On Countercultures and Coping Methods
This essay is featured in Ekstasis Issue 10 Print Edition
With each new generation comes a marked shift in tone and sensibility, and a new way to cope with the seemingly unbearable weight of existence. The baby boom marked a sea change as a new counterculture emerged from a “Happy Days” storybook past in a mass coming-of-age. After the Great War, Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, and World War II, what followed some would call the thirty-year Golden Age of Capitalism: a roaring postwar economic expansion, the likes of which the world had never seen. America was its greatest beneficiary, but not everybody was feeling it.
For those caught up in it, it felt impossible to escape the waves of cultural change breaking all around us as a baby boom 80 million souls strong swept across America like a tsunami. I was 20 and trying to separate those grand narratives about capitalism, industrialization, morality, and faith from my innate desire for freedom—understanding who I really was and how things actually worked beyond all the lip service.
My use of drugs and alcohol had become a constant by 1976 and didn’t exactly lead me to the other side of my troubles. Stuck in self-obsession for days at a time, I had been drawn deeper into a bad dream where the more I resisted, the further I slipped. The weight of my future was heavy. Some days it was hard to breathe.
On one of these days, I found flashes of faded images hurtling through my mind like childhood memories: Sliding through the narrow opening of a Door County cave with Annika, my summer girlfriend, bellies slipping along rocks and muddy wet earth, wondering whether the hill above us would collapse. Then the relief when the cave opened into a small cavern filled with calcium carbonate stalactites and stalagmites that sparkled as they reflected our lights. Goodness, how I missed her. Snap out of it! How many times had I said that to myself? I planned to drop in on the party in Palm Beach to lift my spirits. I need a change of scenery.
Parked cars line streets and the semicircle driveway in front of a five-car garage. I’m greeted by the host: slick dark hair, gold chain. He looks familiar. I remember meeting him at Margie’s bar the year before with Bruce and Alejandro. “Hey man!” I smile and extend my hand. “It’s been a while.” He recognizes me.
“How’s Alejandro?” He asks.
“Good, I guess, haven’t seen him in a while. Nice place.” I look around. “Looks like a great party!”
“Thanks. Make yourself at home. There’s beer by the pool. Other stuff too.”
I wander toward the pool and pull a beer from the keg. Two cute girls smile my way. Past the pool and a docked boat, the colored lights of West Palm reflect across the Intracoastal Waterway. If those girls had passed me on the street, they would never have looked my way. Especially in the last few weeks. I see people in every direction talking, dancing, escaping the challenges of growing up, trying not to think about tomorrow—thoughts I cannot stop. Some of these kids already had it made; others never would.
Further into the house, the space between people gets smaller. I bump into a girl and almost spill her beer, smiling defensively, apologetically, then recognizing her from psychology. “Sorry, I almost got you.” I smile confidently now, “Stephanie, right?” Through the music our facial expressions and body language say more. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” rises from big speakers. Leaning in, my mouth close to her ear, I ask if she wants to dance.
“Sure,” she says, and reaches for my hand as I reach for hers. We walk slowly, deeper into the crowd.
I’ve been getting more comfortable with cocaine lately, on top of the alcohol that had become a staple since my first year of high school, followed by weed and hash. Hallucinogens had been less frequent. I have a small vial of coke and a joint in my pocket that I plan to share with Stephanie later if things go well. Next thing I know, I’m holding her in my arms, feeling her warmth, and the comfort of her embrace. The possibilities of the night lift me. We dance to “Free Bird,” slowly at first until the intensity builds. When the song changes, we release our embrace and smile. We dance wild and primitive and sweat until the song ends. I’m not sure where this is all going. She smiles and touches my arm, “I’ll be right back.” She wanders off to talk to another guy. She’s just playing it cool, I tell myself and walk in the direction of the bathroom.
I struggle a bit past people who seem truly out of it crowding the bathroom doorway. Inside, seven or eight people are scattered about. A girl is passed out in the big, otherwise empty bathtub, fully clothed. There is a couple on the floor leaning against a marble wall. He is helping her wrap rubber tubing around her forearm. He looks up. I look into his empty eyes—he’s one of the surfers I recognize from some parties last year. Looking around the room I recognize others too, needles in veins, tourniquets being tied and released, dissociative demeanors fading in and out. I reach for the vial of coke in my pocket. I wrap my fingers around it then let go. Am I so different?
No one is having fun. Relief from the pain is never accomplished. If this is freedom, what have I done with mine? The girl in the big empty tub is beautiful, but her limp body gives me chills. She looks dead. I shake her. She mumbles something unintelligible, unable to open her eyes as I face the harbinger of my own inward stare. Someone calls an ambulance; another girl screams in the soft light, and I’m gone.
On my way back to my apartment, I wonder whether this is my turning point. I decide to hitchhike home to Hinsdale for Christmas, and splice in a four-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. I still loved nature if nothing else. Within a few days I’m on the road.
