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How I celebrated Christmas, 1996

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I was still rather a newcomer to upstate New York. Newly married, my second marriage, and already having misgivings about it. We lived in a little house near Ithaca we’d recently bought. The back yard bordered on a large nature preserve owned by Cornell University. We could walk out through our back yard and go hiking for miles through a dramatic and beautiful landscape of woods, hills, gorges, and creeks. That nature preserve soon became a kind of personal refuge for me. My wife worked as a nurse at the local hospital and she had to work that Christmas so I was on my own. I had a couple of drinks and stared out of the windows. Feeling bored and restless I wandered out into the back yard and then kept going, out into the woods, and trudged around for a while. The sky was gray and it had just begun snowing lightly. The woods were silent. There was a thin layer of snow over the carpet of dead leaves on the ground.

On the slope of a little wooded hill I came across something I’d never seen before in those woods. Something you wouldn’t expect to see in a nature preserve. I had to stop and think about it for a moment before I realized what it was. High up in the fork of a tree was a deer stand. A bunch of planks nailed together to make a platform for hunters to sit securely up in that tree. I stared at it for a while, being momentarily paralyzed by the incongruity of it. I happen to hate illegal hunting. And the idea of people hunting on a nature preserve makes me angry. So after standing there for a couple of minutes I finally decided I had to do something. But what could I do? I thought about getting tools to dismantle the damned thing. What kind of tool?

I ran back to the house and opened up the back yard shed and took stock of what we had in the way of tools. Mauls, axes, sledge hammers, and crow bars. I decided I could only carry one thing so I grabbed the heaviest sledge hammer in the shed and ran back to the place in the woods. Looking up at that deer stand I wondered if I really could do anything about it. I’ve always had a fear of heights, even of fairly modest heights like that. But I pushed myself to climb up anyway, along little hand- and foot-holds that some hunter had constructed in the side of the tree, climbing one-handed and carrying the sledge hammer with me.

I made it up to the fork of the tree just below the deer stand, which was braced on opposite trunks of the fork. I was perhaps twenty feet off of the ground. Now I started to wonder just what it was that I was going to do. In my position just underneath the wooden platform how could I possibly get a good whack at that thing with the sledge? It didn’t seem possible. I tried raising the sledge and swinging it upward against the planks, but it was impossible to get any real force behind such a blow and the sledge bounced harmlessly off. I felt like a complete fool. After a few of these wimpy attempted blows I was panting from the exertion and starting to sweat. I stopped to rest and think.

It occurred to me that I might be able to effect some damage by just pushing the head of the sledge hammer straight upward and ramming it against the bottom of the platform. I tried this and it was easier than trying to swing it upward. But the head of the sledge wasn’t doing much when it struck the planks. Becoming frustrated, I started ramming it up into the bottom of the platform with a desperate, angry energy. After several such blows, one end of one of the planks sprang free. I felt a sudden elation. I was doing it! I was going to win this battle after all. I rammed it again and one end of the plank broke free from the nails that held it and swung down, crashing directly into the side of my head with shocking violence. I thought I saw sparks flash for an instant and I wobbled in place a bit but I managed to keep my balance in the tree. I grabbed the plank and angrily wrenched the other end of it off of the platform, pitched it out into space and watched it fall to the ground. I stopped to rest. There was still a gentle snowfall. I looked around me. The woods were beautiful. I was exhausted and starting to feel hot. My breath steamed in the winter air. I was sweating profusely. I unzipped my parka, and ripped off my wool hat and flung it out over the forest floor.

I went back to work. I continued my method of ramming the planks from underneath with the head of the sledge. Now that one plank was gone the others were easier to dislodge. I got two more free and threw them out into the snowy woods. I stopped to rest again, swaying and feeling shaky from my exertions. The thought flashed through my mind, this is a foolish thing to do, I could die doing this. But I didn’t care. For some reason I felt a strong sense that what I was doing was right, that it was in fact the only right thing that I could be doing at that moment. Where this conviction came from I don’t know.

Finally I got all the planks knocked down. Shaking from exhaustion, I climbed down the tree. I gathered up all the planks of what used to be the deer stand. I dragged them all home through the snow and stashed them in the shed. My wife came home from work and was angry with me because I had washed a load of her laundry earlier and she didn’t like the way I’d done it. I didn’t tell her about the deer stand, in fact I didn’t say anything. I just went upstairs by myself and went to bed.

