Community, Why Is It Important?

Community. Why is it important? How do we keep it? Through the years our bonds can wane, resentments form, and agendas become more important than the original goals of creating and preserving a better space for everyone. In the pressure-cooker of a neighborhood, whether in New York or a small town, rumors and personal wish-lists can ruin a community, no matter how great its history.

Amazon has been offering the paperback of Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen at a significant discount for weeks, and recently began discounting the Kindle too. 

The story begins with a naïve group deciding to take on the most powerful people and corporations in the city of New York. With nothing but their minds and love for their neighbors they manage to hold the line for many years.

What you’ll also find is the transformation of politics into a form of take-no-prisoners “war” as the 1980s move into the 1990s. In this atmosphere Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump (both mentioned in the narrative), and Andrew Cuomo began their careers. Other politicians such as Congressman Ted Weiss and Mayor David Dinkins are shown working in an alternative way.

The book is the story of my 15 years in community advocacy, and to some degree, NYC politics. It all began on a sunny summer day.

Development Fever

The city and state proposed a complete makeover of Times Square, the world-famous intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue with 42nd Street. The redevelopment would run from that crossroads along West 42nd Street to Eighth Avenue. The project rode on the back of eminent domain (I envisioned an armor-clad knight carrying a lance), along the way razing the Times Tower and raising office towers on 42nd Street. The blighted, crime-filled area would be transformed into a shining mecca of entertainment and corporate wealth.

In our view, the massive project was a spear aimed at our neighborhood. It would drive up real estate values, increase tenant harassment, and potentially force out low, moderate, and middle-income residents. Even though there was a specific zoning district, the Special Clinton District, restricting high-rise development in most of Hell’s Kitchen north of West 42nd Street, speculators and unscrupulous landlords would seize this opportunity to turn the neighborhood into towers of condo-heaven.

A few people (Rob and Barbara) started the Clinton Coalition of Concern. My new acquaintance, Jim Condeelis, and I were at the first brainstorming meeting at Housing Conservation Coordinators, a local non-profit.

The Times Square project, we agreed, would place a great deal of pressure on our low-rise, working-class, and middle-class neighborhood.

“They won’t stop at Eighth Avenue. Developers will want to build here in our neighborhood.”

“Landlords will harass people out of their apartments so they can sell their buildings unoccupied.”

“They’ll try to change the zoning and get rid of the Special District.”

Our objections to the redevelopment project itself went down different avenues. We agreed that eminent domain should be used for the general good, but what is “the good” in this case? The people who would benefit were the already wealthy. Property was being taken from one group of private owners and given to another. Perhaps in several ways this was an illegal use of eminent domain.

The group decided to hold a public rally to inform people about the project and its impact on the neighborhood.

On June 27th, the Clinton Coalition of Concern held a “Speakout” and 150 people came, as well as Ruth Messinger, Councilwoman for our district, and Andrew Stein, the Manhattan Borough President. The state’s Urban Development Company (UDC), one of the lead agencies, sent people. I took charge of the sign-in table, handing out literature and asking people to sign a petition opposing the project.

Days later at HCC, Barbara Glasser and I, with some help from Jim, put together a mailing for the Clinton Coalition of Concern, telling people we were fighting UDC’s proposal for redeveloping Times Square. We had already been to meetings with Andrew Stein’s office and City Comptroller Harrison Goldin’s office. We were working on an alternative plan.

Barbara and I talked about the impact of our strategy. Channel 5 news had showed us and others in the Clinton Coalition of Concern protesting the development plan; we watched it at HCC the next day; Gil Annoual, another member, had taped it for us. A small group went to the UDC Board meeting to speak against the Times Square Redevelopment Project. Rob was our spokesperson, then Bill Stern of UDC read a statement, then we spoke again until Barbara screamed, and we had to leave.

