Choosing To Age in Community: 3

This is the final portion of a story that begins here.

Christmas at Light Morning, 1992
Tom with Ron & Marlene and Lauren, Robert, Joyce

Prologue

Tom Hungerford was born in Winslow, Arizona in 1916, shortly after Arizona became the 48th state. He died at Light Morning at the dawn of the new millennium. Quite soon Tom will become one of the unremembered multitudes — a wave receding down a beach; a raindrop touching the surface of a lake; an autumn leaf falling from a family tree.

Yet in the brief interval between when Tom took his first breath and his last breath lies a span of some 30,000 days, each of them a tapestry woven of stories. Thus did J.R.R. Tolkien speak of a tree of tales in a forest of days.

In this concluding portion of Choosing To Age In Community we’ll see that Tom was deeply influenced by two books, The Razor’s Edge and The Comforter; that he loved a little cabin in the woods called Snowberry; and that a chance viewing of a movie freed Tom from a trauma he’d been carrying since World War II. Since he was always a traveling man, we’ll close with the story of how Tom ended his days at Snowberry, and finally traveled on to who knows where.

The Razor’s Edge

There’s a question I regret not asking Tom during the interviews we did for the first two parts of Choosing To Age In Community: when did you first read The Razor’s Edge? As recounted here, it was a brief passage at the end of this book by Somerset Maugham that inspired Tom to drive a Checkered Cab in New York City. But the story also touched him at deeper levels.

The book was published in 1944, the same year that Tom married Norma. Tom was a naval officer who went ashore on D-Day. The brutal carnage of war left Tom (and many other veterans) with psychic wounds that couldn’t be easily healed.

The main protagonist of The Razor’s Edge is Larry Darrell. Prior to the first World War, Larry had become engaged to Isabel. They had both grown up in Chicago, but Larry returns from the air battles over Europe a changed man, no longer aligned with the expectations of the mainstream culture.

Isabel can’t understand Larry’s disinterest in pursuing a career.

“What I can’t make out,” she tells a friend of the family, “is why he should have turned out like this. Before the war he was just like everybody else… He used to do all the things the rest of us did. He was a perfectly normal boy and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t become a perfectly normal man.”

“Unfortunately,” the friend replies, “you don’t know what experience he had in the war that so profoundly moved him. I think it was some sudden shock for which he was unprepared. I suggest to you that whatever it was that happened to Larry filled him with a sense of the transiency of life, and an anguish to be sure that there was a compensation for the sin and sorrow of the world.”1

Larry still wants to marry Isabel and envisions tramping around Europe with her, searching for a deeper meaning to life. Despite her compulsive attraction to Larry’s charisma, Isabel wants no part of such a vagabond lifestyle. In this, she takes after her mother, whose “common sense assured her that if you wanted to get on in this world you must accept its conventions, and not to do what everybody else did clearly pointed to instability.”2

So Larry’s and Isabel’s lives diverge. Larry wanders through Europe and Asia, taking menial jobs to supplement a small inheritance and learning to fly by the seat of his pants. Isabel marries a man who adores her and delights in providing her with the lifestyle and security she craves. The rest of the story follows Larry, Isabel, and several secondary characters over the course of the next twenty years.

The parallels between the fictional life of Larry Darrell and the eventual life of Tom Hungerford are striking. Larry came out of World War I knowing that a conventional marriage and career were no longer in the cards, and that finding a new way of viewing the world was crucial. It took Tom ten years to reach a similar conclusion.

After World War II, he and Norma moved to Chicago, where Norma (like Isabel and Larry) had grown up. Norma’s parents helped Tom get established in a textbook publishing career and the young couple had two children. To all appearances Tom was following the life prescribed by Isabel’s mother in The Razor’s Edge: “a man’s duty was to go to work in a business where by energy and initiative he had a chance of earning enough money to keep his wife and family in accordance with the standards of his station…”3

But later, when Norma filed for divorce, Tom’s whole house of cards came tumbling down. After briefly flirting with the idea of suicide, he followed in Larry Darrell’s footsteps and devoted the rest of his life to finding alternative sources of meaning and happiness. His primary guides were Joel Goldsmith and Edgar Cayce.

