Pagan Time: An American Childhood

Pagan Time: An American Childhood

by Micah Perks


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With little more than a run-down Jeep and their newborn baby in tow, author Micah Perks' parents set out in 1963 to build a school and a utopian community in the mountains. The school would become known as a place to send teens with drug addictions and emotional problems, children with whom Micah and her sister would grow up.

This complex memoir mixes a moving celebration of the utopian spirit and its desire for community and freedom with a lacerating critique of the consequences of those desires — especially for the children involved. How could the campaign for a perfect home and family create such confusion and destruction? The '60s, for many, became a laboratory of hope and chaos, as young idealists tested the limits of possibility.

Micah Perks has cast her unflinching and precise eye on her own history and has illuminated not only those years of her childhood, but a wide-open moment that marked our culture for all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582435398
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 11/24/2009
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 976,871
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile: 850L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

how to
get there

The time of my childhood was the nineteen sixties.

    I know what you're thinking—marijuana, free love, Woodstock and Watts and Vietnam. Because you know the sixties. You were young then, or raising children, or not even born yet, but in any case, you've seen it on television.

    The sixties are black-and-white reruns—Kennedy rearing back in the convertible, King falling into the balcony, Malcolm X colliding with the podium; a grainy leap from spaceship to moon; white cops not holding back German shepherds as they attack black protesters.

    Or the sixties are finger-painted in psychedelics—the color of an acid trip, of blue-tinted granny glasses, of long blond hair and afros entwined with rainbow love beads.

    Or the sixties are peace signs in a commercial for a fast food chain, bell-bottoms on a Barbie doll. The sixties are a retro fashion statement, a cliché, a quaint cul-de-sac, over and done with, let's move on.


    You're right, but there's more to it than that. I'm ready to tell you secrets. I want you to see. This desire has been pressing for a long time. Sometimes it seems like I've spent my life searching for the words that will open my childhood for you.

    I'm in ninth grade—you are a handsome senior driving me home. You're wearing chinos, a polo shirt and loafers. Rain is tapping on the roof, sliding over the windshield. You ask me where I lived before, and I begin to explain. It was a school for disturbed adolescents. But I wasn't disturbed. Well, we were all a little disturbed, but not in a bad way. Actually, it was more like a commune. More of a farm, really....

    You laugh nervously, say, Gosh.

    I close my mouth and watch the wipers control the rain.

    Or, I'm just out of college, in a field, sharing a sleeping bag with you. This time you have beige hair, blue eyes, a snub nose, callused hands. We've just made love for the first time. Everything glows—red fire, green fireflies, white moon. You tell me about racing bicycles, about growing up rich and Quaker in Philadelphia. I try to tell you about the valley school.

    You say, I'm sorry, that sounds rough.

    I say, That was the best part of my life (best is not quite accurate, but I don't know what other word to use).

    We lie on our backs, mummied in the sleeping bag, close but not touching.

    It's always the same—even as I'm trying to use my story to knock down the wall between us, I can see that I'm turning myself into a freak, my childhood a sideshow.

Let me try again.

    In my time, in my place, a valley surrounded by thousands of acres of dark trees, we would join hands to create an Eden.

    This is an old story. My mother could have been Adam, God's chosen one, riotous, keeper of harmony. If my mother is Adam, then my father is Lilith, Adam's first wife. Lilith was God's first mistake, a rule breaker, a seducer. Before God even finished patting Lilith together out of mud, she had wriggled out of His grasp. In the old stories, Lilith lights out for the territories, alone.

    But what if Adam and Lilith attempt a daring escape together? In darkest night while He sleeps, they hoist each other over Eden's wall, swim the wide, slow-moving river. They stand on the far shore, trailing water weeds. It's their turn to create. Now what?

    It goes on like this. If my mother is Natty Bumppo, my father is Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans. Or, they could be Ishmael and Queequeg, making passionate love on the night before setting sail on the Pequod. If my father is Huckleberry Finn, escape artist, liar, my mother is Jim, so angelically maternal you have to wonder what's underneath. Or, my parents are double Thoreaus without the desire for silence. Or, those two old Shaker women, who swore they flew to the moon in their rocking chairs, singing all the while, despite the lack of oxygen, When we find ourselves in a place just right, we will be in the valley of love and delight.