Praise for Community

“Local democracy in action, with its virtuous aims and outcomes, its frustrations and machinations. The memoir is comprehensive, articulate, honest and engaging.” David Selzer, poet and playwright, Great Britain

“The writing is fabulous, the cast of characters, the depth of detail, the nuance, the way her personal journey is woven into all these events, it’s a substantial achievement.” Kathleen Mandeville, Ignivox, USA

“The narrative is pacy, as there are new developments, meetings, and possibilities on every page. There’s much of a novel’s presentation in this memoir.” And “It’s great that you have put down an entire account of some years of activism in one neighborhood. I liked what you said about how you always esteemed the constructive approach over the agitationist or acrimonious one since the former is about value, the latter is often a power game with goals unrelated to the general good.” Satyam Balakrishnan, Brand Communications Strategist and Writer, India

“She saw, and concurrently worked to create an historic Manhattan skyline that wasn’t all about money and power politics. Throughout her memoir Community, the reader gets a firsthand view of the people, the arguments, discussions, and compromises happening during some of New York City’s biggest changes of the past fifty years. From an outsider looking in, it is a fascinating journey.” Kelley Kaye Bowles, author, USA

Dreams

DreamParty “A living person, living alive, seeks to penetrate the perpetual underlying stream of consciousness. Even when he is asleep he seeks to know and experience his dream, for it is just so, a stream of consciousness.”

Words of Paul Johnston (PJ). Artwork by PJ. Read more.

The Experience of Being Alive

Chapter 12 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and B&N.

TheWriter_CoverPJ produced a new piece about intuition. “As you know, I’ve made a study in quest of the meaning of the word: intuition. And I came to understand that it begins in childhood unconsciously, and it is a totally unconscious process; nobody knows anything about it. In other words you’re in a situation and the issue is stated and right away your reaction is instant, and positive. But people can spend the rest of their lives trying to rationalize what they did. Did I explain that clearly?”

“You do,” I said. “Very well.”

PJ’s new definition of “intuition” as integral to human motivation and behavior interested me. He showed its operation in his own life in The Writer.

At thirty one, the young artist made a decision, known to him at the time but unknown during an interim of years until the writer reminded him of it. At that early age, when most young men are seeking a profession which will pay them well, the young man determined that he would never again work for money.

He lived by that resolution, too, while in the competitive society in which he found himself. He did later work on salary. But that was for bread, the landlord and the utilities. He lived to learn that there is no money in living “for the joy of it.”

Then youth to old age, with intuitive perception, he lived for the experience of being alive.

“This phrase, intuitive perception,” I said to PJ, “how can that work with your new concept of intuition?”

***

In the church’s front office, I picked up a book, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. He summarized Kierkegaard’s “lie of character” as being “built up because the child needs to adjust to the world, to the parents, and to his own existential dilemmas.”

Not very specific, but it was a summary after all. Becker went on, “It is built up before the child has a chance to learn about himself in an open or free way, and thus character defenses are automatic and unconscious.” Then the person “becomes dependent on them and comes to be encased in his own prison, and into himself … and the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom.”

Isak Dinesen, though, said there are ways to escape this prison, this slavery to the accreted self, and create one’s self anew and form new identities at will.

PJ felt he had been forced to create new identities. In each identity he found “a clean slate.” Studying his own identity, he began to think about the adjustments children make.

“Now, presume that a child begins life innocent and amiable and feels no guilt,” he said, “until the first time someone punishes him. Then the child feels anger and guilt. Although later, he may learn to mask hostility with an amiable appearance, there will never be a time of complete amiability again. The hostility may be disguised so well that the person does not know he experiences it himself.”

“So the cause of hostility,” I said, “is that rebuke to your innocence.”

Yes, he nodded.

“Isn’t there one more ‘station’ between impulse and action?” I quoted Voltaire: “’I believe that with the slightest shift in my character, there is no crime I could not commit.’”

He smiled. There was a last stage one’s reactions go through, he said. “You see, character gives a temper point, having something to think about, argue about.”

I liked the way PJ’s theories were specific and not sterile, incorporating emotions such as love and anger, and the palpable senses of guilt and innocence.

Intuition

Chapter 10 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press

PJ was wearing a tan turtleneck sweater and peaked white hat, álà Vincent Van Gogh. We seized an empty bench in Washington Square Park. Nearby, a woman had spread a blanket. Her older son was playing at the fountain’s edge and the younger one was crawling on the blanket toward him. The little one reached out and picked up a piece of broken glass.

His mother grabbed him and slapped his hand. The glass fell to the sidewalk and the boy screamed with rage as she placed him back on the blanket.

PJ acted as if he had seen nothing, but I felt him recoil when the child screamed. “That child was amiable when he was born,” PJ said after a moment. “He felt no guilt. Until someone slapped his hand and said, No, don’t do that. And he felt hostility for the first time.”

“He is angry,” I replied. “But he shouldn’t pick up glass.”

