Like everyone, my life has seen multiple transitions from one stage to another. My recent experiences seem to have imparted a flavor somewhat different from previous changes, in that for the first time, the changes are physical rather than intellectual or emotional. It got me thinking back about what Willie Nelson called:
Running through the changes
Going through the stages
Coming round the corners in my life.
When I was a teen, I had the usual mistrust of The Establishment, but one day it occurred to me that much of what I ‘believed’ had been accepted uncritically from that very Establishment. I therefor set about systematically examining my views, confirming what I could verify from personal experience and logic, discarding some beliefs and reaffirming others. Generally – because I grew up in a reasonably sane environment (unlike today’s world) – the agreements between my conclusions and what I was taught tended to revolve around basic issues – how one treated others, how one met personal difficulties and responsibilities. The disagreements tended to revolve around issues that were peripheral to daily life: national politics and events, culture, religion. For the past 60 years I have kept up that habit of periodic re-evaluation of my thinking and the habit has served me well.
At about 15, I came into possession of a cache of liquor, naturally concealed from adults. I kept a bottle in my locker more to cock a snook at Authority than because I wanted it between classes. I sat in bed at night reading and listening to the radio as I drank about 8 ounces of good bourbon. I didn’t think much about it until I happened to go camping with an uncle and cousin. I was unable to fall asleep. Understand, that normally I could like down in a pile of rocks and be asleep in two minutes, but I was sleepless. I thought to myself, “Damn, I wish I had a glass of bourbon.” I was immediately shocked by my comment and realized how I had become ‘hooked’. When I got home, I dumped all the booze and didn’t have so much as a glass of 3.2% beer for the next two years. Alcoholic did not suit my self-image. Years later, something similar happened when I stopped being a smoker because it was ego-dystonic.
In my late teens, I began the sophomoric exercise of examining religion; reading widely, comparing beliefs, trying to resolve disagreements. I finally reduced my understanding to a set of paradoxes, which didn’t really help much as far as grasping any Ultimate Truth. It did, however, provide me with an enlightening and useful experience.
I was in the USAF at the time, stationed in Monterey California. In the evenings, I sometimes walked from the Presidio to a Naval Station about five miles away. One night, as I strolled along musing that “A is true and B is true and A & B are mutually exclusive”, my mind just ground to a halt. I had inadvertently used a technique of Zen practice to suspend certain – but not all – mental processes. I did not stop perceiving, but I stopped filtering, comparing, connecting.
I walked the 5 miles back to the Presidio, crossing downtown Monterey – bright lights, noises, busy streets, hundreds of people – without any awareness of the journey until I got back to my barracks.
Among other things, this taught me that we need only a minuscule part of our mental capabilities to navigate the world. Most of our mental activity is not only unnecessary, it is often (usually) just a form of intellectual doodling, a busywork process, rather like keeping an engine revved up waiting for the light to change.
Greenwich Village in the ’60s added new dimensions. The folk music scene in full swing, the anti-war movement, the civil rights efforts all had their influence on me. The wide availability and use of many illicit substances broadened my outlook on these, since most everyone I knew used drugs to some degree, except for (most of) my IBM colleagues. I couldn’t reject out-of-hand the evidence that – contrary to official propaganda – pot did not turn people into depraved monsters, LSD did not make them crazy, cocaine did not drive them to lives of crime or prostitution and even harder drugs like heroin, while dangerous, were not necessarily as depicted by J. Edgar Hoover et al
My own experimentation left me with little taste for marijuana. I found it a downer and not worth the cost, trouble and risk. I also found I have a natural resistance to many drugs – it took a lot of hash to get me stoned. Discussing LSD, I suggested it would be possible to ingest it without any effects at all. Naturally, everyone ridiculed my innocent ignorance – until I took it without any effect at all. Subsequent ‘trips’ were taken until I found it of no real value. It did expand my notion of the capabilities of the Mind, but once discovered, I no longer needed LSD to reach ‘expanded consciousness’. I gave it up because, like pot or hash, it wasn’t worth the cost and risk. It had served it’s purpose. I have not taken anything of that sort in the last 50+ years.
I suppose marriage, family and career might constitute another phase of my life, but the mechanics of it all were quite conventional and it neither revealed nor provided anything new intellectually, spiritually or philosophically. Aside from ongoing learning, reading and general improvements in ‘knowledge’ and a good deal of enjoyment with doing a difficult job damn well, all it provided was income. Is is perhaps ironic that my ‘hippie’ days left me on the verge of devoting myself to Poetry and it was a conscious decision to choose Yuppie over Poet. I’ll always wonder where/who I’d be had I chosen poetry and writing over computers.
Which brings me to today, newly reflective on the frailties the human flesh is heir to, the inevitability of physical decline and the determination not to let that decline extend beyond the physical. In addition to increasing the time I spend reading, thinking and writing, I find I’m indulging myself more these days, ordering long-coveted potables like Flor de Cana rum and Green Spot Irish whiskey, planning more travel locally, nationally and abroad. I don’t feel The End is particularly near, nor do I fear it.
On the other hand, You. Never Know. The days dwindle down to a precious few……
Carpe Diem – and keep on loving life and people.
You chase perfection
and if today isn’t
Even things complete
call up memories of when
And if you think
you have troubles
until you stumble
The skills that got us to where we are today aren’t necessarily the same skills that will carry us forward. You may not be fleet of foot enough anymore to outrun the riot police but damn sure you can stare the good constable down and enunciate your rights a lot better than 30 years ago.
Very Well Done Steeleweed…,
right on partner…, write on 🙂