My soul was adrift in the sea of the era emblematized by Woodstock in 1969. I had been 13 and missed the show, but the notes and sparks still flew over my coming-of-age. Social turmoil formed my rite of passage as I struggled to understand the limits and potential of the shape and function of a complex world.
I grasped for maps, metaphors, paradigms, guides—whatever could help me find my way through the mazes of the grand narratives of belief systems, ideologies, and religions. Jumbles of half-truths and innuendo claimed to be paths to illumination but were used to inculcate and control. As a person inclined to argue, I was not sure whether the way I processed all of this was some divergent disorder or the innate inclination to learn how to think for myself. I wanted to make sense of everything, and I knew I wasn’t alone in this; I knew that a good story didn’t have to be prophetic to be evocative, but counterculture was both. The stakes were high then when Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changin’.”
Outside Atlanta, the terrain began to shift into the foothills of the Appalachians. An ominous overcast sky reminds me of the dangers I could face on the trail, especially if the warm weather doesn’t hold.
The West Coast urban colony of popular hippie culture had taken root a few years earlier in San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley. It soon shifted its geographic center across the bay to a district at the intersection of Haight-Ashbury, the Haight, or “Hashbury” as Hunter S. Thompson called it in the New York Times in 1967. “In 1965 Berkeley was the [pole of the western] axis of what was just beginning to be called the ‘New Left.’”
This became ground zero for a social experiment that coalesced east and west then spread across the land. Its seed had germinated more than a decade earlier among Greenwich Village’s Beat Generation, then cast itself upon rich California soil—an act of faith and disruption, initiated predominantly by three crazy-brilliant writers, friends who found themselves trying to revegetate hope in the midst of a barren culture.
They were the avant-garde: Jack Kerouac, a Columbia football scholarship dropout; Allen Ginsberg, a twice-expelled Columbia student; and William S. Burroughs, a Harvard anthropology student, writer, and visual artist whose grandfather invented the Burroughs adding machine. Outcasts of the Greatest Generation, their message spread and got louder, setting off word bombs that had been growing in potency for centuries and hitting a crescendo as nearly half a million people worshipped, bathed in music and drugs, at Woodstock in rural New York.
This festival marked an inflection point of the cultural revolution—a hippie church under the sky, its stage an altar of praise and supplication to the gods of counterculture, singing siren songs of hope. Its tribute to freedom and love overlayed on adolescent rebellion that squares called glorified anarchy, or anarcho-primitivism, cloaked in the idealized reverberations of philosophers, artists, poets, and writers: a conflation of eastern mysticism, indigenous American spirituality, and this longing for a simpler, wilder life with greater appreciation for nature, tranquility, and music.
If nothing else, Woodstock was an epochal celebration of flowering idealism that celebrated a radical change in thinking. An excuse to party. A multicultural love-in-counterpunch to high-handed establishment values. It proffered a spiritual connection to sex, drugs, and personal freedom—an invitation to drop out of the mainstream, presented with an inspiriting soundtrack. This nonviolent protest leveled the gravitas of a hunger strike at the rat race that failed to inspire us. But like the fight for any soul, its heart was up for grabs.
Others of the conservative-conventional sort had a different take. Believing they had much at stake, they took to preserving the status quo. They were unmoved by the forecasts of dystopian futures—growing government control bleeding into fascism and autocracy—we found so compelling in science fiction and social commentary. This establishment thinking pushed back against counterculture’s changing values.
Youthful rebellion, with laughter and tears, grew from a long-repressed need for wider-spread social justice, seizing the day with the hope for a better world which undeniably carried me away in this rising tide of idealism that flooded everything in its path.
My thumb was out again. It was starting to rain lightly. I wondered why the revelations of the forest always seemed to fade when I returned to civilization. Another car pulls over. They can get me close. I’m grateful.
It is fascinating to trace the way the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s germinated from seeds planted by beatniks in the 1940s and ‘50s. Bohemian, hedonistic, postmodernist prophets like Allen Ginsberg, who in 1956—the year I was born—famously birthed this movement by publishing the lines of “Howl,” his most notable poem, with stirring phrases like: “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” His poem is considered the manifesto of the sexual revolution. “Howl” opens with the line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” revealing the impetus behind America’s cultural revolution.
“Howl” was a preamble to Jack Kerouac’s biographical novel On the Road, often quoted: “I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones . . .” his words were a stream of consciousness illuminating the youthful search for meaning, written on a Benzedrine bender and laid down on a 120-foot scroll of pages taped together without breaks or paragraphs. Then came William S. Burroughs, famous for writing Junkie and Naked Lunch, books about the drug underworld, depravity, and paranoia.
