I’m about to leave this town. The other night I leaned out a front window of this house, an old gold Victorian I love deeply. It was just after sunset. Thirty feet down cars hummed by on the street. House lights in the neighborhood came on as the stars did. Something gripped me: my love for this place.
There’s been something centering about Berkeley for me. Not that it’s a particularly spiritual or relaxing place. But somehow I learned here to make where I am feel like the center of the universe. And what a wonderful sense that is!
Yet I’m leaving, repeating an old story of mine. Moving on to the next promised land. This one, six hundred miles up the coast, is the final destination I tell myself. I have family there, an old friend, professional opportunity, a part of the earth that feels really solid and sacred to me. The father in me, the builder of a life-work and of long-lasting connections, has arisen in me these last years. He is a blackbird ready to nest.
But I’m a little wary. Is this really the final destination? Or do I simply need to say that now, to satisfy the archetypal hunger? This is a symbolic journey, a coming home at last, the outer expression of an inner move.
There have been other symbolic journeys. Several years ago I was drawn again and again to journey into the wilderness. So I made trips to the mountains, with ambitious agendas for hiking, contemplation, and nature study. Typically, I was bored by the second day, and led to wonder why the pull was so strong when the experience wasn’t. I see now that the wilderness was a beautiful symbol for me and of me then: being at the edge of the known world, alone with the wild forces and spirits. The inner journey to the wilderness was the real enticer. The image drew me, the story.
I think about that now. Could I save myself the forthcoming move, and just complete the symbolic journey? An elegant idea, but it doesn’t resonate. I want the outer experience. I want the symbolic made concrete, at least this time. It can’t be happening only on the inside.
Some people, sometimes, need to change locations to change where they’re at.
Three years ago, I started to feel the tug. One by one, the strings tightened, the strings that together would pull me back to the small New England town where I grew up.
The trip required a total reverse in momentum. Until then, my journeys had been outward. The first, a leap from the football-centered high school where I waited with other square pegs for life to begin at the higher ground of college. The next, from the rural university, where the companionship and discovery were still within the protective arms of New England, to the West.
As I drove into Texas, I felt my breathing deepen, and something in me relaxed. I seemed to expand, to reach out and fill all the available space in that wide vista. I visited honkeytonks, and delighted in the raucus music and the swing dance. I spent hours driving around looking at cotton blossoms and oil derricks. Even the dust storms were exciting.
Eventually, though, right about May when the heat came on, the wonder paled. I realized my joy in the land was not matched by an affinity for the people I was surrounded by. Once again, I left for higher ground.
This time, after a foray in the Rockies, I found my true open spaces in Colorado Springs. It was hard to put my finger on, but this was far from New England. I found I could speak my mind, go to bars alone, explore my psychic abilities, and nobody cared. Big Mother was not watching.
Then, after several years of expansion, it began. The first tug was a gradual disenchantment with the dry, harsh topography of Colorado. I wanted rounded hills and lush vegetation, rippling brooks and rows of old houses. The next was a longing for a baby. Shouldn’t a child know its grandparents, and all the richness of cousins, aunts and uncles? Then the question of employment arose. I wanted to write for a living, and there are lots of publications in New England. Finally, my father entered the act. First he came to my dreams, appearing in translucent form with bowls of golden apples, then quickly disappearing. Then he spoke to my conscious level.
“Roy is hoping for a wedding at the family reunion this summer,” my mother told me on the phone. What? My father, who never tried to influence my life in any way except to ensure my safety? Somehow this hope, conveyed to me secondhand, struck me deeply. David and I began to consolidate our plans to be married.
Several months later, three weeks after our marriage at the family reunion, my father keeled over at a meeting of the volunteer fire department. Now, pulled into a tight circle of love and anguish to help him die, we could not leave. I got a job on the newspaper in my high school town. David got one nearby. My father died, and I found myself dealing with everything I had run from years before: my family, the high school, the town where the status quo is set by the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts and the mothers of the little league, and everybody pretty much follows along.
Now nearly two years have passed, and I begin to see my way clear. I walk through the town with a casualness and friendliness I could not manage in times past, and I see it returned. I see some of the reasons and complexity behind the conformity. And I carry my secret with me; I shall not stay. I may look and act like the prodigal daughter returned, but I am only paying old debts and tying loose strings. One day they will look and I will be gone.
