The Common Clay, the Ephemeral Dust
My name is the name of my father. In 1948 I was the first born child and grandchild of my family. I had a Siddartha-like childhood. I was the son of a prince of a small midwest farm town, shielded and loved and pampered by all, the first-born princeling of a generation. In my beginnings I was loved. I grew strong and confident and spirited and loving, and life sang in my veins like a hymn.
We are all here, rising in consciousness. Here, where the eye turns the image of things seen upside down. It is a place of complexity where poles of light and dark pulse in majesty and the divided mind struggles with separation and illusion.
We are here, where the Christ is in each, the Buddha. Here in a place beyond the divided mind where a whole and holy Universe includes and reconciles its every manifestation in its own supreme, absolute perfection.
We are engulfed in a great mystery where joy and pain and fullness and emptiness all abide. It is a place where the solution to our sojourn is found in the answer to one small and simple question:
What happened here?
My mother told me once that she remembers the first time she really looked at my father. They were fifteen. It was mid-summer in the dry and brilliant heat of July, at the town swimming pool. She said, “He was young, and strong, and handsome – as handsome as any movie star. He was tall, and lean, and in the water his muscles rippled under his skin and his skin glowed in the sun. I was overcome with how beautiful he was.”
My father cared for me, took me places with him, proudly introduced me to his friends. He taught me to ride a bike, towed me through the snow on a sled tied behind his truck, helped me build a tree house. Once my father and I sat together on the roof of his car in the middle of a field of ripening wheat in the dry land farming country of eastern Colorado. He talked about the beauty that surrounded us, spoke to me of the wonder in a seed and the glory of harvest. He never talked down to me. It was understood between us that I would understand, and I did. He shared with me. He showed me what he had discovered here because he had come here before me.
Amid the unfathomable fullness of what it is to be here, alive and living this hard and wonderful life, the presence and the loss of my father is a profound, elemental part of my experience. I’ve lost, I’ve gained. I’ve failed absolutely, and succeeded to my own satisfaction. I’ve been broken, I’ve been healed. I’ve gained my dream, found true love. Many of the satisfactions present in my life today were borne in seeds planted by my father. The pains of my life began with his death.
Perhaps my way could have been easier. I have no doubt if my father had been here longer we would have shared a deep bond rooted in our personal struggles. If he had been here longer he would have passed to me much more of what he found here. But he wasn’t. The time I had with him was not enough, but what he gave me was. While we were together, before his own dark plunge, he loved me.
I was seven years old when my father died. It was 1956. My grandparents, my father’s parents, owned and operated a pharmacy in a small farming town in northeastern Colorado, the Haxtun Drug Store. In those days the pharmacists of small towns often didn’t have an assistant pharmacist. My grandparents did, and so from time to time they would go to another town for a week or two and serve the needs of that community while the local pharmacist went on vacation or responded to a personal emergency.
They were in Arriba, Colorado doing that when the call came. They had taken me with them. It was summertime and school was out, it was a vacation for us all, a working vacation for them but an opportunity for us to be together.
Arriba was a dusty, wind-blown plains town in southern Colorado. In the heat of that summer we went out to the edge of town one day to an ancient railroad depot. A canvas mailbag hung from a tall hook at the edge of the tracks. A train roaring past the town at fifty miles an hour snatched it from the hook. It was as though the mailbag had suddenly disappeared into thin air.
I was playing canasta one evening with my grandmother. When the phone rang I looked at it, I looked at her, and I knew. As she rose to answer it I said to her, “There’s been an accident. He’s gone.” It was one of those very few moments of my life when I have transcended the local and been connected with the great mystery we are all part of. She stared at me for a long moment as if I’d suddenly grown a second head, and then answered the phone.
I saw her falter as she listened, saw her as she stood there and took the blow. But she did not break and I wondered what kind of iron it was that could stand at all after such a blow, even if only as a husk with the heart cut out of it as she was for that single moment. Then I saw her gather herself, and straighten, and rise to meet the unspeakable loss.
By midnight I was at my mother’s childhood home, a farm in northeastern Colorado. My younger brothers were still up, playing with toys in the middle of the living room floor, arguing and laughing and loudly ignorant of what had happened. I watched them detached, felt a pain of sadness and anger at their unknowing. I said, “Don’t you know what has happened? Don’t you know what this means?” And looking into their eyes I suddenly knew that they didn’t. They didn’t know. Years later, after the death of my brother Tony, I would learn that he did know. It hit him the next day, when he saw the wreckage of the car our father had died in.
The next day we went home. In the early morning I climbed up on our garage roof and lay on my back, staring up into the sky. I had been taught that God was there. I needed to speak directly to Him, to the source and the power of the universe. I knew that light is the fastest thing in the universe. I thought if I could look unceasingly up into the sky and through it to the stars and beyond, eventually my line of sight would reach to God in his far-off place. In the slow numbness of deep shock I was able to stare for more than four hours, forcing my eyes to travel ever deeper and deeper into the universe.
