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My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 412-416

on American Avatar N° 2

Michael Kindman

Hit the Road, Jack

Within a few weeks, something was wrong again. I don't remember the details. It was probably another confrontation with Jon in the house, or something like that, but somehow I was persuaded that I just wasn't making it on the Hill, even with the new commitment to pay off the Jeep truck. Maybe it was time for me to try the "real world" again. With regret and a twinge of excitement, I found myself hitchhiking out of town late one Friday night, heading north for no particular reason. I was picked up by some teenagers in the northern suburbs of Boston, who took me to a deserted area and roughed me up, gave me a black eye and threatened to hurt me more, until one of them decided to call it off. They put me back on the highway, where I made it to Portland, Maine, the next day, then changed course and hitchhiked back into New Hampshire. A friendly couple delivered me to a college campus to find a room for the night. I found myself in a dormitory social where the privileged young people of the next generation were flirting with each other and dancing to Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." I felt really old and disconnected, almost from another planet.
Next stop, Stowe, Vermont, where I guessed I could find work at one of the ski resorts, since it was by now January 1969. I spent the next couple weeks washing dishes, moping, eating kitchen leftovers, and hiding my heartbreak as best I could. I also exchanged letters with Carol, back on Beech Glen Street. She advised me to get out in the sun and snow and try skiing to make myself feel better, but I knew that was hopeless for me in the mood I was in.
Finally I left, and dropped in on my friend Dale Walker, who had written such wonderful articles for The Paper during his graduate school days at Michigan State, and had then returned to Vermont to do draft counseling as a conscientious objector. Now he was in Brattleboro, working a counseling job at the college there. He gave me access to the arts and crafts room ' at the college, where I couldn't quite cut loose and express myself; I did better in the evening, where I took on the job of painting the kitchen in Dale's apartment in gratitude for his hospitality. When the room was done, I hit the road again, heading for New York. I was in the mood for some urban despair, so I rented a tiny, cheap hotel room near The Bowery and found a temporary warehouse job.
A few nights later, I was walking in Greenwich Village and ran into - who else? - Jon M. and a bunch of other people from Fort Hill, selling the new issue of American Avatar. They were staying in Brian Keating's loft in Soho, home of the now-on-hold New York Avatar, and were doing such missionary work as they could on the streets of the Big Apple. My little hegira obviously had not produced much tangible change in my outlook; I wanted nothing more in the world at that moment than to join them. Reluctantly, they let me give up my hotel room and return with them to the loft. Jon especially was hard on me, testing the strength of my intention to be with them. I was not comfortable but I had a connection, and it was my ticket back to the Hill after a few days.
The new issue of American Avatar was Mel's way of presenting to the world his own account of how he had created a community around himself. In the mythology we heard later, the "Fort Hill Community" piece was created over a period of many days, the paper sitting in the typewriter waiting for Mel to come up with the next thought or phrase. He did so, in perfect order, never correcting or changing a word, just unfolding it in sequence. This was an example of the "conscious" writing we were told Mel engaged in.
When the piece was done, he proceeded to wrap the magazine around it, starting by offering to Eben an acid-trip photograph of Faith Gude in wide-eyed adoration to Mel, to be touched up and worked into a cover picture for the magazine's new, ever-changing format. This time it was large pages, glossy coated paper, lots of white space and wide borders, and stapled at the fold, unlike all the earlier issues. On the inside front cover was a short poem by Mel hand-lettered by Eben, evoking the feeling we were to glean from the cover picture: "and in all that time we were together / only once did I ever / see that look in her eye that gave me me / ....and it's lasted me a lifetime."
Below this, was a long letter from a reader, Patti Ramsay, who writes of reading a book entitled The Flower People by Henry Gross, whose slightly fictionalized account of Fort Hill, under the name the "Lynch family," especially appealed to her. She had obtained from the author more information about the actual "Lyman family" and now was asking Mel to tell her more about it. "I want so bad, Mr. Lyman, " she writes, "to know that there are other people who feel that there is a place for gentle love, and that there are others who not only share my belief in basic goodness, but who live it every day." Mel tells her to keep living according to her own values, regardless of the isolation this may create for her. "Continue to be an example of all you believe in and someday you'll FIND what you're searching for, don't get in a hurry, just LIVE it."
This was followed by one of Mel's poems, entitled "Contemplations, " in which he explains how he applies this principle in his own creative life - "The world is a cold empty room that I seek to fill / with a life I do not own" - and by a reprint of Mel's question from the previous issue, "When was there greatness in history?" under a tranquil-looking drawing by Eben of Mel's profile, and the answer to the question: "When a man lived up to his ideals in face of the strongest opposition, there is greatness only when there is courage and courage relies on no security other than its faith in God. All great men had that courage and had that faith."
The next article, by Owen de Long, comments on the aftermath of the fiasco of the year's political campaign, which culminated in the election of Richard Nixon as president. "Perhaps all Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon say shall come to pass for us, but it has nothing to do with my idea of leadership, nothing to do with my dream for America's future."

