The surrender moment

It became my routine for the next 3 weeks to get home from work after midnight – wired from the bright lights, noise and activity of the depot – and read the book. Sometimes I’d toke up first, sometimes I’d eat, but always I’d spend at least an hour trying to decipher the strange jargon of this Stephen dude.

His was an almost poetic mix of Western cowboy slang, drug-inspired invention, scientific techno-speak and religious scripture. The book consisted of questions from the audience – always brief – and answers from the teacher – almost always extended, but often tinged with humor. Apparently these “classes” took place on Monday nights, and many of the attendees were curious about the nature of their weekend experiences on psychedelics. But somehow Stephen was always able to make a link between the vision or hallucination and either ethics, science or both.

My first two readings left me more far confused than enlightened, but obviously something was getting through because, aside from the The Bedside Mad reader, I’d never read a book more than once.

I spent New Year’s Eve reading the book for the third time and suddenly it clicked. More than any priest in my church growing up, or any politician – even the ones they’d shot – this Stephen guy was able to explain to me the connection between my emotions and my inner compass. At least, in my own desperate way, I was able to accept his explanations as making more sense than any others I’d heard. And there was no doubt that in the world’s condition, a better working explanation was needed.

The next morning the phone rang. It was Anita, calling from Colorado. “This is really cool,” she said. “You should come out and join us. But only if you’re ready.”

I was ready. Two days later three of my closest friends drove me and my two duffle bags to the Trailways bus station.

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To drop or not to drop

The book was barely a half-inch thick. On the cover was a 6-sided symmetrically colored mandala, full of the concentric swoops, like what you see when you’ve just looked straight into the sun, then closed your eyes. The title – Monday Night Class – was on the back, over a color photo of a gangly long-haired, bearded guy sitting, with knees bent into the air, on a low stage, evidently explaining a point to a large crowd of people. Inside the book, the print was purple. There were no page numbers. The frontispiece was a full-page portrait – printed in the same purple ink – of the bearded guy looking back at you, straight into the camera lense but more than that, right into your soul. It gave me a chill.

As we drove back across the Potomac River to our apartment in Virginia – after Anita’s announcement that she fully intended to join these people on their circumnavigation of the country – I found myself actively resisting the urge to join her, but she didn’t care. All she needed was for me to fix up the school bus she’d bought during the summer while I’d been in New Haven, vainly trying to start up our lefty political magazine.

As she’d told me, the bus caper was part of her life dream – to drive off into the sunset and “find a piece of land.” I hadn’t come to that place yet; I didn’t understand the bus, nor was I ready for the driving off or the finding of land. I’d visited a small commune in West Virginia with its goats, outhouse, pungent smells and pervasive dirt. The people were nice enough, but damn it, some substantive changes needed to be made in this country and…well, I just didn’t know.

I committed to helping her pull out the bus seats and build a bed platform from 2-by-4s and plywood. I wasn’t happy that she was so eager to leave. Our relationship was casual, but the fact that she had two sweet young daughters and I’d become their erstwhile male figure felt important to me. Anita was five years my senior, which meant she had gone through more life adventures than I. And here she was, going off for yet another adventure that I was choosing to miss.

Within two weeks, the bus was ready. Anita’s sister had agreed to go with her to help with Anita’s two beautiful young girls, Janine and Krissy. One small problem: only I had experience driving the bus, and  both occasions had been terrifying. A school bus feels enormous and uncontrollable when all you’ve ever driven is a car and a motorcycle. I agreed to drive them to where Route 66 split off from the Beltway and headed south and, in the process, provide them with their driving demo. From then on, they’d have to figure it out.

Aside from instruction about double clutching and warnings about the lack of power steering, not much was said on the way to the departure point. My friend and roommate, Tom, followed us. I pointed out the lack of synchromesh in first gear, then stepped down to the ground as Anita settled into the driver’s seat. Tom and I watched as she crunched the bus into gear, carefully accelerated, and hit the speed limit. Krissy and Nini waved goodbye from the rear window as the bus disappeared into the distance. I felt a pang of envy.