Finally I began to waver, to suspect I was not going to reach God that way. But I felt my line of sight was like a long, thin, tenuous tunnel stretching through the universe to the vicinity of God, and it was as close as I had ever been, and I thought while this tunnel existed I could send a message, and it would be heard. So I sent this thought:
“I know it is in your power to do this, even though you haven’t done it often. I want my father back. I want him to be alive again. I want him to come home, and have his life again. And you can have anything of me. You can have everything of me. You can take my life in exchange for his, and I’ll give it to you. Just make my father be alive again. Even if I have to go with you the very same minute he comes back, I want to hug him one more time, I want him to hug me…”
But this was not to be.
My father was adopted in 1929. The love my grandparents had for him transcended every convention of those days and he became the heart of their heart, the flesh of their flesh. His father was a compassionate yet stern man, the son of a family of doctors and judges. His mother was firm, possessed of an ethical and righteously applied social mind, the daughter of an educated minister. Both were university educated.
My father and his brother were raised with the classics and encouraged to form their minds and manners from an early age. Both learned to play musical instruments, and my uncle was a noted child prodigy, described once as “a piano virtuoso before he could do long division.” My fathered played strings, most notably the viola, and woodwinds and the flute as well.
Under the tutelage and unremitting urging of their parents the two brothers were taught to work hard, refine their instincts, absorb knowledge and art and music, and in all ways prepare themselves for their own ascendancy in the world of attainment and success, where intense preparation was the prelude to a life of intense industry pointed toward social elevation and material gain.
The dinner table conversations in their home were consistently divided between broad-ranging intellectual and artistic subjects, and cautionary tales about the depths to which the ill-educated, unrefined and lazy fall. There were many examples of the latter in the small, provincial town of dry land farmers they lived in, where the hardships of the Great American Prairie Desert were best met with a stolid stubbornness best not confused by rare, idle airs where ideas of justice could be casually considered in the light of history and philosophy and weighed upon the scales of intellect.
The land was not just, it was the land, and survival there required vigilance and perseverance and hard temper which did not afford time for high art, genteel music and sophisticated thought. Art in that hinterland was whittled, hand carved and rough; music was the fiddle and harmonica playing in the barn, thoughts were encapsulated in ancient, hard-won facts of survival methods and idle thoughts reserved for speculations about crops and weather. Mental acuity was tuned and vigilant for sudden, odd acts of neighbors, who might turn dangerous after a presaging appearance of nonconformity, or give the opportunity to celebrate one’s personal righteousness in light of another’s fall from the graces of the conformed herd.
My father was more physically robust than his fragile younger brother and was the explorer, guide and protector during their forays into the sunshine and open skies and vast plains beckoning them from the orderly walls of their childhood home. The land, the sky, the sun, the turn of the seasons caught my father and held him there to the end of his life.
My grandfather was a minister in pharmacist’s clothing. While my grandmother managed the accounts and the help in the Haxtun Drug Store and painted the seasons on the front windows in brilliant water colors, my grandfather quietly counted pills in the back with a spatula, and then came out to pour sodas and make sundaes for the afternoon trade at the soda fountain in front. He enjoyed people, and served them sodas with friendly humor. In his home he was fair but not so expansive. There was a flatland sternness in him that the polish of education had not completely moderated.
My grandmother was created in the image of that class of finer people defined by her time; a fine-boned, high-strung, intelligent and intense woman keen on the ascendancy of her family to success by the means of her own unflagging administration. She was firm and practical. She was a teacher, an artist. She manifested a strange mixture of love and devotion and artful sophistication and ruthless society in her relationships. She was a matriarch of convention and a champion of the better sorts of all kinds of things; education, the fine arts, music, the people one chooses to associate with.
She lived a large part of her life in that small farming community in northeastern Colorado among a population numbering less than a thousand souls. I wonder if she regretted at times the lack of better company. Yet she cleaved to her conventions and convictions with unfaltering constancy.
I knew she loved me, but her way was as foreign to me as if we had come from different worlds. Something deep within me rebelled against her forms. I could not understand her when she set about instructing me on how to succeed in her universe of conventional society. I was not part of that. I had come to a universe of sky and trees and grass green as fire, where I wheeled and danced and spun dizzily onward in untrammeled joy and celebration. It was in my father, and it was in me.
My father went to Duke University to study medicine and become a doctor according to the designs of his upbringing. He rejected that and eventually returned to that small farming town. He became a successful farmer, and at the age of 26 left his widow and children a large estate and a world of uncertain ground.
One night, speeding in a frenzy of driving rain, chased by his own demons, he lost control and drove into the end of a bridge at eighty miles an hour. Minutes later he left that body with a bridge timber rammed through it; left it laying in the arms of a friend who came upon the scene within a minute after it happened; left it in the rain of God’s tears.
In the small town mortuary less than an hour later they lifted the sheet for my mother and she saw the wooden splinter in his gut. She put her face against his neck, and he was still warm.
The heart cracks, the mind breaks, the fullness of life wells forth in aching, terrible fury.
