New Moon has had a serpentine prepublication history—thirty-six years in all, from its first words in 1960 to its appearance as a published book in 1996, though it spent almost two-thirds of that time, 1964 to 1986, in hibernation. As readers know, I began the book in creative-writing class in October 1960, the month before I turned sixteen. Through my last two years of Horace Mann I composed about three hundred pages; that’s why the childhood sections are in so much detail—I wasn’t that far removed from their eve ts. I thought that I had concluded the book during the eight-week “teen tour” the summer between high school and college when I named it Salty and Sandy. Yet I continued to add narratives during my first two and a half years of college, unsure if any thread belonged to it, another book, or was its own short story.
A number of Horace Mann teachers considered my book a rogue, even hostile, act. Mr. Clinton, my history teacher accosted me almost daily in class with “How’s your hate novel going, Grossinger?”
But I wasn’t engaged in prurient journalism or gossip. I meant no infringement of personal sovereignty. I was embarked on spiritual autobiography, trying to convert psychoanalysis, the one tool I had, into literature.
It was a love, not a hate novel. Transparency was transgression.
I have always been ambivalent about publishing this material. I offer it finally as a statement of consciousness and memory, not as an autobiography or memoir.
There should be no illusion that I am telling anyone’s truth but my own.
Ask any of the characters who pass through this narrative, to provide his or her own rendition of what happened and it will be quite different from mine, in some cases radically so. Consider Rodney (my friend from Horace Mann with whom I had a falling out), now a beloved theater professor, or Jynx, my Amherst tormentor, a distinguished Smithsonian research associate. The tribulations of coming of age distort the looking glass through which we see our peers, especially when they are in concomitant transition and turmoil.
At our class’s 25th Reunion in 1987 I was chatting with my old teacher Kingsley Ervin when I noticed someone staring at me across the room. As our eyes met, he strode to where we were standing and declared without preamble, “You owe me an apology!” I wouldn’t have recognized Billy Wolfe twenty-five years later— his owlish twinkle having seasoned into a churlish mask—except that I knew it could only be him. I had invited Billy to my father’s hotel and then dumped him when he arrived and, to make matters worse, wrote about my betrayal. The three of us stood there, partners in an ancient crime.
I was stunned to find him still alive. The Horace Mann alumni magazine had published his obituary a decade earlier. Having gotten tired of receiving donation requests from the school, he had written “Deceased” on an envelope and stuck it back in the mail. “Apparently they took it literally,” he sighed.
He heard about my account after I read it in Ervin’s class and had nursed a grievance for twenty-seven years. “I had been out of touch with Horace Mann for a while,” he explained. “I wasn’t thinking about coming to this event either. But I was looking at our yearbook, and I saw some people I feel really warmly about. Then I saw your picture and it wasn’t entirely pleasant. I knew we had unfinished business.”
“There’s nothing I can say except I do owe you an apology.” Back then I had thought that my public confession by manuscript would have done it. Now I realized that that presumption was as narcissistic as the act itself.
“This is incredibly important, because I was terribly hurt then. You remember, I confronted you about it. But you wouldn’t admit it.” I didn’t remember that. “We were like brothers. Both of our parents were divorced. We had that in common.”
Now he was a dean at the University of Maryland, married with a five-year-old daughter. “I’m glad to see you happy,” he said at the end of our conversation. “It didn’t seem possible then.”
“What an amazing finale,” Kingsley Ervin declared after Billy left, “to a very old tale!”
As the reunion dinner itself was drawing to a close (June 1987), the classmate known to us as “the Bookie” (because he took sports bets every Friday and ran the belch pool in Doc Kroner’s chemistry class), stood and announced, “Open your prayerbook, mates, to the last page.” We thumbed through our stapled Reunion booklets and found at its back, “The Horace Mann Alma Mater.” Without further ado, he began, and folks extracted themselves from conversations and harmonized as best they could: “We were strangers met in friendship, / now we’re kin to one and all….”
I looked around the room with self-conscious drama like a camera panning a crowd during the National Anthem. I had come back to see my classmates—poets, running backs, grade-mongers, cum laudes, Marxists, fuck-ups, bookmakers alike—on the axle of life and death, midwheel: a stark Buddhic cameo. Whatever distraction or excuse of inattention anyone harbored along the way, an invisible wind had blown us here. We had come to see our classmates, yes, but we had come to see ourselves. In their aging in our memories of who they were was our aging, even as their adolescence was once companion and mirror to our own. We were looking around the room at ourselves hamming it up: animated, bummed, regretful, bashful, proud, ridiculous, doleful, ecstatic…inevitable:
“When we’re lone and helpless wanderers in this dark and stormy sea, / she’s the beacon that will light the way to life and liberty.”
This was the sort of occasion for which Robert Ackerman had raised a sacred hymn. I stared at Rollie Eubanks, Pete Quinn, Carlos Quijano, the reassembled backfield. They might have thought that it was a joke twenty-years ago, but now they had their arms around each other, laughing and crying both. They knew that this moment would never, never ever, come again.
Earlier that evening Rollie recalled an incident I had completely forgotten. “Remember when your family put up a weekend at Grossinger’s for Carnival prize sophomore year? Well, guess who won? Me, one of the only two black guys in the class. I went with Arnie Goldman. We had a ball.”
It was an impossibly rigorous and in many ways inhumane school, but you can’t deny the fact that knowledge, even discovering that you don’t know shit from shinola, is the compass of our species: “For knowledge is the truth that sets men free.” We were back to affirm that maxim, grown-up, in fact halfway to death:
“Great is the truth and it prevails. / Mighty the youth the morrow hails. / Men come and go; stars cease to glow; / but great is the truth and it prevails.”
Tears ran down my cheeks. How could I have missed this? None of the rest mattered except what could be felt and drew us in obscure desire.
The next day on request, I brought the manuscript to a class gathering in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. As I read aloud to a cluster of middle-aged men and their wives around a suburban swimming pool, it sent chills down my spine: an ode to the poignancy and fleetingness of youth. The event also served as an act of invocatory magic. That night my classmate Steve took me on a walkabout to find a lost brother, an episode recounted in Out of Babylon. In New Moon I wrote: “I sensed it would take me half a lifetime to return to this dandelion field.” It did, and I will explain.
In college, my freshman English teacher, Leo Marx, introduced me to Catherine Carver, Saul Bellow’s editor at Viking Press. Encouraging me to use Grossinger’s as a magical-realist backdrop, she tried to shape my book into a replica of— or perhaps homage to—Henderson the Rain King, but it didn’t work out. I bailed, and Marx was furious.
For my “betrayal” neither he nor CC forgave me. Soon after, he was proclaiming to other students, mischievously, that I was never that good to begin with; he said he was just trying to help me get away from the influence of Grossinger’s. He confided as well that I should not have received an A in his course.
