When I was 13 years old, I decided I hadn’t suffered enough yet to be a writer.
This idea-- that the most compelling art springs from anguish-- was nothing new. And I had convinced myself that in order to progress, I had to experience suffering; and since suffering hadn’t found me yet, that I would need to pursue some form of self-imposed affliction. I decided that deprivation would be the key; sleep deprivation and food deprivation. As well as deprivation from the outside world.
At the time, my stepfather was building a house in Hopland. He, and many of his friends, had all purchased acres of adjoining land in the California countryside. A group of artists, painters and the like, they had decided that the Half Moon Bay coast side had lost some of its previous charm, and it was time to start anew in the country, away from any perceived hustle and bustle, with only friends as neighbors.
He had been building the house for years by this time, and would continue to build it into the future, spending more and more time there, until he and my mother would move there permanently when I was a senior in High School.
The adjoining property next to my Dad’s house was owned by Bob Sherman. Bob had been the ringleader; the man who had sold off parcels of land to all of his friends to create a sort of artist’s community. He was eccentric and rich; a dangerous combination; and would later move into Bill Graham’s house after Graham died in the helicopter crash of1991. I still remember Bob’s house; especially his bathroom, where a naked mannequin had taken permanent residence in his bathtub, which was filled with some sort of wax paraffin to look like bathwater.
On Bob’s property were several abandoned farm houses. They sat there empty, year after year, and I’d explored them all on my visits there. There was one large house that I particularly liked, with dozens of large windows and a wrap around porch. And when I was 13 years old, I begged my parents to allow me to live in that house for two full weeks, by myself.
It took a lot of convincing. My argument that I needed to suffer in order to write fell on deaf ears. I was convinced that suffering would lead to enlightenment; and I was so impassioned about this visionary quest, that my parents at last relented to let me go.
I had decided that part of my journey was to include semi-starvation. For the two weeks I would be staying, I would only bring fourteen heads of cauliflower, one head for each day. And tea. I would live on cauliflower and tea. I chose tea because while there was running water, it wasn’t potable; so any water I drank would have to be boiled. The simplest solution, in my mind, was to choose a hot beverage. Then, armed only with a suitcase, sleeping bag, typewriter, novel, candles, and my vegetables and tea, I moved into that farmhouse one summer.
I remember feeling overwhelmed when I first stepped inside the door; it was filthy, covered in cobwebs, and had no electricity. And I felt a fear so pervasive that I immediately burst into tears. What had I done? With few supplies, I did my best to do a cursory clean up, and finished by picking a bouquet of wild flowers for the dining room table.
The table was large, and carved from wood, and in the middle of it was a four foot tall sculpture of an erect Penis. It became a haunting image, especially as I laid my head down for the night and saw it looming above me.
Although there was no electricity, I lined up my cauliflower in the old fridge, and left the door open. It seemed cooler there than in the house.
I placed my sleeping bag in a corner, as far as I could get from the huge windows that wrapped around the house. The windows contained several active beehives, and the glass was amassed with buzzing insects.
I remember preparing my dinner that first night. I boiled one pot of water to steam the cauliflower, and a second pot of water for my tea. But when I unpacked my tea, I found to my horror that I had brought “loose” tea by accident, and I had nothing to strain it with.
I had a brilliant idea. I would use one of my socks.
I took off a sock and filled it with loose tea, and lowered it into the pot of water. But to my horror, as the tea began to steep, it also began turning bright blue. The color of my sock. Repulsed, I threw the entire mess down the sink, and only drank hot water thereafter.
My days were spent with my typewriter. Sometimes I’d write inside the house, and other times I’d find a spot outside to write. I would spend hours and hours, creating page after page of words, and then shuffling the big stack of paper back to the house
The bees became my alarm clock. They were the loudest just as dawn was breaking and would invariably wake me up. My nighttime lullaby became the sounds that bats make, diving and swooping through the rafters of the house, every night at dusk. When the bats began their nocturnal dance, I would light candles and settle into my sleeping bag with my book. I had carefully chosen my novel for the experience; "Papillon," a memoir about a convicted felon and fugitive and his horrid experiences in a Columbian Prison. I knew that reading his prison experiences would comfort me somehow; his nights spent sleeping in two inches of water with rats made my experience seem a little less dire.
When I first arrived at the house, I felt nothing but fear. I was afraid of being alone, I was afraid of the bees and the bats. I hadn’t let go yet; I had one leg still firmly planted in civilization. But slowly that all changed, and I began to transform.
At the beginning, I couldn’t fathom that I might lose track of days. But that is what began to happen. So each day I would bring back a rock and place it at the base of the Penis. I knew when I had placed fourteen rocks there, that my sojourn was over.
But the days weren’t the only things I began to forget. I began to forget my fear; and I slipped into an entirely different consciousness. And then I slipped slowly into a sort of lunacy. My constant hunger pangs became a trusted friend. My famine and lack of sleep were giving me hallucinations. I would hear voices that weren’t there; spot images that didn’t exist. I thought I could understand the song of the bees; I began to interpret their different noises and I was convinced I knew what they were saying. “I can speak Bee,” I’d whisper to myself in the mornings.
I also began to forget who I was. I kept having flashes of myself at the 8th grade basketball game, and my outburst of tears when my boyfriend didn’t make his shot. It all seemed so ridiculous and far away. My childish concerns. My giddy girlfriend gossip. My former distress over my wardrobe. My anxiety over my hair style. I felt as though I had become a Mountain Girl and I had no connection to society any more. It was civilization that seemed scary then. It all seemed puny and trivial.
I began to feel that I existed separate and apart from my body. I began to experience the sublime. And one day, sitting alone in the center of a large meadow, I had a Transcendental Moment.
Of course I didn’t know what a Transcendental Moment when I was 13; I didn’t learn about that until I studied the Transcendentalists and their movement later in College. I had always been familiar with Walt Whitman, but later I would learn of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and their mystical movement, which believes that at one defining moment, you can transcend the empirical and the scientific and understand everything that is knowable through intuition. They described it as a moment so acute that the aesthetic pleasure derived from it was more pleasurable than any other moment before or after.
And one day as I sat in a meadow, I thought of my cauliflower as the food of angels, and I was suddenly transcended into a moment of euphoria of an intensity that I would never experience again.
Following that moment, the rest of my stay is somewhat of a blur. But I clearly remember sitting at the table in front of the Penis and counting rocks, and was shocked that I had already collected fourteen. It was time to leave.
I’ll never forget how I felt stumbling out of that house on that final day and creeping slowly down the gravel road toward my parent’s house. I felt like a wild animal; I was alert to every sound in the brush; I was fully alive and aware; I was one with nature. I imagined my eyes looking untamed and feral; I could feel them darting all over the landscape, assessing my surroundings like a frightened animal. I was filthy and starving, and I skulked up my parent’s driveway then collapsed on the front porch. As soon as I reentered society, I began to feel ill.
My father saw me and joined me on the porch with a robust, “HELLO THERE.” He was grinning from ear to ear, and I thought he might want to tease me about it all. But he also looked at me as though I may have gone mad.
“Could you make me some pasta?” I said weakly. And I must say, I’ve never enjoyed a meal more. And as I gobbled up his tomato sauce made from his garden tomatoes, I felt a joy like I’d ever known. I had broken through something. I was reborn. I was living the dream. And I wanted to write.