Who’s Douglas?!: 1 – A Master Mischief Maker

Who’s Douglas?!

A eulogy offered at Doug’s memorial service
(May Day, 2000)
Born March 3rd, 1930
Died Good Friday, April 21st, 2000

Douglas (May 1981)

A Master Mischief Maker

A little over a year ago, not long after Doug’s stroke, I happened to mention over breakfast that I was going to Roanoke to see him. One of the newer members of the community asked, “Who’s Douglas?”

That question stopped my spoon in mid-air, halfway between my bowl of applesauce and my mouth. “Who’s Douglas?!!” I thought incredulously. Someone living at Light Morning is asking, “Who’s Douglas?” It was, for me, a continental divide type of moment—the sudden, shocking realization that the torch is truly on its way to a new generation.

“Who’s Douglas,” I thought again, lowering my spoon into the bowl. Well, without Douglas, I would never have met Stanley, who is a pretty special person. Without Douglas, many of the folks living up and down this road wouldn’t have been able to buy their land. Without Douglas, Susan wouldn’t have mid-wifed all those babies in and around the county.

Without Douglas, Wax Statues would never have been written. Without Douglas, Lauren may not have been born, or would have had a significantly different childhood. Without Douglas, there’s a strong likelihood that Joyce and I would not have stayed married. And without Douglas, this community would almost certainly no longer exist.There are so many facets to this man. So many stories.

* * *

How do we know what we know before we know it?

I’m packing to leave for a course at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts several weeks ago. Joyce is helping me pack. “What do you think Good Friday will bring you this time?” she asks.

I smile and shake my head. Good Friday has touched my life profoundly over the years—lying in a Seattle hospital as an infant, awaiting an Easter Sunday operation that would save my life; coming home to Joyce, early in our marriage, with the diagnosis of a malignant and incurable form of cancer; hearing that Tom Hinson, an elderly black man who had been my grandfather’s devoted helper and friend for decades, and who had rushed me out to the car where my grandfather was slouched after his stroke—hearing that Tom Hinson had been in a bad accident (he would die on Easter Sunday); and being present for the birth of my daughter, again on Good Friday, after Joyce’s intense, all-night labor.

How do we know what we know before we know it?

I’m in the kitchen at V.M.C., having arrived there for my course. I’m talking with Alta, an old friend. She’s a former mid-wife and is now feeling a strong inner calling to move more deeply into hospice work—a different form of mid-wifery. I’m telling Alta about two Ram Dass tapes that I’d just been listening to. One is from his first public appearance after his recent stroke. Having worked with death and dying for much of his adult life, he’s talking about what the experience had been like for him personally. The other tape, an earlier talk to a group of hospice workers, was called, “Death is Not an Outrage.”

How do we know what we know before we know it?

It’s Day 3 of the course. Good Friday. I’m finding myself distracted from my practice by a succession of impulses and images—undertaking an elaborate set of preparations in order to do my death well; calling my father and discussing his death with him; taking a tape recorder over to Stan’s and drawing out some of his many stories about Douglas; envisioning Doug’s future burial site on Temple Hill; contemplating his grave stone.

These numinous distractions bubble up from the depths from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. Now it’s Monday, the day after Easter. Day 6 of the meditation course. After lunch, Terrell draws me aside and asks if I could take a walk with him. In the normal world this request would be nothing special. At the meditation center, however, I’ve been on a vow of silence for nearly a week. And Terrell is course manager for the men. So this is official business.

I nod a yes. He asks if I’ll need a coat. It’s been cold for days. I touch the navy blue, wool shirt-jacket that I’m wearing. “This will keep me warm.” Douglas had given it to me years ago. It was from his navy days. The buttons have little anchors on them, which I like, because Doug and I have always been sea anchors for one another.

Terrell leads me outside and down the path toward the stream. It’s funny how the mind works. I’m aware of a passing thought—”Did I do something wrong?” Because Terrell’s role is to act as the intermediary between the teacher and the students. And the contact he has initiated is highly unusual.

