Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter Eleven: "Close Your Eyes And Open Your Hand"

May 20, 1986.  Today’s walk was pure exhilaration.  After shuffling plans for the middle school kids, I headed out for a twenty miler over Vail Pass.  It would be fifteen miles up to the summit, then five miles down into the ski town of Copper Mountain.  The morning was cold and clear, perfect for a walk in the mountains.

Iris and Me on a Covered Bridge in Vail Pass
The first three miles I walked with Iris in the main march, but by the time we got to the first rest stop I couldn’t sit still.  It must have been the thin mountain air.  Every cell in my body surged with energy.  I went on ahead, coursing up the old mountain road unused except by hikers, mountain bicyclists and, in the snowy season, cross-country skiers.  Bill, too, passed the main group.  We walked together at a brisk pace and talked about Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which we had both read and loved, and The Snow Leopard, which he recommended to me.  I asked about the Spirit Walk.  He said it was incredible.  At times, snow and rain and cold temperatures hung over them as they plodded along rutted mountain roads.  But it was also beautiful—wild, he said, and in its isolation, something the peace march could never be.  The Spirit Walkers lived like real pioneers, camping wherever they could find purchase.  A little boy was having his birthday while he and his mom and the others were slogging through the mountains of southern Utah.  As Bill told it, one man hollowed out a place in the earth with his hands, lined the dug-out with stones for an oven, built a small wood fire, and baked a birthday cake for the young lad.  The man was Sudama, who, back in camp, had taken charge of the Great Peace March kitchen.  He and the crew concocted delicious, healthful meals for hundreds of people every day working out of our tiny, mobile kitchen.  His quiet presence belied the powerful contribution he made to the march.  I had heard he was a Hare Krishna and that it was their goal to feed all the people of the world.  Bill said you had to be in awe of anyone who make an oven in the earth.  I could have listened to Bill’s stories all afternoon, but my stride was no match for his long legs.  Even though I was walking as fast as I could, he said he couldn't go so slowly, so we said, "See you at camp," and off he went.  Within minutes, he was out of sight, and I was walking solo in the mountains.
I kept up my pace and lengthened my stride, my feet barely touching the ground.  In the thin mountain air, I was soaring.  I laughed and sang and talked to the trees about the stunning beauty that surrounded me.  I sang every thought that streamed through my mind as I strode along the wide, quiet path.  The scenery was heavenly: broad mountainsides covered in snow, sweeping upward to jagged peaks against sky, drifting stands of Aspens and dark pines, streams gurgling with the rush of melting snow, and a huge blue sky so close you could almost touch it.  Two black lakes in the valley were still covered with ice, but along the high road the sun fell warm on my face.  As I pulsed along, the air seemed so clear I could see right through it.  I had never experienced such pure exhilaration.  All too soon, I was at the summit.  I stopped and looked west and east at the magnificent mountain peaks in every direction.  I felt like spinning around like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” so I did, a ring of my own laughter circling me as I went.
 Our lunch crew had set up the serving tables in the parking lot at the summit, so I floated over, a big grin on my face, picked up my food and lingered contentedly while the main march arrived.  I felt like a goddess on Olympus, eating ambrosia (my humous sandwich and blood orange) at the top of the world.  Everyone seemed content to have climbed to the top of the pass.  Moods were high and lunchtime was especially chatty.  When one of the main marchers called out that it was time to leave, I met up with Danny from Rhode Island.  He was wearing his thick alpaca sweater and had his backpack slung on backwards—over his chest.  His sunglasses were the kind that authentic mountain climbers wear, with the little leather flaps on the side.  We headed down from the summit, walking as fast as our legs would carry us for the full five miles.  He got everyone around us chanting an anti-apartheid chant, “New York is—Johannesburg; Chicago is— Johannesburg; D.C. is—Johannesburg; the Peace March is—Johannesburg.”  We spoke “Op,” a silly made-up language in the Pig Latin family that Danny had taught me some weeks earlier.  We talked like toads and sang songs.
  I had recently written a song about Alan Turing, and I wanted Danny to hear it.  My mother had told me the story of Turing, the brilliant mathematician who had devised the “enigma machine,” an early computer that was instrumental in breaking the Nazi secret codes.  Turing was a mathematical hero, but his life and ambitions were destroyed when it became known that he was gay.   He was forced to take hormone treatments and forbidden from serving in any capacity that required top-secret clearance. Turing died from eating an arsenic-laced apple.  Whether his death was suicide or murder was never determined.  The story moved me to tears, anger, really, and a song emerged.  It was the shortest song I could imagine writing, but Evan, having once written a perfectly complete song that was just twelve words long, dispelled my fear of lyrical brevity, so I was emboldened to leave it brief.  As we walked down the mountainside, I told Danny everything I knew about Turing and sang the song to him.  He loved it.  We sang it several times until he had figured out a harmony.

