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Reality, What A Concept

Sunsh Stein

And In the Beginning.

It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us -- a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies -- and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.

Previous installments: Crustaceans on the Move

I wasn't prepared for the changes in Tonie when she visited Milwaukee that early spring of 1972. Her appearance, her speech, her actions. She spit in the street, women just did not do that. Her attitude: humble yet entitled. Her entire demeanor was different. I was shocked when I first got a look at her, and almost didn't recognize her as I stood on the landing and watched her climb the stairs to my flat. A kerchief covered her straight brown hair, hanging in braids on either side of her face; ugly low workboots poked out from under her long cotton Indian print skirt; a yellow cotton Indian top covered a dingy white longjohn shirt; a string of multi-colored beads hung around her neck; and she was real skinny.

She had become one of those hippies, the kind we, she and I, as city dopers, would just as soon ignore. The women had hair under their arms and wore long skirts, concealing the hairy legs under them; the guys' hair and beards were unkempt, and they always, both sexes, seemed just a little dirty and suspiciously laid back. They had an itinerant feel and you knew they'd hit you up for cigarettes or money or be spouting some mystical shit. Their energy was different from ours, call it city cousin/country cousin; you knew you were related somehow, but the differences outweighed the similarities and were embarrassing and uncomfortable. And there she was, my best friend, looking just like one of those people. The trendy mod New York City career girl had become the country cousin.

When she got in the door she almost crushed me in a hug -- she had some strength for being so thin. Then she looked at me and said, "Boy, have I missed you!" And hugged me again. Alienation gave way to a rush of love, and an awareness and gratitude that despite the changes she was still my best friend. Realizing that, it didn't matter so much that she looked the way she did, or behaved a little differently, or talked some esoteric line I couldn't quite follow. It was just me and her connecting on home ground.

She had left Milwaukee two-and-a-half years before to find her fortunes in the advertising world, going first to Atlanta, then a year later to New York City. I’d last seen her the previous September, more than six months ago, in Manhattan. Shortly after that she’d moved to a farm in upstate New York where her cousin and some other people lived -- a remote place with no plumbing, electricity or telephone.

I suppose I should have been less shocked by her because of the letters she’d written me. They were spacey and full of foreign concepts practiced by foreign people -- a guy named Shadow, who she called her "teacher," and others who she referred to as "the family." She called herself Spindle. "I feel I’m going through a rebirth -- difficult to comprehend," she wrote. "But, for myself, and because I am you and you are me we have to begin to understand what I’m going through." Oh man, what was this shit, and what the hell was she going through? The letters put me off. I felt threatened by them. They conveyed no life I knew. The Vietnam war was still raging, George McGovern was running as the president for peace, and after a divorce followed by a passionate love affair with Milwaukee’s angriest black activist I was trying to find my place in all the changes swirling around in the world. I was back in college leading a pot-smoking-listening-to-rock-music-looking-for-a-boyfriend existence. What Tonie wrote about didn’t fit into my little sphere.

Sure, I could listen to John Lennon sing in "The Walrus" that "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together," and nod in agreement, but in reality I couldn’t relate, even though I’d had glimpses of the oneness business on acid trips. But then, when you tripped so many statements were profound stoned revelations. And inevitably someone would always exclaim, "Hey man, we're all one, ya know?" But these were just grand philosophical musings, certainly not practiced in everyday real life. It was too far out for me to grasp. This guy Shadow sounded like a Svengali. I feared I was losing Tonie to him and his family of strangers with their strange ways.

Now she sat on my blue and green couch -- a leftover from my marriage to the dry cleaning king -- looking the way she looked, and clutching a large photo album that she had lugged a third of the way across the country from her New York farm to Milwaukee. We pored over it, she reverently and lovingly, me, suspicious and skeptical. She explained each black-and-white shot of the family of strangers -- an assortment of country cousins -- as we paged through.

"That’s Lem and Nick by the side of the house chopping wood. We heat the house with wood and we cook with it some too." I saw two half-naked ax swinging scrawny guys.

"Here's Midge at the stove, it's part-wood and part-gas. You can’t really tell how big the kitchen is," she described the next picture. My eyes beheld a thin, severe looking woman stirring some steamy potion on an odd looking stove.

"The family's so wonderful," Tonie added. "This is Shadow." Her tone mixed admiration and awe as she turned the page to reveal another half-naked skinny guy looking strangely into the camera.

Next came the family dog. "That's Basil, our sweet puppy -- he’s a yellow lab. He’s not even a year old and he’s so together." I saw an oversized animal with tongue and teeth exposed threateningly.

She turned to the family barn on a page facing the family homestead. "Aren’t they far out?" Yeah, I thought, if you like sorry-looking, gray, decrepit structures.