It never even occurs to me that he is bringing news from outside. That’s how effective this environment can be in shielding students from their workaday worlds. In that moment, it never even occurs to me.

And yet, the night before, lying in bed after the lights had been turned out, drifting lucidly on the edge of sleep, I had heard footsteps go past the curtained-off doorway of my dorm room, and then pause. My mind immediately flew back to my last course—the middle of the night; the course manager’s flashlight beside my bed; he’s saying something about a phone message; and my daughter; and my needing to authorize the operation.

To my profound relief, as the sleep is torn from my eyes, I realized that the intended operation was not for Lauren but for Puck, her pet ferret. Puck’s death, which I learned about later that morning, unleashed an amazing torrent of grief. In the brief interludes of clarity between the tears, I intuitively knew that an old wound concerning my infancy, and my relationship with my father, had been re-opened by the news about Puck.

So when the footsteps had paused outside my room, late in the evening on Easter Sunday, I had wondered if another message was about to be delivered. But the footsteps moved on and I had fallen asleep. And had thought no more about it, even as Terrell leads me to an empty tent platform beside the stream.

I take off my shoes, seat myself cross-legged facing him, and wait. There have been some strong sits earlier in the day, and I am feeling especially well grounded in what this tradition likes to call equanimity. There is a sense of being fully poised in the present moment, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my body, waiting for Terrell to speak.

“Douglas passed on Good Friday.”

The soft glow of a smile spreads across my face. Of course. Of course. What perfection. What exquisite grace. The rightness of what is. The numinous, haunting, impossibly beautiful rightness of what is.

“There was some difficulty breathing. Stan was there. Stan’s O.K. He has friends with him.”

My smile deepens. I notice that Terrell’s lower lip is trembling.

“This is multi-layered,” he says.

Ah yes. He’s not sitting this course; he’s serving it. A big difference. I recall my inconsolable tears for “Puck.”

“It truly is,” I agree.

“Mischief right to the end,” Terrell says and grins. “Joyce was leaning across the vigil candle to move a plant away from the flame and her hair caught fire.”

I laugh with delight. Douglas was indeed a master mischief-maker. (He once told me, by the way, that while it was highly unlikely that he would ever marry a woman, should he find himself in that position, he would marry Joyce.)

“There will be a memorial service for Doug on the Monday after we get back. On May Day.”

The smile seems to be shining through my entire body. May Day. Beltane. One of the cross-quarter days. What a send-off!

“There’s an email from Joyce. You can see it after the course is over.”

“Thanks, Terrell. I’ll just sit on here by the stream for a while.”

He nods, gets up, and walks away. There’s no embrace—for there’s no physical contact at the center. And no condolences—for he can see that none are needed.

So I sit there, listening to the murmur of water over stone. Feeling the warmth of the sun. The warmth of Doug’s shirt. The warmth of my love for him. And of his love for me.

Who’s Douglas?!:2 — A Final Embrace

 A Final Embrace

Doug's high school photo

“Who’s Douglas?” I don’t know. I know some small part of who Douglas was. I’m also somewhat aware of many of the projected roles that he played out for me and for others over the years. But once Doug “gave up the ghost,” as the saying goes, and returned his tired body to the Earth, then the question really starts driving us—who is Douglas, where is Douglas, what is Douglas, now?

Doug always had an uncanny knack for pushing me to the far edge of my stretch zone. (I’m probably not alone in having experienced him in this way.) His departure on Good Friday, however, was almost too much. He was quite familiar, of course, with my Good Friday syndrome. And since neither of us had much use for the word “coincidence,” preferring the more evocative term “synchronicity,” I can only view Douglas’ Good Friday leave-taking as a final mischievous gesture. A trickster’s last prank. An exquisite final embrace. “Here’s a little something to remember me by, Robert. You can add it to your collection.”

