Helen’s house was a comfortable little cottage tucked away in the woods. It was only about fifteen miles west of Iowa City, but it stood in the middle of a thousand acres of rolling farmland. As we approached the house, we passed a wildlife sanctuary. I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine why animals would need refuge way out here in the country, but Helen pointed out that since some hunters in the area would "take aim at anything that moved," as she put it, some animals, especially birds of prey, had to be protected.
Helen led us into the house and invited us to make ourselves at home and have a look around while she put the groceries away in the kitchen. The truth was, we really didn’t know her very well at all, so we were curious for clues as to who this woman was who had taken us home. Much of the furniture—the dining room table and chairs, the sideboard and the occasional tables—was beautiful, handcrafted antiques. Strings of crystal beads hung in the doorways and glinted in the windows like magical spider webs in a fairy tale cottage. Here and there, crystal pendants hung on the wall. At the side of the house was a small porch that had been turned into a studio, and there, Helen kept a collection of thousands of crystals and colorful gemstone beads in dozens of neatly organized boxes. So, she was a bead person. She was an artist, too. We noticed two portraits, intricately detailed in pencil, hanging on the studio wall, one of a little girl and the other of a serious black man with one blind eye. They seemed almost alive. When we asked, Helen called from the kitchen that they were people she knew some time ago. Evan commented quietly that he hoped the man didn’t come looking for Helen while we were here.
Helen’s hound dog welcomed us, too. He was floppy-eared, lanky and bounding and excited to have visitors. His name was Comfort. He had free run of the place including anywhere he wished to sleep on the couch or chairs in the living room. Comfort was Helen’s constant companion. He kept her in touch with reality, she said. He told her when it was time to wake up, when it was time to eat and when it was time to go for a walk. We didn’t have to ask how he got his name. Helen talked to him all the time, and after a while, I did, too.
We stayed up late talking, playing guitars and sharing the musical ideas we’d each been working on. I went to sleep thinking that our hostess struck me as something of a white witch, living outside town surrounded by crystals and accompanied by her familiar. She was definitely not a mainstream Iowan. It wasn't my business how Helen spent her free time or exercised her religious beliefs, so I didn't think too hard about it. We had the good fortune of a friend who was offering us her hospitality, and I was happy to accept her invitation.
In the morning, I showered, dressed and wandered downstairs to find Helen pulling weeds in the little front garden. She pointed out the stone fountain in one corner of the yard under a tangle of overgrown plants and a toppled-down tree. I offered to help, but she said that was her project while Bill, Evan and I created a musical garden of our own.
We played music for hours on end, calmly sitting in the living room listening to one another: Bill’s quirky guitar, Evan’s thumping bass, and my vocals, traveling from place to place wherever the spirit moved us. We contentedly stepped away from any sense of time. It reminded me of the hours I spent as a twelve or thirteen year-old playing my favorite records—Tom Glazer, Peter, Paul and Mary, Carol King, Joni Mitchell—over and over and over again until I had figured out the guitar or piano chords and memorized the lyrics. How my mother ever tolerated the endless repetition, I’ll never know. Once in a blue moon she’d call from the kitchen, “Time for a different song, honey,” and I’d snap out of it and play something else or call it quits for the day. Helen’s house, a remote island in the enormous space that the peace march had created, gave me the same feeling of creative license, and she was every bit as indulgent as my mother had been.
Helen offered the highest order of hospitality: an invitation to peruse her record collection and home library. Among her records I found an lp called “Dick Gregory at Kent State,” a recording of the speech he gave at Kent State University in Ohio one year after the killing of four students during the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations. These were the "Four Dead in Ohio" that Crosby, Stills and Nash had memorialized in song. I had been an impressionable fourteen year-old at the time of the Kent State killings, and I remembered staring at the photograph in Life magazine of a horror-stricken girl kneeling beside a young man’s lifeless body. The same photo was on the back of the record album, and I stared at it again as I listened to Gregory speaking about that disastrous spring day. The speech made me wonder if it was simply human fate to stumble again and again into tragedy. Had we learned nothing since Oedipus? Dick Gregory pulled apart “the System” and held each flaw up to the light, but his message was ultimately a positive one. The crux of his talk was to draw a distinction between what man creates and what nature creates. He warned that revolution was controlled not by man but by nature. He also drew a distinction between property rights, contrived by man, and human rights, inherent in nature. I understood him to mean that wars were about property rights, whereas revolutions were about human rights. That got me thinking that the nuclear issue was not only a political and economic question of who controlled the nukes but an ethical question of how we were using them to control each other’s natural freedoms—and our own.