Lorene McClintock

Tom studied with one of Joel’s Infinite Way teachers in Chicago. When he moved to New York City, he continued his studies with Lorene McClintock, a teacher Joel had appointed shortly before he died. Tom was one of Lorene’s students for nearly a decade and they became good friends.

In addition to teaching meditation, prayer, and the power of forgiveness, Lorene emphasized the hallowing of menial labor. How you sanded and stained a banister, for example, was more important than how soon the job got done. Sensory awareness was stressed, especially the sense of sound. Tom said that the sounds made by the work we do are direct clues to how well the work is being performed.

Tom’s Baldwin piano

When Lorene observed that Tom might pay more attention to his handwriting, he bought a good quality fountain pen and used it for the rest of his life for his correspondence and dream journals. Tom also purchased Lorene’s highly regarded McClintock Piano Course. After settling down at Light Morning, Tom bought a Baldwin piano. He used Lorene’s course to guide his practice.

As described in Part One of this story, Lorene supported Tom’s dream of driving a taxi cab in New York City, a dream that was seeded by reading The Razor’s Edge.

“Eventually,” Larry tells a friend, “I shall settle in New York, among other reasons because of its libraries; I can live on very little, I don’t mind where I sleep and I’m quite satisfied with one meal a day; by the time I’ve seen all I want to of America [by becoming a long distance truck driver] I should be able to have saved enough to buy a taxi and become a taxi driver.”4

His mystified friend tells Larry that he’s crazy as a loon.

“Not at all,” says Larry. “I’m very sensible and practical. As an owner-driver I would need to work only for as many hours as would provide for my board and lodging and for the depreciation on the car. The rest of my time I could devote to other work and if I wanted to go anywhere in a hurry I could always go in my taxi.”5

Tom started driving a cab for these very reasons. He also related to Larry saying that his taxi would be “an equivalent to the staff and begging bowl of the wandering mendicant.”6

The Comforter

Soon after he left New York, Tom came to Virginia Beach to deepen his studies of Edgar Cayce. Like Joel Goldsmith’s Infinite Way, the Cayce material was a navigational aid in Tom’s sustained search for a new worldview. It was at the Cayce bookstore in Virginia Beach that Tom happened upon The Comforter, by Dorothy Bryant. As The Razor’s Edge had done earlier, The Comforter shifted the trajectory of Tom’s life. The book’s epigraph is a reference to John 16:7.7 The title was soon changed to The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You.

In the disturbing opening scene, the murderously misogynistic antihero is inexplicably transported to an allegorical island of strong dreamers. There, over the tumultuous course of many years, he learns to distinguish between nagdeo — which Tom pronounced as nog-DAY-oh — and donagdeo.

“The word nagdeo, which was a greeting, a prayer, a benediction, whatever, roughly meant something like ‘good dreams,’ but not really that. It was something more like valuable dreams or enlightening dreams. To call something donagdeo was to say that it was not productive of good, valuable, enlightening dreams, dreams which showed the way back–to the sun.”8

Some dreams are warning dreams. They show what’s off-kilter in daily life. “Yet, no one is content merely to have such dreams. So we try to live in such a way as not to make these warnings necessary; each person must find what is the right amount of food, drink, work, as if to keep a rhythm going, a dance, in which some imbalance causes us to miss a step in the dance. We try to live so as to get beyond these dreams, and to get beyond them we must obey them, or we must dream them until we do. Other dreams tell us deeper things about ourselves.”9

When Tom became part of Harmony House, a Cayce-oriented group house in Virginia Beach, they were so moved by The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You that they studied it together and also formed a dream group.

Another book that Harmony House studied as a group was Light Morning’s first book, Season of Changes: Ways of Response. It, too, emphasized the importance of dreams. “The greatest book of study is that one of your own, written by the soul upon time and space: that of your dreams.”10

It went on to say that dreams, “if paid attention to, brought back in the memory, written and kept and studied, interpreted as actual experiences which are symbolic and yet real in their nature, become guidelines to such an extent that one should be able to understand and rectify all those things in the life which are of an imperfect nature.”11

Reading The Kin of Ata and Season of Changes prompted the members of Harmony House to visit Light Morning in 1976. Tom returned for longer and longer visits. Perhaps he sensed a correlation between Light Morning’s emerging lifestyle and the dream-seekers on the island of Ata, where “every man must find his own path to higher dreams. Searching for the path and trying to stay on it is absorbing and vital to the man who tries it.”12