When it came to matters of Grossinger’s apostasy, an otherwise admirable teacher and scholar seemed to lose all ethical bearings as well as forego professional confidentiality.
My take now is that the elders, in narcissistic envy at the early tremors of sixties counterculture—not wanting us to choose another way or have an “out” they didn’t—tried to squelch things before they got started. They had no idea of the event’s power or scope, so they hoped to relegate it to a peripheral affair that didn’t threaten their hierarchy or the status quo.
Ms. Carver who, by the way, edited Flannery O’Connor and Hannah Arendt as well as Mr. Bellow, never answered another letter from me, though I wrote her periodically for the next fifteen years and sent her copies of my early books.
None of that should detract from the stature of either pundit, for we three were a bad match indeed. They perhaps caught a hint of depth and literary style in my work and wanted to produce it under their brand, but that wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t something that fit the changing times, and it wasn’t even something I would have been able to carry out.
In 1980 Marx wrote to Sierra Club Books regarding The Night Sky, a book I had just published with them, denouncing it as “impossible,” a word choice neither they nor I understood. That was seventeen years after he had last been my teacher. Thirty years later at MIT, his next post, he was still making jokes at my expense—another professor told me that the account of the ungrateful and deluded Amherst freshman remained a part of Marx’s repertoire.
Salty and Sandy wasn’t Marx’s kind of a novel, as was to be proven in the years hence. It was artless teen confessional, a challenge to fifties docility and its unvoiced subtexts. It was not a precocious career calling card.
Writing was my touchstone, but it had to be in a sacred voice. I was blindly reaching, trying to decipher an oracle that eluded me. I was writing to gods and spirit guides who raise mortals to spew verses even like “each night I ask the stars up above” and “I’ll climb to the highest star.” That is why neither New Moon nor The Night Sky was “impossible.” They weren’t secular.
He and Ms. Carver never got that—it wasn’t recreational disobedience any more than it was a hate novel; it was more what psychotherapist Stanley Keleman called “sexuality, self, and survival.”
If you write yourself as a victim, troubadour, and voyeur—an existential ninny—you become one. But if you try to make mantra and magic, even untrained, you summon gods and spirits to your side, get the wind at your back, receive guidance from the transpersonal facet of human existence.
After meeting Robert Kelly I dropped the novelistic genre, convinced by him that confessional prose was a hoax instigated by a collusion of Western literati and the academic ruling class. It undermined our capacity to become true human beings or creators and made us into admen and merchants, our texts commodities. I refused the roles that my family and culture assigned to me along with the literature that went with them. I imbedded my tales thereafter in nonlinear metaphysical scrolls under a soft meter per Kelly and his Black-Mountain-school colleagues: an iambic blank verse.
My one relapse to confessional narrative during those years was “New Moon,” the short story, a parable I wrote in 1966 in the spirit of P. D. Ouspensky’s 1915 novella, the Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Years later I realized that it, not the “Teen Tour,” was Salty and Sandy’s conclusion. Osokin had been recommended by Kelly, hence was in our oeuvre, deemed disjunctive and nonpropositional enough to elude the traps of novelistic prose—fair game to emulate. In the short story “New Moon” (as well as this memoir) Kelly himself plays the role of Ivan’s magician. The story was published by itself a year later in the Chicago Review.
All told, I set aside the core material and context of Salty and Sandy/New Moon from 1965 in my early twenties till 1986 when my children were almost grown up, in the interim producing a very different body of experimental and psychospiritual writing, in effect a life work.
Then one morning after finishing a three-year exploration of embryology—the project that emerged from The Night Sky, a shift developmentally from macrocosm to microcosm, and cosmos to creature—I decided to look at Salty and Sandy and see what it was about. Curiosity I guess, and nostalgia. Its long-time status was a rubber-banded bundle of pages that had stayed scotch-taped shut in a box that once held typing paper and was toted from home to home, ten in all, Massachusetts to Michigan to Maine to Vermont to California. I sliced the tape with a utility knife and pulled apart the snug fit. So much time had passed that the rubber bands had dried out, cracked, and melded in Braille-like characters to the title page.
As I encountered the manuscript through fresh eyes, two things jumped out at me. First, I was shocked by how overblown and cumbersome the writing was, especially given the praise it had garnered from teachers and editors of high degree. I wondered how CC thought she and I could turn it into a volume publishable by Viking. It was indulgent and primitive, embarrassingly wussy and asshole in spots.
Yet the text was also guileless and profound, and conveyed the mystery of its times. It captured the imponderable depth and texture of the fifties and early sixties, an era usually disparaged as simplistic and banal in shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Honeymooners.”
I worked on Salty and Sandy for the next several years, trying to preserve its authenticity and sense of wonder while weeding out pretentiousness and unexamined teen obsessions. The relation between the book’s 1964 shapeless spool and the 1996 publication of New Moon in hardcover is the addition of the short story “New Moon” (along with journal notes from the same period) and dozens of drafts from 1987 to 1996. Salty and Sandy itself lacked any sort of arc, ending after the teen tour. In turning it into New Moon, I abridged several sections, most notably the tour, while integrating similar writing from early college years and concluding with the short story.
Through the process of revision I gave dramatic structure to a coming-of-age journey from my earliest memories to just before my twenty-first birthday.
Then in the early nineties I impulsively chose to expand the book by another five years, taking it to 1970 with a three-chapter section entitled “The Alchemical Wedding” that encompassed my graduation from Amherst, Lindy’s and my marriage, our years in Ann Arbor, the birth of our son Robin, my fieldwork with fishermen in Maine, and college teaching in Maine and Vermont. On top of that, I added an “Epilogue,” bringing it to 1987. My original closure (at age twenty-one) now fell short of even the halfway point of the book’s extended chronology (age forty-three), though the additional seventeen years were condensed. I concluded with my decision to write it:
“I went back to the narrative Katey Carver once loved and rejected. I opened the carton that held Salty and Sandy. Robert Kelly’s warning about confessional prose had kept it sealed for twenty years.”
I basically turned New Moon into an autobiography. Bad idea. As the manuscript grew by almost 100 pages, it morphed into a different book; it lost structure and closure. The choice made rubble out of many other books and texts.
To be able to extend New Moon’s timeline through “The Alchemical Wedding” and “Epilogue,” I scavenged chunks of material meant for two other nonfiction novels, Episodes in Disguise of a Marriage and Out of Babylon. I also took sections from six of my early experimental prose books: Solar Journal: Oecological Sections; The Continents; Book of the Cranberry Islands; The Provinces; The Long Body of the Dream; and The Book of Being Born Again into the World. I essentially cannibalized these as if, in the case of the already-published experimental prose, their separate integrity no longer counted, or, in the case of the memoir writing, wouldn’t ever be published.
There was a reason, kind of. At the time, I had no premonition that I would salvage my other autobiographical prose. New Moon was it.