His father had lain on silk, its soft sheen pearled with living light. He had reached across the edge slowly and gently touched the back of his father’s hand, half-hoping that touch would spark some subtle, final sign of life, a tiny curling of fingertips or a tiny, secret smile at the corner of the mouth. The rock-still deadness which met his touch he had never had from his father before; it told him all of death he sought in the reaching, told him all the answer to his child’s question, which was all he knew to ask. Not even warmth of blood answered his touch, the hand could have been cut from granite, no vein pulsed. He had watched hard for that. A hand had touched his shoulder, a hand burning with warmth and thundering with coursing blood and animate flesh, had gently walked with him as he turned away. His eyes burned silently, silently misted.
When my father died my mother moved into the city, a place she was unprepared for. She was farm-born and raised, uninstructed in the ways of the world beyond the chicken yard and garden and prairie fields, fresh and ignorant and innocent of the ways of the world beyond and the sly pitfalls awaiting her there. She milked cows, gathered eggs, rode a horse to a country school situated far from town, came home and wrapped a bandanna around her head and drove a tractor in the field, gathered produce from the garden and canned and cooked and cleaned up. At night she listened to ballroom music on the radio and gazed at the Milky Way from the barn roof and went to bed listening to night birds outside her window and dreamed of the boys in town.
She was highly intelligent, as were her parents, but like them she was not afforded the leisure time of the town merchants in which her innate gift could bloom with refinements. The farm life was demanding and all-consuming. In the days when she was growing up neither my grandparents nor my mother were able to occupy their keen intelligence with anything other than the ongoing struggle for life in a landscape savaged by the Great Depression and dust-bowl days of the 1930’s, where famine and drought and scarcity were mortal, ever-present enemies at the farm gate.
My grandfather once told me that he never owned land until 1942, when he was 42 years old. The Second World War was bringing prosperity back to the farmland with demands for greater supplies of dry land wheat and corn. The land, long locked up in the vaults of banks, was coming back into cultivation stimulated by suddenly available farm loans and government encouragement.
My grandfather told me once he allowed that the Great Depression was “maybe not as hard on us as it was for some folks, because we had nothing to lose.” Yet the stories of that time I heard as a child were not so charitable. My grandfather had a temper enraged by the times and he was a fighter. Once he cursed my mother so fiercely she never forgot the savagery in him, snarling “God damn you.” Another time he kicked her in anger. He was no saint. Time and success mellowed him and by the time I knew him he had developed a softer side as well, a side which bloomed late and took precedence in his later years – although there was always a hard strength in him which never disappeared.
My grandfather’s stories of the time during my mother’s childhood were stories of dresses made of grain sacks, worn out shoes soled with newspaper, harshly given charity, miles walked in search of a quarter to be earned with shovel and axe deployed from sunup to sundown under the gaze of merciless overseers. The banks, the railroads, the barons and the bosses road the backs of the people in that land in those days and ground them down without pity or remark, as cruel and pitiless as the powder-fine dust held at bay with rags, wetted many times a day, stuffed in the cracks around the farmhouse windows and beneath the door.
My mother’s father had a hard, adventurous youth. He left home in his mid-teens shortly after World War I broke out in Europe. He rode the rails with hoboes, worked in mines and logging camps and on railroads, learned to play “Red River Valley” on the harmonica. He picked up pocket money playing baseball on local town teams, and wrestling in Saturday night “circuses,” and shooting three-cushion billiards in small town taverns and public houses. He and a friend worked their way west ahead of the Post War Depression of 1920-21. The work dried up in 1923 while they were working in uranium mines in the Navajo nation near Shiprock, New Mexico, when cheaper uranium from the Belgian Congo became available.
My grandfather and his friend road the rails back to Colorado. At the top of the Rocky Mountain continental divide they parted ways, his partner saying he believed he’d try for California and go west. My grandfather decided he’d go east and see what lay out in the farm country on the plains. They shook hands there, bidding one another to fare well, and never saw each another again.
My grandfather told me that as the train rolled down out of the mountains and into the Great Plains he watched the land roll by him while he sat in the door of a boxcar, and when he saw the farmlands of northeastern Colorado he proclaimed to himself, “By gosh, this is the country for me!” He hopped off near Paoli, Colorado and walked to the nearby farm where my future grandmother lived, and got a job there working as a hired hand for her father.
My grandfather was highly intelligent and in his later years, when he had gained the leisure time of a successful farmer, he proved to be a voracious learner, reading about archaeology and philosophy and history. He read the dictionary. He read the Encyclopedia Britannica. He considered the Bible in depth and taught a humanistic, liberal Christ in Sunday School at the Methodist church, which inflamed the Calvinist roots there and drew the ire of less compassionate Christians.
Yet if my grandfather was intelligent, my grandmother was marked with genius. She was quiet, self-contained, kept her counsel and judgments close. Yet when she spoke it was with a depth and insight and wisdom which even my grandfather deferred to.
My mother remarried two years after my father died, when I was nine. She married a sensitive, diabetic, homosexual musician who lived with his parents. They maintained an open marriage and shared a love of music; my mother was a gifted pianist and that was the sole ground upon which they met. Shortly after their marriage my two brothers and I were adopted by our stepfather. At the hearing the judge asked me if I wanted to be adopted, and I said yes. What I meant was, I wanted my father back.
