistically, I have found that there are different ingredients involved in being the son of John Steinbeck than were first considered when the doorman who worked the apartment building next to our brownstone told me that my daddy was famous and that everybody knew who he was. The attendant repercussions extend out and snag me like vines on different planes all of the time. Often when I just say my name I get back, "Yeah, and I'm the queen of England." Twice, a lady at my father's literary agency just hung up on me, and this was years after he was dead. Maybe that was the problem!
I'm not really sure how hard I've tried, but my father is a tremendously difficult person for me to get away from, particularly when I am being haunted by my usual coincidental reality routine. For instance, just this morning I went into a small "Foodierie" in the nowhere coastal town of Encinitas, California, to grab a bite to eat, and the cash register is sporting a cartoon of an angry French cook with the caption "The Crepes of Wrath." I have seen my father dolefully staring up at me from strange wastebaskets, his likeness celebrated on fifteen-cent stamps. In drunken or drugged states I have seen his name fly by me on papers in the wind, and bumped into statues of him while innocently looking for a quiet, private place to vomit.
In 1983, my wife, Nancy, and I traveled with our children overland from Nepal through the Himalayan foothills to the mountain kingdom of Sikkim to visit the remote monastery of Rumtek. We went to pay our respects to the then recently deceased Karma Kargu Lineage Holder of the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist Teachings, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, the beloved Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. We had received his blessing and teaching many times in life and had traveled far to bid his remains farewell. After meditating very late in the main shrine room that looks over an enormous valley through these mountains to a silent, snow-covered infinity, Nancy and I gingerly found our way in the starry night to the little hut where we had been given shelter. Trying not to wake our host, out of curiosity, and half expecting to hear from the planet Neptune, before going to sleep we turned on the tiny shortwave radio, just in time to hear some histrionic voice from the BBC World Service intone, "And now ... chapter 1 of John Steinbeck's immortal story, The Red Pony." When this sort of thing happens enough, my incarnation as "Son of ... " takes up quizzical new meanings.
It is my fate, and perhaps my disease to be considerably self-involved, with a head full of thoughts about myself, about my ignorance and the probable mistakes in how I interpret things. It feels like I'm always translating something to myself: the news, the weather, its symbolism, and especially other people's moods. I have always tried to make sense of the world around me as if, by way of understanding it, my confusion would be transformed into wisdom. This is possibly a clever case of putting the cart before the horse. I also believed that if this desire for comprehending life's predicaments was unselfishly motivated and came from my version of kindness and fairness, I would be protected from the terrors that my confusion could bring. I guess I still believe part of that.
I believed Laura Huxley when she wrote You Are Not the Target, and in the cosmic sense I think this still holds true. But I have to tell you, by taking this panoramic stance in Absolute Truth, I have often hidden from myself many important relative truths along the road to this ultimate view of things. I think that much of my attachment to a sweet, pacific, and perhaps reductive nirvana was due to my fear in facing the more common and coarse weave in the tapestry that ordinary people toil with. This is not to say that I am "sweet." Instinctively abhorring that silly fabric, sometimes enshrined in notions of "Love and Light," I have also invariably tried to give my philosophies a good test-drive on difficult tracks, like dropping LSD in Vietnamese war zones, or just before being manacled to a wall for an indefinite period of time in a Thai jungle prison. (I took a two-month rap for a woman who had transported a small amount of heroin over the Thai-Malaysian border.) But now all that seems to be merely radical, and today it doesn't appear to say much of anything about what actually counts in the real world of gradual spiritual experience. Consequently, I feel that along with so many other things, deft transcendence became just another painkilling habit.
I find that every day now I have to give myself permission to not understand and be genuinely frustrated by what I see. In trying to prepare this book, my vacillations between a seemingly profound and compassionate view of my formative life, and the sad powerlessness of my actual experience, sometimes make me ill. It's awkward. So, I try to dose it down with some sort of desperate comprehension to dispel the motion sickness of impermanence on any scale.
For many people this cognitive approach of constantly interpreting what goes on around them might be all right, but for me it feels like I've worn it out, and the other approach of nothing means anything feels like dope. In truth, I'm generally all over the damn place. Especially when I think back on the really bad things that happened to me, I start looking for a reason, for the "good sense," and then I begin to envelop myself in metaphoric pardons of all kinds. Then an attitude might appear and masquerade as if it had, or could beg for, a rational at the Geneva Convention in my mind. This is entirely my own self-consciousness; I have to continually remind myself that even these filaments and elliptical reflections are dignified as thoughts and feelings, and that they don't have to make sense on the hard turf of logic or be metered out with Republican prudence. As feelings they are legitimate and can stand on their own, alone, and even apart from themselves. Many of the crosswinds swirling from my head and my heart cannot be followed objectively, especially by me. And though sometimes I might want to, the idea of defending them then becomes truly ludicrous.
