A convulsive disorder seized the land, politically and culturally, during the 1960s. Given my own disorder, it was no surprise I found myself in the thick of it, beginning in the summer of 1965 when I became one of the first two VISTA Volunteers in George Wallace's Alabama, a soldier in LBJ's War on Poverty. Watching police attack black demonstrators during Martin Luther King's Birmingham campaign, turning Alsatians, fire hoses, and ugly white mobs loose on them, I was outraged we treated people this way in America, and knew I must do something about it. My sympathy for African-Americans may have been informed in part by my own sense of marginalization as an epileptic. Moreover, I was obsessed with testing my courage in my late teens. Whenever I feared doing a thing, I must do it to prove to myself I wasn't a coward. Fighting racism in the deep South would definitely test my courage. Today I realize the need to test myself was in part prompted by fear of my ailment and the need to resist it. Mine was courage inspired by fear. Although I would like to think empathy for my fellows had something to do with going to Alabama, too.
After a training session at Tuskegee Institute, I was placed with a middle-aged black couple for two weeks of field training in the tiny town of Tallassee, Alabama. While walking into town one day, I was stopped by a police car. A beefy white cop right out of central casting looked me over, eyes hidden behind silvered sunglasses. When I said hello, he drawled "Boyyyah" in reply. A high-pitched voice spoke from backseat shadows. "What you doing ovah with them nigrahs, boy? You bettah stay with yore own kind."
The cop cut off my response. "Don't lie to us, Boyah. We know everything goes on heah. We know you living' ovah with them nigrahs."
"You with the N-Dubba-You-A-See-Pee," the man in back asked, "come to make us some trubba? You from New Yawk city?" I could just make out an older white man in a linen jacket and string tie, his face a jaundiced yellow.
"I'm from Oregon. I work for the Federal Government as a VISTA Volunteer."
"No, you ain't!" the jaundiced man barked. "You with Snick and that Communist lot of trubba-makers down to Miss-sippi. Yore kind ain't welcome heah. You best git out."
The cop's glasses glared hard light back at me. "You don't know what you messin' with and you best leave it alone. You walkin' on thin ice, Boyyyah."
"Take an old man's advice and get away from them nigrahs and get with yore own kind." I made out white teeth in a face jaundiced with hatred.
It was all I could do to keep my knees from buckling as the car pulled away. I was in an alien country: 1965 Dixieland. Civil Rights workers Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman from New York, had recently been found dead on a farm in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
By the time I got back to the two room sharecropper's shack where I was staying, word about my encounter had spread through the community. Another VISTA worker staying nearby stopped by to tell us the Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally that night. People in the community where he was staying would greet them with hunting rifles. But the Joneses and I were on our own. Mr. Jones arrived home from work at the mill downcast, having heard about the Klan rally.
In their mid-50s, the Joneses seemed much older, weather-worn by hardship. Mrs. Jones a tiny, pole-thin woman with a tight cap of graying hair and gentle smile. Their tumble-down shack was owned by a white farmer for whom they tenant farmed, receiving a small percentage of the cotton and corn they raised. Just a step above servitude. Mr. Jones also worked in his landlord's textile mill. I slept on a cot on the back porch. Mrs. Jones taught me how to cook on a wood stove, how you could reuse bacon grease seven times before it went rancid (a little of it dribbled into biscuit dough made the best biscuits I've ever tasted). I learned how back breaking cotton picking is and how the woody bolls prick the web of your hand. We sat on the porch in the cool evenings listening to the crickets. It took great courage for the Joneses to have me stay with them those two weeks and risk the ire of white neighbors.
"Peoples won't leave you alone," Mr. Jones said. "I about had enough. The Po-lice be stopping you for nothing."
"Jus' to prove they cans," Mrs. Jones said. "'Cause they white and you colored."
"Some little white chile expec' you to step down off the sidewalk when he pass by and call you 'boy.' How can that be right? Half the time the colored's toilet don't work propaly."
"Or don't be open mos' likely."
"You can only kick a dog so many times afore it bite back."
Silently, we ate a supper of fried chicken, biscuits, and collard greens that evening. After dinner, Mr. Jones donned a clean white shirt for a meeting with his landlord, who knew nothing about my being there before that day. Two pickups squealed into the dusty yard; men shouted for him to come out. Mr. Jones closed his eyes and stood up. "They come for me." He hugged his wife to him, then gripped her shoulders and pushed her away. When he stepped out the door, I caught a glimpse of men in peaked white hoods with eye and mouth slits, images out of a nightmare. They manhandled Mr. Jones into a pickup bed and squealed away. Mrs. Jones released a hiccup of a sob, fearing she would never see him again.