In a little over a year my first stepfather managed to spend a large part of my father’s estate on a concrete block building housing the largest stereo system in six states, a recording studio, and the largest pipe organ west of the Mississippi, which remained in storage in the stables of his childhood home where we lived. He installed a TV in his Desoto, played the organ in two churches every Sunday, and made vinyl records of local musical events. He attempted to be a father to me and failed so miserably it embarrassed both of us.
I was independent and out on my own a lot, and a lot of carnage was happening back at hearth and home. I don’t recall much of that time. I could have been ignoring it all. I do remember getting in trouble for the disconcerting habit of every once in awhile getting angry, carefully taking off my glasses and deliberately slamming both lenses into smithereens. I guess I got tired of what I was seeing.
Around two years after their marriage my mother had become pregnant by a music professor, my stepfather killed himself in the music studio with insulin, and my youngest brother was delivered and conveniently promoted as a tragic, posthumous child.
We had to leave town about a year later, for about seven or eight months. My sister, conceived outside the local city social limits, had to be born in Oregon. When we returned nobody was able to figure out where she came from. In those days this sort of thing somehow served to derail a big illegitimacy aversion that socially appropriate people enjoyed pounding short-sighted romantics over the head with.
It wasn’t all bad; most of the time I was on my own. I went fishing a lot, walked and ran and bicycled all over creation at all hours of the day and night, and had a lot of fun. I was the boy who raised himself.
When I was 11 years old, my mother remarried again. In the space of three days she met and married a sick and ignorant man. His right hand was gnarled and deformed. He was verbally and emotionally abusive, and in varying degrees physically abusive as well. The physical abuse came in the form of beatings with a belt, usually six or seven strokes, and were supposedly for “breaking the rules”, but were really just a form of anger that came out whenever my three brothers or myself were perceived to be uncontrollable by him.
His forbears had left Europe for the ends of the earth and found them in a hill-country backwater in Tennessee. His father was a dirt-poor redneck, a fundamentalist hell-biter preacher who taught Jesus to his children with a bloody, iron fist. Fear and self loathing made him imperious and hateful. He practiced and transmitted his spiritual deformity, mocked and made real in his son, to this creature born with a congenitally withered hand, the punishment of a wrathful God. This partially explains my stepfather but it does not excuse him. He always had a choice
According to the Wechsler scale my stepfather was a genius, so the warpage he inflicted was truly diabolical. Two and a half years into this marriage my mother was committed to a mental hospital for the insane and took a turn through electro-shock therapy. It was a testament to his ability to break a person’s spirit. She returned wan and frail, but over time developed a facade of functionality, a coat of varnish over her fractures.
We three oldest boys quickly learned to stay out of the way. If we had the misfortune of crossing his path we would do what he told us to, which usually involved a lot of work around the house and yard which kept us out of his way. He ran the family with a military metaphor. We were privates, he was the general, there were inspections and punishments.
He had never been in the military, disqualified by the congenitally gnarled and withered hand that had in many ways gnarled and withered his life. Strangely, I still see him in old broadcasts of Adolph Hitler, to whom he proudly claimed to be related. The resemblance in appearance, temperament and behavior is uncanny. It was a specious conceit on his part which, in his embrasure of the image, revealed his nature and his character. He lived in a hell of his own choice and making, and imposed it on weak and innocent people when he could.
My youngest brother didn’t know how to give the impression that he was under the control of this man. He was only two years old and could only be what he was—a child.
Toilet training my brother became a goal for this man who had no love, no patience, and a fanatical requirement to be obeyed. My brother was beaten frequently, to the point that black and blue stripes and welts covered him from the back of his knees to the middle of his back. I was the oldest, and took to sneaking in behind my stepfather’s back. My brothers and I worked with Pete on the toilet for hours each day.
In the mornings we would sneak into Pete’s room and take his sheets away if they were wet, change him, and put him back to bed dry. This set the tone for our life. Since Pete couldn’t keep himself out of the way, it was up to us. We did the best we could for him.
Mamie, our live-in maid, helped us until she told my stepfather he “shouldn’t treat the children the way he did,” and she was fired.
Then we had a day-maid, Rosie, a 6-foot tall black lady with a heart as big as God who took care of us until the day she found bruises on my brother. She went straight to our stepfather and confronted him about it. He said it was none of her business and if she wanted to keep her job she’d remember her place. She called him a bastard and told him to go to hell. He called her a nigger and that was that. I watched Rosie walk away for the last time from the highest place in that house, the attic window, so that I could see her as long as possible. I’ll always remember that wonderful, classy, loving lady walking down the street away from us in her cloth coat and scarf.
The house we lived in at the time was a 3-story Victorian mansion, built in the 1890’s by a gold miner who struck it rich in Colorado. It had belonged to a relative of Roy Chapman Andrews, author of “Born Under a Wandering Star”, who was responsible for bringing to America many of the skeletal and fossilized remains of dinosaurs he obtained on expeditions to China. Our basement was full of his trunks and miscellaneous artifacts which he had left there, and never retrieved. I remember using his photographic chemicals, and I found a tin of wonderful Chinese tea which I brewed up.
My stepfather bought the house with the money still remaining from my father’s estate after my first stepfather’s music studio adventure. In two years it would all be gone.