I rarely leave New York City. The last time I left was to go to my friend Jeff The Guitar Player’s wedding reception in Buffalo.
At Newark Airport, People’s Express had a waiting list of 300. I meditated for hours in the waiting room.
In the sky, I looked down at the clouds. I wondered, What are clouds? Are they “real?” Are they real the way thoughts are real or are they real the way the earth is real? They look so powerful, but if you step on them, you’re back in Indianapolis.
I landed in Buffalo and Ananda Deva took me to his house and showed me his videotapes. One was about his childhood, the games he used to play inside his mind on the school bus — he even remembered the number of the school bus. It was quite good.
The next day I spoke to Ananda Deva’s roommate, Theresa, about the Irish neighborhood she grew up in. I told her what I like about Irish neighborhoods is that people take their kids into bars.
Jeff The Guitar Player’s wedding reception was in a hip cabaret in downtown Buffalo. It was called something like “609.” Jeff was very happy to see me. He introduced me to his friends. One was a troubled woman who sat alone near the bar — she produced plays. Most of her plays didn’t have any words. She explained to me the reasons for her plays; she used words like “matrix” and “paradigm.”
I met a woman who had two children, both of whom had graduated from college and were now waiting on tables.
I talked to a pharmacist who gave his optometrist valium in exchange for eyeglasses.
I talked to a nineteen-year-old guy with a crewcut who told me how great the local hardcore band, State of Grace, was.
Jeff The Guitar Player and I reminisced about our old band, The Holes of Infinity. We talked about our friend Jeff Packard, who’s making his living in New York City painting pictures of the sky.
I blessed the beer at the party. “As we hold our Spirits in our hand,” I began. I drank club soda.
I liked Jeff’s wife, Bernadette. She was kind of tough, and had studied with John Cage.
I got a ride back to New York with Jeff The Guitar Player’s friend Ned, who’s a neurology student. I told him my old girlfriend Joan was studying sex in snakes in Austin for her doctorate, and it turned out he’d studied sex in snakes, too. The snakes he’d worked with mate once a year, for six hours. The male’s penis gets large and spiny and the female usually gets all torn up inside. The female saves the sperm sometimes for months.
“Pretty wierd, huh?” he said. I agreed.
He drove me right to my door. I thanked him and went inside. It was 4 a.m. I wished I was still in Buffalo. It was so peaceful there.
New York, New York
Journeys too often imply resistance — something to overcome between here and there. Perhaps it is in this exactly that “journeys” reside: in the resistance lies the distance. Let go of the resistance and where would there be to go?
The journey that interests me lately is the one from “no” to “yes.” I may be too optimistic, but I have a hunch (derived mostly from friends, I admit) that human beings have a deep longing to say “yes,” to replace suspicion with trust, tight-fistedness with generosity, distance with love, combat with surrender, and defensiveness with ease. Perhaps this is the draw of churches and temples in their weekly activities — offering an hour’s surcease from the bob-and-weave defensiveness and control pervading the workaday week.
But it’s tricky, this “yes” business. Verbal support and intellectual appreciation won’t really fill the bill. Example, perhaps: I recently asked an extra-competent woman friend about her ideal fantasy relationship: “When you fantasize, what is it you imagine you would bring to the relationship?” Since fantasies are, by definition, self-centered and “get”-oriented, it took her a minute to readjust. When she answered, she spoke of “understanding needs” and other very-good-sounding things. And what did I imagine bringing, she asked. “Affection,” I said. Later in the week, when we spoke on the phone, I was feeling sad. She was very nice, trying to cheer me up. At the end of the conversation, she said, “I love you” — a thing she’d never said before. And perhaps she meant it. But I could not keep it from my mind: this is a fast-learner, one who only needs a single suggestion; if “affection” is the suggestion, there is a file box with appropriate sub-headings and examples. Fast-learners try and journey. I could not know if I had not been there. The one thing fast-learners seldom do is say “yes.” The what-ifs, the fear of future pain, the desire to please . . . all these and a lot more like them form a great barrier between the seeker and the sought. Socially (superficially), these are adroit mechanisms. Personally, they are a disaster.
