A time for reflection. Last week, on August 13, I quietly observed a significant anniversary in my life: twenty-five years from the day of its regeneration. It was on that date that I walked off a job, and out of a life, in 1971
It would be more true to say I walked into a life, for the one I left behind was more of a torment, if I can pass that off as a noun. It was the American Dream gone wrong, the encagement of a soul that had just about forgotten how to fly. I won't dwell on the things that were squeezing the life out of me, but just say that they constituted, or grew out of, the standard, applied conception of that time, of what a life should be like: a marriage, a career, a home and family, and the securities and perks of being just like everyone else. A good deal more rigidly so, than in today's world.
Oh, I wasn't really very much like everyone else, but it was mainly because I couldn't seem to manage it, not because I rejected it. Not until that day in 1971, at any rate. I had a very late start (for those days) on both marriage and career, never did get a home "of my own," and fathered no children. But I was playing the game, and I measured my life by how short of the mark it always fell.
I couldn't even stay on the track of it. The entire decade of my thirties was one aborted revolt after another: a bobbled effort to complete my education, several feckless failures at small enterprise (too insignificant to be called small business), and repeated halfway tries to recast my life in a bachelor mode. I was like the guy with his arm tangled in his suicide noose - he couldn't even manage to hang himself successfully.
Through all those years, I could not figure out whether the problem was me (some perversion of my own nature), or just my inability to make the grade. It never really occurred to me that the whole damned Dream, and the idea that everyone should find a fit for themselves, in it, was the cause of all my agony. I think that was largely because no other routing for a useful or satisfying life was visible. If you wanted to be an artist, you still had to join the marketing stream to earn the money to pay the rent; if you wanted to vagabond the seven seas in a sloop of your own, you still had to be able to afford the sloop and its provisioning. Nobody but the Aussie Aborigines lived outside the loop, and look at the sort of lives they had to settle for.
But then, in the late `60s, along came an incredible generation that said, "Hell no, we won't go!" They had the actual effrontery and imagination to try and redefine life! And this old guy (by their measure), all the way into his mid-40s, suddenly saw a patch of blue sky.
Thus it was, by grasping and clinging to the tail of an errant and rebellious host, already (by 1971) losing its sense of direction, that I piggy-backed my way out of the mainstream dream. There are times in life when it is of utmost importance to trust your instincts and leap for the unknown. Or as Danaan Parry used to say, you've got to sense the moment and let go of your trapeze, in order to catch the one swinging toward you.
That moment was twenty-five years ago last week. And I mean to devote this issue to a memoir, in roughly five-year segments, of the successive new vistas and remarkable discoveries that I have encountered, over that period of time. My purpose, besides this being a moment of celebration, is to demonstrate how little we may know of life's potential - not just our own potential, for this is common grist, but life's potential, in the sense of an extended concept of reality itself - when we merely accept the world as a given.
For it was a `given,' to me, that I was leaping headlong into a rough and risky sea - choosing adventure and selfhood over stagnation, to be sure, but at the very probable cost of any possible long-term security, and in the sure promise that I should thenceforth, always, be living by my wits. I even hedged my risk, at the time, by persuading myself that I could, for a few years at least, go scuttling back, with tail between my legs, if it proved an impossibly terrifying venture.
There are many, today, who contemplate abandoning the "Dream world," looking to the host of their own growing numbers for psychological support - but relying more substantively on some large hedge of investments to keep the anxiety of uncertainty at a low simmer. While I hail their courage - for any avenue that will see them into lives of inner-motivated choice is not to be lightly regarded - I must, at the same time, say that their backstop investment is likely to cheat them of the richest realm of discovery, and I shall try to show why this may be so, in this summary of my quarter-century. The simplest statement of it, of course, is that wonderful old Kristofferson song title, "Freedom's just another name for nothing left to lose" - but we are talking, ultimately, of far more than freedom.
The Black Bart Years
One of the more puzzling truisms of quantum physics is that a seemingly remote action can generate a direct consequence somewhere else in the Universe, maybe lightyears away. In a way, that's exactly what happened when I dropped out. On that very day, a letter was posted to me from a young people's collective in a place called Canyon - a letter in response to one of my own, sent many months previous and long-since forgotten. The Universe had somehow been waiting all those months for my move . . . or else, preparing me for it. From this beginning, I was sponsored by that collective to put out a pilot issue of Black Bart Brigade, to see what response it would reap.