One day at Helen’s, Bill started telling a story. Whether he was telling it from memory or making it up as he went along, I couldn’t tell; he was seeing it in his mind’s eye. He described a community that sounded a lot like the Great Peace March except that the people were not nomadic, and they lived at a much earlier time. They lived close to nature and made decisions collectively. They lived in relative peace, he said, until they started having trouble with outsiders who wanted their land. The interlopers bullied them, giving them an ultimatum to leave or be forced off the land. The community split into two groups under different leaders, a larger group who wanted to fight the intruders and a smaller group who wanted to move. Bill’s voice was calm as he told how the smaller group secretly betrayed the majority, and a forced migration began. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if the move hadn’t been imposed upon them in the dead of winter. None of them had enough food or adequate clothing against the freezing cold weather. They were forced to walk hundreds of miles. They fell sick and had no medicine, so many of them died along the way. The people who survived were utterly helpless; they couldn’t even stop to bury the dead. The tears were rolling down my face. I knew what it was to walk many miles in a day; I knew what it was to be sick while on the road; I knew what it was to be at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. I could imagine every detail. All that deception and cruelty and sadness was too much to hold inside. When he was done, I asked if Bill had made up the story. No, he said, it was the story of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears.” I recognized it then, but Bill’s telling had been so detailed and so personal that he had made the story come alive. In the hours that followed, the Kent State tragedy and the Cherokee Trail of Tears squirmed in my psyche. Bill and Evan had started improvising on a musical theme in a minor mode. I contributed a few lines: “Broken pieces cover the land; chalk one up to the vision of man...” about visionaries who lose touch with the present and falter under the burden of their own vision.
On another day, Helen suggested I have a lesson with her voice teacher. I thought that was a great idea. I had taken voice lessons, first informally with my mother, who was also a singer, and later, in college from a man who would break out in song: “Laura is a face in the misty light…” whenever he saw me coming down the hall. It was a little embarrassing, but Mr. Plotsky was an intrepid instructor, full of energy and unconventional teaching ideas; unafraid to have me lie on the floor and breathe like a baby, for example, so I could learn to use my diaphragm correctly. He was an operatic singer with a huge voice; a big fish in the cultural puddle that was Colorado Springs, but he respected my folky voice and helped me develop my own style. There were other dimensions to Mr. Plotsky. He wore thick, square, metal-rimmed glasses with tinted lenses. He told me he was quickly losing his vision, so he was doing everything he could to keep from going completely blind or at least slow the process. He often practiced eye-strengthening exercises while I sang my warm up exercises. I didn’t mind. I was learning to sing. Unfortunately, as much as Mr. Plotsky knew that I was not an operatic singer, the music department at the college did not support much flexibility in its vocal studies program. For my sophomore recital, I wanted to sing the Gershwins’ “Summertime," but I was required to sing an Italian aria. No one seemed to notice or care that they were asking a mouse to roar. I remember looking into the audience and seeing the instructors from the music department looking into their laps. It was a dreadful performance and a humiliating experience. By the time I stumbled out of the program after two years, Mr. Plotsky remained the cherished highlight of my failed music major.
I had taken voice lessons during my year in Los Angeles, too, with an instructor who tried his hardest to make me sing like Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand. He put a Broadway vibrato at the top of a long list of improvements I needed to make. Each time I left a lesson, I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach.
So, when Helen made an appointment for me, I had no idea what to expect, but I figured I'd seen it all, so I was game for anything. On the drive to his house, Helen said she needed to warn me about something. “It’s my voice teacher,” she began, “he’s… kind of… eccentric.”
“Helen,” I said ironically, “I think I can handle eccentricity.”
And we both laughed, because it was obvious that anyone on the peace march would have to be pretty tolerant of eccentricity; but I noticed that my laughter was lighter than hers.
We arrived at a normal looking ranch-style home and rang the bell. The first thing I noticed as he opened the door was that Helen’s voice teacher wore a black cape. He gave the impression of a Liberace, but his manner was not glittery or flamboyant. Count Dracula came to mind. Helen introduced us, and as she did, I quickly looked to see if my host had long, sharp incisors. He did not. The thought did occur to me that maybe he and Helen were both vampires, and I was to be their next victim. I reeled in my imagination and followed him down the hallway. He showed me into his studio where a baby grand piano stood at one end, and red and black dominated the color scheme. He graciously offered me a seat on a small sofa while he stood at the center of the room and started talking. I expected him to focus on the usual concerns of vocal production—breath support, posture, diaphragm control, et cetera. Instead, he launched into a lengthy overview of history, starting with Atlantis. After a long while, he stopped and looked directly at me. “It is important that you remember what I am telling you,” he said. “There is a time coming soon when there will no longer be rich or poor; humans will live for a long, long time and travel to other places in other dimensions.”
As I started to reply, I realized that this was not a conversation; it was a lecture, or maybe an oracle.
“You are part of a generation known as the “Fifth Root Race,” he continued. “You will be instrumental in leading humanity to a new awareness of life beyond the current age. You will sow the seeds of the future race so that humanity can live in peace and harmony.”