And he “happened” to die while I was in the midst of an intense meditation course, wrestling with deeply conflicted beliefs about whether there is any self, any soul that survives death. Doug certainly found a way to make this question searingly relevant for me. (Or “revelant” as Doug would say. He always did tend to trip over that word.)

The Buddha (the Awakened One) teaches that there is no self, no soul, no God. Nothing but illusion, on either side of the grave. Nothing but “anicca”—arising and passing away, arising and passing away. The fundamental, bed-rock principle of impermanence.

Seth, on the other hand, whose teachings were at the core of both Douglas’ and my emerging world views, and who was himself a black sheep and a mischief-maker, would no doubt laugh tolerantly and remind us of the title of his first book, Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul.

So Buddha says there’s no soul. And Seth proclaims the eternal validity of the soul. But Doug had no real interest in the Buddhist philosophy. He was a Sethian. And that’s why, on what turned out to be our last evening together, I was reading a Seth book to him.

The book is called The Nature of the Psyche: Its Human Expression, and I’d like to share a portion of the final passage that I read to him, just before I hugged him and kissed him, told him I loved him, and said goodbye. It’s how the book opens. (And once again, how do we know what we know before we know it?)

You come into the condition you call life, and pass out of it. In between you encounter a lifetime. Suspended—or so it certainly seems—between birth and death, you wonder at the nature of your own being. You search your experience and study official histories of the past, hoping to find there clues as to the nature of your own reality.

Your life seems synonymous with your consciousness. Therefore it appears that your knowledge of yourself grows gradually, as your self-consciousness develops from your birth. It appears, furthermore, that your consciousness will meet a death beyond which your self-consciousness will not survive.

You may think longingly, and with an almost hopeful nostalgia of the religion of your childhood, and remember a system of belief that ensured you of immortality. Yet most of you, my readers, yearn for some private and intimate assurances, and seek for some inner certainty that your own individuality is not curtly dismissed at death. (page 9)

So who, or where, or what is Douglas now? I don’t know. But perhaps the exploration of this question will open yet another chapter in our long friendship.

Who’s Douglas?!: 3 — A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

Doug as a Navy pilot
Doug as a Navy pilot

And finally, “Who’s Douglas?” I’ll close by offering a small bouquet from the flower garden of my memories. It’s quite a large garden. I could pick a good many bouquets. But I’ll try to keep them brief, and will share them in chronological order—although I can hear both Douglas and Seth chuckling at my unwillingness to offer them in either a reverse or a random order. I’ve also titled them, as we title our dreams. The first one is called:

Standing Up to the Drill Sergeant

Douglas is in boot camp. It’s 1951. He’s enlisted in the Navy and is 21 years old. This isn’t the “new” army. It’s the old army. And drill sergeants rule boot camp with an iron fist. Doug and his fellow recruits are lined up before their drill sergeant. They’re exhausted and terrified, waiting for his next orders.

“I am your God!” the sergeant bellows. “Get down on your knees and worship me.”

The men quickly start dropping to their knees. All but Douglas. He’s left standing there alone.

The drill sergeant stalks over and glares at him.

“You’re not kneeling, Todd!”

Douglas shakes his head. He’s too frightened to say anything, but there’s no way he’s going to bend his knee for this or any other man.

“You’ll pay for this, Todd,” the sergeant says ominously.

But it’s the drill sergeant who ends up paying. When the brass hear about the incident, they reprimand him. Then, apparently sensing some leadership potential in this new recruit, they transfer Douglas to an officer’s training program for naval pilots, where he eventually earns his wings.

The Dream of Transdyne

Doug is lying in a Washington, D.C. hospital room. It’s sometime in 1967. Douglas is 37 and he’s recovering from a suicide attempt—one that Stanley just barely kept from being successful. He had been terminated from his job in a law office for having suggested that the secretaries there were not being paid enough. This on the heels of having been outed and then crucified by the military, after several years of service as a naval officer.