The previous owner of that house was a doctor and the house came with a marvelous library which included not only extensive medical references but an equally well-endowed collection of spiritual and metaphysical works. I was a reader and got quite an education in history, spirituality, and human sexuality while we were there.
A street ran down the north side of the house and the open field below us. Our neighbors were arranged down the hill on the opposite side of the street, and there was a low fence on our side.
When my brother was 34 years old he got a call from a person he had forgotten but who had not forgotten him. The caller, Shirley Mayfield, was a nurse and lived across the street on the north side. She told him she had become quite involved with him as a caretaker and always carried him in her heart. She wondered what happened to him and decided to find out. After thirty years she managed to connect with him again.
As the conversation unfolded the story became clear. When Shirley would come home from work at 3:00 in the afternoon, My brother was always waiting for her at the fence. She told him he was a wonderful little boy, gentle and loving, and she remembered us all as good kids, hard-working and kind. As time went on she began to take him home with her when she got home from work, and over a period of time began to care for him up until 9:00 at night, when she would bring him home. She had a bed set up for him there, and he had toys, and she cared for him. As my brother began to hear what was being said to him he realized that this person loved him very much.
I recalled after learning about the call from Shirley that Mamie the maid, my mother, my brothers and I were all involved in a collaborative effort to keep Pete out of the way of my stepfather, and Pete was kept somewhere a lot of the time. I’d forgotten all about where.
Shirley hesitantly told him that he had been an abused child, and while he had heard it from me before, it suddenly struck home when he heard it from Shirley. She also told him that because of his presence in her life she and her husband had later decided to adopt and raise two children.
My brother has always had a gentle and loving nature. I was always surprised that no overt angry behavior had ever manifested itself in his life. When telling me this story he told me that he had always felt a sort of “alien” well of anger present within himself, and had never known where it came from.
Now he does. Now he knows why he has managed to stay true to his gentle nature in spite of that experience. At that particularly critical stage in his social development, angels named Mamie and Rosie and Shirley were sent to help him and care for him and love him and protect him, and the rest of us, too.
When I was fifteen my stepfather broke my spirit. At the kitchen table one day my hatred of his meanness and arrogance overcame me. During one of his hateful harangues as he bullied each of us in turn during the noon meal, the deep anger in me finally erupted in uncontrollable rage and I took a swing at him and struck him in the side of his face. I weighed 130 pounds and he weighed two hundred and forty. I was 5’-4” tall. He was 6’-4”. I couldn’t believe what I had done, it was a reflexive act that stunned me, and I just stood there in shock at what had happened. He knocked me down, sat on top of me and beat me mercilessly.
It was the beginning of a dark age. During the beating my mother and my brothers did nothing. I went to school concussed, bruised and cut, my skull lumpy with knots and bruises, lip split – and my friends and teachers could do nothing. I wrote to my relatives, and they did nothing. I was too afraid to run away, and did nothing. The total, abject fear I felt as I snuck around the house slowly gave way to anger and despair.
The beating proved that I was alone in a brutal world where the people who truly loved you died and when you lost them they were gone, dead, and they couldn’t come back, not even to help you. A world where few cared and those few who did couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything anyway. A world where I couldn’t even save myself. It was a deep wound. It began at my father’s death and was completed in the beating.
The effect of the wound was odd and subtle. I moved on. I was young and strong and smart, quick and witty and wry and funny, caring and kind and helpful to others. I had joy and dreams and talents. I had an early childhood full of love and attention that told me I was worthy. I was capable. I had a strong spirit and a highly developed sense of justice, of right and wrong.
I fell in love and married. We loved and cared for each other. We had three beautiful children together. I pursued my dream of becoming a writer.
But there were strange places in my life. Soft, bruised places. Upwellings of fear and pain. Melancholy, self-loathing. The wound grew larger, spreading, festered by every echo of that first, ancient trauma. The assassination of John F. Kennedy a knife twisted in my heart. In 1968 the thundering forge of the world. A Viet Cong officer is executed, his brains photographed blowing away from his head. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy is shot dead. The 1968 Democratic National Convention turns bloody in the streets. The White Album is released by The Beatles. On it is the lyric “…blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly…”
I moved further and further toward the outside edge of human society. I was afraid of the world “out there.” I participated only in my writing and my marriage. And slowly I became estranged even there. I began drinking for recreational relief. Later it became anesthetic, and finally, punishment.
In 1979, after a painful divorce, I got up from the kitchen table at my brother’s apartment, loaded some hand tools and books into my car, found a wool blanket in the dumpster where I shed the remainder of my belongings, and drove to Coos Bay, Oregon. I parked the car on the beach. I entered a deep depression there, ultimately winding up derelict, my only possession that wool blanket. I wandered up and down the beach like a wild animal, eating out of the tidal pools, sleeping by driftwood fires, smelling like wood smoke, mad as a hatter.
I stumbled back into town near the end of myself, and after a suicide gesture found myself in a mental hospital for 3 days. The diagnosis was “acute depression, situational in nature”.
