When I lived on Avent Ferry Road in Raleigh, which ran south from the campus of North Carolina State University, I would wake up at seven each morning and press “play” on my stereo, prompting Joni Mitchell’s voice to evoke “Morning Morgantown” as I rolled out of bed with a smile. Following were “For Free” and “Conversation” and then the album title song “Ladies of the Canyon.”
Little did I know she was counterculture. Nor that she released these songs in 1970, when I was turning seven, maybe during the winter when I remember losing my first tooth as I prepared to sled down the hill at the East Meadow in Central Park. The war was on, Nixon was in the White House, and the Kent State shootings happened that May, the month of said seventh birthday. I was as oblivious to all this in 1970 as I was in my senior year of 1984-1985 that in pressing “play” and hearing Joni’s voice while I awoke happily in the sunny three bedroom I shared with Rex and Jerry, both mechanical engineers, I was preparing my mind for a day of counterculture: I, the English major, who had started at N.C. State in the rules-world of Mathematics and then traversed the earthy Geology, only to wind up in the liberal arts, in which I learned that as long as I came up with a thesis and defended it properly, I would garner an “A.”
Meanwhile, Rex and Jerry wrestled into the night with mind-vicing problems of thermodynamics, where the right answer was sought through the briars and hedges of calculations and considered reasoning. Often, I would hear Rex curse from his bedroom in the wee hours, while I typed away on D.H. Lawrence, as free to create as his characters were to romp in the woods with each other.
But I wasn’t exactly a rebel.
Once, however, I dressed up as a homeless person and, observed by a teacher’s assistant in my sociology class, spent three hours begging on Hillsborough Street, the campus’s northern border. I collected about $15, not bad in 1984 dollars. Then I wrote an exposé for the school newspaper. I made judgments about people in the article: people who didn’t give or avoided me were evil and heartless, especially those who obviously had means, like the man I noted who parked his Mercedes and then walked right past me. Some of what was his was owed to me. Or so I thought. This thinking reflected more my philosophical state that year than my being an erstwhile homeless person. For I was not homeless; rather, I was a liberal arts major.
A professor who substituted one day for my normal prof – I believe it was a class on American poetry from 1900 to the present – was Jewish, and at some point he went on a tangent and told us how the Jews had the practice of catching their tears in small cups and then putting these cups on their mantles. I have learned since then of the belief, expressed in the Talmud, of the Cup of Tears in heaven, that as it’s filled with the tears of the world and that when it overflows, the Messiah will come. If this professor called attention to the Messiah, I don’t recall. I was more interested in the raw humanity he was outlining, that people would actually save their own tears. It sounded like poetry, so I liked it.
Perhaps there was no more counterculture act, though, than my protesting the execution of Velma Barfield in November 1984. I had been to a forum on campus where a panel of teachers and thinkers was disputing whether or not she should be put to death, the first woman to be executed in 22 years. Having been fully immersed into the thinking of my sociology professor, whose husband was an unemployed Baptist minister who was switching to Presbyterian and was organizing his fellow laborers at Black and Decker, where he loaded trucks, I held a position at the forum toward capital punishment that pivoted on two assumptions: that all punishment meted out by our justice system should be rehabilitative and, if so, how could capital punishment fulfill the first assumption since there would no longer be a person to rehabilitate after it was administered. I stood up during the audience Q&A and asked the question. A teacher who was ostensibly against capital punishment nevertheless blasted my first premise and then gave his intellectual reasoning against the issue. In any event, I felt sheepish, and that my heart had led my head.
Soon after, closer to the date of her execution, I dressed in my only suit (grey wool), took a homemade protest sign, and bicycled down to the Governor’s Mansion. Sitting down across the street from Jim Hunt’s office, I held up my sign and got lots of honks from passing motorists – probably in disagreement with me (most locally were in favor of her death) – and eventually, after about 20 to 30 minutes, a gentle but clear command from the police to move along.
Velma Barfield killed people and ruined others’ lives. She also reputedly became a born-again Christian during her imprisonment. The second point wouldn’t have made a difference to me at the time, since I had been spiritually searching at that point for about 18 months but put no stock in someone’s theistic faith. I had been to a Unitarian church a few times at that point and thought that it was more important what the person did for others and the world. My main interaction with a Christian had been a Haitian man I met in class who came over one night to cook for me and my roommates and prepared chicken. I had been on a vegetarian kick, and he calmly told me that all foods were provided by God for us to eat. Dinner smelled good, so I stopped being a vegetarian for the night.
Velma Barfield was executed, Rex died of cancer two years after graduation, and I don’t know what happened to Jerry. My charitable spirit was extended to ideas more than to people.
Nevertheless, what my foray into English literature did was it forced me to understand the world from the standpoint of the other. In high school, my friend and I made a list of all the ethnic groups we hated, using each group’s most incendiary derogative to identify and distinguish it. We laughed as we read and re-read it.
But then there were the Cup of Tears; Trent the gay black student, one of the first homosexuals I had ever known; Velma Barfield who was granted mercy from above but endured justice from below; Willa Cather and James Baldwin, whose lifestyles were as exotic to me as their writing was convicting; Jonathan Swift, who informed me that women as pure and angelic as Celia also defecated; William Carlos Williams, who could find beauty behind a dumpster; and my classmates and professors, who collectively understood all the characters and writers I did not, giving them credibility in the world’s eyes, making their worldviews – if not legitimate – then at least vocalized so that I could hear them for myself.
My task late at night, then, was not to find the answer to the math problem. It was not to do the finding at all.
It was learning to remain open, so that I could be found.