Another Absolute

The magazine then moves on to yet another of Mel's "Contemplations," this one on the subject of loneliness and followed by a poetic postscript under a photograph of Mel, folded into a birdlike position and quietly contemplating something off-camera: "To carry loneliness with grace is dignity. / To carry loneliness with grace requires patience. / A breach of dignity is an act of impatience / A breach of dignity is a lack of grace. / Loneliness is an ABSOLUTE."
A section of reprints includes an old poem by Faith about "the beauties of the Atlantic" coming to visit and stealing the affections of the men of the Hill, leaving the women lonely and dependent on their own resources; and Mel's article from the previous issue about the communication workers as the next generation of leaders. A new article by Mel on "The Democratic Process" again attributes all movement in a time of social change to the influence of the great man whose ability to contain the aspirations of the people affected makes him the leader for that time. Such a leader, Mel says, comes into being when he chooses to feel the will of the people as his own and lets himself be transformed by it.
Among these articles was a full-page photograph of one of the Fort Hill men, dark and shadowy and almost undistinguishable, standing with a rifle at night in a garden. No explanation. It was a representative photograph of a process then occurring in the Fort Hill community that was to severely test its unity. The garden was behind Mel's house, surrounded by a high fence and until recently used to cultivate marijuana. The rifle and the man standing guard were a response to a late-night ripoff, by someone from the surrounding area, of a nearly mature, eight-foot marijuana plant Mel had been nurturing for months. It was decided that Mel's most trusted lieutenants would guard the garden overnight until things calmed down.
Since we were the white and relatively affluent newcomers in a racially mixed neighborhood in a racist city in a time of rising political tensions throughout the country, this promised to be a while. In fact, the guarding of Mel's garden by his closest friends grew quickly into the guarding of the entire Hill by all of the men who could be enlisted, each serving in two-hour rotating shifts around the clock. The Hill became more and more militarized, with the front entry porch of House Number Four serving as the guard shed. We used walkie-talkies to communicate between guards in the front of the houses and others watching the rear, where the community had recently bought a set of garages with a driveway opening to the street behind, to serve as workshops and overflow storage space. at was up this driveway that the marijuana thief had most likely come.) We had meetings to train guards, we had the usual competitions to decide who qualified to serve, and we sent delegations to attempt to build alliances with the incipient Boston Black Panther group, hoping thus to stave off racist attack on our turf. Guard duty started that fall and winter to protect one marijuana plant, but it continued for years and became part of the fabric of community life on Fort Hill. Only men stood guard; it was a privilege and responsibility of the gender, proof that we were "real men" after all.