For the sake of my greater ease, I have concluded that these oscillations of opinion and emotion, ignorance, and intellect are in themselves part of a legacy that I was given. I don't think I'm alone. Of course much of this depends on one's point of view, and as I've said, mine never stays the same for very long. Though some would say it is terminal ambivalence or indecision, I will say it is a gift of equanimity, and so I am willing to share some of this without too much fear of the perpetual contradictions inherent to my nature.
On the emotional platform erected by my parents, there were many and various planks that served to cripple as well as support me. But despite the copious mix of messages I received from both of my parents, the inheritance, whether stolen or bequeathed, was more than just a rat's nest of neuroses. In its way, it contained the map for survival through the sacred and profane aspects of my life. The aberrant behaviors and the mechanism for coping with the results all came in the same package. These are the deep autonomic styles behind the wisdom of DNA that allowed me to grow my hands and also mend some of the things that they broke.
I've come to think that in many families, the holders of that clan's special knowledge must pass away before the next generation can actually get at the signals being sent. This was definitely true for me. The reasons are sad but simple. Sometimes my family's wisdom was garbled by my father's peevishness or my mother's drunkenness, or sometimes it was delayed by the static of our mutual anger camouflaged as disinterest or plain boredom.
When I say wisdom, I don't necessarily mean something wise or good in a moral sense, but rather just what works. When I sharpen a pocketknife the way my father did with hands similar to his, it is not because it is the right way to do it, but it is the way that he discovered kept the stitches and the Band-Aid bills down to a minimum. There is always room for improvement and rebellion however, so the few scars on my hands could be seen as rings of evolution as I hasten to add that I can get my knives a lot sharper than he could.
When people are guided by their own defensiveness, they are by nature left ignorant of the other's emotional needs. These days, important transmissions from father to son are usually grotesque. The presumption on both sides is that someone here is an asshole. Often the situation is so self-consciously painful and the lessons so harshly applied, that something strong like time or anger or, in my case, chemicals is needed to cushion the fractured exchange. This was true for both me and my father, and my brother and mother.
It seems that when all is said and done and in spite of all intent and schooled purposes, the most identifiable quality of what I have come to think of as the Father Principle is anger. That type of anger is in itself, an energy that is intrinsically unconscious, but, when met with pompous or conscious application, it inevitably goes the way of the best-laid plans of mice and men. In other words, burdened with a false sense of power in shaping young lives, most modern-day paternal tutorials go completely awry. This leaves the children confused at best, and the father with terminal disappointment in what he imagines to be his creation. Then, the Father Principal becomes associated not only with anger, but with a festering disappointment that feeds on itself. Indeed, for my brother and I, this myth/fact of life was confusing as hell. It is even probable that my father, the creative artist, had a genuine problem distinguishing between what should have been manageable in shaping our characters and his masterful and successful efforts at developing literary characters. For the most part, they cooperated from the ground up as his creation. The comparison between his real children and his literary children was no doubt a painful difference for him. Our real-life response or lack of it, when it came to his sculpting and his often shaming goad, was rarely up to snuff, at least not for long.
In some modern homilies, fathers are traditionally called the provider, but what does the father really provide? It has taken me nearly forty-five years to come up with an answer that satisfies my need for equanimity, and eases the little horrors of recollection, and I must say that I've had a lot of help mining for it. On one special level, the helpless father has the thankless task of acting as sort of a representative of the world. This is not a political role exactly, but rather, he is the courier of both extreme engagement, and also cold-blooded indifference; literally reality's agent. And guess what; though it isn't the last word on creation, the world hurts. It even kills, often quite accidentally.
Despite the efforts of poet Robert Bly and the men's movement to help males understand their roles as parents, husbands, and members of a larger society, this is a real problem. This mythic principal defies interpretation in our society. The father is the bad guy if he does or if he doesn't participate in his role as father in the Hallmark card sense of the word.
Within the contemporary notions of neglect or abuse (both of which we deem as abuse), the father must be the bad guy. It feels like there are at least two different planes operating here. Though I believe what we all know as abuse to be always unacceptable, whether or not the child feels abandoned by a negligent father or abused by an overbearing monster, as an ignorant representative of the phenomenal world, the father is a bastard, and a wound inevitably occurs, and that wound, those hurt feelings and the scars that they leave, is the mark of initiation into the real world.
For me, and for my older brother, these things were felt in a terribly -- and I mean terror- bly -- personal way. Without a doubt this business could be made only more insufferable if the father consciously knew what was going on and was really guiding the process. Most of the time, my father really did think he knew what was going on. The father as "The Fool" tries to teach: "Let me tell you about life, son."
