Tag Archives: Peter Coyote

No More Normal

By Cheryl Lynne Pickens Rubbo

Let me tell you a story. This is a story about a young family, traveling in their car up a one-lane dirt road, at night. It is mid spring, and still cold outside. The car is a station wagon, and the father is driving. The mother is sitting next to him and the three children are sitting in the back seat. The car is crunching over rocks, sticks and leaves as it travels up the road, heading toward a house full of strangers.  

The year is 1969. The young father and mother are both 33.

My grandfather nicknamed my brother Boy, rushing onto the plane after it landed to grab his newborn grandson, his namesake, from my mother’s arms and shouting, “That’s my Boy! That’s my Boy!” My grandparents were from Texas, where family is everything, and the only thing worth value.

In 1969 Boy was the youngest at 9, and he was the only one of us children that my father’s sister tried a couple of years later to rescue.  

Our car is heading away from our home, away from the familiar and the beloved. The house had been packed up, some stuff thrown away, more stuff given away, and what couldn’t be parted with stored in the garages of friends in the valley. There was no way for us to know that night that, over the years that stuff, too, would disappear.

The headlights shine up into the darkness, showing the road and bathing the trunks of the trees lining the road with light. My father is telling jokes, laughing, singing, trying to cheer up his stunned children. Suddenly my mother turns to the back and snaps, “Can’t you see how hard this is on your father?”

Good god, what? Was she kidding? I felt the shock go deep into my body, and bewildered by her anger I waited, but my father went silent.

The car continues climbing up to the top of the ridge, to the unfamiliar house, where my family will stay for a few weeks, before moving on to other strange houses, to stay for awhile, a few weeks, a few months. I had no idea where we were going as we crunched slowly up the road, some vague notion of “staying with friends for a little while.” My father parked the car and we went inside with our small bags, but the otherness of the place and of the people I’d never met before made me hang back.

Our house, our home, nestled in the hills of Lagunitas and perched at the top of a small, winding road, had always been filled with love, with books, and with music, famous musicians were always dropping by to jam with my father. He put his heart and soul into our home: he brought home a gypsy wagon that became my sister’s bedroom, he built a huge bathtub out of redwood and countless coats of resin for waterproofing, the yard was filled with his sculptures (artwork the neighbors considered junk!) the light in his woodshop (his sanctuary) always burned bright long into the night. This was the happiest time of my life, I wandered all over the hills, a tomboy, and my sister and I played among the Manzanita trees, using the lichen growing on them to make houses for our Barbie dolls and troll dolls.

The three of us kids shared a room, my sister lording it over us in her single bed, and my brother and I sharing bunkbeds. I would run from the doorway of the bedroom and leap into my bed, taking care to aim carefully and not crunch my head on the upper bed, knowing beyond a doubt that monsters were hiding in the darkness beneath my bed waiting for me!

Susu, my precious cat, gave birth to her squirming litters of kittens in my bed, my mom wasn’t too happy about that but I was ecstatic.

My family was suddenly homeless, our home, bought for us in 1963 by our beloved grandparents, was lost, forever, and we were to be sheltered by friends, by strangers who became friends, strangers who remained strange, and by friends who turned into strangers. We finally came to an uneasy rest at the scattered homes of Peter Coyote’s commune, a loose tribe of people known as “The Family.”

 The children did not realize, in the darkness of the car, just how their lives had changed. Sitting in the backseat, wedged together among our belongings, we didn’t understand what was happening to us, or why.

 There would be no more normal, everything would be viewed through a prism of “before” and “now.” There would be no more school for the two oldest, the daughters. I would have no more schoolyard friendships, or awkward sleepovers.

 There would be, also, no more dentist visits, no more doctor visits, and the clothes we would wear would come from Free Boxes. We would learn to do without. Uncertainty and change were to be constants. There were times when we didn’t know if we would eat at night. There were times when we didn’t eat.

