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Sailing alone

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[1972]: Right after I graduated from high school my father moved our family from the east coast of Florida to the Florida panhandle. We lived in the little town of Gulf Breeze, a suburb of Pensacola. I enrolled at Pensacola Junior College. I did well enough in my classes when I was able to concentrate on them, but unfortunately my attentions and my focus fluctuated quite a bit. I variously considered majoring in art, philosophy, music, and math. I felt scattered out in all directions and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. Some days I just wanted to sit and read books–nothing that was relevant to the classes I should have been studying for unfortunately–and do nothing else. I spent a lot of time in the college library browsing their collections at random and reading bits and pieces of anything that looked strange and interesting, especially in philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, and art.

My father bought a small sailboat and gave my brother and me some rudimentary instructions on how to sail it. Our house was close to the Santa Rosa Sound, a huge long body of water that is part of a long inland waterway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I sailed together on the Sound but I preferred sailing by myself. For years I had had an instinctive compulsion for wandering alone, but now it had expanded out onto the water. When I was on the sailboat I was wandering free, still following my old instinct to go farther, to always be trying to escape from wherever I was.

Sometimes when sailing the boat, if conditions were just right, I slipped unexpectedly into a state of mind that I could only describe as a state of extraordinary naturalness. At such a time I felt clearly focused (something indeed unusual for me, a perennial scatterbrain) but relaxed, and at the same time keenly aware of every nuance of the wind and the water’s movement through my contact with the mainsail sheet and the tiller. I felt poised and balanced in the middle of my life, as if I had always been there like that, sitting on the edge of the cockpit with the sheet wrapped around my wrist and my other hand holding the tiller. I felt synchronized with the world around me, instead of my mind either lagging a little behind it or impatiently pushing ahead of it, as was my wont. For this brief time I suffered no anxieties and no self-hatred, and harbored no false ideas about myself. In fact I had no ideas about myself at all.

I would come to remember those moments sometimes much later in my life when I was going through periods of great difficulty and emotional anguish (usually self-inflicted, I admit). I would remember that it was possible to find in myself authentic peace and strength. I knew it, because I had experienced it for myself on that boat. It was a tiny sliver of hope that helped to keep me going during some of the dark times of my life.

Weirdo

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When I was a youngster there were many things about my father that I found difficult to understand and accept. One of the most difficult things about him was his peculiar obsession with the issue of conformism. He frequently lectured me on the importance of conforming to conventional social roles and to the expectations of others, and of avoiding being strange. It was clear that he had a great deal of anxiety about me being insufficiently conformist, though I was mystified as to exactly why he was so concerned about it. Evidently he thought there was something wrong with me, but what, exactly?

“You’ve got to conform, Eric, you’ve got to conform!” he insisted over and over. He seemed to be particularly afraid that I would turn out to be, in his parlance, a “weirdo.” I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant although it was clear from the way he said it that whatever it was, it was something terribly shameful. He also apparently had a lot of concerns about whether my brother and I were sufficiently masculine. I suspected that in his mind he tended to conflate being a “weirdo,” i.e. a noncomformist, with being (at least a latent) homosexual, and of course for him and other heterosexual men of his generation being homosexual was the most shameful thing of all. So I think he had this fear that if I didn’t conform sufficiently to societal norms, that once I was on the path of weirdness there was a danger I would inevitably descend a slippery slope of increasing weirdness until I was finally a total misfit unable to fit into normal society, and perhaps eventually even became gay. This was something he was ever vigilant about, confronting me every time he detected the slightest sign of nonconformist behavior, such as having my hair a little too long or reading a lot of books or showing an interest in intellectual or cultural matters. Why did my father have so much anxiety about this? I still don’t know.

My father’s fears eventually were realized, at least to some extent. I didn’t turn out to be gay, but I did turn out to be a rather strange person in some ways, probably stranger than he could ever have imagined. I’ve always had a great enthusiasm for strange books, strange films, strange art, strange music, and strange ideas. Nowadays I write poems, I play unusual musical instruments, and I like to study odd, arcane things in my spare time just for the fun of it. I’m proud to be a weirdo. I’ve found that my unconventional interests and ways of thinking, far from being debilitating, have in the long run probably been beneficial for me, promoting a kind of inner flexibility and resilience to be able to deal with all kinds of situations and all kinds of people, and the ability to examine my own life critically. Not only that but I now suspect, after many years of observing people, that deep down inside everyone is a something of a weirdo in one way or another. It’s just that most people are afraid to come right out with it and let others know how truly strange they are deep down in their souls. Instead of being afraid we should all be celebrating our strangeness, our natural human diversity that makes life so very interesting.