They were off on an adventure. I would continue slinging bags of Christmas mail at the airmail depot until midnight. Tom and I got into the car and, there on the seat Stephen’s picture looked up at me from the book cover as if to say, “So now what are you gonna do?”

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Tea time in a parking lot

Over Thanksgiving in 1970 Ronnie Black, a friend home on college break, told me of a band of hippies that had stopped by his school in Ann Arbor the week before. A happy, friendly bunch, they’d impressed him in recounting the birth of a baby in one of the school buses that served as their traveling homes. They’d described the birthing as an experience on the order of a psychedelic trip.

Ronnie , being an extreme math wiz, was not, to my knowledge, prone to being impressed by the magical nor by the birth of babies. So when I noticed a feature story in the Washington Post a few weeks later, describing the arrival of a caravan of hippie-laden buses in the nation’s capital, I just had to check it out. Actually, it was my girlfriend Anita who made the first contact as I worked the swing shift at the National Airport post office. The following day, we drove in together and she introduced me to the family she’d met, parked with about 3 dozen creatively converted vintage buses in the parking lot behind a downtown church.

Their bus had sweeping fenders with separate headlight pods that dated its construction in the Thirties. The rear third of its roof had been cut away and a wooden loft with windows had been appended to fit the space, rising 3 feet above the stock roof. It was not the only bus so modified, but each bus and van was unique in its age, color and customization. They packed the parking lot behind the church, surrounded by other red brick buildings in the neighborhood, about a mile north of the White House, just off of 16th Street.

Long-haired men and women wandered and socialized amidst the mobile encampment. There were no police that I could see. The women all wore granny dresses, the men wore worn denim, patched with bright corduroy and fancy embroidery. These were hippies out of some catalogue of genuine goods, not like most of the east coast variety  I was familiar with, with their Edwardian fashions.

We knocked on the bus door – crafted of rough wood, replacing the original – and were invited in. The interior was set up efficiently like the cabin of my father’s sail boat, with a booth for an eating area, a small apartment-sized gas stove, a miniature wood-fueled heating stove, two double beds stacked under the loft, and two child-sized beds. A couple, smiling broadly, introduced themselves to me: Allan and Maylee. At their invitation, we sat down at the table across from them.

“Would you like some peyote tea? We’re using up our stash before we head into the deep South.”

I’d heard of peyote, but had never tried it. The previous summer had included some experimental forays, and I remained open-minded and curious. “Sure, why not?.”

I sipped about half a teaspoon full through pursed lips, my intent being to swallow, but the moment the liquid hit the back of my tongue the gag reflex took over. Our hosts smiled appreciatively as my tongue tried to reposition the liquid where tastebuds would miss it. An acrid aroma filled my sinuses.

“Take in a deep slooow breath,” said Maylee. “Relax your throat. Now exhale slowly and let it slip down the back of your tongue.”

Never had I imagined that anything so bitter could enter a human mouth, but following Maylee’s advice it did go down, and sip by sip I made some progress. The concentration alone seemed to be changing my perception.

Meanwhile, I was learning with some amazement that Allan and Maylee were half of what they called a “four-marriage” with another couple, Daniel and Fanny. And that Allan was actually the husband of Fanny, with Daniel being the legal husband of Maylee. And that their mission, as part of this traveling group, was to bring a message of non-violence to the young and angry generation of idealists around the country. So this wasn’t a lark, meant to shock the square American public. It had a noble purpose.

The Caravan, as they called the convoy of vehicles, was following a spiritual teacher – which they took care to distinguish from a guru, as the Beatles had referred to Maharishi – whose name was, simply, Stephen. They handed us a book of his words as transcribed from talks he’d given in San Francisco, origin place of the Caravan.

“Here. It’s yours. Keep it. Read it.”

On departing after our short visit, my head was zooming and floating from the combined effects of strong peyote, challenging information and the spirit-lifting presence of the New Hampshire Bus family. I was thinking what an appealing and fantastic caper it seemed to be, while a super-rational internal voice protested that the idea lacked any sense of practicality, and therefore must be both stupid and naive.