I helped her wash up, then sat across the tiny room from her while she moaned and rocked in a chair. Through the thin walls, we could almost feel the heat of the cross burning on the landlord's lawn up the road. Hearing something outside the window, I was flooded with fear and outrage. Why didn't they take me? If anyone was to blame, I was. Pressure built inside my head, a thumb pressed behind my eyes, my arms began to tingle, the threadbare couch and woodstove went hazy. I knew the signs all too well.
Why is this woman across the room sobbing? Moonlight glows through cotton curtains. I feel like I'm in two places at once: my bedroom back home and this tiny dark shack. Two plains of time rub across each other. I can't be sure whether the rustlings I hear are outside my head or inside it. I clench my fists. No! This can't be happening. Take slow deep breaths. Resist. Sensing my doppelganger rise out of my body, I seize its wrist and cry, "Not now!"
A twig snaps outside the window. I wonder if it hurts to be blown up. Maybe it's like a seizure: lights out. You don't even know it's happened. But it would be disappointing to have my life end just as it's getting started, not knowing how things will work out. Like missing the end of a good movie. And for these good people to come to such a cowardly end. It's all of a piece now, real world fear and inner fear conjoining. Perhaps I'm having a simple partial seizure of the kind van Gogh had at the easel, not fully losing consciousness. A waking seizure. Possibly, Joan of Arc experienced them in battle. An "activist's seizure."
Mrs. Jones puts Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" on the record player and moans unashamedly, witnessing my struggle as Holiday belts out her scratchy, agonized tune and a Klansman goes about his filthy business outside the window. Suddenly, I'm no longer afraid. What's the falling sickness in the face of the KKK? Mrs. Jones knows I have undergone a struggle and won out. I find myself standing dead center of the room. She nods. Then rises, lifts the needle from the record, and steps out the front door—this tiny, courageous woman.
"You boy!—" she shouts in a tone that brooks no disagreement "My husband Earl, you fetch him home, boy. My husband Earl Jones, you fetch him. Hear?"
Incredibly, I hear the roar of a truck engine, tires squeal away. After some minutes, Mr. Jones returns. They push him out of the truck, shaken but unharmed.
Chessie Harris, our sponsor in Huntsville, was famous in Alabama as a champion of orphaned black children, having founded the only black-run orphanage in the state, The Harris Home for Children. Big Mama Harris, as she was called, was a portly, imposing woman, round-faced, with a formal manner. Light scalded off her glasses as she sized my partner Tim and me up. "I'd asked for young ladies. I suppose we will have to make do." It wasn't a promising start.
I attended services at tiny primitive Baptist churches—Indian Creek, Center Grove, New Jerusalem—to introduce myself to the community. Congregants welcomed this white boy from Oregon. I was entranced by preachers who held forth about Daniel in the lion's den and Job's tribulations in a rapturous singsong believers' rap, equating Biblical struggles with their own people's. I loved the gospel singing: congregants rocking in their pews, hands raised. Women occasionally swooned, and sisters in white dresses rushed in with fans to cool them off. I felt like I'd come home. I knew if I had a fit in church they would lay me out on a pew and loosen my tie, believing me touched by the spirit. No shame in that.
I sat with families, black and white, on tumble-down porches far back down traces in the piney woods and asked about their water supply, their health, the kids. Rain leaked through holes in the tin roofs of their shacks, five people occupied two small rooms, they had no coal for the stove. Some places stank so badly of mold and sour bedding, I gagged on entering. They lacked indoor plumbing, contaminated streams the only source of water. Once, when I asked for a glass of water, an entire family watched me raise the Mason jar to my lips. Oily globules floated atop orange liquid, but I bolted it down, not wanting to offend them, nearly heaved it back up again. Here was poverty I didn't know existed in America. The median wage for maids in Madison County in the mid-'60s was $5 a day, but preferable to chopping cotton. Unemployment among blacks was at depression levels. Segregated black schools lacked textbooks and desks, windows were broken. Indian Creek School, where Tim and I tutored, stank of urine, and kids went without lunch. It was a school you would not expect to find in one of the wealthiest counties in the South, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center. In defiance of a court order, the Madison County School Board refused to make forms available for black students to transfer to better-equipped white schools.
I soon learned I couldn't work with both blacks and whites. I had to choose. An activist from the American Friends Service Committee advised me to drive hell bent down country roads, so Alabama State Troopers wouldn't bother giving chase. Once, when I went to the movies with my friend Danny Tibbs, a white sheriff's deputy passing up the aisle kicked me in the knee. Inter-racial friendships were taboo in the '60s South. Big Mama Harris and her Advisory Committee counseled us to go slowly and not rock the boat, but we hadn't come south merely to tutor and start Scout troops; we'd come to fight racism and poverty.