Discovering poetry

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[1970]: It happened when I was a student at Titusville High School. I was browsing in the school library, and out of curiosity pulling out a random book from the shelves here and there and reading a bit of it and putting it back, just to see if I might find anything particularly interesting this way. By this chance process I happened to come across a thin book of poems called In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks. Perusing this book I was immediately struck by the intensity and liveliness of the author’s language. At the time I knew nothing about Gwendolyn Brooks and knew nothing about poetry other than a few poems that were part of the required readings for English class in school. But this poetry was nothing like that. At the time I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize that the author was black, or that what she was writing about was the culture of poor urban black people. What was important about the book to me was that it had a sense of vitality about it and a feel of inner truth, a recognition of people’s inner humanity. Being a repressed and deeply neurotic kid, to encounter this book was an awakening for me. I began to feel for the first time that literature was alive, that it could illuminate and celebrate the inner lives of human beings. This book was an inspiration, a spark that ignited what was to be my lifelong passion for literature in general and for poetry in particular. Eventually I became a poet myself. I still feel a debt of gratitude to Gwendolyn Brooks. It was she who started me on the practice of poetry, a practice which over the years has helped me to be able to look deeper into my own life, and to expand my sense of my own identity. I wish I could have met Ms. Brooks.

Moving east

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[1969]: When I was sixteen my father moved our family from southern California to the east coast of Florida, ostensibly because he felt that southern California had become intolerably overcrowded. And perhaps it was, but the more basic problem as I came to see later was that he was fundamentally dissatisfied with any place in which he lived. There was an ideal place he held within his mind, the place where he really belonged and in which everything would be good for him. Southern California was not it. Perhaps Florida would be it.

We settled in a small house halfway between Cocoa and Titusville, on the east coast near the Kennedy Space Center where my father had gotten an engineering job. I was not happy about the move, about having to leave what few friends I had to go somewhere where I knew no one. I felt lost in a strange place that I wasn’t sure I belonged in.

Our house was small and modest but comfortable. But for me the best thing it about it was that it was within walking distance of the Indian River. The Indian River, despite the name, is not a river at all but a huge long lagoon. It separates the mainland, where we lived, from the long strip of barrier island where the space center and the beaches were. As often as I could I walked down to the Indian River. It became my refuge. I spent a lot of time walking up and down its shore, to no purpose other than to see the water and the sky and to be walking.

Sometimes there would be a launch of a rocket from the space center across the Indian River, and I would walk down to the edge of the water to see it. There would usually be a crowd of people gathered there to watch. To view the launch seemed to bring my confused life into some type of focus then, if only very briefly. I went from being mostly aimless in a strange place to having a momentary sense of clarity and of energy. For a moment, watching the liftoff, I became that energy. Go, go, go, a voice inside me said.

Mysteries of parents

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As a child growing up I, like most people I suppose, accepted everything that happened to me at face value, as being the natural and normal order of things. It didn’t occur to me until much later, far into my adult life as I reflected back on my childhood, how strange, indeed pathological, my childhood was. What were my parents really like behind their respective personas? Is it just me who feels this, or does everyone eventually reach a point at which they suddenly realize that their parents were a mystery, or more accurately, two separate mysteries, to them?

My father and my mother were to a great extent hidden from me behind the parental roles that they played. Neither of them had a clue about child-rearing but I think they both tried to play their parental roles as best they could, as they understood them. But they were just roles. My father’s approach to the family was apparently formed by the culturally-pervasive values of his generation in America, in which conformism and keeping up proper appearances were all-important, and the main (perhaps only) role of the father and husband was to be The Boss of the family. The role of women in a family was to be the minions of their husbands or fathers and to be supportive and carry out their assigned tasks. In our family there was little or no sense of emotional bonding or family cohesiveness, largely due my father’s oppressively overbearing and domineering persona, but also, I’m sure, due to the fact that both my father and mother had grown up in families that had very little significant communication or closeness. I think it must be often that human beings who are more or less strangers to each other get thrown together by the forces of chance, by the accidents of marriage and birth, and live out their lives in uneasy familial relationships with people they don’t really understand.