(As an aside, Douglas used to wear an ostentatious crucifix that hung from a chain around his neck. Some of you probably remember it. There were many reasons, both psychological and metaphysical, why he wore it. He finally lost it while working in the woods one day. How striking, then, that he should die on Good Friday.)

Anyway, Doug apparently feels that he has been crucified once too often, and he nearly succeeds in crucifying himself. Recovering from the over-dose, in that D.C. hospital room, he has a dream. In the dream, he’s looking down on a large group of younger people in the distance, who are playfully and spontaneously tapping into psychic gifts and abilities that Douglas can’t even begin to touch.

He is feeling somewhat disgruntled and left out. Then he hears a voice, seemingly out of nowhere. The voice says, “All this is yours.” Or perhaps, “All this is because of you.”

He’s wondering what this could possibly mean. Then he hears the voice again. It says one word, “Transdyne.”

Then Doug wakes up.

Ten years later he will give this name, Transdyne, to the hill-top piece of land that he and Stanley will purchase in Copper Hill.

First Meeting

I’m working in the garden. It’s a warm afternoon in 1975. Looking up from the bed I’m cultivating, I see Joyce coming down from the shelter with a couple of strangers. I lay down my hoe and walk over to meet them.

“Robert, this is Doug and Stan. They’re looking at some land just down the road. Doug, Stan, this is Robert.”

One of them smiles at me and extends his hand. I shake it. The other is peering at me, with equal measures of curiosity, anticipation, and caution. He reminds me of a hunting dog who’s had his nose to the ground, following a faint scent. That scent has grown suddenly hot, and now he’s coming to a point.

I shrug off the image and we shake hands. Joyce continues with her tour, out toward Temple Hill. I return to the garden. Much later, Douglas tells me that I was the one—the one he had been searching for. And so began a decades-long exploration of the complex web of associations beneath his belief that, “I was the one.”

The Essenes on Temple Hill

Doug and I are standing together on Temple Hill, talking, soon after he and Stan had moved up to Transdyne from Norfolk. His eyes have a passionate intensity. He’s reminding me of a passage from Season of Changes. It’s the passage, he says, that sent him in search of this community, and of me.

You have come together to build an example of family living, of cooperation, of child and adult education on the many different levels, and the expression of the greater perfection and love within you that you know man may become. But the greatest ideal, the greatest purpose for your coming together rests on one idea, one ideal, and one principle; and your whole community must hinge on this.

And that is to be a vehicle, a vessel, by which the Christ Consciousness, by which the Christ may again enter into the Earth. For He shall not come but for those who build to make this possible, that are also already within the Earth plane.

This is not to say that this would be the only group that would do such a thing, that would help with such a vibration and such a purpose. But it is important that you add your power and love and dignity to such a matter. This is your greatest desire and purpose, and this is why those peoples, those group of Carmel, the Essenes, were given as examples to you. For this, you see, is what they had done. (page 138)

“But who were the Essenes, really?” Doug asks, eyes bright. “What were they really doing?”

I already know the passage by heart. The words, however, have become thickly coated with a dull veil of familiarity. But suddenly this veil shimmers and falls away and I really hear Douglas’ question.

In one of our current film mythologies, called “The Matrix,” there’s the following piece of dialogue.

Trinity is talking to Neo. “It’s the question that drives us! You know what the question is, don’t you?”

And Neo replies, “What is the Matrix?”

Douglas’ question on Temple Hill (“Who were the Essenes, really?”) will become a driving force in my life. It will drive me to write Wax Statues, Cotton Candy and the Second Coming, and will continue to drive me for many years to come. In a way, it’s still driving me.

During my last visit with Doug, I told him that I had called Ticket Master in Chicago and ordered two tickets for a rare exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls and some of the artifacts from the Essene community at Qumran. Lauren and I will see the exhibit while passing through Chicago next week on our Amtrak tour. Marlene happened to notice an obscure reference to it in “The Wall Street Journal” and showed it to me.

