I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
Here I am, new to parenting, preparing a talk on pedagogy. What do I take as lessons from the one for the other? Both involve sound and space and movement. I dance around the room, whether it be the classroom or the living room, encouraging recognition of conditions of experience held in common, resummoning along the way history as an epic poem recited anew at every moment. In the classroom, there’s some of what Gregory Bateson discusses in Steps To an Ecology of Mind (though it’s there, too, perhaps, in my work as a parent). Spread across the early pages of Bateson’s book are a series of “metalogues”: metaphysical dialogues between a daughter and her father. Bateson defined the metalogue as “a conversation about some problematic subject” (1), though he stipulates that the conversation reflect as well on itself and its structure, hence the “meta.” That, I think, is akin to what I do as a teacher. It’s akin, as well, to what M.C. Richards does in her book Centering. Like Bateson, Richards introduces Centering as “interdisciplinary” — though Bateson says his book earns this description not just by exchanging information between and across pairs of disciplines “but in discovering patterns common to many.” The worlds rendered by the disciplines fall short of the one known by holists like Richards and Bateson.
I meet with former students for fun earnest honest conversation over drafts of beer. I trust and believe in them to do what is right. I sense them growing and awakening, having taught them several semesters prior. They are fellows, I think, in a shared story of transformation: what M.C. Richards calls “education as lived life” (Centering, p. 5). We build bridges to pick up from where last left off. We recognize each other as kindred spirits, shared in our plight despite differences of circumstance. Land, money-power — how to enter into right relations with the former amid the latter. Back home I feel sort of useless, unable to help parent due to a head cold, drowsiness and sinus pain, alas and alack. What is one to do? Too cold to walk the streets but for a few minutes spent gazing at the stars, the half moon above my head.
The backs of my hands above my knuckles are chapped from the cool winter air, so I apply lotion. Can self-care of that sort act by law of correspondence upon the circle, the cosmos, the whole? Is that what was meant by books like Getting It Together and Centering? Is that what M.C. Richards sought at Black Mountain College? How does one “center”? Can it mean gifting oneself and the others with which one lives one’s attention and love through dance and play? I picture myself and my daughter as Luke and Yoda, the one carrying the other. Time to teach, time to practice pedagogy, each teaching each. I imagine my Moby as the garb of a Jedi. What do I say to F. to help her find her way? Perhaps I should read aloud to her the passage from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas quoted at the start of Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America. Show her the “half-hid warp,” the threads of friendship, intense and loving comradeship, the milk of human kindness. Read Ginsberg’s “Beginning of a Poem of These States” in light of the Black Snake or Zuzeca Sapa prophecy of the Oceti Sakowin. Note for the sake of remembrance via time capsule the lovely sounds F. makes at four weeks of age (or there about) while breastfeeding: lip-smacking exhalations, small gasps of pleasure, relieved sighs.
Black Mountain’s experiments with breath intrigue me. What substances, events, beliefs, or conditions placed breath into the poetry and pottery of persons like M.C. Richards and Charles Olson? Is breath the doorway to inwardness and inner reality? It can certainly space us out, take us out of the ordinary, cheer us, focus us, enliven us, disperse us. It empowers us to “quest on, quest on,” as Richards implores. But what exactly are we struggling toward? Richards teaches that “perception itself yields moral insight. And centered consciousness yields initiative of will. And thus the ancient Trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness lives in the modern ideal of Surreality, Nakedness, and Freedom. Or Revelation, Redemption, and Compassion” (Centering, p. 130). She believes that “Substance itself bears traces of the whole” and that “These traces, as we perceive them (and provided we heed them!), carry us toward the center; they are paths and structures of interrelatedness, they are the seeds of our free residence, they may speak to us as Conscience” (131). By these instructions, we evolve into inner rule of ourselves. Acts of reading and writing come to feel like imaginative explorations of mythopoetic worlds. Somewhere along our journey, however, we arrive at the edges of these constructs and we recognize in the landscape the contours of our heads — evidence, in other words, that the world around us is not the world around us so much as a memory palace or cognitive map.
