With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
This is a talk presented last March to a UNC human sexuality seminar exploring alternate lifestyles.
To begin with, I don’t believe in alternate life styles. Having lived communally, having been married, having lived alone, it all comes down to the same thing: you live, ultimately, with yourself. If you’re not your own best friend, no one else can be. You can fuck a stranger and call it love. You can build walls around you and call it community. We have fancy words for everything today. We’re hip to an older generation’s bag of tricks, sometimes cruelly so, and imagine we’re more liberated. Well, maybe we are. It’s hard to say. I can only speak for myself. I get jealous. I get hateful. I take advantage. Sometimes, I’m comfortable being naked, sometimes not. What about orgies? Depends who’s cleaning up afterwards. We leave an awful mess sometimes.
I started out living in a commune — my family — and nothing’s matched it for all the love and pain. My father died six months ago. We never gave up trying to understand one another, and never quite succeeded. Our styles were too different, and too much the same, for either of us ever to see to the heart of the matter — our common humanity.
I got married. I was in love, and I was a virgin: In 1967, that was more common. Living together, without being married, was unthinkable for us, then. I lost my virginity, though not my innocence — we’ve all learned the difference by now, I’m sure — and six years later, when we split up, I was still innocent enough to assume we’d be back together in a few months.
When I came to Chapel Hill I was still married. But Chapel Hill, as a friend says, is hell on marriages. That’s probably true anywhere where the new American Dream Dream — I mean getting enlightened, and getting laid — is in the air. Of course, there’s more to it. We try so hard to be honest these days — often forgetting, as Paul Simon sings, the tenderness beneath the honesty. We try to be independent — especially women, who have conspired so long with men to keep themselves subservient. Don’t misunderstand. I’m talking about something more subtle than equal rights. I’m talking about the fine web of mutual expectation and mutual dependence that characterizes relations between the sexes. We are all exploited — yet, ironically, there are no exploiters. We all look for someone, something, to blame — the Nuclear Family; Human Nature; Men; Women; The State; Mother; Loneliness. But there is, as the I Ching says, No Blame. We create the world we experience by the beliefs we hold. When your beliefs and mine intersect, we call it reality. And try to make sense of it. One problem I’ve often encountered living communally is that everyone’s so intent on defining sharing and growing and all those other fine concepts that we end up — as Alan Watts puts it — eating the menu instead of the meal. The conceit of anyone who’s been to a university is that the world can be explained. We’ve dressed up opinions as truth, and come to believe our own explanations about what is, in fact, unfathomable and mysterious.
The family. Who understands why he was born into his family? The karmic bond. The shared adventures of consciousness.
Love. Who can tell us about love? Not pleasure. Not sex. But that invisible fabric that holds us together even when we assume we’re most alone.
Community. We laugh at the President, and we become slaves to our own contempt. We create alternative cultures, and they’re beautiful. Who says no to freedom? But when our long hair gets tangled in the wind, it’s a comb made of plastic we reach for.
When I came to Chapel Hill, I was hot on the scent of the communal dream. It had taken me back to America from Europe, where I had lived for two years, and then hitchhiking 5,000 miles across Canada and down the West Coast. I was looking for someplace I could live simply with others, grow my food, learn skills that had been ignored in school and in cities. Everywhere, I heard the same advice. Get together with your friends. Start something on your own. Then I heard about New Eden, a planned community, just about to get off the ground, near Chapel Hill. It seemed to be what I was looking for. Thirty families, each of whom were to live in houses they would build themselves. There would be a communal garden and a park and a lodge. The goal was self sufficiency. Well, New Eden never worked out. The land has been sold. There’s a trailer park there now. The idea was beautiful, but, in retrospect, it seems that it was a vision married to itself rather than to the individuals involved. The problem was that few of us knew one another well enough to overcome the differences about how to garden, whether to have flush toilets or outhouses, whether, in a community that was to include vegetarians, livestock was to be raised. I wrote, back then, “Communities are built of people who care for one another, people who, in the broadest sense of the word, are lovers. But few of us felt strongly about each other and, on top of that, knew what we really wanted from New Eden. For a community to work, its goals have to be harmonious with one’s personal goals, but few of us knew what our personal goals were . . . The dream of a broadly-based, democratic libertarian community collapsed before the real differences among us, as the romantically optimistic dream of a New World, of an America, seems each day to crumble a little more.”
A little while later I moved into a big farmhouse in the country and invited six friends to live with me. There, too, each of us had somewhat the same, somewhat different notions about what we wanted. I was one of the first to leave; but I can’t say whether it was a success or a failure. You can’t measure anything as complex as human relationships that way. We argued a lot. About how to spend the grocery money. About working in the garden. And there were jealousies. I don’t think we’re that different than the generations before us. Maybe more open. But with many of the same envies and ambitions. This is a course on human sexuality. Well, perhaps you’ll get to study the dynamics of your best friend wanting to get under the covers with you and your girlfriend, and how a lifetime of conditioning, of insecurity and possessiveness wrestles with your most noble Aquarian impulses, your fiercest longing to share, to transcend, and, if you’ll pardon the overworked expression, to love.
I moved out to live with a woman. We needed each other too much to admit the fact, and so spent much of the time asserting our independence, our autonomy — another fashionable word. We hurt each other very much. But that was a gift, too. You learn by sharing sadness, by finding a common despair, as much as by being happy together. You learn by pretending, because sooner or later, you have to confront your lies about yourself, about those needs you dressed up as caring. Sooner or later, you realize you’ve always been alone, that you’ll always be alone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in town or in the country, whether you’re wearing beads or a tie, eating steak or sunflower seeds. It doesn’t matter what a gorgeous figure you have, or how many A’s you’ve made, or how many asanas you do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married or single or living in a commune. There’s a wall you come to, you cry, you beat against it, you stand a little more naked, a little closer to your own death. You give up. And suddenly — irony of ironies — you’re beyond it, beyond hope, and hopelessness, beyond those romances of separateness and union, beyond lifestyle. I hope I’m not being presumptuous. I’m no more enlightened about this than any of you. I just learn to trust what’s before me, the evidence of the senses, and not the interpretations of others. I’ve learned that whatever your style, the truths you come to are forgotten in time that they might be rediscovered in time. Che Guevara once said: “One climbs. One sees. One descends. One sees no longer but one has seen.”
Right now, in Chapel Hill, people are gathering to talk about community — about community businesses and a community bank, and sharing tools and resources and much more. Many of the ideas are ambitious and far-reaching, and I find them exciting and I’m scared by it, too. So much room for grandeur and error. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the walls from the bridges without a scorecard. I’m getting married again, and that feels wonderful and foolish and different. Alternate lifestyles. Well, alternate implies a choice, and a choice implies shoulds and shouldn’ts. The truth is what is, Lenny Bruce said, and what should be is a dirty lie. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to say. There is no right way. No better way. There’s only the way you’re doing it. So do it.