“Better that he is angry at the glass if he gets cut.”

The older boy came running to see what happened. He taunted his screaming brother and gave him a shove.

“You sit down,” the mother shouted. “Both of you behave.”

“Hostility is punished,” PJ observed. “He will learn to mask it with amiability. A laugh or a smile, a joke or a flattering word. After this, there will never be a time of complete amiability again.”

The mother and children were leaving and we watched them pass by the bench.

“The little one is beginning to make up his own intuitive program. He builds up an unconscious memory bank of positive and negative experiences. You see, now that we have computers, it can be compared to a computer, because the programmer puts in what can be taken out. And soon, we act and react with either amiability or hostility to any situation. It’s just—” He snapped his fingers, “yes or no, pro or con.”

“We react positively or negatively,” I said.

“If a child’s experiences evoke hostility and guilt for the most part, then the intuitive actions and reactions may become more often hostile than amiable.”

“I can see that.” And vice versa. Amiability: that was a desirable goal.

“And it’s already done before we know it. Most of us rationalize it afterward, even if it’s not necessary.” He smiled. “We may even come up with the right reason.” Then, reflectively, “We can’t bear the possibility of guilt, or we have so much built up, we respond with rationalization.”

PJ stood up slowly, steadying himself, and we walked back to his abode. In the following days I asked more about the “building of the intuition.”

“The cause of hostility is guilt,” he said. “And guilt is the absence of innocence, the feeling of being wrong. This sense of not being innocent is, for a reason I’ve not been able to discover, unacceptable to human beings. A person must perceive himself as innocent. He can do no wrong.”

“In The Fall,” I recalled, “Camus wrote that the ‘idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence.’ He said we insist on being innocent at all cost, even if we have to ‘accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.’”

“And so, Erin, we must believe our intentions are never hostile. The motives and consequences of our behavior are explained away, rationalized away in painstaking detail. Guilt is never allowed to remain in the consciousness.”

“I think you can admit you’ve done something wrong.”

“Nobody can admit to himself that he is wrong, ever. And I’ll tell you why. As you said, it’s because a human being cannot survive, I don’t know why, but he cannot survive without perceiving himself as completely innocent.”

He was sitting by his desk, the bright sun misting the ancient window and his white hair. “You see, the first compromise, a rational compromise, a child makes with what he knows is wrong—if there is such a thing as right and wrong—is not a very violent one. He doesn’t have to make a violent compromise because all he has to do is get around one contradiction. But as the contradictions of life pile up, he has to make more rationalizations.”

He elaborated, “What he learns about harming himself or other people, he may build up to a justification of harming other people, or he builds up a defense of it and a pretense of amiability. So when it comes to action and reaction, he has no moral control of what he does or says. Because it’s always done before he knows it and he has to rationalize it afterward.”

PJ picked up his glasses and shuffled through some papers. “You see, it’s rationalizing guilt that takes so much time out of most people’s lives. Because guilt has to be rationalized, it has to be put away, it has to be quieted down meticulously.”

“It’s an interesting idea …”

“When justifications and rationalizations have gone so far by the time a person reaches age twenty, he begins to wonder if he couldn’t be wrong.”

I smiled, remembering PJ had come to the Village at that age.

“But nevertheless, he’s got to be right. So then he begins twisting, he will switch around and hop around and do anything to keep from knowing he really is hostile.”

“We become conscious of our guilt.”

“No, conscience is a conscious matter, but guilt … the point is there is no guilt in the consciousness of the average person. They are saturated with repressed guilt. Until a person’s intuition becomes overloaded with guilt and hostility. In this case rationalizing becomes necessary, a way of life.”

I told him he was using words that needed to be defined.

He thought their definition was clear, but was now trying to clarify them. “To define intuition is difficult,” he answered. “The intuition’s fragments of memory and images never become conscious.”

“And what is rationalization?”

“Rationalization is the use of reason to make one seem innocent to oneself. Actually, rationalization distorts motives and behavior to make them seem innocent to the rationalizer. You see, no one knows, or can admit, that one’s intent is but good, and we lose as we rationalize any sense of what we’re doing. We lose this sense because we reverse hostility to a pretense of amiability. Many people have laid lie upon lie, compromise upon compromise, so they no longer know whether their motives are amiable or hostile.”

What a horror. Are we this imprisoned? “But is rationalization the only way to deal with guilt?”