Plus, old experimental-prose titles like Solar Journal and The Long Body of the Dream were dead in the water by then, heirlooms of a disappearing identity: a projective-verse poet writing in prose lines, a disappearing identity. None of my new readers seemed to care about them; certainly no one purchased them anymore.
Yet those books were whole, meaningful, and real to the young man who labored over their texts for hours almost every waking day in his twenties, laying down their mosaics word by word. Though they were no longer active in a market, people continued to find copies and make sense out of them, often in the absence of any of my other work.
I was conducting a kind of vandalism of my own archive, but of course the salvage operation became my art too. A further problem was that the narratives each have distinct voices and vibrations and their styles cannot be facilely intermixed and melded. “Leave well enough alone” would have been better advice in the first place.
After I assembled my bricolage into New Moon, I submitted drafts to several New York houses. Two editors thought highly enough of it to recommend it to their publishing boards. One said it was her second-favorite novel ever, to Garp of all things. But it was ultimately turned down, every time. So-called super-editor Cork Smith, sniped: “It’s so straight. Couldn’t you at least put one kink in it?” That’s what the 1980s wanted—fashionable irony, magical realism—but this was my campfire tale, a throwback to Bill-Dave story-time, “Ranger and the Bully” in the rock fortresses of Central Park.
In 1996, as noted, I finally brought New Moon out in hardcover under Frog, Ltd., one of our imprints then. I gave away more copies than it sold.
The 2015 paperback (following the 2011 e-book) restores New Moon’s original shape. I have removed the last ninety-eight pages—all of “The Alchemical Wedding” and “Epilogue”; it ends in 1965, as Lindy and I find each other again.
When I re-read the e-book, I was disappointed that my more current insights and portrayals were missing. I kept looking for passages I knew I had written but couldn’t find there. I had subliminally nursed a fantasy that the pages of every copy of the book were being updated by magic as my insights in other books got subtler.
Of course, the text was right where I left it. This new version has most of the later passages, as I have spliced in and adapted snippets from The Bardo of Waking Life; 2013: Raising the Earth to the Next Vibration; Dark Pool of Light (Volume Three): The Crisis and Future of Consciousness; The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos; The New York Mets: Myth, Ethnography, and Subtext); and an essay “A Phenomenology of Panic” in (Panic: Origins, Insight, and Treatment).
I returned many pseudonyms to original names, finding the aliases discordant. People’s names carry their own innate music and define a space that affects the spaces around them. Some I left incognito for good reasons.
I have filled in gaps mainly (but not exclusively) in psychoanalysis, baseball, tarot, and my characterization of my mother and Lindy. I also rewrote everything at a micro level. Readers of the hardcover might not even notice that they were reading a different book until they reached the end and found chapters missing; yet I spent roughly 1400 hours between February 2015 and April 2016 rewriting it in detail and nuance, word by word and phrase by phrase, fixing chronology, filling in gaps, removing filler. Going into that process, I thought that I would end up with a shorter book; in fact I enlarged it. I added more than a hundred pages without altering the story line, cast, or basic inventory of events. The 1996 hardcover now reads like an abridgment of the later book.
At times I dubbed this a nonfiction novel, which confused readers. It is really halfway between a memoir and a novel. All my key decisions were novelistic and honored the genre. Like a memoir, the book is scrupulously true, or meant to be, but not always 100% factual. I didn’t make up events or characters, but occasionally combined minor characters or shifted a timeline or chronology to honor the novelistic arc.
The main “fictional” element is the addition of a voice shadowing some of the events to create a novelistic overview, notably in the context of psychoanalysis. I chose the veridicality of a “case history” over pure faithfulness to my understanding at the time.
New Moon is the first book in a triptych. Its story continues in the other two: Episodes in Disguise of a Marriage and Out of Babylon.
The original New Moon is a record of the enchantments through which one passes in a life; in my case a fifties American childhood (board games, candy bars, cherished toys, etc.) followed by school daze, baseball, summer camp; then the watershed of adolescence, dating, romance—initiation, apprenticeship, marriage, kids, career. Each enchantment breaks a prior trance while imposing another. The overall spell is sustained.
That precis is still accurate, though this edition tracks only childhood, romance, initiation, and the beginnings of apprenticeship (the occult, magic, etc.)—the old hardcover runs the gamut.
After finishing New Moon in 1995, I picked up another batch of abandoned prose, writings about my larger family, notably my brother Jon and the world of my father’s resort. That project, half of which I composed from scratch after writing New Moon, became Out of Babylon. I published it in 1997 (Frog, Ltd.) with the subtitle Ghosts of Grossinger’s. Its revised version will be book three of the trilogy.
Out of Babylon weaves tales from five generations of my family, beginning with the imagined lives of my great-grandparents and concluding with the adolescent years of my children. It tells my brother Jonathan’s story in his own voice, borrowing from his writings and letters to me through the years, and relates the rise and fall of Grossinger’s from the shtetls of Poland to the blossoming and demise of the Borscht Belt. Its central theme is” ‘Why do people in families do the horrible things they do to each other, while claiming to love them?’ Its title is taken from a reggae song that Jon invoked (“One Step Forward,” Max Romeo and the Upsetters) decades later, as a canticle to our growing up on upper Park Avenue.
Episodes in Disguise of a Marriage, which follows New Moon, recounts the forging a marriage out of a romanticized and mythologized courtship while exploring the deeper relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Episodes maintains the frankness of New Moon, but tackles adult problems and crises, falling somewhere among such chronicles as Robert Creeley’s The Island, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and perhaps a less vulgar and less narcissistic—I hope—version of the popular confessional novel of the era, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. I was espousing Robert Kelly’s mytho-erotic themes, the radical truth-telling of fellow poets like Charlie Vermont and Bill Pearlman (notably the latter’s Inzorbital Freak), and the free-wheeling aesthetics of some of my loonier Goddard College students, Rob Brezsny, Art Cole, and Sheppard Powell.
Episodes picked up nuances from movies of the time too like The Graduate, Annie Hall, and Blume in Love, but with Creeley’s gravitas and narrative diaphonousness replacing comedy and shtick, also with the nascent metaphysical awe that inspired New Moon.
If you were to imagine New Moon continuing through the hippie era with the same degree of frankness and romantic-magical inquiry, that would be Episodes in Disguise of a Marriage, not “The Alchemical Wedding,” “Ann Arbor,” “Robin,” and “Maine,” which were puréed, selectively, from it and The Continents into the 1996 edition.
I thought for many years, decades in fact, that I would never be able to rewrite Episodes into anything I would be comfortable publishing. That’s why I grafted large chunks of it into both the hardcover of New Moon and the 1997 edition of Out of Babylon. Sanitizing while adapting them, I lost their essence and original context and also distorted the other books. While rewriting New Moon in 2015, I not only decided not only to remove material spliced from Episodes, but to rewrite it back into its former book. I did the same for material spliced from Episodes into Out of Babylon. I am now rewriting and restoring those books too.
