21 May 2014

Oh What A Time It Was...

I've spent the last four days in Marin and San Francisco and South San Francisco, and are my legs/eyes/brain/emotions/heart tired! I feel like I ran a multi-day race. We flew out to California and saw our friend, went to another family's house for dinner, then split up to respectively visit another person and go to an author event at a nearby bookstore.

The next day, Sunday, May 18, was the Olompali Heritage Day celebration. We got there just after 10 and drove up the road, a newer road a little south of the one that used to go straight out to 101, just outside the city of Novato, which had only been a town when we lived at Olompali in 1969.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this day. I had sent my Olompali story to the folks making the documentary Olompali: A California Story. I met Greg Gibbs, the partner of the film's producer, Maura McCoy, who was one of the founders of this chapter of Olompali's history as one of three children of her dad, Don McCoy was the man who had leased the ranch (all 690 acres of it!) from the State of California starting in 1966. The Grateful Dead had been the land's renters for a few months, earlier in that halcyon year of hippiedom, which also happened to be the year we arrived in San Francisco.

We entered the park, me marveling all the while at the visitor center apparatus (paved parking lot and fences) and finding things not quite as I had remembered. The visitor center is in the Yellow House but the lower floor has been gutted and remodeled, so was entirely unfamiliar, and I didn't ask to go upstairs, where things have been less altered since I lived there.

I then met Gregg and Maura in person. Maura would have been about 10 or 11 when my sister died and Novato shut the place down. Perhaps Maura and I didn't click back in the day, and didn't remember each other fondly. Testing my recall, I asked a couple of people if they remembered anyone named "Ivy" at Olompali, but now I wonder whether it is Maura I've renamed in my memory banks.

After showing the film trailer, an early Q & A with Gregg, Maura, and Noelle followed to let the overheating projector recover before we could all watch the film clip. During the Q & A I stood up with all the people in the room who had lived there then. Some people didn't know who I was, and I didn't recognize most of the other 15 people or so who were standing with me in the room. 

After seeing the 10-minute film excerpt, everyone in attendance was quite impressed. Many of the Olompali folks had been through the experience of working with an archaeologist who sorted out the things found in the fire that gutted the Burdell Mansion early in 1969 so they were used to a certain kind of examination of their past. But this snappy, hopeful, and well produced tale showed how the place is woven into the fabric of California history and validated some key elements of this chapter of Rancho Olompali's storied history. It focused on how the commune didn't start out as a grand experiment in utopian living. It was more that the kids in three families all liked each other and the adults said, "Hey, we have money -- let's get out of the concrete jungle and try living in the country all together." And they did.

Sister Mary, who had been the commune's schoolteacher at what came to be called the Not School, stood up and read a poem she'd written to commemorate the occasion. Everyone cheered and accepted the copies she handed around.

After the film clip, everyone walked around and chatted. I introduced myself to Buz, who was the ranch manager at the time. I would have been just one of the little kids to him, I think. Then I introduced myself to a fellow in a straw hat and wearing a bead necklace. "You're Flower?" he beamed, brightening. "I'm Hari. I knew you and your family well. You were my favorite kid!" We were both crying now. I'm crying again as I write this.

Hari said he remembered me well, and my family too. I was so happy to hear this! We had been friends. "You were so imaginative and free," Hari said. "I remember your mother, too. I think I had a crush on her. I was 'between families' then, and she represented everything that my first wife had not been. And she was so beautiful. And you, you were my favorite kid. And your father." Here he sighed and struggled with what to say. "I don't think he was a junkie," he said carefully, "but he was using." I was glad to have another of my memories corroborated by another witness, because I had confronted my father on this point and he'd disclaimed any memories of the events. I said my father is living in Mexico now and we are out of touch. Hari nodded.

Hari's story had been that he was headed down a narrowing path when he decided to go to India on a spiritual quest. His wife and children wanted no part of his strange journey, and turned against him. He came back from India changed and still seeking, but still without family. When he landed at Olompali around when we did, he too saw the possibility of a place where children were encouraged to play and sing and dance and explore and be curious and interact with the people around them not just in an institution. But he also went to the Haight and saw what was happening, how harder drugs were sweeping away that peaceful, loving vibe and turning the Haight-Ashbury into a place more often than not hijacked by the gritty, greasy stew of junkies, drunks, dealers, pimps, and bikers displacing the flood of hamsterish and earnest stoned people and acid-dropping intellects. Hari later had a second family, two sons who love and cherish him and he them.