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Existent Death

Chapter 8 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

At PJ’s the three convened to work on Tender Branch [an excerpt of PJ’s account of his “death and renascence” in mid-life]. Whenever Rogue and I talked about PJ’s invented words, odd style and his way of separating sentences with three dots, PJ looked annoyed. Rogue was curious about PJ’s “new” words, engaging in word play with him, while I tended to accept them whole.

It was hot inside his apartment, with only a fan to cool the three of us, and when we were almost finished editing, Rogue and I decided to go outside and enjoy the day. PJ, reluctantly, let us go.

Coming back from the park, PJ met us on the corner and ambled back with us to the street-level door. Rogue waved and went on his way. I followed PJ upstairs.

“Rogue is deliberately taking you away from the work,” he fumed, “because he does not want The Old Man to accomplish anything.” He went on to say that Rogue wanted him to remain handicapped and helpless. “The Company, he could see, would never work, because Rogue was determined to subvert it.”

I assured him that Rogue said he would finish the typing later that night. But PJ felt Rogue would find some reason not to do it. “He’ll find one excuse or another, because it has never been his intention to help PJ.”

His assault on Rogue appalled me. If he kept harassing Rogue, wouldn’t he leave?

As soon as Rogue came back, PJ attacked him. Rogue shrugged it off. He took the pages home to type. Leaving PJ’s apartment, he and I agreed that it was “all exhausting.”

PJ said that Rogue was attracted to handicapped people. In PJ, the handicap was his age and illness, his “decrepit body.”

I received a letter from PJ:

The old man gave the kids their freedom after dinner and came to his squalor, was lonely, far too, went out into a light drizzle. Sixth Avenue had become a street theater. Couple guitarists, amplified, and a wailing sounding instrument were blasting country music; seated in a shelter, a large circle had gathered for audience and the guitar case was full of coins and bills. Good for the old man. He could hear every note, feel the rhythm. A young woman in street clothes danced, her feet, body and arms punctuating the sound. The old man felt an anguish of pleasure, stayed and watched for an hour.

The dancer was a cripple, at last she took an abandoned cane and shopping bag and limped away. So, we’re the existent dead. Moments of diversion, sound in the rain, then back to our evasion (however) of life. The old man returned to his lonely bed, after pills, with a wish for sleep/death.

“I don’t think you’re one of the existent dead.”

“No,” he said, but at times he experienced it. He handed me several pages.

I read, “Existent death is a phase of variable lengths of time. The existent dead live without consciousness and completely through rationalization, a thought process by which we evade evaluating what is happening in our lives. Everyone goes through periods of existent death, and of being renewed, into times when we are more conscious of what we are doing and pursuing what is valuable to us.”

He wrote what I thought was succinct, with a provocative ending:

Existent death is a state of being in a functioning body, by one’s self and in relation to others, but evading consciousness of experience, especially the memory of eternity in the present instant.

PJ stayed up late cutting the pages and pasting them up for his booklet. Coming in I saw him lying on the bed in a state of exhaustion. At the work table Rogue and I had set up with its strong overhead lamp to aid his poor eyesight, I looked through the pages. Some were slightly crooked, but easily fixed. I had to admire the job he did.

At the bottom of the title page, though, he had cut off the last lines. I told him and he nodded, yes, he thought so. He wasn’t sure, because his eyesight was so poor.

He had asked me to make a number of copies of each page in case he made errors, and I selected the best one of that page and cut it carefully and correctly, aware that he had done this as a professional in his earlier life.

My assistance made him look dejected, but simultaneously hopeful. When I finished he barely glanced at the work, as if to say I know it’s all right, but I couldn’t do it, don’t rub it in. So I moved on quickly. He acted resigned, but as we collated the pages he livened up.

We put the cover on the mock-up and he was enthusiastic again.

“The old man has been thinking we three might promote the publication of PJ’s million words.”

Tender Branch was out, he said, and before that a blurb on “World’s End.” The writer had hundreds of pieces. The three of us could print, bind by hand, and mail them.

He wrote to me:

The old man’s efforts at promoting the writer had been weak, for the lack of concept how to. Tender Branch had shown the way.

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Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

Death and Renascence

Excerpt from Chapter 4

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

PJ described the hours and days that followed. “There was a terrible clacking noise beating on his eardrums. Loud. Sharp. Penetrating, like metal against metal, woke him. When it moved away it came back again, stronger, louder, more tortuous than before. How could he bear it? He cried out, ‘What is that noise? I can’t stand it. Can’t someone stop it?’”