    Or they are immigrants, pioneers. Or pilgrims. There would be sun, smacking sails, creaking wood, the plash of grey waves. Dressed in somber wool, my pilgrim parents face forward, imagining the new world. My mother's smile is serene, she is making plans for the amelioration of the unknown. But what is my father imagining? His own coronation? A mutiny? Or is he just happy to be getting the hell out of Dodge? And what kind of an Eden results from the imagination of a people whose first instinct is escape?

    Maybe it's as simple as this. Two children begin a block tower. Take turns, steady, steady. How high will it go ? How long until one child turns clumsy, or bored, or simply can no longer resist the urge to watch it teeter and fall?

    Still, in the moment of placing that first block, in the moment of childhood, or of setting out on a great adventure, there is a feeling that transcends all contradiction. Remember that feeling, that shiver in your chest, as if anything were possible? In my childhood everyone I knew seemed to be walking around with that shiver I won't call hope.

    I'll just tell you how to get there.

Leave the cities, the towns, drive for half a day, the never-ending curves churning your stomach, the trees pressing tighter and tighter against the narrow roads, to the very eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. This land was covered over and over by warm, shallow Cambrian seas and more recently by glacial ice; then the softer sediment was slowly scoured off, baring the grey, hard, billion-year-old rock, the ancient continent.

    Here, the mountains are pressed against Lake Champlain by the western weight of trailers, snowmobiles, diners with Budweiser neon, rusty pickup trucks with gun racks, a wax museum, a house of horror, Santa's Workshop, Make Believe Land and Frontier Town, ramshackle forests and crumbling revolutionary war forts, the whole brooding mess that makes up the Adirondack park; to the east, a sharp fall down to the plush farmland of the Champlain Valley and the greener mountains of Vermont.

    Turn onto the county road, one side a ridge of spruce and rock, the other a slide down to metal-colored water. Watch out for logging trucks, they careen past, shedding bark and branches. (Leonard Canal, a young trucker, lost his breaks right here, on the steepest slope of the road. He pumped them, slammed the horn, felt his truck rattling faster and faster. He decided to bail. He leapt, but this was a miscalculation. His rig ran him over. The logs burst off the flatbed, but the truck came to rest, unmolested, on the narrow shoulder.)

    Turn right onto what the locals have begun to call Funny Farm Road. Drive over teeth-jarring washout and frost heave for miles. Say it's the late sixties, late June, so blue flag and daisies line the ditches. Your car plows through clusters of white butterflies, wings pumping like breath.

    Pass an abandoned brown house. People say they found the old lady starved dead in there a few years back, been eating cat food all winter. Wearing layers of clothes against the cold, no running water so she stank bad. Now, she haunts the house. The hippie juvenile delinquents have broken all the windows.

    Over a fragile iron bridge beside roaring twin waterfalls. A bluebird flies in front of your car. Take this as a good omen. Another one-lane, rusted bridge over a shallow creek. On the other side, a saw blade nailed to a wide pine tree is painted with an ancient Mexican hieroglyph of a water lily. It looks like a red heart pulled in two directions, surrounded by a black fence. The words Valley Commune School are painted underneath.

    Up a small hill and down into the valley. The Algonquin used to hunt here in the summers but thought the land too harsh and never stayed long. In the nineteenth century there were iron miners on the ridge above, and in the valley, a few stubborn farmers worked the thin dirt between tree stumps; but miners and farmers have long since given up. Now, we're trying our hand.

    Scotch Highland cows, all orange and hairy, toss wicked-looking horns beside a mess of peeling red barns. Opposite, a long cement building that looks like a basement, painted with brown dancing figures. Then the three red and yellow geodesic domes attached to A-frames up against the hill. Turn right at the barns, pull up the driveway past the flag poles—an English flag, a revolutionary war flag with a green snake that reads Don't Tread On Me, some strange yellow flag from a place no one ever heard of—all three smacking in the wind. The old farmhouse is a riot of yellow and red. There is a long chicken yard against the house. Past the chickens, the valley stretches up a hill to three painted teepees.

