Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Memoir Fragment: And Then Came Cumbres
The process: Since last summer I have been interviewing people who knew me at phases of my life as early as boarding school (age 15-18). Their recollections help fill in my own grayed-out memory while informing me of many, sometimes secret things I could not have known at the time.
In the first seven chapters, birth to present day, I will give the story pretty much as it occurred to me at the time—without rose-colored glasses and without rearview analysis, that is, without information or attitudes I did not have at the time.
This, I write, is my life as I lived it then.
In the eighth and final chapter, I will present information about the conditions of my lived experience that I have learned since beginning work on the memoir. This way I hope to be true to the truth of my experience and save the “best” for last.
This is a long preamble for a fragment that is also fairly long. In a prior fragment, I remembered growing up in Minnesota as the son of the president of the Cream of Wheat Company. In another post, I recalled a key moment in my life at Phillips Exeter Academy. The last fragment, posted six weeks ago, includes my meeting with Baba Ram Dass while a freshman at Amherst College in the spring of 1970.
The fragment posted today takes up the story the following autumn, when I visited a growth center in New Hampshire called Cumbres and met its leader, Cesareo Pelaez, who would play an outsized role in my life for thirty-plus years to come.
Please note: This is part of my first telling of the Cumbres story, intended for chapter 3. In chapter 8, I will add details that I have learned about Cumbres since I visited there in 1970. Also note that what you read below is itself only part of the full Cumbres section from chapter 3. I use initials here but will, with permission, use full names in the final version.
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“Palaez [sic] was a dramatic and forceful presence at Cumbres; he was everyone’s teacher and guide. A former Cuban revolutionary, psychologist, and psychodramatist, he commanded great respect. When questioned by members about his dictates, he would often reply that he knew better than they what was good for them. . . . He surrounded himself with the same mystery and awe characteristic of nineteenth-century charismatic leaders. His insight was considered magical by members. His private quarters were almost sacred . . . ”—Rosabeth Kantor, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective
When I met Cesareo Pelaez in the fall of 1970, this assessment by Rosabeth Kantor, a distinguished Harvard Business School professor who visited Cumbres in 1969, had not been published. Nor had much else about the growth center in Dublin. Before my first visit that fall and my second overall, I read only the New York Times article that ran on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
I remember showing the Times piece to my mother in the kitchen on North Street, trying to impress her. “That’s Cesareo in back,” I said, pointing to the photo of four Cumbresians doing tai chi, led by a fifth, Master Liang. The “former Cuban revolutionary” stood in the shadow of a tree, barely visible behind PB. The article, “Commune Built by ‘Republican Types,’” called Cumbres “one of more than 100 ‘growth centers’ that have sprung up across the country in the last few years to help put middle-class Americans in better touch with their feelings, others persons and the world around them.” [Footnote: Edward B. Fiske, “Commune Built by ‘Republican Types,’” New York Times, Saturday, Septmeber 5, 1970]
Cumbres was portrayed as the new normal, with a Republican tinge. Already thinking that I might like to follow DH there from Amherst, I hoped my mother would see it that way.
The Times article stated that Cumbres was the home of seventeen persons searching for what one of them called “a new style of living in which every act is seen as sacred.” To the best of my knowledge, the seventeen were: ThB and TB, BS and SS, PB and DB, DF, RB, LB, BK, DH, WH, PB’s mother, DB’s sister, Cesareo, his sister, and her son. Cesareo’s sister gave a seance during DH’s second weekend at Cumbres and he “nearly fainted.”
I was in no position to judge the success of Cumbres so far. I had only DH’s letters to rely on, and my dreams. In his correspondence that summer, DH said nothing about the nuts and bolts of Cumbres. His words were mostly air, hardly iron:
“There is no cause and effect—no ‘should’ . . . There can be no structures. . . . BS says that he holds to only two tenets at Cumbres: 1. A faith in Cesario [sic] (A faith learned after so many trials); 2. A belief in perpetuating his own individual growth. . . . ‘There will be new rules next week.’—John Cage
“A poke’s as good as a stroke.—BS”
Cumbres residents and visitors were enjoying workshops in sensory awareness, creative visualization, clairvoyance, sociometry, psychodrama, symbiotic telepathy, and Gurdjieffian dance. They practiced meditations taught by Ram Dass. Individuals donated twenty-four hours at a time to meditating alone in a “maintenance room,” as a spiritual support to the community.
LB, BK, and DH—the Amherst daisy chain connecting me to Cumbres—came to campus in mid-September to pitch a ten-week series of Tuesday evening seminars for college students. My tinder was dry, they touched the match. Late on the following Tuesday afternoon, September 22, I loaded three classmates into my green VW Super Beetle and drove to Cumbres, squinting into a heavy fog as we approached along NH-101. Riding shotgun was my roommate, TB.