So, I see that along with anger, fathers are significantly ignorant people. I speak from experience here as a father. In fact, as it happens, I am the same age as my father when I was born, forty-four. However I have a twenty-two-year-old daughter, a twenty-year-old daughter, an eighteen-year-old son, and a one-year-old grandson. In short, I have been on more sides of more parenting than my father could have dreamed of as he set out to address East of Eden to his two little sons when he was about my age.
My father was not very good at all in the role of mentor. Looking at other cultures, this seems to be a rather common complaint. Native Americans give that task to an uncle or some other elder in the tribe. The father has a duty to protect and provide for the family, but as a teacher, he is often as not a washout. Predictably, he is too busy with trying to resolve the deeper issues inherited from his own father to be of much use in teaching his son about life.
No one is particularly happy about what's going on here. Not me. Not in either role. Neither the patriarch nor his issue seem to have a terrific ride. The father doesn't like being angry and can't figure out why he's acting like his father, something he promised himself he would never do. The young sons don't even have that perspective to confound them yet. All they know is that the father does seem to do good, but can also do very bad things to them. He acts cruelly. He seems to be always indignant or mad, and always moving away from contentment and happiness to a state of irritation. He is never satisfied. He is demanding. In other words, he is like the goddamned world. Worst of all, he doesn't seem to ever be able to recognize, or acknowledge that the son is actually learning and growing. And then, what he does see you learn, like sexuality, somehow threatens the hell out of him. So he wounds you some more, and a scar begins to grow. It grows until it's an angry red, like the one he wears from his father.
Though nobody likes it, this nasty scar is the father's gift. Actually it is really all he has. Even if it is the father's fate to commit suicide, he has left the son, indeed the family, with the reality of death, and facing it. Even that terrible scar is an organic gift spat out from his role; and what I am talking about here is roles, not what is or is not "appropriate" behavior. From my memory, such things as that are purely for gentlemen and not part of my experience.
Today, we try to talk a lot about all of this in terms of an initiation that must take place between fathers and sons, and as we all know, most initiations are painful and disorienting by design and definition. Sometimes I think that perhaps it's the knowledge that there is so much that can't happen between people which turns out to be the real essence revealed within the lack of recognition that only a certain few things can be shared directly, and even these only by outrageous, nonsensical gesture that might include all sorts of unconventional, surprising, and even shocking behavior. The meaning? There are no straight lines in life, and the phenomenal world is unconditionally unconditioned. It's raw and wild. With Dad out of the picture, this is the dreadful wisdom of the wound. From this ugly cut of primal insult comes oozing the immensity of one's loneliness and total separation, and then, if you have survived and have been rendered haplessly honest by this trauma, you are finally set free into a world of your own determination.
No doubt, this all may sound rather dramatic, and when put in mythic terms it is. But you know, I think the spirit of life really has much slyer dynamics than are contained in mere tribal campfire tales about this chimera of growing up. Notwithstanding a genuine poetic and collective unconscious, modern family evolution is less dramatic and thus even more insulting in its galling demonstration than a white man's reconstruction of an aboriginal dream. Though myth helps to organize our romantic image of ourselves, in real life, it is about as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage.
It was a long time before I actually read my father's work. I had to read him in school, of course, and I liked and still like the short stories. They were fun, but it was all rather like hearing him talk after dinner. I accepted his genius for storytelling as an environmental given, bordering on the pedantic. This now happens to me with my children, and it kind of hurts.
Though he would never say it, I know that not taking his work as completely seriously as even a stranger might, hurt my father. But what can you do? Take away your kids' allowance if they don't read your stuff? Still, it hurts. It creates a stew. Though I don't do it as long or as deeply as my father, I can begin to brood about it sometimes. I think what a waste that my kids don't know the exquisitely wise and subtle techniques of mind that I use just to get through the day. If they did they would be so impressed, so proud. They would show me so much respect and wonder out loud at my many accomplishments. They could learn so many wonderful things from me. I could teach them much if I only had their undivided attention. But no, the ingrates think they know it all. They will undoubtedly be sorry after I'm dead and unavailable to them; when they realize what treasures they were missing. Just being close to me was a blessing that went the way of broken toys.
Yup, I know what it was like with my dad. I read his letters and see how his resentments closed in on him. The fact is that I am sorry, and I probably did miss a lot. But then again my father's temperament couldn't handle anything like undivided attention. Certainly I can't. That kind of scrutiny might reveal that most the time we are full of shit, running on fear and educated lucky guesses, in art as well as life.
Some things did get through though. Today I feel that sifting amongst the little things, the almost unconscious things hold as much meaning and usefulness as the grand lectures and pronouncements that mostly served to point out the vast hypocrisies of parenthood.
The main problem in living out the convoluted setup of fathers and sons is that neither of us can know the exact character or mode for the transmission of family wisdom. On the average it is just as likely to be the least flattering and heroic exchange; not at all like some Hemingway-esque dialogue on an elephant hunt. After all, both my father and I were sensitive and easily injured. We were also mutually disrespectful and suspicious of the other through past experiences. Ours were reincarnate feelings resounding back and forth through dysfunctional generations and radiating in every direction.
