Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Days of the Hippy Communes

            I've been writing an article for the Applegater, a quarterly newsmagazine in the Applegate, about the hippy communes in the Applegate during the seventies. It's been terrific fun, reminiscing with the people I interviewed about life in communes because I, too, lived in a commune during those years – for two years at China Grade, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then for two years at Houkola, in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of Ashland. With all that experience behind me, it occurred to me that I should answer my own questions, the ones I asked my interviewees in the Applegate.
Here I'm giving a Tarot reading to some women at Houkola.
            The first question was about the vision of the commune. Like the communes in the Applegate, China Grade and Houkola touted a vision of self-sufficiency, but in my communes we never came any closer than keeping large gardens and grinding our own wheat, which we bought in large bags, whereas the folks at Molto Bene, in the Applegate, butchered their own goats and grew the grapes they turned into wine. The vision at China Grade focused more on interpersonal relations: becoming close, acting as a family, becoming brothers and sisters as more than just mouthed concepts. We had encounter group sessions to help us understand each other and to air personal grievances. They were sometimes vicious and sometimes provoked tears, but they were also compassionate and achieved their purpose of helping us work consciously on relationships and our character flaws. Our policy was openness in all matters, sexual, personal, and otherwise.
I am on the stump, next to Sun's tipi. With chickens.
            When I asked my interviewees to name the best thing about living in community, answers ranged from "learning tolerance" to "learning what it's like to live in nature" and "conversation, singing, songs, music, love-making, sharing the work." (I like the way "love-making" was slid so nonchalantly into the list.) I already knew what it was like to live in nature; the best thing for me was probably the friendship with the women. We formed a tight group at China Grade, and the appreciation I learned for women's strengths and support was invaluable. 

A women's gathering at Houkola
Beyond that, the full-moon festivals were absolutely magical, in the clearing in the redwoods by the A-frame that served as our communal building.
Pot-luck at Houkola
            I asked about the difficulties, too. For me, it was that living in community wasn't a deep aspiration. I was doing it because it was the vision of the man I loved. By personality, I am a less gregarious person. Sharing my family in a communal situation didn't come naturally to me, as it does to some people. Just look at the difference between the way I live now and the way one of the people I interviewed lives, these decades after the commune experience. Bryan says he carries with him even today the idea of welcoming people into his life, while I live alone on a mountain, where I can retreat to the peace of my own soul after a day that might have included any amount of interaction with people.
At China Grade with Dan and my goat
            What lasting benefit, I asked, did the experience of living in a commune have? Two people answered, "Tolerance," and I suppose that's true for me, too. Living together necessitates an acceptance of our differences, a lesson that tends to stick. When I joined Houkola, I had just come from the mental institution. One woman told me later that when I arrived she thought I was the strangest person she had ever met. I understood. I was strange, even to myself. Yet the people in the commune welcomed me unquestioningly. I said I had lived in a commune before and I knew that each person had to pull his or her own weight, to help with the work, but that I also knew I wasn't capable at the moment of doing my share. I had to find my center again first. Everyone just nodded or shrugged. I would do what I could, they said, and that would be enough.
            If communal living results in such tolerance and acceptance, perhaps we should all experience it for a year or two, and maybe the world is a slightly better place for the communes of the hippie era, after all. 
Me at China Grade, 1970

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Winter Nights

             Last night, awake in the darkest hours, I listened. The night before, rain had drummed hard. The night before that, wind had whooshed and roared. The night before that, rain had skittered and pattered at the whim of the wind. The night before that, other sounds of rain and wind, and the night before that and the night before that and on into the distance of dark weeks of rain. Last night I listened to silence. It wrapped around the sleeping world with delicious, soft calm. For the first time in many nights, my tinnitus was the loudest sound in the room.
            Psychologist James Hillman teaches us to look for the benefits of old age as we move into it. Waking up in the night, he says, allows us to know the night, which he equates, good Jungian psychologist that he is, with "the hellish reality of the realm of shades," with the ancient goddess of night, Nyx, and her "persecutory brood" – "phantoms of Fate, Death, Despair, Blame, Revenge, and Desire." We should embrace, he tells us, the opportunity to know Nyx because "character building may need the physiological changes that awaken the old into night."
            Mythologically, Hillman is certainly right, but experientially, for me, there are other reasons to embrace the opportunity that aging gives us to know the night. Knowing phantoms is not the only way to build character. When night shuts down our vision, not only by sleep but also by darkness, our ears roam more easily. Last night my ears wandered leisurely through the landscape, listening intently for sounds. Rain? A breath of breeze tossing a light shower of water from the trees? The barred owl calling from up the mountain? Nothing.
            No, that's not right. What my roving ears sensed, everywhere, was silence, which is not nothing. Like Wallace Stevens's listener in the snow, I was beholding "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
            Summer nights are loud with crickets. In the late evenings of early spring, the stentorian, throaty chorus of frogs heralds the darkening day. The rising dawns of spring ring with birdsong, summoning the ear, still fuzzy with sleep, to arise, come forth, listen. In spring, summer, and on into the autumn the sharp bark of a fox below the garden; the hollow hoots of two owls calling from long distances across the hill, their voices individually distinct, one higher, one lower, like female and male; the whistle of a deer or the light crunch of her step through dry madrone leaves; the heavier step of the bear ("That's not a deer!" you think, lying in bed, listening); in winter, the storms with their enormity of wind, their insistence of rain, their pounding and thrashing assault on the ear – these are the sounds of the night.
            And then, sometimes and only in winter, the sounds recede into the dark, into silence, bringing a peace of (not from) sound that only night – and snow – can bring. There is an aliveness to this silence, not a nothingness but an everythingness, the difference between white being the absorption of all color and black the absence of all color. That absence of color creates a presence of the color black, just as the absence of sound creates the presence of silence. On such nights as last night, we who awake in the night are fortunate to swaddle ourselves in the soothing presence of silence.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

