Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It seemed to happen overnight. Suddenly, as if by magic, I was transformed into someone who was “dating”. He may have first noticed me at a freshman party, when Mark Weldon and I sang (more about that later), but Danny never said what drew him to me. Danny Blair was in the choir, and one night I also saw him attending the Vermont Avenue church with his roommate. I decided to say something to him in choir, admiring his tenor voice, and the next thing I knew, one Saturday morning, he asked me out.
His brother and sister-in-law, Larry and Carol, lived in an apartment on New Hampshire Avenue and were also students Pepperdine. They were going to a movie together that night to celebrate his birthday, and would I like to go with them? Would I?! This was breathlessly exciting. I’ve already introduced you to my friend Naomi, and now I introduced her to Danny. She and I had made plans to get on a bus that morning, head for the beach and have an adventure. So we invited Danny to take a risk and adventure with us. He did. Really, truly amazing.
The three of us got off the bus near the beach and walked down the street together, and all of a sudden he reached out to take my hand. As soon as he did, I crumpled into a little ball on the ground. I don’t know if I stumbled, or my knees buckled, or all my circuits were firing at the same time, but there I was on the ground looking up at Danny and Naomi and feeling awfully foolish. I collected myself, we walked on, and he took my hand again.
That night, he came to the dorm to get me. He couldn’t have guessed that this was my first date, ever, in my whole life. So we started to walk across the campus to Larry and Carol’s apartment. Not all that many steps had been taken when the heel on my shoe broke off. If I hadn’t been so frozen by mortification, I would have had the presence of mind to run back to the dorm and change shoes…but I was, and I didn’t. Can you believe it? I actually walked through the evening, stood in the movie line, trying to pretend that there was a heel there when there wasn’t. Too sad. You would think I would remember what movie we saw on our first date, but the shoe thing knocked that out of my memory banks. In a normal scenario, I would guess such an awkward first date would have been the end of Danny and me.
But it wasn’t. He kept talking to me in choir, sitting with me in the cafeteria. One night he came to my dorm and we watched TV in a lounge with a bunch of other people. I could sense we both felt uncomfortable. Finally he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” We headed out into the night and turned right down the Promenade. Of all places, we walked down the Youngs’ driveway and into their back yard. I showed him the giant avocado tree where we had played when we were little. We stood inside the private little room made by the tree branches and he kissed me.
It was long enough to know it was a kiss. There was just one. It was a sacred moment for me, when time held its breath and stood on tiptoe. In relative silence, we walked back to my dorm, said goodnight, and I went to bed, thinking, “I’ve been kissed.”
From that time on, he didn’t really ask me out, we just were together. He decided to pledge a fraternity, the same one my brother, and Matt, and Danny Jackson and Sam, and Danny’s brother Larry all had pledged (Sigma Tau Sigma – Sub-Ts). Naomi pledged a sorority, the Deltas. Both of them really suffered through Hell Week, and Naomi involved me in her adventure a couple of times. We choreographed a Supremes song together, “Love Is Like An Itchin’ in My Heart,” which the Delta pledge class then had to teach to the Sub-T pledge class. I can still do that choreography. The next-to-last night of the week, she was so exhausted that we ran away together to the Youngs’ house and slept in Matt’s bedroom. (He was in Houston.) She was so paranoid and sleep deprived by that time, even hidden away there she was afraid someone would find her and harass her some more.
I was Danny’s date to the Sub-T parties. It was strange but wonderful to be “dating someone.” When they had a dance at someone’s house, we rode in the back seat of Mike Plaisance’s car and Mike teased me later on about not hearing much from the back seat. I was amazed how much kissing was going on between us that night. It was my first dance. I was fully clothed in a long-sleeved, to the floor “granny dress” that was popular in the day. This was not exactly the kind of clothing a girl would want to wear to a dance. My mother had controlled what clothes I could and couldn’t buy, and unfortunately that was my hippest option for the evening.
But still I danced all night, and the memories of those feelings, and the music, and all the kissing on the way home was like a kaleidoscope in my head, or one of those light shows they did in the late ‘Sixties with oil and water and neon colors. The next day, I lay on my mom’s couch waiting for her and Chip and Sharyn to get ready to go somewhere for lunch, and my head was spinning with flashes of the night before.
So I had the remarkable experience of going to all the social events that year that a “normal” dating girl would. We went to basketball games, movies, Disneyland, fraternity parties, dope parties. (I didn’t take any tokes, I just enjoyed the music and the freaky, peaceful atmosphere. One particular night I remember “hand dancing” with Danny for what seemed like an hour. It was very spacey.) We were a couple, and yet it was not the settled, secure feeling I had expected. As a matter of fact I told him, when the big final event of the year was drawing near, that I would appreciate being asked instead of it being assumed. I couldn’t have said it clearly in words at the time, but I needed more. I wanted a relationship based on communication, not just a companion and escort to do things with. I was frustrated because I had so much energy and emotion and thought and poetry to give, and I didn’t know how to break through his reserve and, often, his silence.
I loved his long, curly dark hair. I loved his cleft chin, and the delicate curve of his eyebrows, and his flat feet and his leather boots and his ability to pop his jaw and talk almost as if in another language. He could add a “thd” sound to everything with his jaw popping, so my name became “Gwe-th-den” and Naomi was “Na-th-domi” and his last name turned into “Blethedair”. About the hair…one day at lunch he announced he was heading back to his dorm room to cut it off. I almost begged him not to, but then told him that it was his hair, he should do whatever he wanted with it; but could I please at least play with it until it had to go? So I walked with him to his dorm, running my fingers through it as a sort of goodbye ceremony.
I made him a poster. At that time, young girls would clip words and pictures and phrases out of magazines and make collages with a theme, and I made one for him, somewhat romantic but not too gushy. Danny made me a very precious gift. He was a painter and crafts person, and he gave me a small picture in a frame and on a stand, both of which he had made. He had made a pen and ink drawing of an oak tree without leaves. In a tiny nest was a bird, which he explained was “waiting for spring.” (A few years later, he gave me another, much larger pen and ink drawing, colored with oils, of the same oak tree in full leaf.)
Here’s Danny and me singing for some kind of outdoor program freshman year, with Valerie Hodges, the redhead who taught me my first guitar song, and Barbara Henderson, who became one of my roommates in Heidelberg a couple of years later.