The following description of what enhanced nagdeo on Ata also applied to Light Morning: “Ata provided the conditions and the freedom to choose or not to choose to live according to the universally accepted dream regulators: a simple diet, enough physical labor, few distractions, the company of people with shared values, solitude when desired.”13

Robert’s nagdeo t-shirt

As was done on Ata, we shared our dreams early in the day. Since we ate our meals together, it was easy to pick up the community dream journal during breakfast and log the day’s date, the titles of the dreams, and whose dreams they were. Tom was a strong dreamer. During the times when he lived at Light Morning, he accounted for many of the daily entries in our dream journal.

Once, when Tom was in Fairhope, Alabama, he sent us a mysterious package. Inside was a colorful array of t-shirts, each emblazoned with the word NAGDEO and the image of a butterfly. Tom’s favorite character in The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You was Augustine, a young black woman whose totem animal was a butterfly. Tom had designed the t-shirts and taken them to someone who did silk screen printing. There was one for each of us.

Snowberry

There’s a small cabin just uphill from Rivendell, our new community shelter. It was originally built for Naomi, who wanted to live at Light Morning but later changed her mind. It became a one-room schoolhouse for a while and was then used by visitors and interns. One snowy day little Jesse, who was staying there with his mom and older brother, trudged up to the cabin.

“That’s Snow-bury,” he said, “because it’s buried in snow.”

That’s how Snowberry got its name.

Tom fell in love with the cabin and stayed there on his progressively longer visits. He wrote some poetry there which was later compiled as The Snowberry Poems. After Joyce worked her calligraphic magic on them, Tom had 25 copies printed which he sent out to his family and close friends.

Tom’s sketch of Snowberry became the cover.

The Snowberry Poems was dedicated to those of us who were living at Light Morning, “in appreciation for their gifts of love, freedom, and the right of self-determination.”

The table of contents lists 25 poems.

Here is the title poem. (Note that A.L.M. is Associations of the Light Morning, the name we went by in the early days; Tom’s “favored city” is New York City.)

In 1992, several years after completing The Snowberry Poems, Tom had a transformative dream about Snowberry. He told me about it during our tape-recorded interviews in 1995.

Tom–The Snowberry experience came just after Christmas of 1992. It was a powerful dream in which I had physically expanded; so much so that it hurt. It was scary. Most of the dream took place on Snowberry’s porch. The after-effects continued for several days.

The dream was really a dream of the expansion of Snowberry. It was very precise about what kind of expansion it was. There was a feeling that things that don’t seem to be alive are. I felt that Snowberry was just as much an alive being as me, and the same kind of expansion and change could take place with Snowberry as it could with me.

That prompted me to ask you all if I could actually do the expansion. To me, I was asking to be able to stay at Light Morning.

Robert–So the distinction between your inward, spiritual expansion and the outward expansion of Snowberry largely disappeared?

Tom–Pretty much. Since that time, I’ve just considered that I’m home here. There’s a subtle difference that’s hard to put a finger on; an entering more deeply into the various activities of the community.

We all shared a nagdeo sense of rightness about Tom’s proposal, so we all pitched in to help build the 12 x 12 addition he had foreseen in his dream.

Lauren helping David
with the Snowberry addition

Inducing Catharsis

One of Light Morning’s hard-earned aphorisms is that everything unresolved is re-created. Sigmund Freud called it repetition compulsion. Carl Jung said that “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

In the summer of 1998, Tom Hungerford and his friend Marcy drove down to Roanoke to watch a movie. But when they arrived at the Grandin Theater they discovered that the movie they wanted to see wouldn’t open until the next day. So they bought tickets for a film they knew nothing about. Then they entered the theater and settled into their seats.

Soon the curtains on the stage drew back, the screen went white, and the film started running through the projector. The opening scene shows lots of landing craft, filled with anxious soldiers, crashing through rough surf toward a heavily fortified beach. Small white letters appear in the lower part of the screen: June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion of Normandy has begun. The movie that Tom and Marcy had chosen at random was Saving Private Ryan.

