A breath of new heights

Despite growing up in the flat country of the Midwest, I’ve always been attracted to heights. The top of the tree in our backyard was mine alone. I remember taking the speedy express elevator to the top of the Carew Tower in downtown Cincinnati as a child and looking down on the ant-like people on the streets far below. And mountains have always loomed large in my imagination, later abetted by a few early visits to the Appalachians in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I even backpacked a week on the Appalachian Trail at age 12 as a Boy Scout with my primitive-camping troop.

By the time I returned to Indiana in the mid-’70s, I had also lived in the Allegheny foothills to the west of the Catskills in New York state as well as the Poconos in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d even ventured into New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I thought I had a familiarity with mountains.

The paperback cover …

My next upheaval sent me west. The drive across the Great Plains and Rockies was a revelation, and the entry into the environs of my new employment came frankly as a shock. Neither my wife nor I was prepared for the arid, open desert where nearly everything, including its famed apple orchards, required irrigation. Forefront in my mind was Swami Lakshmy’s observation from her first visit to India, that every place she visited had its own unique vibration.

And yes, there were mountains, including the barren heights defining our valley as well as the eastern flank of the Cascade Range to our west and glacier-clad Mount Adams looking down on us from 50 miles away.

As I adjusted to the realities, everything was filled with wonder I came to love, as you will see in my novel Nearly Canaan, which started out being more about the distinct landscape than about fully considered characters.

My employment situation, meanwhile, provided its own fodder for what would emerge as Hometown News back in the Rust Belt. I never wanted to leave Pacific Northwest, for sure, but a new publisher at the newspaper made the situation intolerable. As I bailed out, along with the most of the rest of the management team, I entered a difficult period that added much to the newspaper tale, plus a divorce and broken engagement.

It’s always hard to come down from a mountain. A part yearns to hang there forever.

Why didn’t I become an academic?

The second of my three times of stepping out of the news business came when Vincent and Elinor Ostrom invited me to return to Indiana to become the social sciences editor in their new Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Vincent had been a wonderful mentor through my undergrad years, and the opportunity to work with them again was truly exciting. Besides, I was newly married and the move would allow my wife to continue with her college studies. It was a pretty heady undertaking all around.

We settled in at the edge of town, pretty much as I describe in Nearly Canaan. But having Indiana show up so much already in my fiction – Daffodil Uprising and What’s Left, especially – as I revisited this stage in my life, I looked around for a landscape with similar features and people, which I was surprised to find arising in the Ozarks. Now you know. In full candor, I have to admit I’ve never been in Arkansas or that swath of Missouri, even though my mother was born in St. Louis.

Two important things emerged for me personally during this sojourn. First was my shift from yoga to Quaker as my spiritual path. Second was my emergence as a poet, largely through a lively off-campus circle that was surprisingly free of academic influence. As a research associate, I could borrow books from the graduate library for unlimited periods, and so I had a shelf of small-press chapbooks at hand – what a luxury! And my interludes in the renowned Lilly rare-book library remain treasured, where I handled rare editions of Samuel Johnson’s Ramblers (1750-52, including a few coffee stains and pencil marks, presumably from their first readers) and Audubon’s original luxurious prints (all birds presented life-size, as if stunningly pressed into the pages) and fine-arts broadsides of Gary Snyder’s poems from the 1950s onward.

I found the academic life to be much to my liking. I’ve been asked since why I didn’t go on to graduate school and a professorial direction. My answers are muffled, beginning with the personal finance situation and the glut of doctorates already looking for tenure, at least in my fields of interest. I would have chafed at the internal politics, naturally. And then I came across Snyder’s reason for not continuing his own post-graduate degrees (at Indiana, when he made the decision) – he realized he could be a good professor or a good poet, but not both. I would later arrive at something similar when it came to the management track I pursued through the first half of my journalism career, as you’ll see.

Those of us in the Workshop had barely celebrated our getting the second phase of our major grant renewed, meaning I’d be staying in Bloomington another four years, when we were hit with the devasting news that the amount had been drastically slashed during an unanticipated realignment of the federal agency’s priorities. What it meant for me and my wife was packing up and moving on again.

The next opening felt like a ticket to Heaven.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, what do I know? Like I’m an expert on anything?