My father and brother and I actually did go fishing together a lot, around Sag Harbor on Long Island. I learned a great deal, but not the things that Norman Rockwell might have had in mind. The signals were subtle and not intentionally sent, but they were picked up invisibly like a skin disease. These queer potentials and tics are the kinds of things that now my brother sees in me and I in him, though we only catch the shadows in ourselves. I learned, for instance, what a bad and really sloppy fisherman my father was, but most importantly, despite his earnest facade, I also learned how little he cared about being a good one. That was great stuff.
There were times when Dad just loved to catch things, and like all fishermen, he would talk to his slippery prey; scolding and advising them, sometimes complimenting them on their wily intelligence, or gloating at their foolishness for taking on such a keen mind as his; a storied master of predation. But slowly I learned that this alliance between fish and fisherman, even the so-called thrill of the chase, was not really the reason or the point of this, his almost daily endeavor. Basically it was a fraud, a fine and elaborately feudal style of daydreaming.
Sometimes Dad would work out problems he was having with his writing or his characters, or even his hysterically silly inventions, almost all of which he covered with glue and leather. When he thought I was old enough to understand and had my own little skiff, I remember that he told me that if I had something important to puzzle out, and if I was clever, if I didn't bait the hook even the fish wouldn't be able to bother me. Buying bait, on the other hand, was very, very important. His favorite was bloodworms.
My father would also wander around his workroom and whistle tunelessly with a whispery quality that was neither whistle nor "phew." Now I had inherited from my mother a near- perfect pitch and a fine musical sensibility, so this sort of thing would drive me absolutely crazy. When I asked him what he was doing to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" he would say defensively that he could carry a tune if he wanted to, but if he whistled in this way the melody wouldn't distract him. Distract him from what? From looking aimlessly for some sandpaper that he would use to mangle a piece of mahogany, so that he might free up his mind, or so he could figure out some new way to design a lure he could then cover with leather and glue to catch some fish, the hook of which he would not bait so the fish wouldn't interrupt his concentration.
With the exception of the business with the high chair, and a memory of him rubbing my face in dog shit when I was about three (I apparently let Willy, Dad's sheep dog, in the house when Father/trainer was out), I have many wonderful memories of my father when I was a child. In many ways, he was a secretive man, and this made him privy to the secret world of us kids. He could be extraordinarily helpful when I was in a special kind of trouble. For instance, right up until my late thirties I was a bit of a firebug, and once as a child I nearly burned my father's house down. Near the fireplace was an old-fashioned oil can that my dad used to ignite wet logs. I was forever playing with it, making designs in the dancing speculum of the flames which seemed to speak to me in black and orange calligraphy. At one moment, I tried to douse the little burning tip of the oil can out on the floor. I guess I had done this before successfully, but this time a lovely, almost invisible blue flame began to swiftly spread across the fine nap of the wall-to-wall carpeting. After admiring it for a second or two, I tried to stomp it out but the violet tide was too fast for me. I ran downstairs where my father was inventing something in the basement.
Despite the fact that my father had told me over and over again not to play with fire gods (my weakness for conspiring with them was infamous), I blurted out the truth of what was happening in the living room. With his help, we managed to get the situation under control before it had begun to eat the drapes as an offering. Relieved and exhausted, we sank to the sofa and looked at each other. After just a few moments, an expression came to his face which was almost immediately slapped on mine like fly paper which basically said, "Holy shit ... Aunt Elaine is going to get home any minute."
Without any time wasted in redress, anger, or apologies, we went for the solution to what we imagined to be a heap of woe. Whether it was attained in his naughty youth or as an adult with a vivid understanding of feminine wrath at any violation of the Hearth Principal, I don't know for sure, but Dad had obviously had practice with this sort of emergency. In an instant he had me working at the charred nap with a wire brush while he ran for the vacuum cleaner. Then, after opening the windows to get the smell of a tenement disaster out of the air, he vacuumed behind me while simultaneously spritzing the air with Florida Water, his all-time favorite cologne which he referred to as "Stink Juice." Almost miraculously, the red color of the carpet began to come back, though it was a touch too light. He solved this defect by going over it with a wet sponge mop which amazingly made it darker. As for the side of the leather lounge chair which had fairly well been melted up to the armrest, he spray-painted the frame a similar brown with a kind of camouflage stroke known to desert warfare. He then put a low brass table beside the chair blocking a clear view of this mess, and was sitting there smoking his pipe in feigned serenity as we heard the front door open at Elaine's return. I was to be seen flipping through the funny papers and stroking the poodle, Charley, in front of the new warming fire as if we were expecting Mrs. Kris Kringle to stop by for tea. When Aunt Elaine sniffed quizzically for a moment, and then left the room to start dinner, a breath of relief was the only statement my father ever made to me about the incident.
