" It was all so very painless when you ran out to receive all that false instruction that we never could believe...but I want you to know that while we watched you discover no one would be true... I myself was among the ones who thought it was just a childish thing to do...." from "Tears of Rage" by The Band [Words by Bob Dylan, music by Richard Manuel]
In that sweet and crazy Spring of 1969, when an acid undertow pulled so many kids out of the suburban woodwork to seek refuge in gatherings and communes, my twin, Cindy,and I were sixteen years old. My older sister, Jackie, dropped out of Brandeis to flip out on drugs and join a commune in Warwick. I began dreaming and hearing about that place, although I was as oblivious to Jackieís exact whereabouts as I was to all things outside of my immediate mission at my boyfriend Jonathanís house.
My focus shifted from the goodies Jonathan offered to following Jackieís lead in escaping academia and sanity: In a state of chemical-enlightenment, I deciphered that humans were "Spirits in Flesh." When the next day Iíd climbed the steps of my High School and discovered those same words written on a poster that had been cemented to the front doors, an electric storm went off in my brain. After repeating with disbelief the words, "Spirits in Flesh," I vowed to do whatever it took to find a way out of the maze in which the state of Connecticut and the state of my mind had been miserably entwined.
"Screw going to Goddard. Come to think of it, screw everything!" I said. The first step was to put the screws where they really belonged: my parents. Since they had imposed a thirty-mile-driving-radius rule on their station wagon, I seized it when they were away one day. Iíd heard that the commune was on Shephardson Road in Warwick but neglected to find out the state. After about an hour and a half of driving through Rhode Island, I found Warwick, but no Shephardson Road.
"You must mean Shepard Road," a station attendant said, directing me to a working-class neighborhood where there was absolutely no sign of a commune. At a convenience store, I consoled myself with pretzels and orange juice for the long ride home, then turned the ignition, but nothing happened. I tried again and, when jumper-cables failed, I wondered if my parents had magical, punishing powers. How was I going to tell them? All my life, Mom had dealt with my frequent emergencies and with what she felt were my bottomless needs: "You want what you want what you want!" I would gloat that at least I knew what I wanted.
I trudged over to the pay phone, reciting my grandfatherís maxim, "The truth is the best lie."
"Hi, Mom...Iím in Rhode Island."
"Are-you-all-right?" she exhaled.
"Well, Iím not bleeding or anything! Look, donít say anything. I know itís too far ... I mean, I didnít know at the time.... it was just a little further...and then it turned out to be further... No. I canít come right home ... thereís a little problem.... Look, Iíll never drive again, OK?"
When my father, Lennie, climbed out of the black 1966 Ford station wagon a few hours later, he looked calm and well in command of the situation. Normally he would have turned red, trembled and removed his eyeglasses to rub my pathetic image from his eyes. Now all he said was, "Letís go."
This unexplained behavior made me feel more bewildered than ever and for a moment an equally uncharacteristic wave of love swept through me towards him. Yet I couldnít apologize. My crimes and those of my parents were too mingled -- and besides, Iíd never learned to say, "Iím sorry." Ashamed and angry at myself as much as with them, I climbed silently into the familiar old car and shattered quietly like breaking glass in a silent movie.
What I didnít know at the time was that my father, Lennie, was undergoing his own liberation. In a few weeks heíd call a family meeting, announcing that he felt like a different person -- that he was a different person: "Iím not afraid of anything at all, not even dying!"
My mother, Millie, explained later that sheíd been researching. She described what authors Alan Watts and Martin Buber had identified as "Satori": Liberation from fear. Ironically, no one yet knew how close to death Lennie was.
The following year, Dadís enlightenment was short-circuited when Mom refused him permission to die after internal stitches to his stomach had broken. He insisted on going home and shocked the doctors by walking out of the hospital. His seventy pound frame was hunched over and when he raised his head to glare at me, I considered bolting to Wesleyan and Yale to hang out with the liberated crowd who seemed to view me as some kind of mascot.