Through the period of my life right after college, I kept relocating every year-and-a-half to a new job and location. The shock provided more grist for my writing than I would have anticipated, but not the time to digest it.  Each round, I was just getting settled when I was interrupted and uprooted. That set me in four different states over six years at the beginning, followed by three more over the next ten. Altogether, that added up to 11 mailing addresses in seven states before I packed pack up for New England. No matter how adventurous I might find adjusting to the new environments, it was ultimately stressful. There were days I hardly knew where I was waking up. More emotionally difficult has been the way friendships fade over such distances.

As a writer who was also tackling the demands of a new job, I had little time to digest the fresh material, much less revise it, either as poetry or prose, especially if I wanted to dig beneath the surface.

As for my love life?

It’s a wonder I didn’t go loco.

Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

Yes, we’ve admired madmen, especially those of a tragic sort via what I see as often incestuous works of art. You know, celebrations of other works of art or, especially, their creators.

In effect, there’s a question. Other works based on mythology, classical or Nordic, typically, face immortals who are still caught in some dimension of time – how else could they spawn children?

Turning the focus from flawed gods to the Immortal Artist, then, implicitly asks: Are madmen closer to God? Or filled with demons to be cast out, perhaps as artworks?

You know, the cliché history of poet suicides or pianist-composers who die at an early age or libertine actresses, that sort of tragedy, not always as a consequence of defying the gods, either. Think of all the poets in the core opera librettos – a shorthand for the librettist himself or the social commentator – as well as the composers or singers. It’s a long list.

Remember, too, in many Native cultures, there’s a special place for the madman as gateway to ancient wisdom or healing or a netherworld.

Admired madmen but also feared them. Just don’t get too close, even with a morbid curiosity.

Like the artist, they exist at the fringe of the village.

It’s implicit even in hymns about hymns and the raising of voices.

And also my speaking here as a fellow poet and novelist.

~*~

It’s hard to look beyond our own boundaries and explore the greater world beyond.

This is crucial, if we’re to engage others, in light of murder, rape, warfare, and other oppression and injustice around us. Is art really far from fostering imitation in life itself? Or is it rather for escape from any reality? Do we desire encounter or flight?

Earlier, I admired dazzling tricks and outward style, derring-do, and jests with fancy footwork. Shining surfaces and surreal images.

Over time, that’s changed.

My heroes have become more human and flawed, as well.

~*~

Throughout much of Friends’ history, many of the fine arts were offensive to the faithful; most painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction, theater, music, and opera were seen as superfluous vanities, engagements that took our attention away from worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is how one Friend expressed the matter when returning an unread novel to a neighbor. For a people who refused even gravestones, worldly adornments detracted from loving a heavenly Father with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving one another as Christ had loved his/its followers.

Tertullian issued a related warning, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 CE. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. … Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse)

As was recognized in Zen some centuries ago, when people started writing and singing and painting and acting from their spiritual practice, the flowering is already past its zenith. Nonetheless, we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works as they extended on to pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, even martial arts.

When I view Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan pieces jump out in their freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art.

Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here. Transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too.

Is this a matter of like recognizing like spirit?

~*~

My real distrust of the celebration of the artist as a demigod comes in a plea for greater humility.

Yes, we work – as the poem Toltecatl, translated as “The Artist” by Denise Leverov details lovingly before countering with “The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, / makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things, / works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.”

The contrast is telling.

We’re hardly alone in work. Plumbers work, paying the price in their knees. Farmers work. Teachers work. Mothers, especially, work. Go on down the line, and admire all who do so with developed skill and intelligence and service. Who can say one field is truly superior the others?

~*~

I’m left wondering about a crossover identity of artist and priest, an expectation that the artist is expected to guide others into love or even the natural wonder around us.

It’s a fine line, between being a priest and a demigod. An inflated ego is a constant temptation, among others.

Still, how can I not love the movie “Amadeus”?

Who do you look to for inspiration?

Some similarities between Quakers and Zen

Quakers (aka the Religious Society of Friends) stand at one end of the Christian spectrum, while Zen Buddhists also stand at one end of the Buddhist spectrum.