I met John in Boulder, Colorado, during the summer of 1975. I had been living a chop-wood-carry-water existence for the past seven years with my husband, Paul Harper, in the wilderness of British Columbia. We had left San Francisco and moved to the back of beyond to insure that our acid trips would be totally undisturbed. We lived on a commune while raising our two children, Megan, age six, and Michael, age three, and a seven-year-old indigenous foster child who had fetal alcohol syndrome.
As a native San Franciscan, I had shunned the Haight-Ashbury ritual of dropping acid around hordes of people. Paul and I longed for nights of endless LSD communion with the Tao, the Source, and the assurance that there would be no intruders to bring us down. So we lived two miles from either neighbor, which meant long treks during the winter when the logging roads weren’t plowed. Snowed in for weeks at a time, we had all the comforts that didn’t require electricity or running water. Stacks of firewood and spiritual books. Horses, goats, kerosene lanterns, and a propane stove. A battery-operated phonograph to play Traffic, the Doors, Dylan. A community of friends who lacked boundaries and sensibilities, but shared equally fried senses of reality along with the responsibilities of children, gardens, and animals. Unlike the media’s caricature of the freewheeling hippie, we were on a rigorous spiritual quest that called for the destruction of our egos by severing all attachments. That meant letting friends borrow chain saws, vehicles, husbands, and wives. Often they would return broken, defective, unwilling to work again. Sometimes you had to go looking for them. Have you seen my drill bit? Did my wife sleep here last night?
I was the daughter of two award-winning San Francisco journalists. A musical prodigy from the age of six, when an IQ test explained the boredom I was experiencing, I skipped the second grade. At the age of thirteen, after refusing the opportunity to become a concert pianist (I had discovered boys), I made weekend pilgrimages to North Beach with my friends. We hung out at City Lights Bookstore, rapping with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and hoping to catch a glimpse of Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. Having received the finest public education possible at Lowell High, which is still among the top ten in the country, I was steeped in literature and the arts. I was going to be a writer.
In high school, nuns in the street would cross themselves when they caught sight of our black leotards and leather sandals. Flabbergasted, the jocks and social queens didn’t know what to do with us. All they could come up with were unimaginative whispers of “whores.” They were so unhip, we’d just roll our eyes. The school administrators sarcastically called us “The Lowell Intelligentsia” in the same way the Cultural Elite is sneered at today. Despite the bravado over Lowell’s reputation, our academic rebellion threatened the administration. We rejected pep rallies and football games; we wanted to study poetry, art, and music. The girls’ dean declared it illegal to wear the handmade sandals we bought in North Beach, feigning concern lest we get our toes stuck in a door. So we’d don tennis shoes to walk the halls, and wear the sandals in class. If we dressed too outrageously in handmade tunics, they sent us home, claiming we looked pregnant. Confident we were part of an epic in the making, we survived humiliation by sticking together.
Only one teacher, Maurice Englander, really understood us. He quietly approved of our plumage and offered his classroom as a safe haven during sports rallies and lunch periods to study poetry and classical music, thereby escaping the ubiquitous ridicule that echoed through the halls. Later, when the rednecks came to town wearing dashikis and love beads, looking to get laid, we resented the price we’d paid in bloody tears for those fashion statements.
At San Francisco State during my freshman year, we met other baby beatniks and gave birth to the hippies. My kids teased me about that. “How can you invent the hippies?”
“Someone had to and besides, I read it in Rolling Stone. Ben Fong-Torres said the first hippies used to gather at a table in the Commons at State.” Kids think if it’s in Rolling Stone, it’s etched in stone. We were a bunch of rebellious, angst-filled teenagers, absorbing Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and On the Road, along with the incredible magic that backlit San Francisco in the early sixties. Distilling the creative fervor of the Beat Generation with our Boomer adolescent laziness, we created a societal sea change. I was there for that, for the drugs and the psychedelic music, the Charlatans, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane. In 1964 I transferred to Berkeley just in time for the Free Speech Movement, majoring in philosophy.
I met Paul Harper at the San Francisco Juvenile Hall, where we worked with hard-core delinquents. Disgusted with the Haight-Ashbury pond scum that surfaced after the Hell’s Angels grisly debacle at Altamont, we were wary of the counterculture’s assimilation. Visions of love and light were disintegrating into drug overdoses and runaway tragedies. We fled the city and spent a year living in an abandoned cabin on a mining claim two miles up a dirt road from Callahan, a tiny lumber town near Mt. Shasta in Northern California, where Paul spent his childhood. That taste of country living sparked a yearning for unspoiled wilderness. The following spring, in a 1942 Ford truck loaded to the hilt, we immigrated to British Columbia. “You look like something out of The Grapes of Wrath,” my mother said prophetically.