One morning I returned home from an illicit overnight at Yale and found myself locked out. Then, unexpectedly, my uncleís car was waiting for me in the driveway, and the plan was that he would whisk me away to live at his house. I never "got it" that I would actually be living there, only that my nice uncle was giving me a ride out of Hell. When I "came to" and noticed my new situation, I soon felt betrayed: unable to bear the disapproving looks my aunt gave me, I phoned my friend, Joelle, from my aunt and uncle's house. Her parents declined to rescue me: "If her parents donít want her, we donít either." I learned that when you are a bad-girl, there is no less compassionate place than your home town.
I threw my clothes into a brown paper bag, walked the mile to the highway and stuck out my thumb. The bag ripped and my clothes went flying in the wind.
I crashed at various apartments offered by college boys, but those places inevitably petered out and I had to scramble, sometimes eating as rarely as once every four days. In downtown Hartford I was able to trade working a cash-register for food, and found the city more willing to put me up if I put out. Free love wasnít free after all.
When a Yale-based offshoot of Ken Keseyís psychedelic school-bus caravan, the "Hog Farm," rolled into town, I rolled out of town with them. The educated college drop outs were on a mission to turn on the world to acid. The electric Kool-Aid acid test I attended was thrown for the unsuspecting but curious students of the Milford School for Boys.
I then spent several days at Goddardís "Multi-Media Conference," where we all went nude and took acid, affirming that we didnít need to pay for an education in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. The last night of the "conference," a boy Iíd rolled in the grass with insisted, "Wake up, I need to talk to you."
I wanted to be left alone to die, exhausted and miserable from too many drugs and too little nutrition. But when I heard, "I want you to know that I felt something when we were making love and I care about you," I jumped to my feet, deciding to live.
Meanwhile my twin Cindy, who I'd lost touch with had gotten out of the house, but into a better situation than me. It was the only time in our lives together that I remember her being more sane than me and I felt relieved and proud for her. Oddly, I had no idea what she was going through at home. Somehow the drugs and panic to leave home had made all other people and concerns fade in my myopic search for freedom from my father and mother's terror of his dying.
I knew that my twin, Cindy, had a babysitting job in Woods Hole but I didnít know where. Tripping in Woods Hole, I stood on the green, staring at my hands, discovering that they could think, then looked up and saw Cindy waving wildly and laughing from a VW van. "Get in!"
Greg, the fuzzy creature at the steering wheel, had a face that wrinkled massively when he smiled. He brought me home with him to share his clean, queen-size bed in Bostonís East-West Center for Self Exploration, dedicated to Meher Baba. I was overjoyed that I didnít have to "pay rent": he never laid a hand on me.
Each day Greg arose to work in a state hospital and I traipsed off to the Boston Common to get stoned and play my recorder. One day as he was leaving, Greg said, sarcastically, "Donít pick too many flowers." I thought about him wiping people while I played fairy-queen and realized that I was living off him. Reality hit: I didnít know how to provide for myself.
By early August, Greg's irritation had grown: he delivered me to a place where I might be saved from whoring and addiction. It was better than the streets and I couldnít go home. Iíd been banned again after Dad had said, "Millie,Ösheís trying to kill me."
As we scaled the Berkshires, hope seemed to be rewiring my nervous system. Up narrowing roads, twisting under giant oaks and maples, smells of fir and spruce carried in shimmering silvers and greens blew the traumas from my body. Streams rushed to refill me with an old lust for living.
A hairpin turn up a steep hill, passing superimposed mountains, then around a bend, and we suddenly descended upon a psychedelic wonderland. Multicolored signs shouted out "All People Welcome." And " NO DRUGS. NO ALCOHOL NO PROMISCUITY." A purple farmhouse splashed with blue and green painted waves stretched against meadows surrounded by forest. "Brotherhood of the Spirit" was printed in gothic letters above a farmhouse door. Dozens of people were milling about. Stepping down from the van, I eyed a fellow with glasses and a winning smile, in animated discussion with someone. Soon he was standing alone, watching me walk towards him.
"Hi, do you live here?"
"Yes," he replied somberly, levelly studying me. I was a fragment while he appeared solid, in control.
