30 April 2014

The End of Olompali

We had lived at many San Francisco addresses in 1966 through 1968, among them a church rectory filled with hippies on Julian in the Mission, a couple of flats in Noe Valley, and a flat on Cole, just a couple of blocks from the busy epicenter that was Haight and Ashbury, and four blocks from Golden Gate Park, where we went to Be-Ins and spent many hours on the playground's swings and concrete slides. In the evenings we went to concerts and film happenings at the Straight Theatre and other nearby concert halls.
It was with the name of a new friend, Michael Morningstar, on our lips that we arrived at Olompali, maybe on a sun-kissed February day in 1969, one of those fine, pre-spring California days when you want to swim in the ocean or sow some seeds in turned soil. By the time we got to Olompali, commune life was in full swing and open to all comers, so it turned out it didn't really matter who we knew. Michael was friendly and relaxed and stayed in his room in the yellow house when he was at the ranch. I remember flipping through the records in the living room of the yellow house, and playing instruments there by myself. Once I asked Michael if I could have some money and he said yes, go ahead and help yourself to any you find. I did, and always felt fond of Michael for giving me that hundred dollars. He had sincerely offered it to me, and he had to talk my parents out of insisting I return the money.
The hardest thing to do at Olompali was sleep. I started out trying to sleep on a flatbed trailer with my father, mother, and little sister, but the cows snuffled at our heads during the night. We tried sleeping under the trailer, but the ground had been tilled and was horribly lumpy. We'd wake up cold and wet with dew in the early morning. (Maybe this is one of the reasons I've never been a big fan of the Grateful Dead's song “Morning Dew.”) My sister didn't mind sleeping outdoors as much as I did, but I went in search of a way to sleep inside. I got permission to sleep under a kitchen table a few times in a cabin where one couple lived, but the nights its occupants had noisy sex were not so restful.
I didn't like Olompali so much at night, but during the day it could be like a festival. The pool was cool and clear and I was learning to swim pretty well. We had friends and music and food – so much good food! My mother liked the communal cooking and baking, and found it the easiest way to get to know the other women and do something useful.
At first my sister and I spent a lot of time together at Olompali. I was sixteen months older than my little sister Audrey, who was called Baby then, but I was the more introverted one. Baby was a mimic. I can pull off a decent impression or accent now and then, but she was so funny and could capture it all: tone, facial expressions, and speech rhythms. We loved each other most, but we also liked having kids our ages to run and play with. Olompali had so much for us to explore: fields of tall grasses, gnarled scrub oak trees, a lawn with a gentle slope for sitting at mealtimes and rolling around on, the many intriguing houses, outbuildings, and encampments all over the property, and lots of interesting adults like Vivian and Laird (when he wasn't drunk or weird) who weren't afraid to talk and interact with children.
My sister and I started to become pals and run around with some of the kids who lived there, but I remember one girl who seemed to see me as a rival when I showed up. Somehow, though, my sister out-toughed Ivy. When Ivy was being mean, I would get scared or mad, but Baby could keep her sense of humor. Maybe she mimicked Ivy and made everyone laugh. Even though I was older, I knew precious little about being tough or funny, and learned a lot from watching my sister defend my honor. How I loved her.
In addition to the frequent and freewheeling after- or before-dinner music-making at Olompali, I also remember hearing the Beatles, CSN&Y, Bob Dylan, Richard and Mimi Fariña, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. John Mayall was someone's favorite, and I remember hearing the ubiquitous sounds of Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jimi Hendrix. People also listened to other music: jazz, Indian music, folk. My mother liked the Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys, and I took notice of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (the Flowers album was a favorite since I had changed my name to Flower back when we lived at the rectory in the city). Lots of people went to concerts and listened to The Grateful Dead, and people played Dead songs on their guitars and at fireside singalongs. The Grateful Dead played at Olompali a few times and the back cover of the Aoxomoxoa album features a photograph of them taken at the ranch, but I don't remember seeing the band when we were there.
We started getting comfortable with some of the routines at the ranch. My mother cooked and baked, and we ran around with the other kids. But just when we felt we knew what to expect, things started getting weird. I don't believe we were at the ranch when the big fire destroyed the mansion in February of 1969, or when that freaky drug raid happened, but looking back I remember feeling that these raging wars that were going on in so many other places – in Asia, the culture wars in America – were finally creeping into our own environment despite our attempts to escape them
In what I think of as the “rap time” after dinner, men brandished guns and pacifists pleaded with them to calm down. People who were inclined to point to astrological signs of impending chaos, darkness, or conspiracy became agitated and spewed their paranoia, in turn stoking others' fears and visions of doom. More than once I saw someone plunge a knife into the ground while ranting and raving about some anguish I didn't understand.