Eventually when spring came I burned the deer stand planks in the back yard fire pit. That’s all there is to this story. It doesn’t seem to be particularly significant although much later I found myself coming back to this incident over and over in my memory. It occurred to me that maybe what I had done constituted some kind of small spontaneous act of worship, because however crazy my actions may have seemed to someone else, it was one of the few times in my life when I had acted directly and out of real sincerity rather than from some kind of ulterior motives.

There is a strange postscript, which is that about three months after knocking down the illegal deer stand I came home from work to find two perfect little deer antlers lying on the ground right in front of the back door to the house. Deer normally shed their antlers out in the woods by rubbing them against tree trunks. I’ve never heard of deer shedding their antlers right in front of the door of somebody’s house, but this is what happened. I mentioned this to my friend Sharon, who was a shaman. She was completely unsurprised and said that, of course, the deer offered me this gift as thanks for my knocking down that deer stand. It made total sense to her. I, being a skeptic and a non-believer in magic, am unconvinced that that was the case. But to me it seems a strange and interesting coincidence nonetheless. I still have those antlers, sitting on a shelf in my study.

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The psychic

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[1984]: I met JoEllen at Help Line. She was another of the volunteers there. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many characteristics a person might have, like being a good golfer or having great taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whoever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously as a real fortune-teller. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it must have been at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, as I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

While everyone else was partying elsewhere in the house JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf, and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident, as if sitting on that cushion in that room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be and she had all the time in the world to just sit there. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

“You are very unusual,” she said. She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

Burn

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I have been fascinated by Burning Man for many years, but never was able to go to it because of the demands of my job. But when I heard at last that there was to be a Burning Man regional event taking place in upstate NY, I finally saw my chance to participate in an event that, though not the big Burning Man gathering in Nevada, would at least be Burning Man-related. It was called PortalBurn, and was to take place in a field at a horse farm in Burdett, NY. There was a limit of 300 tickets, and they sold out.

I arrived at the site, unloaded my supplies, and pitched my tent. I had some brief but pleasant chats with my nearby campers. I had brought a bunch of musical instruments with me, various flutes and drums, thinking there would be opportunities to play them, and even hoping I would find other musicians to play with, but as it turned out such opportunities were rare. I soon discovered that there were some theme camps there that played extremely loud canned dance music, loud enough that it could be heard everywhere at the PortalBurn site, almost all the time. I had come there, a dedicated musician, foolishly assuming that an event ostensibly devoted to creativity, imagination and self-expression would have a lot of people playing live music. Wrong! There was essentially no live music. Just some D.J.s playing that tedious and tiresome dance music, on and on. This music got on my nerves after a while, especially since they played it late into the night and there was nowhere one could go to escape from it.

Another of my ideas that turned out to be not so great was that I had planned to walk around the site and offer people free booze. Seemed like a friendly gesture, possibly a way to meet people and talk with them, and who wouldn’t want free booze, right? This turned out to be a miscalculation on my part, because it turns out there is an enormous amount of booze everywhere at PortalBurn, so to try to give away booze is kind of redundant. It’s almost like to trying to give away air. Nevertheless, I persisted in my attempts and managed to give away a liter of Jameson’s on the first day. The second day I was only able to give away a half-liter of Jim Beam. After that I decided to give up in my quest to give away liquor because there was obviously no point to it. Everybody already had all the liquor they needed. Giving away things to other people is apparently one of the main activities at a burn event, and I liked the idea of giving away stuff, but it became clear that I had picked the wrong kind of thing to try to give away.

Some of the people were very nice but in general I felt I had a hard time connecting with people. Of course there was the issue of my age, since I was older than most (though not all!) the people there. So I really belonged to a different culture than most of those folks. But many if not most of the people there seemed to be already part of a common burner community (a community I had no connection with) and knew each other. I felt very much like an outsider. The events that were being hosted at the theme camps seemed too silly to be of interest to me. I walked around thinking: where is all the creativity, the artistry, the freewheeling and daring imagination that I had heard so much about in connection with Burning Man, and which I expected would be the hallmark of a regional burn event as well? There seemed to be very little art or creativity in evidence. There was one artist who called herself Kimmy D who had a large and very impressive sculptural construction, which I and several other people helped her assemble. It was the only artistic thing that I saw at the whole PortalBurn site that really excited my interest. I got to talk with Kimmy and found her to be friendly and full of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas. She was also an amazingly hard worker.

I had arrived on Friday afternoon. Saturday morning I decided I would finally have a chance to play some music. Mercifully the D.J.s had taken a break from playing their canned music. Around 9:00 AM I set up a chair in the field in front of my tent, and sat and played Japanese music on the shakuhachi for an hour. At that time of the morning very few people were out and about, but a few people who passed by told me that they liked the playing. After the hour was up I was done. For the rest of the day I was mostly rather bored.

