Why I keep returning to counterculture particulars

I wish there were a better label than “hippie” to apply to the counterculture explosion that swept the world in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Contrary to popular assumptions, there was no standard-issue hippie, male or female. Not everyone did pot or ventured into acid and beyond, nor did everyone participate in a protest march or have long hair or have sex every night or at least on the weekend. We all came in various degrees of separation from general society yet, somehow, we also recognized a kinship with each other.

The paperback cover …

“Are you sure you were a hippie,” my wife sometimes asks. So what if I didn’t like rock? Many of my friends had been at Woodstock just down the highway from the milieu I describe in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks. No, we didn’t recite a credo, you dig what I mean?

The only other flash in history I can see similar to this was the mid-1600s in England, with its World Turned Upside Down before the restoration of the monarchy – stresses that would fester until the American Revolution a century later. What we shared was a vision of a more just, equal, and caring society. We didn’t have standard-issue, card-carrying members. Alas, we didn’t have elders or cohesive discipline, either. And the breakdown that followed can’t be blamed entirely on a youth movement crossing over into the dreaded age 30. (Oh, how I’d love to be back there, if only I wouldn’t have to figure out how to survive in the current economy.)

Tom Wolfe, author of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” pointedly asked why there wasn’t the big hippie novel, overlooking a few notable entries like Gurney Norman’s “Divine Right’s Trip.” The problem, as I see it, is that the scope of the events was too big and too fuzzy to be encapsulated in a single volume. You had the activist side, from civil rights and draft resistance to pacifism, feminism, and the environment, for starters. Add to that sexual revolution. And then drug use, abuse, and visions, as well as new spiritual teachings and practices. All before we even get to the music and its scene. How could you possibly wrap all of that, plus more, into a single volume?

… and the back cover.

Believe me, I’ve tried with my own Daffodil Uprising and its companion “Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.” Hate to admit there’s so much more that could be added to the, uh, pot. Make that “pan.”

By the way, I think there are worthy nominations in each of the subcategories I’ve just mentioned. I’d love to hear more.

Frankly, I think we, as a nation, have been in a state of denial about the era, with its tension between the war in ‘Nam and the Establishment supporting it, on one side, and the opposition on multiple grounds, on the other. Those rifts in the soul of the nation have never been adequately examined and addressed from either side, much less healed. We could start with the MIA-POW myth, for one, or the ways we might have failed to answer our kids’ questions about pot use, for another. They are definitely exploding in our face now.

Meanwhile, Cassia, in What’s Left, has come along to try to make her own way out of the debris.

And so I humbly or brashly offer my own novels for discussion.

Care to share in my field notes from a lifetime’s zigzag trip?

Writing has been a means for me to investigate the question, “Who am I,” and of recollecting fragments, especially those that might eventually coalesce into a larger perspective. Unlike many adults, I have few vivid childhood memories, but what I am piecing together is often troubling. I grew up in Ohio in a mainstream Protestant tradition, became an Eagle scout, loved chemistry, hiked and camped, that sort of thing. I can blame becoming a hippie on my first lover, and thank her, too, for pointing my life in an unanticipated direction even after she flew ever so far away.

In the years since, I’ve followed a zigzag journey that’s been rich in many ways excepting money. Let’s just say it’s been off-beat.

Now retired from a career in daily newspaper journalism, I’ve married for the second time, live in a historic mill town in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, and am an active Quaker. It’s a full plate. What I didn’t expect was how much of my own “contemporary” fiction is now history – so much has changed so quickly in my own lifetime.

It’s hardly the end of the story, though. Not if we can help it.

 

I’m feeling suspended in time, as in limbo

A curious set of emotions has set in for me. As much as I love living in Dover, I feel myself separating from it. There’s a sadness, as well as the excitement of new adventure ahead, though we have no idea exactly how soon.

Next week? Next month? Next spring or summer? We don’t know yet.

We had enough surprises in trying to buy this place, in what seems a life ago to me.