As I have begun to restore Episodes to its original form and conclude its narrative, problems I had long imagined insoluble are melting away in the doing—I have found the book’s core. Episodes was not published in the 1990s (like the other two), but I expect that it will join their later versions in a future year.
Here is some follow-up on a few of New Moon’s main players:
Lindy and I got married in Denver in 1966 and had two children (in 1969 and 1974). We taught college for seven years in Maine and Vermont before moving to Berkeley. There we developed North Atlantic Books as our livelihood, with Lindy working at mostly art-administration jobs for the first twelve years and going to graduate school before joining North Atlantic in 1994. Our son (Robin) and daughter (Miranda) are now adults with careers and children of their own.
As Lindy put it back then, “Life is better with you than without you.” She stuck to that credo through our many ups and downs—and, yes, it did all come out in the wash.
My mother jumped to her death from the window of her apartment in 1975. She was fifty-five years old. Soon thereafter it came out that she had had me by an affair. My father was not Paul Grossinger. It took me another year and a half to discover his name: Bernard (Bingo) Brandt. I never met him—his choice.
My paternity was a secret that my brother Jon and sister Debby knew all along and kept from me. The circumstances of my conception don’t explain why my mother treated me the way she did, but they help clarify it. She probably couldn’t look at me without seeing what she had done and with whom she had done it, so she projected all her feelings about that act and the guy onto me in other guises. I could never read something so adult and complex; all I could read were manifold layers of disturbance, of which my biological origin was the epicenter.
I got taken to an assignation with a person who would be revealed as one of my half-brothers after the party following my 25th Horace Mann reunion. He had grown up near the dandelion field I visited in 1958.
In 2005 my brother Jonathan stabbed himself to death with multiple strikes to his neck and abdomen with a knife. By then he had become a street person in Westport, Connecticut, kept under a roof by interest checks from his father’s estate. He was fifty-seven years old. When he was around age two (and I five), a cackling doll in a puppet show sent him into inconsolable crying that persisted intermittently for weeks. He didn’t remember the incident later, but he killed himself less than a mile from the puppet stage fifty-five years later.
Phil Wohlstetter found Io in the seventies and read the hardcover of New Moon; he contacted me in the late nineties. He thanked me for helping to restore his memories of P. S. 6 and Bill-Dave and then caught me up on his own life. After Riverdale, he went to Columbia, starred as Hamlet in a college production, played guitar on the streets of Paris after graduation, was incarcerated and almost executed while traveling in left-wing company during the Chilean junta’s overthrow of Salvador Allende. He ended up in Seattle as a literary critic, political theoretician, economic deconstructionist, and author of an unfinished novel called Valparaiso as well as many shorter essays and screeds; also the father of two adult daughters; and retired pick-up ballplayer with bum knees. We have been close friends since reconnecting. He both is and isn’t the person I knew at P. S. 6, but no, Mom, he didn’t turn into a juvenile delinquent. That energy went into his radical countercultural journey through the sixties and soft-landed him in a setting finally as gentile in its way—view over Puget Sound—as his childhood at 1175 Park Avenue.
Mitchell Miller of Aspen Writers’ Workshop and Antioch College remained a friend of Lindy’s and mine for another few years. The three of us got together in New York City in the winter of 1965 (just past the time-line of this book) and were involved in a multi-car fender-bender on the West Side Highway when a car a few vehicles in front of us stopped inexplicably on cobblestones in the rain. About a dozen vehicles were involved and ours hit a white Cadillac driven by Lucy of the Arista teen tour. Unsurprised by the synchronicity, she immediately began pleading with me to do something because her father didn’t know she was driving his car. She was still “lost in translation.”
In the summer of 1967 Lindy and I drove to Colorado with Mitchell and his then girlfriend, Joanna Uribe—they to hang out in Boulder, us to go to the Hopi Reservation for an anthropology fieldwork project. We visited him the next year in Yellow Springs, Ohio—I have a 8 mm. movie of Mitchell and Lindy walking on one bar each of the railroad tracks outside town, holding hands except when they were slipping and falling off. Mitchell and Joanna split up soon afterward, even though they joined the same Weather-Underground cell run by her new boyfriend. That’s all I know.
My Kenmont girlfriend Jill read a piece by me more than forty years after I last saw her. By then she was a retired high-school teacher living with her husband outside Santa Cruz, California. Lindy and I visited them, and we remain friends. She is just as avid a baseball fan. Her husband and daughters think that my portrait of her, though written before any of them met her, is dead-on.
I lost track of Welton Smith in 1965; he died in 2006. In 1972, seven years after I last saw him, he told an interviewer: “If you don’t know all of yourself, you don’t have the capacity to love, only the capability of being in love. Anybody is capable. But capacity indicates a wholeness. The verb, the action, takes place in you because you have the capacity. That’s why bloods and whites could never share that verb in Western civilization. You have to be whole to love—and you can’t love whites. To try to love them undercuts your wholeness as a blood.”
I ran into Jeff Tripp in the early aughts. The inventor of a musical synthesizer, he had retired off his patent. His politics had flipped—he was now a conservative legislator on his city council and basketball coach for his teenage sons. He showed me a wedding photograph of himself and his ex-wife—he in a suit and top hat, she butt-naked. Then he gave an example of what he considered outrageous reverse racism: black urban ballers encountering his sons in a Boston gym, bitching, “Who brought that white trash on the floor?” He saw no irony in it, this one-time disciple of Beckett.
Helene got my number and called me around 2005: “Remember the fun we had at Grossinger’s!” I did, but it was way too late.
I met Betsy more than forty years after showing her Salty and Sandy when she picked up a copy of the New Moon hardcover I left at her old Miami Beach address—the gay guys living there told me that she made occasional pilgrimages back. Then her son looked me up online, and a few years later she visited Lindy and me in Maine. No longer an ingenuous seraph, she had been through tough times with Bob, gotten divorced, and was looking online for a hunk to replace him.
I remained friends with Chuck Stein and published his work into the aughts.
My essential connection with Robert Kelly was during the initial few years I knew him, though Lindy and I continue to see him every so often. Our publication of his “Alchemical Journal” in 1967 helped launch Io into a national publication. He appeared in most issues through the mid-seventies (when it ended); later we published two books by him.
Soon after we stopped seeing him regularly he lost his excess weight, “a very powerful spiritual diet,” he told me.
For decades I tried to find Ginny Stangeland. It became a puzzle, a treasure hunt, then a compulsion. On travels through the U.S. I regularly checked city phone books and I sent occasional postcards addressed to her care of random people in her native Wisconsin and Minnesota with her unusual Scandinavian last name. Her married name, Johnson, was useless.