A nurse answered, “It’s only a power mower. Someone outside is mowing the lawn.”

“Make them stop it,” he pleaded. “I can’t take it.” But already he could begin to take it. After all, it was only a power mower, a man mowing the grass. The sound became normal.

“What is this?” he cried out. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?”

With her calm and matter-of-fact voice, the nurse answered, “You were out yesterday for a long time, out cold. Now you’ve had three blood transfusions and you are alive again. Take it easy. Don’t worry, just rest.”

He thought, “How awful. Yesterday I was dead. My God, what a silly sentimental speech I made.” When he woke up and saw that he was alive, it repulsed him. “Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him remain dead?”

He wrote:

There was really no place in the world for him now. He was not a newborn baby. He had a man’s body, a man’s consciousness, a man’s load of experience, memory. How could he accept life?

He had died and those damned doctors were probably patting themselves on the back, bragging about how they had saved him.

Damn them. Why didn’t they let him die?

He hated with all his strength the life he would now have to begin to live. He turned his face to the wall. He was horribly shattered that he had to live again. His family could have taken more easily the consequences of his death. Now, he, himself, would have to live with them, while they lived with a man who was no longer a husband and a father, but a specter returned to harass them. He buried his face in the pillow. He did not weep, or mourn for himself, dead or alive.

“The Father and Husband died on the operating table forty years ago. I could not continue my former life, could not be the man I was before my death.”

“You said you’d lived past your destiny.”

“Yes. But I had to accept that I could not regain my death any more than deny myself alive.” He was a skeleton, but he was alive. “I had to learn to live again, and find new reasons to live.”

In “Tender Branch,” he quoted the Book of Job:

“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”

“So when I physically died on the operating table, I was reborn, innocent as a newborn baby, but with the memory of a grown man. But death had taken away all my guilt and replaced it with innocence.”

***

PJ, in yellow cut off shorts and ravaged wicker sandals, was sitting on the corner by the restaurant with his Fair Weather Gallery. People passed by and I heard one of them say, “Look, the Old Man of the Village.”

He would not put a price on the drawings and designs.

“Art is priceless,” he said. People failed to understand that when they took or received a piece of art they were supposed to offer a contribution to the artist, so the artist could keep on working. PJ continued to be mystified by people who took a piece of work and simply walked away.

I sat down on a folding chair next to him, picking up one of his paintings and resting it against my legs. Across Greenwich Avenue, where the Women’s House of Detention once stood, a garden was in full throttle. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” I said. “I took a chance.”

“The fragile thread is woven from these intuitive acts,” PJ commented.

People sat at the sidewalk café. Again, the owner waved to PJ, who smiled back.

“Intuition is the motivating force behind our actions. It’s natural to respond and act intuitively, and unnatural to think about acting.”

PJ evoked many different responses on the street. Some people thought he was a bum, some thought he was crazy. But others, artists, printers and writers, Village residents, would stop to chat, recognizing him.

“I wanted to talk to you about The Document.”

“Do you want to ask me questions about The Document?”

“Is it a journal? What kind of thing is it, exactly?”

“The Document was begun one year and two months after he split with his wife. The purpose was to identify the ghost of Vivian’s husband because he had been reborn and didn’t have an identity. So the documentary writer decided to take this new born, fully grown baby and ‘make a man out of him.’”

“How do you identify yourself?”

“The first thing was that Vivi’s husband had an idea of one man and one woman. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of love with Vivi and he had just had a hot love affair with JJ and she had rejected him. The whole thing was a terrible mess.”

“You had an affair?”

“It was a big whoop-dee-doo affair that was supposed to take the place of losing Vivian. What it led to was a big deception on my part and on JJ’s part, too. She deceived herself that it was love and that I would marry her and things like that. The affair lasted a year and she decided she would reject me and give it up, it was a sudden thing. This was a tremendous blow to my ego. So that was when the document writer picked up and began trying to get me ordered in a line. He wrote for the ghost to read, that after all, a man could love as many women as he wanted to, as would let him and it didn’t have to mean sex in every case. That was the birth of the great lover.”

Over the years, he had created new identities, new reasons to live. He recorded all his “deaths and renascences.” Some identities were sequential and others simultaneous. Several of these identities were female. The most constant, perhaps continually renewed, were The Writer, The Artist, and the Professor of Love.