Temporal lobe epileptics often have fiery temperaments, strong emotions, and moral convictions. Many of us are fixated on social justice, which may help explain why so many religious leaders, generals, and social reformers have been epileptics, including Harriet Tubman, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Alexander, Joseph Smith, Joan of Arc, and Vladimir Lenin. Although decidedly reductionist, it may partly explain my own call to activism. It could also be argued our ailment prepares us for conflict, since there's no avoiding risk as an epileptic. If our disorder teaches us anything, it teaches us we must take our chances.
I moved away from The Harris Home for Children and Big Mama's disapproval and rented a derelict cabin from a farmer on Bob Wade Lane near my friend Danny Tibbs' place. It was equipped with a coal stove, cold running water, an outhouse, and furnishings out of a dust bowl thrift shop, including a metal-framed bed and stained mattress. So cold on February nights when the temperature dropped into the teens, I had to sit nearly atop the glowing, pot-bellied stove, bundled up in parka and blankets. Water in my enamel wash bowl was crusted with ice when I woke up in the morning, a reminder many folks lacked coal and went hungry, while I lived well enough on my stipend of $150 a month. Joey and Junior, two boys living up the road, sometimes slipped in a window and woke me up, shouting, "It's the Ku Klux, Mr. Bill!"
My vision cleared once I moved away from Big Mama's. I knew what I had to do. That winter and spring of 1966 was a whirlwind of organizing activity. We protested the school board's failure to provide free lunches for 1,000 mostly black children in northwestern Madison County. Initially, the board denied there were hungry kids in the county, but when confronted with lists of unfed children, and when the local paper picked up the story, the board folded and acknowledged it was an outrage. My efforts earned me the community's respect.
We went on to build a community center on the ground floor of the Masonic Hall in Indian Creek, using volunteer labor and donated materials, stocking its library with donated books we brought from the Urban League Warehouse in Atlanta in Mr. Mason's flatbed truck. Residents of the Harvest and Monrovia communities near the Tennessee line demanded clean water and proper sewage. Their rural "subdivisions" of tiny brick bungalows reeked of raw sewage since residents had to do their business in the woods. We hauled donated outhouses to them—again on Mr. Mason's truck—turning heads as we passed through town with our pungent cargo. When, in defiance of a court order, the county school board refused to make transfer forms available to black students, a janitor working in the central office swiped a form, which was photocopied and distributed across the county. School officials were dumfounded when hundreds of black students suddenly applied for transfer to previously all-white schools.
My friend Ozell Ford and other women launched a maid's union—SOCC: the SISTERS OF CONCERN CLUB—intent on raising their wages from $5 a day. Motel maids staged a spontaneous walk out, and hundreds of domestic workers attended mass meetings, fed up with washing floors on their hands and knees. "Because it please the white ladies to be looking down on us," one said. They called for a general strike across Madison County. Word went out that scabs would be "handled." If they wanted a maid, employers would have to pay her a fair wage.
It was a social seizure. Once begun, there was no stopping it. In hundreds of Madison Counties across America, long-suppressed anger and frustration in the African-American community fed the Civil Rights movement. People were ready to act. Mine was merely the role of an outsider who offered a little nudge. With people like Ozell Ford, it was like dropping a match into dry tinder. Flames leapt up.
Remarkably, I had no grand mal seizures in Alabama, despite the stress. It was as if the collective upheaval suppressed my personal ones. Occasionally, I woke up feeling wasted, my lips bitten, so I wondered if I'd had a fit in my sleep. One night before a meeting with Big Mama Harris's board I knew would be contentious, since they wanted me to back off and I had no intention of doing so, I experienced a panic attack so intense, I thought it was an epileptic aura. For some epileptics, fits begin with such panic attacks. They experience existential dread. Falling down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland may have been informed by his own experience of vertigo before seizures, what is called "tornado epilepsy." Many confront this swirling maelstrom of fear as the electron storm begins in their brain.
I went outside and knelt on the ground, my forehead against the red clay earth. Crickets chirped in the cotton, but there was a hush inside my head, followed by a sensation of rushing forward as if a hand pushed me from behind. I heard what sounded like a celestial choir, floating on the wind from Little Indian Creek Primitive Baptist Church a mile away. Or perhaps music inside my head, which I sometimes heard before a seizure. I could make out the low outline of hills against the horizon, the far-off baying of coon hounds, interspersed with the near-deafening racket of cicadas in the oak trees. A huge presence hovered over me. I feared if I looked up, I would see the face of God.