I once did something well and Danny commented, “Hey, you’re pretty good, Lady.” It meant so much to me, I wrote it down in my list of the praises received from the men in my life. I was a fatherless girl, but what’s worse, I felt I had been fatherless for a long time while my dad was still alive. I was starving for male attention and approval. As I transitioned from five years of focusing all my romantic yearnings on Matt Young to this new relationship with Danny, I wrote my hopes and fears in a poem that I, of course, never showed to him.

It’s always been the most romantic thing to me
going fishing together in record stores
walking down aisles of books
fluorescent lights and the pride of recognition
then coming home
settling down to savor what we’ve caught

Share with me those rich nights of sadness
riding in cars, shadows playing on faces
waiting for the time of knowing’
and being known
Come and feel the warmth in my heart
It’s waiting for you
Ask me questions, find me funny
and sad
and loving
Help me save the days and
before you
I don’t want to forget what it was like
Tim Hardin singing
crying in the dark
I’ll give up what I had
when I’m sure you’ve got it

Russ DiNapoli and I had somehow gotten to know each other that freshman year at Pepperdine. We had eaten peaches out of a can in his New Hampshire Avenue apartment and listened to music and talked. He and a friend, a dark-haired poet named Michael, decided to stage a performance of Alice in Wonderland, and my friend Naomi Harper was playing Alice. (She looked the part.) Of course, Danny Blair and I had to be in it too. I played the Cheshire Cat, and still know my only line, in a round, old lady British accent, “What ever became of the babby?”
Danny and I went to a cast party following the performance of Alice. I was stunned when Michael the Director, in his white linen suit, took his lady’s hand and invited her to the back bedroom. It was the first time I had ever known for a fact that someone was in the next room having recreational sex. That it was young people, my own age, made it a more powerful knowing. The atmosphere was quite erotic already. The party was happening in a funky West Hollywood apartment, Cat Stevens was playing on the stereo, candles were the only lighting, and people were getting high. I was not quite prepared to participate in any of it.
Another night, Michael and I sat outside my dorm and talked for a long time. There were benches that faced the great expanse of grass, under the trees, and he sat perched on the back of the bench while I turned to face him. How the conversation began, I don’t recall, but I offered him the most simple, most profound telling of the message of the Bible I’ve ever heard. God must have been wanting to communicate His love to Michael for such a bold and clear presentation (from Genesis to Jesus) to flow out of me. He had been raised Catholic, and he told me, “I swear I’ve never heard this before.”
That year, I was reading lots of romantic poetry along with my prose: Kenneth Patchen, Rod McKuen, Anne Sexton; Mary Lee, Connie Del Vento, and Verandah Porche (hippie love poetesses of the day of whom I’ve not heard since); Leonard Cohen, Dag Hammarskjold, J. D. Salinger and others, and of course memorizing all the lyrics of a thousand songs. I was swimming in romance.
Rod McKuen once caused me a bit of embarrassment. I was riding in a car with my folks and their friends, Ruby and Bill Green. Dr. William Green had taught for years at UC Berkeley in philosophy, and was quite the erudite scholar. As we were chatting, he responded to something I said with, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” Having recently read that line in Rod McKuen’s poetry, I had no idea it was a quote from elsewhere. Shocked that Dr. Green was a McKuen fan, I remarked excitedly, “Have you read that too?” When I later found the line in Shakespeare, much chagrined, I was amazed that he resisted making a patronizing comeback to my naïve question. He was a gracious man.