For the next year years, we built our own houses and tended horses, goats, chickens, and gardens. When a social worker for the Canadian government came knocking on our door because she’s heard we had worked with problem children, we didn’t have the heart to refuse her request to take in an indigenous foster child. Andy Johnson was a crippled, brain-damaged four-year-old who was barely toilet trained. He had a sweet temperament and a certain magical detachment from the phenomenal world that made him irresistible.
Embracing voluntary poverty, without electricity or running water, we started a commune and wrote our own rules. Rumors about us practicing black magic began to circulate in the Kootenay Valley where we’d settled, spread by jealous husbands and wives who’d lost their spouses to the mystique of our merry band. It was a period of great pain and growth, laced with wild spiritual insights and abject ignorance. We prided ourselves on being so far removed from the agonies of the real world that we didn’t pay any attention to the Vietnam War, Watergate, or the moon landing, which we were convinced was a hoax.
Eventually, my smug complacency started to erode. I realized our rigid sanctions against mediocrity had us on the same treadmill as the bourgeois life we shunned. We were as attached to our trips, our tools and plumage, as a herd of male peacocks, or a gaggle of Junior Leaguers. My mother send me Meditation in Action, written by a young Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had come to the States to teach Buddhism during the early seventies. The book resonated deeply in my soul. Increasingly miserable in my abusive marriage to Paul, I decided to spend a summer studying meditation with Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado.
One of the greatest benefits of communal living was that parents could leave their children in the care of extended family. Our foster child had recently been removed from our home by the Canadian government when they passed a law that indigenous foster children had to live with indigenous families. While I was sorry to say good-bye to Andy, who had spent four years with us, I was tired of merely surviving on the land and desperately craved a new life. After seven years of austerity, although I was still passionately attached to the natural beauty of our four hundred acres, my city-girl nature was starved for more intellectual stimulation than radio and the daily mail run.
Inspired since my beatnik days by the mystical yearnings of Rimbaud, Lao Tsu, and Meister Eckhart, I intensified my spiritual crusade to find eternal truth and wisdom. As if answering a call, every child of that lineage, all the hip quester heroes traveled to Boulder that magical summer of 1975. They came to study with the young Tibetan Rinpoche at his newly founded Buddhist university, the Naropa Institute. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were there, as well as William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Kate Millet, and Baba Ram Das. It felt like the most happening thing since the birth of the hippies, a spiritual Woodstock. We hadn’t felt such palpable magic since the early sixties. We were relieved to find we hadn’t lost it.
A magnetic aura surrounded Rinpoche (a Tibetan honorific meaning “precious one” and pronounced RIM-po-chay). Infamously wild, in his mid-thirties, and wearing Saville Row suits, he smoked Raleighs, drank whiskey, ate red meat, and sampled the entire panoply of hippie pharmaceuticals. He’d had a son by a Tibetan nun and had run off with his blonde British wife when she was sixteen. As a holder of the exotic Crazy Wisdom lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, his outrageous behavior was traditionally viewed as teaching. His renegade flamboyance appealed to the artists, poets, and musicians who flocked around him.
Finally, we felt, here was someone who wasn’t trying to temper our passions, while proclaiming the possibility of enlightenment in one lifetime. Every other Eastern guru had admonished us to curb our intensity and deny our appetites in order to achieve detachment. I understood how attachment causes pain. If you encounter a dead dog on the road, you might feel a pang, but nothing like if it’s actually your dog. Nevertheless, I could never get behind the command simply to cut desire. Rinpoche’s method was to go into the depth of passion to wear out the samsaric impulses. Samsara is Sanskrit for the endless wheel of death and rebirth, the treadmill to which we slavishly return in our ignorance. It is the opposite of enlightenment. We liked his message. It gave us some more time to dally in the eternal youth zone that hallmarked our generation.
We had no inkling that his method would be so mutually painful. Disillusioned by the unhappy stasis of our parent’s lives, we were inspired to chart our course far from their moral guidelines. Years later, when Rinpoche’s behavior turned criminally insane and too abusive to raise our children under the umbrella of his trappings, some of us would come full circle and embrace the sanity of our roots with tremendous relief. By then, we were educated about the marks of a cult leader. By then, the traditional values of our childhood looked like an oasis of lucid simplicity. When I consider the extraordinary journey of this gifted man, who ended his life as a tragic alcoholic, I ultimately freeze in a morass of ambivalence. Men like Rinpoche and Johnny take you on their roller coaster, soaring from passion’s heights to the depths of degradation. It’s all a matter of being a spiritual gun moll, game enough to go along for the ride.