I stumbled back to my cabin, not knowing what to make of this visitation. Looking into the broken mirror above the kitchen sink, I saw a wild-eyed apparition staring back at me, cheeks feverishly red, hair tousled. Some mad Ezekiel, not me.
Whatever I experienced that night, I went into the meeting with Big Mama's advisory board emboldened. When they ordered me to cease my efforts with school integration and maid unions, I said, "It's not up to me. There's no stopping it now."
There was a near giddy mood in that mass meeting held to discuss school integration and the domestic workers' union at First Baptist Church in Huntsville on the evening of August 15, 1966. A combined prayer meeting, political rally, and '60s happening. People sang gospel songs and clapped hands while police cars prowled past the church. The atmosphere tense and electric, palpable fear in the room, but excitement, too, as Ozell and civil rights icon Reverend Zeke Bell rose to speak. I didn't utter a word. It was time for me to go home.
Epilepsy's most palpable impact on my time in Alabama was its lack of impact. I was too engrossed in others' troubles to give much thought to my own, and couldn't let seizures interfere with my work. Liberation from myself liberated me from epilepsy. A wonder drug for epilepsy, social activism. Counter intuitively, I am often seizure free during stressful times, as if some override mechanism is at work during vulnerable moments, raising my threshold level and telling my brain: You dare not have a seizure now. It is at moments of rest following tense periods when many of us are in greatest danger of having fits. I couldn't chance having one in Alabama, so I didn't. It wasn't just devotion to others protecting me, but self-preservation.
My car sits catawampus, mid-intersection. A huge man slams a fist against the driver's side window, his face grotesquely distorted, shouting You've killed my wife. A Ford Mustang sits at an oblique angle in front of my Pontiac, its grille bashed in, windshield cracked, a woman's ghostly face visible behind it. Vaguely, I recall trees overhanging the road, a red light, then a stunning impact, my head slamming the window. Nothing more.
I wake up in the UC-Berkeley hospital, groggily post-seizural. A hawk-eyed doctor in a white smock asks how I'm feeling and tells me I had a seizure and ran a red light. "You got lucky. The woman isn't badly hurt. Are you an epileptic? No doubt you'll lose your license. You should lose it." He regards me disapprovingly and asks a nurse to take my vital signs. I try to tell him I don't think I had a seizure, but I can't speak.
This long-faced, disapproving brain surgeon, graying at temples, has performed a temporal lobotomy on me, removing the part of the brain where my seizure focus is located. I try to lift my arm to feel my head for bandages, but it's taped to my side. I would never agree to such an amputation. I know how badly such surgeries can go, leaving you with slurred speech or memory loss.
I can recall a man's distorted face squashed against my driver's side window, shouting something about killing his wife and trying to open the door. Nothing else.
"Did I really kill her?" I ask the nurse.
"Take it easy. She's going to be fine." She tells me the husband at the accident scene backed off when he saw me convulsing in the driver's seat and that I had another seizure at the hospital. "You must be exhausted."
How ironic that after a stressful year seizure free in VISTA, I return to the calm of university life and immediately have a fit. Will I have them in lecture halls? Oregon revokes my driver's license. Thus begin my years of walking many miles a day (two-and-a-half miles to campus from my lodgings in the Berkeley Hills). I'm a walking fool, thinking on my feet, studying on my feet, writing on my feet, embracing Thoreau's axiom that travel by foot is preferable to other means. I remain license-less and wheelless for much of my young adult life.
I throw myself into the fray: "Sex, drugs, and revolution," as Max Rafferty, California's right wing Superintendent of Education, has it. Berkeley is at the epicenter of '60s activism, and VISTA has prepared me for a role in it. I speak against the Vietnam War and racism at student rallies, help organize events, go on marches with thousands of others, help found an organization of VISTA and Peace Corps veterans to promote and improve the programs. I study psychology and the workings of the human mind and why it doesn't always work properly. Hurrying to class one day, I'm distracted by a sit-in on the steps of the Campus Placement Center and link arms with other protestors to block a CIA recruiting effort. Men in black suits snap our pictures. The dean of students cites me for violating the University Standard of Conduct Section II-A for participating in a disruptive demonstration, and I'm temporarily suspended from the university. Perhaps this no-fear policy of mine can be taken too far.