A Simple Man

But Mel himself was gradually emerging as something both more and different from a "real man." The "community" issue of the magazine included two articles under a joint headline, "There are a lot of illusions surrounding any truth." In these articles, both Wayne Hansen and Brian Keating present Mel as the Christ. Wayne writes as "John Wayne the Baptist" describing the out-of-this world perfection of his friend Mel: "And if you think me exquisitely eloquent in placing in your hearts these pictures of this perfectly united god and man, then your hearts would weep and your tongues melt into universes to tell of what passed when Mel Lyman spoke simply of himself." Brian simply shares an adventure with Mel and Owen in midtown Manhattan, during which Owen buys for Mel a pair of Italian leather shoes. A picture of the shoes accompanies the article, which begins, "It took the passionate Latin soul to shoe Christ."
This is all an omen of things to come, in the next issue of American Avatar a few months later. For now, the Mel who is offering the world his version of community building presents himself as a simple person who followed his impulses step by step to wind up where he is. The first paragraph of his article on the community is printed in the sky of a two-page panoramic photograph of the tower and houses of Fort Hill against the backdrop of the rest of Roxbury and the hills beyond: <The Fort Hill Community full text>
The largest community I am aware of is the universe but that is a very abstract kind of awareness. The community within that community that I am most familiar with is the United States, that is a much less abstract kind of awareness. The community within that community that I am most aware of is Fort Hill Community, I have to deal with that one every day. The community within that community is me, I have to deal with that one every moment. So I will start with myself and attempt to work back.
He describes his childhood and early life as a sequence of discoveries first of his essential loneliness and then of his ability to fill his loneliness by reaching out and finding companions, beginning with his mother, then his schoolmates, then his wife and family and their friends. The text is punctuated by photographs of Mel's early life and of life on Fort Hill.
After six years of marriage he sets out "into the wilderness again" because "I didn't know what I wanted but I DID know that what I had wasn't enough." Through becoming a musician, he begins "to feel close to perfect strangers."
... Thousands of people enjoyed my music, hundreds felt very close to me, and a handful wanted to be near me all the time. They loved me and I loved their loving me. Soon we were all living together in the same house. At first it was wonderful, I played and sang and everybody sang with me. But you can't play music all the time. We had to learn to share other things. Some had to earn money, others had to cook....We all had to give things up and that was a struggle....We began to criticize each other. I found that often people were afraid to tell each other what was bothering them and would instead come to me with their problem and I encouraged them to work it out with the people involved. This brought us closer together....Now we all know each other so well that we have become as one person. We have a block of houses and we all work together on whatever needs to be done at the time. We do not need a set of rules to guarantee that everyone does his part because we trust each other and we are able to trust each other because we have come to KNOW each other.
He goes on to tell about the expansion of the community through the publication of Avatar and the way in which communities, either large or small, depend on people knowing each other and telling the truth to each other. "What we have evolved together is a family structure, an ideal example of the natural order inherent in the family of man," and this is a microcosm of what is going on everywhere. "We are here to create a world together, the Family is building a home," and this in turn leads to the development of systems for governing, which usually lead to restrictions of the freedom they were meant to ensure. But at Fort Hill "Our government is changed daily. Not without a struggle for conflict is a necessary step to greater understanding but it just doesn't take us very long to figure out what's wrong and then DO something about it. Things move very quickly around here, we're a fast crowd."
He continues with a rambling dissertation on how every pattern eventually is outgrown and yields to a pattern of higher order, illustrated in the article by his shifting to a very different voice to make this point and by writing of the process of writing, in order to reach across the emptiness to touch people's hearts with his words: "If I can move you deeply enough then there will be a communion between us and we will be a community, it makes things so much easier when people understand each other, then there is no need for tiresome explanations."
Sometimes people make themselves unavailable because of their own fears and doubts. Mel makes it clear that he does not put up with such limitations. This helps explain the atmosphere on Fort Hill.
That is prison. If you cannot see beyond your own wall then you cannot see that my door is open. I will not let you shut me out, I will leap through my door and tear your wall down. You will resist me to the bitter end but I will get through because I have nowhere to go but into people. My self is YOUR self. I am inside of everybody in this community, we are as one person, that is what a community is. We all feel each other as ourself and so we all are totally responsible for each other. That is why the policy of open criticism, we are criticizing OURSELVES. ... It requires a great discipline to do your best. We discipline each OTHER. We drive each other NUTS!
Every community needs a leader, Mel continues, "someone who best knows the potential of that particular group of people and how to bring it into actuality. A guide. I am that leader and guide, the father at the head of this family." Further, the people of the Fort Hill community know themselves well enough to know and trust him, he says. He is all things to all men. Newcomers to the Hill usually are awed by Mel and their preconceived concepts about him.
It always comes as a pleasant surprise to them when they discover that I am so easy to get along with. My relationships with people are solely dependent on how close they are to themselves, the closer they are the more intimate our relationship. I do not know any bounds on intimacy, if you do they are yours. All life yearns to be one.
The issue concludes with a little fictional story, by Mel, of course, of living on a life raft for months and months, just "the wife" and the writer, taking whatever comes along in the simplified environment of ocean and sky, even running out of complaints after a while and learning to accept their lot, learning to laugh uproariously about it all, not all serious like they were before. "You wouldn't believe it was really me & Margaret. It's not Margaret anymore, of course, it's Maggie the Sea Dog...or sometimes 'Lady Margaret, Queen of the Sea.' Can you imagine the things we get into together." This little nonsequitur, I suppose, is meant to illustrate the central principle of life in the Fort Hill community as Mel had just explained it, that no matter what experiences befall us, the main thing, the only thing, is to get to know ourselves better.
I remember feeling grateful for Mel's explanation of what was going on in the community, even though it didn't much match the experiences I was having. At least now I had some words and concepts against which to measure myself. I enthusiastically hit the streets with the others, selling the new issue to the people in town, who were learning not to be surprised by whatever form the published output from Fort Hill might take. I sent copies to relatives, too. If I couldn't explain to them what was happening to me, maybe Mel could.
I had one of the strangest momentary experiences of my life with this new issue shortly after returning to Fort Hill from New York. I was standing with a copy on the front steps of house Number Four, ostensibly doing an evening guard duty shift but really lost in contemplation of the community article. Suddenly I found myself upside down on the ground next to the steps, on my head. It was as though some force had picked me up, turned me over, and dropped me. I never have figured it out. Maybe I just fell asleep standing up. But it was a perfect metaphor for how my life felt in those days. I just accepted it, like the people in the life raft story.