I wonder now: Were there returned Vietnam vets among the young men at Olompali, men who had been psychically wounded in combat? Where did the firebrands in our group come from? My father didn't serve; he had babies instead. But we knew people who had come back with that haunted gaze I later recognized when I heard the term “thousand-yard stare.” Some of these men were angry, and some seemed to need a lot of grass or other drugs and liquor to quench all that pain.
In June, we visited our friends the Pennys at their sunny place in Winters with the persimmon tree. I stayed with them for a few extra days on my own. We still have photographs of my little sister from one happy weekend in Winters when she was sitting in a shaft of light and reading the Sunday funnies. I think Bob Penny took the pictures – he always had the best and most up-to-date stereo and camera gear, and could develop his own photos.
That weekend after my parents and sister had gone back to Olompali, one of the Pennys answered the phone and learned that my sister was in the hospital. I vaguely remember a blur of activity and the tense drive to the hospital, Marin General. It might have been evening when we got the call, but I think we arrived at the hospital after dark. The Pennys vanish in my memory after this. I don't know where they were or if they stayed with us for a while and then went home, or if they took care of us in any way. I don't remember anything of the next several days but seeing my little sister lying in that little warmed crib in that gray room, pretty much naked but all stuck full of plugs and catheters and tubes. I remember and hoping and wishing and praying she would wake up and be the person I had known all her life and most of mine.
While my father flipped out in his own way and disappeared for the most part, ultimately getting thrown out of the hospital when he got caught trying to steal drugs, my mother asked some Buddhist monks to come into Baby's hospital room to chant for her when the doctors told us she would have permanent brain damage if she did wake up from her coma. I don't know why it helps me so much to remember that these kind people were chanting for my sister, and for me and my mother and father, but it does. Perhaps the chants helped us move through those awful moments without getting completely stuck.
Baby died on my mother's birthday. I was not with her at the ends of her life. I was not with her at the end of her conscious life when she fell into the water at Olompali when riding the tricycle in her long dress around the pool with an even littler girl, her friend Nika. They must have been riding the trike in circles around the pool. Later everyone figured the trike caught the loose stone at the edge of the pool and the trike and two girls tipped into the water. Neither of them knew how to swim, and they had the trike and my sister's long red dress to tangle them up. I wasn't with them so I couldn't help them swim to the edge. I wasn't with them so I didn't see how long they were in the water before the girl who was supposed to be watching them but wasn't paying attention emerged to find them and send up the alarm. I've read people's recollections saying none of the vehicles would start, so getting them to the hospital took forever. She lived another nine days but I didn't get to hold her as she was without the tubes and machines that last time and tell her how much I loved her, that I would never forget her, and I would miss her forever.
Reading other people's accounts on the internet, I discovered a lot of mythology around this moment at Olompali. Some said, gruesomely, that it was weeks before they were found because the pool water was murky and covered with leaves. But I remember the pool being well cared for, the water clear and clean. Some say the girls never made it to the hospital, but I know that was not the case. One article says they died shortly after getting to the hospital. I think Nika died earlier than Audrey did, but I honestly don't remember.
My sixth birthday was marked by a little party at Olompali six days after Baby died. My mother made me a beautiful and delicious cake, vanilla with vanilla frosting and decorated with shiny dark green leaves. People sang to me, and everyone cried and thought of my missing sister the whole time. A few days later my mother, father, and I left Olompali and did not return for years.
Only recently, when combing the Internet for Olompali recollections, did I realize that Baby's and Nika's deaths ended life as we knew it at Olompali, not just for us, but also for most of the people we knew there. We moved back to Colorado within a few weeks, and most of the people at Olompali also dispersed within that few weeks.
We still had a few connections to people we had known at Olompali. A few people we had known in California came out to Boulder around that time. Others visited occasionally, or we went to visit them on our road trips to California. I spent some lovely time with our friend Vivian in Northern California (in Rio Nido I think, and later she moved to Sebastopol). For a while, Vivian was a dedicated and prolific pen pal, exchanging letters with me about the turbulence of my friendships and my shifting relationships with my parents. Once in a long while someone would bring news of someone we knew from Olompali, but after a few years, we lost touch with everyone. 
This is an excerpt from a work in progress, tentatively titled "Flower Child: My Tales of Growing Up in the 1960s and Beyond."