What then is a “yes?” It seems to vary from person to person, but it also seems to have at least one common thread: thoroughness, a quality of no reservation. As a bud turns into a flower without resistance or second thought, as a baby wails out its statement, as a kiss passes softly between lovers, so a person may eventually journey forth as he/she has never not-been — without a stitch of defensive clothing, saying, simply, “yes.” This does not mean that there is no awareness of drawbacks or difficulties; saying “yes” involves going through whatever might formerly have elicited a “no,” knowing it’s there, and saying “yes” anyway. Why? It’s easier. Not less painful, not more joyful, not without doubt and fear. It’s easier and way ahead of whatever’s in second place — a so-called journey to here.
New York, New York
About 1900, shortly after his bar mitzvah, my father journeyed to Chicago from a village that was either in Poland or Russia, depending on whose army had advanced last. Of course, it didn’t matter to Jews anyway. Either army considered Jews eminently attackable.
Around that same time, my mother’s parents left Romania — from a shtetl somewhere near the Black Sea — and journeyed to New York, then to Lowell, Massachusetts, and eventually to Chicago.
It’s too late to ask them now — they’re all gone, and I didn’t have the sense to ask when I could — how they had the foresight and the incredible courage to pack what belongings they could and leave their families and friends and familiar lives to go halfway around a strange world toward an unknown future.
I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like to leave and then to travel across the endless Atlantic, jammed together with other emigrants. What must it have been like to land at Ellis Island, weary from the trip, into the midst of a jumble of language and the disinterested officiousness of the immigration people? And then, what must it have been like when they arrived in New York? I’ve tried to put myself in their place and I can only imagine being frightened and overwhelmed with doubt, and know I’d have been sure I’d made a mistake leaving my home for that noisy, aloof, unfamiliar place where the streets, I would discover, were really not paved with gold.
I don’t know why or how they knew to journey to America. I only know I bless them for doing it and I burst with pride in the knowledge of their wisdom and their courage. I wish I had told them so.
Park Forest, Illinois
When I meet a friend I haven’t seen in a few years, recognition is instant. This is odd in a way, because the visible skin and hair that we greet are not the same that we knew before — skin, hair, and even the contents of the skin having been for the most part replaced since our last meeting with new cells, other molecules and atoms. We recognize not the physical substance, but the pattern of that substance, a changing pattern to be sure, yet identifiable through time.
The pattern I call “I” has much more to it than a body, and journeys break this pattern. A journey tears the mobile fragment of myself away from the larger mass of self that abides in the place I live, the pattern of soil, water, wind, plants, animals, buildings, tools. And so my journeys, even though chosen, leave me feeling broken, disoriented, befuddled.
Once when the family was making the forty-mile trip to town, our four-year-old daughter stared in awe at the four lanes of traffic and asked, “Where are they all going to?” Borrowing from Thoreau, I told her that like us they were traveling from where they were to where they were no better off. At the end of the day when we were headed home and she asked where we were going next, my wife repeated my quip with a glance my way. I laughed and shouted, “No, no, no!” The journey must end and I must reunite myself in the place where I belong.
I was well into the trip when I was assailed by the caustic revelation that everything out-of-whack in my life was caused by my inability to use my left hand — that my right hand and arm dominated every facet and action and thought — and that being in Antalya by the azure Mediterranean in mid-July was the appropriate moment to begin altering this insidious pattern!
Let me backstep a dozen yards or so.
The official christening of this journey is Paris, June 17. I am in the process of weaning myself from the U.S. of A. With a minimal fold of travelers checks in one pocket, and holes in the other, I meander niggardly through the sundry Parisian quartiers, sleeping in a flea-infested room of “le Grand Hotel du Midi.” No heat. A single squat-toilet in the hall. Garlic and vinegar scents prowl the stairwell — all six flights.
Anxious, lonely, depressed.
I arrive late at the Grand Hotel, winesoaked from another empty escapade. A stout, decidedly non-Western man: thick mustache, black cloak, black boots, khaki pants, red turtleneck. Pardon, monsieur. J’oublie mon clef (a forgotten key). Cicek Coriycu, a Turk, straight from eight years of work in London, now returning to Ankara to visit his family. Four days after, we are sailing east along the auto-route in his coughing BMW. Numerous adventures ensnared us — not to mention flipping the car outside of Zagreb.