That narrowly gained start, my first compass setting for this new journey, was immensely fortuitous, for Black Bart would turn out to be far more than an occupation in my alternative world. It became my teacher, alter-ego, and sole claim to significance, for more than a decade. It allowed me to help others, and established for me a widespread network of friends, a support system in every sense, some of whom are still a part of my life.
In ordinary occupational terms - that is, as a source of steady income - it was almost a joke. It had the marvelous knack of providing barely enough for my subsistence, constantly pushing me to ever more stringent levels of makeshift survival. But it was such a lovely partner, providing every satisfaction, every validation, every personal connection that I needed over those years, that I never once considered abandoning it. Quite the contrary, every time it fell by the wayside, for lack of funds or other vicissitude, I pulled it back by the bootstraps, reconstituting it in some new variant of name, or format, or dedication.
All told, there were only 15 issues and some eight or ten interim newsletters or supplements, over a span of about thirteen years. Not much of a production record; but something in their style and content, perhaps in their very manner of phoenix-like rebirth, held the readership at a fairly constant 300 to 400. Sufficient to provide me with a time of radical schooling in a whole other way of life, than the mode under which I had grown up. Let me dwell a bit on what that was all about.
At the first level of instruction, it taught me how to pursue a right livelihood, which is distinctly different than "making a living." What I was doing became more important than what I earned from it, and thus I could shape it not as a "business," but as a meaningful pursuit, shorn of all the commercial crap that had turned my stomach for half a lifetime: advertising and promotion, sales and hype, forms and permits, bookkeeping and tax filings . . . I styled its process exactly to my liking, and gave my readers 100% "pure gold" - or as close to it as my talents and funds would allow. It wasn't always strictly legal (like my utter disdain for copyright law), but it was honorable every step of the way, in the Don Juan sense of a path with heart. Almost from the start, I sent it out for what each reader felt it was worth. The word "donation" had not yet lost its old-fashioned meaning, in those days.
Secondly, it stepped me down gently into the ways of simple-living, bringing people-based support systems into my life, introducing me to networking, barter and the many ways we can help one another without putting a price on it. These are so much richer and more human ways of getting one's needs met, than the alienating artifice of money-based systems. And more secure, too: by the time my backstop bank account had dropped to zero, I was nested in an alternative world of such security that I handled the anxiety factor with perfect equanimity. But that came a bit later, during the second five-year span.
The third great initiation of those Black Bart years was my introduction to the "Eastern side of the mountain," as I called it. The surprise and fascination of it all seems now quite strange, but I had lived for half a lifetime with not the least awareness of that entire side of life. Suddenly, a range of names from Lao Tzu to Krishnamurti, and mystic studies from astrology to the Tarot and I Ching - rich and profound, but areas I had always before either laughed at or ignored - began to deepen my understanding of things. I cautiously began to bring them into my writing - into the essentially political orientation of Black Bart social analysis - not even realizing that most of my readers were well ahead of me. I was the new kid on that block, not they.
Those were crazy and exciting years, exuberant in a freedom I had not known since college days. All in the simple abandonment of the yoke and harness that we so eagerly take on as the mantle of adulthood. Oh, yes, there were problems and struggles, too - a communal effort that failed, a love affair that went awry, and the ever-present uncertainty of where this would all end . . . but living in the framework of an open-ended freedom, whether I had the sufficient means for it or not, was a `high' that is simply unimaginable without the experience of it.
The greatest challenge may have been the barbs of criticism - often reflecting my own inner doubt, but hurled by those in envy and outright awe of such heresy: "Hey, being rather irresponsible, aren't you?" ... "No matter how you cut it, fella, you're expecting others to take care of you" ... or the simple raised eyebrow that bespeaks a torrent of judgement. In one form or another, the self-righteous have their say and take their toll, demanding that some effective rationale be worked out, at least to subdue one's own inner ambivalence.
Mine lay, first of all, in a straight-out challenge to the various definitions and moralisms that stand like indestructible foundations beneath our intolerance of others. What really means those self-elevating judgements by which we salve the daily pain of modern life: maturity, responsibility, respectability, and such? It is not too difficult to deconstruct those noble terms of a necessary consolation and self-esteem, when they are used as brickbats.
But the deeper rationale was found in a recognition of the entire artifice of the world that has conditioned us, and a return to the source so ably expressed in that Book that people pretext to live by: "Consider ye the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin..." I took the admonition all the way, and found my peace in the sure conviction that no person provides my sustenance, but only functions as an avenue of the Universal Providence . . . so long as I do not demand or expect of anyone that function. (It is fair game to ask assistance, however, for this is the means by which we maintain our humility, and give an opportunity for sharing to others.)