“You can die of an overload of guilt and hostility,” he summarized. “I died of an overload of guilt many times and was reborn with the innocence of a baby.”

“Didn’t N.O. Brown say something like that? About a new man, reborn into a second innocence?”

Yes, he nodded. “As one identity succumbs, a new one has to be created.”

In The Document he sought his motivations and evaluated the use of his time and the consequences of his behavior. “And in those early years I lived my life intuitively,” he said, “although I did not know it then, making choices which were completely unconscious, but which all together moved my life in a certain direction. We may not know it, but we make decisions based on what is valuable to us, and these small unconscious decisions cause us to go in one direction or another.”

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Tender Branch

Chapter 3 Tally: An Intuitive Life

TenderBranch_Cover (2)

Rogue read from PJ’s novel, Tender Branch, written after his divorce and subsequent hospitalization.

PJ decided to publish a chapter. It would be a chapbook. A local shop had a color copier that PJ had experimented with in reproducing his textile designs.

Rogue and I spent the weekend typing it. PJ came to Rogue’s apartment and helped Rogue sew up the binding of some of Rogue’s chapbooks while we worked. Afterwards, we ambled to outdoor cafés for ice cream, in the deep space of our own world.

“I sought death,” PJ said, “by unintentional injury—not so unintentional, of course. I was hospitalized and spent weeks in hysteria and paranoia. In my own life I have been far from conventionally pure but even in my excesses, I was always innocent. And yet my guilt came out in the paranoia in the hospital. That was all my lifetime of guilt that I had so carefully put away. Oh God, the paranoia. I remember asking my wife: what have the investigators found out about me? My secrets? Did she know? Did they tell her anything?”

Tender Branch opened with a hallucino-dream in the hospital.

“It was a far more vivid experience than the consciousness that was my life. It was a kind of super-consciousness.” He remembered sitting with his back to a wall and in front of him nothing but distance. “Behind the wall, an inclined space. There was brilliant light and to his left, several feet away, naked, sat his wife with her back to the wall.

“She was as silent as he. A voice said: ‘Shut your eyes. The first one who opens them will die.’ For a long time he sat there with his eyes tightly shut, for he did not want to die, and he hoped his wife would keep her eyes shut, for he did not want her to die.

When he could not bear it any longer, he let one eye open, then both. “He turned his head to look. His wife was not there. Surely she was not dead—and he would not die.”

He knew that this was not an episode in his life, although it was certainly a conscious experience. In this new and fantastic aspect of consciousness he understood more clearly the situation he was in.

After signing a paper he was too ill to read, everything changed. “Sometimes briefly he would see at his bedside one of those out to destroy him. Hysteria, hallucinations and dark humor prevailed. He knew he was one of a dozen who were to be the doctors’ victims. They would be used as long as they could be, in the machinations of the programs for the amusement and indulgence of the rich patrons and eventually, when they were no longer useful, they would be murdered.”

He asked his former wife if she were one of them and she said yes. “But he could not believe it. He loved his wife. Even though he knew she would leave him and he would die because he could not live without loving her.”

The major torment the doctors devised was to “open all the shut and locked doors in his mind and transmit his secret thoughts to people in the next room. Film projectors had been set up in concealed places and he could look nowhere without seeing the lurid, erotic, unimaginable images as they danced, pranced, rolling and tossing beautiful color, with the sounds of voices, hysterical laughter, musical voices making disgraceful proposals, and participants freely acting them out, no matter what sex, what age, what combinations.”

He lamented, “Not one of his most secret and buried fantasies or memories could be concealed. Now all these people knew his deepest guilt. How could he continue to live?”

“What was it like to die?”

“Nothing dramatic about it. I welcomed death as a solution of all my conflicts. I would avoid the viciousness of a life without her. She would be free to pursue her own interests.”

“Free to create her destiny.”

He smiled, his eyes winking, piercing blue. “At the same time, I welcomed death as the fulfillment of a very great life. I was content. In fact, nothing could be more right. I had the wonder of living in love with my wife. Surely, few men had ever had it so good.”

“You were aware of what was going on?”

“For a few moments I experienced an exceptional clarity. I felt no sentiment or emotion, no regret or grief. I told my wife, ‘All the happiness I’ve had in my life was due to you, recognizing you, loving you and living with you.’”