I tried her high-school alumni association—no one knew her. Lindy asked her own Smith classmates with no success. I went on several websites for the Peace Corps in Bolivia, but no one had even heard of either Ginny or Anthony.
I dedicated the first edition of The Night Sky to her (and two later lost friends) in hopes that it would help locate them; nothing came of it. I conducted this search on and off from approximately 1966 to 2005. Then an online sleuth calling herself anonymouspi contacted me on Craigslist regarding a different missing-person quest of mine and offered her services on this one too. Her method was simple: she wrote to personal websites of people named Stangeland and got a cousin on her third try.
Ginny had led an eventful life after dropping out of Smith. She didn’t stay married to Anthony Johnson for long. First she sailed from Washington State to Alaska. After enlisting as an early follower of Rajneesh, she was both nanny and mistress to a Tibetan lama and traveled as such to Tibet. She became a serious practitioner of the Diamond Heart Way.
We met in Seattle at a party thrown by Phil Wohlstetter for Lindy and me. Samsara had transformed her from a cute Smith girl to the sort of world-worn wise old woman you might find at a Greek Orthodox nunnery or a Navaho hogan.
The spark between me and her was real at the time, just not what I imagined or could assimilate. Though our paths crossed for good reason—we each had a spiritual fire inside—we were headed in opposite devotional directions, and she alone understood that.
After anonymouspi found her, she wrote:
“I have been deeply touched at some level by your search for me and that you saw something in what I had written back at a time, forty-two years ago, when I was so defended and out of touch with myself. It seems to me like a terma (how the Tibetans planted certain teachings to be found at a specific time when they would be needed). You have brought something to me that I needed right now in my process. I have been experiencing a kind of deadness of desire, no passion to do anything. Since feeling searched for, sought out, wanted, a happy, excited child-like part has shown up and the deadness is gone.”
In 1990 I was recruited, as the one class member in publishing, to edit our Amherst Class of ’66 Twenty-Fifth Year Reunion Book. Immersion in that event reintegrated me into the class and led Lindy and me to attend our 1991 reunions.
Meeting our classmates there, some of them for the first time, motivated us to return for our thirtieth, fortieth, and forty-fifth reunions. At each of these weekend-long events, my class ran an institution its organizers dubbed Club ’66. After the requisite Saturday banquet in a tent behind the decommissioned fraternity house to which we were assigned, usually Chi Phi across the lawn from Phi Psi, volunteers performed in a talent show/cabaret. Some read from a piece of writing—anything from a serious poem or a short essay to a limerick or piece of scat (their own or someone else’s). Others played an instrument like a piano, guitar, or kazoo; sang a song; or told a story or joke. A couple of people even led cheers from sixties football rallies. The slots were supposed to be five minutes each, but no one complained if they went ten.
At the thirtieth and fortieth reunions, I tried reading a short section of prose, but even though I picked lighter pieces, they were too heart-felt and complicated for the hour and a somewhat inebriated crowd.
For my forty-fifth reunion I set out to tailor a piece, but it quickly got too long: a half-hour “valedictory address,” as rogue in its way as the speech I delivered at Horace Mann almost fifty years earlier. Having put in the work and achieved a meaningful result, I wanted to get to present it, but the venue wasn’t obvious. Unable to find another suitable slot, the reunion planners decided to let me open Club ‘66—after the banquet and before any other performances. That way I would get a sober half hour. Those who wanted to attend could, and the rest could stay in the dinner tent and then show up later for the usual Club fare.
But events took their own course.
I had also been asked to share a different sort of slot with my Elliott Isenberg. At our fortieth reunion, Elliott had used one of our presentations to promote his guru (Byron Katie), and the organizers wanted to avoid a repeat. The compromise was that he and I conduct a psychospiritual dialogue as one of the interest groups our class sponsored to which other reunion classes could come.
The exchange was lively. At its conclusion, I announced my upcoming “valedictory” and invited anyone in the audience who was interested, even though it was technically a class function (in reality, though, many folks wandered through other reunions at whim).
My invitation was shared beyond the seminar and, when the moment arrived on Saturday night, current history professor Catherine Epstein (now dean of faculty) and a few alumni from other classes were waiting in the Chi Phi living room with Elliott.
Meanwhile down at the banquet tent, testimonials were still going on. Though dessert and coffee/tea had long ago been served and tables cleared of plates, class members were milking the microphone, telling jokes, delivering personal salutes, and spinning tall tales. Some retired faculty members were also in attendance, and a few of the stints at the mike were homages to them. The cavalcade to the podium showed no sign of abating.
As I shuttled back and forth between the tent and Chi Phi—a hundred or so feet—I weighed fallback options, found none, and rationalized that it wasn’t the worst thing in the world if I never gave the speech. Not everyone even wanted me to deliver it. Our class still had factions, and some members were unhappy that I been permitted my own forum, a resentment that went all the way back to college years: my chapel speech critical of Amherst and my story in the literary magazine. Supposedly we had outgrown old grudges, chucked them as we reinvented ourselves as a social unit, but boys will be boys, and competitiveness runs in the blood. For some classmates with whom I otherwise had cordial relations, it was ‘once a jerk, always a jerk,’ My preferential treatment was perhaps reviving animosities and grievances.
At the banquet, no one consciously was trying to block me, but there was also no consensus to help.
A minor miracle intervened. With chutzpah that I didn’t begin to have (and the help of a few sympathetic classmates), Elliott performed a coup d’etat. He seized the microphone and announced that I was speaking next. Perhaps his reputation for outrageousness gave him a pass—the unexpected and flagrant were staples of his repertoire and people would have been let down if he didn’t occasionally play a character who was part clown, part group conscience, part jihadist.
After leaving a classmate in charge of the mike, Elliott ran to Chi Phi where I was hanging out with the group that remained (including Professor Epstein). “The crisis is resolved!” he pronounced, and he led us down to the tent and handed me the mike. I was to give my talk to not just fifteen or twenty people in Chi Phi but the entire class and their guests in the tent, a stone’s throw from the Phi Psi glen where I had written my “poem of madness” and delivered my Halloween oration. It had been long ago cemented over to accommodate an expansion of the Alumni House parking lot, but the mandalas lit on that Halloween night had scattered throughout the planet.
I began reading the address while a buzz lingered. The tonal shift to what I was saying was too abrupt—people were still eating, drinking wine, chatting. Only when I was about five minutes into it did folks begin to settle down. As I approached the end, I slowed down and settled into the moment.
After I finished, the first person up to the podium was Stu Johnson, a civilian working in the Defense establishment. He hugged me and said softly, “In my business there are few enough positive moments and little enough optimism. Thanks for giving me hope.” As he spoke those words, it seemed that everything through the decades had been redeemed. Time was too thin to hold the moment.