My senior year, I share a garden bungalow with Jerry B., a brilliant, intensely frank fellow who lost a leg to cancer at eighteen. Jerry plays the guitar and sings Dylan songs in a nasal twang. My girlfriend Annie introduces me to '60s counterculture. I feel instantly at home in her crowd of hippies, topless dancers, and dropouts. I let my hair and beard grow long. I've always been an outsider. Now the outsiders have formed a movement. However, tripping on pot and psychedelics makes me nervous. Drug trips mimic seizural auras in their distortion of reality. Most epileptics highly value consciousness, given an ailment that can snatch it away from us at any moment. Dr. Myers has warned me I should avoid hallucinogens since they lower the seizure threshold, but I decide it's a lot of drug-phobic hooey. It's the first time I've ignored a neurologist's warning. It won't be the last.
I have vivid psychedelic auras in my Berkeley days: long, dreamy, nearly ecstatic meditative states, wherein I hear celestial voices in the air around me or a Bach harpsichord concerto playing deep mind. Pleasant childhood memories linger a moment on the cusp of consciousness, then whoosh out the door as if blown away on a stiff wind.
A sign on a giant redwood stump announces: THE URANIAN CIRCUS. My childhood friend Butch, who has been driving hell-bent down logging roads somewhere east of Mendocino, comes to an abrupt stop. We see campfires flickering through trees and hear drumbeats. Have we stumbled on a Native American ritual? Suddenly, two girls with painted faces emerge from the woods, like latter-day dryads celebrating midsummer eve. We have ducked down a rabbit hole into a Through The Looking Glass world. They lead us to a bonfire in a meadow beneath towering redwoods and madrones. Feet thump rhythmically around the fire ring under a full moon; dancers bob and sway, casting shadows against forest walls. A man leaps over the blaze. Many are bare-chested, both men and women. A pipe passes from hand to hand. A man with a mane of thick red hair and a sun painted on his back dances with a girl in a harlequinesque body suit whose arms twine in the air, rhythm pulsing through her legs. Nonchalantly, she peels off the body suit. Butch whistles. As she approaches us, naked and trailing smoke, my eyes lock on her dark gaze. "Smoke follows beauty," she says. "You wanna drop some purple?"
Myers warned me about LSD, but not about forest nymphs with moonlight pooling in their eyes who slip a tiny purple tablet in your mouth. We ball under a bush, then float through the tree tops. I awake next morning surrounded by teepees, tents, wickiups, and a van painted in psychedelic sworls. People cook breakfast over open fires and invite us to eat with them, not caring who we are or why we've come. Butch joins nude sunbathers, wearing only the babushka he bought at a yard sale in Berkeley to hide his closely-cropped hair. No one thinks it odd for a rough-cut man to be wearing a woman's fur hat to their '60s costume ball. Some wear brightly colored serapes or buckskin loin cloths, faces painted with yellow clay, charcoal, and blackberry juice. Are they 11th Century Adamites? Indigenous Amazonians? The scene is a pre-apocalyptic vision, an exuberant bacchanalia before the end of days.
In an adjacent meadow, I climb a rope ladder to a huge tree house sprawled in branches of a giant live oak tree, where I meet Skyfish, Dawn, Doc and Ambrosia Nightfall. I am fascinated by these half-modern, half-primitive nature worshipers: women whose twisted braids are garlanded with periwinkle and trillium, necklaces of acorns and seashells falling down their breasts, bare feet stained brown; men in tight leather breeches, buck knives and smoking pouches hung from their belts, sporting shaggy beards or Zapata moustaches. Rebels against decorum, with an abiding faith in brown rice, marijuana, and phases of the moon.
Butch and I set up camp half a mile up dirt logging road 721 in a ridge top clearing surrounded by second growth redwoods sprouting in fairy rings from ancient roots of old growth trees cut a century ago. Here and there, survivors of the slaughter rise majestically. I build a crude cabin inside the charred walls of a burned-out stump, a fire pit in one corner, the backseat of Butch's Chevy serving as a couch. We spend our days skinny-dipping with the others at the Big River swimming hole a mile below, where it feels like we are in a cathedral under spreading California bay trees, old growth redwoods rising in columns to support a green canopy high overhead. We fish, set rabbit snares, gather blackberries and apples from abandoned orchards, or hang out in the Meadows. Occasionally, we walk five miles to town and pick up odd jobs.
But paradise has its spoilers. At Red Steve's camp, wind chimes fashioned of beer bottles, spoons and syringes chatter moronically in the breeze. A large army surplus tent sports a huge American flag and crypto-luminous eye blinking in the firelight. A placard announces: "Jesus was a needle freak." Granny Hypo sits sewing with a hypodermic needle in a rocker beside a Christmas tree trimmed with syringes and popcorn strings, a toothless hag with a half-wit smile sketched on a flour sack. Red Steve grips an oil barrel drum between his knees, beating it in a frenzied trance as if having sex with it, eyes half closed. His long-haired disciples shout plosive nonsense, bare chests glistening with sweat. Occasionally, their leader points hard right at a skinny kid in a loin cloth, who strikes a hubcap gong with a hammer. Wounding the night. Bringing all to momentary silence.