I asked Anita,  “How can they pull this thing off? How can hippies – HIPPIES – fix up and maintain all these old buses while trippin’ on peyote and smokin’ grass? Who’s paying for all this? Where’s this all leading?”

In response Anita announced simply, “I dunno, but I’m gonna join ’em.”

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Setup: the Sixties

I was there through the Sixties and I remember them. I was a white middle class kid who started junior high school in 1960 and graduated from college in 1970. My youth lives in my memory as a catalog of TV shows, characters and incidents. When I watched coverage of JFK’s assassination and funeral, it was on a black and white TV.

My rock’n’roll upbringing took me from Elvis through the dissolution of the Beatles, laced through with jazz, classical and some pretty decent pop. I took first holy communion but left the Catholic church at 14. My folks didn’t mind; it relieved them of the obligation to act religiously.

During the summer of ’65 I was a curb waiter at a drive-in burger shop. The theme songs blaring from car radios included Satisfaction, Like a Rolling Stone and Eve of Destruction. I was primed for disillusionment and open to leave lifestyle assumptions behind.

A civics teacher in my senior year had us subscribe to the NY Times and read the columns of Russell Baker and James Reston. We learned that the rationalization of the Viet Nam war was a lie. We learned that the press allowed that lie to go unchallenged. We learned that the war was a waste, generating huge profits for defense contractors while killing hundreds of thousands of peasants. We learned that our government was not the force for unquestioned good that previous history courses had claimed. I went to college because, well, that’s what was expected. My only friend to volunteer for service in Nam had the last name “Peace.” It was a world filled to the brim with irony.

In the summer of ’67 I traveled through Europe “on five dollars a day” with my best friend Lewis Black. I shit you not. Getting our heads outside of guysbensweddingAmerica for the first time changed our perspective of the World’s Greatest Nation (as we’d been brought up to regard it). We heard Hendrix for the first time in London. I bought the British version of Revolver.

But my close friends and I weren’t introduced to our first non-alcoholic mind altering substances until that autumn. We’d barely begun to appreciate getting high when 1968 – with the murders of JFK and MLK – politicized us. That was what, today, they’d call an extreme buzzkill. I was pissed for most of the next year but got my new buzz from taking collective action, massively.

Marching with half a million people on the Mall was actually the most mind altering experience I’d had to that point. Until being in a place with that many people, you have no clue what it’s like. It felt amazing, affirming and I’m sure we were all bummed that such seemingly irresistible strength was so totally blown off  by the morally puny president and his clownish crew in the White House.

I graduated from college with a red fist safety-pinned to my gown. The University of Maryland had been on strike for over a month before I casually accepted my diploma. I had no interest in seeking a job as a psychologist in the same corrupt nation that had elected Richard Nixon.

During the summer of 1970 I tried to co-invent a way to work with friends on a socially justifiable project, but politics within the Left had become divisive, petty and ugly. The circular firing squad had been formed and I didn’t want to get shot, much less shoot some other well-meaning schlub. So politics was out. Psychology was out. More school was certainly out.

I could only find fulfillment being around a lot of people on the same side as me. I knew I found contentment helping people who needed some. I felt that I was done with the D.C. area. I wondered if I should go back to Europe or join The Peace Corps or emigrate to Canada.

The energy of revolution seemed to be all around me, but I found no direction attractive enough to move.

So there I was, existentially frozen with a clearly corrupt buffoon elected to the Presidency, involved in an intractable and seemingly unresolvable war on which a growing number of Americans had given up. There were myriad social problems at home needing attention and funding.

It was much like America in the summer of 2008, except we had no presidential election happening to provide a window of hope. I was waiting for deliverance.

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Introduction

We named it The Farm, a deliberately plain label. Given its roots in the mind-altered visions of late Sixties San Francisco, our community could have ended up with a moniker better matched to the times: maybe Astral Village or Peak City or Unified Fields. We could have officially adopted what some locals chose to call it on their own: Gaskin’s Place.

