His first letter, nearly three years ago, was a traffic-stopper: one page bright green, another blazing orange, another fire-engine red, five pages, five colors in all, with his name marching across the top of each page in type a little large for a letterhead, more suitable perhaps for a traffic sign, and along with it a check, for a subscription and all the back issues, the check imprinted with one of those customized logos they offer these days — you know, flying geese, majestic aspens — except this one, modestly adorning Lorenzo Wilson Milam’s pale blue bank draft, was of a garbage truck; who was this guy?
“I would guess that you and I have gone several paths together,” he wrote, recalling the afternoon back in 1964 when Timothy Leary turned up in the state of Washington to give a talk about psychedelics. Lorenzo was, at the time, running a small, backyard radio station in Seattle out of a converted doughnut shop, and sent one of his volunteers to record the talk, which he then played several times on the air. There ensued some correspondence with Leary, who, with his pal Richard Alpert, was running the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) in upstate New York — this, before Alpert went off to India and became Ram Dass.
Those were some days, Lorenzo went on. He had started experimenting with the drugs, too — they were legal then — so he’d take some acid or peyote, be reminded of the terrible and wondrous power they gave you to create your own visions of heaven or hell, then he’d correspond with IFIF and a few days later excitedly play on the air the new tapes sent by Alpert and Leary. To be thus involved in a revolution of the mind — they hadn’t started calling it consciousness yet — was thrilling to Lorenzo; for years, broadcasting meaningful ideas had been his passion. “I wanted to change the world and I thought I should do it by building radio stations which would be accessible to all.” A regular Johnny Appleseed of the airwaves, he set up more than one hundred “somewhat raggedy and informal” stations around the country.
Apparently, that was behind him. “I work around the kitchen,” his letter went on, “making orange/lemon bread, teach two courses (Keats, American Communication) at a small local college, and read books like Hugh Prather’s There Is A Place Where You Are Not Alone and Rajneesh and Milton Erickson, because I think someone has to have the answer if I don’t. . . .”
The letter meandered, like a high mountain stream, going nowhere, running into rivulets of humor and wisdom. He mentioned his affection for THE SUN, which he’d recently discovered; “wrestling with agents and the bizarre world of publishing,” trying to get his autobiography in print; his recent interest in the commodities market (“I’d pick copper on the upside and frozen pork bellies and Sydney Greasy Wool on the downside, if you ask me”); his sessions with his therapist and his meeting the master-therapist Erickson, who held that “the subconscious part of ourselves is the master of ultimate wisdom and has full ability to care for us.”
“We never get cured,” Lorenzo said, “but we do realize that the pain we feel is not peculiar to us.”
Oh joy! I get plenty of mail, you see: flyers, bills, magazines, occasionally a hastily-scribbled note, but letters, real letters, a letter like this, that’s rare. To be reminded of the presence of one kindred soul is more heartening to me than a dozen group choruses about brotherhood.
There was the whiff of something else here, too; my intuition had come alert, like a sharp-sensing animal, hair prickling, nose lifted to the winds. “Somehow, he’s going to help THE SUN,” I thought, then let the thought go. Grasping at an intuition is like holding an animal tightly by the collar. I’ve learned not to worry; intuition comes when it’s called.
I wrote back to Lorenzo appreciatively and a few weeks later got another letter from him. Thus began our correspondence, its breezes warm and spicy: you’d know there was something from him in the mail if you’d hear me, alone in my office, laughing — or weeping. That’s no exaggeration; this wasn’t merely another talented renegade out there, with a few souvenirs from the old days, and a couple of stories. He just happened to be one of the best writers I’d ever read. His autobiography, which I asked to see, had been turned down by fifteen publishers — to whom I wish nothing worse than a long basting on the devil’s spit, as they contemplate the bottommost line — but don’t most of us turn from the mirror of pain, afraid to see human suffering rendered so dark and plain as this: Lorenzo, scalpel in hand, beginning his incision at the crown of his head and running down, down, down to his outlaw sex, his useless legs, his Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues? I ended up printing much of it in THE SUN — how could I not? A book that starts . . .
I have so much to tell you of the new life that grew out of a windy fall day, half-way through the century, on the banks of a soft brown river, turned foaming with the storm. I am abed, on a porch, beside the moaning camphor trees. The screens oh and sigh, canvas cords cry out in the wind, and I cannot rise. The doctor comes, with his black bag, to give us that black knowledge, of the virus, of the body, dying, on that day when the wind tears Spanish moss from the long-leaf pine, and the camphor trees howl, and the branches of my body come crashing down, turning slowly in the wind gone mad and wrong.
. . . that tells, in more detail than many readers might care or bear, what it was like to get polio, at the age of nineteen, the sorrows and humiliations and rage. And what do you know? My faith in the book, my turning over so many pages to its serialization, told Lorenzo that “someone else out there, outside of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances, felt it was a worthy document,” so he decided to publish it himself.
My pleasure was keen. It is one thing to encourage beginning writers — to quit fretting, stand up and clear their throats, and say something original. We are all originals, I believe, behind the masks our parents and teachers and “friends” encourage us to wear; discovering that uniqueness is essential for a writer, indeed for everyone. But Lorenzo was no beginner. His language was lit by the burning masks he’d left behind; his humor rose, too, from that same stinking pit, an irreverent vapor free of conceit and self-absorption, making smoke rings in the air. To encourage Lorenzo — yes, that was a pleasure as keen as any in my editor’s life.
“I’ve often thought how good it would be to do The Best of The Sun. There is so much good writing in the magazine. . . . If you think we might do such a book please let me know. I think it would sell well, especially with your readers who, like me, might want a permanent copy of their favorite articles.”