Once as I pass by, a hand catches my shoulder. I look into the dilated eyes of the Mad Hatter, who says, "I'm skibalill. Who'r you?" The lid of his top hat is sprung open.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that."
"Therugo." He laughs and hands me a joint. Something brushes the back of my legs. I leap forward, thinking it an animal, look down at a girl on all fours, who bares her teeth and hisses, then springs off into the bushes on all fours, her eyes gleaming back at me.
"What the hell?"
"Thash Tammy the cadgirl. You ged ush to her."
For the most part I feel right at home. After the tense year in Alabama and intense years studying at Berkeley, I cherish my simple life under the open sky. I haul water from a spring a quarter mile away, build a clay oven to bake bread, harvest huckleberries, chanterelles, and bracken fern, learn what is edible in the forest and what isn't, and eat remarkably little. I stop taking my anti-seizure meds; I can't afford them and believe I don't need them. Nature is my medication. I have no full-on seizures, but do have auras. One in particular. Call it a "vision."
I sit straight up. Something has awakened me: an animal's cry? I sense a kind of throbbing from deep woods, not a sound exactly, and feel I'm being watched. By what? Some vague presence like that which loomed over me in Alabama?
"Who are you?" I whisper. "What do you want?"
It comes from all sides. Not an answer, but a physical force moving through the old growth like a breeze, wending past tree trunks until it is on me. A mist without form. An urge. I fear I will have a fit, alone there in my shelter. Butch left for Oregon a few days before. I go out into the clearing, the milky way framed in a window of sky between towering trees, the September night spiced with conifer. It's dead quiet. I am reminded of Elijah standing on Mt. Horeb in the first book of Kings:
And a great and strong wind rent the mountains... but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice.
Is this some spectral Chinook, flowing up over ridges and down steep ravines, brushing past? I hear distinctly now: Come with me.
The ground convulses underfoot, knocking me to my knees. When I look up, all remains intact, the forest serene in the moonlight. Is this some kind of freak seizure? I work my tongue around my mouth to find out if my cheeks are bitten. I'm not alone. "What do you want?"
I run down trail to the meadows, dodging branches before I hit them (my night vision enhanced by weeks spent in the dark forest). The Meadows are still. The pulsing, kinetic force calls me west to the ocean five miles away. Little Lake Road glistens like a river in the starlight.
COME! the voice implores.
People talk about astral projection: the body remaining behind while the mind travels. Is my body back in the stump hollow while my mind hurries along the road? I've experienced something similar before seizures—my other self stepping out of my body. But a ghostly shadow cast by the moon moves ahead of me. Surely the mind leaves no shadows. I've never felt so free. Not walking, but floating down that river.
Come with me.
Disc eyes as bright as suns burst through the tunnel of trees ahead. A monster bears down on me. I flee into the woods and hide behind a fallen log, the dark forest around me alive and full of primordial fear. The car goes on. My shirt has been shredded by blackberry thorns, my chest and arms blood-streaked. Nearby, a tawny form slinks through the trees. There's talk of a cougar, but cougars don't worry me now. A hand thrusts me forward.
Reaching Big River Beach, I find only waves lapping white at the tide line. No message or word of wisdom or woman with a whimsical smile. No supernatural presence. No voice. My legs ache, my chest flayed; a chilly breeze comes off the ocean. I'm wearing only jeans and a T-shirt. No jacket. I will have to burrow into the sand to stay warm. "Whoever you are, why did you bring me all this way for nothing?" I shelter behind a redwood cull but can't sleep on the damp sand, wind whistling over the log. I would build a fire if I had matches. Slapping the sand in frustration, my hand lands upon a book of matches, waiting there for me. I build a blazing driftwood fire. This—what to call it—"vision" has been as pointless as a seizure, seeming of great portent, but in the end "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I should be used to it by now.
Some nights later, I return to Big River Beach and join a group of '60s gypsies gathered around a campfire, passing a hash pipe. A man in a straw hat strums a guitar and sings in a falsetto whine: "Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air..." I watch incredulously as a man dressed like a swami in a turban and orange robe emerges from waves, picking up the fire's glow. It appears he has walked out of the ocean. He approaches the campfire and sits cross-legged opposite me. Incredibly, his clothes are dry. He tells us he has come from the Far East. Can the others see him, too? Or is this another of my hallucinations?
