I meet so many people here who are “crying”: saying with their bodies that they’re unhappy, sorrowful — and yet, where are the tears?
Every Sunday night, the college showed films in the chapel. Seventy-five cents per person. They were good films, even though they had been released a couple of years before. The small theater in town usually played Disney films for family viewing, due to the religious nature of the community. A Pat Boone movie, “The Cross and the Switchblade,” got the only heavy publicity I ever saw, because it was an old film depicting the story of Norman Vincent Peale, a member of Central College’s board of directors. Given the meagre choices in town that week, we chose to sit on the hard chapel pews and endure Jane Fonda dragging herself through the dance marathon in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
Most of the films they played on Sunday nights were laborious or depressing, even if the acting was magnificent. Who wants to live in a totally depressing setting, and then for entertainment see Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn growl in mutual loathing in “A Lion in Winter”? We got a reprieve, a surprise, when Faulkner’s “The Rievers” was playing. It’s a light film, full of color and affection and vitality. Don and I sat back in our pew, holding each other’s thighs, feeling warm and relaxed. At one point, Steve McQueen said something insulting to a black man he grew up with — something like, “What can you expect, from a dumb nigger?” — in a playful, bantering tone. The consciousness of the civil rights struggle had filtered into Pella, so that the student audience gave a slight gasp. The movie’s turn-of-the-century setting ran smack into embodiments of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Later on, McQueen gave a black eye to his girlfriend, a prostitute he had fallen in love with, when he found out that she had slept with his jailer in order to get him out of jail. When a young boy asked why she was sporting a black eye, he was told, “How else do women know you’re thinkin’ about ’em if you don’t knock ’em around every once in a while?” Some of the men stood up and whistled, while a general cheer arose in the audience. I wanted to vomit. So much for civil rights.
We went to see Rod Stewart perform in Des Moines. The hall had all the warmth and charm of an enormous airplane hangar. The lighting made it feel dark and cold and grey; the floor was level, not sloped, with a stage constructed at one end, so that those in the back had difficulty seeing the stage at all. About halfway back, the crowd was restless and tried to see by standing on their chairs. Others kept shouting, “Sit down!” Don and I had seats in the side tiers, which circled the vast expanse of floor on three sides.
There was a long wait. Then a warm-up rock group came on and played for an hour. The hall was constructed, it seemed, with no attention to acoustics. I figured that it was a sports arena or a convention hall; musicians played there because it could house large crowds. One loud note blended into the next and bounced back again, so that all we heard was a great wash of din. Someone announced the name of each number before it was played; it didn’t make any difference: one song sounded like the next.
After intermission, Rod Stewart came out, and the crowd grew still, straining to hear him speak. I could make out that he was exhausted, he had had a few hassles with Customs, but that he was happy to be here with us in Nebraska. There was a small uproar. He did sound tired, but he was still alert enough to realize that he’d said something wrong, so he backtracked and began again, and got it right. He launched into an upbeat number, which like those before it jumbled and blended and folded in on itself. I had no idea where music was in any of this. The volume pounded and roared and screamed and careened off the walls and onto me. I felt assaulted. Trapped. Surrounded by this noise that shot through me. I fought it for another number or two, already feeling beaten down by an hour of top-volume racket. The crowd roared, clapped, shouted for more. They stood unashamedly on their chairs. No “Sit down!” could get them down again. I wanted to stand up and yell: “Turn around! Shut your eyes! Look inside yourself! Listen! What are you doing — putting all your power, attention, and focus on one person? Go home and sing or play or dance or paint and be who you are!”
Fat chance. That I’d do it. That they’d hear me or do it, or that any of us would find much encouragement, in Iowa, to be who we were. Rod Stewart was a tiny figure, way off in the distance of a cavernous airplane hangar, visible only when he moved from one side of the stage to the other, or twirled the entire stage microphone like a majorette’s baton. I was angry that anyone would attempt to tell anyone else that this was music, or a grand stage performance. Nor was there anything or anyone in the whole production, all down the line, who seemed to me to be worth a damn as a role model for young America. Pure rip-off; total sham. What was sad was that so many thought that they had to maintain the illusion that it was great. Depression wrapped me like a blanket. With the noise pounding me all over, I folded up like a flower and fell asleep in Don’s lap.