As I’ve been discovering, Greek Orthodox (and the other Eastern Orthodox churches) stand at the other end of the Christian spectrum, much as Tibetans do in the Buddhist world.

Has me recalling a comment by Gary Snyder when he noted, arms outstretched, how one branch starts at one end and, as a practitioner advances – raising his arms in an arch overhead – they eventually pass each other to end up at the opposite end.

That said, let’s look at the Quaker/Zen starting point and what they have in common.

  1. An ethereal ascetic. Strip away distractions, down to a stark black-white dichotomy. Maybe with distinctive Quaker dove gray.
  2. They’re both minimalist.
  3. Use of questions to guide aspirants. Queries, for Friends. Koans, in one branch of Zen. No easy answers, in either.
  4. Worship as “just sitting.” OK, few Quakers focus on their breathing and most are sloppier in the posture. Even so …
  5. Emphasis on the here-and-now, rather than the afterlife.
  6. Concentration on daily practice and awareness.
  7. A practical outlook. As they teach in Zen, “Before enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water.”
  8. Direct personal experience focusing on the inner self. As in experimental, by trial and error.
  9. Sin is not discussed. Well, among Quakers, rarely, as in “missing the mark” rather than a human defect.
  10. Both originated as reform movements and are open-ended.

Why I love tracking the hip groove of the underground

The paperback cover …

My subways novel started out to be my big hippie tome, building on a metaphor of hitchhiking, which was ubiquitous for us, but the extended concept ultimately got to be too unwieldy for one book. The supportive details were stripped away for what’s become Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, leaving the metropolis altogether.

Spurred on by Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” with a dash of William Burroughs, the initial drafts played surrealistically in a tension between the wide-open roads of the countryside and the underground realms of the biggest cities.

Then, four or five years after taking up the project, I was pawing through a used books bin in the desert of Washington state and came across a 1915 engineering volume, “Building Subways in New York,” which included “Elevated Railway Steelworks.” I still have it. How on earth had it ever landed out there amid the sagebrush?

I had already lived in Upstate New York four hours from Manhattan, and nearly all of my friends, housemates, and lovers were from The City. That was followed by my residency in a yoga ashram two hours away in the Poconos, so yes, I had learned to ride the trains. (Nowadays, it’s mostly Boston’s a little over an hour south of me.)

… and the back cover.

The original “Subway Hitchhikers” had a structure that ran like trains passing in opposite directions, which readers could find confusing rather than energizing. It also had a lacy air that reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s pop art “combines.” Gone, too, in the revisions is the protagonist’s hippie handle, substituting a more conventional nickname that better links this story to the others.

In the revised version, Subway Visions, there’s more focus on characters, plus new sections on Kenzie’s encounters of Tibetan Buddhism in a tenement near Greenwich Village as well as a graffiti artist known as T-Rex.

What’s evolved has a much straighter narrative and more arresting development, now linked to Kenzie’s ongoing life in the hills to the north. And elements of fantasy and heightened playfulness now augment the earlier surrealism.

I suspect I still have some classic coin tokens in my possession, somewhere.

Ten clerks of Dover Friends Meeting since I’ve been in New Hampshire … it’s a very hard (volunteer) job

In local Quaker congregation, the head honcho is called a clerk, an important (unpaid) job even when there’s a pastor. (A whole other discussion.)

In a traditional body that observes “unprogrammed” worship like ours, the role carries the added burden of being the official spokesperson for all and the presumed face and voice of the Meeting. (Not that everyone will agree. Not in our pluralistic age. Beware of the back-sniping.)

The position rotates among members deemed worthy, and I have served five years, plus a few others as the deputy recording clerk and also as clerk of our regional umbrella, so I’ve done more than a little. But I’m far from the only one. Nor am I whining.

Here are ten others from the three-plus decades I’ve been in New England and active in Dover Friends Meeting.