Well, there you have the perfect legitimation of the panhandler, so let us move on to . . .
The Yin Times & Colostomy Years
In 1975, well before my Black Bart years had even counted to five, the worst possible scenario erupted in my life. I was hard at work on a book, actually requested by a publisher, when I fell into the black hole of a severe bout with colitis, my personal nemesis for many years . . . and then, my large bowel suddenly ruptured. By extreme good fortune, I was already in the hospital - else I would not be here to write these words - and I underwent radical surgery less than eight hours later. My very being in the hospital at that time was due to an amazing confluence of synchronicities that should have left no doubt at all about the place of Providence in the evolvement of personal affairs - but I was in no condition to see it, at that moment.
It left me with an ugly and desperately unwanted colostomy - I actually tried to remain in the hospital until they could reverse the whole thing, so unwilling was I to cope with it. But if ever a disaster proved a blessing, this was it.
In the course of that summer, it brought me to the point of finally letting-go, entirely, of all that remained of my birthright, bottom-line insistence that I could take care of myself. The debacle so completely shattered my claim to personal power, that it became the real turning-point of my life, as opposed to the event that this month's anniversary observes. Of course, I needed those Black Bart years of preparation, in order to reach the new level of development.
Simply put, I found myself at the end of my resources. The book-in-process had vanished in the black hole, the publisher no longer interested. I had, perhaps, $100 in the bank, but no place to live, and no Black Bart to lean on for a last-minute rescue. I had announced to one and all, in a newsletter three months previous to the bowel calamity, that the first cycle of Black Bart was over. In a marvelously precognitive note, I added that "...I must step off toward new horizons which are beyond the possibilities of Black Bart as it has defined itself." But how could I possibly know that I was "stepping off" into a chasm?
Sparing you (and myself) the messy, bewildering details, I reached a point of actually, consciously, putting myself into the hands of the gods - acknowledging that I could not handle it on my own. And for any religious freaks out there, this submissive act had nothing at all to do with Jesus, whom I do not regard as God, the Son of, or any other such splendiferous thing (and I doubt that he ever claimed it for himself). I was putting myself in the hands of a Pantheistic Universe, or Spirit, or whatever.
Whether amazing things began to happen, then, or whether I simply began to see what was going on (all the time, perhaps?) with different eyes, I do not know. But the summer became a spectacular display of Providence. So I had my second compass setting - just watching it all unfold, and following where circumstance and inner prompting might lead.
In the earlier Black Bart years, I seemed to be living by my wits, leaping the ice floes of a happenstance world, always alert to such beneficence as I could grasp and claim for my own. In this new space, I learned how to blend with the current, to read the signals (stop, go, and turn here), and just let it happen. I no longer saw myself as a chancey, lucky, somewhat foolhardy survivor, but as something of an innocent, a `newborn child' just riding the crest of whatever was happening. I suspect, though, that the only difference was in my own head.
The money-line, as earlier noted, went down to zero, and I became fascinated just watching what happened from there on. Nobody will believe it - it seems unreal, even to me, from my present "wealthy" standpoint - but for more than a year, I watched my funds just bubble easily around the zero mark. I'd have a few bucks left in my pocket, and then a five or ten would come in from somewhere: a random donation, an old debt repaid, money literally found, or earned in some occasional way - I even panhandled a bit, not strictly for myself, but for the Free Clinic of Berkeley, who shared their takings with the takers - but it was always there, in one way or another, and seldom from any direct initiative of mine.
And then in 1977 another series of fortuitous developments took me to Carmel, that stunningly lovely seacoast village where only tourists and wealthy retirees can afford their keep. A charming old soul took me on as part-time attendant, for (what amounted to) the last year of her life. I recall the difficult spot it put me in: having to `bargain' for appropriate wages and rent, after living the innocent life portrayed above. Finally, knowing where my head was at, I said I didn't want any wages at all, I would do it as a straight trade for the privilege of residence there.
I had, by this time, begun the short-lived successor to the original Black Bart, which I called The Yin Times of Black Bart, so I had no reason to want or rely on any outside wages. But if the old Black Bart was laid-back, this new version was twice as much so - there were only two issues of it (included in the earlier tally).
Meanwhile, the final teaching from my colostomy had been absorbed. A year after it was installed, I went in for surgery again, to see if there had been enough healing for its removal. No such luck, and my spirits were so dashed as a result, that I realized I had never really come to terms with it. It was quite clear, then, that only by fully accepting the colostomy could I ever rise above it, and that's just what I set out to do - so effectively, that I was entirely surprised when word of its possible removal was once more broached by my doctor. And this time, after three years of living with it, the colostomy was successfully terminated.