“I know the story
 of a man with a heart of gold
and a mind like a shining star;
One, two, three guesses
 what the world did with him,
Hiding behind their coats and ties;
Hiding behind their coats and ties.”

(Click here to listen to "Coats and Ties.")

The peace march spilled into Copper Mountain, an ultra-modern ski complex.  The architecture was not cozy or quaint, but through the generosity of the management we made a comfortable campsite in the parking lot at the foot of the mountain.  As we put up our tents, I overheard a snippet of conversation between a couple, “You know, Merryl, I’m never gonna complain about making the bed anymore—at least I don’t have to make the whole house!”
The next day, I met with Ruby, Natalie, Lark and Suanne in a green “family” tent, slightly larger than a regular tent.  I read them a whimsical Edward Lear story called “The Four Little Children Who Went ‘Round the World.”  In the story, four children set out on a sailing journey with a cat as their cook.  They encounter ridiculous characters and laughable situations.  It seemed like a good conversation starter for four young peace marchers, but the girls were oblivious to the story and unimpressed by the humor, so much so that at one point I stopped to take a little breather and then ask if I should continue.  They said yes, so I did, as they wove friendship bracelets from embroidery floss.  I felt a bit like a radio that had been switched on to provide background music.  It was difficult for me to admit that I wasn’t finding common ground with the kids, much less helping them make relevant connections between Lear’s little travelers and their own peace march experience.   
The following day was the much-anticipated march over Loveland Pass, the highest elevation of our entire trek, where the continental divide sends rivers flowing either westward to the Pacific or eastward to the Gulf of Mexico.  People were making all kinds of arrangements so they could walk over the pass.  I wasn’t sentimental about it, so I had made a deal with a fellow marcher that if I could walk over Vail Pass, I would forego walking over Loveland Pass and take the kids for a second day.  After my spectacular Vail Pass experience, I didn't regret making that trade.  I borrowed a car and drove my three girls, Ruby, Natalie and Suanne up Loveland Pass.  The weather was perfect and the vistas, stunning.  We stopped at the scenic overlooks and found a comfortable spot where the girls read their books in the sun and wrote in their journals.  For once, they seemed content to read and write without distraction.

School al Fresco
Middle School Field Trip
We had made an appointment to serve lunch to the marchers at the summit, so we eventually headed up the mountain, passing the marchers along the way.  The girls leaned out the windows and shouted, “You’re almost at the top!”  We arrived at the summit and joined the kitchen crew setting out the lunches.  Then we watched as the march wound its way up the mountain road.