He wrote this about dying:

Death enfolded him before he could say more. Death. Silence. Absolutely nothing, if not deep unconscious peace. That is what death is. Release from all consciousness, from all guilt, from all threats of poverty or torture of riches. The dead have no responsibility. There is no ego to establish and maintain at the cost of one’s self and cruelty to others. Peace. The apotheosis of peace, of quietness, of no emotional or physical pain, no wish or seeking for praise.

But suddenly my sublime peace was disturbed. I could not move but I felt. Cold, then warm. A flow of warmth began to trickle in. What is this? The warmth moved at a snail’s pace across a line marking half a body, seeking a place where it could break through. The point was found and with the same languid force the warmth broke through until I felt every part of myself, still inert, immobile, but an eyelid, one and then the other, opened. Without interest I saw my wife sitting in a chair beside my bed, watching me with intense anxiety. From her arm extended a tube to my arm, and then I knew that the warmth I felt was her blood, her life, giving life to my body.

He fell asleep soon after. His last conscious thought was this: She is giving birth to me.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available in print and ebook formats.

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A Perceptive Review of Tally: An Intuitive Life

These words are from a review of Tally: An Intuitive Life by Marylee MacDonald, author of Montpelier Tomorrow.

When a young poet stumbles into the life of a Greenwich Village recluse, she meets a bearded old man living in a garret. Surrounded by manuscripts in which he has attempted to comprehend the meaning of life, PJ has entered a time of failing eyesight, physical frailty, and economic uncertainty. Quiet and observant, the young poet Erin, or “Eyes” as PJ soon calls her, begins to help him put his life in order.

“No one is ever conscious of what he is doing or why he is doing it,” PJ said, “even a person who is aware of everything he is doing and after pondering it, can perceive the reason or motivation for it.”

The above is just one of many sentences I underlined last February while I was doing a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center for the Arts. Anyone who makes her or his life in the arts risks winding up like PJ, which is to say not wealthy, except in matters of the spirit.

“PJ’s long bony fingers swept over drifting stacks of books, papers, paintings, typewriter ribbons, photographs and found objets, all jumbled together, everything melting into some other form…’Dali would have had an idea of the melodramatic squalor in which I live,'” PJ told her.

PJ’s intellect and humor makes him an utterly fascinating subject. Some of his musings are brilliant; others, wildly off-the-wall.

To read the entire review, please click here.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, 2013.

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A Greenwich Village Christmas Story

51ezxsrbol-_uy250_This is an excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, the story of Paul Johnston (PJ), a Greenwich Village artist and writer, and his young friends Rogue and Erin Yes (Eyes), published by All Things That Matter Press.

Tally: An Intuitive Life is available on Amazon and Barnesandnoble in print and ebook formats.

We argued over this, and finally he said, “It’s a good thing our friendship doesn’t depend on mutual agreement.”

Finally, I was able to go about his place freely, pick up anything, move it, throw it away, read it or take it home with me. I put his papers in files I had set up in his garret.

He insisted we were together in love, in amiable affection, as we worked on a piece of graphic art for one of his booklets.

“In the gloaming,” PJ sang, “oh my darling, when the lights are dim and low.”

I shook my head, confused at the note of happiness in his voice, on guard against any dip into despair.

“In the gloaming, oh, my darling. Think not bitterly of me.”

Before I left to visit my parents for Christmas, I stopped by PJ’s. He was smiling broadly, and after a cup of hot cider and cookies, he handed me an envelope. I opened it and there was five dollars.

“I had gone to the hospital to try to get some relief,” he told me. “And on the way back, turning onto Greenwich Avenue, there she was, walking toward me, arms outstretched. The old man tried to see her, but could not clearly, except to see a form tall and plain with an eager expression on her face. ‘May I offer you some Christmas cheer?’ ‘Oh yes, the old man said, of course, I need it and am grateful.’”

“Are you giving me all of it? You need it, too.”

“The Third Party, God or whatever it is that arranges things,” he said, “sent this gift to me to give to you. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a Christmas present for you.”

And of course he had to write a letter with it, only one page with his monogram on it. Across the top he had typed, “Vanish gloom and melancholy, Tra lala, la, lala la la …” At the end he concluded, “The old man is strictly a catalyst in this deal. Last Christmas he did not know you. This Christmas he was grateful that he has met you. Thank you, Third Party.”

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