Instead, we agreed on the most generic descriptor possible. The Farm was plain like the Amish folk who lived down the road. Like them, we sought to live simple lives, but our simplicity was relative – to the way we were raised in the emerging American middle class, and to the lifestyle the rest of our cohort sought to live.Farmies in the Meadow

Of course, we were very much unlike the Amish in many ways beyond those of our different heritage. We joked (OK, “Stephen joked”) that we were the “Technicolor Amish,” arrayed in our worn denim and granny dresses, patched in rainbows of corduroy and brocade. Like the Amish, we chose to settle out in the country, away from urban life, but we weren’t trying to separate ourselves from the world; were out to save it.

We were regarded as a somewhat mystical society – bootstrapped from psychedelic experiences – that believed in telepathy and described the psychic space in physical terms – a topography full of planes and levels. We founded our community around agreements, adopting two Biblical verses from the Book of Acts to describe our collective economy:

44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

We turned over our savings, from the piddling amounts most of us had tucked away to entire trust funds. We took a vow of poverty, regarding all property as shared goods, and committing ourselves to living as an example to the world of how people of good will could grow together cooperatively, collectively and peacefully.

We tried hard, most of us, most of the time. In retrospect, it was a remarkable voluntary effort that endured for over a decade before the agreements – the unwritten glue that held things together – began to crumble.

It’s a fact that most of those who dropped out in the late Sixties and early Seventies did so tentatively, with one foot (their savings, trust funds, family expectations and career plans) still in the straight world as they dipped an experimental toe into communal urban households or small homesteads with a goat and a chicken in the yard. The vast majority dropped back in as soon as things got uncomfortable. At the Farm, most of us stayed dropped out.

Being a cross section of (predominantly white) American society, there were a few who lived for years on the Farm and never really lost the financial safety nets that remained available to catch them whenever they chose to leave. Had I been in that situation, I believe my experience of the Farm would have been very different. It would have seemed more like a very long Outward Bound adventure. I wouldn’t have been betting my life like I did. My unwritten commitment would have included an internal “just in case” clause.

My personal understanding was that the Farm was a permanent commitment. That, I believe, is the only reason it lasted in its collective form for as long as it did – 12 years with a common bank account and no declared individual income. But in the end, it proved to be a grand experiment for all of us.  The small contingent that still lives on the land in Tennessee under a “pay your own way” arrangement may not see it the way I do. For them, the Changeover in 1983 mostly affected their economic relationship, but not so much the social agreement. I’m glad they’re still stewarding the land and that the decollectivized Farm – as a gated community of not-rich people (again, Stephen’s description) – continues to occupy that place.

As a collective experiment The Farm was one whose hypothesis was posed by all of us who agreed to be both scientists and subjects. How else could hundreds of middle class American youth have been persuaded to live primitively and at risk for so many years? For us, the bet was that we’d make enough right decisions to create a community and a lifestyle that would sustain itself not just for 12 years, but for generations. Hundreds of us took that bet, laying down our savings, our income, our future security and the health of our families in the belief that the collective – the solidarity of our vision – would provide for us going forward.

This story was originally recorded in a weblog begun in 2004. In this rewrite, it remains my personal account of the 12 years I lived as a Farmie.

The Farm was an important piece of 20th Century American history. It’s difficult to imagine anything like it happening in any other country. Its history is recounted on The Farm’s websites, but the day-to-day details of life in that intentional spiritual community- that family monastery – in that particular era are barely touched on in any other existing accounts. Farmola will certainly not stand as the definitive account. There are thousands of personal experiences of The Farm that remain to be recorded. In living my individual lifestream, I missed out on a lot of great stories.

Combine what you imagine life must have been like for pioneers heading west in the 19th Century and settling on the frontier with pilgrim quests to found free religious communities throughout history. Add the mix of mind-altering substances, rock and roll, environmental consciousness, the political turmoil of the Sixties and a touch of modern communications technology, and you can map very roughly where we were at when we established our new village in the hills and hollows of Lewis County, Tennessee.

We formed at a certain time, in a certain place, for certain reasons. What we believed and hoped would happen did not all happen. Yet much of the spirit of community from The Farm still thrives in the relationships and collaboration among its former and current members. There are, I’m sure, many useful lessons to be found within this history.

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(Photo: David Frohman)

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