    Does your heart do something funny when you see the school for the first time? There are mountains all around it, so it's like a cup—it might hold anything. Open the car door, smell balsam, mold, chicken shit.

    Tour the dilapidated barns, walk through mud and cow manure in your good shoes, slap at blackflies; eat spaghetti in the roar of the communal dining hall, and now, nine at night, come up the hill to the log cabin with the founder and co-director of the school, my mother.

    There's no moon. Insects brush your face, and our huge, panting Newfoundland dog drools on your pants. Although you can't tell in the dark, my mother is wearing jeans and a Mexican embroidered blouse, her brown hair in a braid down the back.

    Pull the iron latch on the massive front door of the log cabin, door won't budge. My mother instructs you to use two hands. Yank, palms burn and the door wrenches open. In front of you is a wooden plaque with flowering vines and the words Love Never Faileth.

    My mother says she'll be with you in a minute, she has a phone call to make, a student to talk to, she has to round us up, her two little girls. She puts water on for coffee, starts rummaging through the piles of papers stacked along the windowsills.

    Inside the cabin, it is dim: the black floors and dark log walls soak up the light from the stained-glass lamps. For decor, my parents favor blue and red, antique, monumental. Red and blue for the dirty Oriental rug, antique for the clawfoot chairs, monumental for the fireplace, nine feet wide in the center of the house. Everything open, sleeping loft for us, no walls downstairs (although, as you will soon see, there's no easy exit. We children have to wrap a dishtowel over the sharp latch and pull together to open the front door). There's a long wooden table, wooden chairs, smoky mirrors, dust, mice. The whole place smells vaguely of rodent piss.

    My mother calls for my father to entertain you.

    My father, the co-director, sees surprise as the key ingredient to hospitality. Now, he comes striding around the fireplace in his eighteenth-century, Royal Navy uniform, swallow-tailed blue woolen coat with gold buttons, ruffled white shirt, white breeches, black knee boots, sword at hip, hair in a braid with a velvet ribbon. Welcome, my father says to you in his British accent. (Beware the fine linen intonation that makes you think of teacups, makes you think of Commander Scott, foot frozen off, dying at the South Pole, writing, We mean to see the game through with a proper spirit. It's not that it's fake, it's just that he can speak as authentically in a working-class accent.)

    He bows, gives you a kiss on the mouth, offers chocolate-covered ants and pickled pigs feet that he keeps in jars on the counter. Care for a trotter?

    Refuse politely, sit down at the table. My father downs handfuls of the chocolate ants, raises a dripping white foot over his mouth, pops it in, smacks his lips for effect.

    He sighs, These people came down the road, right? They had on their regulation-issue hippie clothes, I mean they were psychedelic. These two buddies wanted to start a real hippie commune in the middle of Manhattan. So, we gave them some live chickens in a sack to take home with them. We let these fellas spend the night, right? They're in sleeping bags in the meeting room, with their chickens, and that dog there, Panda, lays herself across the doorway and falls asleep. One of the fellas says, Jesus Christ, it's a wild boar! The other one starts tapping out SOS in Morse code on the ceiling. Panda snuffles in her sleep, and they think the boar is growing hungry. So, they can't stand it anymore. They make a dash for the window, throw themselves over the sill, rush for their car, lock all the doors. They take off for the city and never return. And they forgot their chickens.

    My father raises his eyebrows at you: Are you like them, a coward, a fool? Or are you for real? Then he shrugs, laughs and offers rum. He puts music on the record player, old British sailing songs. "Row You Bully Boys Row." He lights the kerosene lamps. He shows you a framed poster of Geronimo, tells you he was my mother's great-grandfather, she's part Indian, don't you know.

    Say, I thought she was Jewish.