I suspect now these putative visions were simple or complex partial seizures, wherein you neither convulse nor fully lose consciousness, but hover on its horizon. I knew little about such events at the time and preferred to believe them supernatural visitations. A trace of my religious upbringing still clung to me in my early 20s. I hadn't given up hope a benevolent god is looking after us. Many epileptics have what might be called spiritual visions that inspire them: Theresa of Avila, Ann Lee, Saint Paul, Joseph Smith, Joan of Arc, possibly Ezekiel, some think Muhammad. Philip K. Dick saw space aliens in his auras. It's understandable those in the past who knew nothing about neurological disorders should believe they were visited—seized—by some supernatural force. God was speaking to them. I thought so myself. Not surprisingly, epileptics' altered states of consciousness make us aware there is no fixed "reality." We may pass through doors to other perceptions and experiences of time. Perhaps the '60s themselves partly inspired my visitations. That wide open time when visionary fervor was in the air.
In late October, after his return, Butch and I were hanging out at the Seagull Inn in Mendocino, drinking coffee and reminiscing about our boyhood. We made quite a team. Butch wore his zany babushka; I was shaggy-bearded and wild-haired, wearing a necklace of deer vertebrae. A girl named Gypsy approached our table, bracelets jangling. "You've got to meet my artist friend Cindy from New York. You're going to like each other." The beautiful girl in black sailor pants and a Mexican sweater beside her looked like she'd stepped from a Degas painting, smiling shyly, gray-blue eyes with Sansui rings around the irises, a wild mane of hazel hair, both shy and bold at once. A Jewish girl from New York who looked like an Irish Catholic girl from Boston. At once reminding me of Dylan's song: "She makes love just like a woman... but she breaks just like a little girl."
We immediately hit it off, sitting across the table from each other, talking and laughing. The world around us had disappeared. Whatever was on her mind was instantly on her lips. She was fascinated to hear I lived in a redwood tree with my biker friend Butch. When I told her we had to hitchhike to Fort Bragg to buy groceries, she volunteered to take us in her VW bus, then returned with us to our camp in the redwoods. As Butch drove her bus up the rutted trail with sides that fell precipitously away into a ravine, she was enthralled and said it was like entering a dream. Pixyish Little Johnny, Cat Girl's ten-year-old brother, rode up with us. While I cooked a stew over the open fire, he snuggled up to Cin and pinched her breasts. "Hey, baby, wanna fuck?" Expressing what was on everyone's mind. She laughed and slapped him off. "Stop it, you little shit." Later, she told me my stew was inedible and she'd fed it to her Chihuahua when I wasn't looking.
Later, I fumbled at the dozen maddening buttons on the fly of her sailor's felt pants. All night in the back of her bus, we rolled and clenched and wrestled atop our shed clothes in the glow of candlelight, while her jealous dog Marcello nipped my ass. Finally, we lay spent, smiling at forest fog swaddling the van in milky luminescence. "You can't always be sure where reality ends and dream begins out here," I said. Over those next months, we were caught up in the organic web of eroticism embracing the forest, the Meadows, the ocean and Mendocino Coast. The whole scene was imbued with magic. One of the earth's chakras, people said, which had '60s rock for its sound track: the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, The Band and Joni Mitchell. We visited Berkeley in those People's Park days, fled down Telegraph Avenue from cops who drove past firing tear gas canister at demonstrators' feet. Students beckoned us from a dormitory: "Come up... Come up!" Good times, too, hanging out at my friend Tim's place on Blake Street, smoking dope while Cin and Pam sang Tim Hardin songs.
We soon retreated back to the woods, away from the fire below. Nature's grand order dwarfing the politics of the day. Although slogans on Jan's yellow step van were a '60s lexicon: Power to the People, Delilah Surrender, Fuck the pigs, God is a shroom, om mani padme hum, The Uranian Circus lives, OCCUPY THE EARTH. Just pitch a tent. No one owns the redwoods or rivers. Our politics were organic. Sometimes, on our ridge top under the big trees, swaddled in fog, it felt like we were living in the clouds.
But paradise has an expiration date. I hadn't told Cin I was an epileptic, fearing it would scare her off. My axiom was: Tell no one. But, as we grew closer, the weight of my secret got heavier. It felt like a cowardly betrayal of trust, all the more so since she was the most honest person I'd ever known. Mendacity was alien to her. She needed to know. We needed to discuss what she should do if I had a fit. My luck was sure to run out eventually. I was having many vivid auras. It felt like we were living in an aura there in the land of vagrant mists and celestial silence, dwarfed by giant trees. The twilit redwood forest, where sunlight rarely reached the ground, seemed an altered reality, Gulliver's land of Brobdingnagians. An otherworldly zone where life "is rounded in a sleep."