A day of nostalgia, Istanbul — Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque, minarets cutting sunlight, Sea of Marmara, Leander’s Tower. Two days later, the modern industrial city of Ankara. Tears and embraces for the prodigal son. I am the honored guest — full beard, dirty jeans and all. The Mother speaks some French and, as an excuse to spend time with me, offers to teach me the rudiments of the “magnificent Turkish tongue.” Thirty percent study, seventy percent bitching. The world is insane; Turkey a fallen land; her husband, a tyrant; sons don’t love her. No dearth of self-pitying details. The Father is head of the Ankara Parks Department. Because of his station he has the use of a Mediterranean cottage for a fortnight, beginning July 8. He strides about the modern apartment, often barechested, strong as a yoke of oxen. Sovereign Lord. He commands us to the dinner table (cloudy gray formica). “Ne hayat!” he declares at every meal, casting his eye and hand at the various dishes his wife has laboriously prepared. Reaches across the table for the storebought white bread and with due histrionics, breaks off a large chunk, dispatching crumbs. “Good!” he offers me the wounded loaf. “Ne hayat!” (What a life!). He openly scorns the second son, Aslan, thin as a spire. An architectural student, one of the newbreed of Turkish overt homosexuals (only Father doesn’t know) and covert hash trafficker.
Soon the cordial welcome evaporates. Like the summer showers on the Ankara pavement.
The parents depart for the South first; we three follow a day later. In social situations I am quiet. I luxuriate in the non-necessity to be verbal. Turkey is the tentflap to the East. There is an Oriental sentience licking about my consciousness, softening and cleansing.
The same Mediterranean as the Cote d’Azure — only no people. Hot sun, tepid waters, clear and calm. Among other souvenirs from England, Cicek has brought several tabs of LSD. The Father detests drugs. Part of Satan’s, communists’, the Jews’ plan to control the independent will. When a bullet pierced his thigh in battle, even half-delirious, he knocked the anesthesia-loaded syringe from the medic’s hand.
At sunrise I would awaken and run along the silent, cool seaside. The several families vacationing here had never seen an out-and-out jogger. Cicek told me that rumors were spreading about who I was — an incognito Western athlete. At last, fame! They smiled at me; I nodded back, confirming their beliefs.
About eight o’clock the local farmer and son knock on the porch steps, twin baskets laden with peppers, tomatoes, broad beans, onions, fresh goat cheese. No matter what we need or don’t need, daily, the Father instructs the man to spread his produce out. While he fastidiously inspects (to his wife’s chagrin), farmer and son squat to one side, casting parallel shadows. “How much for these?” A modest sum. Father bellows, “Ridiculous! You son of a thief! You raise your child to be a thief!” (Enough to get his throat slit!) “It is only fair what I ask.” But in the end, the farmer, cautiously weighing out the few vegetables, comes down in price. The son remains squatting, rocking slightly back and forth. I hang in the balance, between tears and outrage.
Most days we wandered the beaches, walked the hills, once sojourned to the Roman and Byzantine ruins at Side. Returning for meals, and occasionally, to steal some of the guarded coffee stash, which Father meted out like C-rations. Then all hell broke loose; we got caught smoking. Dope —the substance from which the Devil’s horns are fashioned. Father curses his sons with a blood curdling vengeance. Mom bawls. Cicek (meaning “flower”) and Aslan (meaning “lion”) partially listen, flinging back a pejorative comment or two, but keeping their distance. I am their guest, and duly embarrassed. We pack our meager belongings and spend the night on the beach. Next morning, we pop the LSD.
Steering clear of the cottage — the dark spot on the horizon — we frolic the early hours on the golden beach and in the holy sea, imploring the rare passerby to join us. We had doffed our shorts — total taboo to Turkish society. As the tide gradually ebbs, rocks creep out of the sea; the brothers discover a colony of snails. With small sticks and broken clam shells they begin prying them out of their respective spiraled homes, observing them, chewing each for a while, removing from their mouths and passing the half-chewed one to the other to chew for a while. They declare each has its own distinct flavor.
I amble off.
As things start flying apart, what goes last is in the center. I have an American heart. Second realization: this portion of the earth is a deep well of history and I need to spend more time here bucketing it up and drinking. But — I must find a woman to be with . . . an American woman . . . Teresa Dunn. Although I haven’t seen her for more than a year, she is the one who plummets from the ethers. Why not Teresa? And lastly, Western culture, especially in the States, especially in me, is rooted in the outmoded axiom of righthandedness.
The evolutionary moment has arrived to extirpate. Beginning with my right hand.