Advertisements for Our Self

It's worth noting that the several pages around the centerfold of the community issue were filled with advertising, some of it national music ads similar to those found in all the underground papers but most of it ads for local businesses with whom the Hill felt allied, and some of it ads for the community itself: Joey Goldfarb's astrology, Eben Given's artwork, George Peper's photography, Mel's book Autobiography of a World Saviour. A letter to readers took the place of a subscription appeal: "Dear Readers, Our purpose was stated in the last issue, it is created in this one. ... We need to have more people know about us, we need more ways to do that, we need contributions, we need a national distribution. And you need these things too, for you need us, just as we need to do what we have to do. Avatar is the compassionate conscience of America. Nobody likes their conscience, but everybody has to deal with it. We're waiting for you, American Avatar. "
There is a full-page ad for upcoming appearances, "courageously presented" in Worcester and Boston by a producer friend of the community, of "Jim Kweskin and The Lyman Family, etc." In those days, performing members of the community appeared in public as musicians only rarely. When they did, as likely as not they would not perform any music, preferring instead to dialogue with the audience until they felt confident that the audience was really present, really open-hearted and ready for whatever was to happen. The music thus became a reward for the audience for making the musicians feel welcomed and understood spiritually, far from the usual relationship between performers and audience. Not surprisingly, some of these appearances had resulted in quarreling between audience members and performers, and the reviews had grown harsh and nasty. Instead of embodying good feelings and old timey music as they used to, Jim and the other musicians had come to represent argumentativeness and unpredictability reminiscent of the misunderstandings surrounding the scheduled appearance by Mel and others at Arlington Street Church nearly a year earlier. I attended several of these appearances at clubs around Boston, playing the role of acolyte and enthusiastic fan, but confused by how they were choosing to present themselves.
An important part of living in the Fort Hill mode was proselytizing, or, what was called "learning how to talk to people." The notion was that what was happening on Fort Hill was more interesting, more important, more "real" than anything happening anywhere else. When people showed up, curious about our community or wanting more of the energy they had felt through our various outreaches, talking to them consisted of learning enough about them to then use that information to make them want to stay around and learn more. The men were invited to join the work crew, for a few hours or a lifetime. The women were introduced to the numerous children and encouraged to help with meal preparation and other chores. Little time was wasted, by anyone, although hanging out with visitors was itself considered a job and a responsibility, and if a person was clever, he or she could practically make a career of it.


9. on American Avatar No. 3 pp. 416-418

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