    Jews are all right, but a Jewish Indian, now that's something. My father laughs.

    Teachers begin to drift up to the cabin, the door is left ajar, everyone moves to the living room, sits on the couch and chairs and floor, drinking rum. The teachers are in their twenties or early thirties, people who laugh often, talk loudly. Their emotions ripple in their voices and hands, you never know when someone will turn furious or weep. They are sitting in each other's laps, talking about their students, about their own childhoods, saying shockingly honest things about themselves and each other.

    Upstairs in our sleeping loft, we children climb onto our dresser, hoist ourselves onto the beam above. Below us: the orange sunset poster above my bed that reads, Each Dawn is a New Beginning; on the bookshelf, my beloved paperback biographies—Amelia Earhart, the disappearing mystery, Helen Keller, who spent her childhood in a dark rage, Susan B. Anthony, who said, Failure is impossible; on the floor, a tangle of naked Barbies. We leap down to the mattress we have dragged underneath the beam.

    My mother tells you about the school. Familiar phrases drift upstairs and hover slightly over our heads as we play: troubled teens, juvenile delinquents, learning disabilities, court orders, handicaps, heroin, marijuana, shooting up, the clap, the pill, overdose, training schools, overmedicated, delusional.

    When the valley school began, my mother explains, the students were mostly severely disturbed, diagnosed with schizophrenia. We are moving towards working primarily with disturbed adolescents now, referred by the courts. She tells about some of their successes. Frankie, the little Italian one with the dark hair? She's hard to reach, but she's fallen in love with the farm, she even slept in a stall one night, snuggled up against a cow. Ann, she still spits and scratches once in a while, but she's great with little kids, she baby-sits.

    My father turns on the 1812 Overture, pours more rum around, begins to recite Shakespeare in a wet and rolling voice. The water has boiled out of the kettle, unnoticed. We stick a GI Joe into the flame under the kettle, watch his fuzzy crew cut sizzle, his sensitive face melt.

    Coyotes howl outside, moths throw themselves against the windows. We children are fencing with shish kebab sticks.

    My father turns on the Beatles, sits near you, says, What about a place where everyone can do whatever they want? The only rule is, no one gets hurt. What would that place be like?

    The conversations pool. The education here is revolutionary, there's little differentiation between teachers and students.

    It's a community, a place for the students to unplug from the insane world, get their heads together, where they're safe to feel all their emotions.

    The valley is like a bag cinched at both ends.

    The goal is to have an ongoing self-sustaining community. We want to start a sawmill, there could be a pottery, we could produce all our own food.

    Our children are growing up together, free from the suffocating values of mainstream society. They're being educated at the Little School, that's what we call it, a one-room schoolhouse we built at the edge of the valley. They follow their hearts, too.

    Even more, we're changing the established order, questioning everything, loosening the bonds of nuclear families.

    The artificial walls come tumbling down, between student and teacher, work and play, one marriage and another marriage.

    Monogamy is something they teach us not to question, it scares them.

    Rum spills on the rug, Paul McCartney sings "Let It Be," my father is looking at you intently, a half smile on his face. What does he mean by it? The mice scrabble over the beams above your heads, the talk is quick and slurred and sharp. A teacher and my father agree to stage a new war, the Irish against the British.

    The teacher says, Maybe this time we can have a fair fight.

    Whatever do you mean, Sir? my father says.

    I mean you always get the charming alcoholic kids, and we always get the schizophrenics and women and children.

    My father says, May I remind you, the only rule is, no one is allowed to get mad.

    My father is looking at you again, calls to you from across the room, What do you think? No bullshit.

    Everyone watches.

    It's wild, you say. They're still watching you. (Are you a coward, a fool?) You say, I want to stay.

    Laughter, clapping.

    We children fall asleep on the Oriental rug. I can still feel the bristles on my cheek. I drift away, rocked by the circle of people around me, their buoyant conversation, their valentine to the near future, their certainty that failure is impossible.

Excerpted from pagan time by micah perks. Copyright © 2001 by Micah Perks. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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