This last week I’ve been dreaming every night about being back in the Bay Area. I want so badly to be out of here. I wake up in the morning and tell Don that I’ve done astral travel to Berkeley again. But this morning, I woke up giggling. I dreamed that I was in a big open cornfield outside of Pella; a sleek, white Lear jet was parked there, waiting for me. There were a few trees to one side and about fifty people from Pella were standing beneath them, expectantly. This was an exciting show for them; for me, it was a relief, an escape. I walked up the ramp. Instantly I was inside and airborne.
The plane changed into a cot we keep in the closet for overnight guests. It’s a fold-up, aluminum tubular cot with plaid webbing. I was lying on it, belly-down, holding onto the sides, guiding its direction as I would a toboggan, leaning to the left or right. It was dark all around me, late at night, and I could see the red neon sign in the distance that says, “San Francisco International Airport.” I was coming in for a landing at about 120 miles an hour, tear blinding my vision; I didn’t have any goggles on, and the wind was burning my eyes. I was terrified: I couldn’t see a thing for the wind and the tears, and in the dark, with no lights on the cot, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be at all visible, and any aircraft could plow right into me out of the night sky. I clutched at the frame, headed into the wind, and hoped I wouldn’t scrape myself up on the tarmac. I glided in as smoothly and easily as a Boeing 707 — a perfect plaid cot landing. I made it! I was ecstatic to still be alive. And I was here! Home! Free as a bird to see all my friends before morning arrived.
Just before I woke up, I asked my dreaming self, “What is the meaning of this dream?” It answered: “The moral of this dream is: ‘Tell the people of Pella to go fly a cot.’ ”
The first official school function for us was the faculty picnic. Academia. I hated it. You are either one-up or one-down, always. And always in danger of being one-down, even when you’re strongly one-up. Never secure, relaxed, noncompetitive. No matter what you’ve done or who you are, it’s never enough. The air was thick with friendly tension; the question in circulation was: Where did you go to school? If you said Harvard, you lost in winning. The asker lost, in that if he had gone to Harvard, he wouldn’t have needed to go around bolstering his status by asking. So when you gave the name of a 100-point school, you were hated out of envy, and for revealing the asker in his game of hopeful status-gathering. If you answered, “Modesto Junior College,” you were met with a smile that let you know that you were beneath contempt. The only way to “win” was to luck out by answering with the name of a middle-range college, to keep the competitive tension-level fairly equal.
Before I’d finished filling my plate, a tall black man I’d never seen before rushed over to me, extended his hand and exuded, “Hi! I’m W ____________ W ___________ ,” and began to tell me how glad he was to see Don and me at the picnic, and how much he hoped we’d like Pella and Central College. Then he put his arm around my shoulders, and drew me to one side, and asked me confidentially, “How do you want me to introduce you?” Meaning: word has gotten to me that your last name is different from Don’s. If you’re not married, and you want to keep it a secret, I’m here to tell you that your secret’s safe with me. I’m tolerant and I’ll be glad to introduce you as his wife.
I removed his arm from my shoulders, and replied without smiling: “My name is Linne Gravestock, and I’d appreciate it if you’d use it.” He stepped back and looked shocked that I was not grateful for his condescension.
Yoya: It is only by an enormous force of will that I can write you. I seem to be stuck in inertia, sitting before a grey window, looking out. I feel as if a great invisible vacuum is sucking my life out of me.