In the final phase of these Yin years, I went to live in the woods at a mountain camp called Kilowana, where we had done workshops back in the glory years of Black Bart. It was a final healing time for me, and a place to complete that adventurous and growth-filled decade. Even to wistfully regret its passing, for I was quite sure that the rest of my life would be lived in such semi-solitary retreat.
The Hillegass Transitional Years
I don't know how similar it is for others, but Providence has always been able to set my compass course by putting a woman somewhere near the helm. Toward the end of 1981, friends from far and wide gathered at Kilowana to celebrate with me the tenth anniversary of Black Bart - among them, a psychic couple who predicted that I would soon go forth again in the outside world (which I doubted), and an old friend just back from a long sojourn in India, seeking some California place to settle. On her account, I went to mediate with friends at the Hillegass collective in Berkeley, and found myself utterly entranced by a soon-to-be-available garden cottage made over as a living space: a 7' by 11' challenge and charm that my meager resources could handle. I just loved the way it felt.
By mid-1982 I was there, beginning a three-year period of regeneration in the `outer world.' There was a certain ripeness to my life, now. Black Bart had once more transmogrified at Kilowana: a mimeographed vehicle for all sorts of social and New Age commentary, done with flair and style that defied the limitations of the medium. But it no longer had the fire or spirit of old . . . I was doing it simply because I could not part with it. In 1984, I finally laid it - finally - to rest.
Those years in Berkeley were essentially transitional. While it was great to be once more among folks I could easily relate to - not just in Hillegass House, but the entire surrounding neighborhood, as well - all of their lives (and my own, by now, too) had come to seem rather drearily middle-class. Colored, to be sure, by alternative leanings (could one really call a communal group middle-class?), but it was hard to ignore a certain rancid fragrance of domestic contentment that seemed to permeate everything, sending it off-color from the brilliant freshness it had once displayed. Like a once lovely garden gone to seed.
But it was comfortable, and I found it all too easy to linger. And it was surely my best communal living experience, among several tries over the years. My life, however, had no stimulating purpose. So when the opportunity came to spend a few months at that notorious place in Oregon called Rajneeshpuram, I took it as a worthwhile diversion, knotting another interesting and illuminating experience on my growing string of them. It contributed to my next major compass setting - not toward the Bhagwan, but an interesting woman whom I met while there.
The compass now pointed northwest, but other developments would provide the actual motive power for the long and devious journey that finally landed me in Seattle. The proximate prod was diminishing resources: I was running out of rent money, and there was no more Black Bart to lead the charge for a last minute rescue. In middle-class lives, one goes out to find a job, but I felt somehow beyond all that. I had successfully evaded it for almost fifteen years, and was loathe to try the fit of leg-irons, clinking shut once more around my ankles.
So I convened a giant farewell party - a house-cooling, I called it - and set out on the last great indigent adventure, a footloose journey to see how Providence would deal with me, and how I would deal with the situation of being virtually broke and homeless in the wide world of America. It was a test of faith I had long thought about, and likely my last opportunity to try it, for I was only four years away from Social Security entitlement.
The College Years
The name for that summer's journey came to me out of nowhere, and stuck better than duct tape: my Summer of Infinite Presence. It seems absurd to say that I spent six months going around the country, at a cost of nothing at all, but an April note in my pre-departure journal says I set out with $150, and an October entry in the Seattle area annotates $175 in resources. My needs, of course, were covered by friendship and donations, but at a deeper level it was Providence, making sure that nowhere in the country would I ever lack for shelter or food.
I hadn't really intended to spend the following winter in Seattle, just the time for a decent visit with the woman from Rajneeshpuram. But events took over: the sudden retraction of a southern California offer of seasonal residence, an unjust traffic citation that I felt I had to stay and fight, and finally a two-week drenching of snow - rare for Seattle - that killed any hope of escaping a northwest winter.
It meant I had to find shelter somewhere, and it came in the form of a live-in caretaking position with a bedridden multiple-sclerosis victim. A blessing, to be sure, but also the difficult challenge of being saddled with 24-hour responsibility, six days per week. She and I agreed to a six-month `tour of duty,' and I bit the bullet - my first hard-earned income in fourteen years.