I felt a little overwhelmed, but not uncomfortable, so I interrupted. “You’ve told me so much already,” I said politely, “I don’t think I’ll be able to remember everything you’ve said.”
“Not to worry,” he said. “When you need to remember, it will come back to you. Now,” he added, “you are just planting the seeds."
So, I took a deep breath and set my mind on “absorb” as I listened to his monologue of information and philosophy and prophecy unfurl.
By the time we came to the end of my lesson, I hadn’t sung a note. He mentioned this and said not to worry, that I had a lovely voice. My head was reeling. I thanked him for his time and left with Helen, who had been waiting for me. As we headed back to her house, I tried to debrief, but it was hopeless. Her teacher had communicated a vision of humanity in a future that nobody could imagine, and yet I was supposed to be among those who would make ready for its arrival.
“Eccentric?” I said to Helen as we drove home, “Yeah, I’d say that was an understatement!”
One evening several days later as the dinner hour approached, I went to Helen’s refrigerator and found there was nothing in it. We had come to the bottom of our store of groceries. I went back into the living room and told the others I thought we’d need to go into town to buy some food. Bill slipped past me into the kitchen and an hour or so later called us to the dining room table where he served us a delicious meal of brown rice and spiced beans. I was delighted and asked how he’d done it. He said he just found this and that—a cup of rice, an onion, a pepper, a can of beans, some spices—and put it all together. He was like that clever fairy tale traveler who made soup from a stone.
We ended our last day at Helen’s with an evening walk into the countryside. We wandered away from the cottage, down the dirt roads, past an old graveyard of black headstones engraved with the names of Slavic settlers who had passed away nearly a century earlier, and a small plot of land that Helen said was the last remaining acreage of untouched prairie in the state. We stood for a while, talking, looking at the natural grasses and wild flowers that had been growing there for who knows how long. Never in my life had I seen a sunset where the vista was equally magnificent at every turn. In one direction, where a bright, red sun set, the sky was filled with fine-edged, pastel-pink clouds; in another an enormous, fluffy cloud shone brilliantly white; in a third direction, layers of powdery wisps lingered on the brink of light; while the easternmost portion receded toward darkness like a smoky grey cat. It seemed impossible that there could be more to this idyllic scene, but we walked past a spotted fawn and its mother grazing in a field at the edge of the woods and, as the light faded, we could hear coyote pups yelping off in the woods. At bedtime, the pulsing chorus of crickets, toads, and tree frogs, was so loud that I found it hard to fall asleep.
The next morning, Helen and I talked for a while as I packed up my belongings. We discussed our relationships with some of the men in our lives and I told her about some of the unusual coincidences that had occurred on the peace march. These were not, in my mind, supernatural or spooky, but the topic sent Helen off in an unexpected direction about a haunted house where she and some friends once worked. Her tone of voice made it all sound true. I got chills listening to the details of the “energy” they all saw moving around the house. I could see that the encounter had changed Helen’s beliefs about the spirit world and the afterlife. It gave me the creeps. I didn’t say so to Helen, but if I believed I had actually seen a ghost, I sure wouldn’t live all by myself in a little cottage in the woods in the middle of nowhere.
In welcoming us, Helen had given us a great gift, and I wanted to give her something in return. I had told her the whole amazing story of finding the “virtuous woman” heart that God had left for me on the road in Iowa, and as we said goodbye, I gave the heart to her. I wondered at the time if I would regret giving away the only evidence of my conversation with God, but it seemed to me that the larger point was that everything in the world around me was created from an ongoing conversation between me and God, so the little heart was really just a token, a calling card to be passed along to someone else who might also be seeking such an awakening. I thought Helen might be such a person. I left it propped against the vase in the middle of her dining room table. Helen said she might catch up with us later on the march, but for the time being, we said our goodbyes. A friend of hers gave us a lift all the way to Chicago.
Evan, Bill and I never wrote a single song at Helen’s house, but we hashed through hours of musical ideas, and, best of all, we learned to listen to one another. However, in the same way that the psyche sometimes pulls yesterday’s minor events into tonight’s full-blown dreams, a symbol from our Iowa retreat emerged in a new song a few weeks down the road. Who could have guessed that Helen’s spirited hound would inspire a lullaby? I called it “Comfort Song.”
Night has gathered around, stars shine in the sky;
Sleepers lay themselves down; into their dreams they will fly.
Comfort keep you, guide you on your way;
Into sleep you slide away.
Northern star at your head, Southern Cross at your feet;
Sun sinks into the west; Moon rises up in the east.
Comfort keep you, guide you on your way;
Into sleep you slide away.
Listen, Nightingale’s song echoes into the night
Faith will carry you back with arms of heavenly light.
Comfort keep you, guide you on your way;
Into sleep you slide away.
(Click here to listen to "Comfort Song.")
(Click here to listen to "Comfort Song.")