Years ago when I was in the middle of moving, I had a bunch of boxes stolen out of my car. All the most important things. The sentimental things. Interesting that even though I’d had many lessons over the years on releasing just about everything, I’d noticed in the midst of moving that I was still holding on to things, licking old wounds and new.
I’d just started reading a book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, and was surprised by the metaphysics in it, and by Ken Kesey (author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and his free and wise spirit, living in the moment, going with the flow—but really doing it, not just yapping about it.
Then my things were stolen, and I was handling it pretty well—until I realized nearly everything most near and dear to my heart was taken, which brought tears and self-deprecation. Wasn’t mad at the perpetrators so much, more at myself for leaving some of the boxes in the car (I’d hurt my back) and not double-checking that I’d gotten the important, sentimental stuff out.
That night, I sat down to read to take my mind off things. I opened to a passage where Kesey had been invited to a Unitarian conference on “Shake the Foundations,” and in the Kesey way, he wasn’t going to just talk about it, he and his cohorts were going to take folks through the experience of it and then out the other side.
“Onstage, Kesey, not talking in any formal way, more like performing, working magic—telling of the kind of symbols we use and the games we’re in, and how you can’t really know what an emotion is until you’ve experienced both sides of it, whereupon he seizes the big American flag up on the stage and steps on it, grinds it into the floor—
—huge gasp from the crowd, many of whom are teenagers—
[Paul] Sawyer is already into the thing, and he sees what Kesey is trying to do—don’t just describe an emotion, but arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion, and sometimes we have to come into the awareness through the back door. Sawyer hears sobs, wheels around in his seat, sees a group of teenagers behind him, from Salt Lake City, looks into their faces, reads the horror that fills them—The Flag!—then feels the manic energy from the crazed thing that has been packed into these children even at this age like a time warp vibration from the Salem witch hysteria, the primordial cry of Die, Infidel—and yet he can’t leave them with that. So he rises up and faces the crowd and says,
—Now wait a minute. That flag is a symbol we attach our emotions to, but it isn’t the emotion itself and it isn’t the thing we really care about. Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols. I remember when I was at school, we used to sing America the Beautiful and somebody would walk down the aisle carrying the flag. I always wanted to be the one who carried the flag down the aisle but I never was. Now, what was I really feeling? Patriotism? Or was it—
But he doesn’t get to finish. A voice cries: “Do it!”
“Do it!” It’s Mountain Girl, beaming at him from her folds of purple, quite delighted with the turn of events.
Before he knows it, he is leading them all in the singing of America the Beautiful, and O beau-ti-ful for spa-cious skies rings out in the hall—as he holds the flag staunchly in his hands and marches up the aisle and then down the aisle, signifying—what? Ne’mind! But exactly! Don’t explain it! Do it!
And there it was—those things that were taken from my car were symbols that I had attached my emotions to, but they weren’t the emotions and they weren’t what I really cared about. They were symbols of the people I loved, most no longer here. But they weren’t the love, or the gratitude, which no box can hold and no person can take. That helped.