29 April 2014

Post-Dramatic Stress

Sometimes when I read the morning's news in the paper and on social media, I am also scanning for a current writing prompt, and this morning's leapt off the page at me: PTSD.

I wrote recently that we were like the vets returned from Vietnam when we returned to Colorado shocked and shattered. My father, mother, stepmother, sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents – everyone in my family has suffered so much trauma, which means sometimes we still suffer from reactions to those traumas, just like those war veterans.

One of my aunts recently said she had no idea what we were going through when my sister died in California and we moved back home immediately. “I lived such a sheltered life,” she told me. She is right that I never shared that luxury, but the truth is: her life was sheltered in some ways, but not in others.

My daughter's life seems so sheltered now that it is painful for her to learn about some of the harsher economics of human transactions. I am grateful every day that she didn't have to contend with the hectic pace of change in daily life that I did as a child. Her life is so predictable compared to mine, and for her, that is a good thing.

Recently I learned of the experiments on fairness done with capuchin monkeys in which they give two monkeys grapes for doing a specific task, then give one monkey grapes for that task but the other monkey gets cucumbers, and watch how mad that second monkey gets about receiving a different and less tasty reward. As a child in school, I saw how my friends lived and knew something wasn't quite right in my world. Now I see I was always working on the trajectory of my life, trying to change its course, make it come out a little better.

All of which perhaps explains those episodes I think about – those things I had been calling tantrums but were more likely bouts of mania, in which I tried to blast past some apparent restriction. Why? I don't know how otherwise to explain my desire to get out of my house and ride to St. Louis on the back of a friend's motorcycle when I was six or ride to Poughkeepsie, New York with a dad and his two sons (I have good memories of that trip except for the one about maybe starting a brush fire by sliding down a grassy hillside on pieces of cardboard). I don't know how otherwise to explain my midlife-crisis-y need to go to London and go to Chicago to see my favorite band. There was something in me that Would Not Be Denied. 

I of course have seen this force in my parents, too, and my mother saw this in her mother, and so on, and so on.

While my genealogical research is helping me put some of this in perspective, it doesn't necessarily disappear the PTSD that lingers on. My child is sensitive to a whole other set of concerns and perceptions than I am, and has a lot to teach me a lot about keeping my inner self calm, getting enough sleep every day, and acting instead of reacting. When I'm hangry, though, all that good intention goes out the window and I am short-fused and reactive.

Every time I think about this and write about it, though, I feel more compassion for myself and for everyone who struggles with their feelings and reactions to trauma. Our culture often tells us to keep calm and carry on instead of letting ourselves feel our pain or grief or anger, which are bad enough on their own, without the frustration at the injustice of continuing to experience these reactions to wrongs done long ago. Breathing and noticing what we are grateful for helps, too, yes, but so does feeling our own feelings as they come, whether that means spending quiet time in nature, meditating and observing them, writing them down to pull them out from the dark shadows and into the light to be examined, or expressing yourself through some other medium that gives you peace and perspective.

The other day I heard an NPR story about the Sherpa community after many Sherpa died in a recent ice slide on Everest. One Sherpa said, "Normally, when we climbing, we just pray: 'Om mani padme hum.' That mantra is very powerful mantra, and that protects you [with] safety and long life. But ... if there's a wrong time, even the mantra cannot protect them."

25 April 2014

Communication saves

Communication saved my life.