I told Doug that going to see those scrolls and artifacts felt like going on a pilgrimage. He smiled and nodded.

The Small Ring in the Test Tube

Douglas is on his knees in our sleeping alcove, next to a quietly radiant Joyce, peering into a squat plastic test tube standing on the little desk at the foot of our bed. It’s the summer of 1983.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he exclaims. I smile at his apparent consternation.

Doug had been living at ALM for quite a few weeks by now. His expressed interest in coming for an extended visit had stunned everyone. It’s hard to imagine someone less suited to living in community than Douglas.

But he had been feeling that this place was dead in the water. (A classic Douglas perception/projection, by the way.) A jolt was needed. An electric shock to re-start a stalled heart. Maybe by moving here he could somehow provide such a catalytic jolt. He didn’t expect it to be easy. For anyone. And it hadn’t been.

“I’ll be damned,” he says again, staring at the distinct ring that had formed in the liquid at the bottom of the test tube.

I continue to grin, clearly hearing his unspoken thought—”This is not at all what I expected.”

He smiles, congratulates Joyce and me, and returns to the garden. Soon thereafter he goes home to Transdyne, to “be patient and wait.” (A psychic had once given Doug this succinct piece of advice. It would torment him for years.)

The little tube that Douglas had peered into was part of a pregnancy test kit. The small ring that had formed in it was confirmation that Joyce and I had finally succeeded, after several frustrating years, in conceiving. After showing me the good news, Joyce had asked me to bring Douglas down so that he, too, could see the omen.

Nine months later, Doug received a second shock when the baby turned out to be a girl. He had simply assumed that it would be a boy. But he always felt a special fondness for Lauren. He would give me small gifts and tokens to keep for her until she was older. Even in the nursing home, when Lauren would accompany me on a visit, Doug’s face would light up when he saw her.

(There’s a short epilogue to this story. I’m spending Thursday afternoon with Douglas, as usual, in April of 1984. Our sharing comes to an end when David drives over to Transdyne to tell me that Joyce has gone into labor. The next morning, on Good Friday, Lauren takes her first breath. On another Thursday, in April of this year, Lauren celebrates her 16th birthday. The next morning, on Good Friday, Douglas takes his last breath.)

Doug and Lauren
Doug and Lauren

Who’s Douglas?!: 4 — A Few More Flowers

A Few More Flowers

Doug and Stan (1995)
Doug and Stan (1995)

Intercepting a Punch

A bunch of us are sitting around the community shelter. Douglas is casually insulting George, who had once lived in this area and had then moved away. I watch the scowl on John’s face deepen as he listens to the put-down of his close friend.

Suddenly John snaps. He jumps up, looming over Douglas with his fist cocked.

“I’m gonna hit you!” he shouts.

Taking advantage of the warning, I leap between them.

“You’ll have to hit me first, John.”

John stares at me for a long moment. Then all the rage sags out of him. We step outside to talk, leaving a surprised Douglas behind. He hadn’t intended to push one of John’s buttons. He was simply running his mouth. But he was happy to have hit a nerve if it helped cause motion.

Shortly thereafter, John leaves Copper Hill and moves to Richmond, where he finds a job, gets married and has a son. Douglas approves of the move. He had felt all along that John’s path of growth lay in the mainstream culture.

(There’s yet another little piece of synchronicity here. When Joyce was pregnant, folks formed a baby pool. Everyone put a dollar on the day they thought the baby would be born, winner take all. John had the wit to ask Joyce when she thought the baby’s birthday was going to be. Joyce replied that, given my Good Friday thing, she’d plunk her dollar down on April 20th. John followed her advice, and on Good Friday he walked off with the winnings.)

* * *

[Now we jump forward in time for the last two stories. The setting for these is Salem Rehab, where Douglas lived after his stroke.]

He’s a Good Man

Doug and I are sitting in a small visiting room, reading Seth. A woman in a wheel chair, another resident in the nursing home, sees us from the hallway and maneuvers through the closed doors to join us. She looks first at Douglas, then at me.