Tom Hungerford had been one of those anxious men on a landing craft, and had made it up that Normandy beach alive. Steven Spielberg’s re-creation of that day was widely acknowledged by veterans and critics alike to be both highly accurate and hyper-realistic. For the bold viewer, the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan can be found here. (Be forewarned, it’s almost unbearably horrific.)

The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan

One can only imagine what it must have been like for Tom to be blind-sided by such a movie. The intense images wrenched open a door to the subterranean dungeon where all his P.T.S.D. demons were confined. I can still vividly recall Tom coming down to the breakfast table the following morning, raging at Steven Spielberg.

“Just look at how much money that rotten son of a bitch is raking in,” he fumed. “He’s profiting from the deaths of those brave young men!”

Tom’s uncharacteristic tirade against the film-maker continued off and on throughout the day. I listened with compassion, knowing how away from nagdeo he’d been thrown, but also sensing a potential for catharsis. I wondered what kind of dreams Tom would have that night.

When he joined us for breakfast the next morning I braced myself for another onslaught. But the first words out of Tom’s mouth were “Thank God for Steven Spielberg!”

He told us that in the middle of the night he suddenly saw that he had been carrying an onerous load ever since World War II. There were so many conflicted feelings of fear and grief and guilt that Tom had never been able to process — until Saving Private Ryan.

Watching that motion picture had forced all those deeply repressed feelings to the surface. Now he could finally face them, wrestle with them, and begin to let at least some of them go. It was because he had received such a priceless gift that Tom was now thanking and blessing Steven Spielberg.

Traveling On

Tom Hungerford was a traveling man. Maybe it was due to the Navy sending him around the country to be trained and then around the world to fight. Perhaps it came from growing up next to the railroad tracks in Winslow, Arizona and watching the trains roll by each day. Or it might well have been something that was modeled for him by a father who left for work one morning and never returned.

Whatever the source of his wanderlust may have been, Tom never stayed for long in one place. He supported his wife and two children by visiting school districts in Chicago and California, selling textbooks. After his divorce he became a traveling salesman for a vanity press. His territory ran from Canada to Florida and from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River.

So Tom spent most of his days on the road. He got to know America in the same way that Larry Darrell did by becoming a long-distance truck driver. And when Tom again followed Larry’s lead and became a taxi cab driver, he became intimately familiar with all five boroughs of New York City.

Tom later became something of a circuit rider, visiting friends and relatives as he crisscrossed the country. Light Morning was one of his regular stops. He would visit for several weeks or months and then move on. His blue Datsun pickup truck with the shell on back became a familiar sight in our parking lot.

Tom loved that truck. He called it Little Blue. It was Little Blue who made his circuit riding possible. The truck also became the subject of one of Tom’s Snowberry poems. This is how it begins.

Tom’s unhappy alienation from his children and grandchildren was painful. His children blamed him for the divorce and never wanted to see him again. It forced Tom to resort to an alternative mode of transportation, one that the dream-keepers of Ata would have surely considered to be nagdeo.

It started after Tom had settled down at Light Morning for the later stages of his aging. He began to dream about something that he called a Traveling Box. The dreams would come when someone he was close to but couldn’t visit — due to either geographical or psychological distances — was in trouble. In a lucid dream, Tom would walk down the path from Snowberry until he came to a long rectangular box in the apple orchard to the right of the path. It looked like a coffin and was always in the same place.

Tom would climb in and lie down. Then, when he reached up and pulled the lid closed, the Traveling Box would take him wherever he needed to go in order to explore a situation, offer support, or help solve a problem. Perhaps these were simply wish fulfillment dreams that alleviated guilt and remorse. But Tom believed them to be therapeutic, dreams that brought peace and reconciliation to troubled relationships.

Another facet of his aging, as Tom moved through his 70s and into his 80s, was the challenge of outliving his contemporaries. His mother and two older sisters were gone, as were all but 18 or 20 of his more than 200 high school classmates.

“One of the things I’ve noticed,” he once told me, “is that the number of people who are no longer present — and who are considerably younger than me — grows.” This included many of the well-known figures of his youth, such as Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie Kennedy.