Just who arrived at Cumbres that evening behind the wheel of my VW is something I still wonder about. In memory, I see myself as an Amherst sophomore with a plunging GPA, a persistent attraction to marijuana, a bookshelf of mostly non-Christian spirituality, and a self-esteem on a par with Eeyore’s. Others would remember me more kindly. DH wrote years later: “There was a light-heartedness, generosity, and uplift to your spirit. . . . You had an open heart.” About my darker moods, he wrote only, “You also, like all of us, were uncertain about your future and maybe worried a bit about that.”
Of the whole group of Cumbres youngsters, myself included, DB later said with tender regard for our vulnerability, “We were so young, we were so good.”
It is easy to steer too much to one side or the other when looking in the rear-view mirror at my own life. I was both/and. Like others my age, I was both worried about the future and intoxicated with the present. I was both a serious searcher and a needy adolescent. I was both puffed up with a quixotic sense of quest, and I couldn’t decide where my self-confidence had gone. I was a Christian in search of a non-Christian solution. Jesus was just so Age of Pisces.
I forgot my wallet. When I arrived at the front desk of the Dublin Inn on that first Tuesday evening and was asked for my $95 for the ten-week series, I said I didn’t have it. I guess I somehow thought Cumbres should be free. BS, the desk clerk, frowned, though there was little that failed to amuse him. I weaseled my way past him by borrowing $10 for the evening and promising the balance, turned a corner into the dining room, and almost ran over Cesareo Rafael Pelaez.
We stood still and face to face. He seemed to stand a head taller than me though he was four inches shorter. He said, “You are Webster,” a statement that might have been a question for someone less certain. When he made a p of the b in my Christian name with thin, tight lips, I felt a chill. Everything about him seemed thin, his fingers especially. [The picture at the top of this post is Cesareo in the woods at Cumbres.]
I was struck by the hazel wand of his eyes. He would tell me later that his eyes had scars, and that hazel didn’t cut it. There was no good word in English for his eyes’ color, he said. But then I learned that most things “lost in translation,” according to Cesareo. He quoted Spanish phrases and proverbs—from Cervantes, Caldéron, Gabriela Mistral, his mother or father—only to add that I couldn’t possibly understand what he had just told me because it was untranslatable. This left him dealing arcana that no American-born student could presume to understand.
Facing him in the dining room of the inn with background voices burbling, I thought the room’s light seemed to pour down on him alone, on us. I told Cesareo nervously that I had to get to my seminar in The Lodge. He told me that no, I didn’t. I needed to talk with him.
And so a pattern was set: Whenever I indicated that I had something better to do than spend time with him, he set me straight. Lesson #1: There was nothing on earth more worthwhile than his company. He told me to follow him out the front door of the inn. We crossed the drive and I found myself standing with him beneath an oak tree silhouetted against the early night sky.
“Sit,” he said in a voice that resonated like a chant in an iron pipe. We sat cross-legged and face-to-face, I in half-lotus, he in full. Without touching me physically, Cesareo reached out and grabbed my friendship more directly than anyone I had ever met. It was as if he knew that we were fated to be life companions from the moment we met, that we had far more in common than I could possibly suspect, that in getting to know him I would always be two steps behind his knowledge of me, but that was OK. This flattered and unsettled me. Had he heard about me from DH? Why was he coming on so strong?
Cesareo was thirty-eight, I was nineteen.
Very soon, we were talking of theatre. I gave him the briefest of personal résumés—Dramat at Exeter, college shows at Amherst and Mt. Holyoke, summer stock in Hampton and South Hadley—then he launched into his own passion for the stage. He said he had been stymied in forming a resident theatre company at Cumbres, and that now it looked as though that dream would not be fulfilled ever. I don’t know when he told me that he expected Cumbres to close, but he did so soon enough. He told me that the good ship had hit a reef, that he was bailing out, that his next voyage would be a theatrical one, that I might be his boatswain or pilot. Or gave me this impression.
I had come to Cumbres for some combination of psychological fix and spiritual mentorship; now I was getting stage direction. It was a bit overwhelming.
During the week following my first visit, I received a letter in my Amherst College postbox. It was postmarked Dublin, New Hampshire, and handwritten with an artful script. The letter began: “Webster—A task:” It was Cesáreo signing his name as ever with the accent and asking me to bring a certain Amherst student to the next Tuesday evening. I took the task like a dedicated Cub Scout seeking his first merit badge. Cesareo had recognized me as someone he could count on, or was testing my reliability with greater missions in mind. I made sure that the Amherst student was with me when I next arrived at Cumbres the following Tuesday evening.
Other events at Cumbres swirled just outside my peripheral vision. . . .