So I anticipate a crush of time-consuming work ahead in packing and then unpacking our goods, as well as the rounds of changing address and establishing new connections, and that in turn has me hesitating to step up to volunteer for tasks in the groups where I’m a member. Yes, I’m distancing.

It’s happening at home, too.

Moving around the garden, for instance, when we realized we wouldn’t replant garlic bulbs this fall, not here. Or looking at my fern beds and asparagus patch, knowing I’ll definitely miss them.

Or facing household breakdowns, which seem to be multiplying. You know, let repairing them become someone else’s problem. They probably wouldn’t like the color of paint we use, anyway.

Things we’ve never really liked about the house itself but somehow accepted now are acknowledged as irritants. That sort of thing.

I keep thinking we could easily pour another hundred grand into this domicile, if we had that much, but it would never be want we really want or, at this point in our lives, fit what we need.

This all feels so strange, given that I’d settled into a kind of familiar lazy comfort with things.

All of them about to be uprooted.

A time for redirection in my own life

One of my annual practices around now used to be crafting a seasonal itinerary for the coming year, one that included goals for each of the major components of my life – Writing/Creative, Quaker, Relationships, Household – that sort of thing. It was kind of like budgeting, but with a focus mostly on time and dreams.

Closely related was a consideration of what kind of schedule I wanted to follow once I retired or somehow otherwise achieved financial freedom. You know, maybe having a bestseller novel break out to fund it all.

The one thing I realized each time I attempted the planning was that there would never be sufficient time for everything I deemed important. And, as my wife pointed out, there were a lot of mundane tasks I wasn’t even considering.

Looking back, I’m rather embarrassed by what I’m seeing. One thing for sure is that little of my life since retiring is anything like what I had anticipated. I had no idea how much my stamina and self-discipline would be flagging. During the earlier thinking, blogging wasn’t even on the horizon nor was choir or daily swimming. (Well, the latter two are currently off, given Covid.) I’m still not meditating or doing hatha yoga daily, either.

Much of the time has been taken up with the self-publication and promotion of my novels as ebooks, and later, with the deep drafting and revisions of What’s Left, which in turn prompted drastic reworking and even renaming of my earlier fiction. Releasing those in both Kindle and paperbook at Amazon last summer came as a HUGE relief. In many ways, I felt I was done.

Or almost.

What I wanted to do was reshape my daily, weekly, and even annual routines. What are my goals and dreams now? What do I need to do, too, to maintain a suitable living situation? Some of it was even reexamining my self-identities and lifestyle. Well, before I retired I had hoped to take a retreat at a monastery or some such to ponder these bigger issues. Was this now the time?

Instead, I glanced at what I want to do here on WordPress in the coming year, and that prompted several months of heavy writing and scheduling of posts. You know, clear the deck, for the most part. Frankly, it’s been more time-consuming labor than I expected, no matter how much I enjoy doing it.

The thought even crossed my mind: What if I stopped blogging altogether? What would I do with the free time? (Would that leave me feeling retired?)

The latest unanticipated turn, though somehow fitting into this refocusing, has arisen in the joint decision to downsize and relocate. It just might lead to a time of isolation and retreat for me, too. We’ll see how things shake out.

Yes, indeed.

As for those dreams

My wife’s long dreamed of living on an island and had come close to making that a reality. She’s still pained by the way that came apart, back before she met me. Well, indirectly it’s a reason we came together.

So here we are, finally with a destination that’s technically an island, one connected to the mainland by a causeway rather than a ferry.

As for me, Downeast Maine – the lands and waters east of fashionable Acadia and Bar Harbor – reminds me of the Far West, with its long distances to anywhere, the wilds and wildlife, and opportunities to explore nature. But our destination also has a lively arts scene, one that reminds me of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, back in the early ’80s.

Leaving the Pacific Northwest crushed a passion and way of life, something I’m feeling rekindled in this new setting.

No, it’s not Alaska or the coast of British Columbia and there are no glacier-glad mountains, but the vibe’s right. For that matter, I’m not up for that degree of isolation in my life at this stage.