Saturday evening was the night of the main burn event. In the tradition of Burning Man, a large wooden effigy was to be burned on a hillside overlooking the field where all the people where camped. As the time for the burn approached, people started to congregate near the burn site. Many of them wore fascinating and ingenious costumes, dazzling with beautiful multicolored patterns of lights. I brought my davuhl, which is a Turkish-style bass drum, to play during the burn. I assumed that many other people would be drumming as well. Surprisingly, only a couple of other people besides me showed up with drums. I was puzzled as to why there were so few people with drums there. I figured at an event like that there ought to be hordes of drummers. One fellow named Mike approached me and begged me to let him play my drum. I really didn’t want to loan him my drum but he was insistent, so I reluctantly let him use it. I offered him the drumsticks with it and tried to explain how the drum is supposed to be played but he didn’t want to hear it. He flailed around with it for several minutes, trying to play it as if it were a djembe, and then finally gave up and gave it back to me, complaining that it “didn’t sound good.”

After I finally got my drum back from this jackass, I settled into playing some rhythms with the couple of other drummers. I let them set the rhythm and then followed it with some very strong beats on the davuhl to reinforce the basic rhythm. I thought it sounded pretty good. Some fire performers came out and danced around with flaming batons and fire poi. Some of them were amazingly skilled and graceful. I felt caught up in the flow of things. I was inspired in my drumming. I was filled with energy. Where it came from I don’t know. I experienced the fire, the dancers, and the drumming as all one thing, like a river flowing, of which I was a natural and integral part. I thought: yes, this is the reason I am here, it was worth it to come here just for this.

The fire dancers stopped, and the effigy was lit on fire. Huge flames rushed up into the sky and people all around cheered. We continued our drumming. People from the surrounding crowd started dancing around the fire. This went on for quite a while, until the fire started to subside and the people around got gradually less energetic. Some of them wandered away. When it looked like the whole event was drawing down I said goodbye to my fellow drummers and thanked them, then walked back to my tent. It was midnight and I had been drumming nonstop for two hours, but I didn’t feel the least bit tired.

After I got back to the tent and lay down though, then I started to feel tired. Unfortunately the theme camp just across the field from my tent was still playing that awful dance music, at superloud volume. There was nothing to be done about it. I hoped they would eventually stop, but no. I spent the night in a half-conscious state, alternately dozing a little and then reawakening to the ongoing blast of music. At one point I woke up again and looked at my watch and it was 5:00 AM, and the music was still going on.

Finally giving up on getting any real sleep, I got up around 7:00 Sunday morning, took a sponge bath, and ate breakfast. I planned to do another hour-long shakuhachi “performance” as I had the previous morning. Around 9:00 I started in on my shakuhachi playing. I had played for about 20 minutes and was well into the Buddhist celebratory piece “Kumoijishi” when I heard someone calling from one of the nearby tents. At first I ignored it, being very much focused on my playing, but the sounds persisted, and eventually I made out that someone was calling to me. A plaintive voice was saying “Stop playing, please stop. Stop man, please. Stop playing,” over and over. I got to the end of the piece I was playing and stopped, picked up my stuff and returned to my tent. I sat in my camp chair in front of my tent and pondered what to do next. There didn’t seem to be anything of interest going on that day, and I couldn’t face the idea of sitting around being bored for another day. I decided to just cut and leave a day early. I packed up my camp and drove home. When I got home I felt absolutely exhausted. It took me another two days before I felt normal again.

In general I found PortalBurn to be something of a disappointment, although some parts of it were very good. The main burn event on Saturday night was certainly an amazing experience. And Kimmy D’s awesome artwork. But most of the rest of PortaBurn was, frankly, kind of lame. It consisted mainly of: (1) a lot of people at the various campus just sitting around bullshitting, and (2) the awful and almost constant onslaught of crappy recorded music.

Having gotten that complaint off my chest, I would like to say that nonetheless there are some things about PortalBurn, and about the Burning Man culture in general that I find to be admirable:
1. The freedom from the pressures of commerce. No buying or selling. It is a great relief to go somewhere where we are not constantly being bombarded with commercial messages of one kind or another, where people will actually be recognized as people and not simply as potential customers for some product or service.
2. Generosity. The generosity of some of the people I met there was amazing. People freely gave away food and beverages, all kinds of little presents, and some services like massages, and when help was needed with anything plenty of people could be found immediately to pitch in and help out.
3. Body acceptance. People of all sizes and body types go around freely in various states of dress or undress, and it is all the same to the attendees. You can have any kind of body and you can wear anything you like, or go naked, and it makes no difference to anyone. Everybody has the same status. It is a great thing to be freed from our pervasive American culture of body-anxiety for a while.