Waiting at the Top as the Marchers Came...
When everyone reached the “Loveland Pass; Elevation 11,990 Feet” sign at the top, marchers gathered around, hugging, singing, laughing, and posing for pictures.  People made humorous comments about it being “all downhill from here” and the like.  I watched the celebration, at the same time keeping track of the girls and serving lunch to people as they filed past the serving tables.  After lunch, the girls decided to join the other marchers and walk the rest of the way to our next campsite.  I hopped into the car and drove down, satisfied with a “school” day that had included reading, writing, viewing the spectacular Rocky Mountains, serving lunch to the marchers, and walking a few miles with the whole community.
Next came Silver Plume, a quaint little village of gingerbread houses and antique shops and an old general store.  The main street looked as though it had seen better days.  Sagging porches missed slats here and there, the paint peeled from the woodwork, and the windows needed cleaning; nevertheless, the town boasted an old-fashioned steam engine railway that had recently been renovated and ran about three miles between Silver Plume and Georgetown.  The owner invited the peace marchers for a free ride.  We boarded the open-air train and rode through the pines along the steep mountainside and across three trestle bridges high above a stream that flowed far below.  The train was alive with the excited chatter of marchers, none of whom seemed to mind trading the few miles of walking for a few minutes of fun.

Camping on the Wild Mountainside Near Silver Plume
During these days in the thin mountain air the next section of “Three Blind Mice” came to me:

“Birds of passage, moving town after town,
Birds of passage, bringing the danger down.”

May 23rd.  I had written a letter to Dad at the end of which I reminded him to buy a box of Bowser’s Toffees for Mom for their wedding anniversary—today.  My parents didn’t by gifts for one another very often.  Neither was sentimental, and their idea of romance seemed to revolve around shared interests like music and art and politics, but occasionally Dad surprised Mom with her favorite toffees as a special treat.  They were a peculiar brand, imported from England and not widely available in the States.  Whenever we noticed them on the table by Mom’s chair, we’d tease her about getting candy from her boyfriend. 
At our first rest stop, a woman named Johanna walked up to me.  “Close your eyes and open your hand,” she said.  I smiled and closed my eyes.  I held out my hand in anticipation and felt something being placed in my palm.  I opened my eyes and was surprised to see… a Bowser’s Toffee!  Johanna knew nothing of my parents’ tradition, and when I explained it to her—and the fact that today was their anniversary—she seemed more pleased than surprised.  Some people on the march just weren’t all that impressed when extraordinary coincidences occurred.  I still hadn’t gotten used to what some termed “march magic.”  The synchronicity of events was, to me, astonishing.  After lunch, I opened the distinctive silver foil wrapper, broke the golden, hard toffee in half and popped one piece into my mouth.  In my mind I wished my parents a happy anniversary.  The taste was familiar and sweet, and the feeling was something like—communion.

Journal Entry—May 24. 
Luxurious wake-up this morning as it is a rest day.  The sky is overcast and old Sol takes his sweet time coming over the mountain, so I stay curled in my sleeping bag until the air warms.  Every once in a while a car or truck horn blows a greeting from the highway.  I usually choose my tent site away from the main road for just this reason.  Others don’t seem to mind.  Hitch a ride from a marcher into Idaho Springs this morning to go to the library.  Idaho Springs is an old mining town with neat, solidly build houses, old saloons and a handful of renovated shops on the main street.  Alas, the library is closed until noon so I stop in at the Catholic church for a visit.  For the first time in my life I meditate and quietly “om” aloud in my own church.  The acoustics are vibrant and I enjoy the meditation undisturbed. 
I arrive at the library a few minutes before opening, and the librarian appears just as the loud noontime alarm sounds.  Inside, I read “The Pied Piper of Hamlin.”  The children’s tale is thought to have been taken from the story of the German boy, Nicholas, leading the Children’s Crusade through Hamlin and taking all the children with him.  The Pied Piper is one of those tales that people remember with vague fondness, but it’s actually about corruption and fraud and revenge and kidnapping, and it doesn’t end at all well.  As revenge for not having been properly paid to rid the town of rats, the Piper entices the children of Hamlin over the river and into the bottom of a mountain, never to be seen again.  It’s a story with no clear moral lesson except, of course, that it’s imperative to pay the piper.  I also read a little more about the Crusades in general, including the fact that Pope Urban II called the nobility to action and they replied with the chant, “God wills it!” in a rousing rally at a town called Clermont in France.  Coincidentally, the peace march had been warmly welcomed in a town called Claremont in California.  When I mention this to Bill, he points out that earlier in the march we had also walked through the “urban” neighborhood of East L.A. 