  1. Silas Weeks. Replanted from an old Long Island Quaker family and long the steady hand in rebuilding our Meeting. Quite a Character.
  2. Pat Gildea. Quite an administrator. She loved having lunch to discuss things. After marrying, she scurried to England and new challenges. Whew!
  3. Barbara Sturrock. A beloved elder. Now in a retirement center up the coast.
  4. Charolotte Fardelmann. Grounded in her heart. In a retirement center closer by.
  5. Sara Hubner. Now much appreciated in her demanding, detailed work in the yearly meeting office. Membership moved to Gonic Friends up the road. Board games, anyone?
  6. Connie Weeks. Silas’s wife and then widow.
  7. Chip Neal. A New Hampshire public television personality and producer with a gentle sense of wonder who has since moved under the shadow of Parkinson’s, yet still showing flashes of wonder.
  8. Bill Gallot. Deceased all too early and dearly missed.
  9. Jean Blickensderfer. Also deceased and ditto. I never would have made it through my terms in the role if it weren’t for her support, eventually recognized as assistant clerk.
  10. Chuck Cox. Organic farmer. It helps, especially where nurture and patience and more patience are needed. I always lean on his warm smile and twinkling eyes.

~*~

As you can see, it’s an equal-opportunity job gratefully sifted by the Nominating Committee. Tell us about similar public servants you’ve known.

 

Retreat and regrouping led me into poetry and fiction

There was no Nita for me during college or immediately after. Had she existed, my route would have been much less conflicted. Somehow, though, I managed to figure out enough on my own, often through seemingly chance introductions, to survive in an alien milieu.

After college I landed in a place where I knew nobody except a few people from my previous summer as a newspaper copy desk intern. I was a Midwesterner trying to comprehend the East Coast, a hippie working in a low-paid newsroom. Single and lonely.

The locale I create in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks is situated vaguely somewhere north of New York City. It could be in the Berkshires of Massachusetts or in southern Vermont or places like Oneonta or Cortland, New York, perhaps even Utica.

The paperback cover …

I paint it as smaller than Binghamton, the strange place where I was living and working. The Tri-Cities, as it was referred to locally, was flailing to recover from collapsing industry, especially its shoe-manufacturing ruins, as well as a deteriorating but expensive housing supply. The new state university attracted socially awkward straight-A geeks and nerds. My first year I resided in a neighborhood that was Italian by day and Black, as in ghetto, by night. And then there was the summer and autumn on the farm we shared up in the hills. My work schedule was crazy like Kenzie’s, except for the three-day weekend once a month, which I really wish had been in place – I took that from a newspaper where I worked a dozen years later.

Strangely, I also soon came to love the region. There’s something distinctive about Upstate New York, with its hills and forests and lakes, and almost all of my friends were from The City, meaning the Big Apple aka Gotham. Few of them confined their definition to Manhattan, I should note. Through them I got to know Brooklyn, the Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, and northern suburbs as much as the sliver between the Hudson and East rivers.

I initially addressed this fertile period in my life as two parallel novels – one where the hippie boy largely fails to connect with free love; the other, X rated, where his fantasies come to fruition. Either way, the plots arrived at the same finale. Later, in light of Cassia’s perspectives in What’s Left as well as a few of the early reviews, I returned to these two versions and blended them into a much more cohesive, and I hope more engaging tale, “Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.” Well, that is one of the advantages of ebook editions – you can always update them.

There’s still so much that baffles me about the time and place. How one housemate would come home with a different lover each night, all of them gorgeous to my famished gaze. What was his trick, other than that twinkle in his eye?

In the revised rendering, Kenzie encounters a sequence of hippie chicks, goddesses, lovers, each of them leading him to fresh understandings. Still, I’m left wondering how each of these interludes would sound from the woman’s point of view. I suspect Kenzie wouldn’t fare so well.

Also, for me, it was yoga rather than Buddhism as a new spiritual practice, but that’s told in Yoga Bootcamp.

More lingering are the questions of what’s happened to so many I’ve met in the broader Bohemian spectrum. I can’t even remember many of their names, but I have learned that some went on to become OBGYN physicians, United Way executives, federal attorneys, United Nations officials, photocopier technicians. Hardly what you’d expect of hippies, right?

Well, I’ve tried to record and reflect on what happened, seen mostly on the run. Can you experience something – live it – and still step back enough to record it? In my novels, that’s what the photographer tries to do, similar in its own way to my own struggle. And now you can see how much that role’s changed, too, in the shift from film and darkrooms to the digital ease of today.