As one example of the examined life the former Olompalians have lived since that particular experiment aborted, it had become apparent that the archaeologist's assumption was incorrect: the concrete pad outside the yellow house was not for a family gazebo that had since been dismantled or destroyed in a gale. Rather, it had been built for the giant bread oven that was gifted to the commune by a baker who took a detour on his existential trail when he came to live at Olompali. Bread was baked by nudists in the large commercial oven (An oven, or a sweat lodge? You be the judge!) not only for the communards but also as part of the Diggers' self-appointed mission to hand out for free on Sundays in San Francisco. Someone asked about the recipe for the bread and the answer came, "It had a lot of molasses. It was more virtuous than delicious." But I remember that fresh hot whole-wheat bread with meals being filling and chewy. Some days it tasted better than others. Remember: these were the days when people were experimenting with everything -- you can just imagine what happened when a bunch of communally minded people converged on the kitchen!

I have to curb my storytelling for now but will pick it up soon. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take this trip right now, and to myself for taking it. It has been a revelation and a delight. For now, a couple more thoughts:

We were all just borrowing this place. But oh, the things we learned!  That with care and intention and energy it is possible to create an environment conducive to joy and music and discovery and movement and mixing things up. That a lot of dark stuff got mixed up in it the way PCP or the poorly named "angel dust" hit the streets of the Haight like a toxic tide that brought with it a thousand more ills and imbalances. Yet, before all of that, there had been a big idea that still animates all the hearts of the true hippies I know: that this kind of joy and openness is possible not just for small groups of individuals but in society at large. Which is but one of the reasons my heart swells about the maker movement and I have long dreamed of opening a place called The Craft Palace. I have always turned to making something when I am feeling sad or alienated from others. We had a friend stay with us a few days and teach me how to improvise on the piano, and anytime I had a keyboard at hand and needed to hear my own music, I had that to cheer myself up or remind myself of my basic creative and generative self. Doesn't every child deserve the access to that I had? That experience gave me the tools to get the education I wanted from the environment around me, not only take what was handed to me by my teachers.

For awhile, I struggled with PTSD. I got distracted by all those demons, that "evil life that's got you in its sway," as the Rolling Stones song goes. And all that came in a middle section of the story, so we'll put that idea aside for another essay or several, not letting that hijack this joyful tale, and return to May 18.

As I have said, the big surprise to me was that we all left Olompali around when our family turned tail and headed to Colorado. Noelle said "about 12 of us moved back home to my mother's house in Mill Valley." I believe the McCoy family went to a place just outside San Rafael in Terra Linda when the commune ended (but I'm still fuzzy on some of the details).

I learned that while my family arrived on the crest of the dark tide that arose about six months before Olompali was shut down, when singalongs started to turn sour and the drunk guys stole the spotlight again, it wasn't me anyone was objecting to. I was where I was supposed to be, the whole time we were there. When I was flipping through the records in the mansion, and picking one to put on and listen to by myself, I was supposed to be doing just that. This environment had been designed for me, and spread out for me to discover at my own pace, which I did every time I put on an album or tapped a tambourine to keep time with a song.

I had so long carried the feeling of being exiled from that place, where heaven went along without us while we had been dashed back down to earth to suffer and shuffle along among the other mortals, an experience that set us apart from angels and humans equally. So what a revelation it is to feel that we belonged there. What a relief no longer to take it personally when someone like Noelle says, "We didn't want just anybody coming here." We belonged there despite the existence of cliques of drunk men or mean kids (who pop up in every crowd, right?). We belonged there because we were ready and willing and able to be genuine and free and true to ourselves, and once you've seen that, no one can take it away from you: It's yours. It's yours to keep in your pocket, to wear the way a superhero dons a cape, or to stick on a pole and fly freak-flag high, or to twirl like the streamer of a rhythmic gymnast. I feel I have given this great gift of belonging to myself, a direct result of taking this trip.

As I met people around the reunion, I saw that we are all still here, and still carry some of that joy with us. It's not always easy to remember amidst the chaos and demands of now, and the pain of losing so many of our fellows along the way. But we all shared and cared how it came out. My sister's death didn't just affect our family; it affected our whole community. It's too bad my family for whatever reasons could not stay and grieve with the others around us, who would have helped us process what happened and grow to accept it over time. We had to navigate that on our own in a way I wouldn't wish on anyone. But we made it through and for that I am grateful. There are so many times we could have not made it for one reason or another, but we did, and we're not victims of our past but survivors, one and all. It's a miracle each one of us is here. So I figure let's make the most of it and celebrate being in it all together. Oh, what a time it is.

OK go!