I didn’t do much dipping into the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, until later years. I did enjoy Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when I got around to it. As the reader has surely noticed, I was a wildly romantic child and girl and adolescent. I wasn’t looking for my mind to be blown. I wasn’t seeking to lose myself – I already felt somewhat lost. I wanted to find myself, and I was looking for someone who would feel and be romantic with me. I longed to feel more, while many in my generation wanted to feel less, preferring numbness or psychedelic escapism. There was, however, the somewhat “out there” Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America, which upon recent re-reading I realized did influence my writing style.
0 ~ o ~ 0 ~ o ~ 0
When kids leave home for the first time, some of them go pretty nuts breaking the family rules, while others of us are content with such gentle rebellions as playing with our food. Since there’s no “Mom” in the college cafeteria, and you feel like the food is free (being that it is pre-paid), a certain amount of childish behavior may ensue. I had never played at meal time, so even eating my peas from a mashed potato nest was fun for me. I might even get a contraband non-mealtime bowl of white rice, mix in butter and lots of pepper, and enjoy the snack with Ed Cannon, who taught me that recipe. The cafeteria’s Jello cubes could be a bit rubbery, which made them all the more useful material for tower building. Butter came in little pats on a sturdy paper backing, and guys would have contests to see who could flip them such that they would stick to the ceiling. You’ve heard of “mystery meat” – we took that a step further, combining our leftovers into “mystery mush” when the spirit moved us. Truly gross.
A delightful entertainment from my freshman year in the cafeteria was a group of three students who always seemed to sit together. Two of them were Persians and one was an Asian guy. We had a lot of Persian students for awhile there, when Norvel was courting the Shah of Iran. One student shipped over his favorite Rolls Royce by plane. Others would hold caviar parties in the dorm. At any rate, these two Persian guys would always sit on either side of the Asian in the cafeteria, and abuse him in what looked for all the world like Three Stooges routines. It was quite entertaining…for us. I’m not sure if the Asian guy was actually in on the joke. Perhaps he enjoyed the attention at any cost.
0 ~ o ~ 0 ~ o ~ 0
When the spring semester ended, the choir went on tour. That year, conductor Norman Hatch had arranged for us to travel all through the western United States. The bus drove up to Cupertino in northern California, where we stayed with the Gabbards (I knew their daughter Donna, an older student at Pepperdine). There I received such a comforting enlightenment. It was our first performance, and somewhere in the program at the beginning of some song we got lost and messed up so royally, we had to literally stop the song and start over. That was a shock to us all, and we were so embarrassed. When we were riding home in the car with Nelson Gabbard, he said, “That just showed me that you’re human.” I had never heard or imagined such grace, such acceptance of human imperfection.
Further up the coast, we sang in Portland, Oregon, where Shannon Goodwin’s family was. Shannon was a black guy with a huge chest and a gorgeous baritone voice. Once he let me lean back on him and sing, taking advantage of the resonance of that barrel chest of his. It sounded amazing.
Then on to Wenatchee, Washington, the Apple Capital of the World. I had been wanting to visit Wenatchee because Danny Jackson, Matt Young’s best friend, was from there. His mother, Maudie, was such a character. Sam once told me that she amazed him with a perceptive comment. Scott Mackenzie was the guy who was famous for singing “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…”, and Sam was listening to his album. One song had the line, “No one’s gonna miss us in a year or so...” and when she heard it, Maudie hollered up the stairs, “You know, that’s the truth.”
The reader must forgive me, or if need be skip over the following lyrics, because they are so perfect a description of the Zeitgeist
[i] that I just need to include them. Scott’s first lyric was fun and happy and light, then the second slowed down and became a meditative ballad.