The small-press literary scene has had a big influence on me

While still living in the Midwest, I came under the sway of the margins of the literary world more than the more influential institutions and best-selling or most critically acclaimed voices at its core.

In high school, I came across the weekly Village Voice tabloid amid the out-of-town newspapers at Willkie’s downtown and devoured its tales of sides of Manhattan (and the world) the established dailies ignored, mostly of a progressive slant. By college, it was augmented by New York Magazine, which originated under Clay Felkner as the Sunday supplement to the now defunct Herald Tribune; glossy Esquire, with its New Journalism stars; and Evergreen, alive with muckraking politics.

Concurrently, my advanced writing class my sophomore year opened my eyes to the importance of small literary reviews, some with institutional support and others fully independent, most of them published quarterly. Some were student run, others had professional staff; more likely they were a labor of love in the wee hours. Many of them were mimeographed and stapled, before photocopying took over. Now they’re mostly online.

I was already putting out a sporadic mimeo broadside, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, on my commuter college campus, which also had a fine student-run review of its own, Nexus (35 cents!).

My next campus didn’t have such an active literary scene, especially of an experimental sort. As a student majoring in poly sci rather than English, though, I was able to sample some influential courses. Film history, for one, and Russian novels in translation in the Russian department, for another, and finally a current American novels class that examined Ishmael Reed, Tom Wolfe, Robert Coover, Thomas Pyncheon, and Ken Kesey. I was also reading a lot of Vonnegut and Hesse. On my return as a research associate in the mid-’70s, I became involved in a lively off-campus poetry circle led by Richard Pflum, Roger Pfingston, and David Wade, along with their annual Stoney Lonesome. The novelists I most often cite as influences were all active in this period.

My favorite literary periodicals were the Paris Review and Kayak, as well as the book publishers New Directions and Black Sparrow.

And then I got serious about poetry and submitting promiscuously. In all, I’ve had more than a thousand works accepted for publication by editors around the globe. Each acceptance encouraged more work in a particular direction, and sometimes comments on rejections (quite rare, I must say – most are mere forms) provided valuable advice. Some of the correspondence got quite lively. And yes, 20 rejections per submission was par for the course, as I’d been advised in that advanced writing class.

Trying to get a chapbook published, however, was more difficult. My biggest near-miss was with Copper Canyon in Washington state.

These days I can see my blogging as continuing in the small-press arena, especially at my Thistle Finch site, which is offering free PDF editions of my poetry.

Remember, feedback is always welcome for a writer, unless it’s purely caustic. Publishing in a void is the bigger struggle. I’d say the small-press scene is ultimately more personal. One reader can make all the difference.

High hippie by degrees – nobody fully fit the stereotype

By the end of ’68, the counterculture phenomenon was metastasizing from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and nearby Berkeley into pockets across most of the country and even Europe. As August of ’69 proved, it was sufficiently established in the East to draw together the unanticipated throng at Woodstock.

Much of the transplanted activity existed at the fringes of college campuses, as I experienced in Bloomington, Indiana, and later Binghamton, New York. For me, growing up in Ohio, I would have rather attended hip, beat Antioch in Yellow Springs, but the finances were way out of our consideration. So a state school was my destination, and at the time, Indiana as an out-of-state student was nearly as reasonable as in-state for me in Ohio. And a bit later, to my surprise, how yesterday Antioch began to appear once I was near the East Coast.

The searing experiences shape what I describe in Daffodil Uprising and then Pit-a-Pat High Jinks. And as I continue to repeat, hippies came in all varieties – and still do. There was no standard-issue, card-carrying member, but each was one to some degree or another. Nobody completely fit the hippie image.

As someone who became addicted at the onset of adolescence to classical, opera, and folk music, I was already passionate about an alternative to commercial entertainment, which was what rock at the time really was. I was one who lamented deeply when Bob Dylan went electric. Sold out, so it seemed. I had the long hair and blue jeans and bell bottoms. I was against the war, tried a few hallucinations, loved sex when I could get it, which wasn’t often.

And then I encountered yoga, which led me to give up meat, alcohol and drugs, and sex for the life I detail in Yoga Bootcamp – and yet, curiously, this was when I felt the most hippie in all of my awareness.