Somehow, though, this is exciting.

~*~

For us, it’s not quite as simple as packing everything onto a boat and landing at a new dock.

Instead, we’re relocating in stages, eventually merging two households into one. Two households with barns, to an old Cape without one.

Whatever we keep will be strategic, for sure. And yes, it will still be lined with books, lots of them.

Facing up to downsizing

After nearly 21 years in the same house – the one with the small red barn – we’ve come to a difficult decision.

It’s time to move on. Not only is the place too big for just the two of us – remember, there were once five us of living here – it’s also eating up too much of our retirement budget and time. We can’t continue to watch our meagre savings shrinking. For that matter, we can’t even keep up with the gardening and cleaning routines, not if we’re going to indulge in the other desired things on our proverbial plate. An estimate for reroofing the house may have been the tipping point.

We’ve run the numbers of having others renting space here or trying to swap what we own for something smaller close by, and we do love the community, as you’ve gathered from reading the blog, but no enticing alternative has jumped out. Dover’s simply a very hot housing market at the moment.

What has caught our fancy, thanks to a daughter’s investigation, is a small down-on-the-heels city on the ocean at the other end of Maine – one with an active arts community and a nearby Quaker meeting. It is as far from where we are now as is Manhattan in the opposite direction – a five-hour-plus drive. Half of the townships you pass though in the last two hours of that route are uninhabited, except for the black flies, mosquitos, and moose.

Even without that prompting, we still need to sort through our possessions and cull what we can. It’s not just clutter, either. So much of this is essentially frozen time – things we thought we’d want to get to someday or debris from the past, souvenirs we probably won’t ever revisit again. (There’s more on decluttering on my Chicken Farmer blog.)

The key question we’re asking ourselves, “Is this something I’ll need or use in the next five years?” Or, for that matter, really miss.

And so, independently, we’ve started. No matter how liberating the task ultimately becomes, getting there is often painful.

In our case, it’s a multistage process, as I’ll discuss in future posts.

We’ve started with the books, mostly, because there are so many of them and they occupy the most space. They’re also heavy to move.

After that we get to clothing, kitchen goods, garden and home maintenance tools, our personal collections.

For me, that leads to writing supplies and files, concert program notes and playbills from events I’ve attended, my vinyl, CD, and tape recordings.

 

Here’s another consideration of your worldly possessions

If your house caught fire, what would you miss most?
Or, if you had time, what’s the first thing you would you save?

You know, that Dolley Madison thing of grabbing the portrait of Washington when the White House was burning. (OK, a slave actually deserves the credit, but back to the point.)

I have to admit that having so much of my work now backed up in the cloud, rather than on paper, greatly refocuses my response here.

My journals would be a big loss – there are too many to take them out all at once.

Other people would top the list, and after that, whatever’s closest at hand, probably starting with my laptop.

Random thoughts while sorting through what’s been squirrelled away

When we first moved to our home, I had dreams of converting the loft of the barn into my own palatial writer’s studio, replete with shelves of books and a bank of filing cabinets. I recalled what critic and English professor Jack Barnes had done at his farmhouse in Hiram, Maine, and was envious. In some ways, it would have been an extension of how I’d transformed what normally would have been the bedroom in my rented townhouse on the highest hill in Manchester before making the big leap that included this barn.

Several things changed during the two decades since then.

One was the shift from paper to digital, not exactly planned but let’s say inevitable, by stages. Submissions to editors and publishers no longer required printed manuscripts, for example, and with that came less need for envelopes, filing drawers of copies and correspondence. That in itself has meant I’m needing a lot less physical space to work in.

Another was our entering an empty-nest situation as the girls moved away and then my mother-in-law passed.

Financially, of course, converting the loft to year-round use was an expense I could no longer justify. Besides, why would I want to be isolated there when I had the top of the house to work in?

Realistically, my aspirations of becoming a successful author – meaning a sustainable income from royalties, workshops and appearances, and editing or coaching – never materialized. Along with that went my need for what would have been, in effect, a large office.