As I said my father was The Boss and he made sure that we all knew it. It was the sum total of his role within the family and in my life. What was most maddening and frustrating about him was that he apparently believed that his own opinions and preferences must have universal validity and thus ought to be shared by all other right-thinking people. He could be shockingly intolerant, and for the most part I felt bullied and harassed by him. I don’t remember him ever saying anything positive about me, or about my siblings or our mother. Nor did he ever offer any words of comfort or encouragement. As a young person I so thoroughly resented his heavy-handed authoritarianism and his utter disregard for my (or anyone’s) feelings, opinions, or preferences that I grew up with a profound distaste, even antagonism, for all forms of authority. But, as with most people who have been bullied, I also grew up with a great sense of empathy for all those who are unrespected and unacknowledged, those who have little or no status and who seem to be overlooked and ignored by our excessively status-conscious social culture. Though I never had the courage to defy my father openly, a quiet but extremely deep wellspring of rebellion was developing inside of me, which would inevitably grow into a lifelong (mostly peaceful) resistance to authorities of all kinds and to conventional behaviors.

My father and my mother were astonishingly different from each other in every way. They seemed to have no interests in common and no real rapport. One of the great mysteries of our family was how they ever became a couple at all. How does this happen?

As for my mother, it took me a long time to appreciate and fully comprehend how extraordinary and interesting she was. She was a mostly quiet person who didn’t draw attention to herself, and she, like most women of her generation, deferred to her husband in all things, at least in those ways that were outwardly apparent. But she was also extremely smart and had an unusually wide-ranging and inquisitive intellect. When I was a young kid I assumed my mother was just an ordinary housewife and mother, but eventually I noticed that there was something unusual about her when I started to take note of her books. She had a lot of them. She had a keen interest in ancient history, the history of religions, Biblical archaeology, the classics of antiquity, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. She also had amazingly wide-ranging interests in literature. She had a tremendous appetite for everything literary, from the classical to the avante-garde. Especially intriguing was her collection of counter-culture, “subversive” literature. She had read all of the Beats, especially Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. She had a great interest in Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. She was fascinated by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. She read contemporary satirists like Tom Wolfe. She was interested in everything, but especially in points of view that were outside the mainstream and that challenged long-established cultural orthodoxies. Underneath her humble housewife persona she had this sharp and rebellious mind. It took me a long time to realize that my mother was a little unusual and that other kids’ moms probably were not knowledgeable about the history of the medieval Church, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the satires of Juvenal, the histories of Livy, or the philosophy of Schopenhauer as mine was.

Much later in my life, in middle-age, I remembered with a sense of awe and also some perplexity those bookshelves of my mother’s. I realized that all along there must have been a much deeper and more extensive mental world going on within her, a world I wished that I could have known better. Of course, we talked from time to time about her literary/historical/philosophical interests, and it was actually during such talks that I felt most connected to her. Perhaps it was her instinctive and habitual emotional reserve that led her into this quiet and solitary passion for inquiry, this lifelong private exploration of the whole world of ideas. I wish now that somehow I could have followed her more in her mental explorations, participated in them more with her.

While my father could be an extremely difficult man, I had very conflicted feelings about him. His lack of regard for me and my siblings and our mother was infuriating, but I came to see that it was not really direct malice on his part but instead a strange lack of ability to see others as complete human beings, probably because of his upbringing and his cultural conditioning that had trained him into such habits of mind. It was like some weird kind of disorder of perception, a huge blind spot in his way of perceiving others that made it impossible for him to see another person except in terms of his own preconceived ideas and his personal likes and dislikes. His own personality imposed itself on everything he saw and experienced in an automatic way, as if it were the most natural thing for him. I have often wondered how a person gets to be that way. What strange forces in his own family and his own upbringing shaped his personality to be like this?

On the other hand, as maddening and frustrating as he could be, he did have some admirable qualities. He had a great respect for learning and for genuine skill, although unlike my mother he was much more interested in technological and scientific knowledge than cultural. He was scrupulously honest and his integrity was sincere and unaffected. He took on challenging tasks without fear or hesitation. He was generous in contributing his help to his friends and neighbors. He was extraordinarily competent in many skills in which I felt I was, and probably always would be, painfully deficient. He was apparently capable of fixing anything and building anything. He knew his way around the world. He didn’t seem to ever doubt his own ability. He had an amazing ability to take the initiative in difficult situations. What was really awe-inspiring about my father was that he just seemed to assume that he was capable of doing anything that he needed to do, and so he approached each thing to be done with a calm confidence, and he did it. In fact he seemed to know how to do everything except how to get along with and communicate with other people. I was simultaneously awed and infuriated by him. At times I desperately wanted to emulate him and at other times I wanted to be the exact opposite of him. Sometimes these feelings coexisted simultaneously. To say that I felt conflicted would be a great understatement.