Lastly she showed me the garden. "We grow a lot of our own food and it’s all organic!" Now that looked impressive, even to a nongardener like me.

"You’ve got to come," she implored. "I want you to be there and feel it and meet everyone. They know all about you."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I’ve told them about you and they’ve read your letters."

"They’ve read my letters?"

"Everybody reads everybody else’s mail. It’s no big deal."

"Oh? Maybe not to you."

"Don’t be so uptight. Come on. You’ll love it there. What are you doing this summer?"

"I don’t know." I hedged. I wasn’t going to summer school and my two part-time jobs would be suspended for the season; if I didn’t find something else I’d have the summer off. But I wasn't at all sure that roughing it at this rustic retreat with these weirdos was how I wanted to pass the time. At the end of her visit, however, after spending a week together, doing acid and sharing many of those profound stoned realities, then listening to Bob Dylan’s album "Bringing It All Back Home," I started calling her Spindle and said maybe I’d come.

I didn’t hear from her for a while after the visit, then May brought a letter of distress. Reading between her spaced-out lines it appeared that Svengali had taken a new lover in Spindle’s absence. Coping was difficult she wrote, but "Shadow and I don’t = security. It’s heavy but much beauty abounds." She went on about "more love" even though it appeared she now had less; she said that spring nurtured her, the garden was her passion, and I'll flip out when I see it all.

In the meantime my summer options had expanded. I’d been given a grant to go to Mexico with my political science professor for a six-week project. His "Politics of the Revolution" class excited my intellect and political fervor. And I’d only been to Mexico once on a border-town day trip from Arizona, which didn’t really count. The trip was enticing. But there was my best friend on this hippie commune, really wanting/needing me to come visit — no less an exotic enticement. My life was at an impasse. As a 26-year-old, once-again single, once-again college undergraduate, I was in the throes of my first adult identity crisis. I dreadfully needed change. Excitement and adventure wouldn’t hurt either.

What to do? Where to go? I pondered this dilemma over a joint with some friends at school. "What about consulting the I Ching?" one of them suggested.

"Hmm, I hadn't thought of that."

"Well, it can't hurt," she said. "Come over tonight and we'll see what the coins have to say." Sounded good to me, I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own.

That night at my friend’s apartment we settled in on the living room floor. A burning candle dripped onto an already wax-covered Chianti bottle, casting flickering shadows on the Indian tapestry decorating the wall. She poured cheap red wine into jelly jars. "Good luck," she said, clinking her glass to mine.

"You really think this’ll work?" I asked, taking a big swallow.

"If you believe," she answered.

I took another slug of wine and threw the coins. She looked at how they fell, then paged through the book till she found the matching text. She read it aloud. It told me to go to the commune. It didn’t exactly say, "Get thee to the commune," but the wording eerily invoked friendship, rural images, growth and greenery, and sharing with other people. No matter how we bandied it about it pointed to the hippie farm. School was just about over. I started looking for a ride to New York.


On June 1, 1972 I boarded a Greyhound bus at New York City's Port Authority bus terminal, and traveled more than eight hours across a surprisingly beautiful, but seemingly unending, New York State. My destination was the small farming and mining town of Gouverneur, population 5,000. My final landing place would be the farm eight miles out of Gouverneur where Spindle lived with her hippie family. The friend who’d thrown the I Ching had turned me on to a ride from Milwaukee to Manhattan and I’d crashed there for a few days with Spindle's former roommates.

The morning I left for the farm I got up and showered. As the water beat down on me I decided to shave my legs since I didn't know when I'd have the opportunity again -- to shave, or to shower, for that matter. I clearly remembered that there was no running water where I was going, and that no one, of either gender, shaved anything. Smooth legs were part of my existence, if not theirs, and I wanted to at least arrive with them. If I had known that the next time I'd take a razor to my legs would be almost a decade and a half later I might've not bothered. Clean and relieved of stubble, I put on jeans, a spotless white Heineken T-shirt, and sneakers. I stuffed my backpack with my remaining possessions, tied my sleeping bag to the top, and headed for Port Authority.

As the bus lumbered up mountains and down through valleys, towns, and farmland spewing exhaust as it went, my idle mind spewed out the seemingly random events that led to this bus ride. I delighted in the vagaries of fate that threw Spindle and I together, and kept us together, long after we had discarded the messengers who introduced us. How lucky that when she moved to Milwaukee right after high school graduation the one and only person she knew was the future rabbi, best friend of my boyfriend, the dry cleaning king. It was 1963. A time when many girls went to college to get their Mrs. degree or to become school teachers. That fall she and I took classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but after the first semester, engaging in extracurricular activity was often our reason for being there. My memory replayed the 18-year-old me involved with local civil rights groups and engrossed in heated pseudo-intellectual political discussions that required endless cigarettes and bottomless cups of black coffee. I thought of Spindle and me sitting at a table in the student union playing hearts with the guys, a lure we often succumbed to more than the call of classes. At the end of three semesters we could shoot the moon but we couldn’t rise above the required grade point average. We were both flunking out.