We had a rest day, a warm, sunny Sunday, high in the Rockies, just west of Idaho Springs.  I took my guitar a long way down Clear Creek and played to the piney breeze for a couple of hours.  I had tried so many different endings for “Three Blind Mice” that I finally got frustrated and gave up.  I knew I had to get out of the way of the song, but I was so invested in the portion I’d already written that it was not easy to let go.  I kept trying to make things fit.  The ending finally emerged when all else had failed.  Ironically, this was also the lyrical theme.  The result was nothing I could have planned or devised.

“Foundling race, no trace behind us; who will be out there to find us?
We lift our eyes, search the skies, change the winds of fate to favor;
If all else fails, on spirit sails we’ll fly as one forever.”

(Click here to listen to "Three Blind Mice.")

I had only a vague notion what the song was about, but I could see that some people might be offended by the notion that if we annihilated ourselves it would be okay because our spirits would live on forever.  I worried a lot about offending people with my lyrics.  I often thought up lyrical ideas that were harsh or rude, but then I’d backpedal and settle on something socially acceptable.  I could see why, once the creative flow was active, some artists ended up with compositions that were really disturbing and strange.  I found that the process of censoring interrupted the creative flow, but I did it anyway.  It was important to me to write music that was honest but didn’t turn people away.  With Three Blind Mice, the ideas didn’t seem to have come from me, but I felt I still had to take responsibility for the message behind the lyrics.  In any case, the song was finally finished.  I packed up my guitar, muttering that I hoped every song wouldn’t be that hard to write, and walked back to my tent. 
I picked up the copy of Autobiography of a Yogi that I had checked out from our Bookmobile and had just begun to read when Fay, my old tent mate from Stoddard Wells Road, popped her head into my tent.  What a surprise!  She was dressed in bright yellow shorts and a yellow cotton sweater, looking very neat and clean compared with the last time I had seen her at the bus depot in Barstow.  We talked for a while about the march and her imminent move to Connecticut.  She was living temporarily with her sister in Boulder and invited me to the house for dinner and to spend the night.  We packed up the tent together, just like the good old days, and hit the road.  The drive took us along Clear Creek and past Golden, home of Coors Beer.  The Coors plant looked as big as a city.  We drove through Arvada’s foothills and north to Boulder.  From there I could see that the Great Plains of eastern Colorado were just a few days away.
That night, a big full moon shone in the bedroom window at Fay’s sister’s house.  Three moons since White Oak.  The next morning I awoke between luxurious cotton sheets and quilts, my head resting on multiple pillows, the sunshine streaming through the picture windows.  I felt as though I had awakened on the cover of House and Garden magazine.  Everything was fluffy and smelled of “spring rain” laundry detergent and “mountain fresh” fabric conditioner.  We drank sweet café au lait in the spacious kitchen followed by a delicious breakfast of French toast and bacon.  Everything was clean and bright and comfortable, yet I didn’t feel entirely at home.  I could start to see why Fay had left the march when circumstances became difficult and uncomfortable.  She and I came from different worlds.  At the same time, we shared a desire to end the nuclear arms race.
Fay and I drove into downtown Boulder, circumventing the Bolder Boulder foot race that closed most major streets.  We had a long conversation about the peace march and Fay’s plans for moving east.  We walked past little shops and cafes and browsed in a bookstore.  Fay seemed rushed and a little anxious.  She had just a few days and lots of errands to do before she moved east to a new life.  It was clear that she and I were now on different paths, managing a slightly awkward conversation no longer about a shared experience but about diverging roads.  Fay returned me to Camp Chief Hosa and we said our farewells.
The new campsite was on a sloped mountainside in the woods.  The ground was covered in pine needles and the air smelled delicious.  I set up my tent, and as I had a little time on my hands, I went into the Bookmobile to browse.  I sat on the floor under the skylight and casually opened a big atlas to a map of the continental United States.  It was a map I had looked at a hundred times before.  The continent’s shape, size and geographical features were as familiar to me as the back of my own hand.  But this time, the map told a different story as I suddenly realized that the peace march had already traversed one-third of the American continent, from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern side of the Rockies.  I laughed aloud and exclaimed to the empty bus, “Oh…my…god!”  I had been concentrating so much on each day’s walk that I had completely lost track of the big picture.  One-third gone, two thirds left to go.  I really was walking across the United States.