If you think we might do such a book, please let me know. Tell me I’m not dreaming, Lorenzo. Tell me this isn’t your idea of a joke. A Book, you say? Of the best, the very best? The best of the poems, the essays, the photographs, the seeking, the sours, the sweets? All of a decade, rescued from the hallowed dinginess of the back issues room, called forth from memory’s grave, to dance again across the pages of . . . a Book? A decade of soul-searching, of a magazine finding its own true voice, evolving — into what? I never could say, or knew better than to try, preferring to let it speak for itself, rising or falling on the images. A book of the choicest of these — yes, the idea had crossed my mind, like a silver Rolls Royce gliding down the road.
No, Lorenzo said, he wasn’t joking. Lorenzo, as it turned out, was not only a gifted writer but the scion of a wealthy Southern family, and something of a philanthropist. His Reginald A. Fessenden Educational Fund has given away more than $125,000 during the past ten years, for projects such as “the establishment of a Myth American Pageant to counter the Miss America Pageant” as well as more conventional grants for prisoners and students and writers. Mho & Mho, his own publishing company, listed nearly a dozen unusual titles, in addition to his autobiography.
We’ve been at it now for a year and a half, Lorenzo and I — or, more accurately, Lorenzo and I and the Sy Safransky of ten and seven and five years ago, for I’ve had to wrestle with some of my choices as much as with Lorenzo’s. What delicious irony — Lorenzo picking for inclusion in the book something I once thought highly of, having picked it in the first place for THE SUN, but which my taste now runs against, pitting me thus against Time . . . and, no less formidably, against Lorenzo.
Formally, we agreed to a mutual veto over each other’s choices, though it never really came to that. Rather, we’d wear each other down with arguments for or against something or — more often — just give in. I gave in more often, because I found Lorenzo’s arguments so persuasive: his enthusiasm was infectious and his raised eyebrow evoked a similar arching of my own — now why didn’t I see that?
Hardest, of course, was Lorenzo’s criticism of my own work. He admired my perseverance in building up THE SUN, my ability to attract writers, my editing, my smile — but my writing . . . well, Sy, to tell you the truth . . . what was it Ram Dass once told you — that you were a nice guy but a little mushy?. . . . I had trouble separating the “eternal” from the “temporal,” Lorenzo said, though averred that this was a problem for all writers, himself included, and he suggested that I (like him) went in for emotional overkill. In brief, “There’s too much Safransky.” My ego (like his) (like all writers) screamed bloody murder, but of course there was truth in what he said.
For me to collaborate with anyone on this book took a certain daring. Sure, I’ve worked closely with others over the years, their passions shaping and reshaping the magazine. I never wanted THE SUN to speak only for me. But there’s no denying it does speak for me and I for it. In the garden of my heart, we are a dark tangle; we wind around each other like vines, THE SUN and I, each other’s root and flower.
A devoted gardener I am, and proud, and possessive — the first one here in the morning, the last to leave, keeper of the garden gate. Yet here’s this guy I’ve never met — he’s just a voice on the phone to me, some long letters, a couple of photographs — here he comes on crutches down the winding path, shaking his head when he sees where I’ve put the roses . . . Good God! He’s walking on the goddamned grass!. . . .
How did we do it, Lorenzo? How did we end up with this book that delights the both of us so? We couldn’t even agree on the title, remember? You suggested we fashion something catchy, and for hours I sat here with Carol and Ben and Mitzi and whoever else wandered in, reaching deep into the collective psyche and coming up with used Kleenex and lint; it’s startling how many cliches there are to choose from — but finally the darkness was pierced: the right balance, the precise imagery to evoke a decade of illumination, the magazine’s real fire and grit: Stubborn Light. What do you think?
Lorenzo is quiet on the other end of the phone, three thousand — or is it three million? — miles away. Lorenzo, are you there? I’m waiting, Lorenzo, we’re all waiting, for the seal, the approval, the satisfied kiss. . . .
No? Just no?
Lorenzo has another title in mind: A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky.
Say that again, Lorenzo. Oh. Well, sure, it’s nice. Very nice. . . . Ah, what does it mean?
It’s from an old Zen story, Lorenzo says. It’s a great title, he says. Much better than Stubborn Light, he says. Why don’t I think about it, he says.
Why don’t you think about Stubborn Light, I say.
Lorenzo says it would be better for me to think about A Bell Ringing. . . .
Once again, I give in. Not very stubborn, am I? Doug Cruickshank — Lorenzo’s buddy and a top-notch graphic artist who designed and put together the book with remarkable elegance — joked one day, “Lorenzo says you must think he’s your father, since you’re so eager to please him.” Indeed, Lorenzo himself implored me, “Do not accept my idols as your own.” (Funny, that’s what my father told me, too, while silently hoping, of course, that I would.)
But that’s not why I went along with the title — which by the way, I’m now fond of; like a good poem it picks you up and sets you down a little way from where you were — or why I agreed with so many of Lorenzo’s other choices. And it’s not because it’s his money that’s paying for the book. In fact, it’s not even that I’ve tried to please him (anymore than I still, regrettably, try to please anyone, when I forget who I am and why I’m here).
It’s simpler: I stand in awe of the guy. I marvel at the way he thinks and at what he’s done. I know he’s no saint (were the saints saints?) but I also know how much I have to learn from him, which is a gift for which I’m thankful: to Lorenzo, certainly — which was my reason for writing this — and to the unseen source which brought us together, and which leaves its signature wherever we’ve learned to read it, on whatever we choose to treasure.