My father had made some mistakes, and his young family was paying the price for his mistakes. We had no idea what those mistakes were at the time, how could we know that what he had done was wrong? My father was unquestionably right about everything, wasn’t he? Even when Travis, the young sheriff, came to question me, a 9 year old, about whether I would have slashed tires on our road (yeah, right), how was I to know this was harassment of my father? Even when I missed him terribly when he didn’t come home for days, even when the other sheriff waited, parked on the road outside our home until I came home from visiting friends and forced his way in to search an empty house for my father, and I stood trembling and scared with the comforting arms of my friend’s mother around me, and even when we went to visit him in jail, I did not have the capacity to judge him.

My fragile mother paid a price for my father’s mistakes, a price that we could not afford. That night in the car was the beginning of her long, slow descent into the heart of madness. She never fully returned.

My father was not a stupid man. He had such a high IQ test score in high school in the mid-50’s that the school refused to tell him or his family what his score had been; I’ve been told that was because his score was so much higher than the other kids in his school. My father had wanted to create a life of art, beauty, music, poetry and love. A rebel from early on, my father lived on the edges of societal norms, and he truly, deeply, believed that art is life, life is art. He had a restless intellect, he was infinitely curious and not satisfied with the way things were. His friends were musicians, artists, free-thinkers, intellectuals, and radicals. His wife, the mother of his children, wasn’t always comfortable with his radical way of thinking, she was especially alarmed with his interest in the philosophy of Summerhill School, but they both raised us, at least in the early years, with love and pride.

Although folk music was the politically correct music of the day, he and his friend David Meltzer listened deeply, for hours, days and months on end, to all music available on LPs: blues, jazz, gospel, country, bluegrass; and they strove to recombine all the sounds they heard when they played their improvisational sessions. Most folkies disdained their attempts, with the exception of some of the musicians who went on to form the seminal bands of the early psychedelic rock scene of San Francisco: Jim Gurley, Dino Valenti and David Crosby. David Meltzer and my father played their unique music at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, San Francisco, in the early 1960s, Jim Gurley accompanying them, their music shaping and defining the musical style that would later sweep the nation.

I learned all of this later, from David Meltzer, when it became urgent for me to learn more of the person my father had been, and to try to understand why he made the choices he did, and to try to put my life into perspective. 

Drugs have been used by musicians and artists for decades, and my father and his friends were not exceptions. Marijuana was the most common drug, and smoking it was considered to be a harmless recreational high, shared among friends and strengthening creative bonds.   

Then, in early 1968, a friend betrayed my father, by helping an undercover cop entrap him with a marijuana buy to reduce his own jail time for a prior bust. Jail was a brutalizing experience for my artistic, creative, sensitive father, and it seared his soul. Methedrine offered comfort and escape.

The children’s beloved grandparents came up from San Diego, along with his sister and her attorney husband, to plead with him to enter a mental institution because, to them, his behavior could not be anything other than sheer madness, insanity. He refused.

My father thought he could control the drug, and the drug destroyed him. After we moved from our home in Lagunitas I rarely saw him, he spun off into a world I could not imagine, inhabiting a surreal netherworld of drugs, low-life characters and lost opportunities. I know it was not a world he would have chosen but was his by the twists and turns of fate and fortune. It was not a world that he deserved.

In the end, my father lost so much that was dear to him: first his home; then his cherished parents and sister who could not understand him and shunned him; and then finally, two months and two days after his thirty-sixth birthday, his life.

His only son, named after his father, also died, two months and nine days after his own thirty-sixth birthday.

His daughters, my sister and I, we were the ones who survived, and we have finally learned, although we paid such a high price, to live our lives with joy, strength, dignity and intelligence.

I’d like to ask my father’s sister, the woman formerly known as my aunt, just one question.

Was it you who convinced my grandparents to stop paying the mortgage in late 1968 on the house they bought for their only son and his young family…

…   and not tell my mom?

 

Papa & Mama on Motorcycle - Sonnabend

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The Last Time I Saw my Brother’s Face

By Cheryl Lynne Pickens Rubbo

My brother left me a gift so profound and beautiful that to this day I am still discovering traces of his legacy. They pop up along my path, like flowers blooming long after their seeds were planted. Paul gave me the gift of helping others to heal. Although, at the time of his passing, I would have given my own life to spare his, I am forever grateful for his bequest.