“You his friend?”

I nod.

“He’s a good man.”

I nod again.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert. What’s yours?”

“Shirley. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”

“Yes, he does,” I agree. I’m remembering wheeling Doug down the hallways and watching his pointed-finger greeting to almost everyone we passed. And many of those he pointed to would smile back, or nod, or wave.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert.”

“That’s a good name. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”

“Would you like to join us? I’m reading to him.”

“No, I’ll be going so you two can read together.”

And then, turning her wheel chair toward the door, she pauses.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert.”

She nods, pushes through the doorway, and resumes making her rounds.

Don’t Screen Him Out

This final story is in the same vein. It’s the Thursday evening of my last visit with Douglas before driving up to Massachusetts for my course. It’s the last time I will see him. I’m sitting on his bed. He’s in his wheel chair, ready for bed. I’ve already asked the nurses to help settle him in, telling them I’ll wait until they’re finished and then continue reading to him. But they haven’t arrived yet.

I’m reading from his copy of The Nature of the Psyche, going to passages notated on a bookmark still in the book. It’s an eerie feeling. These are passages that he had been moved by, had marked, and then had read to me on Thursday afternoons long gone by.

Now I’m reading the same passages back to him, in this poignant setting, and both of us are still moved by them. I marvel at the heart’s constancy, despite the profound change in circumstances.

Soon after I start reading, Doug draws my attention, with a nod and a glance, to his new roommate, in the bed behind me. I look over my shoulder. The man is lying in his bed, eyes closed, mouth open, gaunt face, shallow breathing. He looks like my grandfather looked just before he died.

I turn back to the book, puzzled. I can’t ask Doug why he’s pointing his roommate out to me, because the stroke has paralyzed not only the right side of his body but also his vocal chords, and he wouldn’t be able to reply. So I resume reading. It’s the passage I shared earlier, about death not being some “curt dismissal.”

But Douglas interrupts me again, with a more emphatic jut of his chin. And as I turn once more to study his elderly, failing companion, it hits me. I suddenly know what Douglas is attempting to convey.

He’s saying, “Stay awake, Robert! Broaden your focus. I’m sensing something in this man. Bring him into your circle of awareness. Don’t screen him out! Who knows? Maybe you have something to offer him. Maybe he has something to offer you. Stay awake!”

Doug had done this with me repeatedly over the years, with cashiers, sales people, doctors, nurses. His Geiger counter was almost always out and on. If he started to get a reading off of someone—some hint of that deep longing he was always searching for—he was going to explore it. And if I was with him, he expected my cooperation. Even if he had to nudge me to get it.

“You want me to bring this guy into the circle, don’t you?”

Douglas nods.

So I adjust my position on his bed, raise the volume of my voice a bit, and continue reading. Douglas, with a slight, satisfied smile, settles back to listen.

I leave him, after my goodbyes, sitting in his wheel chair, next to his bed, waiting for someone to make him ready for sleep. A final reminder to the nursing station and then I’m down the hall, out the door, and into the gathering twilight.

“Be patient and wait, my friend,” I murmur. “This won’t go on forever. Be patient and wait.”

So this is the small bouquet from the garden of my memories:

Standing Up to the Drill Sergeant
The Dream of Transdyne
First Meeting
The Essenes on Temple Hill
The Small Circle in the Test Tube
Intercepting a Punch
He’s a Good Man
Don’t Screen Him Out

A special set of memories for a very special friend.

I’m glad he’s not here today [at his memorial service]. Doug hated big gatherings like this. But he always wanted a full report, afterward, on anything that he may have missed.

And now, finally, it’s your turn to share some of your own stories about this complex, lovable, infuriating man. I’m looking forward to hearing them. But be forewarned—I plan to pass on everything I hear to Douglas, the very next time I see him.

Douglas as a naval officer (1954)
Douglas as a naval officer (1954)