Where is movement? Silent, fulfilling, desired, unresented work; dance, fluidity, touching, whimsy, imagination, warmth — joy? I meet so many people here who are “crying”: saying with their bodies that they’re unhappy, sorrowful — and yet, where are the tears? Where is laughter that floats up to the sky? Why is it that so much of the laughter I hear hits me between the shoulderblades, vicious, sarcastic? Even in the pottery class the students were suspicious and guarded if I asked them where the instructor or supplies were. When they talked, they were gossipy, picky, studied, stupid, confused. I want to tell them: rub the clay all over your body, feel the wet warmth and return to the primeval ooze, slap it on, hang one on, know where the pot comes from, go to it. But no. They are pinched and believe in being secretive, and being secretive is not the same as opening up into mysteries. Their pots remain small. It was not just the instructor’s comments, and his assumption that I, being a faculty wife, wouldn’t want to know how to make pots from the beginning, but the ambience, the whole feeling in the room.
I reach out and try to make contact, and abort. Nothing comes to fruition. I end up saying to hell with it, my enthusiasm killed. You don’t see me, so I ignore you. I keep feeling that everywhere I turn, I will be asked for credentials, and I never have the right ones. But everyone has the right to know what it is that makes a pot. There are no secrets. Word of that simply hasn’t reached Central College.
So much of the time I feel dulled, mean. I’m not heard, and the structures here keep me from being heard. Sharing can’t easily happen. We invited another faculty couple over for dinner. The wife was vacuous. She’d been a kindergarten teacher far too long. She says, “Gol darn,” and other things that fill no real needs, and to balance that cloying tone, I find myself saying, “shit” and “crap” more than I usually do. She calls up and chatters endlessly, and I can’t figure out what it is she really wants me to hear in all that. So, at the risk of offending her, I ask her, with as much concern as I can muster, “Why are you calling me? I want to be sure of what it is you want me to hear. Do you want to make contact, or are you asking for help?” She says, in her cute tone of voice, that she’s just saying hi. And I am bored to tears. She asks how is my week, and I tell her; I tell her about the awful experience at the campus movies, where the students cheer and laugh and stomp and shout, only to be silent when there’s physical conflict or competition on the screen. “What can you expect for seventy-five cents?” she asks, missing the point completely.
I’ve got to get out of here. I need people. People who are enthusiastic about giving themselves permission to be who they are. People who are struggling with that. People don’t fight over sex and the garbage here, Yoya. They never get the commune started. They have no intention of getting the commune started. They don’t have any visions of Commune; they don’t know they might need one.
Well, I need glorious visions. I have decided that sometime soon, within the next couple of months, I will go to Ann Arbor, and stay with some people there, and job hunt. I’ve met most of my friends in Victoria and Vancouver through jobs and job-hunting, so I can do it again. I want only enough labor to earn me the money to pay for gas and food for this venture; anything else is pure gravy. I often feel, in this mixture of silence, isolation, ignorance and pettiness, that if I were struck by a virus, I wouldn’t fight it; I’d give up and implode and disappear. Dangerous signals, those. Not that I will put any effort into taking my life — I feel in large measure that it’s already taken. So I have to leave this place, and fight to get it back. It’s bad timing: I don’t want to leave Don; he’s the only one truly worthwhile here. But what kind of marriage is this, with one partner dead inside?
Late at night. Don was asleep. I went to bed with him, but when he fell asleep right away, I felt even less sleepy than when I lay down beside him. I got up to go into the living room to read. Yet reading wasn’t enough. At the end of a day, I had three or four more hours of energy left in my body; I hadn’t been feeling at all directed and purposeful and laboring. I could think hard, and run errands like crazy, but there needed to be some long-range goals so I would learn and be challenged and strain at least a little. And I needed a sense of working in concert with other people — lots of connections being laid down and enjoined. All this energy revved up inside me, and there was no place to put it. I would have welcomed digging a few ditches, sheet-rocking a bedroom, scaling a mountain.