Yesterday my mother asked me about my experience of our traumatic end to our time in California in 1969 and our dismantled skulk back to Colorado. I told her we were so isolated by what we had been through. Think of it: we were in the midst of a circus in San Francisco in 1966-68 and Marin in 1969.

I was fortunate to have a float in that parade, in getting to see and feel those many amazing instances of peace and love and beauty that could occur between total strangers, individually or in groups. As a very young child in the late 1960s, I also remember seeing and feeling neglect, physical abuse, drug abuse, hypersexuality, and so much incomprehensible human strangeness. Fortunately, I was a resilient and adaptable, easygoing little person and had a family who wanted to treat me as a person. My feisty littler sister was sensitive to issues of fairness and justice, and was a great mimic. Then I lost my sister to a babysitter's carelessness (or lust, or participation in some moment that didn't involve watching my sister and her friend tricycling and running in circles around the swimming pool at the commune where we lived in Marin).

When we moved back to Colorado, we were shattered. Apparently we didn't talk about what happened. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my parents to come to the door of my grandmother's house and have to tell her and then the rest of the family that one of our family was gone, erased, as if she'd never existed. As her bereaved sister, I could just be sad and sleep a lot, which I was and did. My parents carried a horrible burden of shame and regret, sorrow and rage, disappointment and disillusion. We could no longer say with that innocent certainty that things would all work out in the end. That was no longer possible. 

In a way we became a lot like the Vietnam vets who would return to the States having seen far more than they'd ever dreamed of, read about, or bargained for when they'd shipped out, green and innocent, having been nurtured by their families and friends right up until being thrust into that horrorshow of human experience and humanity/inhumanity.

My mother tells me how we came to an acquaintance's family's house in Nederland, above Boulder, and told them our grievous tale. The wife burst into tears. "I can't believe you brought this to us," she said and ran from the room for the rest of the evening. (They ended up letting us stay in their tipi and use their kitchen and bathroom facilities for the next couple of months.) It seems to me that after that, we kept our hurt private. It was too heavy for anyone else to carry. It took years to get comfortable talking about Baby, but later we learned to reminisce about her: her precociousness at aping people's expressions, verbal and physical, and about her fearlessness compared with my caution. My mother said she felt she was often butting heads with Baby, and thought she had been our father's favorite child.

Now, I know that some of the things that happened around me when I was small could easily have caused a social worker to whisk me away from my unstable environment and plop me into foster care. But it breaks my heart a little now to think that today, if a child lost her sister -- and a family lost a child -- to a tragic accident, that child and family would all be plied with grief counseling services and offered help to process what had happened and move forward. But no.

We didn't have a funeral for my sister. Some of the mysteries of human experience remained associated with San Francisco forever, and I think as soon as we left I was always trying to find ways to get back there, to where I had last seen and played with my sister.

Things shifted when I started to realize that there were resources to help me, such as music, to lift my spirits and soul; the library, full of books where I could learn about other ways of doing, living, and being; and movies that showed me up close things that people around me didn't talk about. I had friends, people who listened when I talked, and who wanted to help me. One of our friends from the Olompali commune days, Vivian Gotters, reconnected with us when I was a teenager, and she was my wise pen pal through some rocky moments. I had counselors at school who helped me talk about the bouts of alcohol and rage my father cycled through, gave me reality checks that the injustices I suffered were indeed not normal, nor right; and helped me keep my head up (and down) at the same time. I kept seeking ways to speak my truth. As a student of self-defense I went on to learn more about the boundary between me and everyone else and found ways to say no that I had never comprehended were possible for me.

I think everything I have worked at in my life has been about opening channels of communication so that information can flow freely. It was isolating and stifling to be told, “We can handle our problems inside our own family.” That wasn't true. My father mishandled our feelings and drank his own into oblivion. I did appreciate my mother saying to me, “If you can't talk to us, you know a lot of people who love and care about you whom you can talk to.” I took full advantage of that (some might say too much – I think I could be kind of a leech when I really liked someone).

I would not be who I am today without the strength of my desire to keep information and love, energy, compassion, and curiosity flowing better and more freely everywhere I turn. I am grateful for feeling connected, not isolated, and for my many open channels of communication. They have truly saved me from many fates far worse than this.