“Hey friend, wake up, I’m throwing rocks at your windowpane.
Get out of bed, I’ve got something to say.
Pick up a toothbrush, and creep down the stairway.
You’ve got no reason you should stay.

Hey, what’s the difference if we don’t come back?
Who’s gonna miss us in a year or so?
Nobody knows us, or the things we’ve been thinkin’
So what’s the difference if we go?”

“Hey friend, wake up, can’t you tell you are sleeping?
How far can you go with unopened eyes?
Treating your mind like it was something to play with,
You’re sleeping on a featherbed of lies.

So what’s the difference if you don’t wake up?
You won’t know yourself when you finally do.
You’ll look into some mirror and wonder what you’re looking at,
So what’s the difference if you do?”

We knew Danny’s older sister Cheryl and her husband Butch, and then his younger brother Sam had come to Pepperdine in 1966 and taken up with Sara. Now, finally, I was going to visit Wenatchee, the Ursprung, the source of the Jackson family. And it did turn out to be a memorable experience, because Wenatchee is where I learned how to select a crisp apple, a skill that has greatly improved the quality of my apple loving life. See, you have to look for both stars and stripes…the tiny pinpoint dots and the striations both have to be on a red apple for it to be really crisp, the way I like it. I wish I could give credit to the person who taught me this invaluable piece of information, but unfortunately it was an anonymous Wenatchee resident. I have passed along the tip to many grateful apple shoppers over the years.
Do you enjoy being reminded of certain people every time you do something in your daily life? Making whole wheat toast with butter and honey always recollects my mornings in Grandmommie’s kitchen. Every time I give the coffee basket a shake to make sure the grounds are flat, I think of a favorite boss, Ron Bartels, who taught me that step in making a good pot of coffee. Every time I eat from my small blue and white oval German plate (which is the perfect size for most of my meals) I’m grateful for Naomi Frances Harper Brooks, who presented me with that plate so many lifetimes ago. Sara gave me a key fob which reminds me of her every day. It’s a blessing for me to have reminders of those I love in my daily habits and tasks.
The choir went on to Denver, Colorado, and on the way there it snowed.

Here’s a picture with me and Danny standing side by side in the snow, me in a brown wool cape Mom had knitted at my request. He looks unhappy, like he’s feeling trapped, but I didn’t have a clue at the time. A bit later, I had a big hint. Kathy Ping (a huge flirt, someone I suspected of being a bit slutty, though I had no proof) was sitting in a seat on the bus behind us. While I was trustingly thinking he and I were cuddled together, Kathy was playing “handsies” with Danny with his left hand over top of the bus seat. When I turned and saw what was happening, “harmless” as it may have been — only a momentary flirtation, after all — I was devastated. I didn’t understand at that time just how tenuous was my hold on self-esteem, nor how ready I was to give up what was mine at any challenge.
On that bus tour, I was entertaining myself while sitting next to Danny (since he rarely conversed) by singing in a whisper Joni Mitchell’s first album. (Odd girl. I know, I know.) I told him, “I just finished singing the whole first side of Song to a Seagull” and he quipped, “Do you want me to turn you over?” That was the kind of exchange with him that kept me hoping for more.
After Denver came Utah and the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake. I think we didn’t have a concert in that city but Mr. Hatch thought we should stop there and tour the Tabernacle. Then we arrived in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I stayed in one of the nicest homes I’d ever seen. The young girl’s room I slept in was the room of a rich hippie princess, and I felt so jealous. She had all the accoutrements necessary for funky beauty and extreme cool, and I felt so uncool because of no discretionary income or choice in my clothing. That would finally come the following year when I got to Europe (the choice, not the income!).