It was precisely this license to befriend our emotions that drew John to Rinpoche in 1971. He was living in Greenwich Village with the mother of his two-year-old daughter, Blake, whom he refused to marry. After a particularly ugly fight, he attended a talk by Rinpoche. Johnny lingered in the room long after the crowd left. Rinpoche4 was speaking with a few other students and finally turned to John, who blurted out, “Sir, I have a lot of aggression and anger that I cannot subdue.” Expecting the usual rap about conquering passions with meditation and developing a peaceful state of mind, Rinpoche’s reply startled him.
“You have a lot of anger? That is fantastic! Don’t try to get rid of it. Express it, make friends with it. That is the only way to tame your emotions.” John had been playing with Transcendental Meditation, a technique that attempts to suppress negativity. The problem with that is, where does it go? His friends were flocking to Spain with the Beatles and actress Mia Farrow. They had been admonishing John to control his drunken outbursts with TM and were less than charmed by Rinpoche’s tolerance of John’s anger. After all, he was supposed to be settling down now that he was a father.
Unfortunately, he flared with defensive rage at the suggestion that his emotions needed to be curbed. It takes maturity to harness the volcano that erupts from the soul of a true artist. Thanks to the alcoholic adults in his life, John’s emotional growth had been arrested during his childhood. For temperaments like ours, Rinpoche’s technique worked better than TM’s amputation of desires. He urged us to explore our dark sides. By illuminating the shadows, confusion would dawn as wisdom. He warned us it was not a path for the fainthearted. To a standup guy like John, this was a challenge he could not resist.
Rinpoche’s patience touched him deeply. That meeting was the breaking point of Johnny’s old relationships. A wedge was driven between those who favored the Maharishi’s blessed-out state and the Tibetaqn’s barbaric technique of exhausting negativity. “Don’t try to escape your emotions,” he taught. “Wear them out like an old shoe.” Later, when he wasn’t allowed contact with Blake due to his drinking, John would claim “Indians stole my daughter.”
We learned basic Buddhism that summer, starting with the Four Noble Truths. “The essential fabric of life is suffering,” Rinpoche claimed in a lecture that summer. “There is an element of pain in everything. You cannot even begin to experience the notion of freedom until you acknowledge this background of suffering. It comes from nowhere, yet it’s everywhere, because we want so much to like everything and be happy. We think that is our birthright. Suffering only ceases when we reach the realization that pain and pleasure are one. This one taste, with no duality, comes from the discipline of sitting meditation. Enlightenment lies beyond good and bad, past bewilderment and sorrow. It’s different from happiness. The important thing is to connect with the pain, instead of increasing speed and aggression to get away from it, as you do in Western society. Only then can one attain equanimity.”
We learned about the Buddha’s teachings on the Three Marks of Existence. If suffering is the first Mark, it is followed by the constant presence of impermanence, the second Mark. It takes a fundamental act of bravery to admit this but we really do conduct our lives on very shaky ground. Nothing is intrinsically solid. Chaos and strife, little hypocrisies, never disappear. The problem lies in learning to live with ourselves. Uncertainties and fickleness plague us relentlessly. All that is left is the continuity of discontinuity. And within that lies the egoless state, the third Mark, able to function without solidification or credentials.
Rinpoche proclaimed that learning at Naropa would be based upon a student’s experience and state of mind rather than memorization and regurgitation. As veterans of top universities and a variety of acid trips, this was welcomed. Traditional schooling frustrated us, and now Rinpoche, who was supposedly enlightened, confirmed our attitudes as no one else had.
Despite the superstars, Ripoche insisted there was nothing special about Naropa. Through the process of slowing down, practicing our sitting meditation, and feeling the haunting quality of impermanence, we would develop a new way of looking at things. Newer than acid, with none of the psychedelic fallout? We were ready for that! Many of us were parents with young children and although we were still into peak experiences, we were looking for a little less excitement. All-night acid trips lose their appeal when crying babies wake you early in the morning.
Rinpoche held up a fresh mirror, a way to get to know ourselves. His meditation technique, taught by the Buddha, was simply to sit quietly, follow the breath and notice how thoughts arise and fade. He gave us a magnifying glass to look at all the hidden crannies we rushed to ignore. We were encouraged to slow down and make friends with the process of our thoughts. There was no promise of a magical mystery tour. He scoffed at the aggressive search for religious highs. During his nightly lectures, he would challenge us in an impeccable Oxford accent: “When your mind stops revving, you might feel like a grain of sand in the Gobi desert, majestic and simple. At that point, you can cultivate a sense of precision. Your mind will click into how to deal with the situation at hand with little confusion.” For the refugees from Leave-It-to-Beaver-land, we fervently aspired to meet his challenge. Having watched our parents suffocate in their attempts to avoid suffering, we craved the heroic state of victory over ego-driven futility. Rinpoche’s brand of enlightenment had a gutsy quality that blended well with our increasingly grim view of the world. In that post-Kennedy assassination era, we were realizing our generation wasn’t going to change much of anything. The notion of individual salvation was extremely inviting.