I read about Shirley MacLaine being married and still being able to travel around the world, and I knew that as long as I was with Don, I was choosing heavy constraints. Even if I had the courage and the means to take off, Don would have to find someone to fill his bed, and reflect the world back to him every day. And that made me feel like a piece of replaceable machinery. So I sat within four walls, in a prison of my own choice, thinking and listening.
In Pella, at night, there is no street noise. Everyone sleeps at the same time. The vibration of the refrigerator was the only sound, and when it cut off, all was silence. I truly believed I could hear the molecules bouncing off the walls. With no goals, no projects, nothing to look forward to or wake up for, I felt like screaming.
As I sat in the rocker and contemplated what to do with myself and how, I heard a sheep bleating in the distance. What was it doing, standing out there in the darkness, when all good sheep are asleep? I could hear it calling regularly, interrupting the quiet like a foghorn. I sat alone and listened to it call, probably for half an hour. I got up and got dressed quickly, not waking Don, and slipped outside to trace the sound.
Alexander came along for the walk. It was a perfect night. The air was warm, and wrapped around me lightly, without a breeze. I could smell the earth warming up. It had been a long hard winter, too cold to walk outside comfortably for six or seven months, and now, without warning, spring leapt out. There was no gradual transition; it was winter two days ago, and spring today. Many of the trees in Pella are towering, full and mature. They sported new leaves that night; they had held back so long, in terms of my own seasonal rhythms, that I wondered if they’d ever get around to it. I could see profusions of spikey leaves against the streetlights. The old trees stood like silent bulwarks among the swirling fads of thought: behavior modification, prayers said in public schools, and even four years of higher education.
There was no one out in the streets but me, no lights at the windows of the houses. I knew I wasn’t going to be asked to defend myself or explain or justify or argue, and that knowledge in itself made me happy. At that hour, the world was mine.
Alexander braided his way beside me as we walked down the alley toward campus. He trotted and paused and stopped to check out hollows in the road and shadows in the hedges, taking a quick accounting to see that all was in order. Nothing detained him for long until we came to the edge of the campus. He had reached the headlands of his territory; he sat down beside the big oak near the library. He would probably wait for me until I decided to circle back.
The sheep was still out there, calling — more distinctly now, so the cry sounded like a chant: “I am here. I am here. I am here,” it kept saying. Be still, listen. Here is your mantra: baaa.
I followed it across campus, across the railroad tracks and down a country road into the unmarked darkness. And each time I heard the sound — baaa — it reached deeper inside me; each time it cut through my inner chatter a little further. My mind darkened and stilled like the night, and I let the voice go into my center and bounce back, a clearing echo throughout my mind and body, until it went in and out of me easily. I was attuned to the sound, and there was nothing else. The sheep’s voice acted like a muezzin, calling all to prayer. It was for all within hearing; for all who were sleeping, recording; for all who will hear again: be grateful, be mindful, be with us. The sheep and I were as a counterpoint — he who sent out, and I who received and sent back. And when I came upon the clearing and saw him, we were already acquainted. He did not walk away.
I sat down on the road near him, and listened. We shared the same space, calling, calling, being there together. As I relaxed, my inner chewing subsided and let go. I sat in the sound and silence, balanced on the notes and their fading like an old choir member. He was no longer a sheep, but a creature of wisdom and sensitivity, a spiritual guide; one who led me from tension to vision. We were resonating together like cross-breed singers of canticles, creatures who bypassed all differences of species and age and political bent, listening to the timing, the echo, the pause and repeat. As we chanted, the darkness was a kind of peace that extended to all corners. It was as if all the compression of tension inside me had unfurled over fields and gullies, and had swept up to the skies. Each star shone with a clarity I had not seen before, as if lit anew from within. In letting myself be in the sound and presence of this sheep, I let go of all else that remained in my life. In this letting go and having nothing, everything opened up to me: from my own magic inside me, a feeling going down into the ground, out to the horizons and up to the stars. Everything fit and was in its place, everything was glorious and unbounded and fine.
— Iowa, 1972