"Iím Stephen." He smelled like Patchouli and seemed attractive in a dangerous sort of way. I wished he would smile at me.
"Where are you from?" I couldnít think of an answer. Home no longer counted. I settled on the response Iíd heard so many times that summer.
Stephen stared at me, blankly. We just stood there. I considered saying, "I have to go to the bathroom," and not returning, but opted instead for a stream-of-consciousness monologue about my father, the summer, and how I was led here by a series of cosmic signs. I rambled. He said nothing, then finally interrupted.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I-I thought you wanted to know," I stammered.
"I strongly suggest that you donít speak for a week," Stephen proclaimed, turning abruptly and walking quickly away. I was shocked. In Boston, it had been acceptable to be "spacey" and most glitches could be fixed with a smile, a hug or a fling, but here, apparently, something else was going on.
I walked up the dirt driveway to the house, wishing for a joint, a butt, or a book to hide behind. This two-hundred-year-old restaurant/inn seemed to have settled into the land like it had grown there. In a fireplace room with hand-hewn beams, barn-board trim, and hand-painted murals, there was a sign that read, "MEMBERS ONLY." Someone showed me to a makeshift addition that reminded me of the haphazard, rambling, bungalow in my favorite childhood book, Pippi Longstocking. My roommate, Denise, was a nervous New Yorker, who unexpectedly popped into trances, channeling mundane information from the "other side." I deposited my sleeping bag and backpack and escaped down rickety stairs into a hall where food was being served on the counter of a partitioned kitchen. The hallway was filling with people. "Where are you from?" someone asked a woman. I heard her say "Everywhere! Nowhere!" and cringed.
Wandering down the hall, I came to a door over which was posted, "Toilet City." I knocked. "Come on in!" I poked my head in, discovering a circle of seven toilets where two women sat doing their business, and quickly retreated, opting for the outhouse across the huge field. Inside the outhouse were two seats. A plump, young Southern woman drawled, "Hi! Iím Donna, are you a visitor?" I sat on the other toilet. "Yeah...." It was good to have an identity again. "Iím a P.M." she announced. "Whatís that?" "Perspective Member.... Itís what youíll be if you stay." [The word, written and spoken, was "perspective," not prospective.] Graffiti on the pine walls read, "I am vibrating creative energy. I vow to loose myself from my carnal self." "Whereís the toilet paper?" I asked. Donna handed me The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan.
"A book?" Donna nodded.
"Theyíre too intellectual. Here, if you crumple up the pages, they work fine."
I hobbled back to the house and stood in line for dinner. As I stood in line, a guy next to me with matted hair delivered the party line: Material world is illusion. The planet is a school where we learn to transcend our physical or emotional limitation. We save the world by living together spiritually. Being spirit means we can do anything, from altering the weather to saving the world. We set no limits on our abilities or each other. Being spirit means defying oneís lower self. Seeing no trace of coffee anywhere, I worried about rising to the challenge. I filled my plate with brown rice and vegetables and escaped into a huge dining/meeting room, rushing down the long, loosely-tiled hall that seemed to heave and buckle from the comings and goings of heavy work-boots and dirty sneakers. Someone was sawing out windows as people ate.
Painted in gold-leaf upon slats of ceiling were something like the new-age Ten Commandments; "The Seven Immutable Laws of the Universe" included Order, Balance, Harmony, Growth, God-Perception, Spiritual Love, and Compassion. I sat on the floor at a low, round table, staring at chiseled cheekbones and a waist-long pony-tail, as "Hoopie" explained to me that most people were on the fifth progression, "God-Perception." The communeís leader, Michael (in New York, recording "Spirit in Flesh") was on the sixth. I worried silently that I was on the fourth: Growth "from the carnal to the celestial." Dale was in charge, Hoopie said, pointing towards a big, reddish guy with long braids who was play-wrestling with two yelping Great Danes.
"You seem a little blown out." Hoopie counseled, "You have to stop using your brain! Just lose yourself in serving others.... Thatís what I do." Then, eyes searching, he added, "Itís easy to get blown out by the energy here.... Man, when I first got here I tried to use my brain, but when I let go of my brain, like Wow! I was a fish who suddenly became a bird! Be sure to chew each mouthful a hundred times."