Robert & Tom bringing
a water line to the garde
n

The younger generations had their own sports heroes and pop stars, and they had no memories and little interest in what had been the defining experiences of Tom’s generation: the Great Depression and World War II. It left him with a subtle but growing sense of social isolation.

Yet even into his 80s Tom continued to be involved in the Light Morning lifestyle. He helped me lay a water line into the garden for irrigation, and lent a hand with building Rivendell, our sizable new community shelter. He joined us for our twice-daily meditations and our dream-sharings over breakfast.

Then one morning in late May of 2000, Tom didn’t come down for breakfast. When Marlene went to check on him, she found that he had died sometime during the night. He was lying on Snowberry’s porch, wearing only his undershorts, the flashlight in his hand still burning.

He had probably gone outside to pee. But I like to believe that Tom was heading for his Traveling Box. Perhaps Tom’s dream body had gone on another epic adventure. But this time he had left his physical body behind. After all, it had been just after Christmas in 1992 when Tom had “a powerful dream in which I had physically expanded; so much so that it hurt. It was scary.” The scene of that dream was on Snowberry’s porch.

The medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of death, saying that a sudden stroke or heart attack was most likely. Joyce and Jonathan used Little Blue to transport Tom’s body to Radford to be cremated. It was his final ride in the truck he loved. The two of them had been traveling companions for a long time.

Lauren and I were returning from Los Angeles on the home-bound leg of a 30-day train trip around the country to visit family and friends and to see the back yards and back country of America. It was a special way to celebrate her 16th birthday.

2-year-old Lauren reading with Tom, 1986

In the pre-dawn hours of May 25th, as Tom was lying on Snowberry’s porch, I was looking out the window of the Southwest Chief as the train wended its way through western Arizona, the state where Tom had been born and which he loved. Later, when the train stopped in Winslow to pick up passengers, I again thought of Tom. His grandmother’s house had been on Main Street, beside the railroad tracks, and Tom’s family had lived one street back.

At the memorial gathering to celebrate Tom’s life, we all shared stories. Some of Tom’s Masonic brothers from Christiansburg performed a brief ritual. Tom had been a Mason as a young man and returned to the Lodge later to explore its mystical dimensions. The Foreword to one of Tom’s Masonic books puts it this way:

“Freemasonry is based on three great principles: brotherly love, relief, and truth. Over the years, brotherly love and relief have been so stressed that the Craft is in serious danger of becoming primarily a social and charitable organization. Truth, the most difficult principle to recognize and the the most difficult to achieve, has long been neglected… The alpha and omega of Freemasonry is not the repetition of the ritual nor the safeguarding of secrets, but the regeneration of the Brethren.”14

But Tom learned that most of his Lodge brethren were neither aware of nor very interested in the mystical components of their tradition. It was a source of loneliness for him to discover that others were unmoved by what moved him so deeply.

That’s why Tom seemed at peace with his decision to age and die at Light Morning. For not only did we honor his strong need for autonomy, especially when it came to medical and financial concerns, but we also shared many of his core values — values that Tom had spent his entire post-divorce life searching for and cultivating.

This final portion of Choosing To Age In Community opened by saying that Tom’s restless spirit had been captivated by two stories: The Razor’s Edge and The Comforter, a.k.a. The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You. Somerset Maugham’s tale about Isabel and Larry begins with an epigraph: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. –Katha Upanishad.”15

It ends with Maugham’s realization that “to my intense surprise it dawned upon me that without in the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: …Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune; Larry happiness.”16

Having successfully followed his own unorthodox path through most of his adult life, Tom Hungerford likewise found a good measure of happiness.

Dorothy Bryant wraps up her account of the mythical island of Ata by having her main protagonist say that “I became especially careful to watch what the best dreamers of the island did, and to try to learn from them. What I learned was simple: more patience, more stillness, acceptance.”17

That’s what I learned from Tom, too. He was a strong dreamer who had become endowed with nagdeo. After his body had been cremated — and his essence had traveled on to who knows where — I followed suit with all of Tom’s dream journals, spending most of one morning feeding them into the flames of our wood-burning cook-stove. I recalled, while doing so, a line from The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You: “We never mourn for those who go home, my kin.”18

Choosing an epitaph for Tom’s memorial plaque on Temple Hill was easy: NAGDEO.

May you continue to dream strong dreams, my friend.

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