The last time I saw my brother’s face, his spirit had left and death had come at last. He was only thirty-six-years old. His wife called at 5:00 a.m. to tell us he had just died. We rushed back to the hospital to comfort her and say our last goodbyes to him. He was my baby brother; this was not supposed to be happening. He was not supposed to die before me and yet he died with such dignity and courage, he showed me a new way to be in life.

Hospital Vigil

Our vigil at his hospital bedside during the last days of his life was heart-wrenching and painful, but we had to be strong for him and for his wife. After a long illness, Paul knew he was near the end. His body was so ravaged by his disease that his voice had been a whisper for months and on his first day back in the hospital, he whispered to my sister, “I know that I am not going to get out of here alive.”

We sat next to Paul, day after day, feeding him spoonfuls of ice chips and praying for him to be released from his suffering. He was not eating any food, and the hospital had not put in a feeding line. Once, as I helped him get back into bed and put my hand on his shoulder, I was shocked to feel no muscle beneath his skin, the shape of the bone round and hard under my palm.

My mother, an emotionally fragile person, was distraught yet unexpectedly stoic about her youngest child, her only boy, dying. I gently, but reluctantly, told her that she needed to give him permission to leave so that his suffering would not be prolonged by worrying about us. Paul always worried about us; we were the kind of family that seemed to bump through life from difficulty to disaster, trauma to tragedy, just hoping to get by.

Idyllic, Artful Childhood

KayAnne, Paul and I were born to teenage parents in the late fifties and grew up in the turbulent sixties. Both our parents enthusiastically embraced the counterculture philosophies of the beatniks and hippies. My father, J.P. Pickens, a gifted and creative musician and artist, opened our home in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco to beatnik artists and musicians, such as George Herms, Wally Berman, and David Meltzer. My father was an influential figure in the early North Beach, San Francisco music scene. He was slightly older than the other musicians and consequently given respect for his bohemian credentials and experience.  J.P. was one of those figures who helped to define the psychedelic rock genre as an influence for “insiders,” but was somehow invisible to fame.

Our house was a warm, loving bedlam of creativity, music, art, and family. My father deeply believed that “Life is Art, Art is Life.” We lived that tenet to the fullest. This was the happiest period of my childhood, and my memories of this time glow with golden sunlight.

Long, Slow Descent

Then, in 1967, my father was introduced to methedrine (“speed”) by a neighborhood pal. He began a long, spiraling descent that culminated in his death in a horrific accident several years later. Because of the chaos created by his addiction, we lost our family home to foreclosure and were forced to move into an elastic and nearly formless commune, the Digger/Free Family (described in exquisite detail by Peter Coyote in his book, Sleeping Where I Fall). My mother found our new borderless, chaotic life in the commune to be frightening and impossible to cope with. Although I desperately wanted a stable home with my parents, I rarely saw my father, and by the time I was thirteen, my mother suffered a major nervous breakdown.

I dropped out of school in the 6th grade and moved around the different houses the Diggers maintained as communes, from San Francisco to Black Bear Ranch on the California-Oregon border.

I read voraciously. Like my father, I possessed a deep desire for knowledge and a passion for the written word. Not surprisingly, I found myself involved in several unhappy and unfulfilling relationships, and looking back, I can see clearly that I didn’t have a sense of my own worth and value. I knew my parents loved us, but they were too preoccupied with their own problems to notice that my sister, brother and I needed more from them than they were giving. As the poet David Meltzer wrote about my father, “We realize our prison only after we design it and move in.”

Hardest on my Brother

The hardships of our family life seemed to hit my brother Paul the hardest. Apparently he struggled with his demons throughout his entire life. He stayed with a family friend while he finished junior high school, and he was living with my parents in San Francisco when my father died in 1973. I was shocked when I realized this eerie parallel: my father died two months to the day after his 36th birthday, my brother, two months and 10 days after his.