Valedictory Address for Amherst College Class of 1966 45th Reunion
Bear with me. I’m going to tell a few campfire tales, and I don’t want to rush through them.
In my correspondence with Jon Huberth and Dave Browder, the entertainment group for this establishment, I called my offering a valedictory address, tongue I hope in cheek. When Jon wrote back, “Hey, who went and made you valedictorian?” I replied, “By the 45th you can appoint yourself valedictorian, and we can have as many as volunteer.”
I do want to do it. I want a challenge to speak from the heart. When Elliott Isenberg and I were discussing our upcoming 45th reunion, he said, with a trace of macabre glee, that attrition was setting upon us. Over the next ten years we will approach the mean life span for American males of our time, and we will be talking more and more about who’s no longer here. We are squarely in the yoga of mortality
That’s quite different from watching the march of the classes ahead of us. It’s the difference between hearing Jeffrey Hoffman talk about his stints in space and being shot into Earth orbit yourself.
Elliott’s subtext was that people are going to change in light of core vulnerability and mortality, so it is worth going to reunions to witness and support those changes in each other, to be part of a class body, to see in others what we can’t completely recognize or permit in ourselves. The situation, the asana, is inescapable; all we can do share its wonder, its terrible joy, the joy of each other’s company, in completing whatever this is, together; in giving up our ancient rivalry as men, to become, gradually at last, the same thing.
As we recognize that we are a class of both the living and the dead, we start to become a sangha in a much more serious way. But it was always serious; it was serious when we showed up in September of ’62.We just didn’t know it yet.
The universe hasn’t changed in its view of us or its plans for us, and the universe is a heavy “mutha.” We are now shifting into a deeper awareness, individual and collective, of the real ceremony, the actual reunion cycle.
Dusty Dowes called our attention to this matter, perhaps first among us, in 1991. He got it. As hilarious as he was sobering. I will give my version.
Toward the end of the banquet in Valentine, a mike was left open for toasts from the floor. After more than an hour of miscellaneous pronouncements, and maybe two minutes during which everyone assumed the speeches were over, a large, bearded leprechaun strode to the podium and broke the silence: “I was on the campus the other day and I saw this guy at his 70th reunion. Last living member of his class.” He paused. “I wondered, was he afraid?” He paused again, for what seemed an eternity; then he thrust his glass upward: “I propose a toast to the last living member of our class. Don’t be scared, buddy; we’re all with you.”
I can’t improve on that. That was our real valedictory address. I think it’s worth letting it sink in anew: from Dusty to all of us—from each of us to every other one: “Don’t be scared, buddy! We’re all with you.”
This is where it begins to get serious, but this is where it begins to get real.
My high-school alma mater opened with, “We were strangers met in friendship, / now we’re kin to one and all.” The Whiffenpoof song replaces its blithe geniality with the darker backwash of college days: “Gentleman songsters off on a spree, / doomed from here to eternity….” In the “parting glass,” the Amherst reunion-goer pleads that as long as he has one more cup to share with his classmates, as long as he can sing the verse of camaraderie one more time this night, time itself will halt. Good fellowship will never end. Then the truth finally sinks in: “We are poor little lambs who have lost their way. / Baaa, baaa, baaa!”
Our class exists as a ceremonial body because there is no alternative to it or replacement for it. We are not nearly as tight as a Hopi corn-mother fraternity initiated in a kiva, nor did we go through a ritual of transformation like a Zulu warrior guild, Australian Emu clan, or Tibetan monastic order, but, for most of us here, there is no more sacred clan or peer group of initiates into adult life. We shared no overnight vision quests or vigils in caves or among wild animals; we didn’t touch a weasel or bear with our index fingers; we did no group meditations on emptiness and the Great Void; we ingested no sacred poisons, but Amherst College Class of ’66 was what we had, so it served for each of us as our priesthood, our baptism into manhood, our initiatory ingestion of the serum of mortality.
The various rituals, gauntlets, and transmissions of ancestral knowledge that we underwent were experienced with a tacit recognition that we had become an affiliation and would remain so for the duration. Four years of parallel play, parallel study, and parallel maturation through the stormy phases of late adolescence into early adulthood somehow converged and transfused into a sacred and share ritual. As the drinking song says, “Now we’re bound by ties that cannot sever / all our whole lives through.” When we return to Amherst each five-year orbit, we come to honor the spirit of our initiation despite the negligence and grunge of our undergraduate training relative to a real sacred clan or warrior guild. We come to honor, acknowledge, and witness the holes in our knowledge as well as its time-honored truths, to celebrate our completed trainings and life practices.
When I use a word like “initiation,” I mean it in the most profound and specific sense. We were the unwashed youth of an elite America dispatched into the fire of our times, our own subincision rite and ritual blinding. It was an initiation because Amherst and our classmates were all we had with whom to get down-and-dirty and do the stuff that was necessary then. And it got done; a lot came out in the wash by graduation.
We went through the Cuban Missile Crisis together, which contained its own meditation on the Great Void and ego annihilation. We went through the Kennedy assassination, an esoteric watershed along the trans-America cruise. We experienced the prodrome of the Civil Rights movement, the birth of the counterculture and Aquarian watershed, the founding of the Liberation News Service by Marshall Bloom, his prophetically named Total Loss Farm just down the road of a decade in which we split for other parts.
Only those who were there understand the chilling innuendos of Senator Paul Douglas’ graduation speech when he told us that our next mission was to defeat the Communists in Asia the way his generation had fought the Nazis, consigning us to a wrong war in his own past, while an oracular future was exploding just in front of us, a future that is still cresting, as Marshall and Elliott led a white-armband protest and then a walkout during the awarding of an honorary degree to Robert McNamara.
Who could have foreseen McNamara’s later abrogation and atonement? Who could have foreseen the multiple waves of cultural transformation, changing everything: love, work, gender, hope, reality, mission itself? Who could have foreseen the visitations of the shadow, from Charles Manson to Jim Jones, from Waco to Oklahoma City to 9/11? Who could have even foreseen Marshall’s suicide a few years later at Total Loss Farm?
As different as these events and their scopes were, they were all contained in chrysalis at our graduation; we felt their inchoate tremors together. Even if one were only peripherally involved in they, we all passed through their vibrational field, their bow waves and quincunxes. Then we shared the transformational trigger and transmission of the Vietnam War, its radicalizing aftershocks, reverberating even now. Some classmates actually went to Southeast Asia in combat roles; others marched and organized against the war—no difference anymore. The meanings have merged and even changed places, leaving us only with an esoteric event.
We were thinking, almost certainly, that we were feeling something else then, and we were, too. Each of us had our own apprehensions and dreams for life, our own nostalgia for what was lost and left behind, always. That was just as true when cars pulled into the timeless time of the Quad, fall of ’62, the adventure just beginning.