After that I tried to go back to my family, but my ex-wife was involved in a new relationship and that final stroke plunged me into total hopelessness. I felt at the time that I had lost my children to circumstances crueler than death. Truth had nothing to do with that feeling, but it was real, and absolute to me. My children were gone from me. We would never be together again. That is what I felt, what I believed. I grieved beyond my ability to describe. I was living mostly dead. The day came, finally, when suicide became more than a desire and a possibility. This time it was not a gesture. I killed myself.
I fired the electrical impulse which would end my life. I made the decision, I made the choice, I committed the act. And a real voice, not a voice of the mind, said “No.” It boomed through the air around me, and I actually saw iron gates slammed shut in front of me. I still hear that booming echo, still see those gates. And I am still amazed.
Never, before or since, have I been denied my freely-willed choices. In that one moment, my choice was not allowed. My decision had been made, the impulse fired. In slow and perfectly clarity I felt the spark leave my brain and fire through the nerves of my arm on an irretrievable mission to make real my will for me. The actual physical electricity in my nervous system simply disappeared, evaporated into nothingness somewhere in my forearm. Something reached through a rock-solid universal law and shattered it to stop me.
There was still a lot to go through. I had to die to my old self, to become a child again. That path became a freefall down the known world, through many losses. I passed through grief and madness and arrived at the holy ground stripped bare. Then began my actual awareness and participation and experience in the spiritual life; that transcendent, pivotal movement from thoughts of God and desire for God and the suspicion that there really is God, to real knowing.
It would be three years before I began to crawl from that pit. My recovery began after I crashed a motorcycle at high speed on a lonely country gravel road late at night. A woman from a nearby farmhouse, investigating the sound, found me with a flashlight. I lay in a field pinned under the wreck. Her screams for help and the light bobbing across my eyes were all I was aware of.
The Pit: The Legend of The Fall
The only written record of the last three years of my “dark age” is the following poem. After the first four stanzas it has to be read backwards, i.e. from the end forward, for the actual chronology.
How long have I been here? I just woke up… I had dreams a hundred years long.
The crew’s all dead. The star-screen is empty… Something’s gone terribly wrong.
The walk to the time lock.
a blinding burn of arctic indifference… my heart ached… I
And dreamed. Those dreams.
…monochrome, red-washed rooms of images, each
suspended in stasis I roved with my eye—each
a perfectly hung holograph… no death… No life.
They are all. Cubicles from long ago… now
I wander the hall in a folded matrix,
a tunnel in a tesseract core.
…time turns each facet of that geometry
toward the axis of my face;
turns each vision through my eyes…
Time runs backward from here in place.
…i remembered the motorcycle slide the crashing the slam against the earth a screaming woman flashlight bobbing against my eyes…
…i remember the bar-fight smoldering rage shoved my attack slamming holes with that redneck’s head through the bathroom door…
…casey, lovely casey, you feel it and i feel it let’s go to nebraska and raise kids you leave the tough beery indians and the street and i’ll leave the rest…
…lonely drunk fourth of July midnight suicide in the mobile home park, turned off the gas as i fell and woke up after all…
…another try bitterangryproud lovely woman i will not see you again goodbye to my children in the rear-view mirror goodbyedaddy goodbye…
…cold winter commerce and heart-wash college B.B.King blues and YouCanChangeTheWayYouFeel Jacuzzi respectability at 8:30PM MWF in my urban hive cold thin light of winter mornings on my balcony over the tennis courts…
,,.death on the scope in ICU i felt the flutter sigh and saw her die several seconds before the flat line…
…the cerebral slow-kill four months dying i died too and cried on monday made the wine run to the coast and sped to Reno/called on thursday and you died empty i already knew and understood…
…mustang ranch michelle Scandinavian blonde and blue we drank creme de menthe and listened to the doobies you held me and we talked for you lazy puppies in the trick-bar after and dumfounded the bartender peace and calm in central babylon…
… a suicide in skamania county, a life so cruel it felt like murder the investigation revealed she was only brutalized, born in bangkok boiled in the cauldron fleeing with losers and walked on her own into the wind river and died…
…married a shadow four months of delirium the object still lived and the shadow faded my temporary two-year-old son stood beside me in the driveway leaned against the car with me wrapped his arm behind my leg and said it’s ok it’s sad and i love you i know you’re going and i went away…
…rockyhorrorpictureshow with her and a sixpack and of course that lovely mexican neighborhood tavern fixed the boys’ bicycles and square-danced in portland and damn we were good…
…grief so real it broke my knees and i soaked my shirt with tears i remember kneeling in the south pasture crying numb eyes to the impassive sky…
…i laid in the jail on the concrete floor for six hours never moved a muscle watched the distant cage-light come through a door/barred-window and run under the cup of my hand…
…broke down your door and stunned by your boyfriend if you wanted me gone you had to have me thrown out i spin-kicked the cop and terrified his partner you said take me that was the killing i lost the fight…
…finally exhausted i rest in the crazy house making miraculous contact with one who won*t talk i’m depressed about losing and watching love die there is no indicated pathology and if i find a place to live then i’ll probably live ‘til i die…
…on the beach i’m a wildman sleep in the sand by a fire at night i smell like woodsmoke wander mad as a dog up and down the seacoast drink with the bikers in red’s tavern at night a man lost his leg in traffic at noonday and the raped indian girl found her way to my safe fire one midnight…
…smoking hash we all laughed with each other with flashing eyes i still, numb confusion fell the lights died…
…i left my home my heart and my family you had died 8 months prior and i still thought we were alive i went out and let the whirlwind take me i went out to live and die…
It’s hard to articulate the root of my eventual resurrection other than to say I think I owe it to my father and his love for me, and the love of others as well, in those early days of childhood when I became aware of and it was impressed upon me, again and again, how much goodness there is in this world. In my own experience a manic-depressive nature and deep-trauma stressors aimed me for death. That love made the difference, and somehow it stood between me and the abyss.
