Friday, January 23, 2004

Where I Come From (part two: Bored in Paradise)

We were bored. Hellishly bored, sometimes. There were only some forty of us -- ten boarding students, twenty day students, and "the little kids," the elementary-school-age kids. There were one or two classes per day that we could go to, if we wanted. (The single requirement was that everyone show up for the weekly community meeting. Since it was the only rule we could find to break, Billy and I played hooky one week; we took off and wandered around downtown Spokane, reveling in transgression.)

When people ask me what the best thing about my experience at the school was -- since it doesn't take long talking to me to see that I value the experience, and remain tremendously grateful and loyal to the place, thirty years after -- I say, "being bored." It was analogous, on a different time scale, to sitting zazen, facing a blank wall. We were bored, but without being able to blame it on teachers or parents or bosses. Our boredom was our own. Our failure. An incredible luxury, to be able to discover that.

My time at the New School -- that was the name of it, which makes it impossible to google for: I've never discovered a trace of it on the web -- my time at the New School was a failure. But the richest failure, maybe, of my life. The utopia failed. It was always a fake utopia, of course; we knew that. But even within its own circle, all the wickedness of the world reasserted itself. My family was flush of money at the time, and I received a handsome allowance. I sometimes actually -- I'm ashamed of it to this day, and it takes an effort to write it -- paid Annie, whose family was not flush, a couple times to wash the dishes when it was my turn. A trivial thing, I guess, it might seem -- but it represented a complete betrayal of my communal ideal. And somehow the universal love that I thought we should all be practicing never quite came into focus. There was jealousy, loneliness, misunderstanding. You'll laugh, I know, that I could have expected otherwise. But I did. All evil came from a culture and political structure of domination -- so I earnestly believed then. We had created a little enclave that was supposed to be free of that -- why, then, weren't we happy? Joyful? Ecstatic, even?

It was a loving, affectionate place, in a random, loose-jointed way. We hugged, snuggled, traded backrubs and footrubs. Nobody could be greatly distressed without waves of distress running through the whole little community. But there was no way for me to pretend to myself that this was what I had imagined, at thirteen, dreaming of a secular paradise. It should not be possible to be bored, in paradise. To feel out of place.

Ernie showed up the second year I was there. A heavily pockmarked face and weedy hair. He was thirty-something, with an air of permanent, embittered exile about him. His intensity was unsettling. He wasn't a teacher: a friend of Annie's, maybe, or a connection from the gay men's group that met in the evenings at the school. He chain-smoked, and tended to look away from me uneasily, when our eyes met. He made a proposal at a community meeting -- or was it just talked about? I don't remember for sure -- that we transform the place into a real, sustainable commune. Make our own money, and share what we had. I don't remember if the scheme made any financial sense. Probably not, almost none of those proposed communes did. But I didn't think about that. All I knew was that the idea filled me with dread. I didn't want to lose my room, lose my leisure. I didn't want to work; I didn't know how to work. In my cowardice I wouldn't own to any of that. I wouldn't argue for it or against it. Nor would anyone else. The proposal died in silence. But I knew that utopia had failed, right there, in that silence.

The failure, clearly, was in me (that the utopian project was flawed, I did not allow myself to doubt.) Not only was I not destined to be a great apostle of utopia, I didn't even belong in one. The first order of business, for any prudent utopia I might stumble into, would be to throw me out.

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