We learned that we couldn’t order life to come to us or go charging after it, though we may have thought we were doing precisely that. We became not who we wanted to be but who we had to be. We arrived as children, novices, wise guys, assholes; we left as pretty much the same, a bit chastened and cooked, redirected from innocence onto the path from which there is no return.
It is that crucible to which we return every five years to mark the way. It doesn’t matter if our individual passages crossed each other’s or if we even knew each other here back then. We were a band of recruits. There is no other brotherhood, no competing membership, no substitute inner journey across America of our time.
We learned that we couldn’t order life to come to us or go charging after it, though we may have thought we were doing precisely that. We became not who we wanted to be but who we had to be. We arrived as children, novices, wise guys, assholes; we left as pretty much the same, a bit chastened and cooked, redirected from innocence onto the path from which there is no return.
It is that crucible to which we return every five years to mark the way. It doesn’t matter if our individual passages crossed each other’s or if we even knew each other back then. We were a band of recruits. There is no other brotherhood, no competing membership, no substitute inner journey across America of our time.
We are bathed now in nostalgia, perhaps even regret, but it is not because things were so much better or more promising then—we were nostalgic then too for something else. Nostalgia always reveals hidden forces present at any time, abeyances and possibilities that we can’t perceive at our passing phase of awareness and can neither excavate nor staunch. Those forces remain at work, and some deeper, inscrutable part of us and the world continues to tinge everything with a mythological and enchanted glow. That is the awareness and realization potential still in us, and it is big, as big as the universe itself. I will get back to that.
I will say now, there can be no regrets. We were whole and complete in ’62 and in ‘66. We are whole and complete now in 2011, a little more cooked, a little more cured, a little more sober, a little more street-smart. Each state of existence celebrates its own special, inviolable integrity—gaps, miscues, and all.
No regrets. We did what we could. Everything is still possible. Don’t be scared, buddy….
‘You can’t take it with you’ means consciousness and its goods, all this shiny and lit stuff, meaning anywhere, across these tundras and plateaus as well as the barrier where ye shall pass and walk that lonesome valley, ya gotta walk it by yourself. Not as a penalty or a debt that you owe the universe for having lived but because you are unique, and it is out of your uniqueness that you develop anything like the capacity for meaning or a Soul.
There is no other option. If you could, would you stay here forever? Would you be an immortal on Earth? That would be its own purgatory, or hell.
If we didn’t die, we wouldn’t find out who we are. We die to liberate the part of us that is real.
And don’t think for a moment that it isn’t terrifying, hideous, outrageous, unbearable, the universal draft without mercy or deferment. We are meant to be terrified. We are meant to undergo an incredible transformation. You know that. I know it. I think about it all the time. No way out. There never was. We have to change. We had to change as callow freshmen. But thank goodness the Cuban Crisis passed over, the bombs unignited, and left us a little more time to cook. Here we all are.
There are moments in life when a harbinger of its unwelcome oracle is imposed on us. About fifteen years ago my wife Lindy and I were advised by our lawyer to write a will because otherwise, he said, the State would make our posthumous decisions for us.
Lindy and I threw in together late sophomore year. After her graduation from Smith we drove out of Northampton in a yellow Mustang, went to Denver to get married, and then got our first apartment in Ann Arbor. Our class’s 45th reunion is our own 45th anniversary, shy a month. When we made an appointment with an estate lawyer, we assumed that we were making out our will. We had shared a household, raised kids who are now approaching middle age themselves, built a business together, and been through joint revelations and upheavals, losses and recoveries of our bond, discoveries of what it was that brought and held us together. The lawyer couldn’t have put it more bluntly; we were making out individual wills, including disposals of our bodies, because, she said, “It’s never happened yet in my practice that both members of a couple die at the same time. One dies first.”
The notion was disturbing and unthinkable, so I pushed it away, but I have been meditating on it subtly the last fifteen years. No different from October 1962, just more awake, more intense. That’s why I am here. Our group solidarity, our shared fates, our empathy and compassion for each other. Dusty’s “don’t be scared, buddy” mantra.
I can’t speak long enough now to encapsulate all of this, and I am already imposing on my allotment. But I do have some things I want to get said, not because I necessarily want to say them but because I want to put their resonance into our group vibration, class of ’66, living and dead.
Some of you know the overly-iconicized story of how I was locked in my room fall of freshman year, 407 James, the door knob rigged by James Higbie to come off in my hand; then lighter fluid was poured under the transom and people lit matches and sent flames across the floor. Nothing really caught, but there was smoke and some dorm-mates stuck their heads out of windows and yelled for me to jump. Enraged, I took my hockey stick and swung at them, smashing a few windows. Then Sid Schwab and Al Powers broke it up and rescued me.
I have many interpretations of this event, none of them bad or maudlin, none of them having me personally innocent and martyred. It too was a ceremony. We each did what we had to. Yeah, they were, by their own admissions, being douchebags. But I was a total jerk too, a unacknowledged provocateur goading them with my false piety and subversive righteousness. I got a lesson, a gift, in that I got awakened from a long daydream and whacked toward my identity. Something probably happened for each of them too—all such exchanges are reciprocal by karmic law. But this was my passage, my surprise party. The ceremony was conducted for my benefit, even in rage against me, which is finally the purest form of selfless teaching. Thanks, guys.
It is interesting how that event has played out at reunions since I started coming back at the 25th. Several participants have apologized. Higbie attended the 30th and turned out to be a surprisingly cool dude; that is, given the Unabomber/Goth personality he cultivated in James Hall. I wouldn’t have recognized him with his beard and sage stare. He walked right up, shaking his head, identified his ass, and said, “Sorry for that incident freshman year.” He went on to claim that it wasn’t his idea (or the idea of any of the other people who apologized); it was in Higbie’s words, “a blond Aryan Nazi dude on the floor named Carl”—a guy I haven’t seen at any reunion, so I don’t know, but it could go either way.
There is always an esoteric undercurrent, an archetype from which the opposite of an explicit event emanates. There is a way in which most of the important, the real stuff that any of us does is unconscious. We are on missions dear to the gods, and the only thing that stands in our way, really, is the most powerful, devious, and indomitable of our enemies: the self-saboteur.
Believe what you want—innumerable psychics report ghost carolers in post-9/11 New York. They see the spirits of the slain chanting dirges alongside their slayers on the now-sacred burial ground of the World Trade Center: suicide bombers and stock brokers and airline passengers, sharing ballads in a dialect beyond all languages, a dharma that precedes bodies and ideologies, because they have no other choice and nothing else to do—not now, not any longer, not even then. It is why 9/11 was a birth rite as well as an act of infamy and dance of terror, a jihadist awakening as well as a jihadist cataclysm, a muezzin as well as a cry of war.