Somehow we landed in Winslow, Arizona, and a few of us just had to find a corner so we could sing together,
“Well, I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona;
such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me.
Come on baby, don’t say maybe.
I’ve gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.
We may lose or we may win, but we will never be here again.
So open up, I’m climbin’ in to take it easy.”
I knew this only as a Jackson Browne song, because I wasn’t familiar with the Eagles yet. They would be a revelation a few years later in Nashville, when I became a rock ‘n roller in a contemporary Christian band, and those guys opened me up to the louder stuff I’d been avoiding.
It was in Winslow that we played Imaginary Volleyball. Since it was the days of dope, even if everybody wasn’t high we could enjoy acting like it. In a little park in the center of the city, we had a very vocal and exciting volleyball game with an invisible ball and delighted in freaking out the natives. That was a delight.
One thing about choir tour. Norman Hatch was a loving, affectionate man, with a wife and three sons. In those days, it didn’t instantly occur to folks that someone might be gay. But there were those who wondered about him, along with a handful of other faculty men, some married and some not, who had lunch and hung out together regularly. Mr. Hatch enjoyed sitting on the tour bus by a really good looking guy named Greg Veach, and rubbing his back. Greg got teased about it, but his response was, “Hey, it feels good!” Veach was one of those guys who I considered so gorgeous that I would never have had the nerve to talk to him, but he ended up writing me a few times that summer from his job in the mountains. He amazed me with that attention.
When we got back home from choir tour, we did the traditional final concert at the Vermont Avenue Church of Christ. For the first time, I was in the choir instead of in the audience where I had sat for so many years. That was a meaningful moment. Our last song was “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart,” which Momma had said many times she wanted sung at her funeral. Traditionally, Mr. Hatch would ask any former choir members in the audience to come up and join us for that final song, and there were always a few who did.
Thus my first year as a dating person was ending. Danny was packing to go back to Stockton, planning to live with his parents for the summer and come back in the fall. We parted with not a whole lot of passion or communication, and I felt it wasn’t good. I was hoping for letters, calls, some communication during the summer.
Finally Danny’s letter came. It said, “I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and I feel we need to be apart. You are too good for me. (My translation: you won’t smoke dope.) You’re more mature than I am. (My translation: you want more than I feel like giving.)” Carole King’s album, Tapestry, had just been released, and it provided the theme song of the summer:
“Well, it’s too late baby, now it’s too late,
though we really did try to make it.
Something inside has died and I can’t
hide and I just can’t fake it.”
Remember Janie Epp, Marilyn’s friend from Brethren and a cheerleader with Sara and Marilyn? She was living with Mom and me in the Gray House and going to summer school at Pepperdine. She and I listened to that album over and over. I see us sitting in the guest bedroom on the floor while I read Danny’s letter. I may have cried over this loss, but probably only once at most. I just hurt all summer long. I kept a copy of the response I wrote to Danny, maybe because I was trying so hard to compose it just right. Reading it, I’m amazed at how hard I was trying to downplay my hurt and take care of his feelings instead. I didn’t want to lose him, so I did my best to keep that bridge from burning.