After dinner a cow-bell rang and cries of, "Meeting! Meeting!" brought droves of hippies indoors. I squeezed into a "full lotus" on the dirty floor to more easily center myself. I was desperate. Laughter... I opened my eyes and realized with horror that Dale was pointing at me." "You donít need fancy positions to be spiritual," he declared. Alarmed, I uncrossed my legs as he launched into a hypnotically vague monologue, looking intently from one person to another, often closing his eyes, "...I stayed up all night, meditating and praying... suddenly an owl swooped right across my vision...." Long pause....then, "I can not relate the peace that filled me!" The more he talked, the more I wished he would disappear. It wasnít the words, but the way he said them, lulling, then accusing, entering my mind with eerie intensity and then drilling me with the euphoric smile of either a master or a lunatic. When he looked my way, I nodded defensively. After the meeting, he strode over to me and purred,
"Hi. I'm Dale."
"I know," he said, dismissively. "Youíre Jackieís sister..." Another tortuous pause, then:
"You nodded before, but your heart wasnít open." A pang of panic shot through me as Dale burst into laughter. I would have left, but had nowhere to go.
After the meeting, Dale told us to pair up with someone we felt uncomfortable with. That was easy. A man who looked like a rabbi and I simultaneously chose each other. We sat on a picnic-table, eyeing each other. In high school, Iíd led "encounter groups," but this was no high school and I was younger than the college age kids here. Again, I found myself at a loss for words. I wiped away tears as "the rabbi" condemned me with, "I think you need to relax." I sent myself to bed early, for crimes I couldnít comprehend.
When I walked into the room, I stopped short. In front of me was a wall of flashing light. Strobe-white-pulses everywhere. At least I could understand what they meant by "the energy here." I found and unrolled my sleeping bag. Relieved that Denise was gone, I collapsed, thinking of Ram Dassí book, "Be Here Now." It had been my Bible, but now it seemed vague: where was "here"? And who was "I"?
Something about being spiritual -- detachment from worldly identity -- haunted me: Iíd never felt less detached in my whole life.... What about Jim Morrison singing, "desperately in need of a strangerís hand?"
"You have to save yourself," someone preached. But even so, I didnít have the tools to help myself. "Theyíre all inside of you, just look within," the rap had been. But within was only pain. I wished fervently then that I could be someoneís spiritual cause, while thinking, "The light is here.... Why isnít that enough?"
In August, Dale said I wasnít serious enough, and asked me to leave and not come back until I was ready. It sounded more condemning to me than, "Grow Up," or anything like that, which my parents had ever admonished.
I went home and took Momís warning that if I didnít get things right with Dad it would haunt me. Gingerly, I walked into his hospital room, but there was just a shriveled old man staring silently out the window. I asked him if he knew where Lennie Odess was. He didnít answer. In the hall, it suddenly hit me, that it had been my father in that chair.
On August 20, of Ď71, I was walking in West Hartford center on a clear blue day, when I started feeling increasingly faint. I just made it to a field at the end of my street; I was flooded with blinding, misty light. I felt a great burden lifting off my shoulders as if a thousand angels were lifting a life-sentence, a judgement. I regained my eyesight just enough to float home, gliding into the kitchen. My sister, Lee, sat by the telephone. She looked up when I walked in and said, calmly, "Daddy just died." The telephone rang. My motherís voice was urgent: "Laura.... You know I donít believe in E.S.P. But something happened I have to tell you that when your father was, was dying ... he couldnít speak. He was trying very hard... I tell you as clearly as anything Iíve ever perceived: I heard him, just as if he were speaking right to me, I heard him in my head. He said to tell you that he that it was NOT your fault, that he loves you."
I was not surprised.... relieved, convinced, but not surprised..."I know," I said..."I felt something too." I untied my sneakers and put them by the kitchen door, then told Lee weíd talk tomorrow and went upstairs to my room, to fall into my bed. Within minutes, I was asleep.