I trot to where a creek meets the blue-green sea. The mouth of the creek is filled with smooth rocks, carried in gravitational stages from the hills. I toss a piece of driftwood out into the saltwater. Very methodically I note the muscles and anatomical shifts necessary to throw with my right arm (I had pitched four years for my high school team). Then, with my left hand, I duplicate one by one this complex set of movements. After a long while I go from blooping in the driftwood direction to hitting it one out of three. I could now throw in a straight line. I am content. Both shoulders and arms are balanced; chest open. Absolutely great!
Periodically I lie in the sun or run or swim; but I always come back to the treasure — the shallow pool of smooth stones. I realize how essential it is for my development to open up my left side. The sun swings out over the Mediterranean. A glint in the water. A bottle. A contest between my two arms to see which can break the bottle. Alternating shots. The left complains vehemently; it has never thrown such a distance. The right pooh-poohs its inferior adversary. I convince the right to wait until the bottle undulates closer. We run down the beach and back. Now the right is chomping at the bit and nicks the bottle on the first throw. The left falters; it doesn’t want to compete any more. Something is up. Let’s swim out. A raki bottle with a note inside. How exciting! Aha! chuckles my left arm.
I was baked. My jaw ached. Sunburned eyes. Only my arms wore smiles of satisfaction. I was coming down now and wanted to find the brothers. They had collected hundreds and hundreds of snails and were carrying them in an old blanket to the BMW. I was distraught. I kept staring at them and then the snails. Finally, in our wordless communication, they consented to return them to the sea. We embraced and laughed.
Back in the car, I produce the sealed raki bottle with note. With the help of a screwdriver we work it out. Written of course in Turkish. It reads “My name is Aysha Anarik. I am 17 years old and am forced to attend Murcyum Boarding School in Alanya. I wish to heaven to leave. Anyone who helps me escape, I will be a servant to for three years. Or if it is a man, I will gladly marry. With Allah as my witness.”
Is this for real I thought. Cicek and Aslan insisted that I had been chosen to help her. Why else did it come to you? I began to fidget. My right arm was not ready for this paradigm of Eastern reasoning. And besides, I had just determined to search out Teresa. “It’s probably just a practical joke?” I squirmed. And like that we left it. Acid trips!
We three drove to Ankara where they deposited me on the London Road, facing west. Our final contact. Before departing Antalya I had surreptitiously re-sealed the bottle with note and swam it out several hundred yards. The least I could do.
A day later in Istanbul, I realize the necessity of some formal ritual in order that Teresa will be open to my proposal; I decide to fast until I locate her whereabouts. 100 degrees by noon. As usual my eye are bigger than my stomach. Two more days, and only in Bulgaria, I stagger into a bakery. The road is jammed with hitchhikers. It takes a half-hour to walk to the end of the line. Rides are scarce as hens’ teeth. Often two or three of us sprawl beneath a tree, sharing whatever foodstuffs flow out from the knapsacks, speaking a strange melange of languages. A very day to day affair.
On the sixth night I was on the outskirts of Paris, the Coriycu brothers faded into the embers of the Ottoman Empire. Trouble. The packet of traveler’s checks has dwindled below air fare. How could I ever persuade Teresa to drop her present life and come with me? What a cockeyed notion! My right hand is at the helm. Faith shrinking like my stomach. What the hell. I roll up my torn sleeping bag and settle on a likely perch. A truck pulls over transporting raw milk to Paris to be pasteurized. Drops me at the Metro station. The sun hasn’t risen when I knock at the one door that could swing open favorably. Its hinges not only don’t squeak, they kiss both cheeks, shower me, feed me and loan me the sixty-five wanting dollars!
You can change your face everyday with a razor or make-up. Evolution in the mind is slow, slow as a snail. I looked in the mirror and saw that my left shoulder had resumed its habitual position, slightly raised, muscles contracted. Periodically while hitching, I would pitch stones at the center guardrail. Creek mouths are hard to come by in the city.
An incredible freedom to travel for a year, communicating with no one from your past, letting the peripheral aspects of your personality spin off. But am I any different essentially? Or is there an “essential I” to be different? Arriving at JFK International Airport August 4, I board the bus for Manhattan. Amazingly I have not lost the keys to my parents’ apartment. I walk the sweltering 36 blocks from the bus terminal, pack on back. The doorman doesn’t recognize me at first. Propitious. Apprehensive, I hesitate in the hallway outside the apartment. Then the telephone begins to ring. Turn the two keys and enter the dark, empty room, dropping the knapsack as I pick up the phone.