The year my father died was also the year Paul discovered martial arts. For the next ten years, my brother devoted himself enthusiastically to the practice of Shao Lin Chuan. Shao Lin Chuan is an ancient Chinese martial art that builds strength, speed, power, and flexibility, and emphasizes self-defense. This martial art was developed by Buddhist monks in ancient China to cultivate a philosophy of wellness and self-defense. Paul loved Shao Lin Chuan so much, and was so good at it, six months after he started I also was inspired to begin practicing with his teacher, Sifu Kuo Lien Ying. We woke at 4:00 a.m. every morning and rode the city buses to be at our teacher’s studio in Portsmouth Square in Chinatown at 5:00 a.m. My brother and I both excelled at this arduous and demanding practice. We became dedicated, disciplined, and physically strong. I did not know at the time that this was to be the foundation of my life’s work, nor was I aware of how my growing excellence was healing a formerly warped and inaccurate sense of myself. Nor did I realize I would meet my husband at Sifu Kuo’s studio.

Paul graduated from a technical high school and went on to become the captain of the gymnastic team at City College of San Francisco. He experimented with drugs and alcohol as a teenager, but later, in his late 20’s, the latent demons that had plagued him during his turbulent early years once again assumed power. Paul developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol. I discovered this only when he joined AA some years later and called me to “confess” as part of his 12-step commitment. Paul had a long series of short-term relationships with women, and his heart was broken many times, which undoubtedly led him back to the false friendship and comfort of drugs. When my brother eventually married in 1985, having found a woman who was devoted to him and who loved him for himself, it was not enough to quell the demons. Fortunately for him, and for his wife, one year before his death, living with the terminal illness of AIDS, Paul found the strength to quit drugs and alcohol and end his life free of addiction.

My Greatest Inspiration

My brother was charming, loyal, intelligent and honorable to a fault. Whatever horrors were eating at him, he never revealed them in his interactions with others, which were marked by selflessness, good-humor, and a willingness to extend himself far beyond what most people attempt to offer. My brother’s death was devastating to me, I loved him deeply, and I grieved for him for a very long time.

When Paul told us that he was HIV positive, I did not have the skills to cope with his illness. When he would mention the physical problems and pain he was experiencing, the fear of his death would arrive in my voice. He finally had to tell me that phone conversations with me were more and more difficult, he couldn’t handle my fear that he was going to drop dead at any moment. That was a turning point for me. I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself because my brother was dying, and start focusing on my brother’s needs for however long he was to be with us.

My brother never once complained of his pain and fear. He never blamed anyone for his illness. From the moment of his diagnosis, Paul lived one day at a time. He bore the unknowable pain and indignities of a fatal disease with grace, charm, and courage, and gave me, by his unwavering example, the greatest gift anyone could ever have bestowed. Since Paul’s death in 1995, I have dedicated my life to easing the suffering of humanity, one person at a time. I am committed to teaching people how to increase the quality of their lives at whatever stage they happen to be living, whether their afflictions are physical, mental, or spiritual, or a combination of the three. Paul taught me so much about being with people who are suffering. The help I can give them is the gift I offer continuously to my brother’s and my family’s memory.

In the Name of my Brother

For two years following my brother’s death, I looked deeply into myself, examining the ways in which I had allowed fear and grief to control me. I also examined the ways in which my love and compassion helped my brother. Experiencing his dying and his death helped me to find my true voice; it has shaped who I truly am. I realized that I care deeply about relieving the fear and suffering of others; that what really matters in life is how we are able to help each other, and we all need each other if we are to overcome our afflictions.

1997 Donald and I co-founded the Paul D. Pickens II Research Foundation, a 501-(c.) (3) nonprofit organization that provides health and healing information and classes to the public. Our desire was to help people of all ages and in all levels of health achieve greater balance and joy in their lives, and thus to heal the world one person at a time.

Paul D. Pickens II

Paul D. Pickens II

http://www.cultivatechi.com/, http://www.ExtraordinaryBreath.com, http://www.jppickens.com

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