In my writing about our Amherst years I recall so many poignancies, sorrows, and epiphanies. We all experienced the hints of a spring breeze or early snowfall in a way that would become completely obscure to those who followed us, because all of the above arose out of the rich, mysterious, romantic density of the fifties, and then explicated and resolved it into something else.
Everything was so intense and cogent then: the calls of the birds, the colored leaves covering the Quad, mixers at Smith and Holyoke, the smell of mown fields, seeds in the air, malted frappes, pumpkin stands, hot showers, a snowball tossed perfectly through the crack of Bob Lewin’s fourth-floor Morrow window, a shot in a thousand.
One reverie from the time serves for me because it holds its epitome. It was on a day sophomore year that two upperclassmen, Jim Koscis and Larry Lundwall, drove me and Schuyler Pardee, who was my best friend then, and our dates to a pond north of here, and we all went swimming, the clouds above blown apart in the jetstream. I felt the pure mystery of existence then. It remains such today, though something has been realized and revealed by my lived life.
Two years later Schuyler was completing his BA, residing in Belchertown, married to a different Smith student, an alumna. He was a wonderful guy: sassy, brilliant, funny, with a great wife. Lindy and I had broken up temporarily at that time, so I envied him everything he was and had and had been able to pull off. He was my hero.
When I visited the couple in their cottage by the lake, the song of everything and nothing resonated then: “Try to remember the kind of September….” Yes, “when grass was green and grain was mellow.” Talk about a heart-rending profundity whose source is everywhere and nowhere.
Give me a moment, and we can all go there.
Fast forward two more years. Lindy and I were living in Ann Arbor, newly married, when we found out that Schuy, having split up with his wife before graduation, rode his motorcycle off a road in southern Illinois with his then-girlfriend, probably a suicide. She survived, to bear his last testimony.
Soon after our 25th reunion I was east, taking our daughter to look at colleges and I followed a tip that Schuy’s ex-wife had subsequently married Kim Townsend in the English department and then gotten divorced from him and was living in the area. I looked her up, and we had dinner. She told me an amazing story. Twenty-three years after my friend’s, her husband’s death, and twenty-five years after their divorce, someone gave her a gift certificate to a psychic for her birthday. “I don’t believe in that sort of stuff,” she said, “but I didn’t want to insult her, so I went. The moment I sat down, the lady told me, ‘I have a message for you from your husband.’ I assumed she meant Kim, but she said, ‘No, your other husband, the one who rode the motorcycle. He wants you to know: he’s happier without a body.”
I have studied the occult my whole life, as a writer, an anthropologist, a spiritual seeker. I have met many mediums, remote viewers, and astral travelers. I am not bowled over by this sort of stuff and have a normal degree of skepticism. Yet this message from “Schuy” meant something important I couldn’t quite grasp. Through the rest of the ‘90s, across Y2K, I kept returning to it my mind.
I was telling the story to a hiking buddy in 2004 when chills went down my spine because I knew I finally had it, the missing piece. I had always figured I would die young or, if not, that everyone I loved would be taken away, making life intolerable—but, no, neither had happened; I had stayed and aged.
Schuy once had youth and spirit and limitlessness, but he elected to wager these on a throw of the dice against death, refusing to postpone the existential encounter, a heedless gamble that something unendurable in him must have required. Did his false valor come from cosmic grief or a more profound ennui? How did desire, artless adolescent desire, lead him to the executioner?
“Goddamnit,” I found myself shouting, “he had such a beautiful body. He had style. He was charismatic, a great athlete, bright, irresistible. But he didn’t want it. He didn’t want his body. But I must have wanted mine. Because here it is, thirty-five years later, and I still have it.”
Lindy and I were almost sixty, our children adults. It was Schuyler who remained fixed and invincible at twenty-three, having left his wife behind in a cabin in Belchertown.
We all obviously wanted these bodies, desperately in fact. So I’d like to propose a collective exercise, a journey. Of course it’s optional. Feel free to join or drop out at your discretion.
Let’s be here together in a silence, a profound and holy silence that is louder than any sound or thought, beyond the low grinding sound of the human mind that scares most spirits away. Reflect on that for a moment without any of the usual trappings or categories of belief. I don’t mean the sort of Zen exercise where you free your mind of the past and all worries, distractions, desires. Hold onto any or all of those, including impatience with my talk and the wish to get onto the next thing tonight. Take a chance. Deepen with everything here. With everyone. Everyone. Those who have passed as well.
I think of existence as having the steady-state buzz of metabolism, mixed with wandering attachments of consciousness, background claims of the body, things we chronically want, our urgencies, and also, at the edges, a lingering terror because our existential situation is impossible—and euphoria because likewise our situation is impossible.
It is terrifying because the universe is so vast, our place threatened, our time in this state so succinct. But it is our party and epiphany too because nothing really had to happen at all, ever, and certainly not us. What I am asking is that you explore the terror and astonishment, to whatever degree you feel it, but at the same time, explore the sheer joy and beauty, the wonder of this, in each other’s immaculate presences. Allow this amazing situation to sink in. We will die, but we are alive at this moment. We are individual, unique, aware, on a planet, in a circumstance we didn’t create, at least not consciously, that has no context to explain it, or us. I am not asking you for anything more than to feel it as exquisitely and dangerously as you can, and I am emphasizing not the fear but the exhilaration. To loosely quote an old guy making a backseat “Taxicab Confession” on the TV show: “We are in existence. Which is a fucking big deal. We made it. We got in.”
I am suggesting that we share a moment of wonder and gratefulness and awe and recall that we are strangers met in a ceremony that transcends us, that we are bound by ties that cannot sever; we made it, we got in, and we’re still here.
Then I am asking you to consciously invite and include those class members who have passed, from the beginning of our band, the early sixties, and allow them to be here too. Don’t sabotage it. Don’t sabotage yourself. It is not impossible. It is our choice and their choice too. Because if existence is possible, a class of the living and the dead is possible too. Have this crazy belief in us. Believe it not with your mind but with your heart, your whole being. That is where it happens, whether you understand it or not. That is where sabotage occurs too, always. At reunion, by definition we are one.
Go to the magnificence of your own being, into that deep place where no contrivance can help you, where a novice gets bitten or killed, or comes away with the whisker of a jaguar and the jaguar’s loyalty and keeping forever. In this life and after this life. Only it is not a jaguar. We all know this, at our core, beyond what we tell ourselves we believe or don’t believe.
Then one last piece to this exercise. I want to ask you to drop any objection, just for a moment. Humor me. Forget who I am. Forget who you are. Do this: find the larger unacknowledged space around you, around us, the part of the universe that is untenanted, undesignated, but that holds your future, your real limitless future, holds eternity in it. Allow our collective presence to open that space and bring you into it, as though you are bumping this whole thing, this manifestation, this emanation, this goofy, somber state of being, up a few frequencies. Change your own vibration, and then join us in changing the collective vibration. Here we are, Class of ’66, at the Jeff.