 I had pretty much decided to quit teaching the kids on the march.  The peace march school was foundering under my leadership, and I desperately hoped that someone more capable would take charge.  My failure to organize the Great Peace March school was a hard pill to swallow, but I didn’t want to sacrifice walking to be with the kids every day.  I also didn’t want to leave them in the lurch.  Ruby, Natalie, Lark and Suanne were great kids who, like the rest of us, had been thrust into an unfamiliar environment with few resources.  Given the circumstances, they were doing the best they could.
  Two women were interested in the school.  Rhoda, a woman with a creative, eccentric flair, wanted to immerse the children in drama, but she didn’t have a plan for an academic program.  Carrie offered to revamp the entire school program.  I trusted her capabilities, but I hadn’t spoken with her about a plan.   Because the organization of the school begged the larger question of how the children should spend their time on the march, Carrie had the good sense to ask for help in mediating a discussion between Rhoda, Carrie and me.  It was my first encounter with the mediation process.  We sat in a small circle under the pines at Camp Chief Hosa.  Our mediator, a calm, serious woman named Teddy, whose age I guessed at about sixty years, established a circle of trust for our discussion and led a process that gave everyone a chance to air concerns and articulate our wishes for the school.  Teddy asked me to give an overview of the school, going back to the PRO-Peace days.  She suggested I explain some of the failures and frustrations but also the successes and I had experienced so far.  She wanted me to tell what had worked and what hadn’t, and in doing so, I realized that I had actually gathered a lot of useful information that I could give to Rhoda and Carrie.  I could also see the inevitability of passing the school to them.  Teddy’s process neutralized the decision, and that was immensely helpful to me.  Rhoda and Carrie presented equally serious perspectives and concerns.  The conversation went around the circle many times, Rhoda pointing out the importance of creativity in helping the children process their experiences, Carrie reiterating the need for a school program that provided a routine that the children and the adults responsible for them could recognize and follow, and me not willing to let go of the old system, disjointed as it was, until a new program was in place.
At last, I started to sense a turning point toward formulating a plan for the school.   Under Teddy’s respectful guidance, Rhoda, Carrie and I pulled together divergent ideas to create a meaningful experience for the children on the march.  On the surface, the plan seemed simple, even mundane, but given the context, its viability was fragile.  The children’s program would begin each morning immediately after the main march left, starting with a morning circle for the kids and the adults who were working with them that day.  Next would come two hours of quiet study for the children who had requirements from their home schools.  The question of where this would take place, Carrie said, would hopefully be solved by the procurement of a school bus, part of her plan.  The much younger children would have activities with a separate group of adults.  In the late morning, Rhoda would take over for an ongoing drama project.  The adults would transport the kids to the march at the lunch site where they would help serve lunch and then walk the last few miles to the next camp.  The plan required a designated person to find an appropriate place for the children to study each morning and locate a means of transportation for them to the lunch site on the march each afternoon.  Carrie said she wanted to be that person, and she and Rhoda both agreed to give up regular walking on the march to stay in camp and run the school. 
I was relieved to know that the children would be in capable, caring hands.  Carrie planned to purchase a school bus but said it might take several weeks to appropriate the money.  Rhoda was eager to get started on a dramatic project with the children right away.  With a viable plan in place, a burden lifted from my shoulders.  I was utterly amazed at the transformational power of the mediation process.  With her expertise, patience and wisdom, Teddy became one of my most admired peace marchers.  The meeting ended with grateful, satisfied hugs all around.