When Rinpoche told us to view the entire phenomenal world as our friend, he appealed to our vestigial love-generation taproot. By transplanting this radically new outlook into our hearts, we could generate compassion, wakefulness, and the ability to be gentle. Bodhicitta, the essence of the Buddha, was the fruition of an awakened heart, arising from the confusion of pain and aggression. Enter Bodhisattva, that enigmatic term we’d learned from Kerouac, who wrote of mystical saints dwelling in an eternal present, with a Christlike compassion for all beings. We were offered Bodhisattva vows, a commitment to an endless cycle of rebirths, until the last sentient being in the universe is enlightened. As Rinpoche described the qualities of a Bodhisattva, the openness and clarity, the spontaneity and tenderness, we felt like we’d come home.
And then Rinpoche delivered the final coup. History had confined our literary heroes to the Mahayana, or Middle Way of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Buddhism. Rinpoche was the most brilliant pioneer of that passage. He transmitted the highest teachings of Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism in a language we could understand. Previously held secret behind the fortress of snow mountains surrounding Tibet, these teachings were considered dangerous if not transmitted by a Tantric Master, a guru who works directly with the student. Vajrayana practice requires the personal experience of initiation and empowerment directly from a teacher who provides an oral transmission of the teachings, the dharma, along with secret mantras and ritual practice.
Rinpoche carefully studied his Western students, their particular hang-ups, their attractions and addictions. Unfortunately, that study eventually caught him in his own wringer. Twelve years later, he would die of one of the worst cases of acute alcoholism and drug addiction I had ever seen. And I knew, because by that time I was working in a silk-sheet rehab center in La Jolla, California, and John was lying in some gutter in the Los Angeles Asian ghetto, having succumbed to his inability and unwillingness to curb his instincts. As they say in AA, it took what it took. Rinpoche’s drinking himself to death served to wake John up to his own hell-bent; shortly after that he got sober for good. So who’s to say who was wrong and what really worked? Rinpoche emanated from a lineage called the Crazy Wisdom gurus, commonly misunderstood by the Western mind. In this tradition, the teacher imparts his lessons through outrageous actions. Later, when John and I lived in Kathmandu, Tibetans would tell us in hushed tones how fortunate we were to have Rinpoche as a teacher. “Oh, he very enlightened being. He drink a lot, right? You no worry about that. All Trungpas drank.”
Rinpoche was the eleventh incarnation in the succession of Trungpas. However, the others had lived within the confines of Tibetan monasticism. In America, Rinpoche was on his own, in a jungle of Western temptations that the others had never encountered. Years later, in 1989, our friend the Dalai Lama told us privately that he would never trust a guru who claimed, as Rinpoche had, that he could turn alcohol into an elixir. “Changing religions is very difficult,” he said. “I do not advocate converting from Judeo-Christian traditions to Tibetan Buddhism. It is very difficult to understand a religion that is not of one’s cultural heritage. One must examine the teacher with the utmost scrutiny. There are many charlatans.”
In the early days, Rinpoche mirrored our wild ways. As we matured, he lost his hold over us. Eventually John and I voiced strong moral objections about the irresponsibility of Rinpoche’s teachings. The story of that harrowing journey contains grave admonitions about the methods and madness of certain Tibetan lamas. Now that Tibetan Buddhism has become chic, the hottest new religion, I have concerns about how these gurus come without operating instructions. Far removed from papal constraints, their freewheeling style usually results in severe abuses of power and sexuality.
I still don’t have a clear answer to the paradox of Rinpoche’s life and death. Sometimes I think he was just a garden-variety addict who died of his disease. Did he purposely drink himself to death so that we would quit depending on him? Did we kill him with our greed and manipulation as we clamored to be near him? The Tibetan party line is that the guru takes on the diseases of his students, and most of us were full-fledged addicts when we met him. There was a depth to the experienced I had with Rinpoche, similar to the chaos I went through with John, which taught me that sometimes the only answer is a silent dwelling in the grey area beyond right and wrong. Nothing is either black or white. It just is. And that does not excuse anything.
In the end, the final proclamation of a guru’s worth can be found in his students. Those who remain loyal to Rinpoche’s vision display the pathetic lack of identity found in every cult. They are unhappy pod people who toast his posthumous brilliance with pretentious, self-aggrandizing platitudes. Denying his abuse of power and his rampant addictions (a $40,000-a-year cocaine habit, along with a penchant for Seconal and gallons of sake), they exhibit symptoms of untreated codependents. In order to restore our sanity, John and I had to distance ourselves physically and emotionally. In that heartbreaking process, we were forced to acknowledge those qualities in us that were attracted to the cult of Rinpoche’s personality in the first place. Yet Rinpoche’s definition of a spiritual warrior is one who knows himself. And so, the fruition of our path was also the point.