There is no magic bullet that will erase wounds. Wounds are injuries that cause changes. Wounds go two ways; they fester or they heal into a healthy scar. Healing a wound doesn’t mean it is erased from memory or consciousness. Wounds don’t disappear. The so-called healing process is not marked by a wonderful return to a former status quo where the wound is not present.
There are wonderful returns to happier mental and emotional states nearly identical to healthy pre-wounding conditions. The amputee returns aided by a prosthetic. The broken mind returns supported by an orderly coping system. The isolated, broken spirit returns with a spiritual connection. The shattered heart remembers how to love.
Yet scars are real. In my experience there are still times when dark offerings of despair and depression and hopelessness appear, threatening to open the wound again. So I am careful. I am plainly aware of my limitations. I carry scars from things too painful to forget.
When my father died I was uprooted, flung into tumbling chaos, buffeted by the storm, helpless in the fury yet to come. He died young, raging and thrashing with the pains of life. Somehow, I didn’t. That’s what happened. There’s no answer here but that.
On my father’s last day my mother remembers sitting in his lap and sharing a watermelon with him. She remembers a searing moment when everything changed, and he stood up and looked at her with a terrible clarity and said, “I know every way there is to live, and I don’t want any of them.”
I know that time, that place, that feeling. It is my father in me. It is the world we encounter, the separation it confronts us with, the anguish found in the hard and horrible facts of life. It is our shared nature, our genetic make-up, our rejection of every unloving thing here. It is our defiance of evil, our unwillingness to allow it to stand, our willingness to sacrifice all in order to end the unbearable horrors we encounter here. It is the deep, driving urgency to end the pains of life and find peace. It is the force which ruthlessly drives us.
My mother remembers the instant, knowing exactly what he meant, realizing that she had to fight for his life with everything she had, knowing that what they had between them was not enough to win, knowing that every lever she could find had to come to bear in that very moment.
She looked at him gravely and said, “I can’t raise these kids without you.” Hoping that love would hold him back. He looked at her and said, “Yes. You can.” And he was gone.
That’s what happened.
ENDINGS and BEGINNINGS
When I was seven my father died. The gate of the palace of my childhood opened onto the roadways of samsara, and I left the palace and began to experience the suffering of the world.
On that path as a young adult I decided I wanted to live a full life. I didn’t know what I had chosen until it became terribly real. I found myself compelled to go out into the world to live and to die, and managed to do both. Like Mithridates I sampled all of earth’s killing store. I became as empty of life as a husk.
Then, at the end of a road in high mountains, I found myself in a place of learning where there were sages who knew and lived and embodied truths I had despaired were not present in the world. It was a spiritual oasis in the materialistic, mechanistically complex wastelands of modern society.
It was a time and place marked first by forgiveness of myself and healing from the wounds I had given and taken from others and myself on the road of suffering. Study and contemplation and meditation followed, and the ruthless discovery and explication of my divine and worldly selves. In that place I woke up to many things.
After a season there a choice appeared. I could continue to refine the spiritual clarity I had found in the contemplative life, or I could leave and walk the road of the world. I deferred my decision and waited patiently, trusting that the way would be made clear to me. It was, and no choice was necessary. I took the path of living in the world and experiencing the existential joy and woe of humanity. I chose it, it chose me.
It’s the path of returning to the stream of life we re-enter after the first satori, after awakening. Satori is often seen as an end in the mirror of mind. Yet in essence it is the opposite of what is seen in that mirror. It’s a beginning. Most people reading this have already achieved satori, yet seek it still. They are already far on their way, engaging in a process of refinement through attention to their unique existential experience until reaching the realization that the divine essence and the existential experience are not separate.
I returned to the stream of life. Out into the world I went, open and cheerful and free and agreeable and at peace, not far removed from the purity of the transcendental forge. In my passage from the pristine chamber of pointed mindfulness into the world of Baudelairean flowers and Levitttown tracts, a certain grace came out into the world with me.
The perspective shift was massive. The whole and holy core of being, pure and inchoate and known, was in my chosen return into the world once again overlaid with perception, language, emotion, movement, polarity. Dualistic mind asserted its function as navigator. I employed the map of mind overlaying the universe.
I carried on embracing the earthly life, making choices, becoming familiar with what it is to be chained to karma, to be influenced and coerced by perception, language, emotion, movement, polarity; to experience free will and its triumphs and defeats and be guided in this existence by the returns of the karmic principle.
I expected to encounter others who knew the divine mysteries of human existence. People who had found the key, unlocked the door, found the answer to the great question; others who also knew the secret of life. I thought I would encounter many people practicing awareness in daily life, perfecting their existential ways and means, learning to be reflexively aligned and balanced in their apprehension of spiritual and worldly being.