When I left the Bay Area, I had really embarked on a whole new way of living-in-the-world, which I call the Way of Innocence. It comes, almost in a natural progression, after the realization of Providence and the discovery that the capabilities of human will and reason are virtually incompetent when measured against what the `will of the gods' can bring about. In large part, of course, I had been living like this ever since the colostomy; but when I set out in 1985 to do it deliberately, holding onto no security of any consequence, I moved into the flow with such a totality that it must finally be regarded as a different level of being. Almost from the moment of my arrival in the northwest, the gods took hold - by which I mean, my path seemed to lay itself out - and I had little further say in what came about.
At the end of my six months of caretaking, I was prompted, by the arrival of an 'invitation to bid' for a small grant, to find a quiet rental nearby and undertake, once again, the writing of a book. The grant never materialized, and the book-start was rejected - once again - by a publisher. Their illusionary hold on me had simply served to pass the time of summer, until my old friend back from India came up with an offer to pool resources for a northwest winter together. Moving again with the moment's currents, I found what seemed the perfect spot on Whidbey Island. It was the perfect spot, but not for our shared venture!
Unable to uphold my end of the winter costs, for lack of any available employment, I instead found myself qualified, by the island location, for a vocational rehab program that put me into school the following spring, embarked on a year-long publications technology program, including the basics of desktop publishing. More than that, it tracked me onto larger educational funding possibilities, and before long I was poised to resume a forty-year-delayed baccalaureate education, at the Univ. of Washington. The whole business involved an uncanny precision of stepping stones - even to the extent of repaying a 27-year-old college loan default that stood in my way, from funds newly received for current educational purposes.
By 1989, well on my way toward the college degree, and awash in the largess of educational funding, I had bridged the gap to my entitlement years and could no longer be indigent again. But I made a fighting thrust at it, one more time, by taking off on a completely insecure venture abroad, risking a London cost-of-living that my homegrown resources could not possibly handle. You know all about that story, the year and a half through Europe - as rare an adventure as anyone of my age and fiscal level has ever had. And you know, now, why I had to call the book of it Innocence Abroad.
[Note: For a more detailed presentation of those years since leaving Berkeley, and how the schooling actually evolved, read the newsletter: Derelict Days in the Northwest
The Relationship Years
I almost called it the retirement years, for these last four since my return from Europe have had a rare kind of completion quality. But I don't like the retirement image, and don't really see myself in any such twilight, though I write about it often enough.
They've been highly active years, actually: writing the book, doing my own graphic arts for it, getting on the Internet with a new computer, setting up a Web site, creating Ripening Seasons (this issue of which marks a tally that now exceeds the total number of Black Bart issues!) - a wide assortment of fresh starts, for one's latter 60s. Any one of these could characterize my current times, but there is one other that seems more the central theme of it, a constant thread, almost since my return home.
My relationship with Joy, of course - something I hadn't anticipated, or even much hoped for at this presumably waning time of my life. You know all about the battle we fought, this year - no, not with each other, but side-by-side (the kind of relationship we have), in order to live "together" at a fraction of what that would expectably cost. Now, we have the best of all worlds, in our view, living separately but together, for we each have solitary pursuits that are meaningful in our lives.
We're pretty well suited to each other, too. There is no question about who does the driving, for neither of us has a car; there are no hassles over money or what to spend it on, for we're both accustomed to living on shallow budgets; and no ego struggles over whose work is best (her art or my writing), for we're each out of the commercial stream of it, not competing in any way. But most of all, we're both upbeat and basically happy people, and there hasn't been more than the barest wisp of a cloud between us since we first got to know each other.
The sense of completion that I feel, in these latter years, might reflect the way in which both Providence and Innocence have finally blended, and are experienced in the course of my recent life. For everything comes together, now, almost as if it were fore-ordained. The country, as a whole, may be going through an angst-ridden turbulence and upheaval, with nothing sure of the future, but I feel so totally secure in my own world that my only problems revolve around keeping up with all there is to entice my involvement. It can't really get any better than this!
And there you have it: as vital and fabulous a quarter-century slice of life, as anywhere you can find (and, hey, I only hit the high spots!) - all because I chose, in a moment of desperate inspiration, to chuck the American Dream and go find one of my own . . . hazards be damned.
Looking back over this spectacle, I find it still incredible that I've been unable to interest a publisher in any aspect of it, over the years. I generally am inclined to think that there is some learning to be had here, and I "ain't yet got it" - but it might just be the elemental proof that commerce and an internally vital life simply don't mix . . . and I made my choice, between the two, all that many years ago.
1. to the Ripening
2 to the Main Staging area
3. Send response