Spindle thought marriage was the answer but she had no prospects. I didn't much think about getting married, but there was the dry cleaning king, ready, willing, and able. I was young. I thought I was in love. I got married. Now, in the reflection of the bus’s window I pictured Spindle in her black dress, high hair, and skinny legs trying to catch the bouquet at my big Jewish wedding. I must have suffered temporary insanity because deep down that was not how I pictured my life. But I had easily gotten swept up on a tide of bride's magazines, shopping, and luncheons, along with the idea of living in my own two bedroom apartment when all my friends lived either with their parents or in college dorms.

A freeze frame of the first marriage apartment flashed before me replacing the varied-hued patchwork of farmland that the bus cruised past: the brand new Mediterranean-style furniture, custom-made floor to ceiling white drapes, with blue and green embroidery to match the furniture’s upholstery, and wall-to-wall gold shag carpeting. The conjugal bedroom of my past was filled with wall-to-wall bed and dressers. Wrought iron trimmed an armoire for him, double mirrors on a dresser for me, and a bed so big that when we both laid down and stretched out, our hands barely touched. I embarrassed myself now, contrasting the contents of my backpack on the bus rack above me: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, a long Indian skirt, underwear, sandals, and toiletries, with the bulging closets of my marriage. They had overflowed with lovingly collected shoes and matching handbags, and the dresses and suits they so carefully accessorized.

This bus trip was ass-achingly long. I watched some black-and-white cows roaming in a pasture, feeding as they went, and reached into a bag of vending machine junk food. My mind wandered from the cows to the dining room of that first apartment. I saw the table and matching breakfront loaded with wedding presents of china, French crystal, and a silver tea service that currently sat unused and tarnished beyond recognition in my funky flat. Now, on my way to a house with no electricity, I laughed thinking of the up-to-the-minute appliances we'd been given: an electric broom, electric knife, electric frying pan, electric juicer, and electric hot tray.

I looked at my watch for the zillionth time. The farmland, cows, and cramped stale bus interior were getting on my nerves. Then I saw a road sign, Gouverneur 12 Miles. That jolted me out of my Greyhound glazed reverie. Time to abandon thoughts of the past and give some energy to where I was about to land.

I ran through all the differences between myself and Spindle's "family." First was appearance: I looked clean-cut with my close-cropped boyish hair, unstained jeans and sparkling white T-shirt; although I owned a long skirt I rarely wore it. Next came food: they were vegetarians adhering to a largely macrobiotic diet; I ate anything and thought macrobiotics was a subset of economics (a course I flunked). They had a spiritual trip that intimidated me: while I had perused the current in books like Autobiography of A Yogi by Yogananda, and Be Here Now, Baba Ram Dass’s mystical and drug inspired guide to living for the moment, and I cherished Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, that was the extent of my familiarity with Eastern religion and mysticism. I knew nothing about their physical trip of farming and gardening either. Growing any greenery, organic or otherwise, was a totally alien activity. And lastly, I thought of our living environments: I lived alone, and liked my few small amenities, like running water, electricity, the telephone, and privacy. The prospect of this visit was daunting, but I was curious and intrigued. And I was almost there.

Rational thought gave way to high anxiety when the rural Route 11 rolled into Main Street Gouverneur. I started to sweat under the heavy cotton of that clean T-shirt as I realized that soon I'd be face-to-face with that family of strangers, those people who walked that walk and talked that talk, had read all my letters, and were not my best friends. Very shortly they'd be sizing me up as I would them, except that they outnumbered me five to one.

The bus stopped in front of the red brick St. Lawrence National Bank. The driver made no announcement but I assumed this was my stop and got up from my seat. Before I could wrestle my backpack and sleeping bag out of the overhead rack, the invasion took place.

"Where is she?" called out a tall thin man suddenly filling the doorway of the bus. A scroungy beard and mustache clung to his long narrow face, wire-rimmed glasses and a mass of tangled ponytail completed the picture along with faded jeans and a ripped T-shirt.

"There she is!" a skinny girl crowding in beside him yelled excitedly; it took me a moment to realize that the girl was Spindle. I didn't know who the guy was, although I'd no doubt seen his picture in the revered photo album. Spindle pushed past him, grabbed me, and we hugged, as together she and the thin man pulled me and my pack off the bus.

"I'm Lem," the guy said to me once we landed on the sidewalk. He was married to Spindle's cousin Midge, and they were waiting to take me to their alien land, the 165 acres they called Chillum Farm. "How I spent my summer vacation" was about to begin.