I was surprised when I discovered that while many named it, and named it well and extensively, there were few who claimed it and knew it truly. What surprised me most was that those who taught it, while being good teachers, often knew not of what they taught. That is to say, they knew it, as truth is always known, yet they did know it well enough to live it. They were awake, yet sleeping. They were connected, yet not incorporated. Their words were clear, yet the manifested nature of their lives involved status, power, money and self glorification. They were in the stream, yet caught in powerful eddies and whirlpools which had conducted them far from the natural flow into backwaters and brackish pools which would eventually, slowly, find their way back to the river.
In the mountains of Colorado I did find a person awake to the spiritual nature of being and living in it, walking with a breathing grace and tenderness, embodying the insight and knowledge of experience and the wisdoms gained therein, emanating daily the simple, practical essence of love. I could no more turn from her presence than the earth could flee the sun, or the moon spin away from earth, and so we became friends.
Our friendship grew and deepened and one day we were welded together by what is called the “thunderbolt.” I reached out to gently touch her hand during a full, quiet moment together, and without warning the lid of the universe exploded and an indescribable fullness beyond filling poured in and permeated us both simultaneously.
In that instant we became one whole and indivisible person, mysteriously bonded by the unknowable essence of wu wei; a natural, wholly harmonious and inexplicable union. It was a heaven of a thing. We went together on the karmic path, cosmic wolves mated forever, loping down from the high places into the town below.
We lived the way we knew. In our early lives we had passed through the dark wood and the pitfalls there. Now we shared the desire to experience life on its own terms, in the light of our knowing, and we proceeded to do so. We carry that light still, and always will. It’s come a far piece with us down the river and road of our lives, down through the peaceful stretches and panoramas and the rapids and hard rocks there, and sustains us.
On we went together, laughing and loving and dancing and living this life. I found satisfaction and fulfillment as a carpenter. We had a child, we lived in an ever-expanding realm of love in the home we created.
We were challenged by the world. It’s a narrow path, walking through a civilization defined by hubris and fear. Several times I attempted to incorporate myself into the ways and means there. I conducted myself in an open, honest, agreeable way and succeeded after a fashion. Yet it became ever clearer that my assimilation there would be a spiritual tragedy, a life compromised.
I could not lend my energy to the enrichment of ignorant, greedy bosses, could not in good conscience strengthen the snares they were caught in with my own participation. I knew that what I give my attention to I give power to, and I did not want to empower the separations of spirit I saw there. I left that world as an employee and decided it was best if I deployed myself rather than be directed by the appetites and desires and the authority which others imagined they had.
We started our own construction business. We rendered unto Caesar the forms and taxes required, we dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s necessary to be regarded as a legitimate, acceptable entity in our business community. Behind the veneer of our business façade we conducted ourselves quite differently from business as usual.
We worked side by side in the service of others, designing and building things which enhanced the quality of life in the homes of good people, avoiding projects and clients infected with selfishness and arrogance and uncooperative spirits and desires for excess and wasteful luxury. We charged what we thought was fair, and what we thought was fair were the wages a worthy laborer is due, and no more.
In America such a decision has grave consequences as people grow older and are no longer able to work. Older now, we know that had we done it differently we would be much poorer in spirit as a consequence of having devoted ourselves to material wealth. In the eyes of some we lost a fortune of money, left on the kitchen tables of our clients. In that sense we paid a price for what we have and do not have as a result. What we have received in return is beyond price to us. We lost nothing, and gained much.
We were not driven by societal and cultural values. We were in it for the satisfactions of a humble, honestly-earned livelihood and the rewards of generosity of spirit. There were days working together when the pure joy of work was so present it became a dance of exultant, wonderful being, in the world.
While we were conducting ourselves according to our light we encountered over and over again people beset with troubles and fears. We encountered people who sensed a mutual resonance and the wisdom behind the model we presented to them in the conduct of our own lives as we worked in their homes. We met others unable to see anything more than their own closely held troubles and fears.
We saw and knew the ways people employed to hold the dark beast at bay while it chased them down the halls of their lives. Some staved it off with blind, societal religions wherein good principles of love were twisted in toward special selfishness. Some sought to outrun it with furious, unceasing industry and earnest pursuit of vague, promised satisfactions which would magically appear as soon as they had obtained enough money, power, or prestige.
We knew the root of their unease. They had come to believe their souls would be fulfilled as soon as they met the laws and demands of the materialistic world they believed in. They feared homelessness, poverty and hunger. They feared ostracism and loss of community. They feared the vast, open expanses of the universe, they feared imprisonment. They feared death, they feared life.
Who among us can say we have not experienced these same fears, have not felt chased by the same dark shadows? I certainly can not. They appeared from time to time in the shadows of my existential experience, and in those moments they seemed very real to that part of me. They still do, there. This is how it is. The divine and existential coexist in seeming paradox, simultaneously in conflict and reconciled.
God is troubled, God is without troubles. This is the life the Buddha awakens to. This is the life the Christ lives. This is the life humanity lives, the knowing it seeks.