~*~

So here I am, in what became a kind of seasonal treehouse, one filled with things that didn’t fit into our house itself, not all of them mine, by a long shot. I’m blowing off dust and spiders while sorting through boxes, cartons, and shelves before the weather gets too cold to work up here. See this as plugging through time, past, present, and future. How many opportunities have I blown or got buried by other demands on my attention? How did we do as much as we did? Whatever happened to so-and-so? Still, I feel no impulse to reconnect in person. The time for that has long passed.

As for the open area on the floor? When’s the last time I’ve done hatha yoga? Yet one more anticipated activity that never came to fruition.

~*~

Down from the wall comes an Amish hat, the one with hole in the crown. It no longer fit that self-identity anymore, not the Plain Quaker style and practice. Out it goes, then.

Same for the three-D topographical map of the Cascade Range and Yakima. I won’t be hiking those trails anymore. Anything I do will be somewhere in Maine. Besides, if I want to check a detail, these days there’s always the Internet.

I had come to a point where I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live without a barn, or so I joked, but now I’m about to be reminded it’s possible. Others in our entourage, however, are scouting out storage units as a way of buying more time to do triage on their own possessions in the developments of any pending deal.

Unpacking the past, opening space to move on

I’ve been up in the loft of the barn, going through many of my goods that have been packed away here. These days, the temperature’s not too hot, and though the air’s chilly outside, the sun on the roof has this space comfy. The wind sends maple spinners tapping overhead, as well as falling leaves and twigs. For me, it’s autumn in more ways than one.

I’ve already gone through my spirituality/religion bookshelf in my studio in the house and pruned nearly a hundred volumes from it – mostly Yoga and Buddhism I’ll no longer be referencing in new writing. I look one last time at these field guides and backcountry maps from across the continent while hoping to find an appreciative reader to give them to. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m finding more books here in the barn, some of them adding to that pile, but also Whole Earth Catalogs, political science, poetry, marketing and agenting guides, art and history, Cascade Mountains trail books and photo albums. Each of them is a reflection of my life’s interests and pursuits, now in my past.

There are also picture frames we’ve never used, rolled-up posters, Quaker outreach materials.

At least I went ahead and burned the outdated assorted financial records a few days ago – credit cards slips, receipts, insurance mailings, and so on. Shredding them would have taken forever.

And then correspondence and photos. What to keep and what to release?

The point is that it’s time to let go and move on.

Soon to follow are the genealogical working notes and files. Four filing boxes stuffed with them. Everything I’ve gleaned is now up on my Orphan George blog. Another completed project, as far as I’m concerned. Yet when I open one of the boxes, I feel myself burdened with some constricting force, likely arising in a self-imposed obligation. No, the time has come.

Along with another filing box of poetry and fiction acceptances and correspondence. I discarded the rejections long ago. I hate to think how much I spent on postage and photocopying in that pastime or of the hours I devoted to it before I shifted my output to blogging and self-published ebooks.

More symbolic is my old backpack basket, at one time a status item reflecting my reaching first-class rank in Boy Scouts and, along with it, the right to weave the basket and attach it to the frame I made when I had earned second-class. It no longer fits and has long been battered in my moves across the continent. Besides, I won’t be backpacking again. With it, I learned to back light in my travels. Farewell, then, as I pack light anew.

Not everything up here is mine, but we are on a downsizing effort.

~*~

I have to admit feelings of failure, of seeing how often I was compelled to move away and start over just as something else was about to open. Of near-misses, too. Of broken relationships.

But there’s also the warmth of past friendships and support. Long, personal letters from busy people, for one thing, something that’s really from a different era than the one we inhabit now. Of deceased elders and mentors, especially.

I have moments of sensing this as a prelude to the aftermath of my own funeral, a kind of this-was-your-life sweep. As I do the work of clearing out things I’ve treasured that won’t mean anything to anyone among my family and friends, I spare them the task. There will be plenty enough as when I’m done, far as I can see.

It’s bittersweet, really, making room for what’s left. Nobody said it would be easy.