It's Still about the Weather

             On the sixth day of the snowfall a neighbor plowed my road, just enough that I could get my car down the hill, though not enough to get it up again. (That won't be possible for a while.) I drove to town and bought groceries, then came back up the mountain as soon as possible. I parked as much off the road as I could, given the mounds of snow the snowplow had thrown on the shoulder. Then I hefted my pack full of groceries and hiked through the snow up the hill to my house.
            On the seventh day, my friend Mike walked up the hill through the snow to spend the day and the night with me. Fellowship is especially welcome at times like this. I was glad I had food for a good dinner.
            One day it started to rain and didn't stop for 36 hours. Two of the three feet of snow melted. Immediately after that it snowed for 24 hours. Accumulation was instant. After a while I couldn't even tell where the snowplow had been.
            On the tenth day I put on my ski boots and gaiters (the best protection against the slush) and walked down the road just at daybreak for my first day of teaching this term. However, I never made it to class because I got the car stuck in the new snow as I tried to pull onto the road. I abandoned the car where it was and sludged back up the hill. I thought about going back down with a shovel, but I was exhausted from two hikes, so I called my secretary and asked her to meet my classes, explain why I wasn't there, and hand out my syllabus. I spent the day sewing, playing my guitar, and admiring the snow.
            On the eleventh day I walked down the hill with a shovel, but when I got to my car a kind neighbor was already shoveling me out. I worked with him to widen my parking space, then drove two miles down an icy road and the rest of the way into town on ice-free roads. I had tea with friends, went to the knitting store, and returned to walk home just before dark.
            On the twelfth day – today – I walked down the road at first light and, after a scary moment when I thought the car door was frozen shut, I got in the car and drove without difficulty to the college. My last class was over at 4:00. I was parked at the bottom of the road by 5:00 and home before dark.
            Day after day, from the first day to the twelfth and on through the weeks, I have reveled in winter. Everything is still beautifully white. Sounds vacillate between the rush of snowmelt or steady rain and the utter stillness of a freeze, both beautiful. I wear my beautiful winter coat and my sweaters and hats and my furry black boots. I sleep deeply and warmly under good wool blankets, and I eat hot soups, drink good teas, and make brownies. Best of all, I sit at the window and relish the beauty of the world, not neglecting to be grateful for this beautiful warm house in which I am so happily snowbound.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Year's Snow

             Snow fell on New Year's Day. Two days later it was falling incessantly, piling up inch by inch, then foot by foot. Now snow snuggles up to the house almost to the level of the windowsills.

 Snow has  snuffed out all sound except the occasional muffled thunder of tree limbs loosening their load. Wind blows soft snow off trees in beautiful white swirls. Snow has whitened the entire world outside the house with its clean, spotless beauty.
            When I woke up this morning no light resulted from the flick of the light switch. I groped my way downstairs (thinking of my blind friend), found a flashlight, and lit some candles. No electricity. No water. No phone service. No internet, so no email, and my cell phone never did work in the house. No communication. My four-wheel-drive car with studded snow tires sits useless in the carport, stymied by the depth of the snow. I have water in my bathtub and enough water in snow to last for months. I have plenty of firewood and a good wood stove. I have an emergency food supply.
            I also have skis, and, as I had obligations to cancel, I decided to ski down the hill to the paved road and from there to a neighbor's where there might be cell reception.
            First I stopped to see how my only neighbor on this gravel road was doing. She was bailing. She had called friends in the valley who told her she could stay with them. They would walk up the hill to fetch her and bring a sled for her cats in a cage.
            I wished her luck and kept on going. As I was skiing down the hill, I saw her friends walking up, knee-deep in snow and dragging a sled behind them. At the bottom of the road I saw a heavy, more-than-four-wheel-drive, army-type vehicle with a driver, waiting for Sylvia and her rescuers. The road had not been plowed, and the man told me that only a vehicle like his could get up it. He advised me to get out of there and told me he would take me down the mountain right then, but I declined his offer, and his advice, and skied on up the road to Dave and Lauri’s. On my way I met other neighbors, walking with their dogs. When I explained my mission, Blair said he would go to his house to get his phone, which was the only one with reception, and meet me at Dave's.
            Dave and Lauri were standing outdoors in the sunshine with another neighborhood couple. Blair arrived with his phone, and I made my calls. We all had a nice little fun time talking about how deep the snow was and how we hadn't seen snow like this for eleven years, laughing about all the hardships, and exchanging stories about how we were coping. Everyone is more or less in the same position as I – actually less, since their road is less steep and not as long, and since they’re all super-practical, capable men and wives lucky enough to have super-practical husbands with big vehicles and back-up electrical systems and money and brains and capability. I am just an impractical woman living alone way up on a mountain without enough brains to keep my back-up system charged or to drive my car to the bottom of the hill before the snow came. I used to do it. At the least sign of snow I used to leap into my car and take it to the paved road. I think the reason I didn’t do it this time was that life in my new house is so much easier than life in the old one it didn’t occur to me I could be revisited by the hardships of yesteryear. 
            When I got home, the electricity had returned. 

Shortly thereafter phone service was restored, too. Friends were calling to see if I was all right, if there was anything they could do for me. I'm in communication again. The house is warm. Because my plans for the week have been avalanched, I find myself in the sort of vacation mode I always imagine the long Christmas vacation will be but never is – endless days of leisure with no obligations to be anywhere, just time to do with as I like. I have been sewing and reading and playing the guitar. The world outside is unimaginably beautiful. The deeper the snow, the more beautiful it becomes. Its purity and cleanliness seem to auger the same for the human world. Hope shines.