This great feast
I look back over the years stretching out far behind me, reaching deep into this life I’ve lived so far, as though it were a banquet table, set in a garden and spread with a nourishing meal. The people I have known, the people that I remember with affection and gratitude, lift their glasses in salute – as I salute them. And I tell them all, as I recently told my wife, Maria: “Without you, I would not be me.”
My first 20 years were lived among the hills and groves of rural post-war West County, from Bodega Bay to Fort Ross, and from the old schoolhouse in Hessel to Santa Rosa Junior College. Then, down in Berkeley, 20 more years redoubled my education at the university, and in the streets. When I met Maria, half my lifetime ago, we came back to Sonoma County to raise our family where I had been raised – although the county had been greatly changed by then, and so had I.
As I look down the table, some faces are so far away I can barely recognize them, yet I remember them well – the charismatic country pastor who gave me my first Bible, the kindly sad-eyed doctor who came to my home when a prolonged childhood illness made travel to town impossible, and the gentle elderly neighbor who gave me the little wooden flute that I brought to play in the fields and woods near our farm as I recovered.
My Okie father, whose harsh stubborn character had been wrought in the Dust Bowl, is seated at the foot of the table near my patient mother, whose privileged childhood in Shanghai could not prepare her for the life we hammered out as well as we could. My older and younger brothers are also there with their own families, each remarkably different in such remarkably different ways.
Then the people I met in the city stirred my mind and churned my life; they too are ranged along this banquet table, bringing several strange foods and exotic dishes. Berkeley then, throughout the sixties and seventies, was at once a Petrie dish, a cauldron, and a crucible, where much was cultured, challenged, and changed – in the world, and in myself.
Seated along the table in conversation are my instructors from the classrooms: Alain Renoir, Aldous Huxley, and Bill Goodheart among them – the off-campus companions that roiled my nights: Homer Davis, Red Delaney, and Owsley Stanley among them – those teachers who took me beyond books and deeper into myself: Charles O’Dell, Dane Rudhyar, and JR Hinkins among them – and the mentors who showed me how to bring what I had learned back into the world: Fred Francis, Janos Bankuti, and Crit Brooks among them. There they all are, among all the others, serving up the food they have brought – and I salute them.
For fully half my life now I have sat in small rooms listening closely to people in their confusion and their despair, bearing witness to their discoveries and their resolutions. I see in their faces the elements of a hope that can provide their own solace and guide their own way. They too are here with me. So too are the people I’ve met on boards and in committees; I’ve admired each for the firmness of their commitment, the clarity of their vision, and the tenacity of their effort. Among them I have learned that the dynamics of the community are like those of a family, where individual agendas and needs will differ and sometimes conflict – until an agreement can gradually emerge.
Now my life has become filled with meetings and appointments, and though my calendar and life are full they are not chaotic. I’ve been taught to pace myself, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by demands while remaining present to what is asked of me – to become a responsible witness rather than a reactive victim, and to meet myself while I meet others. I remind myself several times each day that this is simply me, simply being here. To meet a person is to really show up and be present, doing just this, just now, and being willing to wonder: “How is this that I am doing, and who is this that I am being?” A note on my desk reminds me to include myself: “I am part of a sentient cosmos, and without me it would be less complete.”
I now look down this great long banquet table, within this garden of my life, and am content if not satisfied – for this moment is sufficient. There will be other courses of the meal yet to be served, and other guests will join us in time I am sure, but just now I am enjoying this, and these companions, and I tell them all: “Without you, I would not be me.”
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.