Earlier this week, I was reminded of the reality of these times. It’s so easy to forget how many people are suffering. I wonder how many of my students need to stand in food distribution lines. It’s not something they mention though many have lost their jobs. I’m doing my best to support them in other ways to help them make it through the semester, but there are no guarantees my efforts will be successful for all of them.
This morning, though, my thoughts transported me to other days more than 50 years ago when I set off to find my true home and soul. Homeless and wandering the streets in Hollywood, California, I ended up among strangers who provided a temporary safe haven. I described how I ended up there in one of my earliest posts.
This morning I was forced to rely on CDs to entertain my parakeets, Bud and Queenie. It was one of those days when the weather affected radio reception for the classical station that plays the music that helps them feel safe and encourages them to sing. The first CD I chose was by John Denver, and suddenly, I found myself thinking of Richard, a friend from decades ago. Richard was a shy, gentle man who seemed out of place in a house shared by ebullient, self-assured, and opinionated students, some who loved to party. He was from a privileged family, the well-behaved son of professors. I was the only housemate who took the time to get to know him.
It’s funny to realize that I always remember him whenever I hear John Denver sing Rocky Mountain High. I think of our adventures traveling through the Rockies in his ever-untrustworthy Fiat in 1968. The memories make me smile, but also carry a sense of sadness.
I was a poor, struggling college student when Richard and I were housemates. He had already graduated and was working as a photographer for a local newspaper. I had just finished my worst semester ever. I passed advanced French literature with a final exam written in French that I couldn’t translate when I awoke from the long sleep that followed two days and nights of cramming. Although I wrote what was, I think, a brilliant final paper for Peoples and Cultures of Africa, I just never got around to handing it in, so why would I pass? And the history of Buddhism – I really should have dropped it when I could. The arrogance of the professor who needed to remind us at least 100 times each class that he was the world’s most renowned scholar was so at odds with the subject. The only thing I remember from the class is one word – jnana – the Sanskrit word that means wisdom-knowledge, intelligence guided by compassion. The word was so antithetical to the example the professor modeled to the class through his words and behaviors.
And then there was my job, a nurse’s aide for the graveyard shift at the university hospital. I alternated between the gynecology floor and the maternity ward. By that point, I had witnessed nurses make mistakes that caused permanent damage to newborns with no professional consequences and morning staffings that were nothing more than gossip sessions about patients who were dying painfully from the last stages of metastasized cancer.
I was so ready for a change. When Richard asked if I would be willing to go on a summer adventure to see the western United States, I told him I would on two conditions — we would share expenses equally and would remain friends without any emotional entanglements. He readily agreed, so I dropped out of school, quit my job, and we took off on an adventure in his little maroon-colored Fiat. This particular model of Fiat was tiny, with the engine in the rear and the storage compartment in the front. We packed some of our camping gear in the front “trunk.”
And then we hit the road. First we traveled southwest, through the prairies and cornfields. We finally made it to the Texas panhandle, and as we drove on flat highways with no speed limits, the little Fiat valiantly fought to hold the road, buffeted by powerful crosswinds as trucks flew by. One strong blast of wind blew the hood of the trunk open, and another ripped it from its hinges into the middle of the highway. Although we stopped and ran to retrieve it, we were a little too late. We watched helplessly as a large truck drove over the hood, permanently bending it. We collected the dented hood, found some rope to tie it on, and headed to the nearest town to find some way to repair it. The best solution we could find was more rope and duct tape, not the most convenient solution when we needed to open the trunk every night to get our camping gear.
We decided to travel north through New Mexico. Getting to the camping gear was a daily ordeal of untying crisscrossed ropes and ripping off duct tape and then replacing everything in the morning. After taping and re-taping the trunk for a few days, Richard decided to buy a small, light trailer to haul our camping gear. The Fiat was able to pull the trailer, at least on mostly flat terrain and gently rising foothills. But just as we reached Denver, the engine gave out. We had to stay in Denver a few extra days while we waited until the only mechanics trained to work on Fiats had time to fit us in. With the new engine, we headed deeper into the mountains and camped in breathtakingly beautiful places. I remember Grand Lake, nestled in the forests of high mountains. We froze at night in our sleeping bags. I would awake long before dawn and walk to the lake with my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. I sat on the shore waiting for sunrise. As the sun rose and warmed the cold mountain lake, spirals of mist appeared and danced on its surface. Legends say the spirals of mist are the spirits of the Ute women, children and elders who died when their rafts capsized during a storm.
We traveled on to ghost towns that had once been busy silver mines, turned by then into seldom-visited tourist attractions. When we stopped in small towns to buy supplies, or on rare occasions to eat something other than campfire-cooked meals, we became a main attraction. People would line up at the windows of shops to watch us as we walked by. Richard was starting to grow his hair longer, a change from the clean-cut persona he projected when he worked for a newspaper, and a beard was beginning to show. My hair, then almost black, was long and unbound, blowing in the mountain breezes. Dressed in my sandals, bell-bottomed jeans and huge workshirt that looked more like a dress, I guess we appeared strange. Perhaps it was the first time townspeople had an opportunity to see “hippies” up close.
As we headed on our way to Wyoming, the little trailer didn’t quite hold the road as we wound around hairpin mountain turns without guard rails and finally went off the side of the mountain. Fortunately, we didn’t go with it. We stopped and got out just in time to see the trailer give up its tenuous hold on the trailer hitch and tumble the long way down to the bottom. Although shaken by our narrow escape, we nonetheless continued our travels and replaced some of the camping gear we lost.
Our travels led us to Seattle and down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles. This is where I decided to stay, with a newly found friend who lived in Hollywood. I know Richard was deeply hurt by my decision. Despite our agreement to avoid romantic entanglements, I knew that he thought he loved me, and I knew he wanted to protect me from harm. But I also realized that I needed to find out who I was by learning to stand on my own in the world. Hollywood seemed as good a place to learn as anywhere I had been before. It was far more diverse and exciting. Richard left alone to return to his Midwest home with tears in his eyes.
This morning when I remembered Richard and the adventures we shared, I googled his name on a whim. I found someone with the same name who is the age he would be now and whose photo looked like what I imagined he would look like decades later. I was relieved. I choose to believe that this is the Richard who once thought he loved me. And I choose to believe that our adventures inspired him to go on to become the famous creative quirky photographer described on the internet. Although we never met or spoke again, the memories of the friendship we shared remain in my heart and will probably continue to reawaken to the sound of Rocky Mountain High.
Some stories have happy endings without any regrets, even though touched by a hint of sadness.
“When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.”
(Kahlil Gibran, 1923/2002, The Prophet, pp. 58-59)
This Thanksgiving morning, a few words from a song that one of my long-ago new Hollywood friends wrote and recorded came to mind.
What can you make
that nobody else can fake?
Try a gen-u-ine
You can make a smile
that is your very own.
You can make a smile
and you can make it known.
You can smile.
My travels have taken me many places since then. I lost touch with many of the friends I encountered along the way. Yet lessons they shared remain in my memories, leaving a legacy of resiliency and gratitude. I can smile. I can also send healing thoughts and bring soft hands and laughter into the lives of people I meet today.
Today, I am grateful for those gifts. Surviving hard times can bring unexpected life-long benefits. I hope that is true for those who are suffering today.
In another early post, I defined a term I learned from a former student, “River Teeth.”
Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.