Thursday, June 15, 2017

Return to Houkola – Part I

           When I was 29-30 years old, I was diagnosed (rightly or wrongly) as catatonic schizophrenic and spent a year in and out of mental institutions. At the end of that year, in the spring of 1975, I moved to a commune, deep in the mountains south of Ashland, Oregon, called Houkola, owned by a woman named Sasha. One of the couples on the commune, Eric and Miriam, had conceived their daughter, Sequoia, there. Last week I got a call from Miriam, who lives in Ashland but whom I hadn't seen since the days of Houkola, telling me she wanted to take her daughter to see the place where she and Eric had conceived her and did I want to join them?
         What it would be like to be at Houkola again I could only imagine.
        Miriam and I only had vague memories to help us find the land where the commune had been, situated in a remote part of the Siskiyou Mountains, but when we came to a particular hill on the road, memory kicked in. "This hill! I remember this hill!" I cried excitedly. "This is where – oh, what was her name? – slid off the road in the snow one winter," and Miriam said, with as much excitement, "I remember the railroad coming close to the road – see it there! – at the bottom of this hill." Pretty soon, with the help of a resident who was driving up the road and who could show us where Houkola had been, we were walking through a gate – a new gate; we had had no gates at Houkola – 

up the road to the commune again. We had walked that road a lot, in the days of Houkola, in the snows of winter and in the heat of summer. As we walked past a grove of small oaks next to the road, Miriam said suddenly, "I remember these trees!" We knew we were coming back.
        About half a mile up the road, we came to another gate, from which I could see the top of a house. We hesitated a split second (maybe it belonged to the new owner?), but we weren't about to stop now. Once through the gate, when I could see the house more clearly, I burst into a run. "That's it!" I cried. "That's our house! There's the porch. Sasha was weaving on the porch. I was sitting next to her. Two other women were weaving under these very oak trees."

            The memory was vivid. I had been so anxious, so unsure of myself that day, as always during those first few months out of the mental institution, when I was suffering a shattered personality and didn't know how to be myself any more. I remembered now what I had been thinking at that moment: "I have a loom. Shouldn't I be weaving, too?" I remembered how, on that day, sitting on that porch, I calmed my anxiety, saying to myself, "It's all right. What you're doing is watching the women weave. You don't have to be doing anything else." It was such an important moment for me, a lesson in "beingness" that took me one step closer to wholeness.
            Miriam also recognized the oak trees next to the porch. "I remember sitting under those trees making moccasins," she said. 
            I was beside myself with excitement. Everything was still there, albeit dilapidated – 

the house, the fence around the garden area, Sasha's cabin, the sauna, the barn on the side of which I had built a room. The room was now just a pile of broken boards, the reverse image of me: a pile of broken boards when I arrived at Houkola, now an intact, whole person. I had just been released from the mental institution then and was heavily drugged with anti-psychotics. Life was meaningless; everything I did was busy work. When I met the people in the commune, that first night at dinner, and told them Sasha had invited me to live in the tipi there, I explained my condition and said that I had lived in a commune before, so I knew how necessary it was for each person to carry his or her part of the work load, but that I knew I wasn't capable of doing that at that time.
            They just nodded in agreement. "That's all right," they said. "You will do what you can when you can." And that was all. From the first moment, I was given permission and freedom to focus on the healing process, to rediscover myself. 
          It wasn't always easy. When I moved to Houkola, I had to leave my son with his father, who had become my ex-spouse while I was in the mental institution. I knew I wasn't capable of taking care of my child, but it broke my heart to leave him. I loved the times when he came for week-long visits, visits I used for reconstructing our relationship. The memories of our time together are wonderful ones – Mariposa, the person I was closest to at Houkola, told me later how much she learned from me about raising her own boys – and if those memories were circumscribed with painful memories, well, that's the way things were.  The whole of my time at Houkola was important to me, so remembering it all was also important to me, now, at my return.

(Part 2 of "Return to Houkola" will be posted next week.)

1 comment:

  1. A fine piece, especially the boards that fell apart, the boards of self that are so well seasoned and sturdy (I hope).

    You moved me to find out more. I see that Eric died, Sequoia became a photographer, and Miriam appears as a donor to Siskiyou School.