“I guess all letters are difficult to write (as well as being difficult to read) when they’re really supposed to say something. Anyhow. I’m sorry I waited so long.
“I didn’t die or anything. It’s great that you could do what had to be done. Maybe it’s this way all over, but especially at Pepperdine I know it’s hard to be with somebody for more than a couple of days because everybody else starts defining your relationship for you and no matter what it really might be, it gets to feeling too tight. Sometimes suffocating. And then add to that the problem of – well, I don’t know quite how to explain it. (“Little overtures” – yuk. How could you stand it, thinking of all that junk that way?) I wish I could have explained at the time and spared you the misery. Those things – the collage & stuff & especially the book – were just something I do when I care about somebody. (Believe it or not) I’ve made books and different things for several different people along the way. I won’t deny that the ones I gave you were special, but I will deny any strings attached, like expectations or demands or any other kind of crud. Poor baby. I wish I had told you. Anyhow.
“It was always great to share things with you but I tried to let you know I never was able to take anything for granted. Oh, after awhile it started getting boring wondering whether or not this and that, but I don’t think I ever depended on things being a particular way. The important thing to me now is setting your mind at ease if I can and letting you know I want to keep being real. I’ve always thought playing the game of not knowing somebody anymore (Maybe you’ve seen it happen before – it’s the Peppytech pattern) was as unnecessary and painful as all the games before you really start to know a person. I guess staying your friend is mostly up to me. I’m gonna try.
“Wow, the Lord has been moving around here. It’s all kind of slow, but miracles keep popping up.
“I heard the tour tape and it’s tremendous. Amazing. (I cried, I think.) Olivia and me are in the Opera, how about that? Pirates of Penzance. Also O. and me and a strange little group are thinking about – many things! – but particularly about procuring tickets for Carole King and/or Elton John at the Greek Theater in late August/early September I believe. Shall we include you? Carole King’s album Tapestry is so good.
“O. says hi and how the hell are ya? If you want to write it’s fine. I’m praying for you and I need yours for me.
“Very funny line from The Once and Future King I think you could empathize with:
‘Everything not forbidden is compulsory.’”
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Who was this Olivia character I just mentioned? She was my choir friend, a delightful, short, feisty black woman who was the perfect bookened for a short, feisty white woman who also sang in the choir, Terri Grissom. Olivia Hilburn was a Los Angeles native, growing up not far from Mrs. Pepperdine’s house closer to downtown L.A., where I visited her a couple of times. She and I would laugh and play during choir, and eventually started going out to breakfast together between classes at Du-Par’s, previously our family’s Wednesday-night-suppers-before-church restaurant. Breakfast and coffee was just $1.25, which seemed cheap even at the time.
Olivia and Terri and I occupied part of our summer by participating in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Pirates of Penzance. (This was before Linda Ronstadt did it, but we still thought it was pretty cool because the plot was so campy.) Terri had an incredibly powerful, trained soprano voice and she sang the lead in Pirates. One evening when our choir visited a local black church, she thrilled me by doing a solo, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”. I had never heard the song, and she did it with such soul, fitting right in to the call-and-response tradition of the black church. She knew just how to wow ‘em. Terri was “going steady” with a guy she eventually married who was not at Pepperdine, but also had a brief fling with my friend, Mark Weldon…which was pretty weird for me.
As the summer progressed, I said to myself, “Okay, now I’ve had the ‘dating’ experience. Now I’m ready for a real relationship.” I just didn’t dream it would be with Danny Blair again. Here’s what I wrote.

Maybe the way I feel
and tired of worrying about it all
is itself a part of God’s answer

It’s very strange
I could be happy with the physical closeness
the attention he gives, when he does
but there’s not so much of either
and I refuse to be so quickly satisfied
with a shadow of what
I imagine the real thing to be

I’m sure that I don’t know what to want
Inexperience (or immaturity, regardless
of what he said) or
is standing in the way.

Maybe I’m just not ready
but that’s too ready an excuse
and I don’t think I could stand to face
another time of waiting

Is this a chance to blow it?
Oh God I’m scared
It’s in Your hands, and his

It’s odd how music carries with it so many associations. All the other music that we played in my college years has its own meanings for me and has retained its attraction, but there’s something about the songs by Chicago that make my heart ache. Danny introduced me to Chicago (“Beginnings”, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “Saturday in the Park”, “I’ve Been Searching So Long”) and those ‘Seventies songs feel different than all the other music we listened to together. They’re his, not mine.

[i] “the spirit of the time”, “the spirit of the age”

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