Writers all, travelers, and adventurous jazz-loving souls, they had built their movement on rejecting the unfulfilling modern materialistic society and wrote to the raw and wonderous, even desperate and destructive human appetites. They escaped and enhanced, heightened their sensory experience, and hoped for their unshackling from the purposelessness of the modern Western world’s imperialistic succession.
Later, the Beats borrowed a sensual spirituality from prior movements and triune artistic clusters: the English romantics like Shelley, Blake, and Coleridge who believed people could find divinity in nature, and that God was truly everywhere; impressionist painters like Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin who saw past the limits of a culturally biased lens, experiencing the world through emotion and heightened awareness toward beauty; American transcendentalist writers and poets like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. They drew from Buddhism, Hinduism, and the philosophy of Nietzsche, Jung, and Marx, looking for God in mystery, acknowledging relativism, and yet the meaninglessness of nihilism, the limits of a fear-based religion, contrasted to eternal sacrificial love.
Beat poetry saw Pollyannaish delusion in the idealism of classical and modernist thought, and sought to express the truth of disorder, individualism, and the light that hid the darkness—order from chaos. Wilborn Hampton wrote in Ginsberg’s 1997 obituary for the New York Times: “Mr. Ginsberg provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental . . . His work is finally a history of our era’s psyche, with all its contradictory urges.”
Tormented Beats spoke for those of us who didn’t fit in, living lives that didn’t measure up, and maybe didn’t want to. Call the Beats what you will—the three wise men, visionaries, apostate priests, prophetic, addicted, insane artistic geniuses—their lives weren’t simple, and their truths, if not more universally authentic, transparent, or certain, were definitely louder, more profane, and remarkably spiritual. They had struck a nerve, hidden under deep layers of fluff and fat that insulated the pain and denied the sin and hypocrisy among mainstream drones of the cultural corpus.
These pre-hipster agents of freedom were a disruptive force, vying to reimagine society, seeking alternative ways to live, trying to reinvent and rethink traditional cultural values that had gotten us to a place that didn’t work for everyone. Didn’t we all want true freedom?
By 1969 Kerouac was dead. Boroughs and Ginsberg would live another 20 years or so, offering significant inspiration to the “lefty side” of cultural conflict. The war within our collective soul raged against our innate fear of insignificance or meaninglessness.
On the side of the road, in a pounding rain less than 20 miles from my access point to the Appalachian Trail, a car pulls over and a Christian couple invites me to their home. They feed me, silently preaching the Gospel by listening with kindness, love, and hospitality. The next day, they drop me off at the trailhead with hope I didn’t have the night before. Despite my universalist Baháʼí Faith and rejection of fearmongering, confrontational evangelists who spewed judgment, fire, and brimstone, they helped turn my mind back toward Jesus.
On my four-day detour on the Appalachian Trail amid early-summer weather (though it was December), under the moon and the stars, I dreamed of Cherokee warriors running along woodland trails before the Europeans arrived, and of Annika, the girl I met last summer and hoped to see again soon. On the ridge of the trail, at a perfect campsite, I stared into the heavens, then down at the distant lights of Gatlinburg, and amid my joy and satisfaction felt a longing for community and home. The presence of God’s Holy Spirit called for me in the splendidness of the moment—and I heard. Those four days had reformed me once again.
Off the trail, thumb out, my next ride landed me in a commune at the historic R.J. Reynolds mansion in Asheville, no closer to home. There I met Ralph, a rocket scientist who had remarkably left Grumman Aerospace at a career peak working on a NASA contract to become a bookmaker and preserve his crumbling family. He became a craftsman, artisan, and community builder, restoring his wife’s trust and helping raise their two brilliant sons. He was established in the community as a mentor to hippies and other wayfaring strangers who came and went, working to restore the old mansion. He had loved his old job and its “rock star” status, which had actually been destroying his family. In this sacrifice he found his life. He invited me to stay as long as I needed. The next day I was gone.
By the time I got home, my perspectives on life and death had changed forever. I had witnessed a culture that countered the counterculture, seeing Jesus’ sacrificial love through the kindness of the shining couple—angels perhaps—and Ralph’s transformational choices. After a jam-packed life, I had seen how the unique conditions of our lives form us each individually, a fragrant array of blossoms in the garden of life, up from the detritus beneath.
Among those roots of countercultures in which my adolescent mind was formed, truth grew in both beautiful and bent ways. My father shared his “garden of the mind” philosophy when I confessed my fear—then he confessed his mental illness. Now, years later, the minds of my three sons uniquely reflect traits borrowed from my lineage and burrowed in their soul’s soil: a complex, sometimes disassociated mind stalked by entropy; battling addictions but with bright light shining through; an artistic and spiritual sensitivity that comes from living in this world but not of it.
I have faith that one day, the world will be set free from confusion and darkness, and the kingdom will come in the beauty and grace of God’s great glory. In the meantime, I hope my children find a way to till the soil of their generation in a way that allows ever emerging blossoms to bloom into eternity.