Freaked out by the Come with me episode, I'd begun taking anti-seizure meds again, worried about having a grand mal half a mile from my nearest neighbor while restless Butch was off on his travels. I took them clandestinely, not wanting Cin to notice. This made me feel dirty. But you never know how a person will react when you tell them you're an epileptic, no matter how close you are. They may be disgusted or creeped out, may reject you or flee. Was it fear that kept me from telling her? Shame? An act of cowardice certainly. I couldn't live with that. My second axiom was: Whenever you fear doing a thing, you must do it. Sooner or later I must tell her. Secrecy, too, has an expiration date.
We were walking along the trail to her VW bus, parked down on Little Lake Road near the head of Road 721, when I blurted it out. Not knowing I would. "There's something I've been afraid to tell you." Her eyes widened in alarm. Would I tell her I was married? I had terminal cancer? She took my confession in stride. "Why were you afraid? I'm glad you told me." She asked what she should do if I had a seizure and told me her father's asthma attacks took him to the hospital, gasping for breath, when she was a kid. "It was really scary."
"So is this."
As fall became winter, rain drummed on the our stump cabin's plastic tarp roof in a hypnotizing rhythm. It soon sprang leaks. Spectral mists lingered amidst the big trees, and woods dwellers trudged like water-logged ghosts down muddy trails. Everything was damp. Sour sweaters and mildewed blankets hung beside woodstoves to dry; the smell of scorched wool mixing with wood smoke. Privy holes filled with water. Clouds nestled in ravines, where chanterelles and bright red hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushrooms sprang up in the forest's gothic twilight. Cin and I rubbed elbows in our cramped quarters, reading by candlelight, bundled in sweaters, cabin-feverish in the endless rain. Nothing to eat but lentils, oatmeal, stewed apples and chanterelles. We made necklaces of varnished acorns, chinquapin galls, and deer vertebrae and sold some to local shops, although most shopkeepers took one look at our ragged clothes and tangled hair and waved us away. I never knew hunger in Alabama while surrounded by it. Here I knew hunger while surrounded by plenty.
Some Meadows dwellers considered Cin a prophetess like her Greek namesake. Pennyroyal asked her if she could stop fasting since the moon was in Gemini. Amaka asked, "What is reality?"
"What do they want from me?" Cin asked in exasperation. "Your sanity," I said.
She sketched in the gloom and played guitar, while I carved deer antler pipes and built soggy fires. We talked endlessly as the hours crawled by and days became weeks. Some stir-crazy Meadows dwellers ate Amanita muscaria mushrooms, their red caps dotted with white warts glowing menacingly in the moonlight. Known as "Soma" by the Hindus. Their high was like LSD—or like my epileptic auras, given visual hallucinations, time distortions, and out-of-body experiences—but dangerous since the lethal dose, which throws the user into violent convulsions, is close to the psychoactive dose. I didn't touch them, although it made sense to me that epilepsy grew out of the ground in fungal form during rain storms. My own brainstorms were often precipitated by inclement weather. To walk through the tall trees in a redwood mist is like moving through an epileptic fog. I felt right at home, the pressure in my brain seemingly neutralized by low pressure systems outside. I felt tiny and humbled, which seemed fitting since I have an ailment that can humble you at any time without warning. Comfortable in a world that dwarfs us by comparison.
Early one cold morning on Portuguese Beach, where I'd seen the swami emerge from the surf, a group of us threw off our clothes and plunged into the icy waves, holding hands, baptizing ourselves in the spirit of the times, and emerged shouting for joy. We sensed our paradise was about to be lost. Shortly later, Charlie Manson and his "family" arrived in a black school bus, prior to their crime spree. We didn't know who they were or what they would become. They seemed like religious fanatics, spouting Bible verses. Charlie strummed his guitar and spoke in a nonstop pseudo-Biblical blather. I encountered Susan Atkins squatting on a forest path and told her it wasn't a good place to take a dump. Their arrival foreshadowed disaster. Townsfolk turned on us, believing we had ritually sacrificed a baby in the woods. Lumber company goons rousted us from bed and told us to get out. Our paradise was going to be logged. Sensing disaster coming, Cin and I escaped north to Alaska, hoping to homestead. Soon after, the police raided our Uranian Circus, evicted squatters, and bulldozed our shelters. It was 1969. The '60s was drawing to a close.