So I have confusingly-mixed feelings about PortalBurn. I don’t know what, if any, conclusion can be drawn from it. Some things about it I like very much, but much of it is just a pain in the ass. At this point I doubt I will go to it again next year. Unless I happen to get some really great inspiration

Strange lands, away and back

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Crazy summer. My wife and I jetted off to Reykjavik, Iceland in early July. We stayed at a hotel just north of the lake Tjornin and spent about 3 days walking around exploring. It’s a wonderful city for walking. There’s much to see and you can get to almost everything you would want to go to on foot. We went to a great concert of Icelandic music at the Harpa, a fantastically beautiful building that serves as Reykjavik’s music-and-arts and conference center.

Heidi had a conference in Vienna she had to present a paper at, so we flew from Reykjavik to Vienna. First time in Vienna for me, a fascinating and beautiful city. Heidi delivered her paper at the conference at Sigmund Freud University, and we spent another three days wandering around Vienna sightseeing. Then we flew back to Reykjavik! Yes, I know, crazy. We joined up with a tour of Iceland produced by Odysseys Unlimited, and led by a most amazing tour guide who goes by the nickname Gugga (her real Icelandic name is probably unpronounceable by most Americans). The tour took us all over the country and we saw a lot of incredibly beautiful places. The country of Iceland, when you look at it on a map. seems very small. But the strange thing is that when you are out there traveling around in it, it seems overwhelmingly vast, because most of the country is actually uninhabited wilderness. Being there you really get a sense of the vast, raw power of nature. I was awed just to be riding around in the tour coach through such a marvelous country and watching it through the windows. Eventually the tour ended up back in Reykjavik, a city my wife and I had become very fond of. We spent a couple more days enjoying Reykjavik and flew home.

My impressions of Iceland: a peaceful and harmonious country with a population of amazingly congenial and friendly people. It’s a country with a humane and liberal and highly literate culture. Art, music and literature thrive there. Almost everyone there speaks English in addition to the native Icelandic. All the food there is excellent, especially the seafood and the lamb. The beer and vodka are also top-notch. For some reason licorice is very popular there and the Icelanders enjoy a strange but delicious treat called lakkris, which is chocolate covered licorice. I wish we had it in the USA. I became very fond of this wonderful country and hope I can get back there again sometime.

I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to visit Iceland, but I also started to have some misgivings about my role as a tourist there. Iceland has benefited economically from the great tourist boom they’ve experienced in recent years but at the same time the explosive growth in tourism presents problems for the country. The sheer volume of tourists coming into the country is starting to strain the capacity of Iceland to absorb them. I’m hoping that Iceland will not be ruined by overcrowding caused by the huge influx of tourists. I know that a great deal of attention is being devoted to this issue by the Icelandic government. I hope they can find ways to make it work to everyone’s benefit.
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The inferno that is us

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I’m 61 years old now and happily married, but throughout most of my life, before I met my current wife, I had many difficult and painful–traumatic even–relationships with women. Most of the women I have known have had serious emotional problems, some of which were quite severe. My life has been haunted for a long time by these many failed loves. For a while I was obsessed with trying to figure out “why me?” Is there something about me that drives these women nuts, or do I for some reason have some mysterious predisposition to getting involved with deeply troubled women? These questions bedeviled me for a long time.

Eventually I got tired of carrying this burden around with me, the burden of all those failed loves, and I started to learn to let it go. And then after meeting Heidi, who has been such a positive influence in my life, I began to get quite a bit more clarity about my own situation, and about people in general. I think of my own experience much differently now. Instead of thinking of all those people, and myself, as individuals each suffering their own peculiar individual emotional afflictions, and wondering “why is this person (or why am I) so screwed up?” I now see that emotional turmoil is the natural state of humanity. It is something we are all embedded in, that comes about naturally just from being human, from being mortal, from being our naturally vulnerable and needy selves. We can’t escape it but we can learn to live in it with love, to exercise skill and sensitivity in our lives so as to help to bring out what is best in us and others, despite the ever-present human crap in which we find ourselves. It is the fundamental challenge of being human. Italo Calvino, at the end of Invisible Cities, put it very eloquently:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live everyday, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”