My, my, hey, hey — what a difference a difference makes! My intuiting self longs like a shadow toward Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, at the top of my list of summer reads. Like Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Young’s book tracks and reveals a “secret history” spoken across the ages by musicians and poets, transmitters of an occult folk wisdom tradition. Nature, Earth, the ground of being transubstantiated into song and verse. As Peter Murphy wrote, the book “constructs a new mythography out of old threads, making antiquity glow with an eerie hue.” All I can do for now, however, is anticipate what lies ahead. My mind scans its environment searching for a clue. Somewhere amid these texts and artifacts, I think to myself, lies a key to unlock growth or expansion of the gameworld, and thus an altered state of being. Clouds that open and show riches. Before I read further, however, I need acclimate myself to the indecision of the moment. Existential indirection. Toward who, what, when, and where should I orient myself, and why? Toward love, toward counterculture through the ages, toward reconciliation of self and world — love everywhere. Another task of mine this summer is to read and write about Antonin Artaud as translated by Black Mountain potter and poet M.C. Richards. My hope is that this will lead me to a theory of happenings and participatory theater of the kind practiced by groups like the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers. (Charles Perry, by the way, provides an insightful account of psychedelic experience — one of the better “general theories” in the style of Huxley. For Perry, “LSD and mescaline suppress the mind’s ability to discriminate according to levels of importance…and to form persisting notions about reality based on them” [The Haight-Ashbury, p. 253]. Perry’s take on the Diggers informs my ongoing study of psychedelic utopianism, another of the projects I’m working on this summer. Among the Diggers themselves, the ones to research are Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg.)
I love when neighborhood cats approach me on the sidewalk and show me love, rub against me. I tap trees, I observe grass. And when teaching, I perform a narrative to help students test — in the classroom, in lived practice — the prescriptions of the texts that serve as our objects of study. “What would it mean to live out, here and now,” I ask them, “the utopian teachings of our authors?” The classroom as “safe space,” the classroom as “floating zendo.” Wish well all things. Intuit a way toward collective emancipation and equality — Person and Nature balanced and centered. Through discussion and interpretation, we arrive at a shared, contemplative way of being. Hippie modernist literature guides readers toward precisely this end: “seeing the systems we live by,” and then centering. Beginning with self-study so as to set things right in the fullness of each of our collective spheres of influence. By studying this literature, we bring a child’s innocence and trust and enthusiasm. We birth a child: a new person, a new society! In so doing, we “lay the ground,” as M.C. Richards says, “for the ordeals of self-examination and transformation that lie ahead” (Centering, p. 124).
I resonate with the music of M.C. Richards’s prose in her book Centering. These trance-scripts share some of that book’s form and sentiment. “Its form,” as Richards intones, “is a demonstration of what I say in it. Themes recur and vary. There are passages of development and recapitulation. I wish to offer its meaning not as rationale but as physical presence in language. Iteration and reiteration like days in a season, and we come to the feel of its weather. […]. Sudden changes of tone — from refinement to coarseness, from mechanics to rapture — are moods of nature” (6). Like Olson, she points to breath as the tender, limber thread we walk on our journey between life and death. Breathe deeply and wish well one’s entire sphere. Let the world enter one’s awareness with each breath. Wish well, wish love and bliss to all. It’s such a simple task, and yet I’ve struggled throughout my life to keep it first in my thoughts. To behave well and bring happiness to others. Why can’t we just imagine that and do it?
M.C. Richards writes of her debt to certain techniques and strategies of high and late modernism toward the end of Centering. (It’s perhaps more than a mere coincidence, I think to myself as I write this, that Jimi Hendrix’s song “Voodoo Child” shares initials with the US military’s enemy at the time the song was released in October 1968, the Viet Cong.) “I have lived my life close to certain impulses in contemporary art,” writes Richards. “The music of the single sound, the composition of silence, and proliferating galaxies. The poetics of Western Imagism — ‘no ideas but in things.’ Garbage art: sculpture out of mashed automobiles; paintings out of old Coke bottles, soiled shirts, window blinds, coat hangers; paintings made out of dirt meant to look like dirt, to consecrate the dirt; an art which consecrates the discard. Cellar doors, walls, sidewalks, street surfaces: as well as all the minutiae of nature. A choreography of making breakfast. Summoning attention, drawing the gaze in, into. And into the wonder comes a kind of high mirth. A release of joy in the form” (Centering, p. 144). Writing becomes for Richards a transcription of her thoughts as she attends to the conditions by which she thinks.
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).