15. Eugene and Florence

No, living in the Green Hole didn’t jump start my quest for enlightenment. It was one more step on the karmic path: one more obstacle, the navigation around which defines that part of the path.

As I look back on my time in Eugene with the perspective of the years, I can see that I learned a lot there, and even made some progress in a fairly short time.  But it wasn’t at all clear to me then that I was even on the path.

I thought of myself as vaguely Buddhist, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I was very happy to be there. At least I was reunited with my family, superficially. For a while, I lived in the big house on Broadway where my wife and son, Connie’s sister Holly, her daughter Jenny (and off and on several others) lived in a loosely communal arrangement. I worked at a few marginal jobs around Eugene, the most interesting of which was as a casual worker on an organic farm, and helped out with the kids and the housework. It was a different life. I never really considered trying to teach school there. Somehow, I thought I was done with that life.

It became clear fairly early on that we were not going to be a family again, and gradually we drifted further apart, though we continued to have a sweet, friendly relationship. I had not yet figured out how to actually be in a relationship with another person. I more or less decided to stay out of relationships altogether, though I kept narrowly avoiding getting entangled. I won’t go into those stories. Some were painful though sweet, and I learned a lot about myself through them.

I did get an actual job working at a motor home construction plant, but I left it so I could go back to Georgia for my brother’s wedding. Hitchhiking to Georgia was another adventure! I did a few other temporary gigs to help with the finances, but eventually my daddy sold our house in Georgia and I became a full-time volunteer activist.

It was a politically charged time, Ronnie Ray-gun having just been elected, and I got involved in activism at a level I’ve never been before or since.

The US was aggressively killing Indians in El Salvador and Guatemala to protect the banana plantations and other financial investments there from the effort of the local people to regain control of their countries. It didn’t seem right somehow, so after a rally, I volunteered to help the Eugene Council for Human Rights in Latin America (ECHRLA).  The name doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue – we called it “the Council”.

I began just helping out around the office, putting up posters and such, but after a while I became a full-time volunteer, sort of an assistant to Robert, the director. Nelly, an Argentine woman who pretty much ran things there, let me live in one of her houses, and the three of us ate, drank, and slept political organizing 24-7. We hosted a lot of cultural activities, speakers, workshops, conferences, as well as fund-raisers like movies and meals, serving mostly students and church groups.

I talked to people who had been in Central America on a near-daily basis. I knew what was going on by first-hand accounts. As I compared those reports to the reports in the media – part of my job was reading the daily reports – I began to realize that nothing we read in the papers comes close to telling us what’s really going on.

A few NY Times reporters were occasionally printing accurate stories on the events there, but they were reviled and attacked by the political commentators. It was an eye-opening time for me, a radicalizing experience.

But it was a bit too intense, so I didn’t hang in very long. And then too, the money ran out, so I had to find work again. I got a job – well, sort of a job – taking care of a woman’s kid and house while she went to college classes. This involved moving to Florence, a quaint little town on the coast straight across the Coast Range from Eugene. I liked it there a lot, and eventually got a job as a proofreader and typesetter at the local weekly newspaper.

The  Oregon coast – the ocean, the dunes and the forest – were all beautiful. Florence was magical… especially because it was in Florence that I met Giana.

Life was very nice, calm, and peaceful in Florence, hiding out from the world, as my friend said. Old Town Florence, a street on the north bank of the Siuslaw River, was a wonderful scene in those days, populated with an extremely interesting array of alternative business men and women, and peopled most any nice afternoon and evening with an even more diverse group of folks from the surrounding countryside.

We’d occasionally see Ken Kesey parking his old convertible in the parking lot there, and learned that the Siuslaw was the model for the river in his novel Sometimes a Great Notion.

Everyone knew everyone on the street, it seemed, and the various parties, bonfires, plays, and other events just happened without a lot of planning or publicity, yet everyone knew about them.

One of those events was the Sunday evening guitar circle at Donnie’s coffee shop, which usually drew 10 to 20 guitar-playing folk. It was at that guitar circle that I first met Giana.

I had spotted her early in the evening, a very cute brown-eyed girl behind a big Martin guitar. As the song lead went around the circle, everyone played a song they thought the rest would enjoy and maybe play along with, so when it came Giana’s turn, she ‘lit out’ on “Friend of the Devil” and I jumped right in, following her chords and singing along. She smiled at me a lot during the song, which was the hope behind my enthusiastic response, though I had always loved the song, and when the singing was over we talked a bit, and she smiled again and waved as she went out the door.

I knew I would see her again; that’s how things were there.

We in fact saw each other often over the next few weeks; the next time I saw her she was dressed as the wind, having just come from a children’s theatre event. Before long, we were friends, and then one night on the dance floor we kissed.

The rest is history, as they say.

Within a year of that meeting, we got married in the Old Town gazebo in sight of the dunes, the bridge and the street where all our Florence friends hung out. We sent no invitations, put no announcements in the paper – tho as the classified ads typesetter, I often sent her love notes and cryptic announcements via the classifieds – yet there were, by all accounts, at least 200 people at the wedding, with lots of wonderful food and drink at the mostly impromptu reception in our apartment afterward.

Eight-year-old John was the ring bearer, and Giana’s dad was there, as was Connie.

It was a wonderful day.

Over the next few years, we lived in several different, amazing places in and around Florence, – on top of a 300-ft. high cliff overlooking the Pacific, upstairs in an old general store in a huge apartment with 20-ft. ceilings, and in a little house in ten acres of forest with a sauna and three out-buildings – Giana opened an art school for kids, and I became the manager of the print shop. We had an amazing group of friends who got together frequently, naturally, and our lives were amazing.

Pretty soon, Luke was born and our lives became even more amazing and wonderful. We had an idyllic few years there, with lots of friends, one of the most beautiful natural settings on the planet, and a fairly stress-free life.

But there always seemed to be something missing for me. I read a few books with Buddhist themes, and I tried to meditate occasionally, but I wasn’t really getting it.

Our friends Mike and Monica went to a Zen retreat in Hawaii, and I wanted to ask them about getting involved, but I was hesitant. It seemed forced, artificial, inappropriate to ask. I don’t know why, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I think I thought that somebody was gonna come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Wanna get enlightened? Come with me!” Sorta the Baptist model.

But it kept calling to me, and I knew it was what I wanted.

I started a sculpture that I thought of as a Buddha-rupa (image of Buddha) in a large block of Port Orford cedar. Somehow it seemed to help me feel I was doing something in the way of finding a spiritual path.

I was really just getting very complacent, hiding out, waiting for something to happen. Then life just slapped me right down.

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