My father and my mother were these too strangely mismatched, utterly incompatible people, brought together by who knows what mysterious chance events and random forces. And I, in an agonizingly difficult process, somehow grew up into a weird, awkward amalgam of the two of them, and other strange things as well, perhaps destined to always be incompatible even with my own self.

In the beginning

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One of my earliest memories is of being a small child in southern California. My parents had taken me somewhere on the coast where there was a pier. It might have been Santa Monica. Dusk was approaching and the sky was turning gray. For some reason we walked out to the end of the pier and watched the waves. I don’t remember anything being said. My parents stood apart. It was windy and cool. I think that for the most part I was a troubled child but at that moment, in the midst of the wind and the waves, I felt an expansive sense of peace, an intuition for the vastness of nature, the awe and mystery of it. A feeling of reverence for the dynamic, flowing world, and a sense of being touched by forces that came from very far away.

Looking back on that long-ago evening from my current vantage point as a man in my 60s, I know that there is something deep and vital in me that I have managed to retain from that very early time. That faint and subtle glimmer of reverence has stayed with me and has taken me all the way through my life. It may in fact be the only thing about me that has remained recognizable and constant in me through all of the many drastic changes that my life and personality and identity have gone through.

Aimlessness is as big as mountains

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The story of my life is a story of wandering, from as far back as I can remember. Even as an infant being born I must have wandered into this world from some mysterious elsewhere. As a youngster I didn’t feel that I belonged to my family or indeed that I had any connection of any sort to anyone. I was rootless, at loose ends, and filled with restless and urgently-felt longings which I could not identify. This was largely due to the influence of my father, a strict and domineering man who, while extremely intelligent in some ways, was completely lacking in tact and sensitivity, harbored appalling prejudices, and was astoundingly oblivious to the needs of his own family.

Being a child and having no other experience to compare this to, I had no idea that the family situation I found myself in was pathological in any way. I only knew that I felt profoundly lonely and had a restless urge to seek something else, but what I sought I didn’t know. I had no words and no concepts for what was happening in my own life. My life consisted of only two things: there was my father, and then there was everything that was not my father, which was basically all of space, the whole wide world. All of my experience in my early life was dominated by this polarity. My own daily living was a wilderness in which I wandered in search of something meaningful, trying to find my way, to find some kind of path through my own life. I was an outward-seeking thing, aimless, alone, feeling as if I were suspended in the middle of a void. Already as a young child I was coming to realize that everything interesting and meaningful was happening elsewhere, in the far distance, and that maybe through wandering I could find those things that would give my life meaning and substance.

When I was a child I recall us living in several different places in southern California, all in the greater Los Angeles area. My father never felt content to live anywhere for long, so we moved a lot. But everywhere we lived I found places to walk and explore by myself and tried to do so as often as I could. Sometimes I went with my young friends but my preferred way was to go it alone. In the southern California town of Brea, as a kid of 12 or 13 my wandering reached new levels of adventurousness. I was inspired by the beautiful vistas of hills and mountains surrounding the valley in which we lived. I sometimes spent whole days on long climbs up into the highest hills, the highest points I could reach, to where I felt close to the sky and I could just see the Pacific Ocean glittering in the sun far off to the west and the pale misty range of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. I wouldn’t say my long treks up into the hills were undertaken ambitiously because I had no goals, simply a persistent urge to go as far as I could. I was just wandering, but my wandering had become vast, at least to me. Very little of my childhood and adolescence has stayed with me after all these years. Mostly it consisted of a neurotic kid’s petty fears and resentments, and painful social awkwardness, now long since consigned to the mind’s trash pile and not worth the effort to try to remember. But what was the most important thing, the really crucial thing, about my life back then were the times when I was surrounded by hills and blue sky, everything was bathed in light, and I was aimless and free to explore.

Many years later I thought of these experiences when I encountered this passage in a poem by A R. Ammons:

“how could you, walking in the mts,
be as big as the mts: only by
wandering: aimlessness
is as big as mts”

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